My first therapist was Jungian; I lay on a couch. He was a kind man. Aged 36, I at last felt heard. I remember very little of what he said to me except, later on in the therapy, he reflected that it had taken two years for me to truly ‘enter’ the room, such was my deep shame. I did not feel I deserved his time; I was ‘just another queer’.
I blamed my homosexuality for all my anxiety – at that stage, I did not make any link to the sexual abuse I received from ages nine to 10 from a teacher at my state primary school, or to the chaos of my father’s alcoholism. The breakthrough was entirely unexpected, and I’m not sure my therapist was aware of it. I will never forget on one occasion as I left at the end of the session, he offered me his hand. I don’t know why he did this. He just shook my hand. I was stunned and stopped in the street outside, trembling. It was astonishing. You see, his shaking of my hand meant my body was not the hideous, repulsive thing I continuously thought it was. He was willing to touch my hand. It is perhaps ironic that six years of talking and the most unforgettably powerful moment was the simple physical act of a handshake. Of course, unfortunately, the next week I did not dare to talk about it.
I later saw a biodynamic psychotherapist of great skill. Sometimes he included resistance work – he made me push my hands and arms against his. I supposed this was for me to realise I did have some physical strength and was not the ‘wimp’ I thought I was. The irony of all this physicality is that what I most remember from my time with him is a rich statement he made to me – instead of trying to deny or suppress or excuse my self-loathing, my shame of sex, my appalling sense of not belonging, I should acknowledge these negative feelings, respect and try to understand them, but not wallow in them. I have found this endlessly useful.
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It’s more than 50 years since I was abused by my teacher and I now see a female therapist, not so much because I need to but because I want to. The process is so rich and stimulating. She has vast experience of working with adult male survivors of sexual abuse, and she is brilliant. What I most value is she meets me where I am. This is not a casual statement – I observe her observing me; paying extraordinarily meticulous attention to me and to what I say, and she meets me right there, without judgment, without fixing, without pity. Somebody once said, ‘Pity keeps a person where he is. Compassion lets a person grow.’ I think maybe what is most healing is the quality of her presence, the constancy of her presence, the curiosity of her presence. Like everybody, I am complicated, and she sees that complexity and does not try to reduce it. She tells me what she sees, and then lets me work it out. Superb. Humane. Transforming.
I started seeing her after I performed my documentary play Groomed for a month at the Soho Theatre in London. I wrote Groomed for one reason only – to tell the truth. I suppose it was also a way of transforming painful emotions into something positive, a piece of creativity. People, including therapists, often ask me if writing and performing my truth is cathartic. The answer is definitely ‘yes’. Mike Lew, the great genius of male survivors’ work, says it’s important to tell your truth again and again and again, until it loses its power over you. But it is also sometimes churning, and now there is a documentary film based on the play. I don’t watch it much. When I do, there is always a moment, at a different place in the film each time, when I say, ‘Golly! Did I really write that? That is so true and so painful and I’m only really understanding it now.’
I have profound gratitude for the therapists who have worked with me, and deep respect for their skill. With their help, I have been startled to discover the person I am still becoming.