Grey days for therapy junkies

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The Independent Online
AUGUST. For most of us, the living is easy. But for a significant number this is a tricky time, an angsty month. It's the season when therapists, shrinks and their ilk take off to Tuscany, Cork or Cape Cod. The result? All those fears of abandonment and rejection their clients learnt at their parents' knees come back to haunt them. Angry? They're absolutely livid at being left behind. This is midsummer madness with a vengeance.

Therapy is the emotional crutch of our time, yet it is one of the age's greatest ironies that never have so many seemed so wretched, just when the pursuit of happiness has become life's main goal. Once the call might have been: how can I be good? Or: how can I be delivered from evil? Now, how can I be happy is the battle-cry. Just how dangerous a search this is, when it takes you to the therapist's couch, is all too apparent in August. The utter dependency of the client becomes plain as soon as the disciple of Freud, or the Jungian or the Gestalt specialist, leaves them to it and heads for his or her gite.

No wonder clients are distressed by their absence. For many, to be in therapy is to stare into the abyss. They cannot know what will emerge from an exploration of their inner world, nor what the consequence will be. They select a stranger to hear their most intimate thoughts, their terrible memories and shocking desires, and have no idea what that stranger will do with them. And then, just as they fear the worst, along comes someone seemingly proffering them the empathy for which they have longed, the kindness they may rarely have been shown, the discretion to share the confidences they long to express.

Emotional entanglement is an inevitable part of the talking cure, but sometimes what began as an attempt to come to terms with the past becomes instead, not a way out of a prison, but a lengthy sentence in itself. Most therapies require at least two years of your time, yet talk to clients and you find some of them still on the couch after 10, 15 or even 20 years. One man recently recounted how he was still in therapy after 35 years. Another has told of his therapist's insistence that he should increase his sessions to daily encounters, plus ensure that his girlfriends also go into therapy, combined with couples counselling for the two of them.

Even the seemingly benign therapist can inhibit real progress and instead encourage the kookiest of behaviour. Friends have told me of times when their therapist has made them feel so fearful of being boring that they have felt pressured into creating a fantasy life. Rather than listen to suppressed yawns or realise that their therapist has fallen asleep during the long silences, they have created new dramas in their life.

While plenty of people emerge from therapy at ease with the world and themselves, others seem to doubt that they can ever live without it. The weekly session - in extreme cases of analysis the daily one - has become the mindgame equivalent of chasing the dragon of heroin. You submit totally to the all-consuming fix, without which you cannot conceive of existence. Nobody is there to stop the patient falling into this addictive trap, or to point out that drug therapy is not necessarily a bad thing just because the therapist eschews it, or to urge a second opinion.

It is no wonder that therapists can fail to draw a line under treatment, or can abuse their power. For those self-employed and in private practice, there is no incentive to draw a line under any treatment; this, after all, is their living. As Sandor Ferenczi, a friend of Freud's from 1906 to 1933, wrote, the founder of pyschoanalysis believed that the only thing patients were good for was to help the analyst make a living.

It would be too naive to assume that family or friends can be a real alternative to people falling into the clutches of therapists. After all, we may be the very cause of their pain, and an outsider may be the only provider of the balm they need to soothe their troubled minds. But in this month of August, as clients rail against the therapists that have left them behind, we should ponder for a moment on the power bestowed on the shrinks, and how easily they can abuse it.

It is not naive for us to demand that therapy, analysis, counselling and all manner of psychological trades should be better policed. In opposition, Labour voiced its interest in creating a regulatory framework to weed out the abusive and incompetent practitioners. Now, despite the drafting of a Bill for statutory registration by the British Psychological Society, nothing has happened, and no parliamentary time has been set aside.

Confusion prevails, the vulnerable continue to fret through August, and many will go into the coming autumn and winter with the tantalising dream of being set free from their past, only to remain chained to their therapist.