Cyprus Mail
Life & Style

Talking about the human condition

People don’t change, they develop says the head of the Pancyprian Association of Psychotherapists. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man whose life has been a very human experience


Sotos Michael’s daughter Emma, who’s now in her 30s – he also has a younger daughter, Rebecca, who works for Google in Singapore – tried to follow in his footsteps some years ago. She studied Psychology, worked as a psychologist then moved on, like him, to psychotherapy (Sotos is a “psychoanalytic psychotherapist”). She tried it for about a year, he recalls, then came to him one day in frustration. “Dad,” sighed Emma, “I’m too young for this profession!”. Her father laughed and nodded: “You’re right”.

What he does, he explains more than once, is “a very human experience” – which is why it works best with some human experience. Not that age imparts wisdom, necessarily, but most young people are still finding themselves; looking back on his own 20s, Sotos recalls a determined young man who always delivered once he’d set his mind on something – but also admits that “I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know the other side of myself”. That’s one point the Pancyprian Association for Psychotherapists (PAP) – of which Sotos is chairman – is keen to establish, that being a qualified therapist is less a matter of college degrees than an “experiential qualification”. It wasn’t till he went into therapy himself, aged 36, that he even started working through his own issues – and it took years of training (plus more therapy) before he became adept at helping others.

He’s now 61, trim and youthful-looking with a suave, effortless manner. He speaks slowly, carefully considering each question, punctuating answers with occasional puffs of a roll-up; his hair is close-cropped, his eyes unblinking, his ears stick out slightly; film buffs of a certain age may be reminded of the actor Ben Gazzara. The house could belong to any successful 61-year-old, a large ground-floor flat with a workspace for his partner Barbara (an amateur artist) and a study for Sotos himself. A page from a notebook has been taped to the fridge, showing words of wisdom: “Take time to laugh, it is the music of the soul,” reads one line (a gift from Barbara, he says, to remind him to slow down). Two dogs get in everyone’s way, their names Mojo and Sozo; ‘Sozo’ is short for Ayios Sozomenos, the village where Sotos and Barbara rescued the animal two months ago from a man with a gun, who was just about to shoot him (the man slipped away when he saw them coming). A cat named Kokos sits on a chair, regarding us with feline disdain. Clearly, it’s a house where cats and dogs live together in harmony, having worked through their issues.

There are stacks of DVD-Rs, recorded from TV in England where he lived for 37 years; I glimpse Spartacus, various David Attenborough shows and Titicut Follies, the Frederick Wiseman documentary about a mental hospital. The bookshelves show evidence of an organised mind, clearly arranged by subject. One shelf has books by Makarios Droushiotis, a scourge of AKEL among other things – a veiled reminder that Sotos’ dad was a staunch “lefty”, as he puts it (more on this later). Another bookshelf features books about sex, a volume called Nymphomania and another with the irresistible title The Art of Coarse Sex – a reminder of his Freudian profession, though it’s only as we walk to the study that he allows me a brief glimpse of his consulting room, where he sees “clients”. It’s smaller than I thought, I exclaim, my mind dancing with thoughts of spacious Hollywood shrinks’ offices – but he shakes his head. “It’s just the right size,” he replies, “so you feel safe, like you’re in the womb.”

Feeling safe is a big part of psychotherapy. Gaining trust, so the client can be open and candid, is the therapist’s main task – and often his biggest challenge, because “your early life prepares you to survive the rest of your life. And, if your early life has been a traumatic one, then the assumption is that the rest of your life could be a dangerous life, so you need to be cautious and not trust”. Even in interview mode, Sotos is solicitous, making sure he never says anything that could sound judgmental or offensive. Maybe trust “hasn’t been a familiar experience with you,” he theorises – then instantly stops himself: “Not you,” he makes clear, as if I might’ve taken it personally. “We’re talking about the human condition now”.

We’re always talking about the human condition – not just he and I, in our interview, but all of us, implicitly, as we go through our lives. “We pursue a lot of things in life, but what we’re actually pursuing, in my view, is to find out about ourselves,” he asserts at one point. His own life – his “personal path” – has been a learning experience, with turning-points and hard decisions and a couple of big projects successfully accomplished. He did ‘the Knowledge’, the famously rigorous training London cabbies have to undergo before they can drive a black cab, and he did it in 18 months (he needed money fast) instead of the four or five years it usually takes, getting so caught up that he’d go to sleep and dream “that my brain was like spaghetti, and all the streets in London were tangled up in my head”. That was a big project. As a teenager he was in the Underwater Demolitions Unit (OYK in Greek) during his National Service – easily the toughest unit in the National Guard – enduring hours of hard physical exercise day after day (no-one gets thrown out of OYK; most simply quit, unable to stand the pace). That was another big project.

But he also, for instance, turned down a scholarship to Romania, secured by his father’s comrades in AKEL – a big turning-point because it meant going to England to study Engineering on his own steam instead, selling hot dogs at Charing Cross Arches for £3 a night so he could pay the university tuition (fees were about £100 a year in those days). And of course he also made the hard decision, in 1997, to separate from Catherine, his wife of 21 years. “I’d been in therapy for eight years at the time,” is how he describes it, “and by that time I was ready to take the decision to leave the marriage, because it had not been a happy arrangement for neither me nor Catherine. And someone had to make the move, and it wouldn’t be Catherine.”

Sotos pauses, conscious perhaps of how the words may sound (human interaction is such a minefield!). “I come across as if it was mostly Catherine who felt bitter about the end of the marriage,” he concedes. “Which it was. But Catherine did not choose to work out anything of her personal life. I’d been working on this for eight years, Catherine just stood still waiting to see what was going to happen.” He’d married young, at 23, initially just so he could stay in the country (he and Catherine were already in a relationship). Later, they agreed it could be a real marriage instead of a sham – but it was never especially happy, he insists, even though they’re good friends now. They were both “very immature people” in those days.

It seems odd, looking at him now – in his lovely home with the books and dogs and consulting room, and his trim appearance and smooth, reassuring manner – that Sotos had to develop into a mature person, but of course he’s no different to anyone else; indeed, his path was more tortuous than most. After university he seems to have changed job every couple of years – running a garage, driving a minicab, managing a Cypriot restaurant in Willesden, then driving a black cab, post-Knowledge. “I had headaches all my life, until I entered therapy.” He had personal issues, he recalls ruefully.

Like what?

“Temper… Vulnerability to insult… Inability to claim my own needs.”

Sounds like he was too keen to claim them, if anything.

He shakes his head. “That’s not claiming,” he replies. “That’s demanding. That was easy.”

And how did therapy help?

He pauses, thinking where to begin. “I discovered my ability to be closer to people. That it was safe to be vulnerable.” He’d been rather macho in his youth – hence, partly, the decision to serve in OYK – very restless, and very thin-skinned. “Things quietened down slowly in therapy. That was my personal experience. They quietened down in the sense that you don’t have those critical voices inside you, persecuting you. You have another presence inside you, which is a more caring voice than the critical voices we inherit from our childhood, through our parents.”

No surprise that childhood trauma makes an appearance in our conversation – though his family doesn’t sound abusive, just oppressive. “I think my father did me a great favour, because I knew first-hand what a totalitarian mind can be,” he reports without rancour. His dad “was a kind man at heart,” believes Sotos, “but he was trapped in himself. He was trapped in an ideology”. Anyone who was right-wing was wrong, and anyone who was left-wing was right – a reductive worldview which his middle child chafed against, even beyond the usual middle-child problems (there was also an older brother and a younger sister). As a small child, he’d leave home – nobody noticed, or cared – and “disappear for hours”, roaming the streets of Famagusta (the same wanderlust later found an outlet in his London cab-driving). In his teens, having moved to Kaimakli, he played football endlessly, out in the fields with his friends, as if seeking relief from the “critical voices”.

Sotos Michael isn’t just a psychotherapist, he’s a walking advertisement for psychotherapy – though anyone who’s dubious about the process will find bones to pick with his story. For a start, it seems clear that therapy can result in collateral damage. It was therapy that led him to abandon his marriage – and, though no harm was done in his case (he handled the fallout very carefully, especially with regard to the kids), it’s easy to imagine things going wrong with a less careful husband, or a more fragile wife; in effect, one partner’s forcing the other to join in his personal development, irrespective of how ready she is. And there’s also another charge one could make against therapy culture – that it turns people into victims, encouraging them to blame others (parents, teachers, bullies) for their unhappy lives instead of taking responsibility.

For the first time, Sotos bristles. “I’ve no idea where that statement comes from, it’s absurd!” he says hotly. In fact, “it’s the opposite: [therapy] is about being able to take personal responsibility for what you have done, and being able to repair”. That said, ‘what you have done’ will invariably include ‘what was done to you’, because Sotos (like all therapists) comes down firmly on the side of Nurture, not Nature, when it comes to explaining personality. Only “someone who is very well-defended” would think otherwise, he notes – then adds his usual caveat, lest he sound judgmental: “Not you. It’s a reasonable question”.

Life goes on, one way or the other, Sotos doing his best to transform others’ lives as his own was transformed. He only has around 10 clients (plus a waiting list), partly because each one is such a commitment – it’s not just the sessions, there’s also the “thinking time” needed to understand and empathise – and partly because the PAP takes up so much of his time. That’s his latest big project – and in fact they’ve just had a breakthrough, being officially recognised by the EAP (European Association of Psychotherapists) at the Sigmund Freud University in Vienna as its “national umbrella organisation” in Cyprus. Then there’s his motorbike, his home, his garden, days at the beach, exploring Cyprus with Barbara; not a bad way to ease into “the senior stage in life”, as he describes turning 60.

Was that a big deal? “No… but yes,” he replies, and pauses eloquently. “I have no idea what I would be feeling now if I didn’t have the personal path that I had in my life,” he explains. “I can say that it prepared me to arrive here, to a certain extent. At 60 – at my 60 – you do not have so much the need to be confirmed, [whether] sexually [or] professionally. You don’t run around like a blue-arsed fly looking for women – though it was exciting when it was happening,” he adds with a twinkle, “but it’s a relief not to have that. It’s a relief to know you don’t have to have sex every night – or pretend to your friends that you had it every night. [But] to also have the youthful energy to find out things.”

That’s the point, of course: that’s his trump card, the youthful energy. “You always have something young in you,” he muses. “If you allow that. If you have opened that room in you”. That’s his favourite metaphor, that we’re born in a house full of rooms, slowly shut them down as we grow older, then consciously need to re-open them in order to “accommodate more things in life” – the corollary being that the house is the same, we’ve just learned how to live in it better. People don’t change, says Sotos Michael, they develop. They’re still the people they were as kids, or unhappy grown-ups. But they delve a little deeper, open new rooms, find out more about themselves – and maybe, in a few special cases, they’ll even become psychotherapists. It’s the human experience.

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