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PSYCHOTHERAPY ON THE TITANIC
From: "Mary-Jayne Rust" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: Saturday, 23 September 2000 7:03
The following presentation was read by the UK Ecopsychology Group (Hilary Prentice, Mary-Jayne Rust, Moira Lake, Ruth Finar, Ruth Roth, Sue Proffitt) to a meeting of PCSR (Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility) conference in June 2000.
Mary-Jayne Rust wrote: "We discussed the issue of the Titanic play at length, and some members of our Ecopsychology group felt uneasy about simply putting the script out there on the web, as it could so easily be used to pour scorn on psychotherapists, and this was not our intention. We did the whole thing in context, so wanted to find a way of keeping it in context. So you can see, here, what we have written, and it includes a transcript of the discussion that happened as a result, within the large group (of about 150 therapists)."
The Titania Script referred to in the following discussion is appended
What is it like, to be a human being alive at this time?
Humans are powerful. We have amassed a wealth of knowledge about ourselves and the universe we inhabit, from the mapping of the human genome to the mapping of Mars. We live in a world transformed by scientific and technological ingenuity.
What's it like, to be a human being alive at this time?
In our civilisation, progress means increasing use of technology. Technology distances us from our embodied selves and the rhythms of the environment we depend on for survival. We live in a world transformed by our belief in the supremacy of human beings over other life-forms and over the natural world as a whole. We maintain a delusion of unrelatedness. But we are organisms that can't survive independently of our environment.
Progress also equals increased consumption. We live unsustainably. We plunder Earth's resources. We create waste that will stay toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. We pollute, we create greenhouse gases that change climates, we have destroyed parts of the ozone layer that protects us. We live amidst the detritus of a dysfunctional society. Whole ecosystems have gone; we have lost hundreds of species of plants and animals.
What's it like, to be a human being alive at this time?
Life as we knew it as children has gone forever. What's in store for our children's children? We no longer know for certain that there will be a future for humans. This is the psychological reality we live with. We don't know what life will be like, and we don't know what beings will be left.
What is it like, to be a human being alive at this time?
(I've taken this out of the text as I guess you know it well enough by
now!!!! We all stood round the edges of the room and read it in turns with a drum beat between each species.)
The Bestiary is a mourning for the disappearance of members of our larger animal family, but of course there is widespread destruction of other features of the more-than-human world.
The workshop facilitators focused attention on our reactions as human beings to these themes of destruction and loss, then moved to our role as counselors and psychotherapists. How can the fact of desperate threat to our environment, the environment that we depend on for survival, not impact on our work? Do we allow it to?
The group introduced a metaphor in order to explore this issue, inviting
conference participants to imagine that they were the ship's therapist on board a ship described as unsinkable, The Titania. How would practitioners respond to their clients' presenting issues?
To stimulate consideration of this question, the group presented a 10-minute playlet set in a consulting room. The audience saw extracts from three sessions with the ship's therapist which build up in terms of the client's awareness of what is actually happening, her ability to challenge the therapist, and the therapist's anxious determination to cling to the conventions of her clinical practice. The increasing absurdity of the therapist's stance leads to a near-farcical situation.
In the first session, a depressed client brings issues of guilt and fear centering on the feeling "something's dead because of me". The therapist assumes that the feelings relate to the client's inner experience and tries compassionately to explore this, ignoring the possibility that the client's fears may have some external source.
Client: I'm not sinking, the ship is. That's what it says, anyway. I ought to do something to stop it.
Therapist: (Sighs) That's a heavy burden to put on yourself. And actually, I'm thinking that the ship is really quite safe, so perhaps these feelings come from inside you. Maybe they're about you more than the ship?
Client: Maybe, you know best, I suppose.
The second client brings a dream of impending disaster, which the therapist interprets as a commentary on feelings arising first in the client's family and then in the therapeutic relationship. Although this client is not as compliant as the first, she has difficulty in getting the therapist to hear her belief that the dream is a warning about real events.
The client has described her dream of a tidal wave.
Client: I feel that you're not hearing me. I'm trying to tell you I think there's something wrong now on this ship.
Therapist: (Nodding) I hear that you've been unnerved by the water on the deck and by your mother's fall. And I wonder if you're also telling me that you find it hard to trust this relationship with me? Perhaps you fear that something disastrous might happen between us? That our relationship is about to capsize?
The third client arrives in a state of extreme agitation. She is aware that the ship is sinking and has come to warn and save the therapist. The therapist identifies with the official position broadcast by the Captain - that there is no danger - and sees the client's behaviour as an attempt to break boundaries.
Client: Listen. You're in as much danger as I am. You've helped me, you're important to me. I can't just leave you sitting here. Come with me now. Please.
Therapist: Miranda, we've talked before about you wanting a relationship with me outside these sessions ... .
The playlet ends with the client despairing of being heard by the therapist and rushing off to save herself. The therapist belatedly looks out of the porthole and sees she is indeed going down with the ship. She rushes out of the room in terror.
After the playlet, participants paired up to consider their experience of whether and how environmental issues manifest in the consulting room, considering the perspectives of clients and practitioner. They started to think about what psychotherapy/counselling that responds appropriately to these issues would look like. The workshop ended with a space for a whole-group discussion of what ecopsychotherapy could be like. In fact, a number of other important issues were raised.
Edited Transcript of Whole-Group Discussion
facilitated by Hilary Prentice
Hilary Prentice: We would love to hear your thinking about what psychotherapy or counselling would look like if it were to take environmental issues on board. So I would like to throw open to the floor to what ideas have been around in the room, in your discussions in pairs, and see what arises between us ... .
Participant A: If we empower women in third world countries, and give them more education, and empower women in our psychotherapy groups, those issues will start taking care of themselves. As I understand it, all sorts of things happen when you educate women up to a certain level, for example, mortality goes down, which then, in turn, has an effect on ecological issues. My partner and I agree that ecological issues very rarely come up in our therapy rooms except with very, very alternative white students. They never come up with our Black, Black British and Asian students.
Participant B: You say this doesn't come up with Black, Black British and Asian students; maybe that's because the impact of racism and discrimination is more important.
Participant A: But I think they're of equal importance.
Participant C: I found the last hour fascinating. I would have liked five minutes on 'What we do, proactively, every day in our sessions'. I am not afraid to hug a tree. And I proactively encourage some of my clients to do the same, to get in touch with nature. I would like to hear more about what others actually do.
Participant D: I work in a therapeutic community and I think there's more scope to talk about these things in this setting. You're more able to implement things like recycling, and the residents and clients take part in trying to organise their community and their environment.
Participant E: I have some thoughts about the sketch. I felt there was a final scene missing. I would have liked to have seen a conversation taking place in the lifeboat between the client and the therapist, because I think we might learn a lot about the limitations of therapy in that sort of conversation.
Hilary Prentice: What might the client have said?
Participant E: I think something to do with very, very deep naiveté. I think our greatest enemy is our naiveté about what we think the source of human suffering is, and our belief about what we think changes it and affects it. Naiveté, or hubris, are very dangerous things, and I would like our profession to question more about what we believe we are. I think we are up against things which we probably don't fully understand, and the danger is we think we understand.
Participant F: I'm actually profoundly deaf in one ear and I only learned this last year, because everybody who I had seen, over the years, didn't allow me the truth, and therapists told me it was inside me. I would ask every therapist just to check out that their clients are telling them the real story about their hearing. I would also ask that our Eurocentricity be questioned, and that we actually ask Asian women in this country what they would like before we tell them what they ought to be doing.
Participant G: I think hubris, rather than naiveté, is much closer to the point. What we saw happening in the sketch was, I think, what Susie (Orbach) was referring to. There is a retreat into a conceptual view of the world, where we believe that everything can be interpreted in order to be able to contain it. That is where we do such a great disservice to our clients, if we are operating in that way, by holding onto this view that everything can be understood, everything can be explained, we know how the psyche works . and we don't.
Hilary Prentice: The therapist we saw in the sketch was also doing exactly what most people in the Western dominant culture are doing, I think, about the environmental crisis. Much of what ecopsychology has been doing for us, as therapists, is bringing the rest of life back into the picture, challenging our human-centredness, the habit of only, and always, talking about humans, and leaving out our relationship with the rest of life. That happens in the mainstream culture and it happens in therapy, but therapists are meant to know something about denial of problems, are we not? So the question, 'What could we be doing if we took this on?' links with the question Susie (Orbach) was asking; 'Do we have a particular role, could we take our part in the turning around from a non-sustainable to a sustainable society?'.
Participant H: I do not accept that the therapist portrayed is representative of most therapists. For me, the answer to the question, 'What would a psychotherapy and counseling look like that did take on these issues?' is that it looks like a lot of therapy that I'm used to, so I think it is about theoretical orientation.
Participant I: I was quite glad that the therapist was somewhat stereotyped, because it gives us a chance, in a largish group, to condemn today's bad practice. That which claims to be gold standard practice, in the public arena, is not anymore; that is what is very, very important. A practice that allows for the possibility that a person's unstoppable feelings of guilt, that arise in their own subjective space, might be due to species becoming endangered, even extinct - that radical position is today's good practice. It is only one of a large number of ideas about non-personal sources of distress that need to be entertained. We need to be trained into thinking about this, we need to write books and articles about this, because it is today's good practice and good thinking.
This applies outside the eco-environmental area, as I'm sure the Ecopsychology Group would agree. Economic injustice is also something that exerts an indirect, emotional pressure on people who are not apparently directly affected by it. If you're very poor, you know about it, it affects you. But if you are middle class, and not apparently a victim of an economic system, and you wake up every morning agitated, anxious and guilty and do not know why, it may be that you are participating in an impersonal system, which at some fundamental level you feel very bad about.
Forming that into a new theory, whether we use the theory of field that influences people, or whatever technical language that we use, is something that urgently needs to be done. So for me at the moment, in London in particular, today - because one has to be very here and now about this - it is changing the perceptions of what is good and what is bad practice. This needs to be done with wit, with humour, with drama, as you people have done it. That, then, is a clarion call for those people who do still work uncomfortably closely to that kind of stereotype where it is your mother, or possibly your constitution (you were just born aggressive) which leads to depression, rather than it being something about non-personal sources of distress, like oppression. So thank you very, very much, because the message you've given, and the way it will be taken on, will change the rules of our game, and that will then give a basis for people to practise in new
Participant J: I want to try and catch the opposite scenario; how we would cope if a client comes in and said 'I can't do anything, I don't know what to do. Up and down this country today my cousins, the animals, are in concentration camps and they are being taken away in hundreds to be being slaughtered, and I feel helpless.' I wonder how any therapist might cope with that.
Participant K: We talked earlier, in our pair, about denial and how this is not coming into our therapeutic situations. Unless we have done the work, unless we have dared to address the issues we are raising here, how can we possibly give the permission for our clients to raise these issues. Unconsciously we are going to be setting all sorts of limitations on the therapeutic relationship. Just to give one example of how it could be different we asked, 'Why do we assume your life story started with your parents?' When you take a case history what about considering your relationship to the more-than-human-world? We also spoke about our own denial, and that this is something we are in together. We are not in a privileged position, and this fundamentally challenges the asymmetry of the relationship that Susie Orbach was talking about.
Participant L: I do not think that my patients are consciously or unconsciously aware of the ecology, because there are far more urgent things for them to deal with, which is present relationships, linked to earlier ones. I've been a therapist for nearly 40 years.
Hilary Prentice: I think that is an interesting question that we have considered a great deal in the Ecopsychology Group. It links with what Participant K just said, which is if this unsinkable ship is maybe actually going down now, and clients are not bringing it into therapy, what does that mean, and how should we be responding to that? Does that challenge us to move right outside the existing frame? So I think that our play was trying to do two things. One of them was to address generally limited practice, which people have picked up on.
The other point was to keep challenging the habit of human chauvinism, which is so strong in the culture in which we live. We are almost insanely unable to see the kind of crisis that we are creating, because we are so disconnected from the rest of life; we do not notice it. Your question wakes us up to the fact that we really need to start to think in other creative ways as to how to bring these issues into our work as therapists. The experience of Deep Ecology, and despair and empowerment work, is that when people are invited to take a look, there are huge feelings of grief and rage and fear around the situation we find ourselves in on this planet. These feelings come up quite quickly when a safe space is created, and the expectation is that that is an appropriate thing to bring.
Participant M: I feel really quite emotional about this. I'm working more and more preventatively in schools, with groups of children using circle work, which many of us have done, or have seen. I'm convinced that young people know and feel a lot about these issues, because they have grown up in a world that has begun to talk about it a great deal.
There are many, many children in mainstream schools, as well as special needs schools, who need a safe space, as do their teachers, to talk about these issues. I do not mean one-to-one in depth work, although there are many children who need that. I work in East London and I notice that these issues do not come up overtly. But, for instance, if we are looking at what is a favourite place, someone might say something about Epping Forest, and that might be a way of opening up how we have to look after the planet. So I think that creating a safe space to look at this in schools, using the language of the people concerned, would be very challenging and important.
Participant N: It is something about not making the therapy space a 'cut off' space - but how do we bring this stuff into the room and engage with it so that it's not somehow split off?
Hilary Prentice: That is exactly the kind of thing that ecopsychologists have been doing. There are people working outdoors in the wilderness with therapy as well as people working with refugees in London on allotments, as the place in which the therapy is done. There's a long tradition, of course, of horticultural therapy in this country; there are many creative ways that people are trying to get that immediate engagement.
There is one thing I just wanted to come back to, from an earlier speaker, about population in other parts of the world. I wanted to restate that the biggest consumption and pollution is from our parts of the world; we are, in the main, responsible. So it often does not go down very well when we tell other parts of the world how to behave when we are the worst polluters ourselves.
I also wanted to say something about the issue of racism and race, as a very urgent issue, as it can get split off and opposed to environmentalism, which I think is a horribly false opposition. People all around the world fight the cutting down of forests and the poisoning of seas, do they not? One of the things I have been thinking lately is how annoying it must be to have white people from the Eurocentric part of the world, who have gone around the world stealing land, and plundering land, then to be speaking out, as though from a position of authority, about us not destroying it. This is not a good move; so healing the earth is for all of us.
Some moments from the therapist's practice aboard the ship Titania.
Client 1. Mary.
(Mary is rather depressed. Speaks in a morose voice, avoiding eye contact. She looks mainly at the floor or away to the side. Doesn't look fully into the therapist's eyes until her final remark. The piece begins with client and therapist already in their chairs, having begun the session. Slow pace.)
Client: I woke up at 5.oo am again today...I couldn't sleep. I was standing on deck looking at all those birds following the ship. Reminded of that poem about the albatross.
Therapist: Oh, the Ancient Mariner?
Cl: Hmm. I keep thinking of that line I learnt at school, "Instead of the
cross the albatross about my neck was hung."
Th: What does that line mean to you?
Cl: Well he shouldn't have shot it, should he? Brought bad luck to everyone. (Pauses, looks away) That's how I feel. I feel I've killed something, and I'm being punished.
Th: That you've killed something?
Cl: I know it sounds stupid.
Th: It doesn't sound stupid. I just want to understand, mary. What do you feel you've killed?
Cl: I dunno. Just something. It feels like something's dead because of me.
Th: Something inside you?
Cl: Inside me, outside, me, I dunno. I don't know the difference..I feel dead and I feel like I've killed something.
Th: I can hear how distressing that is for you.
Cl: Yeah, well...Anyway, I've started counting again. I keep counting all the deckchairs on the ship, over and over again, to make sure nothing terrible happens..some disaster. I don't know what.
Th: (Looks thoughtful)...OK, how about you be this ship and let it speak its thoughts and feelings through you?
Cl: (sits straighter and closes eyes) ...I'm sinking. I'm run by idiots and that woman Mary is useless.
Th: How is Mary useless?
Cl: She just is. She doesn't do anything.
Th: What do you want her to do?
Cl: Stop me sinking.
Th: OK Stop being the ship. (Mary opens her eyes). Mary, do you feel you're sinking?
Cl: No, I'm not sinking, the ship is. That's what it says, anyway. I ought to do something to stop it.
Th: (Sighs) That's a heavy burden to put on yourself. And actually, I'm thinking that the ship is really quite safe, so perhaps these feelings come from inside you. Maybe they're about you, more that the ship? (Looks at Mary who continues to look at the floor).
Cl: Maybe. You know best I suppose.
Th: So can you say a bit more about the fear you feel inside?
Cl: I don't know how else to say it. I feel this awful dread. But I have to
do something, so I count the deckchairs. That's all I can do.
Th: I'm afraid it's time for us to stop. I hear how useless you feel at the moment, Mary. You won't always feel like this.
Cl: (Rises to leave). Yeah? (Makes direct eye contact for the first time). How come you're so sure?
(Mary leaves. Brief pause with therapist alone, then second client, Marina, comes in.)
Client 2. Marina.
(Marina is more energised than Mary. Maintains eye contact with the therapist.)
Cl: I'm sorry I'm late. I'm feeling quite disturbed actually. My mother just slipped over on the deck just now and I had to help her back to her cabin.
Th: Oh. (sympathetic noise) you sound worried.
Cl: Yes, she's OK, just shaken. But there's quite a lot of water up there. And I heard one of the crew muttering about there being something wrong with the ship.
Th: You seem quite troubled, Marina. Are you very concerned about your mother?
Cl: No, not really. But I am a bit worried about what's going on.
Th: Hmm. Well, you've had a difficult time getting here, how about taking a moment to let yourself arrive? So you can focus on being here with me now?
Cl: OK..All that water up on deck reminds me that I had a dream last night. I'm in the restaurant with my parents and my sisters. I look out of the window and there's a tidal wave rushing towards us. I keep telling the others, but somehow they can't see it and they won't believe me.
Th: They won't believe you?
Cl: No. They carry on as if nothing is wrong.
Th: So something enormous, something overwhelming is threatening your family, and only you can see it? Is there some way in which you're experiencing a threat like this in your family?
Cl: (hesitantly) Well, there are times when I feel overwhelmed by them. And I am used to not being believed in by my family. But I'm beginning to wonder whether this dream is about something else..(slowly, speculatively) I'm thinking about that water upstairs, and the crew muttering. I think maybe the dream is warning me about something that's wrong here and now. On this ship.
Th: Something wrong here and now. I wonder if maybe what's going on is that you're feeling some quite overwhelming emotions surfacing in our relationship?
Cl: (more emphatically, but still with restraint) I feel you're not hearing me. I'm trying to tell you that I think there's something wrong now, on this ship.
Th: (nodding) I hear that you've been unnerved by the water and by your mother's fall. And I wonder if you're also telling me that you find it hard to trust this relationship with me? Perhaps you feel something disastrous might happen between us? That our relationship is about to capsize?
(Marina looks at the floor and slowly raises her head to make eye contact with her therapist; she tells her therapist, through her eyes, that she is at her wits end with her therapists remarks. Marina gets up slowly and walks out, as if she has lost faith in the process.)
CLIENT 3: Miranda.
(Miranda arrives in a hurried, agitated state. She speaks at a highly energised but still coherent pace. uses physical gestures and, when standing, moves about.)
Cl: I'm sorry, I know I'm early for my session.
Th: Yes, you are.
Cl: But there's something happening outside (gesturing) with the ship. Something's wrong.
Th: You seem really agitated Miranda. Sit down.
Cl: No..this is urgent, you have to hear me.
Th: Miranda, slow down, slow down. We've got plenty of time. Sit down and tell me what you're feeling.
Cl: (Reluctantly sits on edge of seat) I'm feeling scared. Something terrible is happening to this ship.
Th: What is happening?
Cl: It's sinking!
Th: Miranda, do you remember last week you were talking about being afraid of drowning? You made a connection with your mother. You said that sometimes you feel submerged in her, and that makes you feel very scared.
Cl: Yes, but this isn't about my mother.
Th: What do you feel right now as you say that?
Cl: For God's sake, I don't want to sit down and talk about my mother. We're all going to drown!
Th: OK. Keep breathing. Did you hear that announcement the Captain made a few minutes ago? There's a slight leak which is being attended to. That's all. There's nothing to worry about. OK? So let's try to focus on what's going on for you, right now.
Cl: (Stands up again) I don't care what the captain says. I don't believe it. You haven't seen what's happening out there. The crew are frantic, they're rushing in all directions. That elderly couple are panicking, shouting at each other on deck. And a lady said that her dog is howling in the hold. Everyone's scared. You have to hear me.
Th: I understand there this slight problem with the ship has made you feel very anxious. I am hearing you.
Cl: Listen. You're in as much danger as I am. You've helped me, you're important to me. I can't just leave you sitting here. Come with me now. please.
Th: Miranda, we've talked before about you wanting a relationship with me outside of these sessions..
Cl: (Interrupting quickly) God, I'm so angry with you. You won't listen. You really are just like my mother. I'll have to go without you. (Exits)
(Therapist sits down for a moment, frowning. Rises slowly to look out of the window. Sees something extremely alarming, looks frightened. Exclaims and exits hurriedly.)
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