End of another week at the Clinic and time for me to reflect upon the work I have been doing internally as well as in the outside world. Life as a therapist is spent in the mirror of other people’s experiences as well as in contemplation of the lessons being presented by the universe (whatever one conceives that to mean). Rarely am I content to simply allow life to be, but I am learning, helped by my own therapy and by the supervision which keeps me grounded, to live with letting life decide when and how to bowl the balls. The better I get at getting out of the way, the more I come to know that life is lived within scripts that are handed down to us as children. Letting go of those scripts means learning to live with the ghosts in my house instead of trying to exorcise them.
Ghosts are present at the birth of every child when, as the mother is crowned with her new mantle and father is born with the child, the learnings and lessons and laughter and tears of the people long gone, are made manifest again. With each new child are reborn the generations long gone. In the rememberings, the songs, the swaddlings and the rocking of the cradle come the ghosts of the past. Within the pregnant body of the mother to be, lies dormant her own experience of being mothered and grandmothered and greatgrandmothered. Within the expectations of the father, lies the learnings passed down from great, to grand, to father. Each ghost leaves its imprint, stronger in some places, weaker in others. When the ghosts in the nursery meet, over the head of the newly born child, an alchemical change occurs as the parents in the here and now grapple with the ghosts and bring them into a new generational line. When that alchemical change is successful, gold appears. When it fails, disaster strikes and the eruptions from the unconscious life of the most dominant family, brings forth the ghosts and the demons that have lain buried beneath. Here then, is that place of transgenerational haunting, where the ghosts in the nursery overwhelm the here and now and the child, born at the right time but in the wrong place, becomes co-opted by the ghosts into the script that was written a long time ago.
Families are peculiar institutions. Some are fixed and unbending with rules that divide the people within them and others are diffuse and without boundaries, where everyone blends into one. Life within the four walls of any family is an interesting topic, life within my own family is, for me, something akin to an archeological dig, endlessly fascinating and always turning up new treasures. Working in this field is made all the more fascinating for me because of my long term interest in the psychodynamics of the family. Listening to the words not said is as rich in content as any spoken word and how the family flows and plays together as well as how the family does conflict together or apart, speaks volumes. Excavating the scripts through which a family operates is one of the key ways we understand how alienation in a child occurs. Hearing the voices of the ghosts in the nursery tells us much about how the family navigates conflict and change and where the bodies are buried. In alienation cases, it is incredibly rare to find alienating behaviours only in the horizontal plane of existence (here and now) and very common to find them in the vertical life of the family (the lives of previous generations). Learning to let the ghosts in the house whisper the scripts which are driving the alienation in a child, is a particular skill which I am only really just learning. It comes from being able to get out of the way of my own life scripts for long enough to observe how life flows through families regardless. People in families do not live largely in the conscious world but the unconscious and it is in the unconscious where the ghosts come out to play. And when they do, repeating patterns, especially in families where the attempt to blend two tribes into a new one fails, come rushing up into the here and now to cause chaos.
In many of the families I work with, generational patterns of estrangement are very apparent. How a family deals with conflict, through cutting someone out and sending them to coventry, through not speaking to someone for decades at a time and through avoiding the reality of the unspoken by ignoring or avoiding it, is passed down through generations. The dominant force in the couple relationship will bring their own ghosts to the party, thus a man whose own family tree contains no estrangements and normal relationships, might marry a woman whose history is full of those things. He then must wrestle with her ghosts and if she is more powerful (and the troubled people usually are), then he must capitulate and live life by her script. The same is true in the reverse when men take control and force women whose lives were previously untroubled by conflict, to live in a world where conflict and chaos are rife. Children born to such unions will inherit that felt sense of conflict and danger and so goes the march of the next generation.
Which leaves us with what when we consider these families? Well it leaves us with ghosts and with whispers and silences, it leaves us with glances and voices half heard in the stillness (thank you T S Eliot). It leaves us with fragments of truths which surround the children we work with and it leaves us with this.
We cannot remove from the life of the child, those ghosts which are haunting the here and now. We can only learn to work with them. We cannot evacuate the nursery and start over again with clean sheets and fresh scripts, we can only bring resilience and strength to the children who live there. We can educate, excavate and illuminate the dark spaces within the family so that the children can see better the ghosts that attempt to seduce them and we can build up the strength of the parent who can better protect them. But we cannot get rid of those ghosts. We cannot remove them completely. To do so would be to remove the reality of the life that the child is born into and we are not god.
I was a child when I realised there were ghosts in my house. Now I am middle aged I have learned to live with them. My work with alienated children increasingly tells me that whatever we do (and we can do much) to help, we can never get rid of the ghosts, but we can turn up the light so their impact is weaker. We cannot silence their voices but we can turn down the volume.
And we can teach children the skills that ensures that when they become mother and father, the alchemical struggle brings gold and not ghosts.
As I learn to live with the ghosts in my house I am learning to help children become ghost busters in theirs.