If you only had a month before your girlfriend got deported*, what would you do? Take her out to a marshland on the edge of Birmingham which may (not) have been the inspiration for events in Tolkein’s Lords of the Ring? Me too!
Not so exciting as I hoped, perhaps. In fact, it’s just a bunch of trees and shit.
How about a lovely market town just outside Birmingham, then? I’ve heard it has a pretty bridge, a pre-Tudor castle and excellent boutique shopping!
Ok, so the shopping is mainly Iceland and Claire’s and the castle’s closed. There is a swan though! And pretty roadworks!
Bit of damp quid that one. But if I’ve learnt anything at all about Singapore (and I’ve not, really. I’ve mainly learnt about the endemic corruption, the excellent food, and the sexual relationship enjoyed by the country’s Glorious Leader and our own handbag lady) it’s that in Singapore they don’t have ice on their puddles. And if you want to treat your Singaporean girlfriend to a trip she won’t forget – if you want to make memories special enough to span a 6000-mile gap – you could do a lot worse than finding some undisturbed ice on some puddles and letting nature take its course.
* This may be a slight exaggeration, but ‘deportation’ sounds edgier than ‘visa conditions’.
Christmas was, for me, ace. Pete and Berenice were here. So were Sebastian and Celia and Aarthi and the parents and the cousins and the friends and the in-laws. It was lovely. Birmingham feels pretty empty in comparison, but then that’s the point of taking photos – to help you remember and to stay in touch. Innit.
Around the age of 12 my parents allowed me free rein to decorate my room. Inspired by Changing Rooms, which I enjoyed too much, I rag-rolled the walls in a pale dead green, which I thought looked nice. I have no photos of it so you’ll just have to trust me that it didn’t.
We went to MFI to get some furniture and I chose a matching desk and chest of drawers in black ash. I felt this as a great sign of my precocious maturity. Not for me pure black – no, that would be too definite a statement – too Adrian Mole. With the wood-effect veneer of black ash I rejected the immaturity of interior design, declaring myself above such trifles. Black ash was a shorthand for masculine detachment; a kind of anti-decorating. Behind the veneer I hid my fear of commitment to something positive, definite and solid – of something that could be judged and found wanting. Nobody could find black ash wanting; it wasn’t even there.
As I grew up and moved out, I threw out the posters I’d bought on Saturday shopping trips from Athena. Like so many childish things I became ashamed of in the presence of others (cc. Games Workshop), I quietly disposed of my collection of posters. I told myself I wasn’t going to be one of those pseuds who curated their personalities in such obvious, mainstream ways. I was special – Athena couldn’t contain me – and so I hid my special light.
At times I made a brief concession to taste, buying a nice print of an artist just slightly off the beaten track, or a work just slightly neglected – a Klimt treescape or a Twombly print – that would demonstrate to those in the know that I was in the know too, but would not move others; the kinds of prints that I could hide behind. But for the most part I moved house so often that this seemed pointless.
It was my movement therapist who pointed out to me how important the spaces we live in are, and how big a hole I might be leaving in my existence by not paying heed to my environment. But it took the kindness of a gift from Aarthi to spur me into action here once again in halls of residence. She gave me a picture I’d taken, all put up in a nice little frame, and I’ve followed suit, with the photos below.
I’m sure to most people reading this it’s obvious that putting up pictures is a great way of staying in contact with parts of
yourself that you want to stay in contact with, and with parts of other people you’d like to be more in contact with, but it’s
come as a bit of a surprise to me. I like turning from my desk to meet a picturesque part of my past or a person I hope to be in contact with in the future.
In the past I’ve made little books of my photos, which are nice, but there’s something more exposing, and so more rewarding, about putting them up on a wall like this. Of course, all of this is made easier by having an incredibly cute nephew to print photos of – there’s nothing quite so sanctioned to put on your
wall, or anywhere, as a cute child.
Incidentally, the frames are from the Sainsbury’s, and yes, they are in black (and white) ash.
I wrote some time ago about how I wanted to take more pictures of people. I still find it excruciatingly embarrassing but have had some limited success in staying outside my comfort zone. Here’s a bunch of photos of people from the last couple of months. Pretty well all of them are turned away from me or partly obscured, and some of the photos are a bit like a Where’s Wally, but it’s a start I guess?
You guys, I’m nearly a counsellor, or therapist, or whatever [lesson #1: there’s no difference between therapists and counsellors, but you can tell a lot from which label they choose. I prefer therapist, because it makes me sound clever and deep and possibly magic and a little bit medical and so proper and so better than the jumper-wearing woolly-minded do-gooders who call themselves counsellors].
So anyway I’m nearly a counsellor, in that I’m nearing the end of a year of lectures and training on and in counselling.
But in fact, as far as the law is concerned, we’re all nearly counsellors. We any of us can put a plaque up above our door, knock up a profile on a counselling website (complete with heavily-censored profile pic) and start charging money for our counselling services. Initially this lack of regulation troubled me: if anyone can set up as a counsellor, how do I know the guy I’m spilling my guts to isn’t a charlatan. How do I know he isn’t just some guy who reckons he knows something about the world and the people in it? And if he is just some guy, how can I be sure he won’t get things wrong, misunderstand me, give me the wrong advice, trample all over my fragile self, and all that?
But the more I learn about counselling the more I like the lack of regulation. (To be clear, there is a regulatory body (the BACP) who ensure that certain standards are adhered to. They require a certain level of practice and qualification and all of that, but it’s not statutory. Most organisations require you to be a member if you want to work for them, but you don’t have to if you want to set up in private practice.)
Why do I like the lack of regulation? Because ultimately all of us therapists and counsellors are charlatans. We none of us know any more about motivation, emotion, conflict, desire, love or despair than anyone else. We may have spent more time thinking about these (or we may not, despite the training), and may (or may not) be more open to engaging with them without following the urge to flee to safer territory, but our theories and frameworks are no closer to the truth than yours, or hers, or his.
Realising this came as a shock to me. I had entered the profession apprentice-like, expecting to find a theoretical home that would be based on solid foundations. I wanted to find the theory which uniquely amongst all others captured the nature of human suffering, and told me how to help people who were suffering suffer less. And there’s plenty to choose from: a figure often bandied about is that there are over 400 types of therapy available, each with it’s own foundational theory of human nature and wellness.
The problem is, of course, they’re all lies. Not deliberately (well, not all of them), but they’re all lies. And the idea that the therapist practices out of these foundations is a lie too. All the theory does is helps the therapist feel more confident, gives them less to worry about (because it focusses their attention on specific utterances or dynamics), and gives them a tool with which they can dominate the client. I still hate the term ‘client’, despite having used it dozens of times every day for a good 6 months now. But this is what you are, if you see a therapist. A client. In that name are contained all of the assumptions (lies) about professionalism, expert status, and product purchase. And the problem with this is that, well, it’s not a problem. It can be very useful to believe that your therapist is an expert, or a little bit magic. As a client I’ve experienced this a few times, and without that faith (which, in secular times must be based on status, or the authority of regulatory bodies) I would not have got anywhere near so much out of the work we did.
But it’s still lies. What happens in therapy is that two people talk to each other for a bit. This is all. It’s just like talking to your friend. It’s just you’ve paid them to be your friend. It feels taboo to say this, but therapists are, like your man ‘someone’ says, essentially prostitutes without the sex [I think it might be Masson – he’s fun]. You pay them to sit with you and talk. They might, like some friends might, just listen and give you space to ‘let it all out’. They might, like some friends might, link your current problems to past problems, or to ways of thinking that, to them, seem strange. Or they might, like some friends might, tell you about this great technique they’ve heard about to help you get out of the self-destructive spirals you find yourself in. Or they might, like some friends, do something completely unexpected.
You can choose to go and see your solid, safe friend, the one you’re fairly sure will sit back and won’t impose or diagnose or interpret you (person-centred). Or you can choose your problem-solving friend who doesn’t seem comfortable dwelling (he’d say wallowing) in the emotional shit, but always motivates you to get things done (CBT, SFT, coaching). Or youmight go to your perceptive friend who always has a different perspective, but who you worry has a bit of an axe to grind about something to do with his mother or death or something (existential analysis, psychodynamics). Knowing what these friends are like provides a little safety, but not that much. Each of them knows that their theories are lies, and that it’s often (always?) more important to follow their gut, or to let the relationship lead them. In fact, this is written in to some of their theories.
So, how can I know that my therapist won’t get things wrong? How can I trust that I can let down my barriers and open myself up without being fucked up by some two-bit snake-oil merchant posing as a sage? I can’t. And regulation won’t do it either. Your man Attlee said something nice about trust: “It is a fundamental fallacy to believe that it is possible by the elaboration of machinery to escape from the necessity of trusting one’s fellow human beings”. He’s right.
Realising that therapy is just two people in a room, talking (or not talking), has been liberating for me. It’s not ‘just’ paid-for friendship, it is paid-for friendship. Friendship is amazing, and terrible. It is mundane and transcendent. It is harmful and healing. Ultimately, no amount of theories or regulations can protect clients from the fact that walking into a counselling room is as risky as entering into any close relationship. Just as risky, but with just as great rewards. Within the therapeutic relationship you may be completely misunderstood and further isolated, or you may make incremental or paradigm-shifting change which reconnects you to yourself and the world.
The factors which decide between these outcomes, and the many shades of grey in-between, are not known. Each school has it’s own ideas, but they’re all, I’ll say it again, lies. Nice ones, mostly. But lies nonetheless. There is no theoretical machinery, no matter how much we might research the micro-processes of human interaction (and this is where the hot research in counselling is right now), that can get over the need to trust another human being.
At its best, and at its worst, therapy is human. This is all.