Unblocking a Log-Jam

I am not sure whether the term “log-jam” has been used in, or applied to, counselling and psychotherapy alongside familiar concepts such as resistance, defence mechanisms, blocks and blockage, repression and denial.  But it came to mind some time ago when we were trying to describe the nature and dynamics of a situation in which a mother and her family of three generations had been trapped in for over twenty years.

The “logs” which combined to create the jam included the deep-seated and chronic problems in the childhood of the mother that were not known to most of her family; the reactions of the mother (usually now termed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder- OCD) which had dominated and shaped the whole of her life, habits, and behaviour; how she struggled with actually living in any sort of accommodation; the effects of the mother’s condition on her children throughout their childhoods and still a pivotal factor in how they relate to her and she to them, despite the fact that she has shared with them the nature of her sad and difficult early years; the strained relationships with the rest of her extended family who do not know about what she suffered and endured; physical ill-health, inappropriate life-styles and diet; the inability of the mother to undertake any paid employment or to engage in consistent voluntary work or parenting; the absence of any sense of hope when contemplating the future; a deep sense of defilement and contamination that prevents normal interaction with others outside the family; and a belief among the other members of the family that the mother should “snap out of it” assuming that her condition relates to other traumas in her life that they have known about for years.

By any standards this is a formidable list, or to use the term in question: a pretty comprehensive log-jam.  Over the past two decades the mother has received various forms of help and treatment ranging from psycho-therapy to behaviour therapy, but there have been few improvements detected by most of her family or acquaintances.  One unfortunate unintended consequence of this treatment is that she has come to accept the labelling that has been involved in the process, as her script for life.  She sees herself as a victim powerless to question or move beyond this ascription and status.

We had been alongside and supporting this mother and her children for many years as extended family and resourceful friends.  But despite one or two very specific and limited improvements, the mother’s condition and the family dynamics have remained stubbornly resistant to change: log-jammed!  Despite so much engagement with professionals in mental health over the years, there has not been a course or programme of treatment that could break the log-jam in which mother and family found themselves.

And then it happened.  In fact when we described some of the changes that had taken place within a matter of days to our consultant psychotherapist, she used most unusual and very dramatic language to describe what she was hearing.  “It seems as if a bomb has gone off,” she said.  I questioned why she had used such an extraordinary term or metaphor, and she replied that the effects were so significant and dramatic that they called for something that indicated such a startling cause.

Normally, of course, bombs going off are not a cause of celebration (at least to those among whom they have exploded), and it was at this point in the consultation that I realised that JRR Tolkien had coined a phrase to describe another dramatic event that called for new, shocking language.  In trying to find a word opposite to “tragedy” in drama, he realised that there was nothing appropriate to describe the consolation of a happy ending in fairy stories.  So he offered the word “eucatastrophe”: the sudden joyous turn-around when it dawns upon the consciousness that there is deliverance from the seeming inevitability of catastrophic defeat.  He saw the resurrection of Jesus as good news beyond human imagining: that which gathered up every longing in art and legend.[i]

Our psychotherapist, unaware of Tolkien’s proffered term, had seen deeply enough into the nature of the log-jam to understand that anything dismantling it was likely to be packed with unusual power, if not dynamite.

It is just possible by now that you are wondering what it was that caused the change signified by the word “bomb”.  So here it is.  The grandmother of the mother of whom I am writing died.  That’s it.

So how could the death of an elderly relative possibly come to have such a comprehensive effect?  Here are some of the repercussions (ricochets, perhaps?) of this event.

The grandmother lived in the house where the abuse had taken place (completely unbeknown to her or anyone else at the time except the perpetrator and the victim), and although the mother had said that she would never enter that house again, she did.  For those familiar with the novel The Shack[ii], there are distinct echoes of the re-visitation of the exact place where suffering has occurred: the place one seeks to avoid at all costs.

All sorts of changes stemmed from the decision to face the unthinkable, and it isn’t possible (as with a bomb) to work out how they are related: it has been an explosion with results and effects here there and everywhere, seemingly random in some cases.

The mother discovered photos in this house, precious family photos.  She shared them eagerly with family and close friends of her mother and family.

Her father, himself widowed at a young age, had found it hard to know how to relate to his daughter (the mother in my account) and her visit and the photos established a new line and form of communication between them.

He was the executor of her grandmother’s will, and the mother took responsibility for arranging the funeral. He provided her with a hand-written tribute, crafted with sensitivity and attention to detail and potential audience.  He handed this tribute to my wife and myself, and later in the day I went round to his house and had the longest conversation we have ever engaged in, heart to heart.  Until that moment we had been distanced by the chronic intra and extra-personal struggles of the mother and the refraction of everything through her experiences, feelings and fears. I came to realise that he was still grieving the loss of his wife (the mother’s mother), so that there were limits to how much he could become vulnerable enough to share in the suffering of his daughter (the mother).

I was with the mother when she visited the minister taking the funeral, and to see her taking decisions and responsibility for an event as significant as a funeral, was so unusual and unpredicted, that it was a source of something like wonder.  She was in regular contact with others in her family about details of the service and reception, as well as with the minister and the funeral director.

But then there was the matter of her separation from her husband.  This had taken place over twenty years before, but had never been formalised by a divorce. It was all too much for her before, but now there was a very practical dimension: whatever the will contained, she wanted to make sure that the legal position was clear. So with her father and her son she went to an appointment with a solicitor to begin legal proceedings aimed at securing a divorce.

How and what the time-scale for the further dismantling of the log-jam will be, one cannot say. But water is now flowing downstream (to continue the metaphor) and it is gathering pace.  It could well prove irresistible, as first one, and then another log is moved.

Perhaps I will be able to revisit this continuing story in a future column, but for now there are just two interim reflections.

First, no amount of therapy, treatment or counselling have had anything like this effect.  Life itself (and that includes death which is such a natural part of it) has within its powers the potential for healing.  Times and seasons are vital to healing and growth: we cannot and should not act as if we can assist the healing process without respect for the nature of life itself.  The wisest psychiatrists and counsellors will always be attuned to the context of their encounters with those they are seeking to help.

And second, we see once again the remarkable wisdom of TS Eliot when he wrote:

“…what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”[iii]

[i] JRR Tolkien “On Fairy-Stories”, Tree and Leaf  (London: Unwin, 1964, pages 60-63)

[ii] William P Young, The Shack (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007).  The book has been made into a 2017 film of the same title.

[iii] TS Eliot Little Gidding (Four Quartets) in The Complete Poems of Plays of TS Eliot  (London: Faber, 1969, page 192)

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