Three years ago, I left my therapist’s consulting room for the last time. Stepping out into the street, I felt a rush of panic. What the hell had I done? My regrets at bringing an extensive therapy to a close lasted all of two minutes, or maybe three, and haven’t returned. Nor have I entertained a moment’s regret at the hours I invested in the endeavour, or the numerous cheques I signed to pay for it. A decent outcome, you might agree, but why am I telling you this? Because my reflections on my journey through therapy has a bearing on my thoughts about narrative structure.
I wonder to what extent we need the shapes of the stories we read to match the pattern of the stories we construct in our minds about ourselves. I know I dislike sugar-coated endings because they imply an unrealistic balance of light and dark. I might have been antagonistic towards the hero’s journey structure because my own life has followed a very different route.
Apart from on my therapy journey, that is. I’d even, at a pinch, accept the label of hero, since it took courage – and not just my own, but also that of my therapist – to mine the depths of my psyche. I’ve written elsewhere about therapy supporting my dream of becoming a writer; this is the other side of that story: mapping some of the elements from the journey of the archetypal hero onto my experience of therapy to see if that might move me further towards accepting – or rejecting – that structure for myself. (Note that my understanding of the hero’s journey is largely via Charli Mills. Obviously I apologise in advance and take full responsibility for any misrepresentation.)
The journey begins with a call to adventure which the hero inevitably ignores. For how many years did I wonder about therapy? Talk about the possibility with close friends? Even copy some contact numbers from one year’s diary to the next? I didn’t need it, or I didn’t need it enough. I was scared, and not unreasonably, of being hurt. Most therapies entail resistance: manifest in showing up but failing to discuss the issues that matter, missing sessions or arriving late.
Other people assist and thwart the hero along the way. Therapy is supposed to be helpful, but it’s not always helpful in the way one might ordinarily expect. My own professional background meant I was more aware of this than many, but that didn’t mean a smooth ride. While some clients experience their therapists as an enemy – and, if the therapist is robust enough, can benefit immensely from the ensuing battle – I needed to believe in the benevolence of mine. Nevertheless she didn’t always get it right. (Such therapist failures are an inevitable part of the process and, when discussed, prove an opportunity for growth.)
The hero faces increasingly difficult challenges. You’re telling me! One of the things about therapy – as life itself – is the turbulent terrain. Just when you think you’re sorted, a new issue, or angle, raises its head.
The toughest physical and mental challenge is in the cave from which there seems no escape. In the hero’s journey story structure the cave is the climax not long before the end. In therapy, the point from which there seems no way forward is likely to occur earlier. Life is shit and, if anything, therapy is making it worse.
In leaving the cave the hero gains her elixir. I began therapy with three goals in mind: two personal and one professional, and it was only the latter that I achieved in anything like the way I expected. For the other two, I didn’t get what I thought I wanted, but that was fine. More than fine, because I faced the depth of my childhood damage and became more true to myself. I also found a solution to one of my presenting problems in a way that took both me and my therapist by surprise. But once the idea came to me, I felt compelled to follow it.
The hero returns home with her elixir. My exit from “the cave”, even with this new perspective, needed a lot of work before I was ready to leave. When therapy feels helpful, as mine did, it can be tempting to linger, so part of the therapist’s job is to help the client “leave home”. While there have been difficult moments since finishing (that’s life), or things have arisen that I might have discussed with my therapist, as I said at the outset, I’ve no regrets. I discovered my elixir in a way I never imagined. If this were a story, it would be a satisfying resolution in both its bittersweet optimism and its unpredictability.
Looks like I’m talking myself into a novel with a fictional therapist, or even worse, a memoir, but I don’t fancy that. But after writing this I remembered I have had in mind a short story about a therapy but only got as far as the title and character. Perhaps I’m ready to take it forward.
Have I convinced you about the match between my therapy journey and the story structure? Please share your thoughts.
For another take on life as the hero’s journey see here. Thanks to Charli Mills for directing me to this post.
I actually drafted this two years ago when I was more hung up about story structure and the hero’s journey framework, but it never seemed the right time to share it. But when I saw the latest flash fiction challenge, I thought of “kid gloves” as a metaphor for therapy, which then snowballed, gathering another six varieties along the way:
A chair, a couch, the tools of her trade, plus a motley choice of gloves. One pair, snipped at the knuckles, to touch hurt with her fingertips; soft kid gloves to soothe pain. Archaeologist gloves for delving through history; hospital-grade latex to shield her skin and prevent her cuts contaminating theirs. Mismatched heirlooms from her mentors, she traces the left to Rogers, the right to Freud. She reserves the harlequins for those who’ve never learnt laughter, the boxing gloves for those who avoid through jokes. Seven pairs packed, she’s ready to follow her client on a journey into truth.
Let’s forget about therapy and go with the image: the photo at the start of this post showing footprints in the sand. Taken, if my memory serves me correctly, somewhere between Bamburgh and Seahouses in Northumberland, the coast where my historical flash fiction, a tribute to Victorian heroine, Grace Darling, is set.
Father lowered the telescope. “Ship’s hit the rock a’reet. No survivors but.”
Grace pulled the shawl around her shoulders. “There’s movement!”
“We can’t risk it. Storm’ll make matchsticks of the boat.”
“We can’t let them die.”
Grace bailed while her father rowed. Gusts slapped hair across their faces and buffeted the boat. A symphony of huffing, splashing and a wailing, carried on the wind. Biceps straining, Grace took the oars as her father leapt onto the rock.
He chose the weakest and the strongest, returning later for the rest. He chose the mother, left the bodies of her bairns.