From a letter to a friend on therapy:
You know, the whole question of therapy is a enigma and quandary in many ways because certain insights only became ‘available’ to me years later, some dynamics in therapy left me frightened or bewildered, other kinds of therapeutic relationship helped me break through a hiddenness and defendedness that I was not aware of in myself. There is an obliviousness many of us have that prevents us from seeing ourselves as others see us or from seeing the nature of what is wrong with us, what stops us from developing in certain ways or growing to maturity, what is not healing because we can’t see or feel we are bleeding.
What helped me a great deal, although it was extremely hard at the time, was participating in facilitated therapy groups for incest survivors and seeing others use strategies and mannerisms I myself relied on without being aware of them at all — and seeing how others were left baffled or withdrew. Slowly little by little I realised that although I understood why and how these kinds of behaviours had become part of me — a constellation that involved the secret drinking and diary-keeping, inventions of ‘other’ lives for myself, a refusal to interact in many ways except in evasive or cryptic ways, a closedness and determination above all to defend and protect something within me, a private despair that anything would ever change, a refusal to relinquish old memories of certain love affairs, the creation of a reified and static world within — the major issue facing me was how to break out of this self-created prison of what you might call a hermeneutically enclosed inner life.
This was the source of most of my adult suffering and prevented others from reaching me or being able to enter my ‘personal space’, a withdrawnness and sustained inner fantasy that made true intimacy impossible. I had to stop doing what I was doing in terms of controlling distances and the flow of knowledge/truthfulness between myself and others, defending myself against any kind of intrusiveness or closeness by others (I could not tell the difference).
And I began by stopping myself in therapy when I caught myself not telling the truth and starting over. I would correct myself again and again and try to get closer to the unpalatable or unbearable truth as I saw it, as others might have seen it, as the listening therapist saw it. After some years I found that my understanding of my own past and reality was now more partial and fragmentary but more trustworthy and also shared. The ‘lying’ and as-if behaviour that had helped me survive as a child had trapped me in a thin and idealised or deprecated awareness, solipsistic and unconvincing to all but me. I had to dismantle my self-understanding and stop trying to pre-empt others’ versions from interfering with my ‘master-version’ of what was happening or what explained my behaviour. The habit of anticipating others, rehearsing for imagined conversations, seductions, confrontations, countering others with unanswerable replies, controlling and editing the narrative — all this had to change. I had to let in witnesses and share my story enough to accommodate what they thought, to allow for the possibility they knew more than me and could shed light on what I did not as yet know — without yielding to the fantasy of another having all the answers and being in charge, being able to rescue me. Or the terror of finding myself again a helpless victimised child at the mercy of someone who did not care about me, that conviction that history would repeat itself over and over again without respite. I had to make space for what had not yet happened and what would be new and different.
For a long time I did not associate these self-defeating guarded patterns with my progressive alcoholism. But when I sobered up and befriended others in recovery, I began to see many of my own former defended and closed-off ways of relating in others. One person in particular was very similar to me and that may have been part of why I was drawn to him as a mentor. And old patterns in myself re-emerged as they recognised familiar ground, very disconcerting. His understanding of sobriety was cut-and-dried and not open to any questioning – and his personal life in sobriety was opaque, as mine had been once but was no longer. There was a generational influence at work, an older and more conservative gay man, reliant on a very South African macho pretext of self-sufficiency: he would never involve anyone in his decision-making or working through issues. He would only talk about something that had pained him when it was long past and for him, over. He was, like my earlier self, predictable, inflexible and isolated, his thinking a locked room, huis clos. He tended to assume that friends or work colleagues or authority figures would behave in certain ways and pre-empt that possibility as if it was a fixed outcome or certainty. In the sometimes antagonistic and sometimes more honest conversations we have had in the intervening years, he has admitted that he has begun to notice what he is doing and how it is unaccountable to him as a rational man — he has no idea why he would sabotage things in advance rather than risk having to suffer rejection or failure or disaster at some future time. Nothing could be left open-ended or to chance. How well I myself have known that! Hard-wired for failure, that was the underlying conviction. And he, this stubborn and dearly loved friend, may not change and that is not my concern. He too may have seen in me what he would rather not acknowledge in himself and had a similar awakening.
That hatred of change and refusal to let in the unknown is very familiar to me and often comes up in dreams — that I leave the party or sleeping house before something goes wrong (because it always will go wrong), that I tell a lover to leave me before the lover can announce he or she is going away, that I ward off the unpredictable by assuming the worst has already happened, that while dreaming and reliving the past I despairingly drink in order to bring on what is bound to happen in any case, that certain kinds of behaviours or reactions in myself are frozen, ritualised and feel necessary although there is in fact no necessity there. The refusal of change, the refusal to let others in, is death in life, the dance macabre with inevitability in the rictus grin.