Chris Iveson’s story takes us back to the early days of the Solution Focused approach and yet his refusal to give up on his client is as important now as it was then.
Roberta had been trapped on the fifteenth floor of a tower block for two years, ever since a traumatic event had plunged her into agoraphobia – better to stay indoors than risk being hit again by what the world can throw at you. A newly ‘converted’ brief therapist I went to meet her armed only with the knowledge that nobody is perfect and that meant that Roberta could not be a perfect agoraphobic. All I had to do was find the ‘fault’ or, in brief therapy language, the exception, to the problem behaviour and therein would lie the solution.
Roberta was a charming woman in her 50s. She had single-handedly brought up four children who were now successful professionals with their own families. She had enjoyed a rich social life between church, friends, family and visiting capital cities. She had a modest position in a bank until it was raided and she was arrested on suspicion of being an accomplice. Thinking first that she was going to be shot and then that she was going to prison gave her such a double shock that she had still not recovered.
Over tea and biscuits Roberta told me her story while I politely waited to begin my search for exceptions. Eventually, my moment came:
“So what about the times when you do go out – how do you manage that?”
She looked at me a little perplexed, a hint of caution passing over her face, and then, presumably deciding the fault in communication must have been hers she repeated her story finishing rather emphatically,
“So you see, I don’t go out at all. I haven’t been out since the robbery.”
Undeterred I asked again,
“And what about when you do go out – how do you get yourself to do that?”
Perplexity, the first hint of annoyance and more than a shade of caution were all apparent in Roberta’s response: she did not go and had not been out since the robbery two years ago! Clearly she was beginning to wonder about the wisdom of letting me through her door. But the first law of solution focused brief therapy is that no-one can do a problem perfectly, it is simply not part of the human condition; there will always be exceptions:
“And when you have no choice, when you really have to go out, how do you manage to do that?”
Roberta is so surprised by my continued insistence on this question that she begins to question her own experience as if I know something about her that she doesn’t! But only for a moment and then she makes it clear that she never goes out and I’d better believe it. Not only that but I should also know that it takes her all of her self-control to even open the door to visitors. Now I’m getting a bit shaky so I withdraw to the second line of enquiry and steel myself for another charge at what is beginning to feel like an impregnable fortress.
“So how do you manage to open the door to visitors?”
Roberta is not impressed by this question and gives me a long talk on social obligation, how her family and church friends have saved her from giving up and even though she does not want them visiting it would be far too rude and hurtful not to let them in. I hazard one more try
“How do you get yourself to do it?”
But by now my heart is no longer in it and I am resolved to go back to the clinic and withdraw, beaten, from the Brief Therapy Project. My colleagues, however, were less easily deterred and eventually convinced me that one failed visit was not enough of a try to justify giving up.
Two weeks later and half an hour into our second meeting I am momentarily glad of Roberta’s extreme form of agoraphobia. Had she not been afraid of being too close to her fifteenth floor window I think she might have thrown me through it! By now I had been searching for exceptions for a total of ninety minutes with not even a hint of a crack so it was a relief when the sitting room door opened – at least, there would be someone else to talk to! In the event it was a very large and fit looking Alsatian dog that walked in. Roberta tried to shoo it away since most of her visitors were afraid of it but on learning that dogs and I like each other she let him stay. For the rest of the meeting Caesar sat beside me, occasionally dribbling onto my shoulder. Dog talk provided some welcome relief from my fruitless probings and Roberta began once more to warm to me – until I asked another stupid question:
“He’s a beautifully fit dog! Who takes him out?”
Caught between disbelief and extreme irritation Roberta replied with some vehemence,
“I do, of course! I told you I live alone!”
But before I could leap up and declare a victory she added
“But I can only do it at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Where Roberta lived even ten big dogs would be no guarantee of safety at that time in the morning and the fact that this was the only time that she dared go out was further evidence of the seriousness of her problem. At least it was to Roberta whereas for me it was the first crack in the fortress wall. The task now was to widen it.
“You mean that every morning at 3 o’clock you take Caesar out for a walk?”
Roberta retreats a little:
“No not every morning. Some mornings I just can’t do it.”
And we are on the scent!
“What about those mornings when you really feel you can’t do it but somehow manage to get yourself to go – how do you do that?”
“Some mornings I stand at the door for an hour but still can’t go out!”
The conversation that follows is a distillation of a much more rambling circuitous route to each of the key answers. Roberta remains committed to the evidence of agoraphobia and sees the search for the exception as irrelevant as well as somehow compelling.
“And those mornings when you stand by the door for an hour and do go out how do you do that?”
To begin with Roberta doesn’t know but more thought brings a realisation:
“It’s when I reach for the lead! He gets so excited, starts to jump up and what can I do? It’s not fair on him so I don’t really have much choice once he’s seen the lead!”
“And those mornings when you stand by the door for an hour knowing that going out is the last thing you could possibly do what is it that gets you to reach for the lead?”
Each question takes us a step closer to what I hope will be a turning point, the point when Roberta realises for herself that the very difficult business of going out is something she has never given up doing.
More pause, more not knowing and then,
“It’s when I see that look in his eye. He has such a pleading look and once I see that I know I’ve got no choice because it’s just not fair on him.”
So far, Roberta has attributed every move to a ‘necessity’ based on the dog.
“So what about those mornings when you stand by the door for an hour knowing that this is definitely not a day for you to step over the threshold – what is it that gets you to look Caesar in the eye?”
Roberta seems to step into herself and an age goes by before slowly and thoughtfully she says,
“I have a long talk with myself because I know if I don’t take Caesar out I’ll have to give him up and he’s all I’ve got left. Without him I’d have no life, nothing to live for so it’s not really just for him. I’ve got to go out or my life is over!”
Roberta became upset and tearful about the restricted life she led and my remarks on her daily act of courage, if heard at all, seemed futile. My two meetings with Roberta left us both doubting my skill. Though we arranged to meet again I was not surprised when Roberta left a message cancelling because of illness. She said she would get in touch when she was ready. The weeks went by and while my brief therapy skills began to improve we counted this as an early failure.
Then, six weeks after our last meeting I received an envelope from Australia. It was from Roberta on the visit to her daughter which should have taken place the week she was arrested. It contained a Kangaroo keyring (which I still have) and a postcard of Sydney Harbour Bridge saying:
“All’s well. Thanks!”
21 February 2021