It is not very often that I read 111 pages all in one gigantic reading session. But this was no ordinary book: this was I.D Yalom’s Love Executioner. Gripping, absorbing, compelling, this is one book where the word novel could not even begin to describe it accurately. It was certainly a story book. Actually, a collection of stories about Yalom’s (an American psychiatrist and psychotherapist) real life experiences with clients whose identities have been changed, of course, to protect confidentiality. Enough said, let me tell you why I read it.
I too have been in “therapy.” Actually, I hate that term, it sounds very much like an self-indulgent ego trip of the mind, where you go for a brain cleanse after a hard days work. Personally, It can sound weak and feeble, rather dysfunctional, and what does this word really convey, really mean to real ordinary people hurting and in sometimes desperate need ? Well, if you read the book you will learn two things about therapy.
1) It is not for the faint hearted, if is done professionally and effectively. You need stamina and courage, its no quick fix, well it wasn’t for me.
2) Properly trained therapist, (of which I mean professionally trained people of many years and many hours of academic, rigours examinations at university level and hundreds of hours of supervision to obtain a recognised and accredited qualification) are like people operating screw-drivers. They need a steady and skilled grasp. One slip of their tool, as they are tinkering with your mind, can be very damaging. Hence the need for the skilled hand of application.( I know my own past therapist will love that analogy just written). He will think himself as a screw-driver from now on. (see here for a list of what you need to ask when considering counselling).
Love’s Executioner touched many raw nerves. It made me cry and gasp. It made me think and ponder about my own situations. It terrified me to confront feelings I didn’t want to think about, and it excited me so much, to know and to have acknowledgement within its pages, how much I had truly grown since my own counselling began, and how that growth, sometimes painful even now, has continued in the 19 months since my own individual work finished.
There were many different types of people and in different situations that made up this book. How Yalom managed to choose from the many people he saw must have been a problem . There was a man facing terminal cancer with a rather fixed obsession with sex. A woman with a huge weight problem escaping her fear of death, by her eating habits, and grieving over the death of her own father. A man who could not bring himself to open three letters, for an irrational fear as to what they might say; and another man who clung on to his past dead lovers love letters, in the vain hope of preserving his self-esteem and past youth. Reading through this list, I realise how little I have managed to convey the real grit of these people’s lives and the power of their own personalities and stories coming through.
Not everyone had a really positive outcome, something else which the real life therapist has to deal with. Not all of his/her cases will be successful or have the outcome which both client and therapist envisage. That must be hard for the professional counsellor, especially when money is paid and the pressure must be on to deliver a good outcome. It’s not like you get your money back is it!
So, as I have skimmed over these lives rather briefly, let me focus on the one character who spoke to me and gripped my heart the most. It was Thelma in the opening chapter, of which is the book’s title, that caused me the most sensation. This was about a women’s love obsession with her past therapist and how it consumed her life, obliterated her reality and had made her attempt to take her own life. Her relationship with her counsellor was anything but beneficial, as it developed into a most inappropriate self-absorbed, sexual liason. Clearly, the therapist was in need of serious help himself; you could not help think about who was using and abusing who in that situation. When the counsellor ended the counselling and the personal relationship as well, poor Thelma desperately needy in her own barren life, with an emotionally and physically distant husband, was left with unimaginable pain, loss and grief. It consumed her for eight long lonely years immersed in re-living 27 days of bliss and happiness as she saw it. Thelma lived those days, over and over again in her mind.
It was left to Yalom to be the executioner in this bizarre tale of love, intense feelings and betrayal of professional trust, culminating in a session with Thelma and the therapist, to help this lady find some peace and closure to this sorry tale. It was all very bizarre as the outcome was that Thelma be allowed to have some brief contact with this man. However, there was one flaw here which Yalom only skirted around and did not deal with adequately; the desert of her own relationship with her real partner. I felt too much time time was spent dealing with her and her obsession ( a yearning for a person not there), rather than focusing her her own wasteland much nearer to home, ie, her clearly aching heart of nothingness within her own marriage and life.
What this tale taught me the most through the authors counselling was that no-one should have that much power over you. I can identify with Thelma and I am choosing to show my own vulnerability to be revealed here. Your counsellor can bring you much hope in your own life, self-esteem, that some one cares and is concerned. That you are the centre of their world for one hour while therapy last. A wonderful marriage of minds where you are nurtured and given priority over all else. Your opinions and beliefs count, your growth matters. You want them to care, to be proud of you in your achievements, and show them what you can do. BUT, BUT no-one should have total influence over you to the point where you can not exist without them. You have to learn that if they were not there you are your own person and your life carries on. You do not exist for them, or to carry on “being sick” just to perpetuate the intimacy and the nice warm kick that therapy can give you. Thelma’s therapist was a powerful drug to her, more powerful than Prozac. Without him she could not function. No decent and professional therapist would want that for his/her client. I can see how this happens though.
What surprised me the most about Yalom’s work, is that he appears to be a psychiatrist, therapist-counsellor and sex therapist all rolled into one. Perhaps, this is the American way. In Britain it would seem that while these subject areas overlap we have clearly people trained as psychiatrists, those as counsellor-therapist and some trained specifically in sexual therapy.
Finally I saw one main thread that seemed to be interwoven. With mental-ill heath can all to often bring with it low achievement which equals low expectations, equals low work status, equals poorer income and standard of living. This poverty both financially and emotionally then can exacerbate the poor mental health. This leaves an important question: how then do people fund expensive psychotherapy? In answer many don’t and fail to get the care they need. As a nation we are crying out for affordable and excellent counselling. For many, brief sessions or state funded care fail to meet their needs. I was lucky because even though my income stream was not huge, I could afford counselling which stretched over months and months.
If any of you out there need this kind of expert help ( I can only give my own view, you need to judge for yourself, so please don’t quote me) then look here please. This service is by its very nature available to anyone with a phone. So you can see that while this blog focuses on a review of this book, its aim is also to highlight how important it is to find the right person. Me, becoming a counsellor. I would not touch it with a barge pole. I will stick to my own profession, thank the therapists who do a good job and leave them to get on with their very skilled and important work.
I hope someone may have benefited from reading this blog and if you have a real need that blights your life, that stifles, consumes and absorbs you every day processes of thinking and living then get help. Don’t go to someone who could exploit you. Choose someone VERY VERY CAREFULLY.