Just call me …

Blogfind200Just call me …

30 July 2016

“Yes you’re right,” says Jessica, as we begin to talk for the first time about the process of therapy. “The only clues I’ve got,” she says, “are from TV sit coms and films.” We laugh together for a moment and then I begin a fairly routine explanation of what my work role as a therapist is.

First, what I am not. I’m not a psychiatrist. The Royal College of Psychiatrists* describes Psychiatry as a “medical speciality, like general practice, surgery, general medicine or paediatrics. You have to train for 5 years as a doctor and in the UK – like every other medical specialty – do 2 further years of ‘Foundation’ jobs in hospitals before you can start to specialise in psychiatry. It usually takes another 4 years to pass the two professional exams of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, after which you can specialise further.”

Although I studied some developmental psychology during my initial degree, I am also not a psychologist. A Clinical Psychologist (the type of psychologist you are most likely to encounter within an NHS setting) will have gained an undergraduate degree in psychology. Again, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, psychologists will have gained “further experience working in relevant healthcare settings[;] clinical psychologists then do 3 years Doctorate clinical training in an approved training scheme at university. During this time they work with patients under supervision from experienced psychologists and study for an academic doctorate as well as their first degree. They complete training placements with adults, children, older adults and people with learning difficulties.”

Historically, psychology has applied experimental approaches to exploring sates of the human mind. My shorthand for people is that psychiatrists are doctors of the mind and psychologists are scientists of the mind.

So back to what a psychotherapist is and isn’t …

“I’m not an analyst.”

“So I’m not going to be lying on a couch answering your questions,” says Jessica. “It’s not a Woody Allen film, then?“

Indeed, in my own twice-weekly analysis that lasted nearly 6 years I never laid down on a couch because even analysts don’t all do that.

“I am a therapist who deals with people’s internal mental and emotional issues and difficulties,” I continue. “Sometimes people are comfortable with me as their counsellor – a word that is derived from one who walks alongside. Other people I work with refer to me as their psychotherapist, from the Greek for ‘soul and healer’. Some think of me as their coach, and others come to me for hypnotherapy.**

“What I will actually do is sit in a chair opposite you and listen, talk and engage with you in a relational manner. In short we will have conversations about you, what course of action you might need to take, often what you have done or experienced in the past, how you see the world and your interactions with it, and where it is you are trying to get to. I work with all the issues a human can have problems with – including things that are really difficult to talk about such as sex, addiction, relationships, anxiety and bereavement. But I’m not a doctor of the mind and I’m not a scientist of the mind. I’m more an interpreter or an artist, helping you to construct your own canvas by pulling things from one place and sitting them somewhere else.”

“I call myself a therapist, but my professional registration*** says I am a counsellor/psychotherapist. You can just call me Duncan.”

 

* http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/

** I am fully qualified hypnotherapist and is registered with the General Hypnotherapy Register.

*** I am a fully qualified, registered and accredited BACP (British Association for Counselling and psychotherapy) counsellor/psychotherapist.

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

The transient existence of meaning and belonging

Connection200

The transient existence of meaning and belonging

29 June 2016

The midsummer light has finally faded around the edges of the blinds and I am sat within 3 metres of two of the most beautiful voices imaginable. As the climax of the final piece fades and the last statement of the main theme rolls from the trumpet bell, it is possible to anticipate what is about to happen within the venue. Almost in slow motion an eruption of connectedness pushes forth as cheers, shouts and bellows for an encore assault the very oxygen of St George’s concert hall, Bristol. The Unthank sisters, singers of extraordinary presence and warmth, are clearly moved by the reception, and for a few minutes I know I am truly alive – in the moment with every one of the 500 humans emoting in the space.

It is several hours before I can settle, but as I drift off to sleep I am already beginning to think about The Unthanks experience in terms of the wider psychology of human beings. I realise that the gig, and my weekend visit to my home city of Bristol, was about meaning and belonging. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, put forward the idea that humans are driven to find meaning in life.

While many men and women naturally discover meaning, our perception of how much of it we have and/or need appears rather variable and subjective. From the therapist’s chair I witness that believing one’s life lacks meaning is correlated tightly with a number of negative mental health issues including stress, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. Conversely, through therapy I see that people often find their pathway to meaning, which brings with it positive inner feelings and good mental health.

Research frequently focuses on meaning and belonging in connected ways. Social bonds and attachments are clearly tied to this research and are undoubtedly important for humans – so much so that, at certain points, our very survival is predicated upon it. Men and women commonly associate their social relationships as something that creates meaningfulness in their lives, and this is reported in several pieces of research. However, this view of meaning and belonging invariably leads us too often to understanding these issues in relational terms only.

It seems to me that there are other important ways of finding and internally holding our connections of meaning and belonging as a human being. It might be no surprise that I put forward the idea that the arts are one way in which we might build such a sense of belonging and meaning in life; that said, there is also the need for being part of ‘tribes’ whether they are found in sport through supporting a team or the simple acknowledgement of where one comes from … And here I am back with the Unthanks’ songs, deeply rooted and evocative of a culture and geography.

Fast forward to a wet Monday morning. The weekend has ebbed but the music, art and culture of my home city has filled me with a sense of meaning and belonging. Although I must return to Cambridge, it is my connection with my tribe in the West that helps me fully to understand exactly who I am. Beyond the more normal way of viewing meaning and belonging within relationships, I recognise that I have both these things dynamically alive within an internal map of connections built across time, culture and geography, and however present but transient artistic and cultural experiences of meaning and belonging might be, I realise the richness, depth and importance of its touch on people’s lives.

Why not read: Crying has an upside – for men and women alike

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

 

Living life by numbers … and the midlife crisis

Numbers_edited-1Living life by numbers … and the midlife crisis

May 7 2016

Conveniently, for lovers of statistics, the Canadian-born psychologist and social analyst Elliot Jaques – who coined the term “midlife crisis”* – died at the age of 86. I say ‘conveniently’ because his lifespan correlates so well with modern statistical expressions about the mid-point of life. As examples of this, the World Health Organization revealed in 2013 (the most recent figures available) that life expectancy for the average UK citizen is 83 years, and a 2015 report from the Economic Journal revealed that life satisfaction gradually declines throughout the early part of adulthood, reaching a low between the ages of 40 and 42 – so close to Dr Jaques’ midlife point.

The difficulty with reporting averages and statistics about human life is that it can obscure life-lived experience and meaning. If we expect a ‘midlife crisis’ to occur at a certain age, then we will be likely to attribute all negative experiences and challenges to that age rather than to the actual experience triggers and events we are living through at that point in time.

Our later 30s and 40s can be especially difficult times, not particularly because of our age, but because of the responsibility life tends to have assumed. In contrast to childhood – a time when the vast majority of people will have been nurtured, protected and cared for by other people – 35 to 50 year-olds generally have to work hard to support themselves and other family members. And with these struggles come other issues – including depression, anxiety and the realisation that time is passing quickly.

It seems that headline statistics as reported in the media tell us very little about the real nature of a person’s issues – although they do appear to make people feel unhappy when they don’t live up to the ideal average. And how do we, as individuals, ever know when midlife will be? For some, 50 will be the figure they never reached; for a few – take, for instance, therapist Hedda Bolgar** who, aged 102, still worked four days a week – that midpoint would not yet have been reached.

I remember sitting on the sofa with my mother listening to the radio on the eve of my 10th birthday, feeling sad that it didn’t matter how long I would go on to live “I could never count my life in single digits again”. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was actually making an observation that the middle of life can only be seen on reflection, since the truth of it all is that we are actually continually positioned at the extreme end of our lives. This is as true today at the start of my 51st year as it was at the conclusion of my ninth.

Crises can happen at any time of life and it’s important to see each crisis for what it is – and act accordingly. Then, perhaps we can aim for 45 joyous, rather than a total of 90 miserable, years.

* Elliot Jaques (1965) Death and the Midlife Crisis

** http://www.today.com/id/45287411/ns/today-today_people/t/age-therapist-still-psyched/

What are you living for now

JamWhat are you living for now

5 April 2016

It is a gloriously sunny spring afternoon and all I can see, as I walk away from the city centre of Cambridge, is an unending line of traffic queuing to make its way to an impossibly small number of parking spaces. I am aware that I feel very free, liberated, uplifted by the sunlight. But as my passage contraflows the stationary victims – would-be shoppers – I can’t help picking up on the silent messages of those stranded in their overheating metal boxes. Hands flex and contract as they grasp and ungrasp leather clad steering wheels. Passenger seats wriggle with adults and children, each stretched to breaking point by the seemingly endless wait to reach the junction of this road in order to join the main queue on the next one. Further along, the frustration has already erupted in road rage as a woman in a 4×4 mounts the pavement in a very unwise manoeuver. For a while my joyful mood is attenuated. I have stopped enjoying my journey (on foot) and begun to focus on getting to my goal, far away from this line of traffic. Without conscious passage, my head is cluttered with thoughts about the anxiety of modern life – something I’ve been meaning to write about for some while – and then my working mindset is to the fore.

From the communication style they’ve adopted, the male/female pair in the silver Merc look ready for a couples session. Come on! Shouting rarely gets listened to. The family in the people carrier could do with an anger management workshop. And will someone please hand the sports car driver a paper bag to breath into before he passes out!

For a few more metres I’m left wondering what this line of suffering stretching out in front of me is all about before the words of British philosopher and Zen exponent Alan Watts come to mind. In one of his engaging talks* he states: “You can’t live at all unless you can live fully now.” The point he is making is that it’s not the end goal that forms the major reward and provides the greatest pleasure, but the journey itself. And having engaged with this thought, I felt once more liberated, uplifted and grateful that I wasn’t sat in the traffic looking for anticipated reward in my shopping basket.

*If you can spare 2 minutes 22 seconds, you can listen to the rather inspirational way Alan Watts talks about life fully in the now.

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

A stitch in time …

StitchA stitch in time …

29 March 2016

In total, with two different therapists I spent 8-and-a-half-years in therapy. For 5-and-a-half-years I even went twice a week. On the face of it then, therapy was no quick fix. But the main reason I spent so long talking to my kindly octogenarian Jungian analyst was that I had waited too long (22 years to be exact) before I began to face my issues.

When I meet a sizeable proportion of the people coming to my private practice for the first time, they are rather like I was: they come to the space having struggled with their issues for too long. Avoiding issues, as we know, seldom helps them to go away, and when we don’t share difficulties or problems with other people the negatives often become amplified. When issues are within an intimate couple, it’s not uncommon for the partners to struggle together for years, somehow hoping that things will just get better. But in fact the couple usually fall into deeper and more upsetting patterns of behaviours as the partners hang on in there without addressing the underlying problems.

Individuals and couples can live with an overwhelming and prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness. While human beings are quite remarkable in their ability to cope, against the odds, in all sorts of negative scenarios, it is also common for people to enter ‘survival mode’ and this is often accompanied by depressive moods, anxiety, anger and relationship difficulties. As the issues become more widespread and deeply ingrained over time, other issues become amplified and begin to feed back into one another, sometimes leading to a full depressive episode, addictions, anxieties, anger, family and relationship difficulties, and even sexual problems. By this time it can be extremely difficult to decide where one problem begins and another one ends. It’s then common for feelings of being overwhelmed or a prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness to be the presenting issue in therapy. None of this makes it easier to sort your issues out. So, while I don’t have the answer to why we wait so long before seeking help, I hope reading this short blog might make you do something about your needs. Don’t wait; act as quickly as you can.

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

When someone strays

Blog200Couple29 February 2016

Most people – whether through experience or empathy – can understand the range of feelings that go through someone’s mind and body when they discover their partner has, or is currently having, an affair. The event more often than not is experienced as a catastrophe by at least the wronged partner and it is common for all blame for the situation to be heaped on the straying partner.

From the therapist’s chair, affairs often look rather different. An affair, almost without exception, is actually a specific form of communication. In supposed monogamous relationships the fact that an affair has arisen suggests there might be evidence to support the idea that this is a relationship that has issues – and the underlying issues have probably developed over time. While it is very difficult to look beyond the pain of the immediate situation, couples who find their way to the consulting room tend to be providing themselves with an opportunity to really deal with their immediate and more longstanding problems.

One of the difficulties couples have to overcome when starting work, if an affair is the presenting issue, is avoidance. Avoidance is a strategy that rarely works in relationships and, while I don’t have space to go into any detail about it in this blog, it might be obvious to most people that avoiding an issue doesn’t mean it goes away. Indeed, a wide range of strategies of avoidance gets used between couples. One thing to bear in mind is that avoidance restricts resolution.

If you have discovered that your partner is having an affair, then I suggest you move more slowly with things than you might immediately feel driven to do. If you leave the relationship straight away you limit your opportunity for understanding what has happened and ultimately for your own repair.

Find yourself space. You are unlikely to want to go on sleeping in the same space as your partner for a while, but if you move too far away this is likely to fuel your anger and indignation. Try to reach a civil agreement that can work for a short time about how to use the space in your home.

Seek out some help, but be careful of other people’s moral judgements or advice. Therapists can be useful at a time like this because we don’t have to take sides. We tend to try to open up the picture so that understanding of the situation can be brought to bear, and the non-judgemental position can help make sense of the anger and rage that is commonplace at a time like this.

The process of working things through is actually just as likely to make you a stronger and closer couple than it is to split you up, providing you both want to work on the issues and are happy to look at not just your partner’s actions but also your own. Sadly, not every relationship can be brought back from the brink, but in thinking and talking together it is likely that even the decision to split will bring some positive benefits.

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

On breaking resolutions and getting things fixed

Calenderblog19 January 2016

Blue Monday – apparently the most depressing day of the year – has now passed and, according to many reports, three-quarters of those who made New Year’s resolutions have already not seen them through. In fact, badly made plans start to fall apart as early as the ninth day of the New Year and 35 per cent of people break their resolution before the month is out.

Since most therapists (myself included) work with addictions at some level or other, the start of the year brings to our practices some people who already feel pretty deflated by their own effort to control negative life habits. This is a pity, since it’s often not the person’s willpower or discipline that is at fault but the way in which they planned to make their change.

Many people don’t understand how to successfully make changes in their lives and so tend towards ‘over-commitment’ when they undertake those changes. Connectedly, if you try to make too many alterations at the same time, you tend to make a successful outcome harder to achieve.

Evidence from many sources, including my own practice, suggests that making change in life is more easily achieved when you make a proper plan to achieve it. If you simply make up your plans on the spot, there is a much greater chance you will miss the detailed planning that goes along with effective change. (I guess you might already be able to see why deciding to finally give up something on the last strokes of midnight on December 31 often fails so quickly.)

It can also be quite difficult, if you are on your own during the process, to not only make changes but also retain motivation. Sharing your goals with someone, even a therapist, will likely help you to stick to the change. Effectively, when you talk through your ideas for change with someone else you begin to form a contract with yourself. In the 14 years I’ve been involved in helping people to make changes, a well-formed contract has often made the difference between success and failure.

Finally, we tend to underestimate how long it takes to change a habit. According to research conducted at University College London (see Phillippa Lally), it takes a sobering 66 days for simple new habits (such as eating fruit daily or jogging) to become automatic – although individuals range wildly in their abilities, taking anywhere between 18 and 245 days to affect the changes).

When it comes to positive change around issues like overuse of porn or other sexual acting out, then habits are often deeply ingrained and complex. Rather than launching my new porn recovery programme REWIND on 1 January, you can perhaps see why I’m waiting until a little beyond the first few weeks of the year before I open it up.

On being ignored, forgotten or abandoned

AttachmentblogOn being ignored, forgotten or abandoned

1 December 2015

From my window seat, I was enjoying watching the early Saturday coffee addicts flock into the café for their various flat whites, cappuccinos and espressos – or at least I was for the first ten minutes. But, during the next five, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that my friend had forgotten we were supposed to be meeting for a long overdue catch-up. At times like this, there is often a choice of internal conversations to follow, and by the time I’d sat for twenty minutes on my own I began to indulge a few childhood voices. Some remembered being ignored, others the embarrassment of being forgotten; and then came the memory most often worked on in my own twice-weekly analysis: the sorrow of abandonment. So, what are these often strong feelings based on?

In the very early months and years of our lives we build up particular ways of relating to people. This is referred to in the therapeutic world as our attachment pattern. The research into attachment patterns was originally conducted in relation to children and their parents.* These early attachment patterns are referred to as Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent/Anxious and Disorganised. Later research has suggested equivalent patterns of attachment in adults to their significant intimate partners.** In other words, once attachment patterns are established it then becomes the way we relate in our intimate relationships.

People who had the opportunity to form Secure attachments as children also tend to form Secure attachments as adults. The Secure person has a desire for close connections with others and has a sense of a positive view of her or himself. Not surprisingly the Secure personality holds positive views about partners and their relationships.

The adult Dismissive personality is associated with those who had avoidant attachments as children. People with Dismissive personalities are largely characterised by being more separate, inward and isolated. Relationships and emotional life tend to be viewed as relatively unimportant. The cerebral takes precedence and feelings are suppressed – including distancing themselves from others.

Ambivalent/Anxious children often become Preoccupied personalities in adulthood. Self-critical and insecure, the Preoccupied adult seeks approval and reassurance from those around him/her even though this never provides the sought relief from self-doubt. In relationships, this type of personality imagines they will be further rejected which, in turn, creates more anxiety, over-dependence, lack of trust and emotional desperation.

The Fearful-Avoidant personality has its connections with the childhood Disorganised pattern of attachment: i.e. in childhood there was a detaching of feelings at times of trauma, and this persists into adulthood. There is a desire to be involved in relationships until the point at which the relationship develops emotional closeness. This becomes the trigger for the repressed feelings from early life to become live triggers in the here-and-now, which are then experienced as if they are happening in the present moment. This makes it very difficult to have a coherent sense of (your)self with the corollary that it makes intimate connections with others equally challenging.

By the time I left the café, it transpired I’d had quite a mental workout. Assured that I can still rely on my own Secure attachment, I wandered through the already stressed shoppers pondering whether my friend’s lie-in had been as interesting as my own solo coffee encounter. Perhaps, I thought, I should enjoy my own company more – but that might just have been the edge of some Dismissive personality traits talking.

* See Mary Ainsworth
** See Hazan and Shaver

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

Crying has an upside – for men and women alike

Cryblogsmall9 November 2015

It’s 8am on a cold early November morning and I’m not expecting to cry any time soon. In fact, I’m sat inside an incredible structure made from discarded and dormant materials, which itself sits inside the bombed-out remains of the 14th century Temple church in Bristol. Among a small group of people – some clearly on their way to work – my wife and I are listening to a band, toyface, who are part of Sanctum, a 24 hour-a-day, 24-day-long performance.

Visiting the city I was born and raised in – and still feel deeply tribal towards – there are always emotional triggers from my past to be found; the song being beautifully performed by the band suddenly triggers a deep emotion in me. And I want to cry. Despite the distractions of the fluxing audience, the music and lyrics of the powerful quartet of musicians speak deeply to something at my core. And yet, I’m still coded to my childhood upbringing half a century ago: ‘big boys don’t cry’.

I know the ‘big boy’s don’t…’ myth well, as men commonly apologise when their emotions release and they cry in my consulting room.

Although little is in fact known about the function of crying for humans, it appears that, according to Professor Ad Vingerhoets, a world leading expert on crying, on average women cry 30 to 64 times a year in comparison with 6 to 17 times a year for men.*

While I cry at the lowest end of the parameters of the quoted figures, I have rarely cried as an adult in a public setting and yet everything tells me this morning that toyface could do me a favour and offer a very therapeutic tear to slip out and relieve me of a few thoughts that the weekend has imposed on me.

A recent study by Asmir Gračanin** suggests that crying might indeed go a long way to making us feel better. The research team examined both the immediate and the delayed effect of crying on mood within a controlled laboratory setting. Immediately after watching two tear-jerking films, 28 participants who had cried and 32 who hadn’t were asked how they felt. They also had to rate their moods 20 and 90 minutes later.

The mood of the non-criers was unchanged and unaffected immediately after seeing the films. However, the mood of the group that cried was distinctively low. After 20 minutes, it was reported that their mood had returned to the level experienced before the screening. When asked again, after 90 minutes, the group that had cried reported a better mood than was the case before the films started.

My own call to personal emotional catharsis, while sitting in the Sanctum space, finally caused my eyes to fill but not to spill. For that to happen, I needed to be a man alone in the company of the downloaded track and my own safe space. I’m adding the track Motherlover to my iPod emotional triggers list. I encourage anyone to experience the purgation of a personal cry list. Think how good you might feel in 90 minutes’ time.

*Professor Vingerhoets also claims that women cry for an average of 6 minutes, while men cry for only 2 to 3 minutes.

**Gračanin, A. et al (2015). Why crying does and sometimes does not seem to alleviate mood: A quasiexperimental study, Motivation and Emotion.

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

Men: porn, relationships and the respectful gaze?

Curveblogsmall31 October 2015

As part of my wide-ranging work as a therapist, I engage in conversations with men who have issues with pornography and sexual addictions. The work can be short and contained or it can take a considerable period of time but, in whatever way it progresses, the issue of ‘how to look’ and ‘what will be seen’ at some point becomes a central issue for conversation.

Gay and heterosexual men alike have to confront how pornography and sexual addictions have affected their looking-and-seeing process. In my practice, there appears a difference in the way these two groups of men confront their burden. The female form is used differently in art and the media from that of the male body. Male couples are often able to pull together through conversation about what looking-and-seeing means and how it functions for the individual – and the couple. Conversely, heterosexual couples frequently fracture during a simple stroll along a high street or as they sit in a restaurant, where every passing female form becomes an unknowable challenge.

In a free, thoughtful and open society, thankfully it is an impossibility not to have the option of looking at and seeing the human form. But what is it that a respectful, heterosexual male (even one previously challenged by negativities created by porn and sexual addiction) looks at and sees when in the presence of the female form? The question leads men to search not down a single agenda track but to open their horizons, and one of my starters for this process is often with something like a poem. Rick Belden captures something in his poem, looking for the perfect curve.

looking for the perfect curve

my eyes
go where they want to go
and they’re always looking
for the perfect curve.

my mind
knows what it wants to know
and it wants knowledge
of the perfect curve.

what is it about the female form
more perfect
than the quiet moon in the sky
or the gentle bend of a river
or the soft contours of waves
rhythmically caressing a beach.

without it
my life is all
straight lines and right angles
and every sentence ends in a period
never a question mark to be found.

the mere sight of it
lights my heart and lightens my day
it nourishes me
and reconnects me with the pure cosmic joy
of being a man.

perhaps only a fool is driven
by that which he cannot have
I’m an old fool now
getting older all the time
and most of the curves I see these days
are many miles
and many years
out of my reach
but my eyes still go
where they want to go
and my mind still knows
what it wants to know
and I’m still looking
for the perfect curve.*

The first two stanzas often create the acknowledging head nod; the third brings breath in – as comfort is acknowledged; the fourth raises a smile or chuckle; the fifth results in a sigh, and the sixth, in equal measures, clasped hands or a bowed head.
And as we come back to conversation, we look at each other and smile – now, just two men sitting in a room. We perhaps understand in the others’ psyche ‘the perfect curve’ – a heterogeneous proliferation of one man, getting the other.

* looking for the perfect curve Copyright © 2013 by Rick Belden. The work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Visit http://www.rickbelden.com

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.