For years I had searched in vain for a non-fiction book that would share what contemporary psychotherapy could be like. I found rows upon rows of books written from the therapist’s point of view, for professional therapists, peer to peer. I could not recognise myself in the accounts that I read. I longed for a fellow wayfarer to encourage me.
I had faithfully documented my own experience in a series of letters to my therapist. I decided to relate the entire arc of a therapy, from the very first session to the last - seen only from a client’s perspective, paying attention to the human detail. I wanted to write the book that I searched for when I was in therapy and could not find: someone willing to share her experience, in support of another.
From 2000 to 2006, I used all of my holiday leave to write in Cyprus and at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. Initially I hoped that my task was to edit the many letters I had written to my therapist over a seven-year period. However, I realised that the letters were not strong enough in themselves; they were resource material to draw on. My attention began to go to the screeds of notes I had kept of actual sessions. Could I transform them, with craft and rigour, into a compelling human story and reel a reader in?
It was as if I was repeating the process of therapy again, trusting, sensing, and allowing form to emerge. I set myself certain guidelines. I would not fictionalise anything in order to make a better story. I wanted humour to ease the pain. I would use no academic words, no jargon. My therapist had a background in psychosynthesis, among other trainings. I wanted to include illustrations of working within a psychosynthesis frame, shaped by my own studies at Eckhart House in Dublin and the Institute of Psychosynthesis, London.
Sometimes I worried that I had set myself an impossible task. I teetered on the verge of giving up (like therapy) yet kept going (like therapy). One day in Cyprus, I watched some children gleefully giving out stones they had painted. A fair-haired boy placed a pebble on my messy bundle of writing and ran off. There was a blue outline of a heart, filled with yellow. I kept the pebble beside me as I wrote. It reminded me to follow the heart-line of my story, as well as to connect to the act of giving required by the creative process.
By 2006, I had a full manuscript draft—and I hesitated about doing anything with it. I felt faced with the same old question: how could I make such a deeply personal story public, even though I had always believed in the importance of doing precisely that? Fear of intimacy (again) and the worry of hurting others held me back. Perhaps it was best to reconcile myself to the view (sometimes externally expressed) that the writing, in itself, had been helpful to me, even if it never reached another.
However, my manuscript would not let me go. I worked with an editor, Liz Hudson of the Little Red Pen. We attended to language, pacing and structure. Yes, I wanted to capture an authentic portrait of therapy – which is naturally fragmentary, chaotic, and repetitious – but I needed to help the reader navigate their way. I did not edit out the rawness and the tenderness, the grit and the grace, the frustrations and rewards. It was a gestalt that needed all of the aspects to be an authentic whole.
When I acquired a literary agent, Jonathan Williams, I knew that I needed to speak to my parents. My father was ill so I talked with my mother. She gave me her backing to go ahead and seek a publisher, in the hope that my book might help another and also give me pleasure as a creative act. It was an amazing act of love. It was only after my mother’s death in 2009 that I was able to complete a final draft. In 2010 I sent the manuscript to my therapist seeking his permission, which he gave. He did not ask me to change a single word. Thanks to his generosity, my book could ethically exist in the world. My therapist is not named in To Call Myself Beloved but I hope that my account stands as a tribute to him and to our work together.
The writer, Margaret Atwood, says writers often conceive of their work in terms of a boat. I certainly had an image of a paper boat as I undertook the final edit. I knew that I needed to summon up the courage to release it into the river. All of my innermost anxieties and personal issues would be visible. I decided that I had one precious life and to let it go. My book was published in late 2012.
Now the river takes the boat wherever it wishes. The little boat turns up on different banks and nets, people finding it, reading it, passing it on to someone else. Then it is placed back into the flow and off it goes again. I had originally thought that the professional psychotherapeutic community might not be open to an account of a therapy, written the ‘other way around’. This has not been my experience. I have been invited to give readings for the Psychoanalytic Section of the Irish Council for Psychotherapy, the Northern Ireland Institute of Human Relations, the World Congress for Existential Therapy, as well as various clinical reading groups. Some professionals have been outstandingly supportive and to them I am grateful. Several have reviewed To Call Myself Beloved in journals and actively sought to advocate for it in other ways. There is a wonder and a mystery to the process.
Publication has changed me in unexpected ways. I have connected to the joy of writing, to the pleasure of creating beauty out of pain. I now know what Oliver Sachs refers to as ‘the special intercourse between writer and reader’. What an honour. I receive correspondence from therapists, supervisors, trainee therapists and clients. I reply to all correspondence personally.
Sometimes I still wonder. Will the reader, for whom I wrote my book –someone in trouble – find it? My paper boat is small. Recently I was inspired by a visit to Casa Assagioli, Florence, participating in the Fifth International Meeting, organised by Gruppo Alle Fonti. I read a small, hand written note in the archival file called ‘Writing’ and was moved by Roberto Assagioli’s words of encouragement to himself, and to me.
I have often witnessed how the written word reaches, in most curious and evidently ‘directed' ways, those who need its message and just at the time when it is needed. Thus we cannot know how much good we are doing just by spreading far and wide the living seeds continued in spiritual writings. I hope this realisation will give you joy.
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