Christmas · Couples · Family · mental health · Relationships · Society

Letting Santa’s secret out of the sack – Negotiating the myths of Christmas with children…

For the past few months I have been running a group therapy meeting with parents of children with emerging mental health issues.  It has been a great experience and we started every session using a check-in’ technique which asked how participants understood a word that encapsulated the theme of the session.   Previous sessions have used words such as relationships, family, communication etc.  So, as a bit of fun and because our final session was a couple of weeks before the festive holidays, we used ‘Christmas’ as our ‘check-in’ word.  I was really surprised with the amount of discussion that was generated by the idea of Christmas and thought it was worth producing a blog that shared some of the conversations, as they have applicability to many families.

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The whole experience of Christmas does really create a fairly partisan split in people.  There is one camp that embraces the spirit and spends hours watching festive films, decorating the home and pretty much devotes a whole month of the year to celebrating one day.  The other position was made by people who were not looking forward to Christmas and felt that it was time that they found difficult for a variety of reasons.  I addressed the challenging issues of family feuding, expectations and finances in last years blog.  Similar themes quickly emerged within the groups I facilitated, and it was interesting to see how people who were not big Christmas enthusiasts as being situated by the festive proponents with jokey remarks such as being ‘Scrooges’ or characterised with the phrase ‘Bah Humbug’.  However, when we started to look at more nuanced experiences of Christmas, it became apparent that people on both sides collectively experience an ambivalence that makes sense of the previously simplistic and polarised debate.

Aside from the mixed feelings of guilt, anxiety, excitement and enjoyment that often accompany over indulgence in consuming and spending, most people were also able to resonate with difficult feelings of loss and nostalgia.  I have heard many clients speak with sadness that Christmas time really emphasises the gaps left by people who are no longer in their lives, mainly though bereavement, separation or relationship estrangement.  This creates a bittersweet atmosphere of reflection and vulnerability for the fragile human condition, as we mourn those no longer here and regret our mistakes in relationships that have concluded badly.  It was also noticeable that the majority of people develop a relationship with Christmas based upon their own childhood, with some trying to recreate an almost utopian ideal of feasting and joyous familial love that they remember.  Others recall hard times that were tarnished by events of domestic violence, arguments or significant figures such as parents or partners leaving the family home over the festive period, a phenomenon evidenced by a spike in divorce petitions submitted in January (Pett et al., 1992).

One in five married couples are considering separating from their partners after staying together over the festive period, according a poll of 2,000 spouses by legal firm Irwin Mitchell.  – (The Independent online January 3rd 2015)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Christmas-stress-71217-634x0-c-default.jpegThere is an idea in family therapy that we either recreate or correct significant scripts that we have lived through (Byng‐Hall, 1985), a concept that goes some way to explain how people use their childhood version of Christmas as a prototype that they either reconfigure or imitate when they plan their own festive ritual.  My observation was that even when people were incredibly excited by Christmas, this was often a veneer that hid an underlying anxiety that they had to create an impossibly magical experience.  This is a problematic expectation, mainly because every ‘perfect’ Christmas has to be improved upon.  In a similar fashion to capitalism’s infinite growth model, the success of one Christmas inadvertently initiates a challenge that demands that next year’s event is even better, creating incredible stress which is often shouldered by a single member of the family (Fischer and Arnold, 1990).  Many people describe how they can feel unsupported at Christmas as other family members just turn up on the day and gorge themselves on food and drink  before passing out in front of the television.  This is a stark contrast to the experience of the unfortunate person involuntarily appointed at the start of December to provide a month’s worth of unpaid labour as a gift wrapper, stock taker, chef and server.  So, do spare a thought of how we can all contribute a little bit and share the work, as many arguments are started when the one person doing all the organising finally protests.  Unfortunately, this is typically in a fiery and aggressive expression over a minor transgression in a board game after a few too many alcoholic drinks…

Perhaps the most thought-provoking element of Christmas that was discussed was the concept of Father Christmas and how parents maintain a universally shared deception of epic proportions.  The majority of people feel that the myth of Santa Claus is a lie worth telling and that it provides a fun-filled fantasy that  keeps us buoyant in a world that is usually full of rationalism, responsibility and challenges.  However, lying to our children does seem to come at a cost when we start to consider the wider implications, as most families have either explicit or implicit codes that warn family members that lying is not acceptable and  can get you or others into trouble.  It also plants the seed that if those they trust the most are not to be believed, what else could they be lying about, and can we trust them in the future?

One interesting point of discussion is what happens following the moment that children discover that Santa is make-believe.  I have heard stories of children being both angry and disappointed as they are forced to alter their belief systems and question their reality.  They can also direct aggression at the people that they feel have misled them.  This can be as a retaliation for their parents both lying and being hypocritical, as ‘lying’ and ‘bad’ is an association endlessly drummed into us by parents, teachers and those in authority.  However, it can also mask the shame they feel from allowing themselves to be duped and the sadness that a part of their childhood has been taken away.  This is often beautifully illustrated in playgrounds when children get into disputes  as distinct groups form of those who are enlightened by the truth, and those who valiantly defend the myth.   Most parents dread the day children come home distraught after being told by a classmate that they are stupid and babyish if they believe Santa Claus delivers their presents.  At this point some parents confess their deception, whilst others use Machiavellian tactics to quash the rumours by discrediting the source of the claim or cautioning the children that  if they do not believe then Christmas may not happen.

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This in turn creates a hypocritical dilemma where parents can be disempowered into untenable positions where they tell their children not to lie, yet they have blatantly lied to them over a period of years.   Most children eventually forgive their parents and understand that the deception was underpinned with good intentions, with the majority of children choosing to perpetuate the same deception to their own offspring.  Nevertheless, this poses a difficult conundrum where people then have to make a fairly subjective judgement call to decide that if a lie is told, if it is done to protect somebody or avoid trouble, then it could be argued as acceptable.  Although, when this is contextualised as a partner not disclosing an affair due to fear of fracturing the family, or when a sinister uncle tells his niece to not tell anybody about their special secret, the impact of deception to protect or circumvent conflict starts to feel considerably less beneficent.  This creates a paradoxical premise that  lies are allowed providing they are the right type of lies and they are told for valid reasons.  However, who gets to decide if these conditions are met is debatable and if we view the lie from an alternative perspective, we may transform what was at first considered a harmless ‘white lie’ into catastrophic treachery.

Another issue to think about is around how Father Christmas distributes presents differently and how do our children make sense of this?  Many parents feel financially stretched over Christmas and the pressure to make it special often hinges on providing the latest gadget or en-vogue garment.  Parents regularly overspend as contemporary present lists typically request gifts that can amount to hundreds of pounds.  Some individuals can also feel disenfranchised when their hard-earned cash is spent and the gratitude is directed to a mythical figure who comes down a chimney with a magical sack full of the latest consoles and phones.  Although, some canny adults have made a demarcation between the small ‘stocking fillers’ that Santa delivers and the big ‘photo moment’ presents that are definitely marked up as having  been provided by the adults.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is thumb_dpi1020.jpgHowever, this also can be problematic as children feel envious of friends from more affluent backgrounds who seem to be favoured by Santa by him showering them with more or better quality gifts.  The popular discourse of being a good boy or girl is then activated, as it’s a fairly logical inference that if I haven’t received what I asked for, this must be due that I am not good enough, or that Father Christmas likes the other children better.  This discourse is also regularly used as a disciplinary device when parents effectively threaten children that if they  misbehave, then they could contact Lapland and cancel their order.  Children can become highly distressed and even fearful when these type of threats are used, even when they are genuine attempt to manage difficult behaviour.  Coercion is always a risky strategy to use with our children, as consequences can be anxiety, activation of the flight or fight reflex and power struggles (Crittenden, 2016).  It is also well evidenced that prolonged use of coercive strategies can impact psychological well-being and lead to the attachment between parents and children becoming disrupted and  characterised with mistrust and hostility (Morris et al., 2002).  So, my advice is to be careful with threats as they can easily be misattributed and can trigger feelings of abandonment, self deformation or lessen emotional safety.

The final big question that is always asked around the myth of father Christmas, is how do we manage when to tell children the truth about the legend?  As with most difficult questions like where do babies come from, is there a God and what happens when you die?  Having to dampen the Christmas spirit by confessing about Santa’s true manifestation can be heart-rending and can cause incredible anxiety when attempting to convince older children to not tell younger siblings.  However, with most difficult conversations, if handled with reassurance, love, a hug and a smile most children will see the legend as one they can still appreciate.  It is also incredible to see that even in adulthood, most people find that if they believe hard enough then they can still be children for a couple of days of the year and fully embrace the magic of Christmas.

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References

BYNG‐HALL, J. 1985. The family script: A useful bridge between theory and practice. Journal of Family Therapy, 7(3), 301-305.

CRITTENDEN, P. M. 2016. Raising Parents: Attachment, Representation, and Treatment – 2nd Edition, Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge.

FISCHER, E. & ARNOLD, S. J. 1990. More than a labor of love: Gender roles and Christmas gift shopping. Journal of consumer research, 17(3), 333-345.

MORRIS, A. S., SILK, J. S., STEINBERG, L., SESSA, F. M., AVENEVOLI, S. & ESSEX, M. J. 2002. Temperamental Vulnerability and Negative Parenting as Interacting Predictors of Child Adjustment. 64(2), 461-471.

PETT, M. A., LANG, N. & GANDER, A. J. 1992. Late-life divorce: Its impact on family rituals. Journal of Family Issues, 13(4), 526-552.

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Couples · Difficult Emotions · Family · Men's Issues · Men's roles · Polyamory · Relationships · romance · sex · Society · Uncategorized

Polyamory – Is there enough love to go round, or is three a crowd?

The idea for this blog post came after some recent publications that were discussing changes in modern family composition, particularly in relation to adults having multiple romantic relationships within the family unit.  One of my favourite journalists Louis Theroux addressed this issue on BBC Two this week in his series of programmes called Altered States.  The episode was called ‘Love Without Limits’ and gave a brilliantly insightful view of three American families that have incorporated this lifestyle into their families. Watch Love without Limits Here

For those of you unfamiliar with the term ‘polyamory’, a definition can be found below.  The important distinction for me is that the people involved are both aware and consenting with the relationships that are occurring.  Some of the relationships are traditional threesomes, where partners share beds and engage in collective sex.  It can also be relationships that are separate and in a similar fashion to polygamous marriages, partners will take turns with each other and can effectively have certain aspects of their relationship that are exclusive to particular partners.  I think it is important to demarcate these configurations from being simply seen as ‘swingers’, as the relationships are often functional, inclusive of child care and not just built around sexual perversions or mate swapping.

(from Greek πολύ poly, “many, several”, and Latin amor, “love”) is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all partners involved. It has been described as “consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy”

As a relationship therapist and a researcher in family organization, I am incredibly interested in polyamory.  I have always engaged with the idea that traditional monogamous relationships that provide all of our physical, emotional, sexual, financial and spiritual needs are highly ideological and at some level unrealistic.  The evidence for traditional relationships not fulfilling contemporary needs comes both from demographicsgraph-378884 that show nearly half of marriages failing (ONS 2018), as well as years of clinical practice with couples who have often come into treatment due to one or both partners having had an extra-marital affair (Rates of people in the UK admitting to having had at least one affair vary from 25 -50%).  The graph to the right is findings from research conducted by an Italian dating site that collated data of disclosed affairs in European countries.  Discoveries of infidelity are often highly wounding to both partners and can lead to  relationship breakdown, alongside intense feelings of betrayal and blame.  I addressed this attribution of affair accountability in a previous blog – It’s your fault I had the affair… How gender can influence infidelity blame attribution.

I think that with affairs, one of the most tantalizing and seductive elements is the secrecy, which produces a mixture of guilt and excitement that is often reported by the individual having the affair.  It is also this same alchemy that leads to the intensive emotional destruction that typically follows the affair becoming unearthed, when betrayal causes the recipient to feel duped, humiliated and that their entire relationship was farcical.  In contrast, polyamory removes the secrecy, and as a result also removes the explicit betrayal, as the relationships are common knowledge, agreed upon and consensual.  The diagram below from Dr. Elisabeth Sheff illustrates the differences between monogamy and polyamory.

 

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In some respects if a relationship finds a couple having incompatible sexual drives or preferences, or one partner who is unwilling or unable to meet other emotional or physical needs, polyamory allows needs to be fulfilled without ending the existing relationship.  Ideologically this makes sense, as it allows families to remain intact and for partners to have their all needs met, theoretically making them happier.  This is actually the idea that underpins many of the relationships in Louis Theroux’s documentary, when he introduced the novel concept of ‘compersion’ to my lexicon…

compersion (uncountable) The feeling of joy one has experiencing another’s joy, such as in witnessing a toddler’s joy and feeling joy in response. The feeling of joy associated with seeing a loved one love another; contrasted with jealousy.

In practical terms, I have seen marriages forced into this arrangement through illness, disability or other unplanned circumstances.  In these cases a previously available aspect of the marriage was no longer able to be accessed, and rather than abandoning the afflicted, the couple incorporated alternative people to meet certain needs.  However, in many cases polyamory is a lifestyle choice and I wonder if this is propagated by the increasing sense of entitlement, importance of self, disposability and hedonism that is now prevalent in a social media driven Western society.  In terms of cultural influences, I also imagine that the movement away from heteronormative married couples with biological children is also a factor.  With a rise in blended and queer families, single parent and communal lifestyles, the nuclear family is no longer the only choice and is the result of this an evolution to polyamory?

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So, upon watching the documentary that met families identifying as polyamorous, what did I discover?  The most interesting aspect for me was the distribution of power and what seemed like what I interpreted as ‘reluctant or forced consent’ from some individuals.  It appeared that within these arrangements, only one person seemed to be benefitting and was genuinely happy, as they were able to be a parent, lover and companion to the people they wanted.  The other people seemed to take more of a position of acquiescence, where they seemed compelled into a satisfied compliance about being in a polyamorous relationship where they received a paltry share of the material benefits.

In one case Heide and Jerry were a traditionally married couple until Heide started to struggle and ‘reached out for emotional support’.  Fast forward a few years and now Joe regularly stays over for sex dates with Heide whist Jerry and his child sleep upstairs.  Jerry is fully informed and on the surface provides joyous approval and consent to the relationship.  Both partners adhere closely to the compersion narrative that Joe makes Heide happy, this in turn benefits Jerry and also keeps the marriage alive.  Heide goes so far to widen the discourse by claiming Joe generates more love in he system, love that she can then distribute to Jerry.  At first glance, this all seems glorious and embodies the purest form of compersion.  However, when Jerry stares into the distance through watery eyes whilst robotically voicing his contentment, his pleasure feels hollow, empty and even trauma induced, reminiscent of some form of romantic Stockholm syndrome.

I think that the dysfunction highlighted is fueled by the highly unequal power structure, as in essence Jerry is an old-fashioned cuckold.  As he regularly sits alone and forlorn in his bedroom listening to another man ravishing his wife in his own living room downstairs.  In fact, Jerry has no other partner, and when Louis beautifully asks if he has ever joined his wife and Joe in their horizontal dance practice, Jerry resembles an excited puppy.  Heide quickly squashes this prospect and shuts down the conversation, even naively claiming that the thought of a threesome had never crossed her mind.  Jerry looked as though someone had popped his favourite birthday balloon, and it was at this point that the tiresome hippy rhetoric of infinite love felt desolate and even abusive.  It was clear that Jerry was infatuated with Heide, yet she was bored with him, and in a desperate attempt to keep her in his life he had surrendered his own dignity, masculinity and pride by allowing her be another man’s sexual playground.

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I felt an immense sadness for Jerry and I wondered that if polyamory is to truly work, then the people involved must be incredibly resilient to jealousy, envy and be uncompromisingly boundaried.  I also feel that the crucial component of polyamorism is that all individuals must hold parity in the power structure.  Put succinctly, if one person is having a hell of a time, whist another paints on a compliant smile and pretends that this makes them happy, this cannot be construed as authentic compersion.  By simply being transparent about multiple intimate relationships, we may not automatically eliminate the violation of intimacy that some people experience.  My thoughts are that polyamory is definitely a valid choice for some, but it is also a system that can be inadvertently abusive and exploitative.  I do wonder that if as a species, we have socially constructed the ideas of exclusivity and monogamy as being associated to loyalty and love.  Polyamory does reduce the sanctity of intimacy by sharing it, and can only be practiced by those who can generally not bristle at the thought of their beloved enjoying a romantic meal, or being entwined in a naked and euphoric post climatic embrace with somebody else.  Maybe in this case, three can sometimes be a crowd…

 

Family · Men's roles · mental health · Poverty · Relationships · Society

How come we are only just about managing? When working families are struggling to make ends meet.

Something that has recently started to feature more frequently than I find comfortable in the treatment room, is that clients are reporting widespread issue with finances, housing and feelings of only just about managing.  The constant struggle to make ends meet may seem like a long-established issue for those in the lower socioeconomic levels of society, but what is novel in this observation is that these families are working/middle class and have two adults in gainful and professional employment.  These individuals are teachers, policeman, nurses or work within skilled trade and administrative roles.  The interesting point here is that they are not unemployed, long-term sick, part of the gig economy, disabled, recovering addicts, homeless, criminally active or refugees.  In some ways when members of these categories report poverty or financial woes, the response is often one of being able to understand why they are struggling, as they are usually pervieved to have limited or uncertain earning potential.  There is a normative expectation people who are traditionally of low social mobility will not have stable housing, access to transport, holidays and will rely on state handouts and food donations.  However, what we are seeing within the UK today is that these traditionally ‘normal’ families are now feeling financial pressures that are epitomised by restricted access to both private or social housing (Guardian article).

'Frankly if we weren't both working, I don't know how we'd make it.'
‘Frankly if we weren’t both working, I don’t know how we’d make it.’

My recent experience is that the threshold of poverty is shifting and starting to consume those who may identify as middle class, often defined through criteria such as having degrees, working in trained professions and being homeowners.  This is a strange phenomenon as it is hard to imagine that family with parents working as teacher and a nurse may be regularly accessing food banks, missing mortgage or rent payments and being forced to stay in an unhappy relationship, as finances prevent separation.  Conversely, it is far easier to conceive that a person who does not work and is alcohol dependent could be homeless or living within a ‘hand to mouth’ environment.  Some clients have even voiced that in a fair arrangement, people who do not meaningfully contribute to society have not earned the right to thrive.  Consequently, this thinking creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, as when a person is contributing but is still financially constrained and experiences both their agency and choices being constantly disadvantaged, how is this explained and how who is responsible?

SELF MADE MYTH TRUMP-01Paul Verhaeghe wrote a fantastic and prophetic commentary in 2014 about neoliberalism problems, that essentially linked psychopathic leadership in corporations to the unbridled growth motivated by ruthless market forces.  I agree with his underlying rationale that proposed that neoliberal practices of ferocious capitalism generating infinite financial gains and rewarding those who work hardest being intrinsically problematic.  The issue being that those at the top are able to generate massive incomes and have the resources to effectively grow exponentially.  Simultaneously the rest if the workforce are forced into parsimony to streamline operations and create larger profits, fashioning a hegemony that means you work harder, yet get less and sometimes even sacrifice what you already have, examples being wage caps, reduced workers rights and diminished union power. This is demonstrated in how public sector jobs in education, healthcare and civil services have had years of below inflation wage rises in the name of national austerity measures, although at the same time CEO’s wages grow without restriction to up to 387 times that of someone on national working wages Guardian article on UK pay disparity   This is also compounded by the popular myths that are peddled within the media about how successful individuals are always self-made men who have simply applied themselves.  Men such as Donald Trump, Jacob Rees Mogg and George Osborne, propose that they built fortunes from nothing, yet in reality inherited wealth and simply used existing privilege to generate greater riches.  However, they make normal people feel like they fail when they cannot replicate these trajectories, unbeknownst to them they simply were denied the proverbial ‘leg up’ these men were given, yet sneakily fail to mention in their dismally narcissistic biographies.

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Going back to how this manifests in the treatment room,  my male clients regularly disclose distinct feelings of shame in not being successful.  Many men pride themselves with discourses of ‘working hard’, ‘providing for the family’, ‘being the breadwinner’ and by diminishing their financial power, it emasculates and diminishes masculine identity.  This engenders disenfranchisement and directs blame to arbitrary factors such as immigration, automation etc. or turns disappointment inwards, making one feel distinctly responsible for their own lack of success .  They have unrealistic expectations set by male generations before them who lived in boom periods where financial parity was more widespread and a single, traditionally good job could support a family, buy a house and allow the occasional luxury purchase.  Nowadays, a single income is rarely sufficient and two incomes are often inadequate to cover all the family outgoings.  The result is depression, anxiety, anger and unfulfillment.  It is also worth noting that recent statistics of growing numbers antidepressant prescriptions (Guardian article evidencing rise in prescriptions) seem to correlate with the number of families being financially challenged, with around 1 in 6 adults taking medication and 1 in 5 families being defined as living in poverty.  Below is an extract from a book called The Spirit Level (2009) that assimilates a large amount of research and suggests that inequality is inextricably linked to a variety of health and social problems, including criminality, obesity and poor mental health.Picture1

This is definitely reflected within my clients experiences, especially in their view of themselves as being deficient and forces fruitless searches for fulfillment within affairs, substances ,or results in uncontrollable bouts of impotent anger.  This anger can be seen as displaced and exaggerated reactions to bad driving, work stress, requests from partners and demands from children.  As these low moods become entrenched, I often see men who present as clinically depressed, suicidal or in positions where family has broken down because they feel overwhelmed by not only the financial pressures and lack of time spent at home, but also the self attribution of blame that portrays the situation is down to them not working hard enough.  In my long experience of treating addiction, marriage issues, abuse and family dysfunction, this problem is one of the hardest to foster improvement.  The reason is that this is not a failure of the person, or an attitude or belief that is creating negative context, but a political and institutional oppression that makes the working man feel as though he is an abject failure.  We can perhaps orientate ourselves differently to the problem, which can alleviate self-deprecation, but until society changes direction and shares wealth in a more fair way, the inequality gap will continue to batter those who do not occupy the lofty and often condescending echelons of the privileged 2%.

 

 

Antidepressants · depression · Loss · men's mental health · mental health · Society · Treatment

The drugs do work? – Large scale study provides compelling evidence on antidepressants, but do we want to take them?

This week saw the release of an interesting study Click Here for Lancet Journal which provided clinical evidence that all the major commercial antidepressants outperformed patients who were treated with a dummy dose known as a placebo.  The researchers collected their data from multiple studies that used the gold standard of clinical research of randomised controlled trials.  These type of experiments use control and treatment groups to provide evidence that the treatment group are being directly affected by the drug under investigation, and also attempts to eliminate any biases that could influence results.  The published review showed that all the 21 drugs they examined had positive effects on alleviating the symptoms of major depressive disorder.  They showed that the drugs varied in their effectiveness, with the graph below illustrating the most commonly prescribed drugs.  Anything to the right of 1 is positive result and shows performance against the taking of a placebo.

As a counter argument, Prof. John Read  critiques the study and asks for a more balanced approach in his Letter to the Guardian.  He questions the data’s neutrality, the agenda of the researchers (whom they work for) and how drugs are unable to manage the actual social distress caused by problems one is exposed to in their life.  Other critical voices have also cautioned that an effect size demonstrated here barely outperforms baseline readings.  Effectively, questioning that these medications have negligible real life effect on mood, challenging the notion that they help alleviate anxiety and depression at all.  It is worth noting that the measure being used, the Hamilton Scale is cited by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) as needing at least 3 points to exhibit a scientifically significant effect.  Therefore, it could be argued that the range of results below would register very little improvement to real world symptoms.

Always check with a GP on the best medication for you, as side effects and the disorder that a person has will have an impact on the most useful and safest treatment that is prescribed.  It is worth noting that these results do not suggest a hierarchy of how good a particular drug is and should not be used to take certain medication over others.

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What contributes to the depression?

I see many men who are diagnosed with depression and they often complain of feeling disinterested, exhausted, trapped, avoiding social relationships, unpredictable in mood, angry and full of anxiety.  Chronic cases can be crippling and can effectively leave sufferers housebound, isolated, prone to self medicate with alcohol or drugs, destructive within relationships and work life, and can eventually lead to attempting suicide.  My feelings are that depression is a psychic reaction to feeling trapped within your life.  This can be literally within an unfulfilling career, relationship (or lack of one), or by unresolvable financial problems.  It may also be more abstract with feelings of being constrained by thoughts of failure, lack of self-worth, or one that I often see in men is the loss of tangible identity and a lack of purpose within life.  The quote below is one man’s sentiment of how he struggles;

My biggest difficulty about being a man is that I often do not know my purpose or feel that I am not making a success of myself.

I also believe that the myth of the perfect social media life is a huge problem for many men.  Endless celebrities and entrepreneurs are shown as physical adonises, wealthy playboys and all round happy successes, who do jobs they love for vast sums of money, all whilst they flex their chiselled torso.  This creates an unrealistic expectations of oneself as when compared to the reality of being an average employee, partner or parent, we will often fall short of an unattainable ideal.  This causes perception of our own lives to be downgraded and for us to feel somehow substandard and lazy for not achieving more or looking better.

Men have explained in the treatment room that this existential unfulfillment is difficult to fully comprehend and can occur when one has embarked on a career and family life, and something just suddenly feels missing.  At this stage men will sometimes became obsessed with outside interests such as fitness, social clubs/pubs or online worlds, they can also be vulnerable to temptation of extra marital affairs.  Men will often say that they feel unloved, unnecessary and invisible, as they work long hours and feel excluded from their families, as partners and children function with little input from themselves.  It can be tempting to have the fun and excitement of a new romantic liaison, the result often being a wounding to the relationship that can leave men guilt ridden and shamed, and the relationship to potentially fail.

This man has consented to his views of his mental health challenges being shared, this highlights the pressure of just trying to be functional for others;

Even if people don’t say or think that we should just get on with it, I still feel that it is expected. When my brain just cannot process everything expected of my role as father, husband, and employee, no one will spend time to walk alongside; they just want to say some ‘magic words’ and me to leave them ‘fixed’ in order to meet their needs.

I have never felt so alone, despite family and colleagues trying to help.

Off to an NHS mindfulness course now; let’s see if that helps unlike everything else.

Should I take Medication?

This accompanying piece in the Guardian The Guardian Online Article suggests that more than a million people in the UK should have access to antidepressants.  This is on top of around the 11 million regular prescriptions already dispensed.  Men often ask me if they should go on medication and I always advise to talk to their GP, but we will discuss the process of using antidepressants.

My thoughts are that medication can be helpful, especially when used alongside talking therapy.  My main problem is that although drugs can alleviate the feelings of despair and hopelessness, allow better functioning and an opportunity to see things differently, they cannot fix all our real world problems.  They allow us  to be more proactive in changing parts of their lives they are unhappy about.  However, without additional support and introspection, making meaningful change can be difficult, especially around careers or relationships.  Men can feel stuck as they have to earn a wage and have responsibilities which they feel force them to stay in roles they do not like.  Likewise, the reality of leaving the family home is often impossible, as few people are financially secure enough to afford to find a home by themselves. The resulting separation can often be acrimonious and fears of  not seeing children all adds to the depressive environment of having no choices.  My experience is that these type of difficult problems are not simply resolved through just taking pills.

Another common fear is whether I will be medicated forever and how will life be when I am not taking the pills?  This can be difficult, but working with a good GP should allow a treatment plan that allows for a safe withdrawal process when symptoms alleviate.  In some respects we see the paradox of change we discussed earlier, as unless someone has made significant changes then it is likely the depression may reappear after the treatment ends, my main argument for accompanying therapy with medication.  Something that also often prevents ending medication is both the psychological reliance that I cannot cope without the pills, and the effects of withdrawal.  Even when managed well and clinically weaned off the drugs, withdrawal can last for weeks and often mimics depressive symptoms, making the patient panic and resume treatment.

toon-1861The final issue that many men complain of is the side effects.  Reading the information leaflet that comes with medication can easily induce terror, as side effects can be physical symptoms such as cramps, yawning and nausea, or further mental health issues such as paranoia and anxiety.  Many men often suffer libido loss and erection problems, especially on popular SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) such as Citalopram and Sertraline.  This can impact the very essence of masculinity and heighten feelings of being a failure who is unable to perform.  I have had couples who have reported that they ceased sex after taking medication, leading struggling relationships to have further losses of intimacy and causing partners to blame themselves or each other for why they cannot have intercourse.  Another paradox, as even though the medication can elevate mood, the crumbling relationship can counteract this effect and cause relapse as marital tension rises.

This man generously allowed me to share his journey which demonstrates the complex nature of his own relationship with his mental health and treatment.  I feel this shows how hard work, medication and support can help combat depression, but also shows that we can often be taken unexpectedly by our illness…

I certainly feel things have improved socially since I was first diagnosed with ‘nervousness & depression’ in the late 70s. [generalised anxiety disorder – as it later became known] Attitudes are more sympathetic and people less likely to judge or discriminate against you these days. It’s easier to find and get help.

However, on the inside I still see my condition as a failure, as a weakness. My partner is incredibly supportive and understanding but in spite of her help and love I’m especially hard on myself. Despite and the rational arguments and evidence to the contrary I still feel the need to be masculine, strong and silent. The brave protector and stoic provider for my family. Not the dark, uneasy, tormented shell I currently am.

At 53 I am able to look back on over 30 years of this behaviour pattern, something which in itself I find particularly upsetting. I often fear that if I’ve 30 years of this to look back on, I’ve therefore another 30 years of mental health issues to look forward to.

I’ve always found these winter months especially difficult and this year is no different. I know it’ll pass and I have a great many tools and techniques picked up over years of therapy and learning which help me function on a day to day basis. But still, here I am …again.

I am pleased to see that medication has been shown to be effective and can be a lifesaver for those who cannot cope with what life throws at them. However,  I am not sure if a nation of people taking psychopharmaceuticals for the rest of their lives is a measure of public health progress.  I think that there needs to be more done to treat the causes of why so many of us feel depressed, rather than just fixing our symptions by changing out brain chemistry temporarily.  I have some thoughts and may share them in my next blog.

Thank you to the men who allowed their voices to be used in this article.

 

 

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Christmas · Couples · Family · Relationships · Society

The dark side of Christmas… How expectation, conflict and the mess left behind can take the sparkle out of Christmas.

With Christmas fast approaching, I have noticed a growing sense of arousal and hysteria within both my personal social groups and client work.  This time of year always seems to have the same tangibly electric crackle in the air, which carries a multifaceted identity and a sinister sense of ambivalence.  People’s moods can be highly unpredictable, as stress is either induced instantly or felt as a growing feeling of pressure as the clock counts down.  People seem to oscillate from being excitable and euphoric into abrasive annoyance and irritability.  Both of these emotional states are underpinned by a similar neurological frameworks of being intensely aroused, a highly uncontained disposition that can see behaviour switch quickly from frivolous fun into unbridled aggression.  These types of states often accompany highly emotive occasions such as weddings or football matches.  These events can see lightning switches in atmosphere as tension suddenly overspills and causes the heady feelings of enjoyment to morph into the threat of hostility.  At this point, our limbic systems move into automatic mode and our threat response starts to activate, this causes previously innocuous activity such as crowd pushing or ‘friendly banter’ to be interpreted as personally targeted acts of war.

'Poinsetta! ' 'Poinsettia!' 'Poinsetta! ' 'Poinsettia!'

 

This highly emotional context seems to dominate the month of December and people seem to be both looking forward to having some well deserved time off from normal life, whilst holding an anticipatory dread of having to meet high expectations and manage the uncertainty Christmas can bring.  Statistically, it is estimated that divorce rates double in the period just after the Christmas break Huffington Post Article, I always see a spike in couples therapy referrals in January.  The reasons for this are complex , with the simplest being that some couples are already planning separation and feel it will be inappropriate timing to do so just before Christmas.  Therefore, they try to have acted fun with a person with whom they are simultaneously attempting developmental closure with.  This causes high levels of anxiety as one metaphorically sits in a party hat with a smile, alongside trying to hold at bay the seething resentment, rage and loss of a sinking relationship.  This is a highly volatile state as the ego has to manage two very disparate positions and the actual self becomes further from the portrayed false self that is needed to socially navigate the festive period.  In some respects this could be literally interpreted as the horrendous festive activity of being forced to stand up and perform a cringe inducing charade.

With the idea of high arousal in mind, other circumstances that initiate relational breakdown is that people spend a disproportionate amount of time together.  Hectic modern life routines mean that many families will rarely spend lengths of time together during normal week cycles.  With longer and more erratic working patterns, couples can literally pass the other going to work, managing the home and caring for children.  Christmas essentially forces people into the unusual situation of being with each other for long periods of time and removes the usual escape hatches that can be activated if tension becomes overwhelming.  This forced togetherness is further exacerbated by the intensive consumption of alcohol and compounded through the presence of periphery family members who are we often have fairly fractious relationships with.  A sniping remark or the disguised critique and disapproval is easily taken as a call to arms as we feel humiliated or devalued by those we would usually skillfully avoid.

"Do you remember when Christmas was all about the family getting together and having a big fight?"
“Do you remember when Christmas was all about the family getting together and having a big fight?”

Interesting dynamics are in play during the Christmas break, as individuals often place massive expectations onto one day.  The pressure for everything to be perfect is immense and on many levels is both unrealistic and unachievable, a formula that sets us up to inevitably fail.  The desire to make a fantasy into reality is one that I feel is underpinned by the high levels of disappointment that accompany most people’s everyday lives.  The feelings of not achieving youthful ambitions or being trapped in careers and social structures that are not quite what we expected are somehow transposed into Christmas.  The nostalgic childhood magic that made Christmas special translates into the adult domain and our hopes and dreams become pinned on achieving the perfect day.  All the personal and professional failures of the year will somehow become bearable if we can create the idealised version of what Christmas should be.  Unfortunately, most Christmas’s do not achieve this as ovens fail, presents are not quite right or somebody finds the drunken courage to tell a relative what they really think of them over the dinner table.  When this occurs I believe it can reenact all the losses of the past year and we feel shame and anger as Christmas once again fails to be perfect panacea to resolve the difficulties we experience in the real world.  This then leads to blame, criticism and conflict… The familiar cocktail of conflict that many families see erupting out of nowhere during a game of Pictionary or in the hazy and drunken lull that occurs post dinner.

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The dreaded post-Christmas slump is also always gnawing in our unconscious, as like the alcoholic or drug addict, the fantastic high of intoxication is always accompanied by the inevitable depression that follows.  Many families overstretch themselves financially and also hold that fearful feeling that once the festive period is over, the cold, dark days of winter that demand the payment for the extravagance are not far away.  In terms of psychology this creates an emotional context of threat that people often defend themselves from using over-exaggerated performance of childish excitement and denial of reality that sees people behaving like parodies of Disney characters.  Again this distances us from our authentic versions and compounds the difficult self-discrepancy described previously.

The final challenge at Christmas is the reactivating of previous traumatic experiences.  We will often unconsciously grieve for bereaved loved ones who are no longer here and the avoidance of morbid subjects means that the forced fun of Christmas makes these difficult emotions to share.  Many parents will also feel upset at Christmas, as families can no longer be together, or we become nostalgic at historical trigger points such as relationship breakdown, arguments and parents leaving home that occurred in or around the festive period.  This can cause unhelpful social comparison, where we start to validate our sense of self by seeing others as having more functional families or distorting how happy we once were at previous Christmases.  The effect of this can lead to people feeling isolated from the festivities around them, leaving them described as a killjoy or Christmas Scrooges.  It is worth bearing in mind, that for many Christmas has been experienced as traumatic or is feared to be a place that they will be shown up as not being good enough and will be forced to face their usually locked away attachment losses.  So, my advice is to enjoy Christmas by removing the need for it to be perfect and let it just be a day that it can be okay to feel slightly less than exuberant.  It may also be worth framing a classical family dispute as potentially an integral and necessary part of the developmental process and not a damning indictment of shameful dysfunction.

 

 

 

Gender · Harvey Weinstein · Men's Issues · Men's roles · Relationships · Society

The allegations of Harvey Weinstein -Contradictions and complexities of gendered violence…

The last few weeks has been dominated by the news story about the film giant Harvey Weinstein and has once again shined a light onto the abuses of male privilege and power, with a stark reminder of how this can lead to abhorrent misuse of position and violation of the vulnerable.  That being said, it is interesting how social media has castigated a person who has denied the allegations and has not been officially charged or convicted.  Action has been taken though as he has been ejected from the Oscars committee, denounced by his wife and openly harangued by scores of celebrities.  The whole situation has draws many parallels with the UK Jimmy Saville scandal, the most notable being that these abuses were known by many, yet were not disclosed.  Various positions are taken on this, the most liberal being that such power is difficult to challenge and that once one incident is made public, others find courage to speak out.  Less sympathetic positions claim that individuals turned a blind eye or ‘put up’ with their abuse in order to further their careers.  Like Saville, Weinstein was able to make and break careers of aspiring stars with a single word.  My personal experience is that people are often not heard when they disclose or are forced into silence by the ramifications of speaking out.  I have often worked with clients who only found courage in unity and were only able to discuss their trauma publicly after another comes forward.

I condemn Weinstein’s alleged as much as anybody and if these are taken to court, I hope that he is justly convicted of his crimes.  The first contradiction of what has happened is the treatment of Weinstein in comparison to how Donald Trump has seemingly brushed off equally inappropriate behavior.  Trump has been accused of rape by an ex-wife, openly spoken of ‘grabbing women by the pussy’ and been caught on tape numerous times objectifying women and discussing the sexual attraction he has to his own children.  Yet, one man who is still in a position of legal innocence has been thrown to the wolves and the other holds office and status as the most powerful man in the world.  Both men hold privilege and power in the upper echelons of American society, so it cannot be argued that one does not hold enough sway to dismiss the accusers as hysterical, jealous or delusional.  I personally find this really difficult to reconcile as surely having a man like this running the country is far more dangerous than a man casting for movies, so how do we decide upon the type of witches that we hunt?

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My personal feeling is social media that has allowed a mob mentality which sweeps people away with the popular choice and that half of the American population actually invested in Trump and so to now denounce him would be an admission of poor choice and oversight.  Conversely, I have seen a number of Weinstein’s movies, but had no real investment in him and knew very little about him prior to these reports.  The surge of post modern feminism has also made the scalping of Weinstein a desirable task, as he represents the gross patriarch who leers over the young actresses on his couch before deciding the fate of their lives.  Maybe Trump is less accessible as he seems a little more ethereal and removed from the public sense of personal interaction.  It also feels like an emancipation of the female position by women reasserting their sense of self as talented performers and not just pretty dolls to parade around movie sets, following the direction of the male overseers.

The second contradiction is one that has emerged for me on the basis of a couple of recent personal experiences.  I like to think myself as adopting an egalitarian stance where men and women deserve comparable treatment in areas such as pay and legal rights.  I also feel that women should not be harassed or intimidated as sexual objects, either professionally or in the social arena.  I also feel that the rise of the ‘banter’ brigade has simply re-framed bullying as banter, the activity is often about making a minority or a vulnerable person feel intimidated.  Bullying has negative connotations and positions one as abusive, but by exchanging the word for banter we can displace the responsibility onto the victim and accuse them of being too serious or not joining in with fun of the process.

Previous posts have considered how getting the gender balance right is notoriously difficult, as the rise of feminism has diminished the agency of some men; So who is this father fella who lives in my house?!?! and How do I look?!?!? – How a men are being forced into physical perfection.  This shift has led to men feeling disenfranchised and worried about their role as traditional male traits such as strength, decisiveness and protection have been transformed into misogynistic characteristics.  Whilst I agree that when these traits are over-amplified they can be seen as abusive, removing them completely is equally problematic, as it leaves many men unsure of how to behave and socially situate.  The result of this is completely detrimental to empowering women in the workplace as it now being seen that men will avoid contact with female colleagues as a measure to avoid being accused of sexual assault or inappropriateness – NY Times Article.

This is complicated further as men are sometimes called upon to be gentlemanly, manly and macho, but are then derogated for doing too much of this or incorrectly applying it.  One very apparent example of this is from Channel 4’s First Dates programme, a show that essentially puts couples in a restaurant for a first date.  They share a meal and then decide how the date went and if they would like a second.  The restaurant is frightfully expensive and the diners are often young and low earners.  There is often a really awkward exchange as the bill is produced and the man balks at the cost, he is then looked at by his date and has to make a decision to pay or not.  In accordance with a feminist position they should split the bill, but there is often offence when the woman is asked to contribute or the man simply says he is paying half.  The same woman has on occasion expressed highly political ideas about feminism over dinner, or chastised the man for his clumsy sexist remarks and attempts of flirtation.  Again a contradiction is highly apparent, as we cannot hold an equal gender perspective but also adhere to an old tradition of men paying the bill and expect a virtual stranger to pay for our dinner based upon chromosomal configuration.  Interestingly, gay couples on the show have a very different culture and the etiquette is that they ‘go dutch’.  This seems to suggest that being the same gender removes any assumptions about the role of who takes financial responsibility.

Going back to my recent experiences, one was at a professional workplace where I was a  single man in a group of women, I am often in this position as this profession seems to be heavily female weighted.  A discussion was occurring around how a man cheating in a relationship was to be dealt with and that he deserves fairly extreme physical violence such as being ‘punched in the face’, a story was also recounted about how a cheating ex was attacked with a shoe to the back of the head.  None of the people were violent by nature and generally never deal with issues through this type of force.  Yet, nobody challenged the behaviour and the group seemed to condone that this was an acceptable punishment to use for infidelity.  I spoke up, expressing my discomfort and made a hypothetical comment about would they cheer if I had a story of how my partner betrayed me, so as result I headbutted her and broke her nose.  I was looked at with disdain and astonishment, so I stated that they were actively encouraging gendered violence that is acceptable by women on men, yet given the same situation the other way round the behaviour receives universal condemnation

This is not an unfamiliar position, as it seems that the portrayal and response to media stories that express severe sexual violence to men, such as castration or penectomy are seen as funny and deserved for unfaithfulness.  This article talks of a female celebrity quite happily threatening this sort of violence against a partner during a radio interview.   Yet if a scorned man mutilated his partners breasts and genitals in a retaliatory assault he would be seen a psychopathic sadist.  Going back to First Dates, more subtle acceptances of one directional gendered violence is seen between the shows filmed sections.  Each encounter is summarised by a little cartoon to show how well the date went and if it goes poorly, a sequence will often show a woman slapping a man across the face.  Again, let us reverse the process and consider how unacceptable it would it be if I went on a disappointing date and as I stand up to leave, I slap my date across the face, citing her views on Brexit and my choice of blazer as unpalatable.

harvey-weinstein-cartoon-englehart

Another recent personal experience occurred this week as I attended a course at a University, which was led by a woman and contained a class of mostly women.  On both days the trainer began to make jokes about the incompetence of men when given responsibility for childcare.  This continued with remarks that men ‘must be trained’ to spend money on their women at Christmas and to treat them more.  I sat and listened quietly whilst the women jeered and howled at the notion of  ‘how this is what domestic life is like…’   This took place at a reputable educational institution on an IT course.  I wonder what the reaction would have been if this discussion about training and controlling women was orchestrated by a male trainer to a majority of men.  I imagine such pejorative sexism and discrimination would have been seen at best as  inappropriate and probably been the subject of a formal complaint.

How can we crave gender parity when such disparity exists, as when women are the aggressor their behaviour is often deemed acceptable, but when men are the protagonist it is inappropriate, chauvinistic and exploitative.  Both genders must take responsibility for preventing violence and for the more subtle discourses that maintain them.  We must hold fair views that apply to us all and not allow one gender to be treated differently over the other.  It is hypocritical and unhelpful that men are demonised when women can behave with similar impunity unchallenged.  Simply drawing attention to gender violations with lazy hashtags such as #mettoo polarise the debate, as I can imagine that we all need to also say #ihave, as given the right circumstances we can all make or behave along the unpleasant spectrum of disrespect and abuse.  That being said, rape and sexual violence must be seen as far more severe and traumatic than sexist discussions, but both examples perpetuate injustice that can cause escalation from unsavoury beliefs to harmful action.  The use of hashtags are an example of this problem, as #metoo has been rightfully claimed by the survivors of horrendous ordeals, but has also been used by a person who was described as sexually attractive by a workmate over dinner (LBC Radio – Nick Ferrari show this week).  It is difficult to imagine how they are both representative of the same phenomenon.

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It us worth considering that gendered abuse is complex and is something that we are all capable of when imbalances of power are not dealt with.  By simply labelling all men as abusive and all women as victims, we will cause more harm than good and will miss the nuances of a difficult debate.  The evidence of this in the treatment room is that domestic violence is now mostly effectively responded to when perpetrated by men on women.  Yet, when men are being abused, they often speak of lack of support, ridicule, marginalisation, victim blaming and minimisation by social networks and authorities, as well as a lack of accessible support services – Academic Article

Bereavement · Coming to Therapy · Difficult Emotions · Loss · Men's Issues · Men's roles · Relationships

The pain of bereavement… How loss makes us disorientated.

This is my first post in a few weeks as I have been busy with work and research and have also not really felt like writing.   Today’s post will have a personal element as I suffered a loss during the week and I am hoping this will be a way of both processing the event and achieving some learning for when I work with clients undergoing their own losses.  Much of my work is centred around loss and these can be located on a very varied spectrum.  The most obvious are the bereavements of family and friends, but loss can also take the guise of the breakdown of intimate relationships, loss of a job, changes in health or as more abstract losses such as when one loses personal choice, autonomy or liberty.

I have worked with some really excruciating losses with clients in recent months, the most difficult perhaps being the sudden passing of a child.  It is easy to empathise and imagine how this type of event would cripple the most resilient of people.  I think the underlying feeling expressed here is that it does not represent the expected natural order of the world.  At some level we all understand that parents and grandparents will eventually die and that as you approach middle age this becomes normalised as peers experience the parental departure. Even though when it happens it can be devastating, there is a part of the psyche that expects and understands that this is an existential inevitability of being human.

When the bereaved is a child, this mechanism is disrupted and the loss intensifies by the natural order of the world being defied and the perceived proper sequence of events becoming disjointed.  In these type of cases, clients often struggle to reach acceptance that the person has gone and they will often voice irrational bargaining narratives that they would swap places or that life will forever be contaminated and never as good as it was before the death of their child.  These type of expressions are not usually heard when the loss is in line with the natural order of things.  The function of the counterfactual expressions are often around alleviating guilt on not saving them, or simply that they are still here, yet their child is not.

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Another loss that often affects men I work with is how ill-health of themselves or a loved one forces an aspect of their identity to shift.  Many men, including myself define themselves by their vocation and we still have societal discourses that men are less masculine or emasculated if they adopt traditionally feminine roles of being either stay at home parents or a carer for those in need.  I have worked with numerous men who occupy archetypal male personas and have strong and masculine jobs such as policeman, builders or financiers.  When these roles are removed through circumstances such as declining health the individual suffers a catastrophic loss to a core identity component.  This leaves men wondering what their roles are and places them into unfamiliar positions of marginalisation and disempowerment.

An interesting phenomenon that occurs here is that men will often fantasise about their previous life, which they view as empowered and idyllic.  Similarly to the loss of a child, there is a real resistance to change expectations, to renegotiate their roles and decide what is now meaningful, rather than clinging to the memories of what they used to ascribe value to.  I think that this type of impasse epitomises the position of not being able to reach acceptance, a position that is often seen as the successful resolution of grief. I often wonder that is this ‘stuckness’ related to the increased levels of atheism that are now prevalent in contemporary British culture.  We may become isolated and helpless through our grief, as we no longer have the strong spiritual and religious beliefs that previous generations were able to use to sooth and re-balance perceived injustices and unfairness that often accompanies unexpected loss.

In comparison to the types of loss described above, mine feels inconsequential but as I always say to clients “We live the lives we do and that our experiences are valid”.  This sentiment is explained by the idea that we cannot simply compare our situation hierarchically to others by looking at people who have undergone greater suffering, or at the other end of the spectrum seem to lead easy and charmed lives.  I think that this type of rationalisation does not allow us to connect with our emotional state and can leave us with shame or anger as we try to suppress and resolve our own situation without being able to authentically process our emotional material.

My loss was of a pet bearded dragon, imaginatively named ‘boy beard’, I had been his owner for over 15 years and raised him and his mate ‘girl beard’ from small ‘moustaches’ to fully grown dragons.  When he died on Monday, I was expecting it and was relieved, as he had been shutting down for a few weeks and was ancient by species standards.  Yet,  I have spent the last few days feeling tremendously melancholy.  I have even had some bouts of uncontrollable tears and intrusive thoughts about missing him.  I rarely cry and this has been a comfort to me, as it enabled me to understand that he was a hugely important part of my life.  I have always been puzzled by the anthropomorphism of placing human emotions and traits onto animals, but I can say that I genuinely loved boy beard.

After much thought, I think I loved what he represented to me and that he had become internalised as a sense of security and safety.  I have many friends, but have always felt distance and an innate feeling that I am able to leave human relationships and survive. This has probably been derived from the fractured and at times unsupportive family of origin that I hail from.  I keep in touch with relatives, but I suppose that unlike many people they are not the place I go when in need or relationships that I greatly invest in.  The fear of being vulnerable and exposed is too much and somewhere I do not trust that these relationships will be consistent and available.   As a result boy beard had been a stable and constant ‘secure base’, that I had symbolically internalised as the ‘good mother’, a role that has been vacant for me for some time.  He was always available and never questioned me or asked too much.  He also had the fantastic ability to just allow me to be in his presence and feel content.  This is much like how Bion describes containment or how Winnicott talks about the holding of the infant by mother, that ultimately allows the infant to just sit and be without tension or impingement.

This was vitally important as the last 15 years have involved family estrangement, my journey into psychotherapy, loss of relationships and periods of physical, financial and emotional instability and uncertainty.  Boy beard was my transitional object, a symbolic entity that I was able to equate to reassurance and safety when distressed, and importantly was an object that I could take wherever I went and at some level represented home, safety and the feeling that things would be alright.  This is perhaps why his passing has had such a profound effect on my sense of well-being, as it has disrupted my sense of safety in the same way a toddler is inconsolable when leaving his favourite bear on the bus.  Like the missing teddy, I have fond memories of boy beard and will forever think of him as source of comfort when I feel that I am struggling.