I wanted toast after the session finished. Nothing else would do. This time, however, I found myself reaching for Marmite as my choice of spreadable companion to my toast, which was somewhat unusual for me. As was my relinquishing of tea; today was not about the soothing tag-team alchemy of tea and toast. No, this was me and toast, and my desire was clearly to not go gentle. I wanted the feeling of something strong, almost hateful in its punch. Marmite is just that. Marmite has clout and is crude, oil-slick with an Iago-like duplicitousness; it could well be mistaken for something to power an old choo choo train, rather than boost the tastiness of your toast. But my toast va-va-voom soon went boom after the first bite; I realised that I hate Marmite. Call it spreadable slip (the Freudian sort).
Marmite is distinctly un-therapeutic, in its approach to feelings at least; you either ‘love it or hate it’. Ambivalence is apparently the name of the toast topper A-game. Not in life, though. It’s what psychotherapists call ‘splitting’ and it usually involves extreme feelings about another, one’s self or life itself. That was my client. She had Marmited her world. Her life had been split into parts, reduced to mere monolithic units of love and hate, good and bad. It was a defence that was unconscious and well-oiled, her human engine had run on it since the earliest time, before she even knew the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’. As a child, we realise very early on that the same person can be both vice and virtue – the person who feeds you is the very same person who can leave you hungry. My client was the baby who had been left just that little too long. As a child there had been food on the table, lots of it. But there was no one around the table to take an interest in her, to enjoy her, to be there for her. In other words, to satisfy her emotional hunger. A child has only one way of making sense of that: ‘I must be bad’. And just like a kid who had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, she got rid of the evidence. She split herself off from anything hateful that she might ever feel about others, becoming the good girl who was firmly on the ‘love it’ side of her family, as well as friends and lovers who came into her life. Because any hate might hurt the ones she loved.
What hurts more, however, is the adult reality that we can have many and mixed feelings about whoever and whatever we love, all at an once. For my client, her love had ended up being a good place for her hate to hide. Now, she needed to get to know those unknown feelings and a hand to hold how conflicted they were. Therapy is just that – a form of psychological hand-holding. And heart-holding too. As we worked together, her heart really was in my hands; I felt the hateful feelings that she just could not feel herself, both in my kitchen and right there in the session with her, where she projected them on to me; I would be on the ‘hate it’ side for her, feeling frustration and anger towards those who had let her down and left her hungry. By feeding back some of those feelings to her, we slowly starting stippling some grey into the black and white picture, to acknowledge that those who she loved were imperfect, and not ideal. They were real. And so was she. The reality was love it and hate it. Piecing together split parts takes time. Those sessions, those days, did not always feel light and good. We went gently. Slowly. We Marmite-waded. Together.
My recipe for ‘Love it and hate it’ Marmite and porcini houmous was inspired by this story.