In a woman who burrows into strangers’ subconscious, THEO PANAYIDES finds a practitioner who likes calm, a positive mindset coach who has also been through some pretty bad times herself
The testimonials on the site (www.mariachristie.co) are quite something. “I’ve practiced psychiatry for 24 years, and I’ve never experienced this level of deep work in such a short period of time,” says Dr Brian Brown from the US. “I am not exaggerating when I say that working with you has been life-changing,” declares Paula from the UK. “All through my adult life, I have felt ‘not quite good enough’ on the outside. All of those thoughts and feelings have disappeared.”
Impressive stuff; though actually, I wonder if Paula’s tribute may contain a typo. Did she really mean that she’d always felt not quite good enough on the outside – or on the inside, which is, after all, the domain Maria Christie usually explores with her clients? “The work we do is the inner work,” she confirms on a Zoom call from her office just outside Nicosia – and her site makes clear that her target demographic are “busy professionals”, wrestling with “inner conflict with how you feel about yourself” behind façades of success and accomplishment. Maria knows that world; she worked in hospitality for years, “I had a great HR job in a five-star hotel” (she was actually at the K West, a very chic, celebrity-infested boutique hotel in west London) before making a move, both professionally and geographically, to become a clinical hypnotherapist, BLAST Technique practitioner and Mindset coach just outside Nicosia.
That’s her base, at least; but – as implied by those testimonials – her clients are everywhere. Our original plan was to meet in person, at the nearby Mall of Cyprus, but it had to be shifted to Zoom at the last moment; she works across time zones, and doesn’t have the luxury of a leisurely coffee. “For instance today,” she reports, “I’ve had a client in Slovenia, a client in Dubai. I’m about to jump on a call later to a client in Australia…”
Australia? But it’s already mid-afternoon. It’ll be almost midnight Down Under!
“Yeah, this is the time that her kids are in bed – so it’s like, ‘Maria, this is when we’re talking today’. Luckily it’s not a session, it’s a coaching. So it’s a conversation.”
Conversation is part of what she does – though of course the roles are somewhat reversed in the one we’re having now. “I’m used to it being the other way around,” she admits with a laugh. “It’s a bit out of my comfort zone.” She comes across as pleasant, level-headed and simpatico – and very sunny, though she balks politely when I wonder if she’s ever been through a serious crisis: “I’ve been through some pretty bad times. Confused times. I’ve been depressed, I’ve had low self-esteem…” Then again, it also seems significant that when the conversation turns to the Turkish invasion – she was born (as Maria Christodoulou) a few months later; her parents were refugees from Famagusta, who moved to London when Maria was a baby – she tells a lovely, very positive story of her mum going back to see their old house after the checkpoints opened, and the new ‘tenants’ presenting her with an old wedding photo. “They’d kept it all those years, and they returned it to her. Isn’t that amazing?”
She’s not naïve, not with all the bad (sometimes very bad) stories she hears from clients – but she also seems to have many of the traits of the HR manager she used to be: a tendency – almost a compulsion – to see both sides, an organised, roll-your-sleeves-up attitude to life, a taste for jargon, a beaming positivity. I note in passing that her work seems quite dark, compared to the hospitality industry, but she doesn’t see it that way. “I wouldn’t call it dark,” she replies, laughing lightly at the melodramatic description, “I would say it’s a healing role… I help people with a variety of different things – whether it’s launching their businesses, building confidence and clarity around their past traumas, relationships. It’s quite a variety… But actually since training as a hypnotherapist I find what I do even more fulfilling, because we are able to heal a lot of deeper issues – traumas, confidence issues. And it’s so rewarding, it’s such a privilege to be a part of somebody’s healing.”
Conversation is indeed a part of what she does – but conversation on a conscious level (as in ordinary therapy) “only takes you so far”, which is where hypnotherapy comes in. Once the client identifies an issue – lack of confidence, say, or some kind of addiction – “we’re accessing exactly where it started, why it started, how it started, and we’re healing in the subconscious”. Her approach tends to get quick results, indeed her usual programme (unless a client chooses to renew) is four, eight or 12 weeks. “I’ve got clients that have come to me who’ve been in psychotherapy for 10 years – and of course that’s helped them, of course it helps. But then they come to me, and in three sessions they’ve understood the root causes of certain things.”
How does it work? “I first put them into hypnosis,” explains Maria, “which is really just relaxing the thinking mind. I count them down into a trance, so it’s a very specific procedure.” She’ll soften her voice a bit, “but I don’t change my voice, I’m not a different person. Some of these hypnoses that I hear on YouTube” – she rolls her eyes – “the voice is so artificial and strange. We’re having a very comfortable, organic conversation during the therapy.
“Basically, we get to the root cause. And I do that through age regression, so we go back to some – uh, scenes. It’s amazing, everything is stored in the subconscious, isn’t it? It’s 95 per cent of everything we’ve ever seen and heard.” Being in a trance doesn’t mean the person is a zombie, they’re alert and awake (“Hypnosis is simply just shutting down the active thinking mind”) – and Maria will guide them to identify the ‘scene’ in their life where they feel the problem may have started. “Sometimes it’s completely strange scenes, something they haven’t remembered or thought about for years, that was completely off their radar – and it sort of comes to light. Then we act like a detective, and find how this is connected to their present.” Sometimes, needless to say, it can be quite traumatic, like a memory of sexual abuse – and indeed, trauma training is part of her skillset. “It’s bloody heartbreaking,” sighs Maria. “But our purpose is to heal the adult now… But yeah – you can’t help but be upset sometimes, with people’s life experiences”.
It’s an odd life, in some ways, spending her days burrowing in a stranger’s subconscious – especially when it’s all done online, often with people on the other side of the world. The clients don’t mind, in fact they may even be more comfortable “because they don’t have to get up and leave afterwards, they’re relaxed in their home” – but she doesn’t get the emotional relief of seeing them out, or shaking their hand, she just ends the meeting and sits there with other people’s bad memories bouncing around in her brain.
How does she not go nuts? “I have to exercise. I feel it if I don’t. Even if it’s walking in the park. I do my 10,000 steps, I do that in Nature.” Fortunately, Athalassa park is just down the road – and she also has a dog whose name is Happy, which seems like a lot of pressure to put on a dog (then again “it’s hard to get angry with a dog with a name like ‘Happy’, isn’t it?”). The name was her three-year-old nephew’s idea; Maria has two younger sisters, both still in London. She also has a small posse of good friends, spread out all over the world – but her life is otherwise quite solitary, at least compared to her old life. The hotel industry was mad, especially in central London as a young person: “After a shift we’d go straight out,” she recalls with a gleam in her eye. Sometimes they wouldn’t even bother going home, just straight back to work “and we’d fight over who’d be on the switchboard – so we wouldn’t be facing guests, you know? We had a lot of fun. So I think I got all of that out of my system.”
Some of her clients did it the other way round, settling down too soon, now divorced and trying to live their youth in middle age – but “I’m the other way. I like being settled, I like calm. I like the quiet. I’m not a big crowd person now.” Actually, she shrugs, “I’m quite an introverted person, outside of my work”. I ask about hobbies but there’s not much to say; she likes comedies, good food, chatting with friends. “I enjoy Nature. I enjoy simple things.”
More surprisingly, perhaps, though Maria does a lot of work as a relationship coach – often with recently divorced women looking to build their confidence as they head back into the dating scene – she herself is “a bit of an anomaly… I’ve had relationships in the past, but I’m kind of happily single. I’m not traumatised by a bad break-up or a divorce, or anything like that.” She didn’t move to Cyprus because of a partner, or alternatively to heal from heartbreak. Does she never feel like an impostor, having to empathise with clients’ turbulent lives while living such an orderly life herself? – but no, she replies, “because we all have things”; it’s not like she hasn’t had life experiences. And there might be something else too, a sense that the quiet life (like her move to a quiet place like Cyprus) can provide a valuable vantage point from which to observe others, and try to relieve their emotional burden. “So that you can live comfortably and just have inner peace,” she says, trying to pin down the aim of the whole process – then shuts her eyes and lets her hands float down, in a classic ‘Keep calm’ gesture: “Inner peace is the goal”.
There’s more to the process, of course, like the so-called BLAST technique which is based on EMDR therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. (Prince Harry apparently talks about it in the recent Netflix documentary.) “When someone goes through trauma – whether it’s an attack, maybe it’s bullying, maybe it’s just a bad break-up – these traumatic memories get stuck in the right hemisphere of the brain. This is why you can have flashbacks, you get triggered, you get very intrusive thoughts”. What EMDR does, by directing eye movement (Maria demonstrates, grabbing a pen and moving it across the Zoom screen), is “reprocess” that trauma to the left, more rational side of the brain “so that it can be released and neutralised… It’s not eliminated, but you don’t have that emotional and physical response to it” when you remember it.
It all sounds so foreign and outlandish, such a brave new world. People in a trance unearthing long-buried memories, human brains physically shifted and reprocessed – and all this by a pleasant, bespectacled woman sitting in a neutral-looking office on the outskirts of Nicosia. Is there perhaps a danger that so much therapy will end up turning people (who, 50 years ago, might’ve just got on with it) into self-proclaimed victims? Sure, she replies: “I feel that ‘I’m traumatised’ is the worst, most over-used phrase” – then again, she adds (seeing both sides, as usual), it’s also true that “trauma never leaves the body, the mind. And it results in illness.”
In the end, the testimonials speak for themselves. Whether it’s the modern world, or Tinder, or bad childhoods, or social alienation, or the breakdown of the family, or just too much narcissism, Maria Christie’s work is appreciated – and, it seems, necessary. “You have to train the mind,” she explains in her level-headed way, “it’s not a one-and-done thing. It’s something that we have to do continuously, to stay safe in this crazy life sometimes – right?”
Everyone must find their own life hack, whether it’s therapy or hypnosis – or sniffing essential oils, or walking a dog named Happy. “People have to prioritise managing their stress levels. It’s not okay to just live with it – it doesn’t make sense. It’s a killer!” Maria puts her hands together, entreating the world from behind my computer screen: “You can only suppress difficult emotions and circumstances for so long”. I recall what she said earlier, about the work in general: “Inner peace is the goal”. It is.