The weekend guests distraught, the carpet soaked in blood, police tape marking each muddy footprint in a line towards the open French windows, faintly audible shouts from policemen outside who are searching the rhododendron bushes…yet as a distant bell peals the hour, the Great Detective seems distracted by the clock on the mantelpiece, checking it against his pocket watch and frowning. How does it come to be five minutes slow?
The difference between counselling and psychotherapy is easy to miss.
Let’s start with ordinary everyday life. Things happen, we make sense of them, they evoke feelings, and we make sense of our feelings. The essence of consciousness is that we are aware of ourselves as needing to make some sense to us just as much as external events need to make some sense to us.
Everyday states of mind like depression and elation are strongly linked to events and memories of events. When the link does not seem obvious, it needs some thought. We spend time in thought processing our experience of life so that the links between the things that happen to us and the way we feel make sense.
We all understand the external causes of moods like depression. For example, when someone dies we all understand that grief will follow. But grief is just a label for depression that happens to have a particular type of known cause. The depression of grief is not in itself different from any other depression. It’s only that the cause of it is known.
Depression in general is linked to that time in thought that we spend processing our experience of life. If we are deep in thought, preoccupied, it’s a bad time to make big decisions or attempt adventurous exploits. So a mental state that inhibits action is a good thing at these times. Depression protects us from attempting too much while our minds are reorganising themselves.
It’s the same when things seem hopeless. Everyone experiences times when the future does not seem to hold anything positive. That kind of thinking is depressing. Depression inhibits decision-making and action. Depression protects us from making decisions and acting on them when the future seems bleak, because those decisions and actions would tend to be harmful. It is better to be decisive and active when the future seems hopeful.
So in the normal ebb and flow of our moods, depression has a purpose and it works.
Searching the rhododendron bushes
Suppose, though, something has made you depressed but you cannot work out the connection. For example, someone you hardly know dies, yet you feel terrible grief. What then?
It’s at these times that we need the support of other people. People can help each other in the normal ebb and flow of moods by listening and by caring.
In her blog, Skipping Down the Lane, Chapati writes a long and thoughtful piece, let’s talk about depression…
If you meet someone who seems to you as unhappy as sin, don’t just walk away. Don’t judge. Ask them how on earth they got there. Listen to them when they say ‘I wasn’t always like this’ and believe them. Give them a hug. Let them cry.
Counselling makes this natural process of listening and caring more formal and powerful. In everyday life, people help each other. The person who listens to you and hugs you is a person too, has a life too. Listening and caring is mutual. Counselling removes the mutuality.
A good counsellor concentrates listening and caring to the extent that the counsellor disappears as a person. Counselling has been described as a one-way relationship, because none of the counsellor’s feelings and needs get in the way of the client’s feelings and needs. After a counselling session, you may not be able to remember anything the counsellor said or did, because the session was so focussed on helping you to process your own thoughts and feelings.
Hearing a distant bell
So depression is part of a normal emotional life, people can help each other with their moods, and counsellors can provide more concentrated help. It doesn’t always work out that way.
There are circumstances in which depression becomes impossible to solve in these ways. This happens when the link to the cause of the depression has been lost. This is mental illness.
When you have a depressive illness you are not able to determine which thoughts and feelings to process in order to recover. Family and friends who listen and care, and even skilled counsellors, cannot help you because your mind does not know what to do. Indeed, you often go round in circles in your mind processing the wrong thoughts and feelings over and over again.
A psychotherapist’s job is to reconstruct the link between your depression and the events in your life that caused it. That’s really all that’s needed in most cases. Once you know which events and thoughts to process, then the normal mood-correcting mechanism in your mind kicks in and does the rest.
Psychotherapists typically follow through by providing counselling and perhaps even practical help, too, but their key function is to reconstruct events with you so that you do not focus your own efforts to get well on the wrong things.
Reconstructing events is not easy. It involves ignoring the obvious and noticing clues whose significance others would miss. Just being able to ignore the obvious is a rare enough skill. It also involves intuition and investigative skills — asking the right questions to work backwards from the evidence and deduce what must have happened.
The Great Detective
A psychotherapist is the Great Detective in a mystery of emotions. The obvious clues point towards the rhododendrons, but those bushes have been dug up and trampled over and over again in a futile search for answers. There’s nothing to be found there.
Some little things, insignificant in themselves, catch the detective’s eye, make him wonder. A few innocently worded questions corroborate the details. “But how,” everyone says afterwards, “could he possibly have worked that all out?”