Other people’s words about … therapy
And perhaps not coincidentally, he also found himself doubting therapy — its promises, its premises — for the first time. He had never before questioned that therapy was, at worst, a benign treatment: when he was younger, he had even considered it a form of luxury, this right to speak about his life, essentially uninterrupted, for fifty minutes proof that he had somehow become someone whose life deserved such lengthy consideration, such an indulgent listener. But now, he was conscious of his own impatience with what he had begun to see as the sinister pedantry of therapy, its suggestion that life was somehow reparable, that there existed a societal norm and that the patient was being guided toward conforming to it.
‘You seem to be holding back, Willem,’ said Idriss — his shrink now for years — and he was quiet. Therapy, therapists, promised a rigorous lack of judgment (but wasn’t that an impossibility, to talk to a person and not be judged?), and yet behind every question was a nudge, one that pushed you gently but inexorably toward a recognition of some flaw, toward solving a problem you hadn’t known existed.
From ‘A Little Life’
by Hanya Yanaghihara (p. 568)
When I was sixteen, I received in-patient treatment for an eating disorder. Though my weight loss wasn’t life-threatening, I had become stuck in a pattern of abstinence that my doctor considered a risk to both my physical and my mental health in the long term. And so, into hospital I went.
I am grateful for the treatment I received during the six weeks I spent on that ward. I am grateful to the dietitian who laughed when I told her I didn’t like Mars Bars, and said, ‘That’s your anorexia speaking.’ (Actually, I genuinely don’t like Mars Bars, but I am extremely fond of Cherry Ripes, so I think I pass the test.) I am grateful to the plump, curly-haired nurse whose pudgy feet squelched in her white shoes as she plodded down the corridor carrying a bedpan, who said, ‘If you can’t help yourself to a biscuit from that tin on the table just because you feel like eating one, you’re not better.’ I am grateful to the patient in her mid-fifties who sat opposite the dinner table from me one evening, asking me to pour her a glass of water, ‘because, you see,’ she told me — and her face was a maze of articulated wrinkles and creases as she leaned across the table to speak, her shoulders prematurely humped, her voice husky from years of smoking instead of eating — ‘my wrist bones are so fragile from osteoporosis that I can’t lift the water jug in case I get a fracture.’
I am grateful to these people, because they helped to strip starvation of its glamour for me. Because they helped me to escape.
During my time in hospital and afterwards, my therapists talked to me about getting well, moving on, recovering, leading a normal life, finding happiness. Because we talked about these things, I assumed they were not only achievable but also desirable — essential, even. Many people make the same assumption.
But now I am not so sure. I don’t think therapy’s orientation towards focusing on health and happiness and normality is sinister (Yanaghihara’s word). But I do think, like Yanaghihara, that some people’s lives are not reparable, or that some aspects of their lives are not reparable. Some people suffer terribly, some people less so; in either case, there are times when a person’s suffering cannot be eased, either through therapy or through other means. In that context, perhaps there are qualities other than health and happiness which a person might explore. Resilience, for example. Dignity. Grace. Surrender.
I think of Viktor Frankl, who wrote so eloquently and poignantly about people’s need to find meaning in their suffering, if that suffering was unavoidable. I think we shy away from that word, these days — unavoidable. We form goals, we foster dreams, we try to shape our lives, based on that act of shying away. I think this is a mistake.
There is only so much you can can say in one post, and so I will leave the rest for another day. Instead, I will finish with some more words by Yanaghihara — words that, I think, complement these thoughts, though the millennial New York society she writes about is so far away from the terrible world of Frankl’s concentration camp:
But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.
This is a tricky subject to write about, not least because it involves personal disclosure, if only on my side. But I would love to know what you, my readers, think about this. Please leave a comment and let me know. Your thoughts matter to me.