(I'm not a musician.) I was taught as a child that I must not 'blow my own trumpet' as in talking about myself – especially not to say anything good about myself. I was also taught that much of what I could say about myself was nonsense and I needn't expect anyone to believe it. If I myself believed it, I must be insane. If not, I was obviously a liar. Telling my story, therefore, became a very confronting task. I am now in my late seventies, as I begin this blog, and it is only a preparation – things I write on the way to writing the memoir. Nevertheless, everything posted here is copyright and must not be reproduced without written permission from the author (usually me).

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Coming Back from Therapy

I stayed in therapy for six interesting and empowering years.

What happened in group therapy was of course confidential as it related to the other people, but I did share with Bill, as my new fiancé and then husband, some of the insights I was gaining into myself. Bill had difficult relationships with his parents and siblings, and after a while started to think he might benefit from therapy too. Our GP was happy to refer him, and the Doc to take him on. He went into a different group from me, so that we could both always feel free to say whatever we needed.

My more dramatic episodes in therapy (e.g. those related in previous posts) happened early, followed by years of more gradual progress, during which time Bill and I bought a house, got married, I changed jobs a couple of times, we had our two sons, I stopped work, then later worked part-time, he went from being a builder working for his father to his very successful career as an abalone diver, we renovated and sold our first house and bought a bigger one, and we acquired two teenage foster-sons. 

Their whole story is one to tell separately, later, if at all. Briefly, they were from a family Bill knew, where serious problems developed; they ran away from home to come to us, and we were allowed by the authorities to foster them. They had been traumatised. The younger, a country boy at heart, soon went to live with other people he knew, who had a farm in a rural area. The older stayed with us for his last two years of High School and then went on to university. After he had been living with us some months, he also decided to seek therapy from the Doc to help him deal with the things he had experienced. He had a briefer period of therapy than we did, and undoubtedly benefited.

He moved out into a residential college at university, as the  campus wasn’t very near where we lived, but always kept in close touch. I still, fifty years later, have a very affectionate relationship with both my foster-sons – men in their sixties now.

Eventually Bill and I got to a point where we wanted to try life without that weekly therapeutic support. It felt strange and vulnerable at first, but then I realised that the therapy hadn't stopped just because I wasn't attending sessions any more. I had ‘internalised’ the Doc, and in moments of difficulty would  hear his voice in my head – saying, for instance, ‘Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and after a while, if you look back over your shoulder, you'll see that you’ve travelled quite a long way.’

I’ll be eternally grateful for having been referred to an excellent therapist. I have learned from other people since that the experience is not always so positive. Were he still alive, I’d have no hesitation in recommending him to anyone who needed that kind of help; but, sad to say, he’s no longer with us.

Therapy not only enabled me to address and heal the disturbing influences of the past, it helped me go on from there – to grow from a timid, sensitive introvert, at times almost pathologically shy, and often ‘away with the fairies’, into a stronger, more decisive person. I became much more grounded in my self, more at home in everyday reality, more at ease socially, more able to be spontaneous and authentic. 

Readers have commented, on some of my previous posts, how strong I was for one so young. The strength they praise came about directly through being in therapy. I was gradually ‘toughening up’ as the Doc once put it.

He made that remark to Bill (who relayed it to me) after Bill mentioned that I wasn't getting sunburnt as easily as I always used to with my fair skin. There were other things the Doc said over the years, which similarly pointed to the effect of the mind on the body. He must have been the first to present me with that concept. Or perhaps not, as such ideas were starting to gain currency then, in the early to mid-sixties – but he would at least have been one of the first. Coming from him, it must have carried weight as scientific fact, not just a ‘New Age’ speculation. 

On the other hand, I remember his assertion that he and his fellow-psychiatrists were extremely conservative people. They had to be, he explained, because they were messing around with the insides of people’s heads.

He was far too conservative to indulge his patients in ‘magical thinking’. 

‘If you’d seen as many visionary schizophrenics as I have, living in mental hospitals, lost in their own worlds….’ he said.  Or, in answer to something, ‘Sorry, you’ve come to the wrong shop. I don’t deal in miracles. Dr X down the road sells that sort of thing’. (Dr X was the darling of the press at the time, promising that the meditations he taught would cure everything from depression to cancer.)

So I emerged better able to function in what we see as normality – and uncertain about the reality of anything metaphysical. After the breakdown, being restored to functionality was a very good place to be. Questions of metaphysics, which didn't seem to have any direct bearing on my life anyway, I could probably afford to shelve.

I’m interested now to recall one question the Doc asked me, as to why I was so concerned with the state of the world and all the people who were unfortunate or suffering. It was hard for me to understand why he asked; I took it for granted that everyone of course must care about such things. He said that he himself didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about, ‘Oh, those poor Vietnamese’ or whoever, and he hadn't observed that many people did, at least not to the extent that I did. He asked again why I thought I did so. I didn’t have an answer.

I took it that he was suggesting there was something wrong with me for doing so: that it was unbalanced in some way, that perhaps he thought it a displacement from addressing my own problems.  But I didn't say any of that. I just shut down, stubbornly telling myself, inwardly, that my reactions were perfectly normal, natural and right.

He may indeed have been suggesting what I thought he was, but in hindsight I wonder if he wasn’t simply asking me to examine myself in order to know myself better. Perhaps he had some inkling of the healer within me – which was yet to emerge consciously, though I look back now and see that it was always part of me and there were always signs.

Another time, in answer to something I said, he replied, ‘That’s the teacher in you.’ I stared at him and he said (interpreting): ‘What’s that silly psychiatrist saying now? I’m not a teacher, I’m a librarian’ – which was just what I was thinking. Then he repeated, gently but firmly, ‘It’s the teacher in you.’ I decide to at least entertain the possibility that it might be an aspect of me, although I had always thought teaching was one of the last things I’d ever want to do. Of course, in later years I became a very successful teacher of adults in such contexts as writing workshops, meditation classes, Reiki seminars….

When I started conducting workshops, years later, I realised that I had somehow absorbed, as if by osmosis, the way the Doc conducted his group therapy sessions. I don't mean that I began analysing people! It was more a matter of group dynamics, a way of letting everyone be heard, asking pertinent questions in a non-threatening way, interpolating with occasional expertise or opinion only as necessary and useful. In truth, it’s hard to explain; it’s just a thing I do naturally, a way I instinctively fell into, which I recognised as having been his way, and which works. 

It was also from him I learned that, in groups, learning happens best in an atmosphere of laughter. I learned that it’s OK for a group facilitator to make mistakes sometimes and be wrong sometimes – so long as they’re always truthful. And I learned how to ‘open my antennae’ (a phrase he occasionally used) and listen intently, not only to what is said but also the unsaid.  But it was only later, when I started teaching, that I learned what joy and fulfilment it would give me. I loved it.

I didn’t at all set myself up to play psychiatrist, or try to heal or improve people in any way. Yet, when I taught poetry writing at Box Hill TAFE and Bill and I hosted live-in weekend workshops for my students, my boss Issy, who attended, said publicly afterwards, meaning it as praise, ‘What Rosemary does isn’t just poetry; it’s therapy!’ I think the therapy was partly in the approach, and partly in the fact that poetry workshops (like group psychotherapy!) can’t help but promote intimacy.

But when I left therapy it wasn't exactly with the Doc’s blessing. He thought I could get more out of it yet, but said he couldn't help me any longer as I was no longer drawing for him the maps he needed to help me navigate my journey. I didn't know what he was talking about, couldn't identify anything I was concealing. He pointed out that he had other patients eager to get into group therapy, and it wasn't fair to keep me on if I wasn't progressing. So I left, somewhat comforted by the fact that, if he'd thought I was in a serious mental condition, he would surely have hospitalised me instead. There was no suggestion of that.

It was some little time later that I had my 'lightbulb' moment. I was in my early thirties, and inexplicably discontented. I asked myself, 'Why are you feeling discontented when you have everything you're supposed to want - good husband, two gorgeous kids, nice house, friends, as much work as you choose to do? What is it you really want?' A lightbulb went on in my head, as depicted in cartoons, and the answer was immediately present. What I wanted, had always wanted, was to be a poet. 

I had been one since I was seven, but, having been discouraged from seeing it as a viable career, I merely scribbled privately. I seldom showed my poems to anyone, let alone submitting them anywhere for possible publication. But, with the lightbulb, I thought, 'OK, well I'd better do it for real.'

That meant I had to start working on my poems to make them as good as I possibly could. When you're only scribbling privately for your own amusement, there's not the same impetus to do that. It also meant I had to be brave enough to submit them to literary magazines.

The response to my first submission was, 'These are too long for us. Please send us some shorter ones.' Greatly encouraged, I did. They were accepted, and I never looked back. It became apparent that I had a vocation, which I had not been honouring. I have followed it ever since. Not following it had been causing unsuspected problems in my life. I wasn't fully being myself.

I encountered the Doc years later in a personal development course we were both doing. There was a large number of participants; we didn't need to do more than spot each other across the room. He in fact gave no sign of recognition, and I realised this was because he was bound by professional ethics not to publicly acknowledge a patient unless they first acknowledged him. I did that, in one of the breaks. I had something I wanted to tell him. 

'Excuse me,' I started. 'Do you remember me?' (Maybe it wasn't professional ethics, I thought. After all, he must have so many ex-patients.)

'Of course I remember you,' he said. 

So I reminded him that he had said I wasn't drawing him the maps he needed. I explained that I had discovered the missing piece of the map, which was that I was a poet, and that I was now living my vocation. He said he had seen some poems published in the newspapers under my name and had wondered if they were by me, if it was the same Rosemary Nissen. He asked after Bill and our foster-son; we had a brief, pleasant conversation and then got back to the course we were doing. I don't know if he bought my explanation about the poetry, but he didn't indicate otherwise. What was noticeable was that he treated me like an acquaintance rather than a patient - perfectly proper, as I was no longer a patient, and no more than I would have expected from him. He always understood these niceties and was completely appropriate. 

It was some years later again that I discovered I also had a vocation as a healer. Six months after learning Reiki I, the basic technique for hands-on healing, Bill and I learned Reiki II, the technique for healing in absence. As I’ve explained in an earlier post, I learned Reiki initially with the notion of helping Bill who, as a spiritual healer, was getting drained if he did too much of it. I suggested he learn too, to get some formal training to put to his gift. But in practice the Reiki superseded what he had, and prevented him from getting drained anyway. Meanwhile, I found I loved it.

I fell in love even more with Level II – such a wonderful gift, to be able to send healing across space and to some extent across time. I’m so constituted that when I find something good I want to share it with the whole world. So of course, at this point I decided I would train as a teacher. (The term ‘Master’ in ‘Reiki Master’ means teacher.)

I was so elated and grateful, the morning after  completing Level II, I woke up early, put Amazing Grace on the stereo, and danced. I was in bliss.

Reiki seems to me to be magical. It certainly is not yet explainable in terms that science recognises. And it works! So it was one factor in having me open again to the possibility of magic. It has been a wonderful path for me ever since. 

So has the path of psychic mediumship, which developed soon afterwards, as outlined in a previous post. The famous Tarot author Rachel Pollack describes Tarot as ‘the outlaw therapy’. My readings, in which Tarot is only one of my tools, are a form of spiritual counselling. 

I have also qualified in many other energy healing modalities besides the original Reiki. And my magical path has essentially been about healing too, in a broad sense. (For instance, in ritual, ‘turning the wheel of the year’, we intend to look after the wellbeing of the planet.)

A few years back, a friend devised a way to discover what one’s ideal job would be. She told me mine would be to heal the world via poetry. She was so right! As soon as she said it, I realised that's exactly what my ideal job would be. In fact she saw me doing it by sharing poetry online. It didn't take me long to understand that I am doing exactly that. 

Not that I am the only one doing it, I hasten to note. Poetry is healing for the one who writes it, as I have experienced in times of trauma and bereavement. It can also be healing for its readers, whether it soothes, uplifts or is cathartic.

I once had a reading from someone who was an excellent channel for various angels and spirit guides. I asked what I could label myself, e.g. for purposes of putting something on a business card. She told me that ‘they’ would prefer that I didn't label myself at all as it is limiting to do so. But they could see that I needed something for practical purposes. Only it was difficult, they said, because I was a good healer, a good teacher, a good psychic reader … in the end they suggested I might call myself ‘a teacher of metaphysics’; they would be happy if I were to use that label. I do, but not exclusively. I don’t think it means much to the average person, so I use more specific ones as well, such as Reiki Master, psychic medium, poet … a list.

These new directions that opened up for me, these explorations into healing and magic, started happening at the time my children became young men and got out from under the parental roof, when I was newly free of the practical duties of motherhood. Perfect timing, I think, as I look back now.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

An Interpolation

Before continuing with new bits of memoir writing, I'm inserting this story, published in 1991 (under the name Rosemary Nissen) by Women's Redress Press, Inc. of Sydney in BODY LINES: A WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY. I include it at this point as it illustrates some lessons I learned which influenced my behaviour, as described in the previous post. (If you've been following all these posts, you may recognise a couple of the incidents, that have been mentioned before though in less detail.)


White face in the car. Young, smug, fat, balding. White shirt, smooth white hands. Round the corner, then slow, cruising to a stop. The night is late and cold and I am alone. This corner, this intersection of five busy daytime streets, is deserted except for me and now this car. I press my back against someone’s fence as the car starts its crawl. I’m twenty-five: I know the rules. Stand straight, look away, don’t speak. Soon they’ll give up; just endure till then.

I was fainting with fear, but I stood straight. ‘Please let me past,’  still coldly polite, and at last he moved aside. I hadn’t believed he would. I walked deliberately down the passage and out the door, then fast along the street to cut through Melbourne Uni—my Uni—and catch a tram. I was twenty-two, about to graduate; it had been my Uni for five years. I felt safer among these familiar paths and buildings than I did on the street, though they were bleak and deserted this winter night. Only Dr R, the handsome Philosophy lecturer, walked past in his own mood, scowling. His black gown flapped in a sudden gust. I stalked in my opposite direction, scowling back.

Big, crinkly, chunky face. Mobile face, tanned. Sensitive face, artist face, playing to his own mirror, his own eyes and mind. Handsome, vain, leering face, God’s gift. Little-boy wide eyes: aren’t I cute? But not a little boy—thirty to my nineteen. Dark, volatile, my old friend’s husband. His contrast with her dreamy blondeness, her twenty years. A flirter, pincher, squeezer, whom all her friends put up with, ignored, tried to fend off with jokes. A mass collusion with him to keep her happily ignorant. Can she have been so vague, so unaware?

Lank hair, blue stubble, open pores. Spit spraying out of his mouth. His body pressing mine down on his narrow bed in his narrow room in the strange, dark, silent boarding house. ‘I’ll take you out for dinner,’ he’d said. ‘May I meet your family first?’ and charmed them in spite of the spray with his laughter and easy talk.

Twinkling innocently as he pinched my bottom hard and I gasped and yelped. The clout, the satisfying smack. His skittering face on his skittering body, sliding and falling backwards across the room, stopped by the old couch hitting the backs of his knees. My hand still lifted, frozen in my own surprise. His sprawling collapse. ‘Serves you right,’ said his wife.

Earlier tonight I saw my husband off on the Sydney train. ‘Trial separation,’ he kept saying and, ‘Join me as soon as you’re ready to start again.’ But I know I’ll never want that. I cry for hours. I go to my friends in Elsternwick, sit in their kitchen with coffee and cigarettes, and I cry and I talk, and finally walk to the corner in spite of all their pleas, to catch the Brighton bus. I am cried out, emptied, ready to be alone.

‘We just have to go to my place first, to pick something up,’ and when we arrived: ‘Sit down. Sit on the bed, it’s the only place.’  It was. He made me coffee in a grimy cup. I hid my face in my hair, pretending to sip. He shoved at me a slice of apple strudel in torn white paper. ‘You wanted dinner? Here’s dinner.’  It looked greasy and old. ‘No thank you,’ I said. He sat down and pushed me flat on the bed. I squirmed my face away. ‘Anyway, today’s my birthday,’ he said.

My face is thick with crying, red and blotched. My eyes burn. My eyelids have swelled —puffy, transparent, glistening, they will look like slugs for another twenty-four hours. I feel ugly all the way through. I’m past caring.

‘You’re not like all the other girls,’ he’d said when we met. ‘You seem more innocent.’ He’d led me to shop windows. ‘There, do you like that dress? Do you like that one?’ until, to stop this uncomfortable game, I’d agreed,’That one’s all right.’ He’d dropped my arm at once. ‘I suppose you want me to buy it for you,’ he’d spat. He had been spitting on me all night, talking as we danced. I was brought up to be polite. I’d held my face as far from his as I could, kept my expression  bland, agreed to another dance, accepted the walk to the train, not to hurt his feelings. I didn't want the dress, I didn't want him. ‘I’m very busy studying,’  I’d tried to excuse myself. But, ‘Let me meet your family,’ and now we were struggling here on his bed.

Gasping and holding his face. Slack, childish face wiped blank of shifting expressions, gaping up at my hand. Every face in the room, including mine, gaping at my frail right hand—usually too weak to open a jar without help. My hand still stinging. His hand nursing the side of his gone-stupid face.

I managed to push him off. My voice was cold but polite. ‘I’m leaving now.’ He stood with his arm across the door, a bulky man, blocking my exit while he accused. Gold-digger. Heartless. Deserve what you get. His mouth twisted hard to one side, the side that sprayed spit. His face, more than his words, said he always knew no bitch would ever love.

He leans across the passenger seat and rolls the window down. I am emptied of everything. I am at the end. Before he can speak, I step forward. I thrust a contorted face at the open window and say, clearly and fiercely, ‘You get out of here and you leave me alone.’ His face is suddenly contorted too. His face is terrified. Without a word, he steps on the accelerator and speeds off. Five minutes later the bus trundles up. I begin the ride home to my safe, solitary flat.

Copyright © Rosemary Nissen 1991

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Learning from My Ordeal

I see myself as having experienced a protracted ordeal of several phases: my parents' divorce, two years of the Wicked Stepmother, and my bizarre first marriage. The latter provided enough stress that I couldn't keep covering up the effects of the earlier trials. It was the final straw, if you like. And it pushed me onto the path back to normal life, which was my psychotherapy. 

It appeared that I had already returned to normal life simply by getting out from under the Stepmother's roof. I had a few years when things must have looked normal enough on the outside, as I lived the life of a university student and then got my first job and rose rapidly to a position of responsibility. (These years included first love, which was also first sexual awakening, and the subsequent break-up of that relationship, but I don't count that as an ordeal even though it ended in disappointment.)

But it was only an appearance of normality. The traumas and stress made cracks in my psyche, and eventually I shattered. I am one who breaks down very quietly, as my therapist later remarked, so that even the people closest to me would not have been aware of how much was wrong. There were months of breaking down quietly before the final, dramatic collapse – but not so quietly that I could quite conceal it from myself. I tried, but it became impossible to deny. I hoped, though, to conceal it from others, until finally I couldn't. I was very scared, desperately trying to hold myself together against increasing disintegration. In the end, going into therapy became less terrifying than trying to go on without it.

I look back at what I learned from the whole experience. There was much I learned during the years of therapy, but before that there were things I learned from the ordeal — sad things, mostly, or which have their basis in sad experiences. I can see how they played out in my life afterwards, which is the proof that they were thoroughly learned.

I learned that you can't necessarily trust those you love to take care of you, not even someone who has always up until now been the best Dad in the world and has given you no reason to believe that this could ever change – who probably would not have believed it of himself, beforehand. 

And I learned that if someone is in my care, I have to stay with that responsibility. I couldn’t, I discovered, go away even for a long weekend, leaving my little brother among enemies, and think that would make no difference. My presence not only counted for something, it was crucial. When I was there, I couldn't protect him entirely, but I managed to stand up for him enough to mitigate most things. Let’s just say, if anyone was standing up for him in those days, it was me, and only me – and it did some good, if not enough. 

So when my sons' father, while they were still very young, fell in love with another woman – one, moreover, who lived in another country – I made damn sure to win him away from her again. I was by no means a perfect mother, but at least I trusted myself to love my kids and have their best interests at heart. I gave them a great Dad, and to be fair I don't think the woman he fell for would have been unkind to any child – but there was no way I was going to take a chance on it. I was never going to see them get a stepmother, nor let them go far away from me into someone else's care. And I didn't trust their father to be selfless enough; I knew that fathers are not always sufficiently clear-headed and protective.

Much later, when my last husband, Andrew, had to go into a nursing home because I was physically unable to give him the care he needed, I visited him three times a day – even though the first place, from which I very soon extricated him, tried hard to discourage me from coming so often. That was my darling husband – no way would I not spend as much time with him as I could, no way would I not keep a close eye on the care he was getting. And a good thing I did!

I've never put a pet into an animal home either, when I've gone away. I've always been able to get people to come in and look after them whom I and they know well. If I couldn't, I wouldn't go. That is still the case. I am just not prepared to take anything at face value when it comes to the care and wellbeing of loved ones in my charge.

I look back and realise I had more courage and more cunning than I thought. I had to learn how to stand up for my brother and me without being so confrontational about it that it would make matters worse. I had to really hone my gift of the gab! I had to learn how to form arguments that would appeal to my adversaries, whilst not letting them see I regarded them as adversaries. 

Ever since, I have been very good at talking myself out of trouble – including, one time, a potential date-rape when I was alone and quite at the man’s mercy. It’s a very useful skill! One thing it involves is being able to tune in and read the other person accurately, to anticipate their reactions; so no doubt it honed my intuition too. I see that I have a lot to thank the Stepmother for, and in a way I am grateful, though not with any personal warmth towards her.

I would not easily put myself in anyone’s power again, either. For instance, I don't think I would ever become involved with a potentially violent man, although many women do, because I would be able to read their energy too well. I never have been involved with any such man. The ones I have been involved with have usually been capable of strong views, and we have sometimes had heated differences of opinion, but it was all verbal; there was never any threat to me.

Similarly, I have never let anyone control me mentally or emotionally. I might in some circumstances keep my own counsel rather than stirring up dissension – the words, ‘You could be right’ or, ‘Well, you’re entitled to your opinion’ sometimes come in handy! – but I am not swayed by others’ opinions unless they meet my own tests of logic, integrity, etc. 

I’m not so stupid as to hold to a viewpoint which is obviously mistaken; I will change my mind if the evidence warrants it. But I can't be tricked into it, because I can tell when someone is trying. And I can't be browbeaten. I have a core so stubborn, it might made of granite.

In the next episode I’ll look at what I learned from my therapy.