By Arnfrid Beier
Let me introduce you to Dr.D, a friend, my colleague, a kind guy whose smile made you think he was happy, until he wasn’t.
There was something he had to show me, a case study. I was surprised but couldn’t resist. ‘I know you will take me seriously.’
I sensed pain. No smile. He seemed older. This case study was a confession, emotional, disturbing, shocking. I read every word.
It went straight into his pain. Words fell from his lips, depression meaninglessness isolation death suicide. ‘Books are written about such things,’ he said. I felt helpless.
He thought it was better to be dead. I wasn’t born to be happy. It’s bad luck, my fate. His eyes were dead. I felt helpless. Oh, the power our own subjective models have over our lives.
The energy we’ll use to defend how things are, even if it stops us living, what a waste. If you don’t know any better, you are a prisoner of not knowing.
I felt angry. Words that ‘knew better’ yet couldn’t do anything.
All I could do was listening. Who was he Dr.D, my colleague, a friend? Who was I? How could he trust me? I was just a human being. Like him, vulnerable.
I was one step away from bye-bye Dr.D, when he smiled. Where would I be without you? Thank you so much!
I stayed. Even with doubts Freud might have reassured me. ‘It is a very remarkable thing that the [Unconscious] of one human being can react upon that of another, without passing through the [Conscious].
It didn’t bother me that Freud’s statement wasn’t based on scientific evidence, his name made it real and Casement adds weight to it.
He links projective identification with unconscious communication. ‘It is especially relevant, when what is being communicated is beyond words, relating to unspeakable experiences or to pre-verbal experience.’
I wondered if there was any ‘projective identification’ to me from Dr.D, or whether it was a simple relational act. He was a therapeutic counsellor and knew these things, so I left it.
I saw him as a troubled colleague, but when he smiled I was confused. Was it real? He was like a student, making light of a hangover.
I wasn’t far off. He’d been taking anti-depressants, but only for a couple of days, was a bit dopey, couldn’t put words together.
You feel out of it, I said, yet you came. ‘I wanted to show I am serious.’ A great deal of energy channelled into containing his distress. Were things about to change?
A swallow doesn’t make a summer, and a smile doesn’t make a therapeutic relationship, I thought. One thing for sure, Dr.D became a client, my client. I
treated him like one, it had to be so and I simply followed the ‘so’.
My new ‘client’ was tasting a freedom he’d only read about in books. My heart stopped, how could a counsellor betray his true self, hiding it behind a
smile? Warm so world ‘loves’ him?
Emotions and past hurt, unbearable and thus deliberately forgotten, were banned from ‘his’ here and now. When he had to cope with the past it was
shoved away in a dark corner and kept secret.
The here and now was a place to him, another country, England. Germany, the past, didn’t fit the way he wanted it to be. He dreaded his fate under Fascism.
It would have been dark.
How do you carve an identity from rigid rules, out of ‘one’ way, never questioned? Could he have stood against it? Even with its shadow on the present, personified by his mother, it was a little hell. I listened.
She had a ‘self’. If her mind was made up, nothing could be done. We children knew where we stood. She gave us a sense of security. It was a ‘false’
sense of security! Dr.D, my client now, was on to something.
Life had to be given form, nothing random. Was this the ‘One Way’ of the Third Reich, still controlling her psyche or was it her true self coming to the fore? Or was it just me, a teenager, trying to be deep? Go on, Dr.D, I’m here.
If everything were written down, it would be a novel, beyond therapy maybe bringing suppressed psychical material to the surface.
Dr.D and his siblings were kept down by their mother. He escaped to England, spoke English and gave up his mother-tongue, only for guilt and shame to emerge and haunt him.
Being a German felt like a curse, followed me around, tortured me, he said.
The English were friendly, fair, they never badmouthed Germans. That made me more ashamed of who I was.
It became unbearable. I nearly ran back to Germany. There was safety in that old herd. Nobody noticed you. He breathed, but I stayed.
Dr.D leant towards me, confidingly. ‘I kicked the Past out of my precious present,’ and, as if giving away a secret, he whispered.
I’ve learnt something. ‘It’s not about getting the feeling out of the mind, or hiding it, but about experiencing it with acceptance.’
Dr.D was gone; the client was back. ‘I am in Plato’s Cave, but I don’t know how to get out. That is what I am ‘experiencing’, and with ‘acceptance’, exactly as you say. But it hurts. I’m stuck. Shadows scare me. Are you leading me on, Carl Rogers?’
‘You cannot escape from Plato’s Cave,’ I explained, ‘because in this case, by accepting suffering Plato’s Cave, you are unconsciously rejecting your freedom from it. You have to reject ‘acceptance’ in this instance. Think again!’
For a split second, Dr.D was back, even laughed. Had I read him wrongly?
Was that contempt?
How could he? I did my best to walk with him! Was he finding it funny?
Calling me Carl Rogers? He was not himself. Or was it me, unable to cope. My own Internal Supervisor put me back on dry land.
I bent over. He was drowning, fighting against ‘Scylla and Charybdis’. That’s how bad it was.
He then used this ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ metaphor when he tried to describe what had capsized his boat.
My Internal Supervisor brought me down to earth, reminded me he was taking anti-depressants.
Felt like quicksand, he was crying so much he couldn’t breathe, sinking. I laid my hand on his shoulder, let him cry, seemed to help.
He had to go through his pain, acknowledge it for what it was, a living part of him, the ‘subjective model of how things are’ for him or rather his ego, not his true self. This was the moment Polonius entered the stage.
‘This above all, to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man?’ ‘Even to the man you are yourself.’
He’d stopped crying.
Was he clambering out of the quicksand all by himself? Yes. Step by step out of Plato’s Cave, a place of fear, dark and certain. What a hotch-potch of classical references. I’d have used Disney if it would help.
We met a few times and it flowed. We entered a place of more life-oriented skills. Counselling was still there but more of an echo.
We had become explorers. Close allies, caring for each other, sharing what we discovered; the wilderness of life, nowhere to go, forwards, backwards, round and round in circles, no path to follow, small steps.
One time Dr.D noticed the frame on my wall containing words so large they shouted. My God, he said.
‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’ Don’t take any notice, I said, let’s carry on. No rest for the wicked. That’s only Jung.
My client was back as Dr.D, talking about Jung and his words. That ‘fate’ bit is something. We shook hands like mountain climbers having reached the top.
The stage was empty. All counselled out.
We sat, all that listening, caring, attention, affection, appreciation and love seeming to have put the client back together – in new ways?
These were Rollo May’s ideas, they came back. They had life. Maybe not for speech, I felt them.
That was the last time I saw that client. We could have carried on forever, as both of us knew Plato’s Cave. We both had needed to step outside.
So now, the problem was with my car, or rather my brain, it was full of my client, I bumped it.
You know that shudder of adrenalin when you’ve had a narrow escape?
My means of escape was just the car door. I was free from the ‘me’ inside myself.
Dr.D was me. I was the client, I was the counsellor and I was the supervisor. I had put ‘fate’ to the test by looking at it.
This is all about my mum’s preserving jars, and life. She was a sensitive soul who fervently resisted decomposition of any perishable substances, which drove her to preserve all sorts of things in sealed Kilner jars, from rhubarb to plumbs, blackberries and tomatoes to cucumbers, beans, apples, and even sauerkraut in brine. The cellar was bursting with preserved food and we were never short of tasty desserts during the dark winter months.
Food that won’t last, does well in a preserving jar, as we know. It may change a bit, but not much. We love the taste when it is ready to eat. What’s more, its early death, the conversion to compost, is delayed for months. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we, us bipeds I mean, could do something similar? Take mum for example, with her heart problems when she was still alive. Just imagine, she could have lived much longer in a preserving jar, ending up with a slightly shrivelled look, that’s true, but reaching an age not heard of before.
I often wondered what she saw in a cellar full of preserving jars bursting with berries and veggies cooped up in sealed bottles. What was she thinking? That life can be preserved in a Kilner jar by being placed on a dark shelf in the cellar? And the cupboard opened from time to time to sample a taste? I could
Kick myself, never thought to ask her. Then it was too late. There must have been more to it than simply feeding the family with tasty desserts until Easter. She got me going. Typical of her, she was such a strong personality. Even from six foot under, she held power over me. ‘Do things change more slowly when we bottle them in Kilner jars and place them in a dark cupboard to be enjoyed later? Or, to take it a step further, can we halt change altogether in a Kilner jar?’ I could hear her voice all the time, echoing around my head, always firing the same questions at the mystery of life. Or was it me, to save my soul? ‘Life is a mystery!’ I shouted to myself, hoping it would stop me going round the bend.
It was me! Had to be! Busying my brain till it hurt, because the day was longer than I could bear, not to save my soul, to be honest. Anyway, mum was dead,
and I didn’t believe in any sort of triggers, wordy ones above all and from other people, especially dead ones. I did believe in the power of Kilner jars though, if only to show how fond I was of mum. Living deep in me, in her second home, so to speak, she was a constant reminder of those hallowed Kilner seasons.
Now I’m lost. Where was I? What did I just say? Maybe it’s time for you to go and see a counsellor, Dr. Dryer, I heard a voice. Mine of course, but so far away it sounded like someone else’s. You may be right, I replied trying to stay cool, really should see one. You are not frightened of shrinks, are you, the far away voice teased. Why should I, am one myself, I shouted. Mind you, the other voice came back cheering, it hasn’t exactly made you a ‘fully functioning person’, has it? Woof! Where did that come from?
The counsellor I went to see was a friendly older lady who listened with her whole self, not just with her ears, and she heard me, my God did she hear me! All of me, from head to foot and back again. It wasn’t long before I felt like an old Steiff doll, full of mum’s stuffing that had to be pulled out firmly but gently, to make sure the casing wouldn’t collapse into an empty space. I hardly noticed the counsellor holding a paper handkerchief to my face, tussling with a stream of tears. And yet, there was nothing I could see, only emptiness. The maw of fate! MY fate?
Speak of trauma! It came in big clouds, and I mean big, big and black, making me blind all at once, and deaf, which I hadn’t really deserved, considering the nice guy I am deep down. Even the counsellor found it unfair, that’s how nice she was and I heard her singing, so sweetly it drove me mad. I didn’t know.
Where to put myself, that was the worst of all, just rolled around on the floor, with terrible stomach ache, then my stomach burst open and I gave birth to my mother, her shadow, dressed in a mantel of fog, dancing in bright moonlight, until I was dead.
Well, I did come back alive and kicking. Maybe it was more like blowing a fuse and erring around in the dark, bad enough of course, and it did take a long time before I got classified as a trauma-survivor in the world of counselling.
Fancy that! A trauma-survivor! The long and short of it is Missus Hubknecht was just the right counsellor for me. Her very presence brought understanding.
‘Therapy brings to mind what we shouldn’t preserve.’ Not her words at all, but she nodded a warm smile when I said them out aloud, as if we could read each other’s minds. Her words were road signs. I was the walker.
As the landscape opened up, the first thing I saw were mum’s Kilner jars. From rhubarb to apples and sauerkraut, the whole lot! The sweetness of apples, the bitterness of sauerkraut, the tart and tangy rhubarb! Mum’s feelings! My God! Yes! They were mum’s feelings, feelings she had held back all her life, hidden inside her, in the cellar her psyche had become, full of Kilner jars preserving things, her feelings, emotions, dreams and thoughts, hopes and unresolved problems, that could only be kept in the dark. And she, poor mum, didn’t have a clue what she was doing. Things just happened. Is that why your heart stood still, Mum, giving you pain and so many problems? Why didn’t I know? Tears flowed down my face. A man shedding tears, not feeling ashamed, that was me. Missus Hubknecht valued my vulnerability, quietly, nobly.
With mum colonising much of my emotional world, I lived under the elusion she had all the problems. How stupid of me! The truth was my own psyche had
become a Kilner jar too, a preserving glass bottle with my mother in it, and I had no idea how all that could have happened. From the moment I was born, every contact with mum fed my whole being, flashing subliminal messages into my unconscious. When I was a ‘grown-up’ person, my mama lived in every cell
of my body. Head and heart were in her hands. MY head and heart!
‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’ From then on, he became a Jungian, well not immediately, but his upside-down mental health began to shake.
Arnfrid Beier is a writer of blogs, tweets and more that explore our human condition, our ‘crisis of meaning’.
Born in Germany, living in Liverpool, he likes walking, re-thinking and his wife.
Arnfried is on Twitter at @ArnfridB