In the year of Bink’s sixteenth birthday, the friend whose husband first diagnosed her told me of a charity which offered free counselling for clergy couples.
I forgot all about it, to be honest, until she mentioned it again some months later.
“Apparently it’s very good.”
I’d always been vaguely interested in counselling, in the way that I’m interested in regular dental check-ups: just to be sure life and relationships are as good as they can be.
It was free. And it came recommended.
We started shortly before Bink went into hospital, arriving in Fitzrovia on the best kind of blustery, sunny but wet autumn day; I tossing off as we entered the Akubra hat I’d sported at university.
I loved it.
What could be more congenial than being given permission to talk, for as long as you like, about how and why you fell in love?
They – a man-and-woman team; the man an ordained Anglican clergyman as well as qualified counsellor – asked us why we had married each other. Spontaneously, unanimously and without so much as a breath between us, we both said, “Sex!” and burst out laughing. (In case you have never heard of such a thing: being Christians, we had not lived together before our wedding night.)
There was a bit of a stunned silence.
“Nobody’s ever said that before.”
We were intrigued. “What reasons do other people give?”
“Most clergy say, for instance, they thought they would help each other with their ministries.”
Our turn for the stunned s.
“If a man asked me to marry him because he thought I’d help him with his ministry,” I said with feeling, “I’d punch his lights out.” As it happens, the one thing Shaun thought I’d do to his ministry was hamper it. A compliment I have happily complied with ever since.
It was during that session or the next that they realised they’d heard of me. Or he did: she never seemed quite so put out by this.
Now, the one thing that counsellors or therapists (many of them, anyway: like many teachers) consider an absolutely fundamental working necessity, is having the upper hand. So if the counsellor feels that the client (even if she herself doesn’t subscribe to this feeling at all) somehow has more kudos than he has, it can wreak havoc with said counsellor’s own sense of self-worth.
At least, that was the conclusion we eventually came to... a long time later. It was only this which made sense of the way that from then on – very subtly at first; eventually, pretty blatantly – our sessions became exercises in putting that right. In giving the counselling-couple the upper hand over the client-couple. Which necessitated taking me, in particular, a notch or several down. Sometimes pretty breathtakingly.
Which in turn wreaks havoc with the client’s sense of self-worth. Which is not, presumably, what the primary point of therapy – or counselling, or whatever – is supposed to be.
It did, however, enable me to understand how Bink had become and still was in thrall to her own abusive therapist, Robin.
I imagine, indeed I very sincerely hope, one of the first things you learn at counselling-college is the utterly disproportionate significance you are awarded in your client’s life.
The whole counselling construct is an instant, intense and artificial act of emotional love-making. It is the Pretty Woman of the soul. You strip down naked, so to speak – often in your very first session – and share with the other person (or in this case, couple) stuff so intimate that in any other circumstances it would only ever be part of the erotic process.
In all its fullness. That business of opening yourself up, and trusting, and giving of yourself, and holding absolutely nothing back, and reserving no secrets whatsoever, which usually belongs in the context of doing exactly the same thing with your bodies. For the rest of your lives, ideally.
Your rather baffled emotions follow this as best they can... and eventually think, Oh, right, I see. This is another person (or in our case, couple) to fall in love with. I’ve done this. I know where we are. This too is now someone (or some couple) more important to my well-being than anyone else in the world.
Only of course, unlike with any other friendship or love affair or sharing kind of relationship, this traffic is entirely one way. Your counsellor shares absolutely nothing whatsoever with you.
This man or woman (or couple) soon knows your most private dreams and fears. Whether you’ve had an affair; whether you wish your wife were more like your mother; whether you are into sadomasochism or were abused by your uncle aged three or even just that you are completely terrified of the bath taps.
Whereas you don’t even know which tube he takes to get home. Let alone whether he is married, gay, a father, a fanatical philatelist or loves nothing so much pottering alone on his allotment.
Which makes for an extreme imbalance in the power structure. If you are vile to your counsellor (if, indeed, you dare: I never did) he probably forgets about you before he walks out of the room. Quite right too.
If your counsellor is vile to you, he could make you suicidal.