How do we reconcile experiences that sit outside the usual parameters with which we understand the world?


Image: Guy Shield

As an atheist, or something like it, it is bewildering to say the least to look back at the period in which I was exorcised.

I visited Diane, a semi-retired hypnotherapist, on my mother’s recommendation. I’d spent the summer in bed and the autumn walking half the night wired with insomnia, letting my mind swing in its own many directions. I moved from Alpha Woman to kidult in a few months – quickly incapable of perfectly normal tasks like shopping, figuring out bus routes and deciding what to eat.

As to what prompted this shift, I couldn’t say specifically. I was burnt out by a long-term constellation of work and stress and quarter-life crisis and disappointment and the usual type-A bullshit, and rather than fading back to functionality, the feeling only deepened.

That confusion obscured a solution. I was sending crazy essay-length emails late at night threatening to quit my PhD and over-sharing with colleagues early in the day – the kind of family-related jokes that sound funny on a sitcom but land terribly as soon as they leave your mouth.

Shortly after realising I had been in bed for six weeks and lost five kilos from food-related forgetfulness, I burst into tears in my supervisor’s office and took sick leave, which stretched on for three months.

My sister started coming over in the afternoons to check on me and bring snacks. We’d watch The Bold and the Beautiful. It was nice to have some quiet company. She says that she would ask me how I was going and I would reply, ‘I don’t know?’ That is exactly how I felt.

In that massive attack of groundlessness, hypnotherapy seemed harmless and maybe even as dumbly comforting as my mum’s amethyst quartzes and aromatherapy burners. I saw it not as supernatural but a different form of meditation. I can’t pinpoint exactly why I did it, but I genuinely thought it wouldn’t hurt and I was desperate. Despite the gap between my atheist schemas and hypnotherapy’s black magic vibes, I took the support on offer.

Despite my atheist schemas and hypnotherapy’s black magic vibes, I took the support on offer.

On the list of failed cures I tried for this particular crisis were Pilates, deep breathing, yin yoga, aromatherapy, Western medicine/big time sedatives, hiking, downloaded meditations, sensory deprivation float tanks and cycling. In the past I’d done kinesiology, acupuncture and experimental therapies.

This litany is a real stereotype of the Self-help/Disastrous Personal Essay genre and I’m loath to itemise it. My point is that throughout these efforts, about enough time had passed that I was open and desperate enough to do something atypical. My old basis for living didn’t work anymore; it was time to try things from a new one. Although, when you willingly do enough kinds of desperate things frequently over the years it becomes plain that this is part of a pattern of behaviour. That’s where I was at.

So I ditched science, ditched pseudoscience and went directly to the unorthodox. Yes, it was a pretty objectively weird thing to do. But I wanted something less invasive than the psyche-burrowing of conventional counselling. I wanted to be taken care of. In my mind at the time, hypnotherapy was as valid as all the Western psychological and medical dead-ends I’d pursued.


The trip to Diane’s required what’s basically a cross-country trek across the harbour from Sydney’s inner west to Mosman in the northern suburbs. My sister and her boyfriend picked me up, ferried me across and dutifully waited in their Kombi for my session to finish.

We were in the serious part of Mosman – fuck-off multimillion-dollar mansions, Aegean Sea-like views, three steps away from the vibe of a gated community. Who the hell is this rich elderly hypnotherapist?

Rather than an office, Diane’s practice was in her home. It looked like a real estate advertisement, glass-fronted onto west-facing views of Balmoral bay and the Pacific. The first thing Diane did when I buzzed was to give me a big hug. The second thing she did was chat. Just chat. Like a normal human. Small and animated, blue eyes sparkling and toenails pedicured, she fixed me a cup of tea in her open-plan kitchen and dining area.

First rule of counselling – a professional detachment: violated. But of course, she wasn’t an ordinary counsellor. That client-therapist distance has always struck me as incongruous: you’re expected to share the most vulnerable parts of yourself, to let a stranger rummage around your psyche, but you must not engage in the most basic social skills our society usually demands – a kiss on the cheek, a hug, a ‘how was your weekend’. There is a part of the therapy process that is positively socially autistic – not even Jerry Seinfeld would stand for these kinds of standoff-ish interactions.

As I told Diane my issues, this notion of two humans having a conversation became more real. To actually relate to a therapist as you would a person was, frankly, revolutionary, and enough to make me suspicious, if not for the fact that Diane was clearly one of the most sweet, genuine, caring people I’d ever met. She would actually farewell me by crying out ‘Lots of love!’ at the door. Not an ounce of malice in her, not a trace of a hidden agenda.

I had always sensed that the other therapists I’d seen were holding back some information – or perceived information – about me, quietly prodding and assuming. Not Diane. No insinuations. No ‘and how did that make you feel?’ There was a transparency, a level relationship between us.

Finally she took me back to her therapy room and our session proper commenced. She started by telling me about herself. Another rule of counselling: violated.

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