My youngest son recently came home from his first year at university. After the initial thrill of his homecoming had started to wane, I found myself increasingly bothered by the growing mounds of laundry and other detritus in his room. Like so many his age, he is momentarily adrift after an intense year in which his time was overwhelmed with demands to work, think, produce, create and succeed.
The academic demands, and the hectic socialising that are often a hallmark of first-year experiences, can generate debilitating social anxieties. Marooned in rooms full of exciting, but terrifying, strangers, our children can struggle to make new friends, and to survive the imagined assessments of peers often as bewildered and confused as they are. And so they come home and start to fill every inch of their living space with mess: discarded clothes, books, old copies of The Week, empty juice bottles and train tickets litter increasingly limited floor space. And when our initial attempts at gently encouraging these 21st century Withnails to ‘tidy up a bit’ fall on repeatedly deaf ears, we need to stop and consider the deeper communication that this mess might represent: ‘I am in a mess.’ ‘Life is a mess.’ ‘There is chaos and unpredictability out there.’‘I am frightened.’
Our clients are also sometimes not able to bear the disorder, randomness and uncertainty of life; they can be frightened by the realisation that they cannot control events, and that living entails risk, loss and vulnerability. Under this pressure, clients can resort to a defensive position in which they blame themselves for the mess they see around them. If their relationships falter or fail, or if they are not able to progress in their jobs, they will happily explain to us that it is because they are in some way personally defective, unlovable or inept. If they can locate the often-unbearable ugliness that life entails in themselves, there remains the possibility of having some control over it – it can be contained. The harsher, more frightening truth that life (and other people) is often random, unjust and unpredictable can be unconsciously denied. All of that awful mess, that unfair, disappointing, unpredictable squalor can be safely internalised, so that the world does not have to be despised and hated, only the self.
And the self, far more than the world, can be perfected. Imposing order on our bodies and the tiny worlds that we inhabit can ease the terrible anxiety we feel about the chaos around us. These are the clients who are tidy, punctual and sensitive to ‘mess’ in the clinical environment: an inaccurate clock, sticky door handle, dusty table or crooked painting may be noticed, commented on or quietly ‘fixed’. Having tucked away all of their own mess, they may need to address yours, as, if it is allowed to remain, it will challenge the illusion of control that their defence has created for them.
Like the young people stranded in the midst of their own debris, these clients are telling us how vulnerable they feel, how tight a grip they need to keep on themselves, lest the mess get out and contaminate the world. It is only the container that is different: a room, a self. And while we can peer into our children’s rooms, look around, and absorb the message, with our clients we have to imagine the self as a space in which the mess piles up too.
Whole societies can adopt a similar defensive structure. When there are social issues and problems that we do not want to acknowledge, we engage in collective acts of denial so that we do not have to face frightening or difficult realities or experience unbearable loss. The climate is warming more slowly than we thought, the stream of refugees is slowing, science will save the bees. It is trauma, the sudden renting of our collusive blindness, which often cracks these defences and exposes the unpalatable truth. Denial is trauma’s handmaiden. We ignore symptoms, shut the door on the mess, place aesthetically pleasing cladding on ugly, unsafe premises, and then reel in horror when we can no longer deny what we are trying to hide. Grenfell Tower is what happens when our collective levels of denial have reached unsustainable levels. Our interventions are desperately needed, not just after the trauma has occurred, but before, so that it never has to happen. It starts with noticing, with seeing behind and beneath the exterior, with engaging with the symptoms, rather than tidying them away.
So now, when I gently force open the door to my son’s room, dislodging little heaps of debris, I clear a space for myself on the floor, sit down and start talking.
Sue Lyons is a psychodynamic counsellor and accredited member of BACP. She works in private practice and as a volunteer counsellor for a charity that provides free, open-ended counselling for teens and young adults.