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two deckchairsAs long as I can remember, August means “holiday month”. My Grandad’s birthday was the 13th, and I remember as a child we were always away when we celebrated it with him. And indeed, August is when I am taking my main holiday of the year: two stints in France, my adopted country. So it was timely when the latest edition of “The book of Life” newsletter came through from The School of Life, an online project founded by philosopher Alain de Botton. It shares some ideas on “The Holidays When You’re Feeling Mentally Unwell”

I have long struggled with holidays, since becoming an adult I imagine - as a child they were rather idyllic, as I could spend long hours climbing trees, camping or staying up later to watch the stars. Later, those hours were spent on the tennis court or the golf course. And while I can yearn for the summer and the imagined ease it brings, the reality as an adult is this: holidays mean more time and space on my hands, and doing has always been easier than being for me. So I definitely related to the article pointing to the higher than normal pressure to be happy at this time of year; and I hear it with my clients too. Karen Horney had a wonderful expression, the “tyranny of the shoulds”, which might go along the lines of “I am in France on my only holiday of the year, I shouldn’t be so restless and unhappy”. That might be instead “I am restless, and I know this happens with me when I suddenly have a lot of space”, in other words, being with what we actually feel.

My personal restlessness is one factor I have looked at when planning my holiday time in any given year. I know I need long enough to go through the first few days of scratchiness both me and my wife have on holiday, but not so long that I take up all my yearly allowance in one go. As a therapist, I like to keep in mind my needs in balance with what my client needs are too. When I first qualified and set up my practice, I heard how many therapists take the entire month of August off. I tried that for a couple of years and found it didn’t serve me nor my clients - I wasn’t making the most of 4 weeks of break; and I found client work dis-regulated by being out of those relationships for so long. In weighing up both sides of the equation, I now find a more effective protection of my ‘battery’ by taking a shorter break every 8 weeks or so: my battery discharges less, and I need less time to get back to full-charge. I have found it also keeps a better functioning level for me, and helps the consistency within the relationship that my clients and I have.

There is however something important about holidays in therapeutic relationships - and not just for the therapists self-care and ability to serve being kept at a good level of functioning. There is also the importance of client’s resilience, and what the client can learn to do to self-support / self-nourish. For a start, there is the building of interpersonal networks so that reliance for well-being is not placed totally on the therapist. There is also value in considering what else can be done that is ‘therapeutic’? I have this discussion with clients ahead of the holiday season, especially over the Christmas period as this can also be a particularly triggering time. What might the client do in the hour we normally meet? Perhaps it is meeting a friend, or going for a coffee at a favourite cafe, or spending the time writing in a journal. Being in nature is another way to build self-support using the environment. I know this has been a very powerful ‘scaffold’ for me in greeting more space this summer: at least twice a week I been meditating outside early morning - either in my back garden or on the beach early mornings. I have also been taking long walks with my wife - doing this every weekend has offered a regular re-charge, a bit like a ‘micro’ break.

Therapeutic therapy also tells us there is another power in the therapist and client having time apart: it is a chance for the therapeutic frame to be challenged. For example, it might bring in to awareness the impact of being separated from the therapist and how difficult feelings might arise. Therapists talk of clients ‘acting out’ - this isn’t a derogatory term, but one that helps us understand how a client’s behaviour (e.g. cancelling sessions, being late, forgetting to pay) tell us about how an old pattern of protection gets played out in the present relationship: sort of how the client protests when they are ‘let down’ or ‘abandoned’ if you like. Another benefit I have found by shorter yet more frequent breaks with clients is that we get more chance to spot the reactions to me going away, and client’s can even end up predicting what moods will come up while I am away and how they might ‘protest’. It is so powerful to be able to normalise this as a natural response.

I appreciated a couple of other things in the article: one being the importance of having people around us that are not solely gin and tonicintent on cheering us up over the holiday time. As it stresses, “we’re allowed to be unwell in our minds”. My wife and I know we both get scratchy when going from full throttle to foot on brakes in the first few days away together - so we support one another by not holding expectations nor condemning eachother for how things are…in fact we have found a lot of humour together in noticing how grouchy we are! We need friends and family that can ‘sit in the dark place’ with us, and not attempt to cheer us up. Secondly, I valued how the article highlights the prevalence of not being on good form at this time of year. We tend to think we are the only ones, and therefore feeling far from our best can feel like failure. I liked how the article encourages more vulnerabilty, to share with others the plight intrinsic to ‘having been born’.

So with all of this in mind, I bid you a bientot for a few weeks: the rest of August is a mix of true holiday interspersed with some writing time on my book - it feels like a good ‘cocktail’ and recipe for rest. I’ll see you in September.

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