Psychotherapist Julia Samuel's new book explores the certainty of change, and how to better embrace it
A book like This Too Shall Pass becomes a much-needed entryway into understanding multiple emotional trials and traumas that a person undergoes, and the importance of acknowledging each one of these phases occurring in life.
The news of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide once again sparked a conversation on social media about mental health and wellness, a discussion which had already garnered much attention due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant lockdown.
Mental health experts and self-help coaches have repeatedly been advocating the importance of sharing our insecurities and dealing with our emotional vulnerabilities. This need has been further amplified following the lockdown and the rising economic and social uncertainties, which can potentially cause increased panic and anxiety.
A conversation around mental health then provides an added impetus to not only flex our muscles, but also our minds and find ways to help ourselves and our close ones deal with day-to-day anxieties, major life changes and trauma to heal our inner selves.
While seeking professional help continues over virtual platforms, what can also prove beneficial is to read other people's stories and discover how patients have coped with conflict, grief and longing in different walks of life. British psychotherapist Julia Samuel documents in her latest work, This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings, several such cases she has worked on to help patients make peace with their past and find a way forward.
In the book which follows her debut, Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, Samuel says that we tend to take stock of our lives every seven to ten years. In 2020, the world stepped into a new decade, but the year has unfolded in ways contrary to most expectations.
Even so, the psychotherapist's latest work, as its title suggests, is primarily about being hopeful. The case studies divided into separate sections, like Family Relationships, Love, Work, Health and Identity, elucidate the problems encountered in each of these spheres of life, and how they were overcome.
The road ahead is a tough one, riddled as it is with unpredictable, swift changes. At such a time, Samuel notes that it is important to hold on to two perspectives. The first one is to focus on today, “and in each day, have a schedule/routine which involves exercise, something calming like yoga/meditation, time for work, and time to do things that intentionally lift your spirits and calm you.”
The second is to be hopeful about the future, for “it is hope that is the alchemy to turn a life around.”
“Hope is not just an emotion, although that helps,” she says, “it is also a realistic goal with a plan and self-belief.”
And hope is abundantly reflected in her case studies. The story of Leena struggling to keep that parental control over her daughter who is about to get married; or that of a Kurdish refugee struggling with identity and a sense of belonging; even that of Maria, a married woman with a steady lover, who falls for another man; or that of Robbie who loses his wife; and Isabel, coping with her divorce and her sexual desires — all touch upon multiple themes such as marriage, infidelity, love, career. The common element in all these narratives is the larger message of hope and optimism. Towards the end of each section, Samuel also provides relevant statistics to offer a broader perspective, and reassure the reader that by no means is a person going through a difficult time alone, or ‘a loser.’
Of the cases featured in her work, she says, “I saw myself in Leena, that tug of wanting to keep my daughter close, whilst also wanting her to be married and get on with her life, recognising it was about love, control and me ageing.”
One of the other stories that stood out for her was that of KT's, a patient who identified as gender non-binary. Before KT, she had never worked on a case like this, and felt that they had "built a very important meaningful relationship both coming from a position of not knowing, and yet wanting to know and understand". “It meant a lot to me that KT grew to trust me, although I represented the establishment which she had difficulty with,” she says.
Over the course of time, lifestyles have altered and so have issues, anguishes and troubles that plague us. With the increasing use of social media, there is also a distorted sense of other people’s lives and identities, which has direct impact on our minds.
Samuel, who has been working with bereaved families and patients with various concerns in the United Kingdom over the last three decades observes, “I think people’s expectations of themselves and others has risen over the years, less tolerance for being good enough, and an increase in perfectionism.”
She continues, “Busyness through work can affect relationships where there is no boundary between work and home, and busyness is an emotional anaesthetic. That combined with everyone being on screens so much more has meant there is less emotional availability for personal relationships, which takes a big toll.”
In This Too Shall Pass, Samuel’s narrative also reflects the patience and empathy required of a counsellor to help patients deal with these changes, remain neutral, and enable clients to come up with solutions for themselves. However, there are bound to be days when the going gets tough, when there are moments of impatience and restlessness, even frustration. To cope with these emotions, Samuel says, “I like to start each session with the Buddhist awareness, the beginner’s mind, so I don’t make assumptions, and face each client with curiosity and empathy for how they are at this moment.”
“That is my aim, I do not always succeed,” she concedes.
What is also disturbing is the effect that a patient’s story can have on a therapist’s mental health. One also runs the risk of becoming too involved in a patient’s world. “I have very often had troubling dreams or felt distressed from a particularly difficult event that has happened to my patient,” Samuel notes, but she has her own ways of dealing with such qualms.
“Kickboxing every week,” she says, “is my best release for that pent up agitation, I always feel so much better afterwards. Also watching comedies on TV!”
The importance of sustaining a healthy mind, not only in the present scenario but also in the future, which might harbour many and more severe challenges, cannot be overstated. Consequently, a book like This Too Shall Pass becomes a much-needed entryway into understanding multiple emotional trials and traumas that a person undergoes, and the importance of acknowledging each one of these phases occurring in life.
Change is the only constant, and our response to change, as Samuel’s work points out, is always accompanied by invisible baggage. Change forces us to evaluate what we took for granted, she explains in her book, but over time, we make the necessary adjustments to adapt, be hopeful and become resilient. One of the broader takeaways from this narrative, according to Samuel, is that “life is change — we can’t fight it, we have to find ways of supporting ourselves in it so we can adapt – the things we do to avoid the change are often the things that do us harm over time.”
“The process of change is uncomfortable at one end of the spectrum and painful at the other,” she remarks, and the discomfort lets us know that we have to adapt to an external event or internal alterations, like ageing.
In each story featured in the book, Samuel assumes the role of an unconditional listener who admits that while she may not have all the answers, or that in certain cases what her patients require is just a stroke of luck, she is listening to them from a most non-threatening and non-judgemental standpoint, thereby making her patients confront themselves and come to terms with their innermost feelings about themselves and others.
She offers a similar advice for her readers: “I think a reader can make best use of the stories by being as open as possible when reading them, trying not to judge the person I am writing about, but try and step into their world.”
Julia Samuel’s This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings has been published by Penguin Random House
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