Hazel McHaffie

Therapeutic boundaries

OK, you know already that my current novel, Killing Me Gently, is about pathological parent-child relationships. But it also includes contacts between professionals and families; clients and therapists. This past five years I’ve spent a more-than-usual amount of time on the receiving end of medical care (often unclothed – physically and mentally – and boy, you feel the disadvantage! Especially if you have the kind of body image issues I have!!) It’s a whole different feeling from being on the clothed healthy giving end as I was for decades. So I’ve given this subject some thought.

Boundaries (usually set by the professional) should protect all concerned, but what when those demarcations are eroded? What if emotions blur the parameters?

Healing Flynn by Juliette Mead is an example of what can happen. Madeline is a therapist dealing with clients traumatised by terrible experiences. Flynn is a photo-journalist documenting harrowing subjects such as poverty and the effects of war, in dangerous places like Freetown, West Africa. They meet when they’re both caught up in the immediate aftermath of an explosion on a North Sea oil rig, Astra Four. Madeline has been flown in to give immediate aid to the survivors and their families. Flynn, posing as an official with the oil company, uses her deceitfully to gain entry onto the rig to take photos of the aftermath. Not a good start for any relationship you might think. But three months later, his marriage in tatters and, suffering post traumatic stress disorder himself, Flynn seeks Madeline out for therapy. In spite of his provocative manner and hard exterior Madeline finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. The tension and attraction between them threaten the boundaries of what’s acceptable in clinical practice.

In fact Madeline herself is also already traumatised. Ten years before, something terrible happened to her, something she has never forgiven herself for, something that very nearly ruined her, and still torments her. And though now Flynn is the client, she the therapist, he is forcing her to recall the agony, the ache, the terrible suffocating pain. Three quarters of the way through the book we find out what happened.

There are codes for good practice. Of course there are. Therapists need to be supervised themselves, and offload their own issues. I’ve had to build in such mentoring in my former life when I was sharing deeply traumatic experiences with respondents in my research. But Madeline’s supervisor, Jillian, has herself had an inappropriate relationship with a client. Whoops ….

It’s a very slow moving book but I found it useful in analysing what could happen deep inside a therapeutic encounter. And it’s all grist to my mill at the moment while the parameters of my own current writing are still quite fluid and flexible.

Oh, and I must just share with you one lovely sentence about Flynn’s wife and daughter – well, you know how addicted I am to clever/beautiful writing:  Georgia smiled at the mirror reflection of her physical past; as Beth glared at her physical future.

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