Let’s be Non-Binary

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June 28, 2018 by lucieromarin

I’m not talking about gender! (I’m also not talking about Early Music – I’m not a great fan of mixed-voice and tend to say that, as far as chant goes, the more binary it is, the better.)

I’m talking about healing. If you’ve studied Thomistic philosophy via Garrigou-Lagrange, you’ll remember the principle of the excluded middle: between be and be-not there is no middle. There is food on your dinner-plate or there is not food on your dinner-plate. There is cash in your wallet or there is no cash in your wallet. You exist or you do not exist. In between these fixed parameters there’s  room for variation – more food or less food, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, useless foreign currency or a shiny nickel, existence on earth visible to others, or existence in purgatory or heaven invisible to people on earth, except the people who worship at your shrine, and so on. The variation is possible, but the parameters remain fixed.

Whether we’ve inherited centuries of the philosophical defence of those parameters, or whether we’ve inherited a post-Enlightenment modern-scientific fascination with categories, we sometimes extend this binary thinking to the realms of feeling and healing, forgetting that in-between place. You are healed, or you are not healed, and that’s that. You can want revenge, or you can want reconciliation, but you can’t feel both anger and compassion in equal measure. Feeling one means you’re not healed, even if you felt the other yesterday and it is normally classified as healed behaviour. The result is a before-and-after idea of healing; you say something unhappy and your interlocutor replies, “Aren’t you over it yet? I thought you were doing so well.”

I’m unlearning this habit of mind. Two videos watched in class have demonstrated the help that non-binary thinking can be in healing. One video an interview with a counsellor who specialised in the healing of anorexia nervosa. The other was a presentation given by counsellor who worked with male perpetrators of domestic violence. Both talked about their movement from an either/or perspective to a both/and perspective.

The first guided her clients away from the idea that they had to ‘fix’ their anorexia before they could really start their lives. They set aside a strictly linear idea of progress (cure your disease then have a nice life) and took on a more blended view (start having a nice life while you still have this problem). The clients were encouraged to dream their ideal lives now, in the present moment, and to begin working on those ideals now, in the present moment, even though they were still not ‘cured’. It’s not that progress ceased to be linear (we do exist in time, after all!). It just stopped being imagined as entirely linear. It’s not that they blurred the definition of ‘healthy’ so entirely as to make anorexia okay. But they allowed that the progress to good health could include a time in which good and poor health co-existed.  Aside from issues of medical jeopardy, there were no deadlines and no labels. They no longer had to choose between anorexic and non-anorexic behaviours; they were allowed to have both, they were allowed to say that they wanted both, felt both, were attracted both ways. But as they invested in their ideal lives, their anorexic behaviour became less and less useful to them, and it fell away.

The second counsellor was a narrative therapist. He had found that male perpetrators of domestic violence would talk about their need for power and control, and then, in the next breath, talk about how they wanted relationships of trust and love, how they wanted to be supportive husbands and good fathers. For years, the counsellor tried to work by reasoning with the clients, trying to show that these desires cancelled each other out, were illogical, made no sense. Clients were supposed to make the rational choice, get better, and start a new life. His work – and, I gather, success in his work – changed when he began to see that, in fact, their contradictory desires weren’t one-false-and-one-true, and his job to prise out the true one. Both desires were real – the men genuinely did want to control their wives and not to control them. He couldn’t explain it, but once he allowed it, once he removed the labels of logical/illogical, true/false from their statements, he was better able to help them to look at their desires to be good men, to understand how that would look, what that would mean in daily life, and to foster the behaviour-patterns that fulfilled that dream. In time, as with the young female sufferers of anorexia nervous, the damaging behaviours fell away, simply because they were experienced more and more as an impediment to happiness. It was not a magic, overnight fix. But it worked.

I have learned that trauma healing can work the same way. There will never be a date that you nominate as ‘the day I was over it’. There may never be a state which you can describe as ‘over it.’ If nothing else, your amygdala could be screwed for life, and the only way you can never be triggered again is to replace surgically remove it and replace it with someone else’s. (The biology of trauma is definitely fascinating, validating, and depressing all at once.) Healing isn’t binary. You can fear the sight of people you love most in the world and miss with terrible intensity those people you pray you never see again. But you don’t have to be labelled ‘healed’ before your life can begin again. You don’t have to waste time trying to force your lower instincts to a conclusion. You really can want revenge and reconciliation in equal measure. You can be both/and for as long as you need, as long as you take care to invest in the best of your desires. Be patient, invest and wait for the bad stuff to fall away.

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