The therapist asked me why I was struggling at university. I told him I couldn’t afford to put the heating on and how expensive bread was here, compared to at home in Wales, and shared the shame I felt when tutors told me off in class for using library books, not buying new texts. But the therapist shook his head, waiting for me to justify why I struggled to attend seminars. I looked inside my history to discover why I’d gone from being a talented student at my comprehensive school in the Welsh Valleys to a young woman living in a city where I sometimes shook so hard in the street I felt like my bones would fly apart.
He mined my experiences as a disabled woman for a place to locate my struggles. I gave him a complex picture of my life, and he brought each suffering back to my wheelchair. He didn’t see the context of rooms so damp water poured down the walls, aching hunger, and the housing discrimination faced by people like me on social security, the flats-to-let with signs saying “No DSS, No Dogs”. Traditionally, psychotherapy considers our inner worlds; those of us struggling to get by are impacted by the external as well as the internal. Turning up hungry and damp from trudging in the rain without a bus fare means we aren’t starting from the same place as someone whose resources stretch to a car. And class stays with us for life, shifting between visible and invisible but remaining indelible.
[See also: Lessons from the wrong end of a fox hunt]
We absorb these messages early: in psychoanalytic terms, it’s called an introject, which Jungian analyst Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estés described as a “hypodermic needle to the brain”. We carry messages about who we are in the world to keep safe. Working-class parents warn working-class kids against dreaming – not to hold us back, but to protect us from the disappointments and risks of attempted class-hopping.
Often, therapeutic healing focuses on our life story, but transformation happens when we link our personal experience to the wider socio-economic forces at play.My therapist told me I was broken. He suggested I quit university to take up years of intensive psychoanalysis. This suggestion was so divorced from my reality it woke me up to what was not being said in that room. I didn’t need to be analysed – I needed to be fed. I found the support I needed to pay rent, get a roommate and get enough food.
[See also: Failed by the system, I became a lecturer at 50]
The myth of individualism sent me to therapy to solve systemic problems. Once I was safe, I set out to address the murky space between the personal and the social. Now, I have trained to become a therapist myself. In my therapeutic practice and my writing, I explore what’s made invisible, but lives indelibly in us. I can’t change it alone, but I can name it. We can only reshape what we can see.
Grace Quantock is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.
A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.
This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March.
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain