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The Creativity of Therapy

Beach House meadow pic
Beach House

Several months ago I became aware of a niggling feeling that my life was lacking in a sense of creativity. Corresponding with an actively artistic friend in the US, I lamented that the most tangibly creative thing I had done in what felt like an age was compiling the mix CD I was shortly going to post to her. Now don’t get me wrong – I put a lot of time and care into that mix CD and actually got a great amount of pleasure from listening to it myself afterwards, but somehow it didn’t seem enough. I was reminded of a feeling I had in my late teens – while a large portion of my friends were busy displaying their creative chops in various bands, I occupied the more sedentary position of musically-ungifted music-obsessive. You could ask me anything about Björk’s latest offering or the hot new band to come out of New York (this being the post-Strokes early noughties), but in more actual terms my creativity on that front was seemingly confined to the curating of, again, mix CDs. It seems this vague sense of ennui had persisted on some level since then – dissatisfaction at being the perennial audience member but never the creative driving force.

More recently, however, I have been reassessing this somewhat one-sided view of things, opening my mind to the wider scope of different ways one can be creative. For example, writing this blog is creative, but so is making up a nonsensical song in the shower. Chief among these explorations was the realisation (and something I had never concretely conceived of before) that therapy, as a process, is a deeply creative endeavour – and this is something I engage in with other people every single week. I was inspired to this thought after reading an interview with one of my favourite bands, Beach House, in the aptly-named article:

Beach House on creating your own world

Equally apt was the fact that it came from The Creative Independent, a Brooklyn-based initiative whose goalis to educate, inspire, and grow the community of people who create or dream of creating.’ That’s a whole lot of creativity going on.

Like the typical therapeutic relationship, Beach House is made up of just two people, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally. Starting with that principle, I was struck by some of the similarities between the pair’s musical and songwriting partnership and the partnership I aim to establish with my clients – one of equality and respect that is also constantly evolving. As Legrand elaborates,

It’s always changing and it’s also always surprising us, too. I think we are still finding new ways of working together. It’s not something predictable. Yesterday we were talking about this, I was saying, “Isn’t this funny how we’re doing this now?” Or, “This is different than it used to be. I like this. I’m glad we’re doing things this new way.” I think you never stop getting close to somebody. In any partnership it’s a lot of hard work, but when you get past the fact that it’s hard work, there’s this nice oasis where it does feel effortless and you get these little surprises.

To me, this is very much akin to how the therapeutic relationship gradually deepens over time, from early days possibly characterised by a sense of optimistic apprehension to a freer sense of shared intimacy, where being oneself with another feels more comfortable, less scary. And this is creative. Therapists help their clients to explore, challenge, accept, adapt, plan, move, and so much more. We can aid them in reassessing a life situation, give perspective on how they can reform or reject the status quo, and then bear witness as they reshape their pasts into a more satisfying present. Doing so is not as simple as merely sitting across from someone and asking them how they feel (in spite of the enduring therapist stereotype). It requires curiosity and creativity from the practitioner, and an equal dose of the same from their client – after all, what could be fundamentally more creative than forging a new or more authentic path for oneself? As Legrand expands, from a musical standpoint:

It’s really just a journey for each individual… Maybe you’ll discover through music that you’re actually a painter, so maybe you should do that instead of trying to be a rock star. Maybe you’re something else. I think that it’s just about asking questions, but also producing things and making stuff. It’s the only way, really, to find out who and what you should be… Being creative, making things, figuring yourself out—that’s never a waste of time.

Ultimately, the spirit of creation and creativity, of embarking on a journey into the unknown, of asking questions and figuring things out, or, to paraphrase David Bowie, turning to face the strange (ch-ch-changes), is really at the heart of the therapeutic encounter. Now all I need to do is create a mix CD that sets these ideas to music… Suggestions?

Simon

Beach House’s latest album, B-Sides and Rarities, was released in June of this year. Listen to its lead single below:

Beach House – ‘Chariot’

To be or not to be (an openly gay therapist)?

Joe Caslin Marriage Equality mural Dublin
Joe Caslin’s iconic Marriage Equality mural on Dublin’s George’s St, April 2015

Firstly, this is a reflection based on my own experiences and is not intended in any way as a judgement towards other therapists in a similar position, nor is it intended as a didactic call to arms for mass change. I would simply like to share my thoughts and potentially start a dialogue.

So, I was recently invited to contribute a short biography for inclusion on the Insight Matters website. For continuity, I decided to go to my Nozomi website and basically copy some of the main points I had written there about me and my approach to therapy, and thus offer a summary for anyone looking at my bio on the IM site. I came to the part about the kinds of problems I have helped my clients with, and as usual I mentioned that I have worked with sexuality, identity and LGBTQ issues. As I breezed past this element of the list, however, I became aware of a feeling of dissatisfaction with the phrasing – something in me wanted to make more explicit my connection with the final part of that trio. So I removed ‘LGBTQ issues,’ replaced it with simply ‘sexuality/identity,’ and then formed a stand-alone sentence (written in the third person, as is the norm for these kinds of things) that read something like He is especially interested in mental health issues that affect the LGBTQ community. Then I stopped and considered how this might read to someone who has never met me, either personally or professionally – someone who is simply reading my bio on a website and has no prior knowledge of me whatsoever.

So, why is this guy especially interested in mental health issues that affect the LGBTQ community? As a concerned citizen? As a curious outsider? As a professional who maybe just has a lot of gay clients, regardless of his own sexual orientation, and has decided to specialise in this area? Or, is it because these issues are actually part of his own story? For me, the most honest answer is the final one – so I found myself wondering, what would it be like to make that clear? On this blog I have made my love of music and nature plain for all to see. Conversely, though I have also done posts about Gay Pride and my thesis, which centred on gay and lesbian experiences, I consciously fell short of definitively saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m gay.’ As this thought came to me I felt a conflict that has resonated in me on some level for a long time, even though I came out many years ago. I have lived nearly my entire adult life as an openly gay man, and yet something in me, every now and then, still makes me stop and say to myself, ‘But do they really need to know that about you?’

When I open this question up (as Panti did in her fantastic Noble Call speech in 2014), I can see all sorts of traces of shame and embarrassment that have lingered on in me from the days when I actively worked to hide my true identity from the world. It’s not a nice feeling. Having got through those times when universal concealment was second nature, I now strive to uphold the principles of honesty, openness and being yourself. Yet there was still a part of me that looked at that contentious sentence and said, ‘Ah sure, it’s grand.’ But it wasn’t. For me (and just for me), leaving that sentence as it was felt like I was somehow colluding with that feeling I had when I was younger that told me to keep quiet and not ‘bother’ anyone else with my sexuality. After all, it doesn’t define me, does it? No, but being gay is part of who I am, and I don’t necessarily want to keep that under wraps.

Now, there are many schools of thought in the world of counselling and psychotherapy about how much or how little a therapist should self-disclose to their clients, and clearly this is an extremely important boundary to maintain. Obviously if the therapist habitually reveals inappropriate and irrelevant details of their private life to the client, then that is wholly unprofessional. But to me, stating that I am gay in a public forum is not inherently inappropriate or irrelevant. If I am meeting the client as I am, simply as another human being (albeit one who has training and experience in a specific helping profession), then putting a blanket over the potential for them to find out that I am gay because of a desire to maintain a certain professional distance or perhaps even a personal fear of judgement/disapproval would be somewhat incongruent – if I am to assist someone, of any sexual identity, to work towards fully becoming themselves and being proud of who they are, for what they are, then I feel it would be a shame for me to cover up my own personal appreciation of the difficult journey they are undertaking.

On a more general note, if someone sees the ring on my finger they might assume that I have a wife, and though statistically speaking this isn’t an unreasonable assumption (after all, most men in Ireland who wear a wedding band do have wives), I don’t want that to always go without correction – not because the idea of having a wife or of being thought of as straight is fundamentally intolerable, but simply because it’s not the truth. I don’t have a wife – I have a husband. That is the truth. So I changed the sentence. It now reads, He has a particular interest in mental health issues that relate to the LGBTQ community, being gay himself. I altered the phrasing a few times, shifting the ‘gay’ bit here and there until I settled on the above – and it felt right… Yet, I still have this kernel of doubt questioning whether the move was altogether too daring or somehow improper!

At any rate, here is a link to a 2015 doctorate thesis I found on the topic (by coincidence, it shares a similar title to this entry):

To Disclose or Not To Disclose? The LGBT Therapist’s Question

It is by Adam Harris of the University of Lincoln, with pages 53-82 comprising a journal paper authored by Harris, David Dawson, Roshan das Nair and Dominic Davies (of UK-based gender and sexual diversity therapy organisation Pink Therapy) that offers a good overview. I wholeheartedly agree with one of their concluding statements, that ‘it could be essential that non-heterosexual therapists are encouraged to discuss, explore and reflect on the potential psychological impact that having to conceal their sexual identity is having upon them and their clinical practice’ (p.76). It was in the spirit of discussion, exploration and reflection that this blog entry was written.

Any and all thoughts welcomed.

Simon

‘I don’t think I understood how dangerous hopelessness is.’

Hayley Williams The Fader Jason Nocito
Photo by Jason Nocito

Continuing with this blog’s focus on articles that link music and mental health, I recently read an interesting interview from The Fader with Paramore front-woman Hayley Williams:

Paramore’s Hayley Williams discusses depression, redemption, and adult angst

I’ve been aware of the band for several years but am not really familiar with their music – as such, the article gives a good overview of their evolution from emo icons to current Talking Heads-enthusiasts. More relevant to the world of counselling and psychotherapy, however, is Williams’ discussion of her mental health difficulties in recent years. Early in the article she says:

For the first time in my life, there wasn’t a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel. I thought, I just wish everything would stop. It wasn’t in the sense of, I’m going to take my life. It was just hopelessness. Like, What’s the point? I don’t think I understood how dangerous hopelessness is. Everything hurts.

I particularly like this quote because one of the main reasons I chose the name ‘Nozomi’ for my practice was its link to the idea of hope. As Williams says, an absence of hope (for the future, for one’s situation, for change) is dangerous, and once someone goes down that path it can sometimes seem insurmountable. The instillation of hope that things can get better is often instrumental in getting someone back on track.

Later, the piece takes an interesting turn when the interviewer, Alex Frank, is confronted with the fact that his questions on a previous day of speaking with Williams ‘triggered’ her to the extent of having a panic attack. I admire Williams’ honesty and openness on this front, and indeed this is the reason why I am so passionate about the idea of public figures discussing mental health issues, and particularly their own struggles – the more people talk about it, the less scary it seems.

This is especially true for younger people like 28 year old Williams – role models for a generation that are embracing that idea that looking after your mental health is not something to be ashamed of or afraid of talking about. On the contrary, it should be applauded, or even just seen as par for the course when confronted with difficulties that can’t be dealt with on one’s own. Here’s hoping this shift in societal perception and the stigma attached to seeking counselling and other forms of mental health aid continues apace. We’re not there yet, but things do seem to be moving in the right direction.

Simon

Paramore’s latest album, ‘After Laughter,’ was released in May of this year.

Self Care #2: The Basin / Kenrokuen

Blessington Street Basin

Continuing on from last month’s music-related Self Care post – another commonly cited method of practicing self care is walking, though to me the exercise is usually incidental to the feeling that one can get from simply being outdoors.

Viktor Frankl suggests that people can find meaning in their lives through many diverse avenues, such as personal creativity, the attitude we take towards things, and the experiences we have with the world. These experiences encompass not just interactions with other people but meetings of any kind that we perceive as deeply enriching or meaningful – and this can include something as simple as sitting and observing a scene of beauty, whether it be natural, man-made, or a mix of both.

On this front, I am a particular fan of what people often dub an ‘oasis of calm’ – that kind of park or space in a big city that somehow retains a sense of peace and seclusion in spite of its immediate surroundings. One of my very favourites in Dublin that I feel is definitely under a lot of peoples’ radars is the Blessington Street Basin, a short walk from O’Connell Street in the direction of Phibsboro. I have been lucky to work near this self-contained reservoir and its surrounding paths for several years, and particularly enjoy watching its transformation from a relatively barren rectangle in winter to a thriving burst of sound and colour by summer, with the green island of foliage pictured above as its centerpiece. That said, this winter they fixed fairy lights onto the trees, resulting in an augmented version of nature that looked beautiful in its own way as dusk approached…

 

There is a good little article on the Basin here:

http://builtdublin.com/blessington-street-basin-dublin-7/

..and should you ever find yourself on the outskirts of town going in the direction of Dublin 7, I would encourage you to take a peek.

Incidentally, some people have asked me about about the flower-in-water picture that forms the banner image for the Nozomi website, and it may not come as a surprise that this too was taken in a favourite park of mine – a garden in the Japanese city of Kanazawa called Kenrokuen (兼六園). It is famed as one of the three most beautiful gardens in all Japan, which is no small boast considering the number of beautiful gardens the country contains! Below is a selection of photos I took there, and looking at them I am reminded of why the great outdoors feels like self care to me – when all the right conditions are in place, I can experience a deep sense of connectedness with something much bigger than myself, where peace and tranquility stand side-by-side with the thrill of exploration. This harks back to the childhood joys of uncovering every nook and cranny of our local park and climbing the trees in the green near our house, so there is a sense of nostalgia there too. Altogether, a truly meaningful encounter, and a great way to recharge.

I wonder if any parks/gardens/forests or other places of beauty have had a positive effect on your life?

Simon

‘Dearly beloved – we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Life.’

Prince-Purple-Rain

Above, the opening line to Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ which also kicks off his iconic 1984 album ‘Purple Rain.’ Last week saw a lavish remastered reissue of the record, the main draw for fans being an excellent bonus disc of previously unreleased songs that plays like a long lost album. In celebration, here is a link to an article of mine that was previously published on PCI College’s website:

Disenfranchised Grief and the Music Fan

I discuss the concept of disenfranchised or unrecognised grief, and how this connects with fandom in the context of the above-average number of celebrity deaths last year. Grief and loss come in all shapes and sizes – all should be respected the same way.

Enjoy – purple crushed velvet optional…

Simon

‘I never want to contribute to the corrosiveness of wanting someone to stay hidden.’

Gay Pride flag

The final article posted to coincide with LGBTQ Pride comes from musician, writer and actor Carrie Brownstein. In a particuarly poignant excerpt from her memoir, Brownstein relates the story of her father, who came out as gay at the age of 55:

Carrie Brownstein: ‘No Normal’

I think this is a beautifully observed snapshot of the effect coming out can have not just on the person themselves, but also on family members and loved ones. Furthermore, the context is still more common than many realise. On the first Thursday of every month, Gay Switchboard Ireland provide a confidential Married Men’s Group, ‘a peer support group for men who are, or have been, married or in a long term opposite sex relationship and who identify as gay, bisexual or feel attracted to other men.’ Further  details are available here:

GSI Married Men’s Group

I particuarly like the line:

The truth was a satellite, the picture getting clearer, circling and homing in, and then he was close enough to touch it.

I think this could be applied to any number of peoples’ experiences of therapy, regardless of what has led them to it – the sense that the process of exploring and being supported in that exploration is slowly unravelling a mystery or knot in the client’s life. Though initially confounding, ultimately her father’s decision to come out allowed Brownstein to finally meet him at a core level that had previously eluded her. Being true to one’s gender or sexual identity is far from easy for many people, but when Brownstein says ‘Now there is someone to know’ of her father, she reminds us of the huge rewards that can await if we have the courage to step into ourselves.

Wishing all readers a happy Pride!

Simon

Carrie Brownstein is a founding member of seminal art-punk band Sleater-Kinney, as well as co-writer and star of hit TV show Portlandia. Her memoir, ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl,’ was published in October 2015.

‘I was pushing myself creatively but I was still nervous to order at a restaurant.’

Anonymous_gay_pride_flag

In the second of three posts honouring Gay Pride – here are a couple of articles on two gay men who continuously make waves in the alternative/indie music scene, while displaying the sort of honest humanity that goes hand in hand with the process of counselling.

Firstly, Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, talks sexuality, anxiety, and the transformative power of long-term relationships…

Perfume Genius interview: ‘Everything I do is rebellious’

…and below, Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear offers a touching tribute to George Michael, who helped him name and then step into his true self.

Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste on George Michael’s Coming Out: ‘He Helped Me Make the Decision to Never Hide’

I think both pieces highlight the sense of support/community that music and inspirational musicians can provide to those who otherwise feel like they are a bit on the outside – a feeling not at all dissimilar to the experience of being truly heard and listened to by a counsellor who doesn’t judge or tell you how to live your life.

One final article to follow tomorrow.

Simon

Perfume Genius’ latest album ‘No Shape’ was released in May of this year; Grizzly Bear’s ‘Painted Ruins’ is expected in August.