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Comfortable, not numb

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Abstract

We are happy to write something to honour 20 years of Th e Pink Practice, an organisation which has been around since before one of the co-authors was even born. It is collaborative piece written by us as father (Hugh) and son (Sam), and is based around a conversation we had some time ago about Sam coming to terms with his sexuality.
Context October 2010
42
Comfortable, not numb
Hugh Palmer & Sam Palmer
Comfor table, not numb
We are happy to write something to honour 20 years of  e Pink Practice, an organisation which has been around since before
one of the co-authors was even born. It is collaborative piece wri en by us as father (Hugh) and son (Sam), and is based around a
conversation we had some time ago about Sam coming to terms with his sexuality.
Sam’s story
Orientation is a funny thing. Approximately 10% of the
population in the UK are gay, bi-sexual or lesbian, yet it still is a
bit of a taboo. If I am honest, I think what is important is being
happy, no matter what you are, but unfortunately this outlook on
life didn’t come to me easily, and I have struggled a lot in my life
coming to terms with my sexuality.
I think I have known from a pretty early age that I was gay.
I didn’t feel that I had grown to be gay or circumstances in my
life had made me gay. Who is to say that people are not born
gay? It’s defi nitely not a choice, and I think that is where many
people begin to struggle, and where I particularly struggled,
questioning myself and why I was this way.
Cue teenage years where things really begin to get diffi cult, a
mix of emotions here, there and everywhere, being expected to
be someone as well as studying for life changing examinations.
I was unable to come to terms with many things, never mind my
sexuality. There came a point where I did come out to my friends
as being bi-sexual. This was a time where I believe I was trying to
come to terms with myself, but testing the water so to speak, to
see the reaction of people and, if I am honest, attending a small
market-town school, being diff erent wasn’t looked at as a good
thing and it was a turn for the worst for my self confi dence.
Now, I look back on the bad experiences of being bullied and
don’t look on it with negative eyes anymore, because the people
that tormented me have made me stronger, and a better person.
I am now out and happy with myself. It’s a very hard path to
come to terms with yourself, but it’s extremely important.
Hugh’s story
My father, Jim, was gay, although this was kept a secret
between himself, my mother Paddy and a couple of close family
members. When he came out (in a very limited way) in the early
1960s, sexual acts between consenting males were still illegal, and
both he and Paddy had a very diffi cult time coming to terms with
his sexuality; the aversion therapy administered had extremely
distressing consequences for Jim, and Paddy lived for many years
with the uncertainty of whether or not Jim would leave her. In the
end, they stuck it out as a couple; perhaps not the easiest option for
both of them but, at that time, it seemed right for them, and they
certainly were very happy friends and companions, chuckling when
others commented on how good their marriage was.
Jim died when Sam was four so, although they met, Sam has
few memories of his Gramps. Ironically, Jim’s ‘gaydar’ must have
been malfunctioning as he apparently assured Paddy that Sam
(aged three or four at the time) was not gay!
It was only after Jim’s death that Paddy and I spoke about Jim’s
sexuality and the struggles they had and, as his grandchildren grew
older, they too learned more about their remarkable and brave
grandparents.
Sam was a happy child, and loved living in New Zealand
between the ages of 10 and 12. When we came back to the UK,
Sam started attending a large comprehensive school in a market
town in the north of England. At fi rst, he seemed to fi t in well
but, as he entered adolescence, he began to really struggle and
became terribly unhappy. This culminated with a fairly serious
incident that demonstrated the level of Sam’s distress, followed
a week later by the news that one of our close family friends had
died suddenly, aged 19, of a cardiac problem.
As Sam hit this diffi cult time, nearly ve years ago, I was
undertaking the fi nal stages of qualifying training as a systemic
family therapist and, as I refl ect upon the impact Sam’s diffi culties
had upon me, and now look at the confi dent young man he
has become, I wonder how we infl uenced each other, which
prompted the following conversation.
The conversation
Hugh: I thought it might be interesting to have a conversation about
what it was like for you, as someone growing up, discovering your
identity, living in a small market town and having a dad who is a
family therapist. Has it made it easier, has it made it worse?
Sam: Psychotherapy is obviously important in the wellbeing for
many people, it can help people identify with themselves, so to
speak. Personally, I’m not sure, having a dad in that profession, it ’s
not something I’d really focus on, or choose to use. It’s always kind of
around me; you get that kind of understanding anyway.
Hugh: Do you think it has impacted on you generally, or specifi cally
around some of the issues you’ve experienced?
Sam: I think it would be more general; psychotherapy is a good way
and means for people to come to terms with diff erent factors about
themselves, be it their orientation or other things as well.
Hugh: It’s a two-way kind of thing for me because when I fi rst started
qualifying training you were 14 or 15 and going through a really
diffi cult time, and I don’t know if that was anything to do with you
worrying about your orientation or other stuff but, for me, I could see
how much you were struggling, what a hard time you were having
and, of course, you were being a bit of a…um…
Sam: Shit?
Hugh: Well, yes, I’m glad you said that and not me! But I was really
doubting what I was doing, I was thinking, ‘What right have I got to
try and help other families when we’re having such a hard time with
you’. Clearly, we weren’t getting it right, well; it felt like we weren’t
getting it right.
Sam: But parenting and psychotherapy are completely diff erent
things, for me anyway. I think having a dad and having a
psychotherapist as a dad are totally diff erent things; you don’t go and
see your dad for psychotherapy, you don’t want your dad to treat you
with psychotherapy!
Hugh: I think that’s really interesting because I don’t think I have ever
intentionally been ‘psychotherapeutic’ but what I think…
43
Context October 2010
Sam: No, but it is in your nature.
Hugh: Yes, part of my journey has been to change; I’ve changed quite
a lot I think, particularly the last two years of my training, I began to
really think about listening to people and not just giving my opinion.
Being much more interested in other people in the family, what they
had to say and being more respectful, I suppose. Has my training had
any impact on you?
Sam: I wouldn’t say so, I think in a sense I’m quite a strong person,
quite self-motivated and someone that, most of the time likes to get
on with things myself and in my own way. From that, I learn from
experiences. With my friends I’ve noticed that with the nature you’ve
been with people, I’ve kind of taken on that role within friendships,
you know, when people have problems I do tend to listen and take
elements of what I’ve been though and use that as examples, you
know, ‘This is how I dealt with it’.
Hugh:Can you explain that a little bit – when you say ‘example’…
Sam: Well, say someone was having issues, which may be specifi c
things about themselves, like confi dence, obviously I’ve had
confi dence issues over the years and I dealt with it in various diff erent
manners, so I suggest those manners. It is a bit like psychotherapy
but not in a professional sense. I think psychotherapy can be labelled
in a variety of diff erent ways; in a professional manner but I think
also that friends can give a kind of psychotherapy – not a specifi c
psychotherapy as a professional with all the research. A friendship
sort of psychotherapy helped me through problems as well as the
family dynamic being a sort of psychotherapy without going through
the ‘traditional route’. What I’m trying to say is there are diff erent
types of what I’m labelling as psychotherapy.
Hugh: One of the key things with psychotherapy is the whole issue
of boundaries and the sorts of conversations I have with clients are
very di erent to the sorts of conversation I have with you, but equally
there is something about the willingness to listen…
Sam: But you’ve got to have someone who has got the willingness to
talk.
Hugh: Yes, and there were times when you weren’t willing to talk
and I found that really frustrating, it was really hard; I could see that
you were struggling and you weren’t letting us know what it was,
but I guess that is part of you sorting yourself out and fi nding your
way. Just out of interest, who did help you – you don’t have to name
names – but can you give me an idea of the sorts of people who were
most helpful to you?
Sam: Close friends and …myself. I worked a lot on being ‘me’.
Hugh: How did you use yourself as a resource, with going through
such a hard time?
Sam: I think that circumstances occurred that made me ‘wake up and
smell the coff ee’.
Hugh: Was that with losing your friend?
Sam: And that was the week after the biggest incident that had
happened and that made me think ‘OK , hang on a minute, this
is silly’, but it wasn’t easy, it was me building myself back up in a
positive way.
Hugh: Could I ask, was there something at that time, because there
was that awful incident for you, then Mark died, and you decided ‘I’m
going to build myself up’, was your orientation something that was
on your mind at that time?
Sam: I think yes, but I was a young teenager, 14..15..and so yes, it was
on my mind. As a teenager, you have a lot on your mind as it is, so it’s
another thing you have to deal with. And other teenagers are stressed
with school, friends, the lot, and you’ve got an additional thing to
think about as well.
Comfor table, not numb
44 Context October 2010
Hugh: If you had seen a professional, what would have been
helpful, what sort of input would you have found useful – if at all?
Sam: I personally wouldn’t opt to see a therapist as a first route but,
if I had been to see a professional it would be important for them to
emphasise the positives because, when you’ve got a lot on your mind
and you are trying to come to terms with various different things, I
don’t think you focus on the positives. But I do think the negatives
would need to be addressed as well.
Hugh: Would you have liked to talk to someone who was sensitive
to the sexuality issues?
Sam: Yes, absolutely, it would have been helpful.
Hugh: The reason I ask is that, when we were having such
difficult times as a family, I did talk about some of the things in my
supervision group, and my supervisor was a very astute woman and
very clued in to gender and orientation issues, and she asked me if
I thought there was a possibility that you were struggling with your
identity? And I didn’t know how to answer, I thought ‘Yeah, well
maybe he is, but it might not be something you’d want to talk to me
about’. In a way I was kind of scared.
Sam: I don’t know how a professional would go about it, because
it’s the sort of thing going on in their mind that people aren’t
comfortable with themselves, it’s not the sort of thing that people
would want to share with their family or with friends. If they were
going to see a professional it would have to be someone who they
would be able to trust.
Hugh: As your dad, it was clearly a really difficult thing and I didn’t
really want to broach it with you but, if youd been to see a therapist
with the concerns you were having, not necessarily about your
orientation but the other stuff that was going on, if they’d asked
you about your sexuality, your orientation, would that have been
helpful?
Sam: Perhaps. It would depend on the circumstances; what the
therapist is like, when you are in that frame of mind, the person
might become very defensive around that subject because they’re
not able to come to terms with it themselves, never mind being able
to talk to a stranger about it. In some ways with it being a stranger, it
might be easier to talk about it, I guess.
Hugh: If they’d said to you, ‘It’s ok to talk about anything’ and
actually asked you straight out, would that have made it easier? I’m
interested in this because sometimes I wonder if therapists avoid
asking 14, 15, 16 year olds directly about concerns they might have
about their sexuality.
Sam: It would encourage people to talk, perhaps. Maybe it would be
one less thing for them to worry about.
Hugh: Bearing in mind this might be of interest to other therapists,
are there any things that might be useful for them to know or to
think about?
Sam: I think that it is important for psychotherapists to know that
it is a subject that some people are ok with, but that the people who
are struggling with it, the subject needs to be approached in a way
that makes it ok, because in that person’s mind it may not be ok.
Hugh: How might they do that? If the therapist said to a young
person who they thought might be struggling with their sexuality
something along the lines of ‘Some young people struggle with their
sexuality at your age; is that something that is true for you?’ Would
that make it easier?
Sam: Yes, because in one sense it is directing the question ‘Is this
what you are struggling with?’ and it is also easing the person
because it highlights that the person isn’t alone. When you’re
struggling with something like that, you do feel quite alone. So,
yeah, the way they word it would be quite important. To directly ask
if that is something they are struggling with so the therapist is able
to work and help with that; but to comfort that person as well, and
say, ‘You know, it’s alright, other people are going through it as well,
and it’s not just you’.
Hugh: I like that you used the word ‘comfort’; it’s not a word I often
hear in professional language; about ‘comforting’ someone.
Sam: Well, I think that people do need to be comforted, if someone
is going to have psychotherapy, they have got issues or they have
got problems, and sometimes they don’t have other people around
them that they feel able to comfort them. There are still professional
boundaries, but there needs to be a level of comfort.
Hugh: Did it feel an uncomfortable place for you?
Sam: Extremely.
Hugh: Did it feel like a lonely place?
Sam: Extremely, yes.
Hugh: Because that idea of you needing comforting is…
Sam: Because, although people may have friends and family about,
it’s subjects that people aren’t able to talk about, or don’t feel they
are able to talk about. You can go to parents and be comforted
for subjects you are happy to talk about; you’ve had a crap day
at school, etcetera, etcetera and you’ll have friends and family
comforting you, but with a subject like that, that really does affect
people, a lot of young people won’t. If they are going to therapy
for those reasons, because they want to be able to talk about it,
but don’t feel able to talk to someone close to them, comforting
is…important, yes.
Hugh’s refl ections
I was really taken with Sam’s concept of comforting (whilst
also feeling sad that there were areas where I could not comfort
him in the past), and this has got me thinking a little bit more
about what it might mean to be comforted by a therapist:
could this represent something more than a ‘safe’ therapeutic
environment?
What struck me, quite painfully, was what a lonely place
it must have been for Sam at the time; struggling with being
bullied, about his orientation, as well as the usual troubles of
adolescence, and how he managed to fi nd his own resources
to become who he wanted to be – despite the ‘market-town’
mentality of the community he inhabited.
Sam has helped me become more aware that struggles with
the stresses and worries of school and peers can complicate or
even obscure other identity diffi culties, and I think is important
to bear this in mind when working with young people.
Reading the transcript again, I am absolutely staggered by
Sam’s strength and resolve and wonder if he has inherited some
of this from his Gramps – perhaps it wasn’t simply orientation
that skipped a generation!
I was quite touched when Sam talked about my changed
‘nature’, of becoming someone who listens, and about how
he has taken on some of that nature himself, too, becoming a
resource for other people himself.
As therapists, we can never really be sure about what it is that
works in therapy, and I like Sam’s take on psychotherapy being
multi-faceted; listening, being interested in others and off ering
comfort can be everyday aspects of simply being a human
connected with others.
Comfor table, not numb
45
Context October 2010
When I think about the courage that Sam has shown in
engaging with this project, as he has with so many other aspects
of his life, I can’t help but be proud of him.
As a parent, it is hard to see your child struggling, but as
a therapist, I felt impotent and a bit like an imposter, too. I
guess there might be a parallel for others in similar positions,
recognising that therapists can and do have family diffi culties,
but also that there are inevitably boundaries for both parents
and children about what can be safely discussed. Perhaps there
may be comfort for others from this knowledge, too. I believe
that there is an additional message implicit in both Sam and I
sharing this story; self-disclosure is a risk, and the reward is not
personal, rather it is the hope that others may feel less alone with
their own struggles.
Sam’s refl ections
Having the conversation with my Dad enabled me to share
experiences which I have had and ways in which I have coped
with these situations. The welfare of each person is so important,
and it’s great that some people are so happy with the person
they are. During teenage years when sexuality can be at the
forefront of a person’s mind, it is sometimes a very scary and
unhappy time, as not only their sexuality is something they
cannot change, but also something which is out of their control,
making that person feel alone and discontented.
It has been extremely hard for me to begin to feel comfortable
with being who I am, and even now I still question myself, but I am
happy now. I am lucky to have a supportive group of friends and
family around me as well as being a relatively strong person, but
some people do not have the loving family or a group of friends
they feel they can talk to so this is why psychotherapy can be
essential to help people deal with their issues with their sexuality.
Having a parent in the psychotherapy profession didn’t
discourage me from seeing professional help as such, but I was,
to some degree, aware of how a psychotherapist would help me
deal with my issues and my view on my sexuality. At the time,
I had completely shut my feelings off from everybody around
me, and didn’t see how an ‘outsider’ could help me and my
situation, and at the time I was naïve enough to believe that I
could cope with the issues with the limited knowledge I had of
how psychotherapist work. Fortunately, I was able to deal with
these issues with myself; however, looking back, I wished I had
gotten professional help as the issues would have been a lot
more manageable, or perhaps I should have spoken to my Dad,
not only could this have possibly comforted me, it would have
also comforted him.
Hugh Palmer is a systemic psychotherapist and lecturer at
the University of Hull.
Sam Palmer is currently on a gap year and due to study history at
Manchester Metropolitan University.
Comfor table, not numb
Hugh and Sam
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