It’s been a long time since I published much on this blog, which is interesting considering that I have been writing for enjoyment and nourishment in my spare time probably more than ever. A lot of this is down to the creative/reflective/therapeutic writing studies I have been pursuing. The course I am currently doing, a Practitioner Certificate in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (or CWTP, for those who like acronyms), has brought in on a few occasions an old Japanese friend of mine, the haiku. I always had a fondness for these little fragmentary moments, as well as their slightly longer sibling, the tanka.
The haiku traditionally comprises 3 lines and 17 syllables, in a 5-7-5 pattern (i.e. 5 syllables for line #1, 7 for line #2, and 5 again for line #3). The tanka builds on this foundation and adds another 2 lines, each containing 7 syllables (a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern), bringing it up to 31 syllables in total.
What I always loved about these poems was their fierce individuality in capturing a feeling or mood or moment in time – the language I might gravitate towards to try and pinpoint the essence of one of these will be so unique to me that no one else, no matter how similar in character or personal history we might otherwise be, will be able to transmit that sense in quite the same way, simply because they are not me, and vice versa. These tiny poems’ particular ability to highlight the beauty of diversity in our human experience is, to me, very special.
In a nod to Pride, I am dedicating this knowingly rebellious 32-syllable (!) tanka to the celebration of diversity and wonderful, unapologetic uniqueness:
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):
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.
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:
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:
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!
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.
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…
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.
Perfume Genius’ latest album ‘No Shape’ was released in May of this year; Grizzly Bear’s ‘Painted Ruins’ is expected in August.
In the final year of my counselling studies, I wrote a dissertation called:
‘Coming Out or Staying In?: The Persona & Shadow of Being Gay, and its Relevance to Psychotherapy in Modern Ireland.’
This work sought to map the concepts of Persona and Shadow, as put forward by Carl Jung, onto the lived experience of being a gay man or lesbian in modern Ireland.
The Persona can be seen as a mask that we wear to navigate through society and interpersonal relationships, while the Shadow is like a private backroom full of things that we would rather most people not see. For me there were many parallels here with the experience of being gay, so, inspired by people like Panti Bliss and Ursula Halligan, I decided to explore further. With the Marriage Equality referendum of May 2015 as its backdrop, the piece examined concepts such as internalised homophobia, ‘passing’ as straight and coming out, from an Irish perspective.
Some months later, I was honoured to learn that my work had been selected to receive PCI College’s annual Martin Kitterick Award for academic excellence for 2016. An edited version was subsequently published in Éisteach, a quarterly journal published by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP).
You can read this shortened version by following the link below: