Tonight is Samhain, the Celtic New Year, when the veils between the worlds of the living and spirit are believed to thin. It is a good time to remember those who have crossed over.
There are people in this world who have the ability to create real and positive change the lives of others; in my own life, Veronica Marsden was such a woman. It’s difficult to write an obituary for her, not least because she died over two years ago… and I didn’t find out until earlier this month. Whilst there are understandable reasons for this delay, the passing of real time both conflicts with and informs the immediacy of my own grief. It is comforting that such emotional conflicts were the bread and butter of my relationship with Veronica and we always managed to survive them; I see no reason why we cannot survive them now.
I first met Veronica in 1984. My own life had collapsed into a heap of feelings I had no idea how to manage and I’d entered counselling in order to learn. She was part of the Gestalt Studio and the therapist I had met at the counselling centre I was attending was her work partner. Both were graduates of the Gestalt Centre (London) and were embarking on their psychotherapeutic career. They’d created a women’s weekend to which I was invited. Little did I know then that it was the beginning of a relationship that continues to this day, even in grief. What I experienced that weekend led me to enter group therapy, train with the Studio and eventually practice as a Gestalt Therapist myself. The journey lasted 17 years and Veronica was a true companion the entire time. As an exploration of individual and collective emotional dimensions, it was a white-knuckle ride for all of us and finding true companions over such a long haul is rare and precious. Veronica became such a person for me.
Gestalt therapy is one of those psychotherapeutic tools that frequently get maligned within the profession. It’s considered crude in more sophisticated circles and it was being subject to the ‘civilising’ influences of accreditation when I entered it. All these reasons are probably why I found Gestalt suited me best – it was direct; I didn’t have to fit myself into intellectual structures in order to express my deeper feelings; and I could dive as deep as my emotions allowed in order to find a way through the obstructions that beset me. Each time I dived, I came out cleaner, wiser and better able to manage my interpersonal relationships in ways I have yet to find in other psychotherapeutic models even today. What got judged as crude was, in my opinion, simple honesty; what later got condemned as unacceptable was a requirement laid on Gestalt Therapists to be authentic; and what Gestalt eventually taught me was how to be authentically and honestly human, warts and all.
The two trainings created by the Gestalt Studio partners in 1980/90’s were informed by Veronica’s prior experience as a management trainer – she already knew how to devise professional training programmes – and both Studio trainings included unusual additions to the psychotherapeutic at that time. For example: the trainings included learning how to run the business side of private practice. They were also responsive to trainee needs emerging through the process and if the needed response was missing from existing professional expertise, the Studio sought to create it for us. The measures for qualifying were clear and attainable… providing the trainee did the work and because it was Gestalt Therapy, that work was experiential and challenging, sometimes to the point of being absolutely hellish for all of us, trainers and trainees alike.
In the years since my own psychotherapeutic career ended, I have had occasion to walk through a number of real life hells. The training created by the Studio enabled me to emerge as unscathed as any person can be under such circumstances. Veronica and the Studio enabled me to learn the kind of courage needed to survive in hell with my integrity intact. They taught me how to fight fair; how to hold my fire whilst people around me learned the wisdom I’d been taught through their own experience; they taught me how to examine the emotional content of what I was experiencing for factual evidence and respond, rather than react. The Gestalt Studio and Veronica Marsden taught me the survival skills necessary to walk through the hells we make for each other competently, professionally and as an authentic human being. If there is a measure of their training’s effectiveness, it is this: I learned to survive five years in prison without ever breaching disciplinary rules by adhering to the very high standards of ethical conduct they taught me. I have grave doubts that any psychotherapy training today is capable of teaching such skills. Given the very high levels of socially-sanctioned abuse in society today, this failing raises questions about the ability of counselling and psychotherapy to authentically support those targeted for such abuse and leaves me wondering about the purpose of such a ‘qualified’ existence.
The ‘hells’ of our training eventually resulted in formal complaints about my trainers from some of my peers and which were never satisfactorily resolved for Veronica. Notwithstanding this, she never stopped sticking up for her graduates. At the time, the psychotherapy ‘trade’ was in the business of seeking social respectability as a profession; membership of the UKCP being the desired status (which, for Gestalt therapists, required individuals to be professionally accredited by those the AHPP approved of) – whilst Veronica’s own standing was being subjected to investigation, she argued that the faults of the trainer should not be visited upon the graduates. To meet the professional demands of the AHPP, and with two other Gestalt training organisations, she created the Association for the Accreditation of Gestalt Psychotherapists (AAGP). These were the women who accredited me and the way the AAGP was treated by the AHPP was, in my professional opinion, an absolute disgrace. Eventually we all had enough of the abusive avoidances, evasions and behind-the-scenes manipulations, and told the AHPP we no longer wished to be a part of any professional organisation which behaved that way. It was not a case of our failing to meet their measures (whose goalposts kept moving whenever we did meet them); it was a case that they didn’t meet our standards. I still believe it was one of the very best professional decisions we ever made together. Nevertheless, the whole process came with a price tag.
One director of the AAGP, Flora, was diagnosed with cancer soon after we reached that decision. This was followed by Veronica suffering a subarachnoid haemorrhage so severe that she pronounced dead at one point, even though she did survive. When I google the name of the third director, her information is as scant as Flora’s and Veronica’s, which suggests Freda probably experienced something equally life-threatening. Biodynamically speaking, that two out of the three are known to have subsequently faced lethal health consequences speaks to the emotional content of the professional issues they tried to address on my behalf. If Freda went through similar then the AHPP could regard its ‘triumph’ over those they considered professionally ‘undesirable’ as complete, although what it says about the behaviour of so-called ‘humanistic’ psychotherapists is extremely telling.
The stroke ended Veronica’s career in psychotherapy; it also left her childlike and vulnerable. She’d lost none of her wisdom and knowledge but the psychological shields needed to survive the darker aspects of therapy were missing. It was at this point that my own health failed too and I retired into my new journeys through the hells we create for the ‘othered’ in our society. Because I sensed her vulnerability, I withdrew contact from Veronica whilst I was going through them but we spoke to each other before she died.
Veronica hadn’t known I’d been in prison but she didn’t let me down after I told her. I was still someone worth relating to even after I’d shared most of my dark secrets. The only reason she didn’t hear it all was down to my own protectiveness of the defenceless and vulnerable woman I sensed she had become. Eventually, I found a way to address the problems without pulling her into them and it was acting on this was how I learned she had died in 2012.
When someone is living, there is always the chance that our relationship with them can be subject to harm. When someone dies, that relationship transforms to a place where it cannot be touched because it is complete. There are no earthly obstacles that can harm Veronica now no matter how hard some might try. Nor can anyone take my relationship to her away from me. She wasn’t perfect because no-one is and Veronica is just as entitled to her version of 50% ‘shadow’ the rest of us… but she is also entitled to her Light. The human being who was Veronica Marsden had a great deal of Light. It takes Light to not only teach someone how to walk through the experiences of Hell but also how emerge from them. Veronica was someone blessed with a deep capacity for empathy, kindness, compassion, sensitivity and forgiveness, especially for the abused. Her own journeys through the dark side of human experience enabled her to teach me the skills of honourable and ethical survival. The boundaries she enabled me to learn have proved their worth many times over and the theories of Gestalt she taught inform even now but of all the skills and qualities I learned from Veronica, the greatest is gratitude. I am so very grateful to have known her so well for so long. It was one hell of a ride we shared together… and I don’t regret a single moment. The training I received from her and the Gestalt Studio was everything it promised it would be and more because it was authentic, honest, truthful and courageous – just like those who delivered it. Veronica Marsden was one of those women. The professional qualifications I achieved as the result of her efforts are among some of my most valued accomplishments and her friendship is one of my deepest and most honest.
Veronica once talked about her beliefs around death – she believed we were healed of our earthly wounds after death; that we returned to our original wholeness. May it be true for her for she surely earned it here on earth.
So, tonight, I send a message through the veils to a friend
“I love you, Veronica Marsden – always did and always will. Hope your Heaven has turned out to be everything you ever wished it to be… and more.”