I have recently concluded an 18-month stint of counselling with Johnathan Pease, and although it is not a simple matter…

I have recently concluded an 18-month stint of counselling with Johnathan Pease, and although it is not a simple matter to express the results, I will try. The process is entirely led by what you want to talk about, even if, as Johnathan happily allows and acknowledges, that involves going over … and over the same ground. Certainly that was the case with me, although I’m sure everyone is different. It took almost eight months for me to start talking just about myself, rather than about, or on behalf of, other loved ones. I’ve just realised that makes it sound as if I am a loved one of myself. Learning to ‘love yourself’ is an advertised product of counselling I have always found faintly repellent – as if the whole thing is merely an exercise in excusing oneself for all one’s failings. But in the course of the past 18 months, although I am not in, and frankly hope never to be in the position of ‘loving myself’, I feel I have been allowed the space and intelligent attention which has allowed me to sift through things again and again to the point where I have started to feel more sure of who I was – and, so far so good, far freer to pursue those things without a constant drag of doubt and negativity (although I remain gifted in this department). I would liken the process to shaking the branch of a tree, thoroughly, often, to the point where all the dead leaves and rubbish have dropped down, and what you are left with is the healthy green stuff. I never felt pressured to move in any particular direction. At one point, I acknowledged an area which I described to Johnathan, and pictured as, a dark swirling mass. It was always down to my right, as if it was a physical presence, and I knew what it felt like to be swirling inside this, to feel the dismantling despair that starts to ruin everything, like a malign virus. But I also apprehended what was almost a physical antithesis to this, and I always imagined this high to my left (this probably sounds quite unhinged, but believe me it makes sense to me), and this was somehow the positive side of myself, the brighter, happier possibility of myself. We had a discussion about a bad weekend I had where, for the first time since I had been in my early twenties – I’m now 46 – I felt in danger of slipping into the swirling black place. It was a bad weekend, seriously shaky. My own way forward was to write a poem about my situation, fears, whatever. It was no great thing, but it took some doing and I was proud of myself for making something out of the situation rather than succumbing. Oddly, that act helped me in a profound way which I still don’t understand. Johnathan was as good as he could be about the whole thing, and, crucially, acknowledged my conviction that I did not want to go diving into the black stuff and rummaging around, but that I wanted to find a way in which I could manage it, a way which I could have confidence in. Perhaps some in his position might have found it hard to give up such a discussion, which no doubt would have produced much interesting material. It was not that I had avoided discussing serious issues – marital ups and downs, death of my mother, problems with children – but I felt strongly at the time that I didn’t need to dive in. I didn’t ignore the dark – I acknowledged it, but I want to carry on with life being able to deal with it. Time for a bit of courage and resolution, time to go up to the left… Johnathan understood entirely my position. I ended our sessions because, as I said to him, I felt, for a number of reasons, that I had got to the point where my lift was just moving up to a level I wanted to step out to, and I felt confident about doing so. Often when we spoke I recalled an odd little incident from my childhood when I had made my grandpa a bookmark for Christmas. After taking off the wrapping paper, he proceeded to solemnly strip the little pictures and decorations I had sellotaped onto the bookmark until he held a strip of cardboard in his hand. Funny at the time for the adults – typical Grandpa! – and yet, for some odd reason, the image stuck with me. In our discussions, I identified myself with the cardboard – uncertain if all I was, and all I professed to want, was mere decoration over blankness. I am fairly sure now that I am a bit more than a strip of cardboard – although no long lost Rembrandt or Da Vinci has been uncovered. I simply feel surer about the things I value in my life – my wife, my children, wider family, writing, running, playing guitar, cooking meals (not very well) and drinking beer from cool green bottles. Banal? It could be. I don’t care. If you have read to this point, you may recall in the distant past that I said I would reproduce the poem I wrote on my bad weekend, while I was travelling back on the train from Sheffield. (Nothing against Sheffield…) Bookmark Puzzled, my grandfather removed the gaudy cellophane and crayoned messages of goodwill until the heart of my gift a strip of pale cardboard lay revealed. It’s dark now but there’s still a pale strip of light at the horizon. Now it’s dark and there isn’t. ——– Here is one other poem, written after some discussion about my mother’s death. Diagnosis You were standing in your workshop when you told me, gouging at the head upon the wheel. I smelt the cold; the clay and afterwards, face laid upon the kitchen table, smelt it still; it wouldn’t go away.
Best wishes to whoever you are.

Michael Ralph, Hertfordshire