The Consulting Room as a Place of Mystery and Healing
By Margaret Field
Was Aristotle correct in saying that ‘knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom’?
We live in an anti-intellectual culture where quick and easy answers for life’s problems are sought. Based on an economic model, simplistic responses are pursued and quickly given, especially within the Church walls. The prosperity Gospel which flourished late last century is evidence of this; if you are unwell, you lack faith. If you are struggling financially, you need to give more money to the Church. Bang, all your problems will be solved! Current evangelicals, particularly those within the Calvinistic camp, likewise seem to avoid the complexities of life; whatever happens is God’s will, and if we pray hard enough people will get well. But is life really this simple?
I suggest not! I would argue that we are governed by unconscious desires and motives. We act and think in ambivalent ways, causing deep internal conflicts because we do not know who we really are. The oracle at Delphi calls us to ‘Know Thyself.’ It is my belief that in trying to understand our inner core, the heart, which according to Jeremiah 17:9 ‘is deceitful above all things’, we can more authentically be partners with God on this adventurous journey called Life.
As a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, it is my role to help make the unconscious conscious, or at least to assist with that journey. Praying with others can help. Personal self-reflection can also help, as can talking to trusted friends. Exposing ourselves to the wisdom of poets, playwriters, philosophers and theologians can likewise play its part in our wholeness. But there are times when more is needed; when the skilled therapist is needed to listen in a multifaceted way making connections and therapeutic interventions that are beyond the skills of the ordinary listener. Would we expect to give a church leader a scalpel and expect him to carry out brain surgery on an ill patient? Of course not. They are not equipped with the skills to carry out such surgery. Why then do we often think that the Church has the skill to deal with deep mental health issues?
I often see my role as a remedial parent offering emotional nourishment to my clients as they work through issues often related to childhood trauma. My analytic work is primarily based on the understanding of the human mind expressed in the writings of people such as Freud, Klein, Winnicott and Bion, together with the philosophical and theological writings of Kierkegaard, Aquinas, and Aristotle. Each therapeutic encounter is different, and I, therefore, offer what can be termed as a bespoke service. We do not know where the therapy is heading since there is no route map to ‘normal,’ whatever that word means. As such therapy is ‘open,’ and I see my role to be a fellow traveler with my clients exploring unchartered inner territory which will influence their future thoughts and actions. The therapeutic relationship within the encounter is unique; it is dependable, reliable, confidential, and intense but above all very present in the moment. The style of therapy I offer could indeed be seen as open and relational, much like the theology I subscribe to.
My consulting room becomes a magical place where communication takes place on many levels; conscious to conscious, unconscious to unconscious and a myriad of other ways. Do I bring the terms ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ or ‘faith’ into the room? No, not in an obvious way. But I listen with what Freud called a ‘free-floating attention,’ much the same as I do when I offer prayer ministry at the end of a Church service. Thoughts, impressions, and feelings surface within me. Are these promptings the result of the Holy Spirit? Or are they some sort of person-to-person unconscious communication? I do not know. And I do not think it really matters. What matters is that people are experiencing love and understanding in the depths of their beings, sometimes it feels for the first time. Perhaps the consulting room is more like a prayer room than we ever imagined.
Within each encounter, I see myself as partnering with God. I do not know where the therapy will take us, but I have learnt to rest in a ‘not-knowingness,’ a bit like Keats’ understanding of ‘negative capability’. My approach is respectful and compassionate, and I see each individual as being made in the image of God, whatever they are presenting me with.
Take Alex (not his real name) for example. He came to see me because he was wrapping his lower body in toilet paper, yelling at people to keep their distance. This 19-year-old man had isolated himself, worrying both his parents and the Church by his manic behavior, unable to hold down a job. The Church had spent time ‘casting out demons’ from him, praying ‘over’ him and ‘for’ him, to no visible effect. People were scared of him. His adoptive parents bought him to me in a desperate last-ditch attempt for help, knowing that I was a Christian psychotherapist. The initial phone call with the sobbing mother struck a deep chord within me as she said, ‘I am losing my son, please help us find him again.’ I gently replied, ‘Perhaps Alex will first find himself, and then maybe he will allow himself to be found by you.’
A week later Alex arrived half-covered in unused toilet paper, and as he sat down in my consulting room, he asked whether I had any spare toilet paper. I realized that it was important for me to provide him with this, and every session I put two rolls on the small table beside his chair. This happened for almost two months. Initially wrapping his body was a frantic activity with little conversation, but as he learnt to trust me, he was able to wrap himself in a more considered and calm manner, and later he began to use less paper. I have come to realize in therapy that one does not ask ‘Why are you doing this?’ but rather ‘Tell me your story’. Over time I came to realize that Alex’s behavior was both a logical, clever, and considerate response to his inner turmoil. Alex believed that poisonous feces were protruding from the skin on his lower body and the only way to remain clean was to cover himself in toilet paper which would magically soak up the feces and the poison. He feared damaging others so yelled at them to keep away.
During the course of therapy it became clear that Alex had been physically and emotionally neglected as a child, often left in soiled and leaking nappies (or diapers if you are from the USA) for hours that went into days. He cried incessantly as a child, needing to have his nappy changed, and wanting to be held and comforted. He was left feeling dirty and angry, often getting infections, and fearing that he would pass those infections onto others. Wrapping himself in toilet paper as an adult was a way of protecting himself from a feeling of neglect, disgust, and repulsion which had its roots in childhood, and his yelling at people to keep away was a protective measure to stop him from infecting others. Alex’s behavior was, in fact, to protect others.
One of the tools used in psychoanalytic psychotherapy is that of transference. Clients relive certain infantile conflicts by projecting onto the analyst particular feelings e.g. envy, guilt, anger, dependence, and in doing so healing, freedom and forgiveness of self and others can take place. It takes the skill of a trained therapist to work effectively with transference, but over time Alex was able to understand his behavior, and the use of toilet paper became less important for him. He was later able to replace wrapping himself in toilet paper by having a daily bath which ensured his skin remained clean. He no longer felt he was a danger to others and his yelling ceased. He currently holds a manual job in the city of London. Alex had started to understand himself, to find himself. In fact his Church members said he was now ‘normal’, but I again, wonder what ‘normal’ really means.
It is my belief that this type of analytic psychotherapy should be available to all, irrespective of social or financial status. As such I am an honorary psychoanalytic psychotherapist in a low-cost clinic in London, England. My dream is to see Churches offering analytic psychotherapy, as part of the pastoral ministry because perhaps like Alex, it is only when we have ‘found’ ourselves, that we can allow ourselves to be found by others. And perhaps our partnering with God will likewise become more exciting and radical as we allow ourselves to be continually found by God.
Margaret Field chose to withhold her real name in the interests of her client work. She studied Theology and Philosophy as an undergraduate and then undertook an MA in Political Theology, before teaching in schools in London, England. Whilst teaching she went on to obtain a further degree in Psychology. It was therefore a natural move some years ago to fuse these subjects together, embarking on a clinical qualification in Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy. Margaret currently works in private practice as well as in a low-cost clinic in Central London. She is an active member of her local Church, with a passion to enthuse folks towards deep and adventurous thinking in their faith.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love