The situation in which people live is a common subject that comes up in therapy. There are students new to semi-independent living. There are couples going through the pains of divorce without knowing if one or other of them will be able to afford a new house or be able to keep the family home going. There are people who were brought up in care where the idea of family and home itself might be a challenge, even years after the childhood situation has been resolved.
In Cambridge and Bristol (the two cities in which I work) and, indeed, in much of the UK, being able to afford to buy your own home is a far-off dream for many people. Home is often the fantasy; everything from situation comedy to the big-budget movies and advertising sells the home, the family, in terms of an ideal myth. Think of the Christmas hearth with burning logs, or the burgeoning table with succulent turkey and steaming hot gravy. And now, as we approach Christmas, the pressure really cranks up for the perfect home and the perfect family.
Anyone who has worked with me or read my blog knows that I keep what happens in the therapy space strictly confidential. But in the run-up to Christmas and the unbalancing pressure it can bring to home and family, I’ve asked two men if I might recount a little from recent conversations I’ve had with them for the Therapy Place Blog. They are men who, in the last few weeks, have challenged some of my automatic thinking about Christmas, home and family, and I hope they might make you pause and contemplate for a moment or two before December 25 arrives.
Simon* (54) was brought up in the care system north of Cambridge. He never knew his real parents, as he was placed in care very early in life. Growing up in care was difficult. He found himself in a series of foster placements but he never felt anyone cared for him very much. He reported being quite a naughty child. ‘I probably just wanted someone to notice me,’ he said. ‘A psychologist told me once that it’s better to get negative attention for being naughty [if you can’t get praise for positive actions] than it is to be ignored. I don’t know what it’s like these days, but when I reached my 18th birthday, that was that! I was sent to the hostel and just had to get on with life on my own.’
Through his 20s and 30s Simon was an alcoholic, but when the doctors told him he was going to die from the effects of his consumption he was able to stop permanently. Simon has never known any family, but he reports having friends he can trust.
Until 2002, Dan* (52) was the owner of his own engineering business in Bristol. ‘I grew up in a large family – two brothers, three sisters, me, my mum and dad, and my gran and pops all lived in the same house. It was pretty mad but we mostly got on. I had a lot of freedom, and from my teens I enjoyed recreational drugs. I never really liked to drink so I sort of joined in by letting go by other means. I got through tech college and set up my own business repairing mechanical things that went wrong. For a long time I had it really made when I think back on it.’
Dan pauses. His eyes tear up. ‘I repaired everything from washing machines to motorbikes. It all went wrong though. I lost my daughter, my wife and my house when I started taking heroin. Even my mum and dad refused to help me out. I stole things from them to support my habit, I was an awful person because of drugs.’
Dan has been clean for four and a half years.
‘I actually found it more difficult to give up the prescription meds than the heroin. I’d really like to get back with my family now but I understand why they can’t trust me – at least not just yet.’
So why do Simon and Dan challenge my automatic thinking about Christmas, home and family? I met Simon sitting on the pavement close to St Andrew’s Street, Cambridge; I met Dan on Prince Street Bridge, Bristol. There had been frost the night before I met each of them. Simon has spent 36 years living rough, and Dan has been sleeping out for 18 months. It’s interesting to think who we walk past in our busy lives planning for the illusive ‘perfect’ Christmas.
*Names and certain details have been altered in order to protect the identity of both men.