What 6.5 years of group therapy taught me
It wasn't about how to cure my depression
I thought I started group psychodynamic psychotherapy because I was depressed and talking with a therapist and other people might help me with my depression.
But after six and a half years of weekly sessions, what I actually learned was that I wasn't a depressed person. What I learned was that how I spoke to, engaged with, listened to and generally be around other people would determine how I felt about being alive.
Therapy for me, was about learning - in a genuinely psychologically safe and therapeutic space - how to be my true, genuine, authentic self. How to be truly known to other people. How to truly be with other people.
I know many people come to their own insights around these common truths, but I suppose what I think makes this experience different (not better) is the way in which it was done in relationship, in community, together as a group.
After a long time on an NHS waiting list, and after failing to do well at 1:1 therapy, I joined the group in early 2016. I was reluctant to join. Why the hell, I thought, would I want to listen to everyone else moaning about their life problems when I needed to deal with my own?
Within the first two sessions, I identified that this was a group of true misfits: Divorcees, lonely old men, socially-awkward anxious women, angry, traumatised and grief-stricken people frustrated at the world and how it treated them. Lost little children grown up into sad adults. Losers. I could not understand why I was being put into this group of losers.
It obviously did not take me very long to realise they were not different from me. I was a misfit, I was a loser. Clearly, by being cared for by the adult complex needs service at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust did not make me a well-adjusted adult who could deal with his problems.
Being in my group is a strange thing to reflect on. There we were, sitting around a circle, talking about whatever came up in our minds or in our lives on any given week. Building and having the trust in this group of people - people I knew the deepest, sometimes darkest things about - but not having even their surnames to identify them with.
This was one of many tensions about being in a group. And I brought my own of course.
I have an almost pathological problem with dropping people and things when times get challenging, or when I feel like I am getting too close to someone. I won’t look people in the eye when I actually want to be closer to them. I won’t call people back or arrange to meet them even though I want to more than anything. It’s disastrous behaviour. This makes make it particularly difficult to be in a group, especially a purposefully therapeutic one.
It's one thing to stand someone up, to leave a relationship with someone when you've had enough for whatever reason. It's much harder thing when it's seven people and are relying on you to help them get better.
The palpable sense of dependency that grew within the first few years was hugely uncomfortable. We are told that dependency is almost always a negative: alcohol and drug dependency; toxic relationships and addiction.
But opening yourself up to the idea of depending on someone, on a group, is a quick fire way to open up to the deepest of issues you have about how you are with other people, how you relate to them and yourself.
What this meant was that I learned how to actually feel the emotions that came up, often deeply suppressed and mislabelled and tangled up, when someone spoke to me about say... their relationship with their ex-wife; their anger and rage at being racially discriminated again on the street; their disappointment that life didn't present them with a easy solution; their frustration at their son's behaviour; their lack of ambition in life.
It also made me realise that as a man, and one of only two (or of three, before John died), my therapy made me realise how cauterised we men are from being able to be truly emotional beings.
As a man, we seem to be taught only the primary colours of emotions: anger, lust, sadness. And even then we use them like bludgeons with ourselves and other people.
It took me sustained effort over many, many years to slowly blend the colours into rich palettes that I could then experiment with in my group.
I learned that pain is a feeling, it is not necessarily a negative one. I learned that being open to just feeling things was what it was about. That just feeling things was the quickest way to feel alive. I learned that I wasn’t in therapy to feel better, I was there to feel.
This may seem a bit dramatic and a bit adolescent, but I feel like I've always struggled with being alive. It doesn't come easily to me. I shut myself off from my own feelings as I experience things. I distract myself, I numb myself, I turn away, I drop people, relationships. I walk away from life, all the time.
So is it any surprise that I've cultivated a career around death? I spend a lot of my time focused on death. On the end of things. On annihilation.
But I fear death. We all do. It's a totally normal reaction to fear death. But I try to make friend with it, get cosy up to it, so I can be around it for longer, to avoid being alive. It's not brave. It's a diversion.
Forgive me for being gooey, but I have spent so many years trying to make friends with death, but really what I needed to do was make friends with life.
Because fearing life led me to some serious distortions in my life: it led to my subconscious rearing into action at night, causing my night terrors. Everything I couldn't accept in my waking hours would come back to haunt me. All disfigured and warped in the darkness. My desire to live mutated into pure, undigested emotion. Fearing sleep, meant fearing to dream. Fearing to dream meant I feared hoping for things.
I've reluctantly played the part of an alive person. I realise that I've spent so many years just avoiding feeling really alive because if I did, then I would see how much was at stake, but also how much was open to me.
I can reflect back on this now, because that internalised, subconscious feeling of fearing being alive, risking a stake of being part of the world, is closer to the surface: I can write about it. I can say it out loud, now.
It was once dark, dense mud packed into my torso. Causing me no end of pain. But now these darkest things about myself are so much closer to a place where I can engage with them.
It is softer, lighter, malleable, within my hands. I can prod it, mould it, play with it.
Bringing the dark stuff from the deepest parts of me has been the most enlightening aspect of my therapy.
It's only in retrospect and applying some sort of rational, learned lens to it that I've been able to associate the feelings with the labels that Jung et al provided us with: the shadow. During most of this time, its been a felt experience, not an intellectual one, an embodied one. One that unwinds and emerges week after week, in conversation and digestion in my group.
What its meant is that I've made friends with my demons at night. I've asked them what they want, and they often just want to be heard. Not thrown back into the dark corner, into the hallway.
It means I've felt brave enough to turn to the sexual feelings that I've long repressed. The grizzly, hairy, teeth-biting sexual energy that all men have, and some may accept in themselves while others will deny. I denied it. No longer.
It's obvious really when you see all sides of yourself that you are not the thing you can control, you are all these things that make up you as a person whether you accept them or not.
To accept these sides is the work. To ignore them is to suffer. And it really is a suffering to ignore the parts you don't like about yourself, or can't accept, or even see.
Nearly two months since my group ended, I find myself in the depths of a grief about the loss of my group.
I can't believe that I will never seem them again, that I will never able to talk about my week, my struggles, my successes, my fears and joys, my feelings that are new and novel and fresh like new clothes and the old aching worn feelings that are diffused in my bones.
To lose a group of people that know every intimate detail of my life: my relationship to my parents and brothers, my wife and child, my friends and colleagues, my most internal dialogues I have with myself, my most recently discovered subconscious drives and fears. To lose that wisdom and that relationship is one of the hardest things I've had to do.
But at the same time, every relationship has to come to an end. Nothing lasts. Everything changes eventually.
And the change that comes from having to let go, and knowing you are letting go without knowing where you'll end up. Well, its certainly grist for the mill.
I write this as a way to externalise some of the strongest feelings that arise when I think about what it now means to - on reflection, in the rear mirror - be finally seen and heard by someone, by a group of people.
In the 5 or 6 months that we used to work through and process the ending of the group, I often would instinctually use thew word 'tribe' to describe the group. They were my tribe. They spoke my language, they raised me as their own, we lived in our small little patch on the 6th floor, all institutional chairs and bland artworks. So to be exiled from the group, for us all to be forced to exile, to be let out into the world again whether we were ready or not... felt like a genuine psychic battering.
But at the same time, and this was the real kicker, I realised that if I was to ever truly be my whole self, I would have to take what I learned - how I was, how I felt in the group - to every other group and dynamic in the 'real world'.
Because the challenge is not to meditate perfectly in the mountaintop sanctuary where everything is perfectly laid out for you. The challenge is not to be able to relate to people in a psychologically safe environment with a professional therapist there to guide you.
The challenge is to try it, risk it, sometimes fail, but always try and be and live in the real world with other people and seek to really be alive with everything that comes up.
What therapy has taught me is that there is an opportunity to be the person I was in that group, in every other situation I find myself in.
I really like the person I was in there.
I can't tell you how much more complex, more grounded, happy, relaxed, joyful, alive I was in that group. I think you would really like that guy. I don't want that version of myself to stay in there, in a group that no longer exists. I want him to be out here, with the rest of you.
This realisation comes with a lot of genuinely anxious realities: to be that person out in the real world, I have to risk things, I have to take chances. I have to open up to people that didn't want to reciprocate; people who experience too much of their own pain to respond in a kind and generous way.
It means that I would be rejected. More than once, almost likely often. But that I would have to try again with other people. I would have to let myself be seen by other people, whether I was always ready or not. This was the risk. This was the place of doubt. But this is when things are most alive.
I'm writing this because I also don't want anyone else to live their life under the impression that the structured, paper-thin version of themselves that they have had to create to respond to the problems of their life, is the real one. It's not.
The real, true, vibrant, colourful, richly emotive version of yourself is in there somewhere, compacted like mud, sometimes writhing, sometimes cracking out in sublime moments of abandon. But definitely in there. It just needs teasing out, slowly coaxing like a scared cat at the vet.
And it won’t be easy to be coaxed out. Like me, you may need to take years of intensive therapy. Or maybe you can do the work through some really strong Ayahuasca ceremonies. Equally it may take a strong, loving relationship with someone to remember who you are.
But honestly, to not try would be to close yourself out of your own life.
My six and a half years of therapy has left with me with many questions and one lasting image.
Why do we do all this self-improvement on ourselves? Why do we consume all these wellbeing and wellness practices, all these meditation and yoga lessons? Why do we take all those crazy psychedelics? Why do we go to our GP saying we are depressed and need help? Why do we struggle with alcohol, drugs, food and addictive behaviours? Why do we always feel that we are not quite there yet, always feeling like we are just around the corner from feeling something bigger or deeper? Why do we act like children as adults when we are with certain people? Why do we block ourselves off from the people we really want to be with? Why do we so rarely talk to ourselves in a way that is being truthful about what we want?
I believe it's because, in the end, all we want is to be truly known by someone else, and be with other people.
In other words, deep down we don't want to be a single potted plant. We know we don't want to be sitting there alone.
We want to be a tree in a forest. We want to be nestled together, in communion with each other. Pine next to fir, nestled amongst fern, atop grass and mushroom, basking in sunlight and shaking in the rain. Breathing together, growing together, sighing together, creaking together, breaking together, dying together, flowering together.
That's what therapy taught me.
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