Thinking of therapy

An animation in praise of psychotherapy, of having a space to go to each week, and of of having a skillful conversation. Let’s face it: talking is a basic need in us

Friends who are thinking of embarking on psychotherapy often ask me what the five years of therapy I had were like. They were like paying someone for a really deep, meandering conversation about the things that matter in your day, in your heart and to your soul.

Conversation illuminates and invigorates

Last night my husband and I lay in bed and chatted for about half an hour. I was so grateful for the conversation – how it meanders, especially as the day winds down. I felt very peaceful, very relaxed, very together.

Likewise last Sunday, over coffee with my Dutch friend, life was talked about in all its forms. Afterwards, we wandered a flea market. Heaven!! I’m fortunate that, (like every other Dutch person I know), my friend’s English is excellent. Afterwards, I said how much I’d enjoyed having a good old chinwag. She said a Dutch phrase, which she said meant “Going from branch to branch” – I loved this image, like lemurs swinging in trees. But she said it also means “Going from nothing to nothing”.

I’ve tried to find this phrase on the internet but the links to Starship’s song Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now dominate the search (and rightly!). Anyway, I think conversation at its best is this kind of free association, going from nowhere to nowhere and everywhere in between. For me, it’s obvious that’s what conversation should be. But you have to remember we live in Germany and things are much more logical and procedural.

The need to talk is a basic need

I love to talk and I know I need it, like breathing and eating. I think we all do. I need the surprise of conversation, and the voyage of it. It’s the greatest inspiration. The School of Life in London even promotes it in its own right. When I have a really deep conversation here, it means the world to me, partly because being abroad it’s the thing that I expect least.

In my theatre endeavours, which I suppose covered the period roughly 2002-2011, I was really interested in saying the unsayable. Both the inarticulable, and the taboo. I think art has a duty to push into these areas.

But in my life, in about 2006-7, I found I’d built up a backlog of emotion I couldn’t give words to, and began psychotherapy. The therapist I used was allotted to me by the Guild of Psychotherapists, and he was an absolute find, and saw me through about five years of weekly sessions, (on an off – I took a couple of breaks). He was all-but-completed in his training, just had his dissertation to write. His approach was quite responsive, psychodynamic (with a special interest in Object Relations). He’d offer advice, on occasion. We would talk about all kinds of things. It’s about a year ago that I brought my therapy to a close when I moved to Berlin.

What did therapy consist of?

There wasn’t a chaise longue. He didn’t have beard to stroke. He didn’t sit behind me. We sat opposite each other in armchairs in a fairly sparse room, and talked.

The first couple of sessions were a shock as he hardly spoke at all, or made eye contact. I wasn’t sure what the rules were. Once I tried to finish with a bit of a polite chat – “are you going to have a nice weekend?” kind of thing. I didn’t know you aren’t really supposed to know anything about your therapist – it’s supposed to help you project onto them.

Therapy consisted of going to the same room at the same time every week for a 50-minute session. Mostly I’d stare at a bunch of flowers on the windowsill. Sometimes I’d ‘take along’ something I really felt like addressing or that was bugging me; sometimes the mood of the day was pressing and I’d arrive in an emotional state that had a life of its own; sometimes we’d just wait and even sit in silence until something arose.

We’d talk and he’d remind me of things I’d said or issues that seemed pressing for me in the past. He’d question my perceptions and ways of doing things.

The gains of therapy

Would I recommend therapy? Absolutely. It’s quite a courageous journey, I’d say, since you can end up really exposing your inner self to someone, but if you get on with your therapist then there’s a lot to gain. You have to be very patient – free association touches on things and then comes back to them in a kind of wandering, spiral motion. Sometimes it’s boring and sometimes it’s churning. Having a place to go, to visit your inner world, that’s got your name written on it – that’s a real privilege that’s not to be underestimated.

It’s also hard to quantify the gains. The things that bothered me then bother me a whole lot less now. I have made choices in my life that actively remove some of the problems I was creating. I’m not sure if I even would have been able to make certain life choices like becoming a mother (since a lot of the anxiety I was experiencing was around the dilemmas of decision-making), if I hadn’t had had that sounding-board. But on a day-to-day level, I often found, if there was a conversation I could usefully have with someone in my life, that the unsayable had its dress-rehearsal in the therapy room, so that I could express myself better to my loved ones.

The only downside of therapy, is it doesn’t tell you how to act, or what to do differently, it just exposes (and to some extent neutralises, through articulation) the emotions that need expression and your habitual ways of doing things. I suppose that’s why I’ve had to seek out practices like mindfulness, yoga, self-hypnosis, lifestyle redesign and habit change to try to pursue happiness in its practical manifestation.

An animation about therapy

I made this (iPad) animation (using the Animation Desk app) initially as a thank you to my therapist. My friend, who is a therapist herself, warned me that therapists are often discouraged by their code of practice from accepting gifts from clients, so I thought that being shown an animation would serve as a non-concrete gift for him. At that point, it literally had Thank You written on it.

I completed the animation according to a brief from The Big Draw Berlin festival, which was to use the idea of Space. It was very pertinent, because having the psychological space of therapy was a huge gift. I’m still grateful to have had it. My friends put together an amazing soundtrack for it.

If you’re thinking of therapy… but you don’t think you can afford it

There are various organisations in London that offer means-tested therapy, The Guild of Psychotherapists among them. It took about 6 months for my name to reach the top of the waiting list. There are, I think, similar organisations who offer affordable therapy in different London boroughs. I think also, sometimes therapy schools and institutes offer cheaper sessions with their trainee therapists also which is not a bad shout.

But whether you pursue it or not, try to talk in your life, to find the words for the delicate sentiments. Talk nicely to people. Talk deeply to people. Be real, if you can, in your conversation.

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When does the very best exchange happen in conversation? With whom? Is it something we can cultivate?