How My Greek Tragedy Worked for Me
A difficult start in life became the ground for bringing healing help to others.
Therapists, in my view, are born not made, preferably within the toxic shambles of ancestral cock-ups, gloom and tragedy, glued together by betrayals and abandonments under a carapace of despair.
For as the poet WH Auden put it: ’The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting — had it not occurred, it would have found another, equally trivial — in order to find a necessity and direction for its existence, in order that its life may become a serious matter.’
In our healing journey, many of us seek recognition of our false self in the world, but that is akin to living on the scaffolding and ignoring the house. Real recognition and thus satisfaction comes when the soul is seen and met.
It is as if we therapists are destined to fly out far from the earth (I will describe specifically how that happened to me) and then have both the capacity and the duty to heal what lies within the bounds of that circumference.
Never trust a psychotherapist whose arc is shorter than your own. And if that is not a golden rule it ought to be.
For what is most needed to help people understand themselves is a companion living an archetypal life. For as Thomas Mann said, ‘Whereas in the life of mankind the mythical represents an early and primitive stage, in the life of an individual it represents a late and mature one.’
But all of the above is by way of pre-amble, for I want to write about my own journey as a man, and my delay serves to both set the stage and allow me to ponder the complexity of my story.
The first inkling I had of destiny came on my third birthday, when in hospital fighting to survive pneumonia, I was molested by an older boy and shot out of my body as if fired from a cannon.
Suddenly, I was in a far-flung corner of a blackened universe, attached to nothing, floating in the void. It is said that a mystic swims in what a psychotic drowns in. I returned awake yet wet, full to the brim of wondrous gifts and terrible fears.
It was my first shamanic experience. But it belongs in context.
My father was an Irish catholic, born in secret in a Dublin workhouse, my mother a Protestant missionary’s daughter from India. They shared a birthday, September 8, with one another and with the Blessed Virgin Mary.
And there was no question that I was treated like the divine child, although by this time, as in all mythological tales, the kingdom once abundant was now in ruins. My father, in a proxy attempt to find the mother who had given him up for adoption, had run off with another woman and was in exile.
One Irish catholic against a family of serious English Protestants has poor odds and, after a number of visits, he was never seen again.
My fall from grace was up and running and would be prolonged. By the time my stepfather came along, my father was all but erased from history, and it was made clear that this was year Zero.
Now that I have grown-up children of my own, it is hard to conceive how two young boys would have to lie about their provenance at school, conceal the family secrets and save their family from further shame.
But this was the end of the sixties and things were different. Even in our ‘Christian’ family, judgment not mercy prevailed and there is no question that shame was to be feared rather than confronted.
What didn’t help me was that I was nice looking and rather too adored. One day, when I was about ten, my stepfather pulled me into the pantry and hit me hard, with his fist, in the stomach.
Like abusers before him, I was instructed never to tell anyone and I never did. It was around the time, my mother had an affair. As always, I was her confidante, and when she was discovered, I was blamed for not telling and, like my father before me, found myself the family scapegoat.
I write about these things now because enough time and work has gone by for me to be able to do so. There has been much said about sexual abuse in recent years, but there remains less understanding of emotional abuse in families.
What was most shocking of all was the realisation that although I had stood by her through her affair, my mother was going to close her heart, maintain the status quo and would put enormous pressure on me to achieve, so all that would now be unlived through her, would be channelled through me.
It was a pressure that all but destroyed me and although initially I won plaudits and prizes, it was not long before I gave up and surrendered myself to many years of self destruction.
There were many things that happened, but as in all mythological tales, this one held within it the seeds of redemption and although I had travelled the via negativa, experiencing the divine in its seeming absence, from the age of 22 I began to have awakenings that would return me to an experience of my essence, that which both existed outside of time and space and held them within it.
At 26 I gave up alcohol, which I had been consuming in quantity since the age of 14, and was scooped up by an elderly Buddhist, a former tea planter who knew the pain of alienation and could begin to guide me home; at 28, I became a father for the first time; at 33 I was living in a retreat centre and stumbled across the burgeoning UK men’s movement and with it a depth and breadth of understanding and fellowship that spoke to my soul.
In 1999, on a vision quest for men in Snowdonia, I was guided to perform a simple ritual in which I reclaimed my father’s surname, an act later confirmed in a court of law. In that moment, I heard a deep inner voice saying I would hear news of my father when I got home. I had already learned that in ritual space, whole universes are re-arranged.
When I returned, his death certificate was on the mat. My father had died in Leicester in November 1987; in August I had moved to Leicester to work on the local paper. Our souls had called to each other, moved close yet never met.
Through the men’s work, a long grief ritual with the African chief Malidoma Some, different trainings as a therapist, studying astrology, involvement in family constellations, rebirthing and meditation, I found my way. On a visit to the Babaji ashram in India — the same district from which my family fled when Gandhi was killed — I laid the ghost of my ancestors.
Six years ago, I was initiated into an ancient meditation pathway of light and sound and discovered with TS Eliot that at the end of all our explorings we shall return to our beginnings and know the place for the first time.
At 56, I am part of the Chiron in Pisces generation. Our wound is the wound of separation, and yet in returning to the root of the root of the Self, we find something miraculous: in our true heart, at the deepest level of our being, we are unscathed — lover, beloved and finally Love itself.
What emerged from my experience were gifts I would not be without, gifts to be shared and passed on to those who know such depth of pain as I have, those who need an awareness that we are visitors here yet can also find home.
At 40, I found out I had been adopted in order that my father could have no connection with me and he had been told we were headed for a new life in Australia.
In being a father to my own children, at least some of what was emptied has been filled. I have learned something of love and forgiveness and those who work with me know I come to them with heartfelt compassion and deep sensitivity.
What I see now is that we do indeed have to become like children again, for as Andrew Harvey writes, only the child will go into hell for the divine. I have known that hell.
The Sufis acknowledge that although we want union, He wants separation. We are meant to be here. I am, you are. We are all special.
How do we discover, or uncover, that which we already are? Rumi described ‘the one thing’, that one essential task, as the return to the root of the root of one’s own self.
In coming here, we descend into the world head first and it takes a long time to find our feet. For Earth is a mirror of Heaven, and in a mirror are we not looking at both ourselves and life backwards?
The soul is both ancient and new-born, again and again over many lifetimes, with life the ultimate paradox, pressing us to find that which is sovereign yet long forgotten, often within families, which mythologist Michael Meade wincingly describes as ‘a storehouse of poison or fixed positions’.
How many of us are born with a sense of nobility yet consigned to a life that is anything but noble, amid circumstances seemingly designed to thwart any sense of royal birth?
And although we suffer and often bemoan the lot spun by the Fates specifically for us, something of great import and necessity is going on.
I like to help others remember that.
© simon heathcote