Mind Matters – Why the boa constrictor?

Did you read about the abandoned 5ft snake in Chiswick?

One of the most popular stories of the last couple of weeks has been about the large boa constrictor that was spotted and captured by the RSPCA in Chiswick. (chiswickcalendar.co.uk/abandoned-5ft-snake). As a psychotherapist it naturally interests me as to what captures peoples attention and the decisions that they make.

Regarding the reading of the snake article the question posed to me was why are so many people interested in a story about a lost snake? On reflection I decided I would write about it, firstly because as a phenomena psychology has something to say about this and secondly I wanted to write about something people might read!
As in much of our lives the significance of the decisions we make may be less about the decision actually taken as opposed to the other choices that were available. I had a good look through all the other news items and what stood out for me was that other news stories around Chiswick were about things of a more “predictable” nature for current times. Items about COVID-19, events organised, stories from local people, traffic and planning, crime and politics are to be expected and fit with the current context of our day to day experience and as such elicit the same stock of emotional responses.

It is likely that being attracted to and choosing to read a story about a snake is primarily about a need for a different emotional experience, a tiredness or fatigue with the everyday and the urge for momentary escape. Given that boa constricted stories are a novelty the headline and photograph promises and probably delivers for most people that much needed break from the mundane, worrying and reassuring experience generally expected from our news. The story of the snake was not read because it was a story of a snake but because it was a story with the potential to give us a different experience or distraction.

Image above: Boa constrictor found abandoned in Chiswick, rehomed by the RSPCA

Relating this back to therapy (I hope I don’t lose you here), people often bring a concern or request which when carefully, gently and compassionately explored reveals a quite different situation or experience from the past. Let me bring this to life with a typical example encountered in a relationship concern (fictional and created to illustrate my point).

J tells me in therapy that P drinks too much and is also “unreliable”.

P agrees that there might be some truth in what J is saying but protests saying that J does not understand.

I ask what do “drink too much” and “unreliable” mean.

J says “well a drink every evening and whenever we agree to meet somewhere then always that minutes late”.

I notice that P is listening very carefully and so I ask “what do you think when you hear J say that?”.

P says “it is not every night and I’m not always late, I didn’t drink on Friday and when we met on Tuesday I got there early and before you”.

I say “so can you tell me about what J doesn’t understand?”

P “you see I don’t drink every night and I’m not always late, I feel so judged, I have been trying my hardest but it feels as though nothing I do is good enough anymore”

J “ but you never used to be like this, OK you do not drink every night and you are not always late but I think of you differently than I used to”

Me “and can you tell me when things changed”

P “Five years ago”

J “Three years ago”

Me “Three years and five years?”

P “I lost my job five years ago”

J “But you were fine until three years ago!”

P “No I wasn’t fine, but I kept pretending everything was OK because I didn’t want to worry you”

Me “so what happened three years ago”

P “It was the second anniversary of losing my job and I felt so down and J said to me – you are so lucky having had two years off, I remember collapsing inside and feeling so utterly defeated”.

J “I never knew you felt that way, I remember that conversation, I was so stressed at work and I was thinking about it being two years since you worked, you seemed fine and suddenly I felt resentful.”

Me “So you came to talk about drinking and unreliability and what we have talked about is the impact of loss?”

J turning to P “I remember when my dog died I was so upset and I talked about nothing else for months, did that upset you?”

P “No it didn’t, I was pleased you were able to share and that I could be there for you, I wish I could be more like you but it is hard for me to say when I am struggling.”

Me “I hear you say it is hard for you to say you are struggling but I guess I am wondering whether on the days you did drink and the times you were late there might have been just even the smallest part of you that hoped J might realise you were struggling?”

P “Yes, I think you might be right, I am very observant and inquisitive when people change their behaviour and I guess there was a part of me hoping J might understand”

J “I remember now when we had our first date, I was amazed because your car had broken down and you had walked five miles in the rain without asking anyone for help, you were soaked and yet you said you were fine – I remember how you smiled so broadly and how I thought you were amazing strong and independent – not at all like me”

P laughs “Oh yes, I remember too. Actually I never thought of phoning for help, it was the most miserable night and I have never felt so cold and alone but I didn’t want to spoil the evening.”
Me “I am thinking about how we started talking about P drinking too much and being unreliable but end up talking about how P does not ask for help when J would and how a misunderstanding has existed and flourished between you?”

Coming back to the interest in the story of the Chiswick snake I wonder just how many people might just admit that the story of the snake was not really read because of an interest in snakes but because it gave an opportunity to have a different experience of reading about a local event, to have a distraction, to be away from our new everyday?

I hope you stay safe and well.

Nicholas Rose
Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Couples Counsellor and Coach
UKCP registrant, MBACP (accred), UKRCP
PGDip, MA, Adv Dip Ex Psych

Nicholas Rose & Associates
Counselling, psychotherapy and coaching for children, adults, couples and families.

nicholas-rose.co.uk