It appeared that my new client had been inspired by Marie Antoinette: ‘Let them eat their dirty cake. I don’t want it. I don’t know where their hands have been’ she said during one session early on in our work together. There was no chewing of words; she spat them straight out. Although her firing range of rejection included a cake and her well-meaning neighbour and their young daughter, she was shooting down human touch in its totality. It was a single sentence that reflected the narrative of her adult life. Dirt was her defence. It was a boundary. It kept others out by emphasising their ‘otherness’. Opposite her, I recoiled in my chair feeling the wrath of her regal rage. Yet that was not the feeling du jour in our session. Dirt was pulling the trigger of a gun loaded with other feelings. There was something else behind her authoritarian scowl. I looked closely at her face. Her mouth and nose were raised and wrinkled. Her face was saying ‘Urgh’. She looked so young. She hauled her baby pink high tops up onto the chair and wrapped her arms around her knees. She gazed directly at the floor. I could hear the alarm bells ring inside her. I knew I needed to tread gently – we were entering dirty and disgusting emotional ground.
Dirt’s emotional wingman is disgust – a universal feeling that first appears in children in the context of eating. There was indeed something regressive about my client’s disgust-induced ‘nose scrunch’. Disgust, however, does so much more than stop the exchange between food and the self; it defends against any intimate contact, leaving a person with only the absence of human connection to feast on. Defences tell us where the heart of a person’s pain lies; only then can we offer a healing balm. It is not clear what emotion is opposite to disgust – perhaps it is love? I wondered whether in our therapy session today we should try to speak the language of love and liking, and even longing. Maybe it might be a more fruitful path to go down. I decided to take a small step towards my client and asked: ‘Do you like cake?’ She looked bashful. Vulnerable. There was a small silence before her soft reply: ‘I love cake.’
This was a love story.
My client, just like her neighbour’s daughter, had been a little girl who had a mother. Our conversation that followed took us to a memory of her 7th birthday party and a Sara Lee double chocolate gateau.
Her mother had died on the day after her birthday, exactly 20 years later. The adjacency of her birthday and her mother’s death day had rubbed even more salt into the wound; a reconnection and a disconnection all at once. The pain had alchemized into a feeling of shame that she had not been powerful enough to protect her mother from cancer, not even with all the knowledge and training her MD title had given her. Shame has been described as disgust turned inward, a felt sense of dirtiness of the self. While guilt is the sense of ‘I have done something dirty’, shame is the experience of ‘I am dirty.’ Shame guards the boundaries of the fragile self. My client’s disgust of others was a defence; the truth was that she had diagnosed herself as dirty. So she cleaned. Cleaning was everything grieving wasn’t: structured, clear, controlled, consistent. She had been trying to disinfect herself emotionally ever since she had lost her mother.
We had found what dirties love: loss.
You could say that emotional ‘hygiene’ is what people come to therapy for. Or, at least, to have a good tidy up of their feelings. Dirt is ‘matter out of place’, according to the anthropologist Mary Douglas. Or, I would add, painful matter. The therapeutic relationship is, without question, the most important part of the process of putting things into place. It’s the connection that creates the safety to explore what is unsafe. In the bounded space of therapy, whatever the dirt is in the eye of the beholder needs to be witnessed, heard, and comforted. It is the only path towards helping clients to feel seen, safe, and whole – and less ‘dirty’. In our session that day my client and I walked along her dirt track together and she shared her story of a warm, deep connection and a love lost. With compassion and understanding we had started to clean her wound.
This story inspired the recipe for my banana carob cake.