Addiction, Mobile Phones & Bottles (also, cans)

The people responsible for developing social media, making mobile phones, positioning betting machines or marketing alcohol search for any opportunity to hook users in. Content is designed to exploit vulnerability: to find vulnerability in us all.

Mobile phones are not the problem, just as bottles aren’t for alcoholics. It’s the content that matters and, more than that, who’s holding them. What’s inside a mobile phone can be addictive if you need something to be addicted to. There isn’t a magic addiction germ in a text or a Facebook page any more than there is in cocaine, skunk or a bottle of Jack Daniels. Or a Fixed Odds betting terminal. Addiction comes in people. We self-medicate when our anxiety grows unbearable.

Of course there’s another side to this: that the things I’ve just mentioned are supplied by people who seem to be addicted to making money, amongst other things (a look at a the recent President’s Club ball will tell you a more comprehensive story). Money, money, money. The people responsible for developing social media, making mobile phones, positioning betting machines or marketing alcohol search for any opportunity to hook users in. Content is designed to exploit vulnerability: to find vulnerability in us all.

So what can you do? Get angry. Harness your anger like you’d saddle up the Immortal Horses and put your phone down. Stop wiping yourself out. Throw your bottles away.

Anger is the justice emotion: if you don’t know how to get angry, if you feel you can’t assert yourself … life will feel very unfair. You won’t feel part of life. You’ll feel anxious. And it’s anxiety, a reaction to not being present enough in the world (feeling left out, overlooked, ignored, not listened to, a failure, hopeless or any number of similar things),  that leads to addiction.

There are ways of dealing with this. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Anybody, Skyped

As psychotherapists continue to recognise the importance of working with the whole body, that speech is only one aspect of a relationship, we seem to be developing more and more ways of having relationships that are un-physical.

If I talk to you and you’re not there, in front of me, I use something: a computer application similar to Skype which is secure but which I only use rarely, or the telephone. I talk to you about adjusting the length of the calls depending on how our relationship feels. If they are too short it can be like meeting someone at the doorway, saying some things while realising that little can happen. If they are too long we might feel something important give – which mustn’t. You might be left feeling bereft.

Screen-based conversations and telephone calls offer us different emotional experiences: the odd flatness and disrupted movement of an image of you, or of me, on a screen which somehow seems out of step with your voice that I might even hear more clearly on the telephone; and of course there’s the intensity of the telephone. The intimacy. On the phone I hold you up against me, right up close to my ear, and without the sight of your face I attend to your voice and your breath in a way I never normally would, or could.

The person I speak to on the telephone, or on a screen is never the same person I meet face to face, in the flesh. You meet me, and I meet you mediated by many things, not only what happens in us after we notice each other. On the telephone, on a screen, you and I meet something more of a ghost. Much of what I say is really you is lost. I meet you reassembled, digitally, at a distance.

When you were a child did you ever speak to someone down a plastic cup telephone, or one made out of cans, connected by string you and a friend pulled tight?

All of the time we engage in experiences of people that defy what we understand when someone says: I’m here. None of us ever really knows what’s ‘here’. There is only that I believe you are in front of me, with your undetectable memories, fantasies, and ghosts of dreams I shall never know; all of the thoughts and sensations you cannot put into words and which are lost to me other than in whatever I detect when you experience them: maybe the way that you breathe, or a pupil dilates.

And of course there’s all that happens when you out there becomes you in me: what happens when I perceive someone. I was recently reminded of this at a screening of a film I particularly loved, only to find the person who had watched it with me hated it: a film happens in me. It was as if we’d been watching different films.

There’s a strange conflict in psychotherapy. As psychotherapists continue to recognise the importance of working with the whole body, that speech is only one aspect of a relationship, we seem to be developing more and more ways of having relationships that are un-physical.

Are we making relationships possible for clients who would normally remain isolated and disconnected, or are we creating very particular forms of relationships, the particularities of which we fail to recognise; or even impossible relationships, where virtual contact keeps a client tied to us, umbilically? Don’t kid yourself that psychotherapy is about talking to someone any more than taking a boat across an ocean is a matter of turning a propeller.

 

Crazy May: Mark E Smith, a Genius, is Dead

It isn’t May, it’s January, and my keyboard insists it’s Cray May, nothing Crazy about it. First it started dropping r’s and then it was z’s after I tried to swap the spring thing under the r and z keys to make the r key work.

Mark E Smith, a genius, has died and I listened to some of his songs last night, on the floor, which was probably right. It’s still the same as when I was fifteen. I get ill after one song. There’s too much of what I like in what he did, like orange juice with the water evaporated out of it, super tart I’d imagine, or super sweet, depending on your orange. There was never anything diluted about the Fall.

You’d have to be an alcoholic to make music like that. You’d have to, or it would kill you off at the start rather than at the end. I suppose that’s why most music’s so boring. Survival strategy #1 for geniuses: you make anything amazing and it will probably kill you, so don’t. Either make do with something melodic that doesn’t hide how torn your heart really is,  or do things very occasionally, or you will die. The options for geniuses are limited.

This is why most music is so awful. There are so many spaces to fill. And not only music, I hasten to add. For every book I buy there’s a possible place in a bin. For Each film I watch there’s a likely a wasted half hour, which is roughly how long I think you need to give a film before escaping. People are much the same.

You’d think being good at something would help, not kill you. How depressing. I shall now listen to Live at The Witch Trials.

Coming Down to Earth

How dreams might help me steal a march on apocalypse.

I remembered this morning how, when I was very young, I used to worry about being obliterated by space debris (meteors, out of commission satellites and so on). Not only me but everybody I loved – and somehow this led me to think about degradation: PhDs being taught as if they were undergraduate experiences; psychotherapists who qualify without having read anything apart from secondary texts; newspapers riddled with mistakes and quirks that make the old-fashioned Grauniad (sic) seem like a work of perfection … and other stories of things falling apart.

These are some of the things that worry me. I read them, and many other things as a sign of degradation, a general fraying of the fabric of life. There are other things I worry about which might seem less esoteric, but I care about small things. I see changes in small things as a sign of shifts elsewhere, shifts in things that might be so large I cannot really comprehend or them or take them in: the ways in which we love each other, for example, or the ways in which we treat people who don’t have jobs or money.

Those things appear to change in ways that might seem easy to point at and to act on politically (with minimal results) but the part of the change that really matters seems to be protected or hidden so that all I can make of it I have to do by inference or reading through tiny pieces of debris I encounter.

The debris of degradation: what PhDs, psychotherapists and newspapers have shown me.

This might amount to the ways in which scholarship and thinking are devalued in favour of time gains in the name of professional advancement, validating information in the eyes of dominant intellectual groups, and following ideas that are supportable or fundable by bodies linked to industries or organisations that never declare their investment in being shielded from thinking that problematises what they do … which might explain the shrinkage of psychoanalytic and Marxist (where Marx has been read by people like Althusser or Adorno) approaches in favour of humanist ones – ones that assume all can be known.

Or it could comprise the insecurity and unexplored laziness of psychotherapists who don’t read a thinkers’ ideas in her or his original form (perhaps in translation), but who follow the lead of a secondary thinker instead without ever querying why they’d let that other individual do their thinking for them – or where that kind of deferral might lead in their own work.

It might be the lack of care and attention, the set of assumptions, the compromised sense of enquiry and the poor relational sense suggested to me by a journalist who doesn’t write out acronyms in full the first time they use them.

There’s a danger in all of this of my wanting to retreat to another time, or if things are degrading, like meteors passing though the atmosphere, to somehow go higher again. Of course that isn’t possible. But if we keep paying really close attention to the things that matter to us, so our ideas of ‘the world’ are as complex as possible, not complicated but complex (subtly opening out into more opportunities for understanding and action that doesn’t miss the mark, similar to the way I hope I might suggest something to a client in a psychotherapy session) the future might at least be less degrading.

We are, however, coming down to earth. Dreams of the future are failing us.

Looking back at my childish fantasies of extinction I see one of the ways I was perhaps more in touch with life then, than now. Our species suffers from a delusion that improvement is always possible or desirable, and that it is somehow a route towards something usually referred to as happiness. As a child I realised there are no happy endings.

We are falling to earth and approaching extinction. Climate change will see to that if a meteor doesn’t first. Life between now and then, in the fearful shadow of extinction (because so much of our behaviour is driven by a fear we have yet to realise), needs to be attended to in ways we are starting to withdraw from. What can we do rather than continue to lose ourselves? We need to re-learn how to pay attention to ourselves, and to each other.

I suppose something will eventually be revealed. That’s what apocalypse is about: maybe showing us the things I have described here as hidden, revealed only in debris, the broken off parts of bigger things that somehow make it to earth. Apocalypse and revelation come together, though; and anyone thinking about them then will surely only have been consumed by sadness.

Is it possible to steal a march on apocalypse? In dreams, perhaps.

A Grievance Machine

As manager of a large clinic I oversee many different kinds of psychotherapeutic work. All of it comes with different demands: those of accrediting bodies, of intellectual or methodological affiliations, and of less easy to locate authorities such as thinkers or charismatic figures a therapist might hold in high esteem, and for whatever reasons identify with or want to follow. This paper explores the relationship between these demands and things that may be being ‘done’ to clients. However much some of us deny it, particularly the more psychoanalytic of us, we are always ‘doing’ things to our clients. We provide them with rooms; we listen and we talk, and so on. These kinds of things, however, might be rather easier for our clients to complain about: ‘I don’t like this room, you haven’t heard a word I’ve said and the sound of your voice makes me ill.’

            Increasingly however, there are therapeutic activities, workshops, or perhaps EMDR sessions where the things that are ‘done’ are more concrete or active. Clients are ‘debriefed’ or follow a light source. In these things the idea that they may not like what they are subjected to in the name of a good process (the ‘right’ process in line with a set of demands), that they may be disappointed but find it hard to protest, is perhaps overlooked. Therapy is in danger of becoming a grievance machine.

I was reviewing the procedures concerning clients starting work at the clinic I run, in particular the details of contracts. Some of my thoughts related to others I had previously had about therapy as a contract in the sense of an instrument, and a discomfort I have been feeling about the way I believe my profession has become increasingly over-regulated. This over-regulation is usually excused as necessary to protect clients’ interests against unscrupulous or unprofessional therapists.

Certainly there are bad therapists. Rogue individuals who have slept with, embezzled, misled, borrowed from or otherwise abused their clients. But when regulation becomes an industry, and I am not simply talking about accreditation by bodies but forms of treatment drawing allegiance to a particular thinker or charismatic figure, whether that is Freud or Pia Mellody, something else enters the equation: the survival of that industry. People initiate businesses for different reasons, not always to thrive commercially, but once an organisation starts to flourish and make money its employees become bound to acting in its best interests. They must make money. They must create new products in order to make money; and those imperatives generate forces. This piece is about the effect of those forces.

As I said, these were thoughts that had concerned me before I started rifling through contracts, and some of them I will deal with in other places. What I noticed, however, as I read through the detail of the contracts and started to think about how what I read related to the demands of the bodies laying claim to the processes those contracts sanctioned, was that I was very irritated.

I feel irritated when I see someone unwittingly bound into something that they might reasonably object to, and then denied the right to withdraw or to object, or both. I mean situations where complaint has been ‘managed’, but often not through any chain of decisions to which anybody could be laid accountable. Unconscious processes accounting for a lot, perhaps.

So there were reasons why what I was doing might irritate me, but I couldn’t see why my feelings were quite so heightened; and I think this is where my thoughts intersected with the ones I have repeated here. I could call them the unconscious effects of bodies, organisations, institutions, call them what you will, seeking to assert themselves so that they might thrive. The anxious drive of entities striving to be in the world, where to be involves, amongst other things, ensuring a certain way of doing things persists.

What happens to the people called on to administer on behalf of these bodies? Official, therapists, and in the end, clients? To what extent are they bound to please that body? And what place is there for anger, if anger is the emotion we need to call on for justice, if we wish to complain?

Perhaps we could look at this in the light of one particular therapeutic intervention: an experiential workshop based on Pia Mellody’s Post-Induction Therapy. Part of this workshop often involves a process described as ‘giving back’ feelings. The process of ‘handing back’ shame to a parent, for example, which has become a feature of many experiential, workshop-based forms of psychotherapy. In many ways I don’t need to be convinced of how effective these workshops often are. Like other forms of trauma treatment, EMDR for example, they address the past in ways that might mean long-term psychotherapy can become an option for people who might otherwise have found the process impossible to engage with. They help make it, as Bessel Van der Kolk put it: ‘safe for people to stare reality in the face’.

Having worked with people for some time after they’ve gone through processes which emphasise ‘handing back’ feelings I have however noticed a couple of tendencies. Some clients remain in a cycle of blaming and denigrating people, usually parents, who they addressed in the workshop. Often this is overt, other times it is more subtle, by displacement: for example attacking figures or groups that stand for authority or coherence without having particularly evolved thoughts about why they are doing so. Other clients, usually those who more subtly denigrate, seem intent on telling me, at the expense of a more complex mixt of feelings, how good they feel and how great things are. They seem constrained by a desire to please or assure me that they had a wonderful experience. Am I imagining it, or are they really in some way angry? I ask, and I am reassured: absolutely not. I feel good, I feel strong, I feel solid.

A client might seem less ashamed of themself, having emotionally and intellectually invested in a new sense of their ‘separateness’, but they still seem removed from the liberty and autonomy which objectively seems available to them in life. Why do they seem angry, in spite of what they say?

When I think about what’s happening if, in the presence of a therapist, working with what becomes called my inner child, I symbolically hand back my shame, this doesn’t surprise me; especially if I recognise that working with the ‘inner child’ can be such a good way of exploring what certain forms of therapy might call my unconscious.

As I become aware of my ‘inner child’, what happened to me when I was young, I get to know me more as I was then. I feel something of myself and what affected me when I was a child more as it was at the time. I can become conscious of qualities such as shame that were projected onto me, which have determined my life in ways I didn’t imagine. In all of these things I see the positive potential of workshops.

Some therapists would go further, though. They would say I can reject the feelings I introjected as a child and symbolically, in the form of enactment, hand them back to the person who I believe gave them to me. They would try to give me a story with a happy ending, calling it, perhaps, ‘closure’.

There’s something that the French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche wrote which might tip us off about how careful we need to be with happy endings. Or at least that we need to think about what we might be doing if we wish to give our clients an immediate sense of ‘job done’:

 

Psychoanalysis shows us that history is neither a continuous nor a cumulative process, that it does not have a happy ending, that it does not evolve smoothly and that its course is marked by repression, repetition and the return of the repressed. (Laplanche, 1989)

Maybe I could take a lead from Laplanche and explore how psychoanalysis suggests gestures such as ‘handing back’ might not be a good idea?

My idea of what comprises ‘me’ is perhaps a peculiar thing. When I watch a film at the cinema, for example, where’s that film happening? If I proceed through my various assumptions, things I haven’t considered, and whatever feels intuitively right or wrong I might arrive at a strange thought: it’s happening in me. That’s why you and I can see different things in the same film. Whatever I go to watch I see in the company of me and my whole life: all of my thoughts, feelings and anything else in me, the rubble of my unconscious and the summits of my epiphanies.

Anything that occurs, even sometimes if I am unaware of it, can become something in me. So we take on other people’s feelings, actions and words and make them our own. Can we ever let go of them again? I really don’t know, but I imagine something is only likely to change like that slowly, without any ‘handing back’. I need instead a strong sense of what I have received (which these workshops are very good at providing) and how I may have responded to it. How has it entered my relationships to people, places and things? And above all, to myself: the ways in which I think of me.

Life gives us many opportunities for this, but it needs to happen at the right moment. Daniel Stern’s ‘moments of meeting’ are moments that cannot be artificially constructed or enacted, or more importantly managed. They can only be recognised.

I’m thinking, for example, of the kind of thing that happens to Joanna Kavenna’s unnamed narrator in the novel Come to the Edge (2012). Having been left by her husband because he desires a child she believes she cannot give him, she escapes to live in dire circumstances with the extraordinary Cassandra White, a woman who has no desire to please anybody. Cassandras, of course, tend not to.

 

‘You should get more angry,’ she tells me over dinner.

‘I thought I was quite angry.’

‘You’re not at all angry. You think you deserved it. You think your barren womb drove your husband away. Have you ever considered the notion that it might have been him?’

‘Him who drove himself away?’

‘Him who was barren.’

‘No, I never really thought of that.’

‘Ridiculous, you let him blame you for everything.’

‘I didn’t.’

“Why are you here, living a life you hate, if you don’t think you were to blame for everything?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Of course you don’t know. It’s far too complicated for your limited reserve of clichés. You can’t understand yourself at all.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘You should have shot him.’

‘Who?’

‘Your husband, of course. You should have got a shotgun and shot him in the arse.’

 

Relational psychotherapy at its best, although possibly not as my accrediting body might sanction it. And although you may detect a joke in this, I would also like you to keep in mind something very serious: the point of this piece really. Contemporary psychotherapy of all kinds is becoming an enterprise intended to please.

Change, when it comes, needs to come unexpectedly, sometimes shockingly, unwantedly, and in relation to someone or something outside of me. Sometimes the only appropriate response might be anger. Kavenna’s narrator might be muted, but neither is she at this point grateful.

When I hand back feelings as part of a therapeutic exercise, however, I am returning them to an internalised character, the sense of that character – my mother, for instance, and the ways in which these come together, that I have been developing and carrying since my birth. In doing so, even if I don’t realise it, I still take care of her feelings. I’m left to curate them, and who wants to be their family’s emotional guardian? In a curious but confusingly real way they remain in me.

It’s from this, I believe, that a sense of blame emanates. Forgiveness can’t occur in an internal economy. There needs to be something outside it, something unknowable, to interject unexpectedly and help me realise what I don’t know. A therapist or a Cassandra.

I believe there can be a release from blame, a kind of letting go, but that’s what we talk about when we talk about mourning – and that process will take a very long time. Freud wrote about melancholia (Freud, 1917), a strange process of not letting go. Are we talking about something like that, here, when we talk about ‘handing back’? Handing back not as a letting go, but actually as a form of incorporation, of taking something else in? Compromising myself and feeling bitter rather than being honestly able to address someone else?

All of this, I would argue, from trying to give our clients too much. Why do psychotherapists sometimes try to give their clients too much? Perhaps because they, themselves, have not been able to let something go: the desire to fix and the sense of completeness that comes from ‘getting it right’. But a therapist who, whether or not they know it, worries about ‘getting it wrong’ is little more than a bureaucrat, an official of whatever organisation or powerful figure they feel that they belong to; that they feel indebted to because they have not heard Cassandra speak: You should get more angry. These are where the forces that drive compliance originate; where the need to please arises like a nasty little stream bubbling from a sick old hillside.

What’s a grievance machine if it isn’t a desire to please?

A grievance machine: a way of accumulating resentment. A grievance machine: an inability to stare reality in the face; an avoidance of loss and a failure to let go, to mourn. A grievance machine: a ghost of a machine that haunts psychotherapy, which can bring it to its knees.

___

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, 237-258.
Kavenna, J (2012). Come to the Edge. Quercus
Laplanche, J. (1989). New Foundations for Psychoanalysis. Wiley-Blackwell.