17 April 2012

A session with Yalom - Part 1

I think that everybody that knows me is aware of the fact that I met somebody I greatly admire last week, and how much it meant to me. I knew before I did it that I would want to blog about the experience. Maybe it's the jetlag (I've been back for 3 days, and was 8 hours behind GMT), but I have been flummoxed as to what to write. So, I have kicked off with a precursor. I fear my self-indulgent blathering might greatly bore anybody but the most ardent Yalom fan, and if you wish to go straight to the session itself, click the link to Part 3. Here goes...

Why do it?

While planning our recent trip to the States, it occurred to me that the world famous psychotherapist and author Irvin Yalom practices in San Francisco. I have read most of his books and he has had a great influence on the way I practice. He is a source of inspiration and I regard him as one of my (few, select) heroes.

He writes fiction as well as non-fiction. His non-fiction works are far from stale, dry textbooks. He breathes life into them by using himself, as much as his anonymous case studies, as examples. In particular, I appreciate his honesty and transparency about his own flaws. He is intelligent, creative, wise, human and lacking in arrogance.

Irvin Yalom switched me on to my own existential slant on life. I am aware that as a very young child I spent hours (at least if felt like hours) thinking about what it is like to be another, how we are unable to get into other people's heads, that we all have our own version of reality based upon how we perceive. I brooded on life, death, purpose, loneliness - which Yalom cites as common human concerns. As I grew out of childhood I learned that this was all way more complex than I was capable of understanding - in fact, I see getting older as a positive thing in that I can get closer to understanding what reality is, or at least, what reality isn't.

When I trained in my Diploma in Integrative Counselling, my favourite module was that on existential therapy. Indeed, I would definitely say that existential therapy is a substantial part of my approach. The main part of my approach, however, is my emphasis on the quality of the relationship between the client and myself. Yalom describes himself as working from "an interpersonal and existential frame of reference" which is close to where I am, approach wise. I describe myself as person-centred with an emphasis on relational depth, underpinned with an existential frame of reference. The person-centred approach, much as it is debased with fluffy overtones by those that do not understand how challenging it can be, if embraced fully, closely matches my way of being in a therapeutic relationship.

So, back to Yalom. Much of what he writes speaks to me in my language - it inspires me and I feel sets therapists free in that he shows how our imperfections, and how we deal with them, are valuable to our clients. It's okay not to be perfect - it's what we do with mistakes that can actually enhance learning. Yalom writes in such a convincing way, with such authority. A true wiseman.

His works of fiction are outstanding. I abhor most fiction and find it lifeless and dull. It is very hard to convince me to believe in and care for a character. There is almost always something implausible about how they speak,  dress, or, usually, relate to others. This is where Yalom triumphs. His characters are deep, complex and utterly convincing. The first novel I read, When Nietzsche Wept, had me gripped throughout. He deftly weaves a fictional tale based on two real characters - the philosopher Nietzsche and, the layer of the foundations of psychotherapy, Josef Breuer. These characters did not meet in real life but what is written is a fictional account of the development of a therapeutic relationship between these two influential and pivotal men. It is utterly convincing and I was sobbing like a good 'un by the end of the book.

He has also written a novel "Lying on the Couch" - described by my friend Robin as "the best counselling book ever" (with which I wholeheartedly agree). It is a book which traverses the truly complex nature of therapy with themes such as sex, gambling, corruption and morality. There are no black and white messages, in fact, there is no message. It is a reflection on how life is - full of grey areas and agonising decisions on whether we need to justify our behaviour and responses. No easy answers here - and that's what I love about it. There is also "The Schopenhauer Cure" - a fictional account of a therapy group. The same applies - grey areas, no goodies and baddies. Just 3-dimensional people - flaws and all. A great, convincing ending too (possibly not to everybody's taste though). I am eager to read his new novel "The Spinoza Problem".

So, when it occurred to me that I could in theory meet the man, and perhaps engage in a therapeutic session with possibly the world's most famous (living) psychotherapist - I decided that I had to at least enquire.

The request

I attempted to capture Yalom's attention by writing in my individual and honest style. I was upfront about why I wanted to meet . Here are a couple of excerpts from that email. I have not included it in it's entirety as some is very private. I sent this last July:

"I am attracted to the honesty you reveal in your writing. From what I can glean from The Gift of Therapy - you are able to authentically express yourself in the therapeutic relationship. I enjoy the way you dare to tread in the grey areas - crossing the boundaries that therapists can cling onto due to their own fears. I see myself as being intrepid and would rather face the discomfort of honesty than the safety of the cocoon of collusion....

So, I hit 40 next year. It's just a number, and it hasn't got anything to do with anything...except, it's a great excuse to do something I REALLY want to do. By chance, partially thanks to my recently revisited (yet again) Death Anxiety, the grave reminder that life is too short, I am coming to America next Spring with my family. We are going to blow a modest inheritance on seeing things we really want to see - Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, Redwood forests etc etc and part of the trip will be driving up to San Francisco...

We will be travelling in the area around the second week of April next year. Is there any chance of us arranging anything? I have fears around this...what if you don't read this or get back to me? What if you do, and we arrange something, and I get all excited, then you have to cancel? What if something happens on our trip and I don't make it? What if we meet and it is a disappointing and empty experience? This is me putting myself out of my comfort zone."

I feared that I would not hear anything back at all, or that I would have to wait a long time. However, I received an email the following day, saying that it was certainly a possibility and that I should contact him nearer the time.

I was thrilled! Part of me was certain that fate would interfere and it would not happen, but I was delighted to have received a response from "Irv".

I did contact him at a later date and secured an appointment which would fit in with our travel plans - well, we worked our travel plans around what was available. Fortunately, my very understanding partner rates Yalom very highly as an author and knew how important it was to me

Many people balked at the amount I was willing to pay, however, some did, on reflection, say that they would probably be willing to do likewise, considering who it was. Regardless, it was worth it to me - for personal and professional development.

Then all there was to do was to wait. In the meantime I was frequently asked "what are you going to talk to him about?". But I made the conscious decision to wait and see what came up for me. Shortly prior to the trip, I was devoid of any issues I specifically wanted to take to Irv, but that changed once the trip commenced.

Click here for part 2


Unknown said...

Nice to have you back and hope that you had a fantastic trip!
Looking forward to reading more of the experience.
Take care,


Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Thank you. It was a great trip thank you, best I've ever had.
Take care too, I have been reading your posts, and thinking of you.

KJW said...

I don't know anything about Yalom, but this is a great post, and I look forward to more. Do you have any of his novels I can borrow, book fiend that I am?

Cathy Helmers said...

Can't wait to read more. Thanks for blogging about it.

Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Kate - Caterina has 2 books which I bought for her birthday. I borrowed those 2 from a friend, except for Schopenhauer Cure which Caterina has my copy of. You're welcome to borrow that. Thank you for your kind comment.

Cathy - thank you too for your comment

John Marsden said...

Great start Amanda. $275 eh? Money well spent.

Sarah Ashworth said...

Being an awesome therapist is not the only thing you have in common with Irvin Yalom; your writing is as engaging, open and inspiring to read. It must be good for him to know that the next generation of therapists have amongst their number an individual of such high calibre.

Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Sarah, I am so appreciative of your kind words. They mean a lot coming from somebody I hold in such high esteem.

Dr. Vaughan Dabbs said...

Hello! I have saw your link posted. Your post are very informative, and can add to my blogging and internet journey. God bless.

Anonymous said...

As a group therapist Yalom has been at the foundation of my training WHat a great blog I hope you dont mind but I put this up on twitter

Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Dear Anonymous, I am honoured that you would share my blog on Twitter. Thank you.

hilary said...

Thank you - I am looking forward to reading more about your encounter with Irvin Yalom. I have touched the world of psychotherapy at a few points - my own uncompleted mental health nurse training, therapy whilst in recovery from this (!), friends working in various traditions of therapy. The Existential approach seems very useful to me personally. I support your belief that therapists should be regulated. I would also congratulate you retrospectively for achieving your accreditation. Such dedication and persistence as you seem to have shown are exemplary. I am sure you have helped many people, and hope you are finding your work satisfying as your experience lengthens.

Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Thank you ever so much Hilary for your generous and kind-spirited comments. I am very pleased to say that I do find the work immensely satisfying. Having just signed a three year lease for a lovely, quiet room in central exeter, I continue to be committed to my private practice.
Wishing you the very best.

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