Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Chains of the Past

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

Have you ever noticed how some people relate to past events in their lives? Things that should be gone and forgotten are as real and alive today as when they happened. They are the bad memories that refuse to go away, the past events or occurrences that refuse to stay in the past. You will often hear people say how they try and bury them or not think about them but it doesn't seem to work.
We are used to thinking that the event or incident must been particularly traumatic, it must have been something particularly awful that was done to us. And frightening events such as physical or sexual abuse come into this category and will indeed be difficult to forget. But very often there can be small psychical traumas too that arose from quite ordinary events that we also try and bury.
A person's siblings got more attention than they did; a person grew up with a mother who was unhappy all the time; they had parents who didn’t exactly hate each other but there was no love in evidence; they cannot forget a moment in early childhood when they realised they were not quite as special as they thought; someone close to them died and it was never fully explained or understood.
The pain these incidents bring, often many years after the event or series of events, is real and unmistakable. And the effects in a psychological sense are often subtle but powerful. A person ends up living a life onto which trauma, big or small, is irreversibly glued, like something we can’t shake off.
Bad memories don’t go away just because we want them to. In fact the more we try to push them away or bury them the more they return to us. It’s like that burial scene in the Coen Brothers' 1984 movie 'Blood Simple' where the character who has been killed just won’t stay dead. The potency of that scene, in part, derives from this primeval concept that burying something is no guarantee that it won’t come back to haunt us.
A common definition of trauma is an experience that is completely unexpected and one for which we have had no time to prepare ourselves. You can think of a car crash or unprovoked violence as an example. But if you look at rescue services or armed forces, who train for their jobs quite extensively, you will still find trauma ocurring quite frequently. The incidence of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, is unusually high. So even situations for which we are trained can be traumatic.
In other words, this notion of trauma can crop up in places that are far from ‘usual’ and in ways for which we cannot prepare ourselves. Even emotional relationships that end suddenly and unexpectedly can bring a degree of trauma with them.
The common element with all forms of trauma is the inability of the person who has undergone it to put the experience into words. This is a result of not being able to find a place or a context for what has happened. It is as if it had taken place in a realm outside of our reality. And, indeed, this is close to what has actually happened. We live our lives according to a set of rules, values and understandings. But then a situation or event occurs that completely up-ends those systems which allowed us live so successfully. And because it has hit us at such a fundamental level we are left quite literally speechless. That is trauma.
It brings with it a number of features. The first is that, in the absence of having words that might make sense of the experience for us, we re-visit the memory again and again in order to try and understand what has happened. This is also why people dream about it repeatedly. It is forcing itself on us again and again so that we might gain an understanding of it.
The second feature is it shakes our trust. We stop trusting everyone, and everything we have been told or taught or trained to think is now open to question. We even lose faith in ourselves.
At the large end of the scale, with major trauma, the person is left in a world where nothing makes sense anymore and this, if untreated, can lead to serious mental health problems.
At the lighter end of the scale, the lack of trust makes itself felt in an unwillingness to seek help from any other person, trained or otherwise. Without help, some spend their lives glued to a set of hurtful ideas that stifle growth, happiness and fulfilment.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Crossing of Sexual Boundaries

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

Once a week I work in a prison with offenders who have committed various crimes. With sex offenders a common thing they talk about is the fear of committing the same or similar crime when they get released. There might have been an element of pleasure in whatever crime they committed before they ended up in prison but for most of them the thought of once again facing arrest, a court of law and a heavier prison sentence is a very real fear. For some, even the thought of re-committing the act itself can be riddled with anxiety.
This fear of committing the same crime again doesn’t fit with most people’s ideas of sex offenders. Yet the people I see have elected to seek therapy because of it. They have also come because the stress of being in prison, or 'doing the time', is getting to them.
I am not offering them a State-run sex offender’s programme where they are forced to attend as part of their court sentence. Nor are they promised the chance of early release for attending. The treatment I offer them is not set out into modules where they learn to accept what they did, train their minds not to do it again and learn to identify and avoid risk situations. But before I go any further, perhaps a little reality might be useful.
The most recent statistics suggest that sex offenders avoid official rehab programmes. In September, Government figures revealed that only a tiny fraction of convicted sex offenders in Ireland are completing rehab. Just 42 of the 578 sex offenders released from prison in the past five years have completed the Sex Offender Rehabilitation Programme.
Now that has to be a very worrying trend. Is it something in the programmes themselves? Or is it something in the offenders? It could be a bit of both. One very real problem is the fear sex offenders in prison have of being identified by the ‘ordinary decent criminals’. Signing up for such a course could bring the risk of this happening a little closer. And if it happens it will lead to a beating or worse.
Or it could be that serious sex offenders - by which I mean unrepentant, serial offenders - don’t believe they have a problem. Some child abusers, for example, are characterised by their full belief and willingness to proclaim that the enjoyment of children for sexual purposes is natural and that they are doing nothing wrong. They are also characterised by their unwillingness to submit to therapy, which may lie behind the disturbing statistics mentioned above.
The low uptake of official rehab is indicative of another characteristic. Predatory sex offenders gain their power from allowing their victims believe that is was ‘they’ who were somehow at fault. Signing up for rehab is, among other things, an admission of guilt. Sex predators and those with sexual perversions thrive on other people’s sense of guilt so that their own remains untouched.
The men who come to me are prepared to submit themselves to therapy even though they are promised nothing tangible in return. They are not being forced to be there. They come in the hope they can somehow make sense of what it is they have done and what kind of person they are to have done it.
It is a different mind-set and it indicates a desire for treatment which no-one else had to put into their heads. They are not preached at, or indoctrinated or ‘mind-trained’ in any way. But they are helped analyse their crime, their lives up to the point of the offence, the impact on their victims, their own belief systems when they were breaking the law and, hopefully, their own ways and means of avoiding a repeat offence.
When someone elects to undergo that kind of therapy, it is not to try and ‘beat the system’. If they are it eventually becomes easily distinguishable from those who genuinely want to change their lives. In therapy, particularly psychoanalytical psychotherapy, there really is nowhere to hide.
And we must be mindful that not all crossing of sexual boundaries ends up in a prison sentence. I spoke with someone recently who described an early sexual encounter that left little doubt but that they had been raped. Yet this person told themselves for years that it was a genuinely consensual encounter.
I met a woman recently who had a man touch her under the table throughout a meal at a social occasion. She had been too shocked to say anything about it to those present. And now she felt angry and upset.
When sexual boundaries are crossed by those who know what they are doing, the acid test is the confusion the perpetrator leaves behind. The victim is always left confused and compromised by what took place. It is one of the reasons why so many rapes and sexual assaults go unreported.
Similarly, the acid test of whether social sex pests and the more serious sex offenders are genuine about changing their ways is when they make the choice themselves to seek therapy and remain in it no matter how challenging it gets.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Reality of the Dream Relationship

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

The world turns on relationships. The ideal way of living is within a relationship. The most successful people in the world have relationships which, in turn, are most successful. Without a relationship life is empty and we feel isolated and different from everyone else. If we don’t find someone to share our lives, then not only are we doomed to loneliness but a very clear message goes out to all around us that we are ‘different’ in a negative kind of way. A partner is our comfort, our companion, lover, friend and, ultimately, our assurance to the rest of society that we are ‘ok’ people.
You’ll probably have found a lot of common sense in the above passage. But, equally, when you reality test it, there are certain things that stand out as being not necessarily true. The world doesn’t turn on relationships. It carries on turning whether we have relationships or not. It might be an ideal way of living for most people but not necessarily for all people, particularly if the relationship is bad. The most successful people in the world can often have disastrous personal relationships. Without a relationship life can sometimes be lonely but we are not ‘doomed’; there is such a thing as independent living. People around us can start wondering why we don’t have a relationship but that is as much our own sensitivity as anything else. And we don’t, or rather shouldn’t, need a partner to show society that we are ‘ok’.
The first set of views I presented above stem from an idealised belief that relationships are always good and always beneficial. But relationships have two sides. They are not all trouble free, personally empowering, psychologically fulfilling, or a full time joy. They can have a problematic side to them too.
In the therapy room I work with people who have difficulty with relationships that have ended, usually badly and usually leaving them with more questions than answers.
It is not always women who are mourning the loss of a partner either. Men, too, have an equally hard time when relationships end that they had hoped would succeed.
Part of the problem lies in the expectations that have been disappointed. The ideal image of the ‘whole person’ in contemporary society is one who has a good relationship with a partner, from which both can draw love, happiness, support and fulfilment. It would be trivial to suggest that we sometimes see having a partner as a commodity but in analytic work it is not unusual to hear the concept of ‘partner’ talked about in the same checklist for lifestyle perfection as the career and the apartment.
And so the reality of the relationship becomes based on an imaginary ideal. We all need ideals, goals, objectives and dreams for the future. I’m not disputing that. But the reality of relationships can be very different from the ideal. They involve two people, either same sex or opposite sex, who come together often from widely differing life experiences and with equally differing inner lives and desires. Love, as we know it, is the ingredient that can blend these differences together and place them on a shared path. But love has its obstacles too.
For some people the act of loving involves too much giving to the other. They can be carrying wounds from previous relationships or life experiences; they can have unrealistically high demands on their partners; they can have issues with intimacy; or they can simply be unwilling to let themselves go emotionally because it means loss of control. Either way the devastation that failed relationships cause is all too real.
When we love, we invest part of ourselves in another person. This energy and emotion is now cut loose from the one we loved and sends us into a tail spin of emotions. Therapy is a way of gathering in that energy so that the sense of pain and loss can be healed and the person can eventually move forward again.
This can be either a lengthy or relatively short process depending on the circumstances of the break-up and the presence or otherwise of extra burdens that the break-up represents. Here I’m thinking about issues such as excessive dependency, self esteem, the factor of infidelity, or physical or emotional abuse.
A common way of dealing with the pain of break up is to find another relationship quickly. There is a prevalent view that relationships are things we can jump in and out of with ease, starting another when the previous one ends. But pain, like all energy, has to go somewhere. And if it is not dissipated properly it accumulates and moves with us into our future relationships.
When a relationship fails we need time to make sense of that failure and often that means taking time out to come to some kind of understanding of what has happened. In that way we can be made stronger by the experience rather than weakened by it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Family and Society

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

I was invited to speak briefly this week at the Céifin Conference which is held every year in Ennis, Co. Clare. It puts the emphasis on what it terms ‘values-led change’ by shining a light on the quality of our social, political, economic and spiritual lives.
Organised by Fr Harry Bohan, a sociologist, Director of Pastoral Planning of the Diocese of Killaloe, a parish priest and the founder of the Céifin Centre, this year’s theme was ‘Family Life Today: The Greatest Revolution’.
I spoke as a father rather than a psychoanalytic psychotherapist about the notion of the family as the basic unit of society, a position that is enshrined in our Constitution. As such, the integrity of the family must be protected because otherwise the fabric of society will be threatened. No one can find any argument with that.
The family is the cradle out of which the individual emerges; the individual is the basic component of society and therefore society is enriched or impoverished depending on the health or otherwise of the family.
I made the point that the burden on the contemporary family – of doing this particular job on behalf of society – is becoming too heavy. The family as we know it today is not just the basic unit of society but the ‘isolated’ basic unit of society.
The growth of urbanisation, the fragmentation of communities, the economic realities that force extended families to live apart, and the changing attitudes to ideas such as neighbourliness, community and belonging are all factors that contribute to this.
Naturally, this trend is also happening against a backdrop of wider cultural movements. Increasing secularisation with decreasing spiritual values and the growth in the ‘isolationist’ trend towards self-sufficiency and independence from a shared reliance on others are part of the picture also. And that’s before we consider political action, and to an even greater extent inaction, when it comes to supporting family life.
I mentioned in passing that some years ago ‘individualisation’ of tax was brought in to favour those stay-at-home spouses who went out of the home to join in and contribute to the booming economy. Despite the pro-family rhetoric, sometimes even blatant anti-family measures slip under the radar unnoticed.
My point, however, was that the family is only strong because of the quality of its connections to other families through communities that share sustainable and sustaining values. This is what guarantees the family’s strength and its ability to function properly.
If the job of the family is to raise well rounded children who are capable of facing the challenges of life, then perhaps at a macro level the modern family is doing a good job. But if you take the old African saying, once quoted on the Oprah Winfrey TV show, that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ then a new perspective emerges.
Our western idea is that a two-parent or one-parent family is an ideal model. That’s an idea that suits our system, if you like. Since industrialisation, western societies have needed workers for its industries so social living moved from the land to the cities, from communities to geographic or postal locations. The nuclear family is an ideal model for mobility to go where the work is. Now we are so used to it that it seems as if it is the most natural way in the world.
Yet it puts a heavy burden on two parents, and often times on just one, of being the sole providers of guidance, of elder relationships, of mediator with the outside world, as well as the basic requirements of providing love, care and security.
There is only a small place in our model of the nuclear family now for aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbours or friends to have any hand, act or part in how our children should be raised. In fact, more often than not we actively discourage it as interference.
When was the last time you saw someone in the street telling a child that wasn’t theirs to behave? There is no authority behind such an act anymore and so it rarely happens. If it does, it has little effect.
When it comes to the therapy room, this modern phenomenon brings some interesting features with it, especially for people who are suffering the effects of a damaging family life.
Each person’s situation is unique but a common element is the intensity of the primary relationships that exist and have existed in their family. There have been little or no outside influences from extended family members, little dilution of the tension, little alternative or substitute relationships and practically no getting away from this intensity if the relationship was not good.
And so a bad situation continued to get worse until these people’s lives became unmanageable. This is not about blaming parents for problems. They are as much a part of this cultural system as their children. But before we can talk about change we must recognise the problem. And so far there has been nothing to suggest we have started to do that.