The doorbell rings and my panic rises because it might be a friendly neighbour who wants to talk to me or doesn’t want to talk to me and I might talk too much or too little and they’ll think I’m annoying, rude or both but I can stand in front of three hundred teenagers and talk to them about self harm, gender identity and love.
I am reminded that somebody should do a toast at a party and that somebody could and probably should be me and I think I am about to fall over because of the sudden buckling of my knees and the terror of getting the words wrong or looking stupid but I am about to deliver training to a county wide team about strategies that I have used to teach GCSE English to low ability classes.
Somebody I know a little has invited me to celebrate their birthday at a local pub and I really want to be sociable but I worry about what to do if nobody speaks to me or they do speak to me and I can’t hear them over the music or if everybody else there knows the person really well and they think I’m pathetic because I turned up looking so hopeful in this new town full of people who don’t know me but I can dance like a maniac at a party or do a random handstand in a park.
I stroke a person’s cute dog and the dog starts licking my ear and wagging its whole body and I’m so happy but then the person starts chatting and I worry because I don’t know when to stop the chat and how to say goodbye or end the conversation without looking weird but I can rock up to a therapy training course and talk about anything and everything with a class that I just met.
Coming up to any social occasion where there are people who are posher than me, which isn’t difficult if you saw where I come from opposite a high rise block of flats in a council maisonette with a corridor outside that people urinated in and a washing line that people stole underwear from, I spend days worrying about whether to kiss one cheek or both cheeks, how long to hug them for, whether to hug them at all and what to do if our mouths accidentally collide, but I can talk to a homeless alcoholic and offer him a job helping me to move house and I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t.
There’s a new neighbour and I know I’m supposed to be friendly and welcoming so I see him and say ‘hello I’m Ruth lovely to meet you’ but the words stick in my throat and I don’t think he’s seen me so I quickly open the door and scurry in like a terrified cat but I write about almost everything in my life on my personal blog and I don’t care whether or not anybody likes it.
I always feel that I am Tim’s little sister, I’m sure annoying at times; hopefully I have given him some proud moments as well, but one thing for sure I love having two big brothers. Sarah Seymour
He is the only person I know of who covered the seat of his Harley Davidson motorbike with a real tiger skin – one that was brought back from India by our grandfather, complete with bullet hole. Gavin Lishman
Lots of great memories from being my bodyguard in tricky situations, and protector on the rugby pitch. I remember us both watching ‘The Life of Brian’ in a cinema in Austria, completely dubbed in German and no subtitles, and we knew every line and were a step ahead of the audience! Martin Beecham
Tim gave very thoughtful birthday presents, particularly when we were growing up and he was endeavouring to guide our taste in music and keep up on the right track with a succession of interesting CDs. ‘The Strangers’ was the one I particular remember, and particularly enjoyed. Always something I appreciated. James Lishman
I first met Tim when I interviewed him for a place at Lincoln College of Art and Design. I remember being impressed by his rugby achievements and his ability to maintain his beloved Harley Davidson. Gordon Broadhurst
I love Tim’s generous (Spaldonian) nature and that he always has emergency condiments to hand. Faith Horne
I remember our drives to rugby training. It would take half an hour usually and we’d talk about films for a lot of it; never anything particularly insightful or any powerful critiques – just idle chat about films. There was never any pressure or expectation; it just came easily to both of us. Tom Lishman
One thing that has always stood out is his love of the simple things in life: a picnic, music, enjoying time with friends and family. Kas Tinkler
I always smiled when Tim would close his eyes and (properly) listen to a song he liked that was playing, often tapping his fingers or moving his hand to the rhythm. Matthew Lishman
I love that you know literally everything about musicians and actors from your younger days and can recite factoids about their musical history, personal relationships and prison sentences, but still know nothing about Kim Kardashian (‘who?’). Ruth
He is very generous, and very thoughtful, remembering little things about people’s lives and always asking how things are going. Will Stevely
Tim said he always had two Big Macs because he never thought one was enough, and Christmas dinner twice at the same sitting. Jeremy Lishman
I love the email essays you get from him. I love the easy going nature (99% of the time). Colin and Karen
I always think of Tim as someone who takes houses apart and puts them back together again, and the eating competitions at Christmas with multiple Christmas dinners. Carol Lishman
His sense of humour. Joan Mountstevens
I like Tim’s taste in music as I like most of what he does. Luke Winn
Tim has many qualities but two of the most memorable have to be Sunday Lunch eating competitions at ‘The Washdyke’ and designing and constructing the biggest and best playhouse in Hertfordshire! Janice and Peter Seymour
Our tutorials often involved tasting sessions of the latest home brew. His brilliant skills and creativity earned him a place at Kingston on Thames where he achieved a 1st class honours. I felt very proud of him. Gordon Broadhurst
Some of Tim’s best qualities are his kindness and generosity, and his dad jokes aren’t bad either. Abi Stevely
When we were on holiday in Norfolk, I think it was Tim, myself and Dad were working up the courage to go into the sea, which was very cold. Tim was involved in a lot of sport in those days and doing weight lifting to build himself up, so he was quite a fit looking young man. A short distance away, two similar aged girls were heading in the same direction and were looking our way. Dad kept prodding Tim to go and say hello and whatever else Dad thought he should say. We were both very shy of doing such things and Tim wasn’t budging, so Dad went over to them to try and arrange an introduction…as you can imagine, Tim was mortified. This was not unusual behaviour for Dad and the effect was always the same. Jeremy Lishman
We will always be known as ‘The Hobbits’ to Uncle Tim; we promise you there are no hairy toes in our socks. Nuala and Orla
You make the best breakfasts in bed with lots of coffee. You are spread. Ruth
From his MASSIVE yearly erection which he always took pleasure in showing me to his huge cucumber in the summer months was always a delight to witness. Sheila Willerton
His handwriting is cool and he always sends a card (or present) on special occasions even if sometimes late, but more importantly he always comes across as himself in the cards and writes nice messages. Matt Lishman
Love the way you give big cuddles when we come to see you all. Feen Seymour
I remember a few years later sitting on one of his beautiful benches at Heathrow airport that he designed at OMK Designs. Gordon Broadhurst
His healthy appetite and excellent time keeping always make us smile. But we love him. Helen and SteveCzornyj
He was never put off when I invited him to pop over for a beer in the summer house and observe my neatly trimmed bush and the chance to have a look at my huge melons. Size really did matter to Timothy and I in our world. Sheila Willerton
Tim or Dim is a lively dependable chap with the best sense of humour and in his teens the worst sense of dress (Judas Priest cap and leathers smelling of patchouli). Martin Beecham
I love how Tim makes my samples in no time at all. Tom Riddle
I love how Tim can never walk past the biscuit tin without grabbing himself a bite. Ellie Wainwright
I always enjoy his conversation around the table at family gatherings and dinners. He has a great sense of humour. Matt Lishman
The same bike also featured in a lucky escape for Tim who did a bit of dyke driving on it, managed to just miss hitting a fallen tree but stripped all the branches off as he slid down the trunk. Lucky for him that his big brother was on hand to help retrieve the bike and bring it home in Mum’s car, without her knowing! Gavin Lishman
My life has a huge hole since he dumped me for a younger woman but every now and then I smile when I’m busy in the garden thinking of him popping his head out of the bedroom window to comment on me hoovering the garden. Apparently, ‘normal people don’t do that!’ and the constant silly comments that went back and forth. Sheila Willerton
I love his various accents when asking a question. Correne Bratley.
(See above) How they change half way through the conversation, hahaha. Ellie Wainwright
Tim, you’re a dude. When I first met you I thought, ‘Yes, this is the man for my sister’, and you certainly are. You have been a rock for her and my nephew and nieces and I love you for it. Plus you give a great man hug. Happy birthday, proud to have you as a brother. Paul Mountstevens
His Daddy God prayer was the stuff of legend. Marvellous humour. Will Stevely
I love the level of optimism that makes you think you can do 59 things in two hours. Ruth
He is a very good hugger of elderly mothers ie me, or Mummsy, which makes me smile. Diana Lishman
The first time daughter met him when she was about three and he dozed off like Uncle Pig in a Peppa episode and she thought it was hilarious and called him ‘Uncle Pig’ for the whole time. Jonathan and Liz Mountstevens
Dad has always been supportive. In more recent years he’s been key in my pursuit of more eccentric life choices. A steady reassurance in the face of an unusual career path. Tom Lishman
Brevity, a concept Tim struggled to grasp…..Mark Langston
I love the way that you have transformed old places into beautiful spaces. Ruth
We always enjoyed his great enthusiasm for Christmas and particularly his magnificent Christmas trees that he takes so much care to decorate. Chris and Liz Dickinson
I love that we can be completely open and honest with each other and that talking to you feels effortless. I am immeasurably grateful for that connection and the role you have in my life because of it. Jess Lishman
He gives a great bear hug when greeting or saying goodbye. Matt Lishman
I love your music obsession, the live music we’ve seen together and the way there’s always loud music somewhere, especially when I’m working or when you listen to my lectures about how the lyrics are really sexist. Ruth
I love the way he types – very unique and he makes me look quick! Andrew West
My favourite memory of Tim is his Daddy God prayer and my favourite thing about Tim is that he is reliable and kind. Kirstin Stevely
He is a big, kind, gentle bear who treats Ruth like gold. Rohin added a big ginger bear. I remember how uncomfortable he was to lay on, and I might have to clarify that memory by adding he was the bottom layer of a human stack with Ruth, Devon and then Rohin on top of me. I’m more amazed that the couch survived than Tim. Peter, Raj and Rohin Mountstevens
Uncle Tim is such a kind, caring person and also slightly mad (in a good way). As a child I loved the playhouse that he built us in the garden. Kirsty Seymour
I loved spending time with Tim at the wedding; it was such a lovely week. I particularly remember hanging out on the beach and archery. Abi Stevely
I love how you sing tunelessly with enthusiasm and joy, and I love your very positive and funny atheism. Ruth
His sense of humour and likeness to Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel. Gary Brant
Aside from his creative talents, he has a fantastic, irreverent sense of humour. When I was his tutor he preferred to call me Mr ‘Broadthirst’, Mr ‘Bratwurst’ or Mr ‘Cloudburst’. He was a cheeky, loveable and very talented lad. Gordon Broadhurst
Apart from all this he is a very sensible man who is a pleasure to be with. Timothy, we hope now that you are 60 you will behave appropriately at all times and if you get to the end of this year and haven’t achieved it, GOOD NEWS!………………….you don’t have to! Sheila Willerton
We have had such lovely times with you Tim. From camping to walks on the beach in the rain, I am so pleased to call you my brother in law. You are kind, thoughtful, fun and sincere. You and Ruth are so good together and the best thing is you make her laugh and make her happy. Love you so very much brov. Helen Mountstevens
A funny memory of Tim is wondering exactly how big the Christmas tree will be each year.. Sarah and Peter Hommel
As a special needs teacher, I work with families every day, going into their homes and helping young people with learning difficulties or social and emotional health problems to make progress academically. This role often involves listening to stressed out parents. As a teacher in school, I also spent time making calls home or holding meetings for chats with parents. As a friend to others with children, I see people trying to raise children in a world that is more complex already than the one in which I raised mine. It’s a minefield of social media, online bullying, distance learning, and increasingly pressuring expectations for them to go to university and get a degree.
When my parents raised my siblings and me, I do not think for one second that they often stopped to wonder if they were doing it right. In conversations now, mum might reflect whether she made mistakes, but this is 30 years later! At the time, they seemed pretty certain that what they were doing was correct. I don’t remember receiving apologies from either of them, or hearing them ruminating over a perceived failure!
And yet nowadays, I hear so many comments like: ‘I just feel as though I’m letting them down all the time’. ‘I don’t feel as though I’m good enough as a mum’. ‘I feel so guilty’. ‘I have terrible mum guilt’. ‘I worry all the time that they will become unwell’. ‘I worry that I’m going to mess them up’. ‘What if they never forgive me for mistakes that I make?’ ‘I feel awful because I didn’t (insert some type of caretaking gesture that might have been pleasant but definitely wasn’t necessary)’.
I remember feeling guilty when I had to leave Will with a childminder whom he did not like. He used to complain bitterly about going once a week for two hours at a time. A wise friend told me to stop feeling guilty because I wasn’t neglecting him, the childminder was a lovely kind person, and Will was miserable only because he wanted mummy and actually being with somebody else for a couple of hours was not doing him any harm at all. He has subsequently grown up without any longstanding resentment about this trauma!
In other respects, I did let my kids down. I had poor mental health, for a start, for years, and didn’t know it. I knew that there was something wrong with me, because I’d fly into a rage about minor things after being as patient as the proverbial saint for weeks on end, and I was an awful mum at times, saying and doing things in an explosive temper that I then grovelled about afterwards. I thought it was just a case of learning to control myself and become a better person. I felt shame about it. And yet, now, my children love me and accept me despite these failures. We have an open dialogue about it, and they can see and respect that I have grown loads as a person and have worked on my mental health.
And yet, I hear younger parents than me striving continually to be perfect. They worry about losing their patience, missing a symptom of illness for a couple of days or failing to check everything in the child’s school bag one morning. They feel shame and guilt over really minor things. They feel responsible for everything that the child experiences every day. They want to wrap the child in cotton wool and ensure that their lives are always happy and always positive.
This collective obsession with perfectionism is driving people insane! Our younger generation have worse mental health than ever. The wrapping them up in cotton wool isn’t achieving anything. When parents are anxious and worried, the kids then become anxious and worried about the parents’ anxiety and worry. It becomes a vicious cycle of doom, with kids not opening up to parents for fear of triggering an anxiety and guilt response.
I have had to learn the hard way that my anxiety and perfectionism isn’t my kids’ problem. When they have suffered with health problems both physical and mental, I have had to learn to deal separately with my emotional reaction. The worst things a parent can say are: ‘I am so worried about you’, and ‘I can’t stand it when you are suffering’. By saying those things, we make their suffering about us. One of my children took the time to tell me so and I am forever grateful for that honesty. I am grateful because, faced with my own anxiety, guilt and shame, and unable to share it with her, I sought therapy and grew as a result of that.
If I were able to talk to my younger self as a parent, I would tell her that she doesn’t have to be perfect. She just has to show up every day and do her best. Many her kids experience is out of her control. They will go to school and get treated unfairly by a teacher, bullied by some hideous friend, excluded from a party, put in detention for forgetting their pencil, dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend and suffer with physical of mental illnesses that we cannot protect them from or prevent. From a parent, they need consistency and self-care. We have to take care of ourselves so that they can see how it’s done. They need us to be mentally robust and to have strategies for peace and calm internally and externally. They also need us to be able to get it wrong and to then take accountability for that and, when needed, to apologise and to learn from it.
There is a term coined by a child psychologist, Bowlby I believe, that the ‘good enough’ parent really is good enough. Perfectionism and unrealistic expectation has no place in family life. We muddle through and mess it up, and then get up and try again. And again. The most important thing to do is to love: both the kids and ourselves! I am close to my adult kids now, despite being a hopeless twat a lot of the time, because I loved them, I tried my best with what I had at the time, and if that’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me!
I have a close bond with my mum. Despite my breaking away from the way she raised me, tightly bound by fundamentalist doctrines and lifestyle, we have a deep and abiding love for one another.
I care for her as she has cared for me. This is a human love, born from the nurture that she gave me: the bedtime stories, the cuddles, the walks in the woods and the warming heart-to-heart cuppas around the table in my teens.
She was a good mum – the sort who you feel goodness emanating from like sunlight. Her love was tangible and it got me through the abandonment in my first marriage, the stress and anxiety of a child’s mental illness and even my own mental illness in the form of an eating disorder. Knowing that she had my back was enough, at times, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She didn’t approve of my divorce, but she approved of me, and that was enough.
Mum has supported me through re-marriage, which she disagrees with. She is always on the other end of the phone to chat things through with. We are close.
As for me, I strive to be there for her as she cares for my dad, who has dementia. Her role is a tough one as every day he loses a little more of himself. She needs equipment to get him through each day and carry out his little routines of washing, toileting, eating and getting back into bed for the whole, boring, unremarkable process to start again. Anyone who knows or is a carer will know how it is.
In my turn, I am committed to being there for her as she is now in a weaker position and I love her with all my heart. She is an amazing carer with a determination to keep her man with her until she can no longer manage. He is the luckiest man alive when it comes to a wife, and I have her back as much as I can whilst still having to work to earn a crust.
Yesterday I had a shock as Mum received a card from a friend and couldn’t read the writing. ‘I’ll read it out’, I offered, only to read that the friend is praying for mum’s family members’ salvation. I read out the words as though they were the most natural thing in the world, trying to blank out what I was reading, knowing that it was deeply upsetting but putting my responses to one side. When I finished reading it, there was no comment. Mum looked a little embarrassed. We went about the rest of the day as usual.
It has bugged me ever since. How can we really be close to people who believe, deep down, that we are going to an eternal hell of perpetual flames and suffer forever?
From their perspective, the bible says this is true. ‘Should not perish’ suggests that unbelievers will ‘perish’ (‘perish’ isn’t really the same as burning forever but there we are). Jesus talked about Hell though. It’s clear that the evangelicals have put bits together and concluded that Hell is real and that anyone who is not a Christian is going there. For my Mum, this isn’t something that she relishes. I expect it causes her a great deal of anguish, hence the prayers. But, I wonder, if they REALLY believed that their children were going to bodily be tortured in a furnace forever, would they go about their days in a normal manner? Is there cognitive dissonance going on here?
I am trying to see it from her perspective. I know she wouldn’t want it to be true but is resigned to the ‘fact’ that it is. Perhaps I should have compassion for somebody with such an abhorrent and miserable belief.
But here is a thing. How can they be so happy and joyful about going to Heaven forever to be with the Lord, when most of the world around them are going to Hell forever to suffer torments? This is something that I would love to ask but probably never will.
It isn’t Mum’s fault that I read the card. She never talks to me about her beliefs in this respect. She didn’t know that I was going to read it. These are the sorts of rationalisations and defences that can sometimes calm me and enable me to move past things. But they’re not really working. The issue has got me riled up.
The card was a stark reminder that, despite it all, my own mother believes that I am doomed unless I become a different person. I will never be able to believe that Jesus is the only way. I have too much respect for Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, agnostics and good people everywhere. I will never be able to believe that God, if She is real, has only space for one branch of faith. Is a faith in eternal torment for unbelievers even a faith? People need salvation from what? Their own God?
I have a love in my heart that is pure and good. I don’t need a label for it. It is just who I am and it’s good enough.
The card made me sad. It completely disrupted the feeling of harmony with my mother that I have enjoyed for years. I need time to recover from that. It was upsetting.
A lot of life is about muddling through and trying to be authentic and real despite the challenges of loved ones who differ. I cannot be other than who I am and, I suppose, neither can my mum. Therein lies the problem.
I expect that I, and anybody else in my situation, must find a way to box these matters, shelve them up, never open them, and focus on the commonality that they share with their loved ones. I have three brothers and we all cope with the cruelty of fundamentalism in different ways. My youngest brother knows the bible better than I do as he was raised to be a preacher, and he teaches A Level Religious Studies with academic rigour and theological understanding. He finds immense satisfaction in intellectual rejection of fundamentalism.Some anger, some forgiveness, a lot of goodwill and kindness; one has religious faith, the rest of us do not. For me, I suspect that we need to somehow find a way to focus on what we share: the memories, the laughter, the weird, bendy thumbs that we all have and the mutual support that we offer.
Finally, the family that we choose – our friends. I share this here because I know that there are so many who understand and are in this situation. I know how many people forge a path through their escape from nasty fundamentalist beliefs and how deep the hurt goes when confronted with those beliefs in the present day. We can find fellowship with each other and with friends who share our values. Friends are the family that we choose. For me, after this brush with something so painful that I don’t think I can raise it or discuss it with my mum, I need a break. I need my friends, my space, my husband and my own company to recalibrate and rejuvenate.
The part of the mind that Freud described as ‘the ego’ can be described as ‘I’ – the part of the personality that we think of as ‘ourselves’ and that needs to arbitrate between our drives, passions and desires and the internalised constraints of the society within which we live and work. We all know the struggle of wanting to do something, like punching some work colleague smack in the mouth, and suppressing it, only to stick a middle finger up at an impatient driver. The id and the superego are easy enough to define: one wants sugar all day and the other wants us to be disciplined and well-behaved. For those in committed partnerships, one imagines random strangers getting naked and the other reminds us to behave like a civilised adult.
However, it’s the ‘I’ that I’m concerned with. What is the ‘self’? Some say it’s a construct, always changing, thought up by the imagination – a construct that exists within the particular cultural and social context of each individual. The ‘self’ might be ‘kind’ or ‘generous’, ‘passionate’ or ‘brave’. The ‘self’ might simply be described as a character that we have assigned to ourselves and thus ‘self-esteem’ relates to how that perception is created. Therefore it can change with focused work in this area of linguistic description.
I don’t think the ‘self’ is exactly this simple a construct. I think it’s the part of our brain that experiences the world, and interprets each and every experience that confronts it, in a way that works for the individual. When, for example, I stand in front of a crowd and am asked to speak, my ‘self’ is the fragile hologram shaped by a combination of abject fear and the requirement to present myself as confident, articulate and knowledgeable. My ‘self’, therefore, is the receptor of a bombardment of emotional, sensory and intellectual stimulation, required in each given moment to interpret these and respond in a way that doesn’t shatter me in a hundred different ways. As people, we are exposed to dangers, both real and perceived, on a minute by minute basis, and our ‘selves’ have to negotiate these in a delicate balance of inner and outer worlds.
Our ‘selves’ therefore are amazing, intricate marvels of evolutionary development. But how do most of us face each moment and its infinity of stimuli? There are a gazillion answers to this but I suspect that lots of us use a variety of defensive techniques. Humour is one of them. Intellectualisation is another. How many of us show our ‘selves’? How many of us even know our ‘selves’?
I believe that we are drawn to those who feel intensely. It’s surely why we love animals. They do not hide behind humour or intellect but demand love and attention. Anyone who sees the bliss in a dog greeting its owner, the complete abandonment of joy and adoration, smiles in recognition of its purity. When we see a scared cat, revealing its fear in a cowering posture, seeking to make itself as small as possible, we feel a sense of love for the helpless creature. Children and babies captivate us with their emotional transparency. When they’re sad, their lips shoot out and when they’re happy they jump and hug themselves. I’m not sure what to say about people who don’t feel these reactions, other than that I pity them because anyone who doesn’t like animals or children has really just lost at life already!
At times of emotional need in my life I have attracted people who want to defend me. Open and obvious vulnerability brings attention as does passion, excitement, happiness and enthusiasm. It’s fine to be a closed book – if we want to live a lonely life. If we want to be loved, then we need to let at least one person in. Which leads me to connection.
What connects people? Is it inane conversation about the weather, how many kids they’ve got or what their job is? Although these chats can be sociable, enjoyable and engaging, they are precursors to true connection, which only occurs with the sharing of emotion. Not just the re-telling of emotion, but the experience of it. Tears in the eyes, whether of laughter or grief, bring an opportunity for that spark of magic. The re-hashing of emotion isn’t the same; it doesn’t work in words alone. It’s the experience. Being present in the face of genuine emotion is a privilege and a gift. If somebody lets us into their world, they show us who they are on the inside. They show us their ‘selves’. And only in that revelation, can we truly connect.
It is these connections that make us healthy. Knowing that at least one person knows us and has experienced the revealing of our emotions and has our backs makes us live longer. I don’t mind having friends on the fringe, but I want to know people deeply, too. At least a handful is enough for me. Some people need less.
Even outside of my closest friendships, I love to discover what people experience. I remember and treasure heartfelt observations from others. At Newark Toad Rescue, a high-end operation which involves buckets, nets, torches and high-vis jackets, I chat with a woman who obviously loves the warty little creatures as much as I do, for ‘their intrinsic value’ as she put it. This revelation of her inner world and perception, combined with the tenderness with which she places toads into her red bucket, makes me feel connected to her. A child told me recently that his mum makes him happy and I felt warm and fuzzy. Another child started to cry when it was time for us to leave, and his untamed emotion made us all adore him.
Who we all are on the inside is an amazing kaleidoscope of perceptions, memories, images, connections and experiential truth. We all have this treasure trove of worth within. It’s not connected with what we do in my opinion. People do terrible things because the ‘self’ has experienced and interpreted something badly, in a way that doesn’t reflect the society within which they operate. It doesn’t make them fundamentally less worthy. Like the toad, each individual has intrinsic worth.
Psychoanalytic theory believes that anxiety, depression and a host of other mental conditions occur because of an imbalance in the parts of the personality. Superego has a lot to answer for with its internalised shame. The healing of the ego, or ‘I’, is the only way to heal the whole person. It is possible through the formation of a ‘bond of trust’ with another person, who may be a therapist, and the development of health promoting behaviours in daily life. The type of therapy doesn’t matter. It’s the ‘bond of trust’ that creates the healing.
Therapy provides an opportunity for two ‘selves’ to connect in a way that probably doesn’t often occur in daily life, because of time constraints, embarrassment, self-absorption and distraction. As a therapist, I hope I can bring my deepest self, my ‘I’ into the therapy room and meet other ‘I’s, and connect with their experiences, perceptions and emotional lives. The privilege of doing this work is something that fills me with anticipation because it’s real in a way that most of us rarely encounter.
And outside of the therapy room, I want to focus on the fact that it’s this ‘bond of trust’ that promotes healing, no matter what the approach or the technique. I want to focus on that because, in the final analysis, what heals us every time is love. Not the self-seeking, pleasure-grabbing, exoticised type of love that is portrayed in our shallow media, but the sharing, compassionate, powerful acceptance of one another’s deepest selves.
As I’m training as a counsellor and am currently only a baby at this, with an exam in January, I have spent a fair bit of time pondering what the theory all means. I don’t mean what it actually says, or even what it means on the surface, I mean – how does it actually help anybody?
Last week we scratched the surface of Freudian theory. Despite all the problematic elements of the ideas and the person himself, he remains the founder of psychotherapy and his ideas still form the bedrock of more modern interpretations of the ideas. We went through the idea that the personality is made up of three parts: the ego, the superego and the id.
I think most people know more or less what these are. To recap, the id is an inner child with no conscience or awareness of morality, societal norms or acceptable behaviour. It is the part of the personality that wants everything and gives nothing. Its only concern is survival and it does not constitute rational thought: it exists in the subconscious and presents itself as emotions, desires and perceived needs. The superego is the foil to the id. It is the part of the personality that cares deeply about morality, society and acceptable behaviour. It is the part of us that is concerned about fitting in, being liked, looking the way that society expects us to and behaving in ways that will result in positive outcomes. The ego is the wavering, confused, often weak and sometimes exhausted person in the middle, trying to tread a path that keeps the others happy. It isn’t moral and it isn’t especially thoughtful. It just has to make a decision that will make the person feel OK and won’t end in disaster. I think that about sums it up.
How does this help? I know that there’s a ton more to psychodynamic theory, but I’m just thinking about this tiny bit. I like to apply knowledge and ask whether it’s useful, which is why I love Professor Steve Peters’ ‘The Chimp Paradox’. It’s not only a useful analogy of the brain, but he provides lots of really useful and practical advice about how to manage the chimp and how to become more human.
As somebody who struggled most of my life with an eating disorder, starting at thirteen with anorexia and then developing binge-eating, then exercise bulimia and a whole host of EDNOS stuff in between, I often try to figure out what was going on in my brain. I think that in Freudian terms, my obsession with food and eating must have developed in some sort of rebellion to the control and dominance of the church community. There was no escape from it; we were controlled in every way. But there were always cakes. Yummy, sugary, pink French fancies, homemade chocolate tiffin, moist Victoria sponges and of course Mr Kipling varieties every Sunday at home, church, bible class and Tuesday special. There were sweets, sandwiches, roast dinners, packets of crisps, club biscuits, penguin biscuits, jelly and icecream, crumbles and tarts. Churches in the 70s were a smorgasbord of culinary delights, and ours was no exception.
I enjoyed eating so much that, aged 18 months, I snuck into the larder and ate the centre out of every piece of bread in the bread bin. There’s a photo of this auspicious event. As a child, I was a big eater and remember the doctor patting my tummy and complimenting me on ‘enjoying my food’. I guess this eating enjoyment was driven by the id, but then the superego kicked in at the age of 13 when I inadvertently lost some weight on holiday and was told how amazing I looked and how I was slim like my Auntie and pretty now. All this societal praise and admiration made me determined to lose another half a stone like a good girl and be slim, worthy and more acceptable to everybody. The great thing about this strategy was that the approval came from everybody and not just the Christians! School friends, boys, my pervy piano teacher, more boys and everybody in the family and at church. Nobody ever expressed any concern as I got thinner, developed a thigh gap and became too exhausted to walk up the stairs, never mind bike to my piano lesson.
I started eating so little that I was starving by the weekend and started bingeing cake. The id would win at that point – survival instinct – but then by Monday the superego would kick in again and the diet would re-start.
Where was the ego in all this? I don’t actually think I ever made a decision that was based on anything good for myself. I was so busy trying to please everybody around me that I didn’t know who I was. I’d say it wasn’t really until I was 33 at university and achieving 1st class grades at a good university that I began to consider myself as even having a brain and possibly using it from time to time. I started to reason, to be logical, to apply critical thinking and quickly the whole pack of cards of my internalised belief system came crashing down.
I have built myself up from scratch and spent considerable time getting to know who I am. The upshot is that I’m an OK person who likes to learn, read, talk about meaningful issues, have a few good friends, keep to myself a lot, exercise every day in fresh air and is kind, loyal and sensitive. I’m OK with myself now. I can spend whole weekends in my own company and look forward to it. I am friends with myself. I didn’t know how to do that before and I think it’s that and only that which can drive significant change in life.
When there’s one of the three Freudian components running the show, whether it be the id or the superego, the person is described as ‘neurotic’, which to me just means unhappy and unbalanced in some way. It might be anxiety, depression, eating disorder, OCD, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or just low-level dissatisfaction. The ego needs to be in good shape to take charge of our lives. Here some some of my thoughts about achieving this.
Get superego into perspective
Getting the personality in good shape might mean burning down traditions, scrapping the status quo and doing whatever it takes to be in the centre of our own lives. So many of us go through life in servitude to what others think. Pretty much every woman I know has had ‘mum guilt’. What? Has anyone even heard about ‘dad guilt’? Why do we drive ourselves insane feeling guilty because a) we go to work or b) we don’t? This is the superego and, really, it can piss right off. We are here for a reason and it isn’t living a ghost life trying to keep everybody happy. Instead of saying, ‘I can’t keep everybody happy’, just accept that we can’t do that and get on with doing the best we can to live a meaningful life as best as we can and in a way that works for ourselves and our families.
Be kind to the id
If you’re craving sugar, or finding yourself binge-eating, shopping too much or doing anything that you don’t really want to do and wish you could stop, and your id in running the show, there’s probably a very good reason for that! Are you living your own life or is superego in charge, shouting expectations at you about how to behave, what to wear, how to change your body, judging your parenting, saying you look tired and should be wearing makeup? This aspect of the personality is annoying and mostly wrong and inappropriate. It’s helpful to have superego because she will stop you murdering your child or throwing dinner over your partner when they bring mud in the house. But mostly I really think she is shouting abuse in an attempt to control what she thinks is dangerous. It’s wrong! And if superego is shouting unrealistic things, then id is going to kick off. Id doesn’t like to be controlled and there will be an outlet somewhere along the line. The answer to this is to look after yourself. Properly! Say ‘no’ to people, practice being honest and setting boundaries and take time to actually have fun and do what you enjoy for once.
Boost your ego
I’ve had therapy and it’s really helpful. Nobody ever told me about the id, ego and superego, but along the way I learned to make good choices and build a solid relationship with me. It’s so worth it for whatever it is that’s making life difficult. Buy less shit and get a course of therapy. Best money ever spent.
An unapologetically soppy poem by me as a young mum. I am still crazy about this boy and he is still a cuddly one, but he’s now known as Will, mostly keeps his clothes on and is slightly less obsessed with his Gameboy.
Bare feet thudding across landing, slow scuffle-drag of wooden door on carpet;
he glides spectrally towards me, perfectly, unabashedly bare,
and confidently scrabbles into the darkness,
where he snuggles dazedly into sleep-laden arms until
the alarm shatters the body-warm bed nest, and my finger tips
tickle his sturdy, satin back while he squirms and chortles,
then turns around and unfailingly takes my breath away with
a long-lashed milk chocolate gaze.
We walk into the freshly-laundered morning;
his wind-chilled hand homes into mine until an aeroplane,
a cloud, a cat or a lorry demand his body’s focus;