I have a profound fear of writing. I will talk forever, to anyone, about anything. I am not even afraid of public speaking. However, I grew up under the maxim, “The written word cannot be recalled.” Once a thing is written down it cannot be denied, in the legal sense. You can deny what you said; you can deny a phone call; but the written work cannot be recalled. We commit words to writing. We don’t commit words to speech. I definitely have writers’ block. Personally, I think I have the worst case known to mankind.
My fear of writing is irrational. I feel exposed when I write; everyone can see straight into my soul; I am vulnerable; I can be judged. Intellectually, I know I’m just as exposed by everything I say and do, but the intellect doesn’t govern emotions. (Pity!) I can be as intellectual as I like but the fear will still be there. It’s not all fear, either; there’s vanity as well. I am a reader. I revere good writing and I want to be good. Actually, I want to be brilliant.
Having agreed to write this article, I deliberately and consciously trapped myself between two firmly held positions. One -I don’t write, ever; two – only my death certificate is sufficient excuse not to honour a commitment. I am hoping that the second is the stronger of the two positions and that I can force myself to break the stranglehold of the first. I have this image of the ‘honour’ part of myself prising the fingers of the ‘I don’t write’ part self away from the door-jamb and, with much kicking, screaming, pushing, shoving, threats, abuse and the hurling of insults, tying me into a chair and forcing my fingers onto the keyboard. The sheer energy involved in this internal struggle could be put to much better use – like writing my very long overdue essay. This article might never see the light of day; or if it does, the next thing I know is that my essay might get written. And if that gets written, you’d never know what might be next.
In some ways the struggle to write this article is like my struggle with psychotherapy.
I am a trainee psychodramatist. My involvement with psychotherapy did not start with my training. It started long before, when I needed help. I would not in a million years have presented for psychotherapy unless I had no other option. I resisted it for years. I read self-help books till they came out my ears. I talked interminably with friends, almost with anybody who would listen. It was not until I had reached crisis point that I finally capitulated and had my first appointment. That was eight or nine years ago. I still attend for weekly psychotherapy.
I used the word ‘capitulate’. That’s exactly how it was for me. I had surrendered; I had failed; I was ashamed; I was angry and hugely resented being in the position of needing help. Me not able to cope?! ME?! – the great survivor, the one who rises above all ills – the greater the challenge, the better – having to smother my pride and acknowledge my weakness. I was raging. Talk about loss! I lost face. I lost my self-image. I lost confidence in my own resources, in my own self- reliance.
I thought that by going for psychotherapy, I would be fixed, as it were. If I thought about it at all, I imagined I could be all done and finished in two to three months. If anyone had told me I would still be at it years later, I don’t think I would have started. Actually, I probably would have started – I’d have said to myself that everyone else might take years, but not me. I wasn’t going to waste mine or the therapist’s time by dodging issues and not facing reality, no matter what the cost - be it a bruised ego or unpalatable truths or whatever. I have a plaque on my wall which reads: The truth shall set you free, but first it will make you miserable’; and at my first therapy session, I went in armed with a quote: The road to sanity is a life of total dedication to the truth.’ (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled)
But, as I said, here I am several years later, still at it, and no sign of an end in the near future. You see, I thought I could just identify the problem, or, as it turned out, problems, and all would be well. Once my fears were identified along with their causes, all I had to do was understand them and simply let them go. But it doesn’t work that way. We have to engage emotionally. We have to relive our pain, not only once, but over and over again, and – the greatest shame and ignominy of all – we have to cry. I resisted crying for years. I despise crying, even in private. And I am constantly ambushed by my tears. And even going through all that pain and weeping does not guarantee we’ll come out whole the other end. The process is more succinctly put in the following:
Autobiography in five chapters:
1) I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost… I am hopeless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out. 2) I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out. 3) I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit. My eyes are open I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately. 4) I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it. 5) I walk down another street.
(I do not know who to attribute this quote to; I came across it in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, London, Rider Press.)
I don’t know about you, but in my autobiography there are several streets. And every one of them has a hole. And some of them have more than one hole.
So why do we do it?
I am supposed to be writing in terms of gain and loss. I’m not comfortable with the terms. There is an inference that gain is positive and loss is negative. Well, it depends on what’s being lost or gained. I’d be very happy to lose weight. On the other hand, if I was skeletally thin, I’d be happy to gain weight. There is also an inference that gain and loss are polar opposites; that one is in an either/or situation with regard to them. Well, I maintain that you can’t ever have one without the other. For every loss there is a gain and vice versa. If I lose my fear of someone, I have gained trust. I could beat this subject to death, but you get my drift?
So, why go through the anguish that is psychotherapy, when there isn’t even a guarantee that there is a solution to the problem? I can only speak for myself. I started because I had nowhere else to turn. When I discovered there was no quick- fix solution to my problem, and worse, no guarantee of any solution, I raged and railed against the process for a good while. I continued, partly because there was still nowhere else to go, but also because I believe in it. To defeat one’s own defences is very freeing. Defences are put in place for survival, but when the danger has passed, one can be imprisoned by them. It’s like living in a cunningly- built and heavily fortified garrison when the war is over. And, boy, are those defences devious and clever! Here are a few:
“Denial is don’t see it. If that doesn’t work then insulate yourself and don’t feel it. If that doesn’t work then repress it and therefore don’t remember it. If that doesn’t work, then do something else about it like act-out; or you could regress and cry for it, or you could compensate and try to get it back. If none of these methods work then you might fantasise or daydream about it. If even this doesn’t work then you might as well criticise or project and blame it; or even better, you might displace it and attack something that represents it. When these attempts are also inadequate you might as well join it. How? Well, you might identify with it or be like it. A good way to be like it is to introject or take it in. Once you’ve finally taken it in, you’d better not show it – rather you could recategorise it by intellectualising it. How is that possible? Well, you might rationalise it or make an excuse for it. or...” (Henry Kellerman (1979), Group Psychotherapy and Personality: Intersecting Structures. New York. Grune & Stratum.)
I believe in the process enough to have started training as a psychodramatist. I chose psychodrama in favour of other approaches because it embraces so many aspects of life that I value: drama, mythology, spontaneity and creativity, it’s philosophy of time, space and the cosmos, and despite all that pain and anguish I talked about, it is fun.
Without going into the particular details this is the story of my involvement with psychotherapy (in a micro nutshell) It was supposed to have been in terms of gain and loss. It was also supposed to have been with particular reference to the defenses and in the context of psychodrama This is what came out. Defenses, gain and loss are what they are no matter what the context.
To sum up. the truth shall set you free but first it will make you miserable.
[Catherine Leahy is a trainee psyhodramatist who lives in Dublin)