Recovery in ‘Will and Testament’ by Vigdis Hjorth

‘I expected to become psychotic, but I didn’t, so somewhat surprised I got up, looked around, and then I left, what else could I do? It was a clear and sparkling August day, I hadn’t noticed that until now. The air was warm, I hadn’t noticed that before. I walked down Bogstadveien, what else could I do? I was surprisingly calm. It was late summer, the air was warm, the weather lovely, I hadn’t realised that until now, three weeks without analysis lay ahead of me, I turned into another street, what else could I do? I walked past a shop front and saw someone who looked like me in the window, but it couldn’t be me because she looked well. I stopped, retraced my steps and studied myself, a seemingly functioning woman. Could I see myself through her eyes? You’re clever, I said to her, and you don’t look too bad, I said to her. Shouldn’t you be out in the world doing things?’ (120)

This paragraph follows the moment when the narrator, a middle-aged theatre critic called Bergljot, realises that she has come to the end of the psychoanalysis which she is undergoing in the hope of recovering from childhood sexual abuse. The repetition of ‘what else could I do?’ marks an interesting phase of recovery – a kind of exhaustion with her pain. As humans we are designed to recover, to continue, to survive, despite hardship. Our self-preservation instincts kick in, and eventually (most of the time), we find the strength to simply continue, and find again a new kind of normality.

It seems that here, after undergoing an intensive 4x-week therapy, Bergljot was tired with reliving her pain (an aspect of psychoanalysis that has received criticism over the years), and because of this she ends up reaching the point at which she is able to move on. This is related to the idea that we must first accept our pain, confront it face-on, and only in doing so are we able to then move on from it. There are counter-arguments that suggest that in acknowledging our pain we give it too much attention, and run the risk of becoming trapped in it. But I find this situation equally plausible and worth noting, that there is only so much sadness a human can enduring, and in getting it out in the open we at least allow ourselves the opportunity of then exhausting it and ridding ourselves of at least its most debilitating aspects.

Once Bergljot accepts that she won’t be seeing her psychoanalyst that day, she finds a freedom that allows her to notice things she wasn’t able to before therapy. What strikes her is something as mundane as pleasant weather, a ‘clear and sparkling August day’. It seems that psychoanalysis worked precisely by returning to her pain so forcefully, and then once it stops, her mind was free enough to enjoy the world outside of her. It is as though the therapy absorbed all of her trauma, enveloped it so entirely, that once it ended, it took those feelings along with it. The assumption is that if, to the contrary, we avoid difficult feelings, they remain with us, subtly colouring everything we do. I thought that this was a really beautiful and poignant depiction of one aspect of recovery, the realisation that there is a whole world outside of us that does not have to do with our inner turmoil, and that our eyes have been opened to it. Trauma, in its invasive and all-enveloping character, can often overwhelm us, and make other parts of life hard to enjoy. Here, we see the narrator finally open up and start to appreciate life anew.

This book is predominantly about how to both live with and move on from traumatic and painful histories. It is most skilful in showing both how our past experiences inevitably shape us into the people that we are – and so, we are never truly ‘free’ from them – but that also, with time, eventually they become things that we can build on and recover from in creative and positive ways. Just because something forms us does not mean it has to trap us.

The book begins by describing the narrator before this healing process has taken place. At that earlier stage, her past is something that drags her down: ‘it was how I felt, how deep it went, how it pushed me into the abyss, how it weighed me down, how I started to sink’ (15). But through gradual unearthing and understanding, and when the narrator starts to insist that other people in her life join her in confronting these difficult memories, eventually, she is able to incorporate them into her life in productive ways. She describes a growing sense that the dark past must be seen and heard, it must be given space for insight and growth to occur: ‘What I was experiencing, I came to realise once I started to understand my life, was that a moment of insight was approaching like the tremors that precede an earthquake, and like an animal I could sense it before it happened’ (21). This ‘moment of insight’ will not be easy or pain-free, but it does bring with it a brightness and optimism.

Throughout the book the narrator speaks in terms of development, she fears ‘turning into a child again’ and often expresses the wish that she could feel and behave like an adult. Adulthood apparently represents clarity and understanding, while childhood is the dependent, naïve state where we are under the sway of others wishes and desires. This is a useful metaphor with which to think of this developmental growing process that occurs over time, and though it of course doesn’t map so neatly in real life, I think we can all appreciate the feeling that adulthood brings with it agency and independence, and it is this that she is seeking.

Another important contribution to the narrator’s recovery is that precisely with this ‘adult’ agency she starts to take her own wants and needs more seriously, and does not give in to the needs of others at the expense of her own. This is a valuable part of her recovery, her realisation that she must in some way stay true to herself in order to feel better:

‘Jung saw things the way his instinct encouraged him to. If he didn’t his snake would turn on him. I tried to look at things the way my instinct encouraged me to. If I didn’t, my snake would turn on me. My mum and sisters had acted in ways and said things which my snake disagreed with. I travel along the path my snake prescribes, I thought, because it’s good for me.’ (318).

Book Review: ‘On Becoming A Person’ by Carl Rogers

This book could be summarised into one paragraph, and while it has some good ideas, it is far too repetitive as a book.

Carl Roger’s came up with what he refers to as ‘client-centred therapy,’ which today sounds like something that goes without saying, but in its own time was a fairly radical and novel concept.

His argument is that each individual has innate, self-actualising tendencies towards growth and development. We all want to be the best version of ourselves that we can be, and, given the right environment and support, will strive towards becoming it. We all have a general sense of what is good for us to do, what we want to do, and how we should go about doing it, or becoming it.

This reminds me of a soft understanding of Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ – that inner, individual will towards growth in things that feel meaningful for us. We all want to improve and ‘actualise’ ourselves as individuals with power and agency over our own lives and becomings.

Since postmodernism, however, the idea of ‘the self’ has received criticism, and it no longer feels so simple to suggest that we are all bounded individuals who know what we want. ‘The self’ is now a much murkier concept, which is made up of bits and pieces of others, our environment, the things that happen to us… So Rogers’s argument that we all just need to allow our ‘true selves’ to develop and grow seems a bit optimistic and simplistic. What exactly is that ‘true self’, and how would we go about finding it?

Anyway, Rogers says that people suffer psychological distress, and come to therapy, when they encounter problems with self-actualisation. Something has prevented them from either getting in touch with their inner self, or from realising its potential for various other reasons.

Therefore, he argues that it is the role of the therapist not to teach the individual how to live, but rather to create an environment in which the individual feels safe to know, listen to, and then act on their inner wants and needs. A fundamental catalyst for helping the individual to do this is an empathetic and non-judgemental relationship with the therapist.

The therapist must be honest and open about themselves and their own feelings (what Rogers calls ‘congruent’, or authentic), which in turn facilitates a trusting and non-judgemental relationship and allows the individual to themselves become open about their inner experiences. After openness comes acceptance, and with acceptance comes fewer defences and therefore more flexibility and responsiveness to the real world and others.

What I liked most about this idea is the emphasis it puts on the special relationship between therapist and client, as one which can be totally free from evaluation. In our other relationships with people in our lives, there is usually some kind of mutuality – we expect things from each other, there is a balance and reciprocity. Therefore, we hold each other to certain standards. Because the relationship between therapist in client is not one of friendship, there is also no real need to evaluate (according to our own standards) the other person’s motives or feelings. The therapist might completely disagree with everything the client says, but because they aren’t friends (or even potential friends), this doesn’t matter at all, and the therapist can, and should, accept entirely whatever it is that the client is saying. This is quite an unnatural relationship, and one that probably wouldn’t arise outside of the therapeutic environment, but it is one that I believe all of us would benefit from. To have someone who can listen to us, and accept us, completely without judgement.  This kind of space and freedom to air our ideas would do all of us a lot of good. It lets us see our ideas without any need to present or sell them to anyone, and thus lets us be truly honest with ourselves. Only when we can be totally honest can we then look at our thoughts objectively, and only then would we be in a strong position to critique them.

Too often when we speak of ourselves or our thoughts and feelings, we are trying to present them in a certain agreeable way, and we might end up persuading even ourselves that these are the best ways forward. When we don’t feel any pressure to ‘sell ourselves’ to even our loved ones or friends (or perhaps especially to those individuals important to us), we can see ourselves as we ‘truly’ (?) are.

Uhoh, I just fell into the ‘true selves’ trap. Which I myself find a little wobbly as a concept… So I’ll probably need to work out that thought in a blog post to come…

Book Review: ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk

This is a fantastic book about psychiatry, trauma, PTSD, Complex-PTSD, and recovery.

It is rare that a book written for such a wide audience manages to be both accessible and hugely informative. It references (seemingly) all of the relevant and up-to-date research, brings in case studies for more concrete examples and understanding, and keeps the language clear with no unnecessary jargon.

Bessel van der Kolk is a psychiatrist who specialises in trauma and how the environment impacts the body’s physiology. He mounts a very persuasive argument against any kind of mind-body dualism and shows that the things we go through leave marks on our biology, and influence how we approach things in the future.

I really appreciate his double-focus, on both the lives people lead and the actual situations that cause the psychological problems (essentially he takes people’s trauma seriously), and how this impacts their biology. He shows that we would be foolish to ignore either the environmental factors (a term which is far too broad and vague, anyway) and the biological ones. But the direction that his argument goes in (environment influences biology) also suggests that the focus of treatment should be on creating a new safe environments (so: relationships) for the person to heal in; rather than aiming only to fix the biology, which would be treating the consequences and not the cause…

He argues for a participatory approach in the healing process, against the notion of passive ‘patients’ who must be cured by experts, acknowledging that the role individuals take in their recovery has significant impacts on how the recovery goes. This person-centred and identity focus I think is a useful counter to the standardising and universalising biomedical trend, which gives everyone drugs and expects that to be enough to heal them. Drugs are particularly ineffective for curing PTSD and C-PTSD, so I think his expertise in this area is particularly useful and hopefully could be applied to other forms of psychological distress.

Another of the interesting arguments that his book put forward is that to help someone recover from trauma, it sometimes isn’t right (or enough) to simply to get them to open up about it in language first. If their body is still stuck in the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode, and gets either excessively stressed or dissociated when remembering the event, it will do no good to keep getting the person to talk about it. The biology will overpower the talk-therapy, and they won’t be able to process it in a calm and reflective manner, and won’t be able to acknowledge that it is now in the past and no longer a threat. This is why he is such a strong advocate for trauma-informed yoga, because he finds that it can be hugely successful in calming down the body (learning to breathe deeply, feel the sensations of your body in the present…) which is the necessary first step before then talking about the traumatic event.
But, he does also believe that it is absolutely necessary to then find words for feelings and events once the individual is in a safe enough feeling-state to do so. Then they can gain some distance and perspective on the event which will help them process it more ‘rationally’, with the more developed and less instinctive parts of the brain.

Here are some quotes from the conclusion that I found particularly interesting:
‘We are fundamentally social creatures – our brains are wired to foster working and playing together. Trauma devastates the social-engagement system and interferes with cooperation, nurturing, and the ability to function as a productive member of the clan. In this book we have seen how many mental health problems, from drug addiction to self-injurious behaviour, start off as attempts to cope with emotions that became unbearable because of a lack of adequate human contact and support.’
‘Our increasing use of drugs to treat these conditions doesn’t address the real issues: What are these patients trying to cope with? What are their internal or external resources? How do they calm themselves down? Do they have caring relationships with their bodies, and what do they do to cultivate a physical sense of power, vitality, and relaxation? … Do they have a sense of purpose? What are they good at? How can we help them feel in charge of their lives?’ (349-350).
‘As long as we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross deserts and stay up all night to finish projects … But if we feel abandoned, worthless, or invisible, nothing seems to matter. Fear destroys curiosity and playfulness.’ (350)

As someone who wrote their BSc Psychology dissertation on attachment theory, I am very strongly inclined to think that so many of our psychological problems and mental health issues stem from poor attachment system functioning. The reasons can be many (societal, financial, psychological, biological), but if an individual doesn’t feel that they have a ‘secure base’ of loving relationships from which to explore, I think it’s incredibly likely that life will feel a bit too much and not something they can adequately cope with, and any kind of mental health issue might develop…