Portrait of a Psychotherapist in Transition
Inside a wounded healer
By Jim Byrne
This book contains the fictionalized biographical story of Daniel O’Beeve.
Daniel had to become a doctor of something, because his mother implanted that idea in his life script. But he had to become a psychotherapist because he needed to fix himself; to heal his mind and heart; and to understand the human condition from the inside and the outside.
To achieve this ambitious aim, he had to use a form of literary alchemy, mixed with some shamanic dreams and deep psychological insights.
The story begins as Daniel O’Beeve is about to go into a therapy supervision session with his cool and remote supervisor; it then reverts to the second year of Daniel’s life; and then moves forward to his counselling room, as he works with individual clients.
The mind and life of the therapist is woven into the minds and lives of his clients; and integrated with transcendental insights of value.
The author of this book is Dr Jim Byrne, but the subject of this book is Dr Daniel O’Beeve. O’Beeve has much in common with Byrne, but Byrne does not flatter himself that he could ever have been as brave or creative as O’Beeve. O’Beeve is alive and sane today because of his personal bravery, and not because he was written up by Byrne.
Portrait of a Psychotherapist in Transition
Inside a wounded healer
By Dr Jim Byrne (on behalf of Daniel O’Beeve)
May 2000 – Supervision
A shiver runs down my back, and I notice the coldness of my legs and torso. I turn my collar up and push my cold fists into my coat pockets.
I’m sitting on my usual bench in the small triangle of lawn and flower borders – a mini-park – across the road from the crescent of tall, well-appointed Georgian buildings called Greycourt Close.
The sun is shining coldly in a clear blue sky. It’s a lovely spring morning, in the first week of May 2000; and the hands of the golden clock on the front wall of the crescent buildings are just moving past 10.50 am. But it’s still quite chilly, and I’ve dressed for the weather as seen through my consulting room window – yesterday! I should have listened to Tee, my wise and wonderful wife, as she dashed out the door at 7.15 this morning. She was, as usual, heading for the mad house that was once appropriately labelled “a college of education”, before the Thatcherites turned it into a sausage machine, designed to replace the brains of its students with unthinking sausage meat.
Tee only goes there to unstitch all their cunning plans. She is an educational revolutionary. She practices “teaching as a subversive activity”, and she does it so sweetly, and quietly, and innocently, that the sausage meat brains of the managers don’t even notice! She is interested in “growing people”, which her manager does not understand. He thinks all knowledge can be broken down into “units” and “elements”, and taught by rote to “bums on seats” (or “funding units”), to greatly increase the profitability of local businesses. He sees this as the highest aim of technocratic education. But Tee still operates according to the principles of the humanistic approach to education which operated from the sixties to the late eighties.
As I opened the front door for her, which I do each morning of the working week, she said: “The weather today will be unseasonably cold”. She was concerned that I should dress warmly, as she had obviously done. But I didn’t take her forecast too seriously, because, although she is “an excellent creature” – like Jerome K. Jerome’s wife – she has not applied herself to studying probability theory, and so it seems to me she most often takes weather predictions as “a glimpse into the future”!
So I kissed her passionately on the lips, while holding her close to me; and we wished each other a wonderful day. Then she dashed off, to get to the staffroom before the madness of the day could get into top gear. And I fished out my unlined linen blazer and my light spring mac. But I’m sure I’ll survive that error or judgement!
So I sit here in my little park, on my little bench, occasionally glancing at the bottle green door of number sixteen, which leads to the consulting room of my therapy supervisor, Alice Longstaff.
I’ve been seeing Alice for supervision since the summer of 1998. She was also the person who trained me as a rational therapist. So I come here every week, on Thursday morning, and talk to her about how my therapy practice is proceeding. I am supposed to bring one or two audio tapes of therapy sessions, so she can closely monitor my “in-session performance”, and I did do that for the first nine months or so. But then I got sick of her nit-picking; and the constant starting and stopping of the tape. So I decided to sabotage my audio recording machine, and that meant for weeks and weeks I could simply summarize some points from my work, and get a less critical and demoralizing critique of my work from her. When she pestered me to get a new recording machine, I put my foot down, and told her I was actually recording every session, and reviewing them myself using a form of self-supervision, and that I did not want to bring any more audio tapes to her for review. She was angry for a while, but eventually gave in to my resistance. Now we talk in a more civilized manner – or certainly a less nit-picking style – about the stories I tell her about my therapy clients.
Initially, I told Alice about my success stories as well as those that troubled me. I read some of my unsolicited client testimonials to her, so she could see and hear that my clients appreciated my work on their behalf, and that they were benefitting from my therapeutic approach. But she had little patience for stories of success, and new we mostly talk about my problems with difficult clients.
The cold seeps into my bones, but still I sit, looking inwards rather than outwards; feeling the pain of the lack of the boys in my daily life. Last September – it feels like a lifetime ago, and yet like yesterday – when they said their goodbyes, and left for their respective universities: Pete to Leeds to study music, and Joey to Manchester to study art and design. We see each of them once a month, which is kind of nice, though they are both quite difficult to relate to, being late teenagers. Pete is always alert for a struggle to defend his battlements against any encroaching parental concern. He arrives late every month in the Tiled Café in Leeds City Art Gallery, and tries to pick a fight with me or Tee.
But Joey lives inside a secret cocoon. He may seem to be present as we eat lunch with him in the Eight Day, on Oxford Road, once a month; but he is totally withdrawn and absent.
It was very hard for Tee when the boys left home; but at least she was totally preoccupied with her educational subversions in college. She had pushed the boys out of her womb, about nineteen years ago, with a gap of two hours between them, rest and gather her strength. I was not there, as we did not meet until the boys were eighteen months old.
But even though I am not their biological dad, I think it was harder in some ways for me when they left, because, apart from being a much resented quasi-Dutch-stepdad, I was also deputy-mum. I was there when they came downstairs each weekday morning, running late for their school bus. I was the one who fed them when they got home in the late afternoon.
And then they were gone! Forever! I thought I’d die; for days and days; and weeks even. I thought death must come pretty soon. I can’t go on feeling this raw. The first Monday after they left for their universities, I could hear them loudly not coming down the stairs. I could feel them sorely not speaking to me as they did not go out through the closed door for the school bus. I could see their absence like a huge painful elephant of misery in the middle of our home.
Of course I saw my clients, and helped them with their problems. I read my books, and made my notes, and walked to the shops to buy the food; and gave money to the Big Issue seller; and had coffee and a sandwich in the local square, each lunchtime.
But still there were two holes in my heart where Pete and Joey used to live!
A loud bang. Unnecessarily loud. And I look across at the green door. The same little bald man that I have seen for the past few weeks is outside the door, turning his collar up, and then turning right, down through Summertown towards the centre.
I stand up, pick up my briefcase, and head for the green door. I press the bell, and Alice’s voice booms: “Come right in!”
The buzzer sounds; the lock clicks; and I push the door inwards, wondering about the distinction between “coming in” and “coming right in”. A strange, empty, meaningless dichotomy. I step in and close the door. My shoes click across the tiled entrance hall, past the wide staircase that leads upstairs, and I knock on the door to Alice’s consulting room. “Come”, she booms. Again, that strange dichotomy: to “come” or to “come in”. The difference? Unknowable. Meaningless? Or is the meaning only known to a select few?
The boys (or their absences) have receded to the back of my heart, and my sadness has subsided. Now I am filled with apprehension about Alice.
As usual, I step into her room, onto the polished mahogany floor, and thence onto the thick woollen carpet of faded light green, with equally faded yellow and blue squiggly patterns, which look as if they were woven my a master weaver in nineteen century Persia, for a wealthy imperialist.
And, as usual, Alice is still writing notes about the departed little man on her clipboard. Without looking up, she waves a flat hand at me indicating: sit, sit. Like a well-trained dog, I sit in the heavily upholstered leather chair. Part of me wants to stand, and wait for her attention. Part of me wants to be a human. But a bigger part of me realizes that in this room I am not a human; I am a “supervisee”. And just as medical practice refers to “the liver (or spleen) in bed number three”, instead of “that nice Mr Jones in the third bed”, Alice sees me only as a supervisee, to be whipped into the requisite shape to be a fit, ongoing practitioner of rational therapy.
I sit with the palms of my hands facing up from my thighs, and wonder what it is that Muslims see when they stare at their hands in prayer. I see the lines that were read by an ancient astrologer in Calcutta, thirteen years ago. The lines which apparently reveal the welcome fact that I will make my fortune by writing. So why am I using my days doing counselling and therapy?
Alice clears her throat; screws the cap back on the top of her fountain pen; places her clipboard on the three-legged ornamental table by her right side; removes her rimless spectacles, and jams one of the stays into the top of her shirt-like blouse. She raises her moist, blue eyes to my face, chews on the blunt end of her fountain pen for a couple of seconds, and then says: “Daniel!” She says it with a tone of surprise; as if I had just fallen from the sky, and she had just become aware of my presence.
“Hello”, I reply.
“So, how are we this week?” she asks.
I have no idea how she is, and I believe she has no real interest in knowing that I feel like a piece of minced, emotional burger meat.
“I’m fine”, I tell her. “How are you?”
“Yes”, she says, incongruously (except that she always says “yes” at this point in our weekly ritual!) “And what do you have for me this week?”
I told her I had two cases which were troubling me. One was a second generation Italian couple; they seem quite English; but since being married all kinds of conservative, Deep South male chauvinist tendencies have begun to show up in the husband (Alberto); and the wife (Sophia) is deeply depressed. (Their parents grew up on a small olive farm down near Sicily). None of my rational therapy interventions seems to make any difference to their animosity towards each other. Loveless antipathy is the glue that seems to bind them together like “stuck dogs”.
And then there’s Tony, the thirty-something gay man, who hates his mother bitterly, and is trying to integrate seashore debris, dustbin pickings, and art deco wallpaper into a new art form, which is driving him mad. Literally out of his mind. He thinks there must be a way to use Egyptian hieroglyphs as a kind of glue to hold it all together, but he wants to develop his woodworking skills as another potential avenue of advance. When we work together, he becomes very angry if I use any of my rational therapy interventions, but he loves it when we do Gestalt chairwork. We set up seven chairs in a circle. He moves from chair to chair, spending a couple of minutes on each, exploring his thoughts and feelings on each chair. He splits into seven distinct sub-personalities, which are in conflict with each other, one of which is visibly dangerously violent, and I sometimes (every time!) fear that he might kill me instead of his mother.
Alice looks bored already, and I know how it will go from here. She’ll tell me I should get my clients to focus on the only four things that matter: Are they demanding something that is not available? Are they catastrophizing about what they cannot have? Do they believe that they cannot stand their life circumstances? And do they offer unconditional acceptance to themselves, other people and the world?
“That’s all that matters!” she asserts. “You already know that! Those are the only four insights they need, and you should be teaching them to them more vigorously!”
So it’s my fault! And all the things I have learned over the past couple of years, from studying more than a dozen different systems of counselling and therapy, matter not one little bit. And the details of my clients, their uniqueness, their differences, they are also, apparently, irrelevant.
While Alice is lecturing me on what I am doing wrong – what I am failing to do right; what I should be doing; and so on – the wild man in the basement of my mind is feeling very agitated. I never tell anybody about him. But he’s been growing over the past couple of years. Getting more demanding that he must be included; his voice must be heard. He looks like an Asian Jesus Christ who has been sleeping rough for years. But instead of wearing woven fabrics, he wears only animal hides. His message to me, while Alice drones on and on, is this: “Tell her about your second birthday. That should shut her up!”
But I cannot tell her about my second birthday, because I cannot even tell that story to myself. I have tried to get it down on paper, but the pain is too intense, and I keep ducking out. I have written several bits of the story, but they don’t join up, and I go blank, dissociate, and lose interest in the writing task.
“Tell her…” he insists.
“Shut up!” I tell him.
But Alice looks up. “Did you speak?” she says; a quizzical expression on her face.
“No… Yes. I said ‘speak up’; I couldn’t hear you fully!”
She looked doubtful; judgemental;, then reassured, and encouraged; and then she raised her voice a little, and rambled on and on.
The hour passes slowly, and then I am released back into the madness of the civilized world.
Back home, after supervision
I had a sandwich in town – hummus, olive and tomato, on a ciabatta – with a strong coffee. The absence of the boys is back, echoing through my mind like footsteps in a completely empty room, with bare, wooden floors.
When I get home it’s nearly one o’clock; and I have a client at three. But the wild man in the basement is still on about it. “You’ve got to tell somebody about your second birthday! Get it out! Get it out!”
So I go to my filing cabinet, and dig through my notes. It takes five minutes to find the notes I recently wrote, or re-wrote, about my second birthday. Given that I have some time on my hands, I decide to update them.
This is how the nightmare began:
When I first began to write, I was seeking nobility and elevation – charm and sophistication. I wanted to ape those social models we are told to follow! I didn’t know that as a grown man I would sit and write about the dark, pungent, orange piss in the white enamelled piss pot.
The piss had built up overnight from Daddy’s and Mammy’s visits to the pot, which always stood on the bedroom landing. They used this pot to save themselves a journey to the outside toilet, at the end of the back yard.
It’s now seven months since I fell down the steps, cracking my skull on the concrete floor in the scullery, and I’ve been increasingly left on my own, or in the dangerous care of my sister, who is just three and a half years old.
I am just two years old – today! – and as my ‘celebration’, I am totally preoccupied with scooping this interesting, smelly, yellow-orange liquid up from the piss pot with a discarded Potters Asthma Remedy tin, and drinking it down hungrily.
Then, out of the blue, Mammy’s big, flat hand strikes me across the back of the head, causing me to topple forwards and knock the piss pot down the stairs, splashing its contents everywhere. I follow, toppling after it, down the long, dark staircase.
I land hard on the rounded bottom of the upturned pot, knocking the wind out of myself. My hand-knitted romper suit is now covered in piss. It’ not likely to be a happy birthday.
As I lie across the piss pot, I think I glimpse the little blue bear in a dark corner of the living room, by the front porch. He had originally been part of me (I think!), but now he’s totally outside of me, and so distant I can no longer feel him.
He lies prostrated on the floor, shrouded in dark shadow. As I focus in on him, I see the big pink foot descend upon him, and squeeze him into the lino-covered floor. I hate that foot, which has tormented me for so long.
I know how painful it is to be stood upon in that way. As I watch, the big pink foot moves upwards again, about the height of the window sill, and stamps hard on the blue bear’s body. The effect is, strangely, to wind me even more. But I have no further thoughts or feelings about his plight. I have serious problems of my own.
My mother, Neeve, who at that time I knew only as Mammy, rushes down the stairs after me, screaming something like: ‘Don’t be dead! Don’t be dead!’ She’s in a state of panic because, as I learned years later, she lives in dread of coming to the attention of the ‘authorities’ for neglect or abuse, which would have shamed her. She picks me up roughly, examines my limbs and head for signs of injury, decides I was uninjured, then she smacks me several times on the legs and the arse, to ‘teach me a lesson’. I am decidedly unclear what the lesson is. Don’t get caught drinking piss? Don’t drink piss? Don’t fall down the stairs? Or perhaps just this: Don’t be curious?
One of the daily lessons drummed into me and my older sister was this: Curiosity killed the cat! (I think it was at this point that my ‘curious self’ went underground, and became a seeker in a strange dreamland!)
Mammy’s major injunctions are: Wake up! Get up! Shut up! Stand up! Stand still! Behave yourself! Stop that! Stand up straight! Do as you’re told! Eat this! Don’t be so bold! (Meaning: don’t misbehave). Stand up! Sit down! Don’t look at me with the white of your eyes! (Which meant, I think, look downwards to indicate submission). And: Go to sleep!
Her way of enforcing her will, to ensure total obedience to her every command, is the use of her big, flat hand: her slapping machine.
The little blue bear flinched in the corner by the front porch. He groans. The big pink foot has him pinned to the ground. There were only two kinds of beings in the gate lodge: the hurters and those they hurt. The only way to avoid the hurters is to become invisible.
To imagine me, lying there on the piss-stained lino, you need to take into account that I had a big round head, with wispy brown hair, and a small skinny body; that my face and eyes were pretty well blank, because nobody had ever addressed a direct statement to me; nor smiled into my face. So my social and emotional intelligence was very low – ‘retarded’ is the technical term.
I must have screamed and roared in pain, as I fell down the stairs, and crashed onto the pot; but nobody came to my rescue. The lovely priests of god, who dominated our local culture, did not rush in to intercede for me; to wish the Love of Christ upon me. The nuns, who served in the army of the priests, did not arrive to urge my mother to treat me gently. In fact, the Catholic Church was very much in favour of beating the fear of god into god’s children.
And there were no ‘social workers’. This was, after all, 1949, in Dublin, Ireland. Even in England and American, at that time, there was still great insensitivity to the plight of children in pain or emotional distress. It would be two more years before Mary Ainsworth joined John Bowlby to begin their famous studies of childhood attachment maladjustments, out of which came a greater sensitivity to children’s emotional and relationship needs, at least in official circles in England.
Bowlby’s revolution can be summed up like this: ‘Bowlby’s major conclusion, grounded in the available empirical evidence, was that to grow up mentally healthy, “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment”. (Bowlby, 1951, p. 13).’
There was no satisfaction or enjoyment on either side of my encounters –which cannot be called a ‘relationship’ – with my mother.
So, understandably, because nobody yet cared a damn about the heart and mind of the child, nobody was coming to my rescue on that terrible day!
June 2002 – My consulting room
It’s about 10.00am on a bright Wednesday morning, and I am in my office preparing a PowerPoint presentation for the seminar on my doctoral programme at the University of Sheffield tomorrow. Suddenly the door opens and Dot Levitt totters in. I look at my watch. She is not due for another hour.
“Am I too early?” she asks, reading my mind.
I could say yes, and ask her to go away, and come back at eleven. But this is Dot. Dot is one of life’s social-emotional anarchists. She is completely lacking in self-discipline, self-knowledge, or present time mindfulness. She is physically and mentally unwell. She is nutritionally starved because she anarchically refuses to eat for health, insisting on eating only for entertainment value. Thus she is on a diet of unrelenting junk food.
“Take a seat”, I say, moving us both to the easy chairs by the window.
She sits down!
“You look pale and tired”, I tell her, as I sit opposite her.
She starts to cry. “I still miss Noel”, she tells me. “Even after all this time”.
This is the standard opening gambit. It’s almost six years since Noel, her sadistic, exploitative, manipulative boyfriend walked out on her for a “better ride”. But still she misses him.
How can this be so?! How can people get so locked into destructive relationships?
I have spent more and more time reading about attachment theory to try to understand Dot and other clients who have this mad, masochistic attachment to a punitive, unrewarding “romantic” partner. There is not a shred of romance in most of these relationships. Not a shred of friendship. But still the longing goes on and on. “I miss Noel”.
We have to start somewhere. I have tried working on her “irrational beliefs” about Noel and herself. I have tried to get her to “cut the ties” with her childhood parents, because she learned a lot of this madness from them. But she won’t do it. I have tried to get her to do physical exercise, but she drives everywhere, faster than the speed limit, on principle! And I have tried to get her to take some multivitamin and mineral supplements, to support her brain functioning.
“So about your diet..” I begin.
But she heads me off.
“You know that list you did for me, for nutritious foods? I was on my way to Tesco’s, to get them, but I lost the list. I know I put it in this inside pocket. You saw me do that, didn’t you? But when I looked, it had gone!”
She smiles wanly. Check.
“What about your multivitamins…?” I begin.
But she heads me off again.
“I know exactly where they are in the cupboard”, she reassures me.
“But have you taken them today?”
“Not yet!” she says.
“Have you ever taken them?” I ask.
“I keep forgetting!” she tells me. Check mate!
Summer of 1951 – The threat of schooling
During the month of July, there has been lots of talk about “Daniel (me) starting school” in September, when I will be four and a quarter. But during August I developed appendicitis and had to be hospitalized (again) – having previously been hospitalized for tonsillitis. This time I was in for seven days, straddling a weekend, and Neeve and Owen (my stern father) did come on the Sunday afternoon to see me, three days after I was admitted. I felt isolated, scared, and abandoned. This was the second time I’d felt I didn’t really belong to anybody, and this time it was very serious indeed. Neeve arrived, carrying Terence in her arms. Owen was behind her, holding Tandy and Walter by the hands. And Caitlin, who was almost six years old, was walking behind them. They brought me three bananas, which smelled wonderful. I ate one. I had never tasted anything like it before. They arrived at two o’clock and left at half past two. They looked at the stitches on the right side of my belly. Neeve told me not to pick at them. Tears began to well up in my eyes as they prepared to leave. But Neeve told me to stop: it’s bad to cry because it will upset the nurses; and Tandy; and Walter. I had to be strong, she said. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. You’re a big boy now!
When they said goodbye, I could hardly look at them.
Over in the corner the little blue bear was hiding in the shadows, sucking his thumb. His temperature was barely above freezing. Suddenly the big pink foot found him and crushed him against the wall with such force that all the wind was forced out of him. ‘Aaaaagh!’ he gasped. ‘Aaaaagh!’ I couldn’t bear to see the pain on his face, so I closed my eyes and eventually slept a troubled sleep.
That night I had a really bad nightmare about the perils faced by the little white goat:
The little white goat was exhausted. He had given up searching for company and connection, and acceptance. He lay on the barren ground, in the ash and soot of a fiery apocalypse. He could see his enemies approaching, and he knew they would tie him up and haul him away to his certain death. But he would not run away! He would not try to avoid his fate. He would cooperate with the inevitability of his torture and death. He was an actor in a play. He had no control over the plot or the outcome. He was not in control of the drama or the storyline.
And besides, it had been written…
And if it’s been written…
So he lay prostrated on the scorched earth, as a group of vicious looking villains began to surround him, moving in with ropes to tie him up.
According to Eric Erikson, the developmental challenges of early childhood, which I would have faced, were as follows:
- In the first year of life, I would have struggled with the question of whether or not to trust or mistrust my mother. It seems unlikely that I learned to trust in ‘life sustaining care’ because my mother rejected me at birth; and left me to be cared for by one of her older sisters for weeks, while she recovered from the birth trauma. She blamed me for that birth trauma, even though she eventually came and took me home with her. But she never forgave me.
- Between the ages of one and two years, the challenge would have been between achieving autonomy from my mother versus feelings of shame and doubt. In practice, the idea of autonomy would have been beaten out of me, because my mother wanted total control over her children. So shame and self-doubt would have been my lot.
Furthermore, during that second phase, at 17 months, I also had the crisis, of falling down the steps into the scullery, which helped to drive me back into over-reliance upon symbiosis with my mother, and self-rejection of the urge towards autonomy.
- The third developmental challenge – between the ages of 3 to 5 years – would have involved developing my own initiative versus feelings of guilt about failing. This is a key phase in the development of language, which did not go well for me, because my mother did not want to talk to me or with me. She wanted me to keep my mouth shut and let her get on with her many and burdensome household duties. This is also the phase in which conscience develops as a regulator of initiative. My conscience was extremely punitive, being a concoction of Catholic dogma and my mother and father’s repressive regime.
The other thing which is supposed to develop in this phase is romantic feelings for my mother. No chance. That would have been as difficult as developing romantic feelings for an aggressive dog; or a mad bull.
…End of extract…
Summer of 2004 – Keith and the WDEP Model
Today is quite wet and cool for the middle of summer. I am in my office waiting for Keith to arrive from Leeds. He’s a very nice, chatty man in his late thirties, who is unhappily coupled with a woman who does not want to stay at home and play happy families with him. She is a jazz singer, and she is out almost every night, until almost dawn most nights, singing in one club or another. She makes good money, and she and Keith enjoy spending it on foreign holidays, nice clothes, and good food. Keith also make good money as an accountant.
While Kathy is out singing, Keith stays at home, feeling anxious about her safety, and alternating this with feeling jealous and insecure in case she gets romantically involved with a member of her audience.
Keith could easily support Kathy while she stays at home ans has a baby, and does the stay-at-home mum role for a few years. That’s what Keith wants. But what Kathy wants is to go out every night singing her warm heart out. Besides, she already has a teenaged daughter living independently.
Keith and Kathy do seem to be totally incompatible, but still they cling to each other. But today I am finally going to help Keith to be realistic. I am going to use the “WDEP model” to let him see just how incompatible are his Wants (to have a happy, stay-at-home life) and what he is Doing (living with a woman who definitely does not want that kind of life!) I am going to help him to choose…
And, of course, I will then have the problem of how to explain to Alice why I am using a model from Reality therapy rather than Rational therapy!
…End of extract,
 Bretherton I. (1992). ‘The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’. Developmental Psychology 28: 759.