Difficult stories

Sometimes when I listen to my clients’ stories, one catches me by surprise. Recently I was caught off guard when, in the last 10 minutes of our time together, at the end of the sixth of six contracted sessions, my client spoke up and spoke clearly, saying “perhaps I should tell you about this, perhaps this may be relevant”.

What followed was one of the more distressing accounts I have yet heard, understated and yet so alive in the room – an account of abuse, pain, confusion, fighting back, and yet ultimately aloneness. I am not the first person that this client has told, this was no secret, but I am the first person who has a professional responsibility to respond somehow to the story.

How do therapists respond to things that took place twenty, thirty, forty years ago? We can’t change anything. We can’t alter the circumstances or the context in which the events took place.

We can hold; metaphorically (and sometimes quite literally) the teller needs to be held, to be told they are safe, that those things aren’t happening to them now, that they have done an amazing thing and have survived to tell their tale.

We can listen; what happened in the past to a young person may need updating into adult language for the present adult to truly make sense of what they experienced.

We can explore; yesterday’s events have an effect on how we live today, and on how we perceive what is going on around us. Strategies we developed then, which served to keep life manageable or even survivable, will have a different result now, and we may appreciate help to revise these strategies, one step at a time.

And at the close of each session we need to attend to our own selves, to notice how we have responded internally to what we have vicariously experienced with our client. Has it touched on anything from my own story? What feelings has it spawned in me? Am I feeling sad, angry, disgusted, enraged, violent, defeated, relieved, anxious, bored, exhausted? What do I need next?