Hotel Room Therapy

Hotel Room Therapy

by Anastasia Piatakhina Giré
Self-described ‘displaced-person’ and therapist Anastasia Piatakhina shares her online work with a restless and disconnected hotel-session client.
Filed Under: Relationships
In This Article…

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As I offer therapy online, many highly mobile and displaced individuals naturally drift into my practice.
We meet in a couchless space unattached to any physical location
We meet in a couchless space unattached to any physical location, or rather suspended in between the two places—my office perched below the Parisian rooftops and the often-fluid, ever-changing locations of my fidgety clients.

Sometimes they connect for our sessions from a hotel room. I always pay attention to my client’s surrounding—and when an unfamiliar background sparks my curiosity, I naturally inquire into this new place, and we spend some time locating ourselves. The client might tell me about the country or town they are currently in, about this particular hotel or the area.

These “hotel sessions” tend to bring up “a sense of discomfort that resembles lostness—a feeling of displacement, of not-quite-being there,” in the striking words of a wandering writer Anna Badkhen. As a displaced person myself (I grew up in Russia but now live in France), I can easily relate to this feeling, and every time I notice an anonymous hotel room behind my client’s back, my heart sinks in recognition.

Lorraine

One day I stumbled on an essay by Suzanne Joinson dedicated to “hotel melancholia”, and the author’s experience reminded me of so many of my mobile and displaced clients; especially, Lorraine.

Lorraine’s consultancy work made her travel constantly
Lorraine’s consultancy work made her travel constantly. She would usually spend a four-month period in a country, only to then move to the next assignment, always located in a different country, often on a different continent. I cannot remember ever seeing her connecting from any other place than a hotel—she was my quintessential ‘hotel room client.’

Lorraine was in her mid-30s, bright, successful, and extremely lonely. After a few sessions, I finally asked about whether she had a “base.” Lorraine marked a short silence—her beautiful pale face rarely showed any emotion: she did not. Her very few belongings were stored at her parents’ basement in Canada. She had given up on having a home years ago. She travelled light; just a big suitcase and a laptop.

Lorraine lived in hotels, usually big chains—comfortable, impersonal and exactly as Suzanne Joinson describes “it was fun, for a few years, until suddenly it wasn’t.” I came into the picture when the fun had gone. However, Lorraine never complained—it was “not too bad”, and, after all, every couple of months she would be allowed a break to spend a few days elsewhere. These short trips would be just enough to keep her sanity.

In our co-created placeless bubble, we communicated in English—a second language for both of us. We also had French in common, but Lorraine had unequivocally chosen English from our very first email exchange. She confided that she felt more comfortable in this language that she acquired as a teenager when her family relocated to Canada.

Lorraine was a Third Culture Kid
Lorraine was a Third Culture Kid—brought up by a biracial family in a country that was neither of her parents’ original home. She was half-Korean, half-French.

Why was she in therapy? Sometimes I wondered, as she seemed rather content with her transient life. Talking with her often created a strange cognitive dissonance—I sensed her distinct unhappiness, but she would never verbalize it, never express any deep dissatisfaction or nostalgia for a home or a relationship.

She had friends of course—mostly dispersed all around the globe. She would visit them during her breaks, sometimes for an adventurous holiday, sometimes in their homes in case they were freshly settled and building a family. Strangely, after these trips Lorraine would not express any more desire to settle or to attach than usual. “It was nice,” she would comment.

Lorraine seemed attached to her itinerant lifestyle more than to anybody or anything else. She did not seem to miss her parents. Their presence in her adult life seemed to create more hassle than anything, as they got used to asking her for help in doing their paperwork, relying on their daughter’s indisputable competence. In her constant relocating from one place to another, being able to deal with paperwork efficiently was a question of survival. Efficiency was something Lorraine valued highly. I learned that in her vocabulary “being inefficient,” meant many other things too; like being overwhelmed, exhausted, or emotional.

In therapy, she was hard work for me
When she was a child, her family moved a few times for her father’s professional assignments. I never really got a sense of how it was to grow up in her family. She was an incredibly docile child and later a very capable adolescent, never creating problems for her parents. She simply did what she was supposed to do and did it well. She worked hard at school, gained a commendable degree and went on to take a lucrative job. It seems that in her family everything was about efficiency. Her Korean mother was a perfectionist and would get very upset if something was not done exactly how it should be, whilst her French father was hard on people who did not live up to his expectations.

Emotions had little or no place in this family. For somebody as well educated as Lorraine, she had little awareness of her emotions and struggled to name her feelings, usually using the words “bored” or “frustrated” to cover up other emotional experiences.

In therapy, she was hard work for me.

Holidays and Homes

Of course, occasionally she would travel back to Canada to spend Christmas or Easter with her parents. Every time I offered to maintain our session during those holidays, she would decline—too busy with playing catch-ups with family and friends. So, I never had an opportunity to have a glimpse of her childhood home, and my attempts to suggest that such session ‘from home’ would be interesting, never produced results. This house in Canada that she never really described felt ghostly to me, and I wondered if she had the same feelings about it.

Interestingly enough, when her parents retired and decided to sell their family house, Lorraine seemed indifferent. They bought an apartment in the South of France, in the village they used to visit during their European holidays. Wasn’t she sad about her childhood home which contained her memories, her things in the basement, disappearing forever? No, she was not. After all, she always knew her family would never settle there forever. Almost all of her friends from that place had already left and had either settled elsewhere or were travelling around the globe.

Would I feel the same numbness if I was to lose connection with my original town? This thought only fills me with sadness. Even after living all my adult life abroad, I still feel attached to my native Saint Petersburg, where all my childhood memories reside. Lorraine’s displacement was of a different nature; she grew up out of place, with no deep roots in any of the cultures she was surrounded by. The Korean world was only barely familiar to her; she identified herself as French, but even that belonging had some clear limits.

This state of things was going on for quite a while. Lorraine moved from one country to another a few times, and I grew more and more frustrated with the lack of depth that our work was presenting.

Occasionally, I would be travelling too, and also connect for our sessions from a hotel room. The first time this happened, Lorraine looked strangely annoyed. She was even less talkative than usual, and I could sense that something was going on, but as usual she resisted my questions.

“Would your bad mood be linked to my being elsewhere than in my office?” I asked.

I always feel a mixture of excitement and apprehension when an online client of mine visits my city, and we plan for an in-person session
She paused, seemingly perplexed. “Maybe.” She was used to seeing on her screen my now familiar background, filled with bookshelves and artwork. The consistency of place that our sessions offered her was actually something that meant a lot to her. That ‘double hotel session’ was not a breakthrough in any spectacular way, but something had shifted, allowing more awareness into her displaced condition.

Several weeks after that session, Lorraine passed through Paris, and we were finally able to meet in person. I always feel a mixture of excitement and apprehension when an online client of mine visits my city, and we plan for an in-person session. Not having a screen between us breaks the settled frame; with some clients it feels like a welcomed change, with others less so. In Lorraine’s case, I was hoping that the encounter could bring some interesting grist to the mill.

Facetime

She sat in front of me; composed, pale as usual and much smaller than I had ever realized—a not unusual surprise of screen relationships. All the semblance of closeness we were able to build online seemed to dissipate. Lorraine was back to her shell.

She was between two assignments, but not for long, and seemed ready, almost eager, to move into the new hotel located somewhere in the Southeastern Asia that was soon to become her “home” for the next four months. She had already checked its situation—it was one of her favorite chains and was equipped with a decent size gym and a swimming pool. She seemed a bit lost, homeless for real, without the hotel room that usually would contain, at least temporarily, her belongings and her life. She made no comments about the area of my office, or about the room that she had seen only on her screen before.

“How do you feel about us being in the same room?”

“Not much, maybe a little uncomfortable.”

She was not used to sharing her room with anybody; she actually never had. Her childhood family home was big enough for everybody to have their own bedroom. They rarely spent time together downstairs, as both parents had their own office space. When she would come home from school, she would usually grab something from the fridge and retreat upstairs, directly to her bedroom.

The defensive walls that she had built in the past were still in place, protecting her from the terror of her attachment-less reality
This was actually the first time Lorraine was sharing some tangible details about her childhood. As she spoke, I could finally picture this big, perfectly organized house surrounded by snow. Her mother loved white lacquered furniture and was always preoccupied about keeping everything in perfect order and maintaining all the surfaces spotless. This was probably the reason why Lorraine was never allowed to invite friends to her house; and none of her birthday parties took place at her home. Her home had always felt like a hotel to her—it was comfortable, clean and temporary. Since a very young age, Lorraine knew that she would leave and go elsewhere. Her childhood was about waiting for this to happen, and now that it had finally happened she did not really know how to live any differently.

Now, as an adult, she had to learn how to develop an attachment, to a place, to a person. Our shared online space was a tentative model; a little relational bubble in which this process hopefully could begin. At this point Lorraine was not ready to fully grasp that the life she had built was as dysfunctional as her childhood. The defensive walls that she had built in the past were still in place, protecting her from the terror of her attachment-less reality.

I chose not to accompany her there, not yet. 

© 2019 Psychotherapy.net LLC
Bios
Anastasia Piatakhina Giré Anastasia Piatakhina Giré was born and raised in Saint Petersburg (Russia), and, before moving to Paris, lived and studied in Italy, Great Britain and Spain.
Her experience of evolving abroad, together with her multicultural marriage and trilingual family, makes her particularly sensitive to the sort of issues experienced by people living in a different country than that of their origin, or those who are part of a mixed couple. Life away from home and family brings along quite specific psychological challenges. An expat herself, she is passionate about fellow travelers. As a writer, she has been writing scenarios since 2006 for television and cinema, and has always felt fascinated by people’s stories. She offers online therapy as well as in-person sessions in Paris. See her website at www.expatstherapy.com.