Why is reading difficult?

As a psychotherapist, formerly as a teacher, and sometimes still as a writer, I have met so many people who have found reading difficult. At points in my life, in spite of my love of reading and of books, I have found it almost impossible.
       It seems fashionable now to try and look for neurological or other, possibly related, organic reasons for why people find reading difficult – such as allergies. It’s easier to medicate something that seems to have a material cause.
       Does this kind of diagnosis ever really help? I’ve met people who can read again, or perhaps for the first time, properly. But the ones I have know, although they feel somehow more free, also seem to have reached a point where something still seems blocked. They can absorb words from a page, but they can’t do things with them that they have an idea they might.
       I can suggest here, very briefly, some things that may be blocking your relationship with written words. All of them are things which can be addressed without medication and outside of a classroom.
       I should add that nobody I have known finds reading easy. Even the most avid reader has to connect with a book and that reader is sometimes the most lucid in being able to describe what can get in the way. For the sake of simplicity I have numbered these thoughts about reading difficulties. I am aware that if you are reading this you may be experiencing some of them.

  1. Dissociation. Reading can be made difficult by the process of dissociation. The feeling of losing one’s place, not taking words in, or not absorbing information is so common it is rarely talked about. The effect of these things happening when you are a student, especially in a classroom, as a very young child, is that she or he will be treated in ways that will leave them feeling ashamed. Shame acts a horrible censor, making it harder than ever for someone to say what they are finding difficult. Dissociation can arise for many reasons. It is highly treatable. There are reading techniques I can recommend for people who find it hard to read more than a few sentences without getting lost.
  2. Getting stuck. To read you need to be able to make connections – associations – that help the text come to life. Some of this can be to do with dissociation; some comes from an unfamiliarity with words that might be rooted in a difficulty to read. Talking and reading out loud to interested people can help. Theres so much more I could say about this, and may in another place.
  3. The audience. Effects of the imagined or real expectations of an audience. Although this it is something of a dissociative process, it’s less directly so. The dissociation occurs not when a book is already open in front of someone, but before the book ever gets opened.  It takes a wonderful teacher, or a very enlightened parent to realise that the reasons why a someone, child or adult, procrastinates, reads the wrong thing, or gets involved in a volatile situation which prevents something getting done is most likely to be connected with a barely acknowledged set of assumptions relating to what will happen if nothing gets in the way. Emotions govern what we do. Thoughts arise out of emotions that are sometimes spectacularly misguided attempts to do a version of the right thing: the right thing by that individual. The thing which will lead to the best path through life for them.
  4. Enlightened resistance. Some children, and some adults, become aware very early on that what they are reading is not what’s good for them, and unlike in the kind of situation I have described in point three, they are correct.
           I was depressed, recently, to see some of the material currently being read as part of an A level syllabus and on an undergraduate English Literature programme. The texts were sentimental, simplistic and brutal. Perhaps in the name of openness, or as a reaction to long-lost censoriousness of emotional honesty, some teachers seem to have lost their protective sense. Reading can be re-traumatising. People who choose not to read something that merely repeats horrors of which they are already well aware need to be rewarded, not punished. Unfortunately terrible things are often written about in ways that remain attached, even if it is barely consciously, to the dynamics that repeat them. Witness the effect, for example, of the millions of journalist’s words devoted to describing why Donald Trump should never be president of the USA. Much of the writing feels frightening and seems part of how the Trump takeover keeps happening.
  5. Poor teaching. I used to teach English undergraduates and was horrified by the number of mediocre students (in addition to a very few excellent ones) who decided to become English teachers.
  6. Our schools. Until relatively recently I was involved in helping children from difficult backgrounds try to receive a good education. What I would recognise as a good education is currently unlikely to occur in an English school.

Debbie Harry Does It

I was really much more interested in antisocial, underground things, and I didn’t want anyone choosing material for me. Debbie Harry

I like Blondie. I could write a book about them; but I found this quote and it seems to say more than I’d ever manage to. It’s from an interview where Debbie Harry’s talking about liking X-Factor. But, would she have taken part? No, she wouldn’t.
       Doing what other people tell you to do, when you could be doing something else, is fucking life up. There will always be things I can’t but do, but all the time I see people getting on with not doing their own thing because: they don’t seem to know their own thing very common; or they don’t see they’re being told to do something; or they want to get something and they’re happy to eat shit until they do.
       Not she (who looks amazing).

Fear

or Things You Can Do With Fear.

Sometimes I find people hard to be around and it isn’t easy to work out why. Often I find a feeling that leads me to think of what’s occurring between myself and them as not quite real – that there’s something cartoonish happening, almost. The feeling is of fear, a particular feeling of fear, in the way that the bark on various kinds of tree can be so very different.
        Why am I’m thinking of fear and bark together like this?
        I thrive on this kind of question. It tends to take me to places that my thoughts don’t naturally go. So I think about how, when I was very young, my father used to have a dog that terrified me, that barked a lot, and that back then I often thought about my father as if he were a cartoon. As I got older I started seeing him as he was, but he still seemed to think about me in ways that never seemed to extend beyond something very basic, like a sketch of me he’d drawn once, at a distance. There was something very true about it and something extremely limited. I might as well have been frozen in space: easy to remember and indestructible.
        The fear that I feel around people when I start sensing something cartoonish is going on (and cartoons allow for some very disturbing thoughts to be had amusingly, harmlessly and without getting into what isn’t a cartoon: flesh and blood for example, someone or something so fragile they are real) reminds me that I, the real me, might be the last person actually on someone else’s mind. I suspect that in some way they are very scared and might prefer not to imagine me as more than a glyph.
        Who I am to them remains to be seen … but I feel a degree of confidence that I’m trying to remain open to who they could be.

Note: The dog was given away. The first time, I was told by my mother, the owners returned him because he seemed to be barking at ghosts.

Noticing Changes in #Psychotherapy

People often write about change in psychotherapy. Fewer people seem to write about how changes are noticed and acted upon, especially in clinical teams. This piece is written for people working in teams and tries to suggest a few things about accountability among clinical groups.
        When you see something that you believe someone has missed it can feel alarming. (I’ve heard it can also be gratifying.) There’s a kind of noticing which can either be constructive or divisive, depending on how it’s approached, and it goes like this: someone (a therapist, a  counsellor, a nurse; let’s not get too hung up on titles right now) is responsible for a client, perhaps something goes wrong or a situation deteriorates, or nothing seems to be happening, and another person is invited in (hopefully by the first person) to take a look at that client as well. I’ve experienced this from both sides.
       
At worst, the person being called in might see what they call negligence.  Negligence happens and is probably as likely as ever to happen now, although I won’t get into that here (if you’re interested, I imagine all would be revealed rather quickly if you watched Ken Loach’s latest film and then read some Adorno on administrative culture). More often I imagine that what might be regarded by the second person as having been ‘missed’ by the first person has actually been subject to one of, broadly speaking, three kinds of process.
        The first person may have been aware of what has been ‘missed’ but chosen to approach it in a way that does not seem immediately obvious to the second (process one); or it could have been seen and not considered as important as the second person believes it to be (who may or may not be right in believing this – either way, this is process two); or it could have been become perceptible as a result of the way the first person has worked, but remained undetectable, immediately, to him or her, such are the defences at play (process three).
        There’s much I would say about the first two categories of process listed above. It’s the third, however, that I want to say some more about here. If you have some kind of affinity to what’s usually called ‘psychoanalytic’ work then the third category is possibly one that you never let slip out of mind. But I think any experienced clinician, in fact anyone who’s had the regular experience of joining in with work someone else has begun, might recognise that some things will never be immediately perceptible to the people who begin to make them knowable.
        Good clinical work is work from which something emerges over time. This calls for a kind of continuity in which accountability is isolated, as far as possible, from blame – where it’s sought after by the person accepting it, rather thrust upon them as part of a move to account for what apparently hasn’t happened, with no acknowledgement of ‘yet’.
        The idea that clinical work can predictably happen in the time we would like to allocate to it is of course most seductive. Given the ways in which clients live their lives, how treatment is paid for, and how therapists work it’s almost too much to bear, to think that the most useful thing in someone’s treatment may be happening only unrecognisably so. But holding onto the idea that perhaps something hasn’t happened yet, and that some clinicians are going to complete what they see as their work without perhaps feeling with their client the greater sense of achievement that comes with a life ‘turning around’ calls for a rare and special kind of collaborative work.
        Supervision and cooperation must hold strong without starting to become steely. Experience needs to be contained without being restricted or constricted; growth needs to happen while being shaped as little as possible by containing forces (directive work needs at some point to give way to a client finding his or her own direction).
        Plato  (the Timaeus), Heidegger (Was heißt Denken?, 1954 [What is Called Thinking?, trans. 1968]), Bion (Container and Contained, 1962) and Derrida (Sauf le Nom, 1993 [On the Name, trans. 1995]) wrote about this. Still, it seems somehow to so often become forgotten.
        And of course I am not suggesting that certain other important things be forgotten, like looking closely at what is evident to everyone involved and making sure certain parameters are not exceeded: the ones written into the ethical codes we subscribe to and the bottom lines relating to the forms of treatment or engagement we begin. It would be a mistake, however, to believe these things are always decided beforehand, in another place, such as a room inhabited by a UKCP ethics committee. Things begun in those places have a life of their own, too.

 

A Memoir of the Future

Today this begins:

‘Wilfred Bion will deliver a paper on the effects of our aggressive tendencies, dreams as resistance to overwhelming odds, and dreams as a source of the future.

‘Reports of Mr Bion’s death have in fact been premature. He has been alive and living well, very well, for the last few decades, contemplating a virus analogous to a computer virus which would infect oil (Dreams, he says, are the new oil). His preoccupation with intense darkness has led him to follow with trepidation the fate of the Labour Party, the popularity of Donald Trump and falling sales of the iPhone (the newsworthiness of which signifies, as much as anything else, a crashing lack of reverie).

‘Reverie. I shall pick up on this in the future as much as anything else.

‘Reverie. We don’t dream the same and when we do dream our dreams are not taken seriously. Even a dream book (my father’s was one of the few things he left to me) would do better than the National Curriculum, Internships and what I hear about best practice in psychotherapy. All of the institutions, people, places I look to to help dreams become thoughts, become actions, become something in the world … what are they? Distracted? Disinterested? I think about schools and I don’t even get the teacher from The Wall, more a hazy picture of rows of women and men standing in front of children with an iPhone in their hand. Distracted. Texting without realising they are in the middle of children’s dreams and their job is to help carry dreams forward.

‘Teachers, bosses, psychotherapists need to be Dream Positive. There is an aggressive attempt underway to take away the night, to have us never ending working, or unable to sleep in our anxiety, to stop dreams happening, and for anyone who dreams to be left on their own with their dreams … to ensure nobody is there to hold dreams together with reality, so it all goes mad.

‘Mr Bion will present his paper in the future.

‘Mr Bion reports that dreams are taken seriously as a serious threat to the future. He notes certain repetitions in this piece with interest (for example in seriously and serious in the previous sentence) and wonders what that’s about).

Freezing: People Who Survive Like Matadors

It’s one of the privileges of my middle age, to be able to think about things in ways that once upon a time would have possibly driven me crazy, or into one vice or another. It did feel like that: vices, things that clamped onto me – rather more than anything that would shock someone. I couldn’t move. I somehow froze.
        Probably that’s something to do with fear. Fear freezes some of us; and it freezes in different ways. I was always able to think like crazy while I was stuck to the spot, clamped down, and a lot of good came out of that. I couldn’t have run if I tried. At other times I seemed to wipe myself out: erased myself (you can call it dissociation). A lot of good came out of that, too.
        If your way of avoiding danger keeps you somehow almost standing still in life (even if you’re not entirely there) so you don’t escape through flight and find yourself dislocated, lost, or you don’t resort to fight and smash it all up, perhaps you can keep going without accumulating the losses some people experience. There’s always damage to the people, the real world, around you, but if you avoid the worst extremes of narcissism, as freezers survive like matadors, and some of us get carried away with that, and you don’t in the end get gored, there’s a chance you’ll have a life to look back on where one thing more clearly leads to another. Maybe there’s more to do to make amends but less to reconcile.
        Freezers stay close to life and death, as close as you can imagine. Once you learn how to thaw, or not to freeze, at least most of the time, it’s really rather wonderful.

Stop it (The Labour Party)

Labour Party MPs: it would be possible for everything happening within the Labour party to occur without destroying your party’s credibility and abandoning Britain to your far better organised, rather more at ease with themselves, political foes.
        Jeremy Corbyn, tomorrow morning get on a box on the corner of a street and shout yourself speechless about the things you say you believe in.  Angela Eagle, make a defiant nest at the top of Nelson’s column and dive down all day on the things you find aberrant. Owen Smith … you look like  the verger from Dad’s Army and seem to have begun behaving like him.
        Stop it.
        Once you’ve each done all of this, which is what you were elected to do, and what you are paid to do, go and pull each other to pieces in private. Or check in at Charter and we’ll sort you out.