When I was about seven, I found fragments of a buried relic in our front garden. Outdoors was my favourite place to be. Few things could fascinate me as much as an army of ants marching up a skyscraper-scale plant stem, or a butterfly painted in impossible colours. The garden was the realm of foxes, mice, treehouses and icicles. It was magic.
My big discovery began with a single piece of porcelain under the bushes. It was just the tiniest chip of potential, but I knew immediately that I’d struck on something important. So, I searched for more. I dug with my bare hands for hours, hungrily turning up piece after piece as the evening light faded.
It was winter at the time. The ground was hard and my fingers numb but I persisted, stacking the broken bits in a pile so that I’d be able to put it all back together in the morning.
When I was called in for the night, I was met by a look of horror on my mum’s face. I had no idea that I’d hurt myself amid all the excitement, but with the lights on I could see that my hands were bleeding. It was worth it though. Anything would be for hidden treasure.
That night, rather than fall asleep, I drifted into a state of wonder. My little mind churned up a kaleidoscope of possibilities, all cobbled together from the cartoons I’d watched and the books I’d been read. Maybe I’d found a priceless antique that would make my family rich. Or, even better, maybe it was something magical; something a genie might emerge from, or that could enable me to cast spells.
Daylight couldn’t come quickly enough.
As soon as I woke up, I threw my wellies on and ran to the bottom of the garden to continue with my mission. Then, there it was — in all its dewy morning glory — the broken pieces of an old kitchen sink.
Now, this might sound like an anticlimax to you but it didn’t feel like one to me. This was my discovery. I was just as excited about the sink as I had been about the priceless artefact I’d fallen asleep imagining. Where did it come from? Who put it in the ground and why? My parents, understandably, were less enthused by the hole in their garden, but they couldn’t quash my enthusiasm. I’d found a hidden thing. I had unearthed a story.
I still piece together mysterious bits of hidden treasure as an adult. In working as a therapist, every session can fill me with that same “first piece” sense of wonder. Every client presents me with a new puzzle.
It strikes me only now — as I write this very sentence — that I’m still digging up kitchen sink dramas. The stories that whisk me away each day are by their nature very much of the everyday. And yet, no matter how often I witness a person — eyes closed and emotional — relaying their unforgotten childhood stories, I still find myself (and I really do find myself) utterly lost inside their narratives.
- The terror of the first day of school.
- The shock of being struck by a parent.
- The panic of getting lost in a supermarket.
- The pain and hurt and ongoing shame of being neglected or bullied, humiliated or belittled…
Different clients’ stories can sometimes be remarkably similar but they’re never, ever the same. To be invited into these vital dramas — and to witness the shift that comes from reframing and rewriting all of that old pain — is a privilege and a gift. Each journey is as wonderful and important as the next.
I love to work with metaphor in therapy sessions. At least, I invite my clients to deal in this particular magic, because it’s not for the therapist to come up with the stories or the symbols.
The fragments of meaning that emerge from a struggling mind can contain awesome power. Given the freedom (and the permission to let go), people can create incredible landscapes of metaphorical wonder. And, when they do, they can sometimes solve the problems that had otherwise kept them feeling stuck in their own lives.
My job is to observe and be present during this unravelling of mental tangles. In the most powerful sessions — as numb to my surroundings as I was on that winter night of digging — I can join others in their epiphany moments.
Like a kind of awe by osmosis, I get to take part in their discoveries as if I’m making them for myself. My clients’ words carry me into the realm of meaningful fantasy, and once there — no matter what the insight or the context — it always feels utterly, groundbreakingly important.
I’m convinced that these moments heal me as much as they do the storytellers. The longer I practise, the richer, healthier and more vibrant my own life feels. This work brings the kaleidoscope back, repeatedly. Anything, it seems, is possible.
I’m thankful every day to be allowed to take part in these discoveries. But all I’m doing, really, is listening. To afford myself these hidden-treasure moments, I need only open my eyes and ears and choose to be with another human being for a time. In doing so, I learn new skills, feel new feelings and solve my own problems (inadvertently, of course) — all by virtue of a different lens.
This realisation makes me wonder just what I must have missed over the years of being so stuck, so often, in my own little narrative. We don’t need a qualification in order to get carried into the awe-inspiring world of the Other. We just need to empathise. To care about the answer when we ask people how they are. To enter, willingly, into another perspective on the things we think we know. To pay attention to the subtleties (the subtitles) of meaning that are offered up by the most everyday of conversations…
Someone else’s kitchen sink could be our genie in a bottle so long as we choose to operate from the position of childlike wonder. It demands that we let go of our preconceptions and the urge to fix, solve and offer advice. But that’s a small price to pay for the experience of unearthing a little magic, isn’t it?