How I finally learned to start loving myself again

Eina McHugh, director of the Ark cultural centre for children in Temple Bar, reveals her tough decision to seek therapy in her twenties -- in the hope that more PEOPLE will turn to psychotherapists now.

IT TOOK all of my courage to knock on the therapist's door. It was battered Belfast in November 1988, and I was 27 years old.

I KNEW absolutely no one else in therapy. In fact, the telephone directory announced that Belfast only had three psycho- therapists, such was the limited interest. Yet I did knock, prompted by a dull body ache that I could not shrug off for months. There was also a quiet refrain reverberating inside my head about my need to connect -- with myself, the world?I told the therapist, who I shall call J, my problem: I was a workaholic. That was a whole lot easier to say than the other lurking difficulty which I could not admit, even to myself, that I was inexplicably afraid of sexual relationships.

Yet, within the first 50 minutes, the therapist's questions uncovered some key elements in my story: the late childhood and teenage years lived opposite a police station during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the insidious violence, the repeated bomb attacks on our home and the subsequent homelessness.

So I set off down the path of psychotherapy. Initially I hoped that the process might take six months. It lasted eight years in total. J's approach combined psychoanalysis with a lesser known psychology called psychosynthesis, or as he called it "psychology of soul".


He used a psychoanalytic couch in his practice. I was fearful of the couch -- what terrible fate would befall me? Yet as the weeks went by, I began to experience the power of the couch and the beauty of being listened to in silence, which is very different from the half-hearted attempts that pass for listening in society.

Lying there on the couch, there was no distraction of a reactive human face, and no intrusive response or disapproval. Instead a crazy thought was allowed to float around the room and the not-understood utterance was let flit about like a feather. There was also the oddness of listening to myself.

However, any attempts to talk about my difficulties with sexuality proved impossible. And after four months of struggle I was on verge of giving up. Then a very dear friend was murdered abroad and the shock of something so unbelievable happening forced me to summon up the inner courage to speak and to risk trust in the therapist.

The complex trauma which results from living through the Troubles -- that rarely sees the light of day -- began to unfold on the couch.

I spoke about the psychological impact of the constant exposure to shootings and bombings. And about getting trapped in our family home because there was a car bomb outside.

I found myself speaking about the terror of an explosion which was followed by an even more devastating compensation process and a court case. I learned how violence, fear and sexuality become inter-meshed in the psyche

I discovered it is one thing to know your life story with your intellect, and an entirely different matter to know it with your heart, mind and soul. For several years, J and I accompanied each other as I came to understand and put back together the pieces of my shattered inner life.


During this time, I documented the breadth and the depth of our therapeutic relationship in my journal, as well as in letters to J, notes of sessions and dreams. The therapeutic landscape covered love and rage, gratitude and bitterness, sparring matches, entangled misunderstandings, stuck deadlock, trials, breakthroughs and wonderful moments of insight. It also included a lot of sheer funny daftness.

To Call Myself Beloved is the book that I had searched for when I was in therapy and could not find: someone willing to share her experience as a patient as a creative act, in support of another and in hope.

So I decided to write the missing book, based on my experience, in the hope it will support someone else considering going into therapy.

On several occasions I teetered on the verge of giving up therapy altogether, yet each time I tenaciously chose to go on. It was as if some deep inner will or self was driving me on. With J's support, I tiptoed out into the world of first sexual relationships.

Also at his suggestion, I joined an analytic group, which (unusually) worked in tandem with individual analysis. At first, I found the group experience and the exposure very painful and hated every minute of it.

But, slowly I began to know the unique value of it. It showed me that we all were, each and every one in the room, human and wounded.

So I began to feel less defensive and intimidated. I had somewhere to go to where I could be who I was in my vulnerability.

Then in 1995 the personal and the political subtly intertwined yet again when the unimaginable happened and the IRA and Combined Loyalist Military Command announced ceasefires in Northern Ireland.

Also, after a series of triumphs and heartbreaks in therapy, I was faced with the choice of trusting the therapist and the group, and trusting myself to love myself and call myself beloved, and take responsibility for that.

The ending of therapy took nearly a year, with moments of doubt and fear mingling with the inner call to let go. The last two sessions were a joy. When I started out in therapy nearly 25 years ago, I naively hoped that therapy would be like a fairytale wave of a wand, simplistically transforming my world.

I now realise that there is no such thing as a wand or a magic cure. Yet, with the help of therapy, I went on to have several happy relationships and am now single.

A good therapy generates hope to go on and helps to create a secure inner world of self-trust and self-love which is a real gift.

To Call Myself Beloved, by Eina McHugh, (New Island, €12.99)