Our conversation had snowballed into Snowballs. There was no doubt we had been jingled some of the way here because Christmas was only a few days away. Therapy, like any conversation, changes with the seasons, just as food does. To eat or drink seasonally is to know what it’s like to long for something and to wait for it, and to be separate and without. But some have felt these feelings too much in life. For some, Christmas is the cherry-less crowning of a season of mists and mellow fruitlessness that has snowballed straight into a bleak midwinter. When ghosts of Christmas tables past are present it can shape feelings in a way quite unlike any other occasion. ‘Tis the season to be all sorts, emotionally. For some, Christmas is not the most wonderful time of the year.
My client’s memory of a retro drink was part of how we were trying to retrofit her past experience with her present feelings. In the spirit of Kierkegaard, we were trying to understand backward, so that she could better live her life forward. Together, with the help of her Ghost of Christmas Past , we were giving this story of her life a coherence it did not have when she was in it, living it. The cocktail in the context of the relationship she talked about provided a sugar-coated entry into feelings that were somewhat more bitter. People mostly come to therapy to talk about what they do not want to say. My client was saying it here to me, clear as day: she was lonely, and had been throughout her marriage of 20 years.
At Christmas time, lights are omnipresent. It’s hard not to look. Backward. Forward. Inside. Yet what we see is a different story. That day, I could not only see her very personal sense of isolation, but it had a palpability that I could feel, a nameless dread that comes from being faceless and alone in a crowd. But feeling alone in her relationship was a different thing entirely; it was a voiceless, private hell. Slowly, she was letting me see this. There was a Christmas gift present in that session – she saw how much she longed for connection, the kind where she felt seen, recognised, and met as a person.
When I meet people, I introduce myself in different ways. Sometimes I say I’m a therapist. Sometimes I say I’m a cook. It depends on the context; at a social gathering I’d sooner engage in a conversation about what to do with leftovers than what to do because someone’s partner just left them. Sometimes I say I’m an academic, or a researcher. But then I mostly run into questions about answers, scientific answers. I am always mindful of not being the kind of academic who, in the words of Andrew Lang, uses research like a person who has had one too many Snowballs: for support rather than illumination. I treat scientific research and recipes the same: they don’t provide ‘answers’. They serve as guides, lighting the way so that we can refine our own judgment by seeing and thinking for ourselves. At the end of the day, therapy involves two people sitting in a room, so a fair amount of improvisation and adaptation is necessary, just as it is in the kitchen, and in life. Everyone knows what it is to feel lonely. Loneliness is part of the human condition. But science gifts us some light, especially when it comes to what we know about loneliness and feeling connected. Connection means different things to different people. Sometimes all I want for Christmas is you. And sometimes this isn’t the case; solitude or what’s known as perceived desired social distance is about enjoying being more alone, and it’s been shown to provide possible beneficial effects on health. We are gradually understanding that there are many ways to fulfil our need for connection – non-traditional social strategies like reading books, listening to music, and even those so-called ‘guilty pleasures’ such as watching a box-set are fine, and are just as effective as traditional in-person strategies, as long as they work for you. The light can be on when there is no one else at home.
So whilst life might be best understood backward but lived forward – we can ask questions now. And perhaps the most important question is what kinds of connection matter to you. Finding this out might not be easy or straightforward, but it will be the gift that keeps on giving. But it does require those ingredients that we often feel we never have quite enough of in store: time, space and most of all, tolerance. With a fair amount of backward understanding, more often than not we see that life is rarely entirely merry-less – or indeed, cherry-less.
My recipe for retro Snowball pavlova with frosted grapes was inspired by this life lesson.