Playfulness seems to run through everything that author, theatremaker and psychotherapist Stella Duffy puts her hand to. And the psychotherapy doctorate that she has embarked on, exploring the embodied experience of postmenopause from an existential perspective, is no exception. Her joy is palpable as she talks about the poems that she is creating from her first research participant’s experiences.
‘I’m trying to write a thesis in as accessible a language as possible,’ she said.
The 59-year-old attributes this dedication to creative play to the fact that she was the first in her family to finish secondary school, let alone get to university: ‘Academia simply wasn’t in our conversation.’
As the youngest of seven siblings, Stella was the first to be able to stay in school long enough to complete the exams that would get her into university. Life was not easy for Stella’s working-class parents in their late teens. Her mother had a stillbirth during the war. Her
father was taken prisoner.
‘They were amazing in that, given their backgrounds, given their own lack of opportunity, they didn’t believe that I therefore had to go and get an amazing job. They were just excited for me to have the opportunity.’
And, so, she went off to learn how to write plays and read books.
‘What that meant is that I played for a very long time,’ she added.
And that was hugely productive: Stella is the award-winning writer of 17 novels, over 70 short stories and 14 plays and has performed in shows off Broadway and at the National Theatre. She also teaches yoga to writers and facilitates writing workshops.
Yet, in her mid 20s, Stella would have trained as a therapist had she not discovered that this avenue was closed to her.
‘I find it so disheartening that I had to be in my late 50s and fortunately mortgage free to be able to afford this, because I could never have afforded it at any other point.’
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What’s more, as a queer person, she discovered that the main therapeutic organisations were not accepting: ‘They still did not believe that we were of as much value as heterosexual people. It’s within my living memory that the APA (American Psychological Association) decided that being gay was OK. As a young, out person, I was encouraged to deal with my “complex”, which was why they said I was gay.’
She looks back with some incredulity at how the world has changed: ‘I think of my young trans, non-binary and gender-queer clients, and how open I choose to be to their self-defining, to their understanding of themselves, the self they bring to the room, and I understand that with the best will in the world, that was not what psychotherapy was offering in my teens and 20s.’
In terms of faith, too, Stella, who was brought up Catholic, sought out a place where a queer woman would be welcomed.
‘I knew, probably from my early teens onwards, that Catholicism wasn’t going to keep cutting it for me,’ she said. She spent a lot of time searching and settled on the Soka Gakkai organisation, who share a form of Japanese chanting Buddhism, which she has been practising for more than 30 years. It appealed, she explained, because it was one of the very few forms of the faith in which it was categorically stated that women can be as enlightened as men.
When Stella did come to train as a therapist, existentialism was the natural choice, because, like Buddhism, it respects and acknowledges that the one constant in life is change.
‘Existential work takes groundlessness as a given. It says: “Those moments where you feel safe and stable? Sure, enjoy them, but don’t think they last.”’
The yoga teacher in her stresses that this is true at the most embodied level too: ‘When I teach tadasana, mountain pose, I always say: “People talk about mountain pose being still, but we can’t be still.”
‘Our blood is moving. Our hearts are beating. Our synapses are firing. We are only still after that last breath out, and very quickly deterioration sets in and it’s no longer still. It begins to crumble anyway. Stillness is not of the earth. The biggest, strongest mountains are moving beneath the core.’
The thought of constant change evokes emotion: ‘Nothing stays the same. It can’t. And there’s an inherent groundlessness to life, to any human life, that our culture just hates.’
Nowhere, she says, is this clearer than in society’s attitude towards menopausal women: ‘I’ve been menopausal since my first cancer in my mid 30s. In terms of the menopause transition itself, there are plenty of cultures in the world which do not have the difficulties with it that we do.
They tend to be cultures where older women are respected and where ageing is respected. We cannot separate the biomedical menopausal experience from our sociocultural experience that tells us ageing is wrong, that old women are irrelevant, and that we need to be stopping our ageing if at all humanly possible.
‘And we’re still not including trans men or gender non-binary people in the menopause discussion.’
Stella has pushed to make her own research, which she describes as ‘a drop in the ocean’, as inclusive as possible: ‘The menopause stories I primarily hear in the press are white, heterosexual middle-class mothers. There’s very little research on the bodies of those of us who are not mothers in menopause. There’s a dearth of research on queer menopause, on bodies that are not white.’
She also finds the current narrative that ‘conveys menopause as the end’ disturbing, imagining instead existing in a culture in which it was ‘fine and ordinary’ to have a hot flush in a meeting, or in a client session.
‘Because we live in a culture that has told us to hide every evidence of our periods, every evidence of our leaking, messy, human, dripping-wet inside and outside bodies, and which finds that human animal side of us disturbing, the things over which we have no control in menopause become way more problematic,’ she said.
And, she adds, there is something we can learn from Buddhism and existentialism here too. She uses the example of her experience of living with chronic pain, brought on, in part, by having had chemotherapy: ‘My attachment to being pain free is enormous and it gets in the way of me experiencing less pain. The more I concentrate on my pain, the more I feel my pain.
‘We know the neuroscience behind this, and yet, being as human as the next person, no amount of my neuroscience knowledge, my Buddhist knowledge and my embrace of existentialism has yet enabled me to go: “Oh, OK. Well, I’ll just stop feeling it!”’
In her postmenopause research, Stella is keen to highlight the peace to be found in embracing transition: ‘One participant uses a beautiful phrase, something like “…out of the stillness of menopause, I am able to give my becoming-adult children a different and currently more useful version of myself.” They needed her to be like a rock, and postmenopause has given her that.’
But Stella also acknowledges the grief inherent in menopause: ‘There are of course losses and gains, and my concern with the current menopause narrative, which I absolutely appreciate needed to swing this way, is that it is so profoundly negative at the moment.
‘I worry that we are telling people that menopause must be medicated away, that it is too difficult, and we have to all perceive it as a huge problem. In the same way that I worry that we are telling teenagers that anxiety is wrong. No, it’s not. It’s a signal that something’s up. Change is happening. There’s something that we need to pay attention to.
‘I worry that we see it as a first resort rather than finding out what else is going on,’ she added. ‘We live in a culture that tells us that all ageing is terrible, all anxiety is terrible and that we need to medicate or “therapy” it out of the way. We can’t. Human beings feel these things. Let’s play with what we feel.’
It’s clear that creativity, and storytelling, will continue to inform Stella’s way of working: ‘I’m very much enjoying that I can bring these decades of work in creativity to a psychotherapeutic practice,’ she said.
‘I really believe that the storytelling we do in psychotherapy, our supporting our clients to find new stories about themselves, to shake up their old stories, to question the stories they have been telling themselves and that others have told them, are all tied up with the storytelling I do as a novelist anyway, and particularly as a facilitator and workshop leader. I help people write their stories. This is just another way of supporting people to tell their stories.’
She does talk about recently having known a ‘small sadness’, which she terms ‘existential guilt’ at the thought that she is running out of time to be the therapist she wants to be: ‘I can’t live another 40 years, which might just be long enough for me to fully embrace all the possibilities I might want to bring to therapy, all the things I care about, all the movement and the physicality, the play and the creativity.’
But, in considering it in her own therapy, she came to realise that in discounting the amazing things she’d done before this, she was denying the versions that led to this one: ‘When we change, I think we can choose to bring along the threads of our past that are valuable. We can also choose to leave behind the ones that have been less valuable, but I suspect that all of them are valuable somehow.’