Contributed by Anastasia Piatakhina Gire, Member of IIAP
There are places I’ll remember all my life.
—I was born in a small Russian town, a very cold and dirty place.
This was one of the first things Anna shared about herself in a long introductory email reaching out to me for online psychotherapy.
In this description of her native town, I could sense her sad childhood: a lack of emotional warmth and possibly some neglect.
The way people describe their early surroundings usually tells something significant about their life story.
We developed early bonds with our caretakers, but also with a place. We end up internalizing the qualities of the landscape or family house where we grew up.
Can we ever detach ourselves from our original place? Does it not persist inside us, long after the physical building has been knocked down?
Anna had left her native town early, to study and work in Moscow, and then she had moved abroad. Her departure had been more of an escape: eager to leave, she had barely said her goodbyes. Since then she had changed countries several times, and finally landed in London. But the original “coldness” and “dirtiness” had followed her, as a malevolent shadow from her past.
It was only our second session, and I was experiencing Anna as frozen and difficult to reach out to. She complained that no town ever felt good enough to her: “too cold” or “too dirty.” Through the videoconferencing, I could have a glimpse of her current London interior, which looked unsurprisingly impersonal and rather messy.
Anna’s restlessness was partly due to her conscious desire to find a more nourishing environment, but this was conflicting with a deeper sense of hopelessness and despair: she believed that such a place did not exist for her.
Even in a warmer and more welcoming country, she would always feel alienated by a feeling of guilt—as if betraying her birthplace, her motherland. That felt deeply wrong.
But at the same time, she could not feel belonging to this new and “better” place, she felt painfully “different.”
Deep inside she kept being “a girl from a dirty and cold place,” her life stained by it forever.
As often happens with expatriates, something shifted when Anna went back home for a holiday. We had an online session whilst she was there. As her face appeared on my screen, I was struck by how different she now looked: instead of her usual impeccable jacket, she was wearing a loose t-shirt; her hair was messy; and without make-up she looked younger.
This was a unique opportunity to accelerate the process.
She was staying at her parents’ flat—the very one where she had grown up, and was certainly getting in touch with some early emotional experiences of her childhood.
Internet connection is always bad here, so maybe we will need to switch-off the video at some point. She warned me, preparing a retreat in case the session triggered too much shame. She was also reminding me how “imperfect” her childhood place was.
Shame was indeed around for the whole hour, but Anna was brave enough to stay with it, and we managed to navigate through this experience together.
Using her laptop’s webcam, Anna finally showed me around. This was a real risk-taking, and I could appreciate how exposed and vulnerable she felt. The place was indeed muddled, and was a testimony of an un-nourishing childhood environment.
Anna’s mother, born just after the war, had been stockpiling all sorts of things, an aversion to discarding possessions which qualified her as a “hoarder.” Understanding her mother’s struggle helped Anna make sense of the level of messiness she grew up with, and the shame she was feeling about it.
That “back home” session actually was a turning point in my work with Anna.
She realized how much she was actually attached to her birthplace, with a painful loyalty that did not let her leave it completely behind.
Making a better sense of her mother’s mental condition, Anna was now able to re-evaluate her own relationship with her family home and her native town. This place was not her. It did not define her; it was rather a sum of her experiences, which had started in that town, but did not have to end there. And the latter was her choice—such an empowering realization.
Maybe a warmer place existed somewhere for her after all…?
[Note: This has been re-posted from Psychotherapy.net with permission from the author.]
There are many different models of counselling and psychotherapy available today and it is easy to get confused. The main quality of the Integrative approach I practice is its relational value. Every hour we spend together is your own time and space, where nothing is expected of you, except for the commitment to being honest and willing to share. I will always strive to be fully present and available for my clients. Throughout my time as a therapist I remain in regular supervision with a fully qualified Psychotherapist.