David’s Legacy by Stephanie Wilson

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Working with David Holt for more than ten years was an unforgettable experience. It was unique and my process of ‘seeing’ him and acknowledging myself was so gradual, that, like the London Eye, time hardly moved. Yet slowly and surely, together we ‘kept time’.

We would share, and listen and then one of us would catch a fragment, an echo, taut and resonant, moving backwards and forwards, the pendulum between us hovering until a stillness of time, a moment opened and held us there. Not of now, not of any day, and yet in its integrity it was both today and yesterday – quite timeless, a truth, often painful and yet a salve.

‘Keeping time’ with David in that totally random broad sweep which was uniquely his, where words and breathing and sound and theatre could at any moment inspire an immediate, subtle or awesome response evoking older echoes and unexpected truths always opened unknown paths.

Keeping time didn’t grow between us immediately. My first visits were tortuous and polite, and David’s approaches economically dealt with. Having found my way to Moreton Road almost like the Messenger, I had been bidden to find a Therapist for my Diploma Course and I’d taken the one name offered me and then sat making the best of the time ahead of me.

The room felt empty. At one end David would sit in a larger armchair beyond a low wickedly sharp rectangular coffee table which took up a deal of space, with me tadpole-like perched the other side nearer the door. Thoughts flitted around my head, sometimes skittering around the room towards the large chair. David’s head nodded and he remained impassive, sitting diagonally across from me. I had no way of knowing what to say or how to proceed. The exercise, although not threatening, was an enigma in a world where I floated without anchor.

As time passed, the room at least became familiar but it wasn’t until David moved to a smaller house and we sat in a room where I felt more contained that most of our work began or so I believed. Now with hindsight I know that the work with David really began to takeoff earlier when he was still at Moreton Road. Then, as very much ‘my Therapist’ and still slightly unreal, he suddenly suggested that I might like to join a group of people for a weekend’s therapeutic drama workshop at Hawkwood House in the country.

Instinctively I wanted to go, though I could not understand why I should have been invited to join in the group. We were to read and discuss the relationships in ‘Twelfth Night’ and then act a scene. The idea was irresistible but as the time came to travel to Gloucestershire for the weekend, I became uneasy – and by the time I arrived I was rigid with nerves. How would I manage the time with David, how would I communicate with someone I had only seen in one room in a whole space? David didn’t feel quite real. If that was so, who should I be in my relationship and what would I say to the David I met at Hawkwood? I’d be there as his client and yet not only his client. I began to vacillate and feel strangely vulnerable and unprotected.

Looking back I can see how clearly and securely David guided us through that weekend not even overtly taking over the lead, acknowledging all our needs and bringing time and place together so that we marked the present as time imagined and time known, working and joining together to hold that as a group. We built around relationships within the play — emerging and creating our new selves through the weekend.

When it came to the final workshop, I found I was without my protective shell. It was all right, the clock did stop and for those long moments I felt entirely real as both Maria the maid and as the self I was. David had faded into the background and there was freedom and lightness and he had led us out of the room and into another safe place where we were all allowing ourselves to let go and enjoy the search.

Not that the entire weekend felt so straightforward. I still had excruciating and frightening moments during the evenings when I had no idea who I was or where I could safely ‘land’. There were times of feeling quite adrift from everyone but by the third day I had made some semblance of a landscape for myself before we all broke up.

In essence it was David’s courage and caring persistence and his work both inside and outside the counselling room that most struck me. We would talk about the isolation of people around us, isolated not only because of their lives; people who had shrunk emotionally, and who due to social circumstances were often separated cruelly from the rest of the world. We discussed belonging and being socially excommunicated, the social dysfunction of the families and children I had worked with and of the place that therapists held and might also hold in future as legitimate and publicly accepted members within the caring professions. Alongside that David talked of the deeper isolation of therapists and counsellors who work from home and of the need to look openly and honestly at ourselves in this context.

It was around that time that David began to put together a group of people who might want to share in similar discussions at his home around Psyche and Society. A small group of us met and began the first of many Saturday workshops, each one to cover a topic, sharing thoughts and reflections, raised by the original speaker.

Most of us were hesitant at first, but gradually the mornings took shape, with David energetically enthusing us, writing up each meeting in between and sending them to us in his caring and positive way. I was aware of the same thread of intent running through the process, with David hoping to further and broaden thoughtful discussion from within the confines of the room and bring Psyche into Society and share that with colleagues and friends and long-term clients without prejudice or hindrance.

These meetings and the groups that followed later, often left a deep resonance. At the time having worked at the Mulberry Bush School, a special therapeutic residential school where extremely emotionally chaotic primary age children could be treated for 3 to 4 years, I became aware of the need to tell of the work and to spread the message about the specific therapeutic approach to these children, out into the wider world. Within the school I wanted to inform and share something of the unspeakable, of the pain around and for abused and vulnerable children and their carers, and to be open about their needs and also about their capacity to grow emotionally.

David encouraged me to take part in this particular session and to speak openly about my feelings; of the alienation felt by the families, by the children and also about the stress for those who cared for them. My hope was that, as times and feelings changed, the world would begin to listen and become less alien: that those responsible would deny the possibility of such children rejoining their families less, and see that there could be a place for them within society. As the message filtered through there was less denial, and more responses were positive, and a warmth came into the School along with offers of support and funding that enabled an impressive therapeutic and environmental change to take place as rebuilding and development continued over a 6 to 7 year period.

It was this change and the interface with treatment, this understanding that David had consistently shown me, that gave me confidence and unconsciously allowed me to begin to function and to work in a more positive way outside my own consulting room. I see that there are of course boundaries and these need to be maintained, but for me the legacy that David left was his understanding that boundaries whilst held, can be porous, allowing so much that is understood and felt within that ‘bracket of time’ inside the room to spread and become acceptable in the outside world. I have begun to see that the kind of care that David offered me as his patient, with so much courage and conviction, is not only translatable but interchangeable and that for me he worked not only outside the room but through it. I believe that he encouraged us all as therapists to understand the endlessly fluid function of the psyche in all its forms and humours, to hold that awareness and take our skills and knowledge with us throughout our lives.

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.Quote close

Crossing the Water, Sylvia Plath
From By Heart: 101 poems to remember
Edited by Ted Hughes, Faber, London 1997