By Rory Murray
I was asked to write about counselling, self-help, and therapy, from the point of view not of an expert, but of someone who has some experience of these processes, and from different sides of the equation.
I have been a volunteer with a Lesbian and Gay befriending group which provided one-to-one and group support. During several years of working in the field of HIV awareness I have developed experience of working on HIV helplines.
On the receiving side, I have participated in various workshops and supportive groups, mainly doing personal work on the loss associated with the early death of my parents. Two years ago, I spent six months in bereavement counselling – through *CRUSE – some twenty three years after my father’s death. After many brief “stabs” at examining my grief for my parents, the opportunity that CRUSE gave me enabled me to move on to a new phase in my personal growth.
I used the word “phase” in the last sentence at a point where the word “stage” might have been more usual. The word “stage” conjures up notions of a journey – a familiar and not inappropriate analogy for personal growth. But to me this word suggests a particular sort of journey, the kind that involved movement from one particular spot “A” to a point at some distance away “B”. These kinds of journeys are characterised by their distinctions and to a lesser extent, their points of departure.
There is another important kind of journey, a journey of discovery, an exploration of a place or space. Here, the route is less important than how well the traveller enters into the character of the place, deepening her understanding of that character and, in so doing, her understanding of herself. When one is on such a journey, the notion of stages is, perhaps, less significant.
In my journey, whatever its nature, I have recently moved on again, and I am attending a therapist once a week. We spend time exploring my emotional responses to past events and time reflecting rationally on my current state of mind. We explore new depths in my familiar issues, occasionally turning over an emotional “stone” and revealing (releasing) a powerful but hidden fear, or longing or anger. In short, we do many of the things I did in my self-help work. So, when I am asked to reflect on the “differences” between these experiences, I know that any answer I come up with will be neither simple nor clear-cut.
In H.G. Wells’ story, The Pearl of Love, a young prince whose lover has died has a plain black casket made, to hold her remains. He then proceeds to build a beautiful monument around the casket, a project that grows into a life-long undertaking. It results in a magnificent bejewelled palace. One day, many years later, he is wandering through its corridors, dreaming up new and greater designs, when he comes across a small chamber, in the centre of which lies a plain, unadorned black box …
In my own work around HIV awareness, I have constantly been drawn toward the all-important need for grieving and remembrance of those we have lost, and I have incorporated acts of remembrance into various projects and events. Yet, it is precisely the grief of those I know who have lost loved ones to AIDS that I find so difficult to face up to and accept. I am attracted to and yet move away from my major obstacle.
In the counselling work I have done and witnessed, it seems often to have been helping people to continue, or re-direct themselves on a journey towards a destination that has been blocked or delayed. Perhaps the traveller has been caught in an orbit of “avoid and approach” around the obstacles.
The Wanderer may find herself constantly moving down detours, failing to achieve sought-after goals, because of an over-riding need to avoid an obstacle on the main road. Thus the Gay man or Lesbian misses out on the goals of social support, self-esteem and a love relationship, in order to avoid coming face-to-face with a despised identity.
So must the prince then, face to face with his long neglected grief, acknowledge his loss and pain, and then move on to tackle new projects, find new love. Now must he learn to walk away from his past. Would that life were as simple as that. For what would he then make of his life-time achievement, his Pearl of Love? This wonderful creation, which has undoubtedly brought delight and beauty into many people’s lives, was fashioned around that very grain of sand, his grief. Is it now to be packed away, consigned to the category of nostalgic memories?
The crises in our lives do more than interrupt and divert the direction of our life journey, they are parts of the landscape. They impart their character to that journey, moulding and shaping its form. The prince’s grief lies at the core of his most beautiful creation. The challenge to him is not to walk away from his grief, his grain of sand, (though in some ways he will need to move on from it), rather, it is to stay in that chamber, to look again at his grief/grain/casket. To come to understand the very meaningful place it occupies within his creation. His destination is not in another place, it is the casket within the palace, it is the pearl that contains the grain.
(Sadly, it seems the prince never takes a single step on this journey of discovery: After gazing at the casket for a long time, he turns and orders it removed.)
As we stand, confused, isolated, afraid to take a step, unsure of our direction, our counsellor takes our hand and walks with us toward the obstacle that has, in part, been shaping our journey of life. In time, and with much support, we recognise it, confront it, and in so doing lose some of our fear.
We become able to move on, to continue interrupted journeys and begin new phases.
Perhaps the decision to undertake personal therapy is the point of embarkation on a special journey of self-discovery. Of course, every therapy journey involves a deepening understanding of the nature of our life-space, every journey in therapy includes returning to the main road, pursuing again destinations of self-discovery that we had lost sight of. Perhaps the difference between the processes of self-help and therapy/counselling lies in the extent to which they are, at their hearts, journeys towards destinations or journeys of self-discovery.
After the common challenge of confronting our fears, our grief and our anger, lie two rather different challenges: In one, the challenge to recognise, accept, “un-block” and move on; in the other, the challenge to return, to bring together past and present, child and grown-up, and to commit. To commit oneself to a life journey that one is fully part of and not just a better navigated one.
The most important distinction between the processes of self-help and therapy may lie not in the qualifications of the therapist or counsellor (though these are undoubtedly important), nor in the theoretical framework in which the process is founded; it may lie in the frame of mind with which the individual approaches the work, the kind of journey for which s/he feels ready.
Finally, I think of the child. The untroubled child is not overly concerned with destinations. S/he will endlessly repeat games and stories, explore the same territory again and again and still find new wonders. Only when s/he is distressed does s/he long for a familiar end point to the day’s wanderings. The adult too, learns to be concerned with where s/he is going to, with the stages achieved. When the adult seeks counselling, s/he gives the child what gift s/he can – the opportunity to unblock, to move on. In therapy, the child has the opportunity to return the gift – to teach the adult that life’s journey is about self-discovery more than destinations. (For Dave F. & Mark B.)
*CRUSE is a voluntary bereavement counselling service in Britain.