A moment that changed me: group therapy stopped me falling for versions of my dad
Why was I attracted to charming, older and unavailable men? The Hoffman process showed me I had placed my unreliable, dangerous father on a pedestal.
The hotel function room was packed tight with tables, drunken voices raised to cut through the hubbub. It was a TV awards do, guests all dressed up and the booze flowing like a river bursting its banks. As I manoeuvred through the crowd, my eyes met his. The older writer I’d been seeing – and obsessing about – for the past few months.
I’d convinced myself that the reason he was so unreliable, so hard to track down, was because he lived at the other end of the country. Now I had a freeze frame of the real reason he was so reluctant to commit: his hand intertwined with a woman’s, the girlfriend he’d sworn he’d broken up with months before. The fact he’d told me he was still looking to move out of the house they shared together, and was “staying in the spare room”, should have been a clue, but I hadn’t wanted to heed it. Now denial was no longer an option. I turned on my heel and fled into the night.
That was the moment I knew something fundamental had to change. That the men I was attracted to – charming, older and inevitably unavailable – were living ghosts of the first man who’d fitted that description. The father I’d never lived with, but had spent my childhood idolising, and pining for during his frequent absences from my life. He’d died a few short years earlier, and my complicated grief about it was casting a long shadow over my whole life.
My father had so much promise as a young man – he was witty, academically gifted and handsome, and I can absolutely understand why my mum had fallen for him when they met at university. But he struggled to deliver on that early potential. They had me young, and I think the responsibility was too great. He left when I was still a baby, and proceeded to drift through life, never finding a meaningful career or remarrying. He drank too much, and was always broke.
As a result, his life was precarious – there were times when he was even homeless – but I would still long for the school holidays when I could visit him. These times were intense. He’d confide in me about his adult problems, read to me from novels and let me stay up until midnight watching films with him. I loved feeling like a grown up, too young to realise how confused and damaging our relationship was.
I was 28 that night I fled the party, and something in me knew that if I didn’t change the way I was living, I’d spend the rest of my adult life in a prison of my own making. It was the Hoffman Process that handed me the keys to get out – a week-long intensive group retreat where you identify the childhood patterns that are still running your life. Hoffman has been widely praised by celebrities – Sienna Miller is its most recent vocal fan – but it’s more than a fad. It’s tough and profound, and offers a real chance to make your life better. Having heard about it from an older friend, I maxed out all my credit cards, lied to work about a last-minute holiday, and set off for a big house deep in the Sussex countryside.
Before the process begins, you write reams of notes about your early life and your current issues. My teacher, motherly and tough all at once, identified my core issue the moment I met her. “You’re a daddy’s girl,” she said. “There’s always at least one on every process.” Soon I was sitting in a circle, peering suspiciously at the rest of my group and wondering what had brought each of them here. With no phone or email, they were going to be all I had for the rest of the week. As they started to speak, my inner critic reared up in judgment of the corpulent banker whose marriage was on the rocks, the stern German woman who seemed to have had a sense-of-humour bypass. Why hadn’t I splurged my hard-earned cash on a holiday when I still had the chance?
What I came to learn was that working in a group can be incredibly healing. I’d had plenty of therapy before, but now I was peeling back my defences with 20 people who were feeling equally vulnerable. When I showed them who I really was, they didn’t run away screaming. Perhaps I didn’t need to be perfect to be lovable after all? I had a busy, high-profile career, and the grief that dogged me often felt like something to hide or be ashamed of. It was such a relief to know I wasn’t the only one feeling like I lived a double life.
Over the course of that week I came to understand why I’d put my father on such a pedestal as a little girl, even though he’d been at best unreliable, and at worst downright dangerous. I couldn’t afford to question his behaviour, because I was too frightened that if I made demands on him, he’d disappear from my life again. Instead I’d rationalise it, and take the blame on myself. He would leave me alone at night, petrified, and I would wish I was grown up enough not to bother him with my petty terror. When he burned the house down when I was 10, forcing us to shin down a drainpipe to escape, I experienced a strange kind of triumph about the fact that I’d been the one to wake us up and save his life. Our roles had always been reversed, with my narcissistic father the child and me a miniature adult: unable to cope, but valiantly trying.
All of this had taught me that relationships with men involved winning their love; that their affection should be something to fight for. So it was the men who offered the biggest challenge who stole my heart. The reverse was true too – I could be harsh and callous with the kind of “boring” men who called when they said they would and made it clear they wanted to be with me.
The Hoffman process is shrouded in some secrecy, as it’s very experiential. You revisit the pain of early life in a way that’s safe but also visceral. I’d read enough self-help books to fill a library, but when you’re on the process, there’s no hiding behind your intellectual understanding of what’s made you the way you are. You rage and cry, and regress to some very early experiences.
Over the course of that week I was able to really feel the anger that it was too dangerous for me to express as a child, for fear of triggering another of my father’s long, agonising disappearances. As an adult I still tried to be no bother with the older, unavailable men who invariably stole my heart. I knew instinctively they had little to give me, and tiptoed around them, a meek, bland version of myself. It meant part of me was still that child, frozen in time; Hoffman gave me the chance to grow up.
Now I could parent that child, move through the anger, and find compassion for my damaged, broken dad from an adult place. He too was a product of his upbringing, and I could end a cycle that had probably stretched back through generations.
In one visualisation exercise, imagining how my own life would turn out if I carried on acting from those early hurts, I felt a proper change. I knew in that moment that I was absolutely committed to living a different life from the short, painful one he had experienced.
Hoffman is a long time ago now, but I still feel grateful for the shift it gave me. I don’t believe our early life ever leaves us, but I certainly think we can relate to it in a very different way once we have awareness of its patterns. I can even see positive sides to the start I had in life. I treasure stability and kindness now. I also know that most of us have secret hurts that we’re trying to conceal, which hopefully makes me more empathetic.
And all that therapy gave me a heroine for my novels – a psychotherapist with a screwy past who ends up advising the police on their most emotionally complex cases. Definitely a bigger win than a week in Tenerife.
By Eleanor Moran | Published in “The Guardian”
Too Close For Comfort, by Eleanor Moran, is published on 22 September by Simon & Schuster
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