Sunday, 25 April 2010

tired ramble about counselling and individualism

the other bit of this issue of make/shift that's got my head most buzzing is a discussion between Tyrone of Enough and Tiny of POOR Magazine. at one point they're talking about Tiny's challenge to privileged people to consider 'moving home' to care for their communities and families of origin. she says:
"Now, I know this gets really touchy with folks. Especially folks who've had a lot of years of therapy. No, seriously - I want to call that out. In dominant culture, the support is not given for staying and caregiving. The support is given to leave, cut ties, and become independent. That's really embedded in western psychotherapy, in Freudian and Jungian theory. And let's be real about white folks - that's a lot of where their knowledge comes from, especially folks with privilege."
this statement sent me scribbling to myself urgently for an hour, before i could read any further. when i did read further i realised that Tiny then explains "I pose it as a challenge partly for shock value [...] because I want people to rethink this paradigm that pathologizes staying with and caretaking for family of origin". well it certainly worked on me. this challenge sent my brain off in all sorts of directions.

as a white person with a heap of privileges i've had seven or eight counselling sessions, the most recent three being last winter when i was verging on burnout and begged the sessions from work. i found it incredibly helpful to have this considerate stranger paid to concentrate on 'my issues'. i talked about work-stress, losing friendships and about some family stuff. it was remarkable to have my experience centred completely. but i was aware that i could only tell her so much. i was gradually realising that my entire worldview is becoming too - i don't know, radical? - to discuss with the nice lady counsellor. my feelings and reactions to the world would be pathologised if i was open about them. a large part of the reason i was feeling mental during the winter was due to trying to get a grip on my integrity and start to acknowledge more what i know and believe and to orient my life more to be true to that. and let's face it, reading derrick jensen is not compatible with continuing sanely in paid employment and an urban lifestyle... it all involved a lot of mourning, for lost friendships and other major emotional upheavals of the past year, and for the comfort of the old worldview i'd allowed myself, the illusion of safety that i'd enjoyed and the societal myths i'd fallen for. the latter parts were not stuff that the nice lady wanted to hear.

the previous counselling sessions i'd had, with the same nice lady but two years earlier, had been when a woman i'd supported at work had been killed. when i tried to explain some of my anguish to do with this woman's death, and other work situations, to the counsellor she was supportive up to a point but at pains to remind me that this woman "made her own choices" etc etc. there was no room for me to talk about the greater forces in our lives over and above individual choice*, and just how much knowing about these forces and their effects affect my mental health!

so that quote from Tiny finally crystallised my discomfort with counselling for myself (as much as i would use it again, in the absence of amazing holistic peer co-counselling type stuff, until i can help make that happen in my community). it just seems that the only solutions and balms on offer in that counselling room are individualist, and that is not going to help me now. if work had been able to keep paying i could have had lots more sessions - concentrating on how hard done by i am... this is just not the sort of support i want any more. i do have things i need to figure out, i do have sad stuff that has happened, i do have a weird family - but it's not the end of the world. i need to balance and counter my need for a certain amount of healing with the simple fact that i'm staggeringly unscathed and cocooned compared to most people on earth. Tiny's quote crystallised my realisation that the support-work industrial complex, if you will, including the likes of my job and counselling, usually bolsters this over-focus on the individual. this is not the support i want or need any more. the support i do need is to figure out ways in which life and living are ok while acknowledging injustice and the reality of abuse and oppression and the necessity and life-affirmingness of working against it in communities. i am so lucky to have so many incredible friends, and occasionally we do talk about some of this stuff, though i think i need to be braver to start these conversations more often, and to ask for support. i also realise this is precisely why amazing people like Activist Trauma Support exist, and things like co-counselling, which i need to find out more about.

the quote also made me realise how much i use the same techniques to make my 'clients' feel better - prioritising their individual needs. like i said the other day about supporting women towards independence and almost never interdependence. the example that most obviously springs to mind is that my clients know they will be left alone when their ex finds a new partner he can successfully control. one or two women i've worked with over the years have contacted the new partner to warn them. the others have breathed a sigh of relief and moved on with their lives. i'm not saying either action is 'right' or 'wrong', only that it's so painfully obvious how charity domestic violence work is - not even a sticking plaster these days, more of a conveyor belt operating within the system. have we all forgotten how we used to want our jobs to become redundant? i want to be working with women to end domestic abuse, not just 'rescuing' survivors one by one in this 'you're alright mate' style.

i hope that all this rambling makes some sense in the context of Tiny's quote. i do not believe in the slightest that anyone should have to stay and care for anyone who has abused them: in fact i'm not offended by the idea of serial abusers being abandoned as i said in my post about forgiveness. but i am very uncomfortable with support work that bolsters the structures of privilege and comfort, for example by bringing a few of the lucky ones to join 'us' in individualist 'safety,' and saying that those who don't make it have simply "made their choices".

* i hope it's clear that i do not ever wish to deny the agency of survivors of abuse, nor those who don't survive - of course there are always individual choices - it's just that i don't wish to make myself feel better by pretending that's all there is.

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