Deep Haven

 “There is perhaps one attitude toward that environment which can be said to be characteristic of the emotionally mature human being… however widely and richly his feelings in this regard may fluctuate, over however wide a range, in the varying circumstances of his everyday life. One can think of this basic attitude as a firm island upon which man grounds himself while directing his gaze into the encircling sea of meanings, more or less difficult of discernment, and some no doubt inscrutable, which reside in this area of human existence.

This basic emotional orientation can be expressed in one word: relatedness.”

~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

 

I am simultaneously being pressed by internal forces and consciously resisting writing this. Perhaps that is always the case – but this one feels both like it needs to be written, and that maybe this is not the place.

Is it really about psychotherapy as a practice? Or is it just about me? And to what degree is that the same thing anyway? I seem to understand my client’s experience most when I reach down through some deep point of heavily processed identification, broken down to its nearly universal archetypal core.

So this is personal. And perhaps as it helps me to listen more deeply, reach for unprocessed content, and feel my way into the stories and memories my clients share with me more specifically and thoroughly –  it is also professional.

I was raised, as we all are, in a particular place, in a specific environment, with objects, landmarks, buildings, animals, trees, roads, yards, sidewalks, walls, bus stops, schoolyards, playgrounds, woods, bugs, beaches, and homes – my own and others.

And I see, in my own children, the intense and self-regulating meaning that rivers and bridges, neighborhoods and subways stops – and our little house-like apartment hold for them.

We live in a peopled and people-focused world, and traditional psychoanalytic models focus primarily on our relationships to other human beings – but sometimes we need to value and talk about our relationships with creatures, non-human living things, inanimate objects, places and whole environments.

Winnicott speaks of the almost magical properties that transitional objects – lovies, blankets, pacifiers and teddy-bears have- to soothe and self-regulate – as well as to absorb our aggression in the form of chewing, yanking, pulling, biting, dragging, wearing down and using up. Yet, for Winncott these are symbols, developmentally useful displacements for content that would be otherwise directed toward our caretakers.

They are not relationships in and of themselves. Object-relational theory refers to human objects, and any non-human object is most-likely merely representative of a human one.

You can’t have relationships with a non-human thing – can you?

Jungian clinicians might reach beyond the personal, childhood human caretakers, and explore our relationships to the non-human aspects of our environment – approaching the relationship as a symbolic, numinous manifestation of archetypal content.

I once knew of a client in a psychiatric day treatment program whose psychiatrist wanted to increase his medication because the client held on to a persistent belief that all pens, rings, and water had magical, sacred properties. When this was discussed in team-meeting, I suggested: “Well, then I suppose you will have to medicate me as well, along with every poet and writer, anyone who has ever worn or removed a wedding ring, and all the people who have been baptized or been immersed in a mikvah.”

The universal archetypes that live embedded in the psyches of the human species that organize our instincts around forged metal, perfect circles, writing implements, and purity are present, to some degree, in every ring, pen, and pool of water.

But Searles suggests there is another layer as well, a simpler one:

“…man relates to his nonhuman environment on a dual level. That is, however important is the level of his relating to, for instance, a cat or a tree in terms of their constituting, in his perception of them, carriers of meanings which have to do basically with people (by way of displacement and projection of his own unconscious feelings on to the cat, or the tree, transference of interpersonal attitudes on his part on to them, perceiving them through various cultural distortions and so on), there is also another level on which he relates to them: to the cat as being a cat and to the tree as being a tree.”

~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

 

And not a cat that is universally representative of Cats as an archetype, but a cat with a name, and multi-colored paw-pads, and spots and stripes and a temperament that are all unique to him, and a tree that is a certain size, with branches positioned in a specific way, leaves of a certain type and color, that becomes a tree that is known, nearly memorized in all its specificity – loved, that grows with us over-time – and is not merely representative of The World Tree – although perhaps that is present too.

When animals die, trees are torn down, old homes demolished or renovated beyond recognition there is a self-consciousness to our grief. I too often hear clients say: “Its silly of me to be so upset! Its just a…” dog, tree, house, neighborhood…

Kohut might see some of these relationships as self-objects – as experiences and transactions that help us to understand, organize, experience our Selves, discover the shape and size of our identities.

Searles might agree:

“The environment can be seen to provide a milieu… as contrasted to to the interpersonal milieu, in which the child can become aware of his own capabilities (referring here to physical strength and dexterity, ingenuity, and various intellectual abilities) and of the limitations upon those capabilities. In his relatedness to the environment he has opportunities to see, in a particularly clear-cut, realistic fashion, that he is in various ways powerful, but not omnipotent.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

And most of us feel strange and self-conscious speaking of such relationships.

I do to. (See, this hasn’t gotten very personal yet, has it?)

So I’ll wade in:

A book I read over and over as a young child made perfect, exact sense to me for many years:

A friend is someone who likes you.

It can be a boy…

It can be a girl…

Or a cat…

Or a dog…

Or even a white mouse.

A tree can be a different kind of a friend.

It doesn’t talk to you, but you know it likes you, because it gives you apples….

Or pears….

Or cherries….

Or sometimes a place to swing.

 

A brook can be a friend in a special way. It talks to you with splashy gurgles.

It cools you toes and lets you sit quietly beside it when you don’t feel like speaking.

 

The wind can be a friend too.

It sings soft songs to you at night

            when you are sleepy and feeling lonely.

Sometimes it calls you to play.

It pushes you from behind

as you walk and makes

the leaves dance for you.

It is always with you

            wherever you go,

            and that’s how you know

            it likes you.

A Friend is Someone Who Likes You,

~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958

 

And certainly our relationship to non-human organic systems or time spent at your favorite sitting rock cannot entirely compensate for the lack of healthy human love.

“I have no illusion, for example, that a beautiful maple tree, beloved to one’s childhood, can really have made up for the lack of a childhood friend.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

Culturally, we see the idea of having living relationships with non-human objects as childish, as unreal, as not valid, as unimportant, as pretend, as mere anthropomorphizing.

But perhaps we need not think so hierarchically. Maybe all of it is important. Maybe it is all part of how we come to know ourselves, to be soothed, to give back, to experience the limitations and finiteness of the world, and of our own resources.

“Thus the exploration of this whole subject… impinges upon a deeply rooted anxiety of a double-edged sort: the anxiety of subjective oneness with a chaotic world, and the anxiety over the loss of a cherished omnipotent world-self” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

What if our expansive childhood sense of connection to the world is a naive template for healthy relatedness to our environment, the first step that can later be forged into mature understanding of our connection to the natural world we are embedded in, and which is too often derailed and subsumed by cultural and economic pressures and demands?

Sometimes you don’t know who

            are your friends.

Sometimes they are there all the time,

but you walk right past them

and don’t notice that they like you

            in a special way.

And then you think you don’t have any friends.

Then you must stop hurrying and rushing so fast…

and move very slowly,

and look around carefully,

to see someone who smiles at you in a special way…

Or a dog that wags its tail extra hard whenever you are near…

or a tree that lets you climb it easily…

or a brook that lets you be quiet when you want to be quiet.

 A Friend is Someone Who Likes You ~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958

So, I stopped hurrying and rushing so fast and looked around very carefully on a recent visit to the home of my childhood: a very small lake community outside of Minneapolis.

At the age of fifty, I had no remaining connections to any people left in the area – the humans and pets that I had been attached to had all died, relocated, or our paths diverged to the point of well-established disconnection. I had only returned once, for four hours, about ten years earlier – and that was my only visit since my early twenties.

I was able, without the distraction of relationships to humans from the past – to visit the town, as anonymous as a tourist, to a place, a location, a lake, an ecosystem, that had introduced me to myself and the larger world – that had given to me, and terrified me and taken from me, and introduced me to my powers and my limitations, and that had vulnerabilities and strengths of its own.

I lived lakeside for a decade – walked barefoot or bicycled down every narrow street, the hot, melting tar left sticky spots on my toes. I knew every dock, every patch of sand, every good swimming spot, every duck nest, every climbing tree, every chipmunk hole in the square mile around my home. I knew where the snow banks gathered, the best spots to make snow angels, the secret pathways through the trees into neighbors lawns and the short cuts home when the dinner bell rang.

I haven’t thought about, haven’t spent time remembering this relationship in years. As I sat by the lake, under the railroad overpass, near the old people fishing for sunnies- I realized that I had been to many many lakes in the past thirty years – but none of them was my lake. And, not mine in the possessive sense, but my lake in the relational sense. I had a relationship with this lake, that was like no other, and was representative of nothing else and was too specific to be merely symbolic. It is a relationship, in and of itself.

The lake was as alive as any person to me. A babysitter who rocked and cradled me while floating on my back, or dozing in the sunny bow of a bobbing whaler. A lake that sung me to sleep through my bedroom window with splashes, lappings against the shore rocks. A being that loved and consoled all that was inconsolable. An entity that was always present, and always accepting of my return. A playmate to re-create myself with and within, a toy box filled with shiny rocks, agates, treasures and mysteries, salamanders and snapping turtles.

A mentor that challenged me to strengthen my skills and test my capacities: How long could I hold my breath? How far I could swim?

A being that tolerated no hubris – when I tried to walk across the lake on the muddy bottom and breathe in water as I’d seen in Tom and Jerry cartoons, I learned quickly what I was and was not capable of.

An organism that taught me about the earth’s vulnerability – as one weekend we all awoke to the lake belching up green sludge, a shocking, overnight algae overgrowth, provoked by an imbalanced and ill-use of its waterways. The towns around its shore began to feel sympathies with the “ecology” movement of the early 1970’s and we all donned patches on our jeans and bumper stickers which read “What you take to the lake – TAKE IT BACK!” to discourage polluters and dumpers. Endangered fish, and rare water lilies grew in ponds and inlets – and we hammered signs into the trees warning others not to tamper with the lake’s delicate balance

A teacher who taught me my first lessons about fate, error, injury and death – as children and adults alike succumbed to its powers:  drownings, boat accidents, and floods. The lives of people and animals swallowed through thin ice in the winters or summers’ destructive storms that we watched come toward us across the lake – a violent wall of wind and water, lightening and thunder, snow and hail and ice.

A punitive authority figure: arbitrary and unyeilding, drawing down lightening strikes, tornadoes, slicing uncareful toes on sharpened rocks unseen in muddy shallow water.

A transforming creature, whose shores and trees and wildlife shifted and adjusted with the years and the seasons from liquid to frozen and back again.

A location that instructed me about theft and injustice and my own complicity – as it retained is Dakota name with no trace of the Dakota people, except for a few remaining ancient mounds and middens.

The more we are able to relate ourselves to this environment as it really is – the more our perception of it becomes freed from seeing it to be bathed in Evil or Good or what not – the more satisfying and rich is our relatedness to it. ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

It was, and is, a relationship – although I own no property there, have no lake access or boat, and have only visited substantially once in thirty years. I had an effect on that non-human entity – I threw rocks, and caught fish, and cleaned trash from its shores, guarded and disrupted its wildlife, tended to it and harmed it as it soothed and warned, scolded, frightened and instructed me in the realities of life and the challenges of living.

I suspect we all have such primal relationships with some environment or non-human relationship specific to us – a city block, a park, a summer camp, a rosebush in the back yard – and it is part of the work of the psychotherapeutic process to help us identify the imprint we leave upon our environment, and the imprint it leaves upon us.

And whatever happens next, as this world heats, and storms, and floods, and bakes – we should not miss a chance for intimacy, for relatedness with the living world around us.

We live in a world of human relationships. And we must all, at this historic crossroads, come to recognize the relationships that we have, as human beings, with the world. We have affected each other. We have been affected.

Whatever happens next: That is relatedness. That is intimacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is What Happened

Someone asked me to write this. Sort of.

They asked me if I could state, in tangible terms, the kinds of healing that I have seen take place in my work as a therapist.

And I can’t. Because it didn’t and doesn’t somehow seem to be my prerogative to codify or co-opt my client’s experiences to say how I think they have been healed, or not. That is up to them to define. I have no idea what they think has helped about therapy unless they tell me.

Sometimes they point to powerful defining words – for good and ill – that  I said, years, even decades earlier, that I have no recollection of ever saying.

I do this to my psychotherapist too. If you’ve read my writing over time you’ve seen me do it, and you should know he is a very good sport about it.

Is healing always even the goal?  Sometimes the goal is just surviving.

Some weeks, it is an extraordinary accomplishment and more than enough that we are all still here, and still pursing hope, meaning and connection and living out of our values in the face of  life’s suffering.

Certainly I’ve seen people transform their lives in front of me: Leaving abusive scenarios behind, finding love, healing relationships with partners, becoming parents and more attuned parents, getting through school, sorting through confusion, negotiating and resolving crises,  mourning deaths and other unfathomable losses, facing down fears, coming out of all kinds of closets, changing careers, owning their true identities, at first managing, and eventually shedding symptoms and anxieties.

But I don’t think these accomplishments were because of me. Sometimes the client does though. When they thank me, I try to stay gracious and not too self-effacing and accept their gratitude as a sign of appreciation of my sticking near them through it.

But often that is all I am doing. Staying near. Bearing witness, and letting what I am seeing change me. Staying out of the way, and trying to clear some thickets here and there that may be blocking their true path. Babysitting their most vulnerable needs until they are ready to value and care for them on their own. Making a dark time a little less lonely, and a little less terrifying. Normalizing some stuff that they worry is crazy.  But the growth is theirs and may have happened without me.  Maybe I made the unfolding a little easier. So I try to accept the gratitude – but it always feels strange to do so.  Like a plant thanking me for its growth and harvest  when all I did was water it once or twice a week.

But here is what I can talk about – and will try to do so briefly. Briefly. Ha!

I will try to talk briefly  (that is hilarious) about almost thirty years as a client in my own psychotherapy.

I arrived in New York City in the year after my 21st birthday, to work in the theater and to  be near a boy – who I thought was a man,  a few years older than me – but I see now was just a boy. The boy fell in love with someone else, and for some reason didn’t tell me. I don’t know why. We weren’t living together, we weren’t committed – perhaps he felt bound by an underlying and crushing dependency that I barely contained – as I lashed  myself tightly to any peer, friend, lover that I could, hoping to survive the sinking ship of a family that I had left behind. Perhaps he feared that if he left he would sink me. And  he was kind of right. But he still should have left for the girl he did love rather than making me feel increasingly crazy, confused, burdensome and complaining about my “jealousy problem.”

I had other problems, certainly. I had inherited them. My father had come from a deeply abusive, very wealthy and epically pathological family – and spent his life trying to expel his pain with unnecessary surgeries – over  20 times under the knife – narcotics, religion and rage. He remarried to a woman with three sons who became his real family and I was at best a tolerated guest. My mother had left him when I was ten, after falling in love with our parish priest, who was also a terrifying narcissist, and ultimately “defrocked” by the Episcopalian diocese.  He also eventually left, taking the house out from under us.

So maybe that is why the boy was scared to leave me. But he agreed to go to couples therapy. So we went. We were matched at a fee for service clinic with a young man fresh out of his internship, maybe about the boys age – 25 or so – much older than me,  so I thought. I don’t remember much of these sessions, except that they eventually  helped me to tell the weak scared boy to go, for Gods sake.

And then I sunk. Which was necessary. Which was practically mandatory – because I thought, up until that loss, that the life I had inherited was sustainable. That it was wacky, funny, unconventional perhaps, but I was sure it was all fine.  And that life would keep unfolding that way and that I could keep making a funny story about it at cast-parties after rehearsal, and that there was no harm done.

And suddenly, it was clear to me that something had happened again, that I never ever ever wanted to happen again, and that there was plenty of harm done. Plenty.

I began seeing the 25 year old therapist myself twice a week. I began noticing that I had symptoms, which I had never noticed as symptoms before. I would spend hours getting dressed, unable to see myself accurately in the mirror not because I was fussy about clothes but because I  unable to tell what I looked like.  I was not a night owl, I had regular, and pretty severe insomnia, terrible nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks, night-shame from my increasingly obviously not-so-normal childhood.

I began trying to tell the kind young therapist the story so far – to recount, recall  and reorder for myself  what exactly had happened. I came in to each session and told some other part of the story. I told  him, and myself for the first time what it actually felt like, parts of the story that I had ignored, the distressing, disturbing, terrifying, traumatic memories that swirled in my head instead of sleep. There was no familial or social relationship that would have listened. And my own shame and dissociation made it impossible to tell even if there had been.

This was it. Psychotherapy created the space for me to locate myself in the middle of a swirling tornado of chaos and confusion.

It took me years to tell it all. I barely noticed the young therapist because the need to tell it all was so overwhelming.

At the end of seven years, I said: “I think I am finished telling you what happened.” And I noticed that he was still in the room. And that he hadn’t left, or become terrified himself, or ever once looked away. That he had stayed through all of it. That I finally had a witness, who had heard the whole story, who had traveled from my first home, and then after my family exploded, back and forth, between my parents houses with me – who had made it through with me, and this meant that perhaps, I had made it through as well.

Then there was the present to deal with. How would I protect myself and how could I exist outside of the chaotic family that I loved and was attached to? How could I separate and individuate – and jump into the void and all the unknowns of adulthood  from a platform so unstable? How had I been and how would I continue to repeat this story?  How had I projected it on to others? How was I, without realizing it, recasting the characters from the original script in my adult narrative? How could I do something new, create something healthier for myself? Would I even recognize, or be attracted to available relationships when I encountered them? Would I always over-adapt to compensate for the wounds of others?

The flashbacks receded. I slept soundly through the night most nights. I could get dressed and leave the house easily enough. The panic attacks faded away. I don’t know when. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t come to therapy for symptom reduction. I came to save my soul.

And eventually this (although for many years this was too terrifying): How did this all show up in my relationship to my therapist himself?  How did fear, distrust, anger, injury, paranoia, anxiety, chaos affect my ability to see him clearly, to connect to him? I began to actively use the therapy as a chance to watch the slow-motion replay: I could see my error, my out-of-bounds, my avoidance, my need, my indirection, my suspicion, my fear as it effected my participation, my attachment, my authentic presence in  therapeutic relationship right in front of my eyes. I saw what triggered my reactions and over-reactions, and learned  that forgivable acts can activate memories of unforgivable ones.

This felt like a super-power, x-ray vision. With this discovery I was suddenly able to see myself, and others  – and assess if I was giving what I should, if I was receiving what I needed. I could sense balance and imbalance, sustainable mutuality, and untenable lopsidedness in my relationships. I began to seek out others who could sense and speak of this too.

My joys and sorrows were increasingly responsive to the real events and stressors in my daily life – and less and less and less  about an unprocessed past bleeding out all over a messy present. I created reliable, loving, respectful relationships with friends, and chosen family in the present and the salvageable and loving members of my family of origin.

I mourned for all of those I had to let go.

I took up the profession for myself somewhere along the line, graduating from social work school just after I turned thirty, and eloped, marrying a man I had met five years earlier, the summer before graduation.  And I continued in therapy to deepen my examination of how my limitations and history were activated and projected into the therapeutic relationships in my own office and to keep my relationship with my husband and my in-laws – another family! – growing and healthy. And that parallel process – of being a psychotherapist – and being a client – strengthened and healed me even more.

And the relationship still exists, and always will. I don’t know how a 25 year old boy was able to contain a deeply traumatized 21 year old girl. But he did. And we have grown up together, and practiced parallel to each other now for over twenty years. I see him when life permits or requires. And that is less important than all that is absolutely permanent between us.

So: Can I say, in tangible terms, how I have seen psychotherapy heal, as a psychotherapist?

I guess the answer is yes.

It’s the Relationship…

I sometimes dread being introduced to other psychotherapists.

“Hi! Nice to meet you – you are a therapist too?!  That’s great – I do CBT, Motivational Interviewing and Behavioral Activation – what do you do?”

Uh.

Umm.

Shrug.

“I have an office…”  I’ll vague out and drift off.

When faced with the alphabet soup of “evidenced based psychotherapies” I find myself lost and speechless.

I don’t begrudge or devalue any of those interventions for the therapists and the clients that find them useful and meaningful.

But that isn’t what I do.

None of  the methodology, measures, the cognitive distortions or neuropsychological reprogrammings would have pulled me from the quagmire I inherited – there were only a few simple things that had any chance of aligning me with my soul’s mandate and the pursuit of meaning in my life: Image, Words, Metaphor,  Relationship.

I can’t eliminate behavior, and wouldn’t even dare arbitrate which behaviors are healthy or unhealthy. I can’t fix a damned thing. And I don’t practice therapy that fixes anything, because, frankly,  I never wanted to participate in a therapy or enter into a relationship with a therapist who wanted to fix me.

I can’t make anyone’s  problems go away, including my own. And as I get older, and watch myself revisit the same conflicts and complexes in  subtler forms I wonder if “change” in the sense that most people imagine it when they speak of psychotherapy, is possible at all, and if it is even desirable.

Healing is a word that means more to me than “behavioral change”  but only if “healing” primarily means  living with ever deepening compassion for our own, and other’s wounds and vulnerabilites.  I am not a “healer”  who knows how to make wounds disappear entirely, if at all. Scars, sensitivities, vulnerabilities, residues, susceptibilities, remain, even if the bleeding stops.

And often enough life gets better and worse and better and worse  on its own – with or without psychotherapy.

So what do I do?

Its not just other therapists that want to know  – clients also want to know “what kind of therapy” I practice – and they are especially entitled to an answer, and one that is not cloaked in mystification.

And here even the language of depth therapies fail me:  I do not “do” psychoanaylsis or analytical psychology, existential or Buddhist psychotherapy  – although these models and many others feel useful and meaningful to me at times in making sense of my own experience.

So I have an office. I sit in it. People come to see me, or sometimes we go walking together.

I care when the people who come to see me are angry, murderous,  numb, disappointed, in agonizing pain, terrified, lost, stuck, bored, nauseated, lonely – even when it is very hard, very painful, or when they feel these things because of something I have done, or something I have not done or cannot do.

Sometimes when things turn brutal for someone I care about  I’ll  just hang on for dear life. I don’t give up. I don’t turn away. I am not pushed over.

I stick around. I listen and I don’t retreat, and I am not easily scared or chased off.

I try to picture in my mind’s eye the people, places, things, and images that I am hearing about or sensing. Sometimes images, feelings and pictures seem to  float up in my own mind, drawn from my own life experience,  themes from stories I have read, myths I have heard – and I put these into words to see if they are connected to the pictures and feelings that are bubbling up in the person near to me. I remain curious and committed to understanding the words and pictures and sensations that are being communicated to me as precisely as possible. I surf through the waves of my own watery unconscious and the unconscious of my therapeutic partner. I keep my filter down and my aperture open wide.  I try to stay connected in the bumpy, rocky, scary, severe, extreme places where most social relationships will not venture. Where even  familial relationships can’t, won’t or don’t go.

I lend my self out. Not my “healthy ego”  – my Self, my heart, my dreams, the pictures in my head.

There are many of us who work in this way, and who could work in no other way.

I do this because it was done for me, and this meant the world to me.

Once, many many years ago, when I worked on a unit that served severely mentally ill adults, a psychiatrist pulled me aside to offer me some encouragement. “Do you know why your clients are doing so well?” she asked. “Do you know why they are getting better? Its not because you make sure they are compliant with their medication. Its not because you set clear behavioral objectives and treatment goals. Its because you love them like you belong to them. It’s because you take them into your heart like they are your own. You give of yourself, and they feel that and it makes them stronger.  I don’t know why everyone just doesn’t do that.”

At the time I didn’t know what to make of what she said. But I didn’t then and don’t know now how to work any other way.

A few years later, at that same job, I would come to understand the need people had to work from objective and objectifying stances rather than out of their subjectivity.

On the unit we all had small safety windows in our offices – so therapists and mentally ill clients could feel both safe together talking with the doors shut. As I sat at my desk to take my lunch break, and get some paperwork done, I felt several pairs of eyes peering at the back of my neck. I looked out the window to see four or five of my clients lined up to peek in on me, one after another, while I ate.

I opened the door:

“What’s up ? Can I help you guys? I’m on a break right now okay?”

“Come on” one of the older guys said to the crew “we better go so that we don’t use her all up!

I was getting used up, although it was never because of  them. The agency and mental health system I worked in wasn’t designed to support those who worked like me. It was designed to socially control the greatest number of people for the least amount of money. Commitment, abidingness, endurance, resolve, availability, intuition and meaning were far less important than outcomes and measures, and the elimination of unwanted behavior.

Although it is true, then and now, that I must always be vigilant not to give too much, not to give more than is required, or needed. I remain careful not to ever give in a way that will make others feel indebted to me or that leaves me drained or resentful. But that is my job, my responsibility to regulate. And if, and when, I give more than I can afford, or more than others need of me, it is my job to correct and compensate for, and never ever because others have used me up.

On my long morning run just after an introduction to a perfectly nice evidence based psychotherapist who had recited his alphabet soup of what he “did”, I heard these words rising up from my beating heart:

“Its the relationship that heals it is the relationship that heals the relationship that heals. This is my fervent belief and this is where I put my professional faith”

When I got home, I googled a bit trying to locate the rhythm and the cadence of these familiar words and realized that this mantra had resurfaced, slightly paraphrased, from a book I had read only once over twenty years ago:

It’s the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals – my professional rosary.  ~ Yalom, I. (1989), Love’s Executioner, London: Penguin Books, p.91

My acupuncturist once said to me: “I don’t know how you do it. How you work the way  you do.”

I don’t always manage as well as I would like.

When my own life becomes a challenge or crisis erupts for me, or when I foolishly attempt an “objective” survey of the scope of what I have undertaken I can overwhelm myself: Caring for my elders, for my children, for clients. When I attempt to itemize the breadth and depth and range  of all the different forms of care-taking I am immersed in, when I look at my days and weeks and attempt to catalogue all the pain, fear, vulnerability and dependency that is attached to me I sometimes fear that I can be used up and that I could drown in a flood of other people’s needs.

But, when I breathe, and move through my day moment by moment – I see that I am more buoyant than I realize  and that I am tethered not only to my teachers, mentors, guides, and therapists, who stayed afloat with and for me, but that I stay afloat with, for, alongside and because of  the deep and real relationships I have forged with those who pass time my office.

Image, words, metaphor and relationship cannot use me up. They fill my heart and keep me afloat.

It’s the relationship that heals the relationship that heals the relationship that heals.

Both members of the therapeutic couple.

All of us. Always.

Queries Concerning Psychotherapy and Privilege

Every time we ask a question, we are generating a possible version of life. (~ David Epston in Cowley and Springen, 1995 , p. 74)

Friends (Quakers) approach queries as a guide to self-examination, using them not as an outward set of rules, but as a framework within which we assess our convictions and examine, clarify and consider the direction of our life and the life of the community. (~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, page 205)

Does psychoanalytic psychotherapy as a profession make sufficient assessments of conscious and unconscious, explicit and implicit racism, sexism, heteronormativity and bias in all its forms in ourselves and others, and the destructive consequences to all parties?

Do we believe that healthy relatedness demands well-developed empathy, mutuality, and parity? Do we recognize bias in all forms, personal and institutional, implicit and explicit, acknowledged and unacknowledged as a failure of empathy, an objectification of others and as an obstacle to healthy relatedness and psychological well-being?

Do we accept that the conscious and unconscious empathic failures surrounding bias and oppression are certainly a more profound loss for the oppressed, but a loss to all parties nonetheless?

Do we consider Lacan’s and Foucault’s idea of the privileged “Gaze” of the therapist? Do we see ourselves as people who gaze out from inside a dominant narrative, a “regular” story requiring categorization or explanation from all who we see as “different”?

Do we understand the differences between individual prejudice, institutional racism, and unexamined privilege?

Do we examine the narratives of success, of health, of family, of connection, of development that are viewed as “normal” regular, ordinary, usual, and taken for granted as universal by the dominant culture?

How do we take this made-up story about who is “regular” for granted, and wittingly or unwittingly put these narratives forth as better, more important, more normal than others?

Do we examine our own participation in how “othering” or “normaling” stories get disseminated or disrupted? Do we critically examine how the institutions in our culture – media, government, schools, religious institutions, and graduate and post-graduate psychotherapeutic training institutions – inform us as to what is “regular”?

Do we advocate for inclusivity in our psychotherapeutic practice and training institutions? Do we feel an institutional environment, or our own caseloads are sufficiently diverse when in actuality very few of people of color, differently abled, or LGBT people are represented?

Do we recognize that we speak through our inaction as well as our action? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Do we participate in panels, conferences and workshops, peer groups led entirely or predominantly by those in the dominant culture?

How have the dominant stories about race, gender, homosexuality, disability, and class determined and shaped our psychotherapeutic practices and training institutions, fee setting, size and composition of our caseloads, choice of colleagues, and our preferred psychotherapeutic models?

Do we, as psychotherapists ever place ourselves in professional, or social circumstances where we are not in the majority? How might such experiences help us to better empathize with those who carry narrative burdens, who are regularly challenged to explain, defend, or advocate for themselves within the dominant culture, and those who are on the receiving end of bias and oppressive circumstances more often than we are ourselves?

Do we cultivate relationships with adults with whom we have racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious differences outside of the psychotherapeutic setting?

Do we cultivate therapeutic relationships with clients who differ from us in identifiable ways?

What life experiences or personal characteristics, if any, have made you feel “gazed at”: forced to explain, alienated, ignored, misunderstood, distorted, or excluded by most people or by institutions? What circumstances, if any, have you found yourself in where you were instantly and visibly identified as an outsider in someway?

How might these experiences be useful in practicing psychotherapy with a concern for social justice? How might these transitory experiences offer only limited insight into what it is like for a client who lives with more chronic or different forms of oppressive or unjust circumstances?

Do we listen deeply without becoming defensive or competitive when clients friends, or colleagues or people online share experiences of oppression, even if we feel implicated, guilty or uncomfortable?

Are avenues for exploring differences kept open? To what extent do we ignore differences in order to avoid possible conflicts?
~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Do we allow ourselves and our worldview to be changed by hearing stories of other people’s discomfort, anger, grief and pain from experiences of oppression, exclusion, bias, and prejudice?

Do we monitor ourselves for defensiveness, minimizing over-identification, excessive or non-generative forms of guilt, hopelessness and indifference?

How can racial, gender, sexual/gender identity and/or class differences between therapeutic partners affect the way they tell and hear each others story?

Do we proactively and thoughtfully confront, explore and examine biased narratives when we experience them in our office, with friends and colleagues, and in ourselves?

Do I treat conflict as an opportunity for growth, and address it with careful attention? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

What do you worry people will assume about you?

What do you hope people will assume about you?

What do we understand about our clients’ hopes and fears about the assumptions of others?

What assumptions have we made about clients that were inaccurate, injurious, or unrecognized (by us)?

How do we respond when confronted with the inaccuracy or injuriousness of our assumptions?

Am I careful to speak truth as I know it and am I open to truth spoken to me? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Do we consider that there are parts of our client’s stories that are never given words, are essentially deleted, or never even noticed by themselves, by us, or by others because they just don’t fit in with the dominant story, or with our assumptions as psychotherapists?

How can we learn from clients and colleagues who are different from us without making them feel unduly burdened or pressured into teaching and explaining?

Are we mindful that those with experiences of oppression and narrative burden need to protect themselves from scrutiny and the unempathic Gaze of individuals, institutions and environments that are distorting, enraging or exhausting?

Do we condone or assume that narratives of privilege are healthy for privileged people? Do we remind ourselves that none of us are free unless all of us are free?

Do I examine myself for aspects of prejudice that may be buried including beliefs that seem to justify biases based on race, gender, sexual (and gender) identity, disability, class, and feelings of inferiority or superiority? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

What is my psychotherapeutic practice doing to help overcome the contemporary psychologically wounding effects of past and present oppression?

Questions, and more questions, and questions as yet unformulated.

No answers please.

Deeper questions.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Balancing Act

Objects fly through the air, stars wheel through the universe. All fall eventually. If we become obsessed with definitively mastering the decline, we are lost. If we achieve peace within the intervals of rising and falling, we find grace.

(Arthur Chandler, On the Symbolism of Juggling: The Moral and Aesthetic Implications of the Mastery of Falling Objects. http://www.juggling.org/papers/symbolism/)

In the minor arcana of the Rider Waite tarot deck, a juggler is depicted, in the act of balancing, exchanging, juggling the flow of energy between two large coins. In more ancient decks, The Juggler (now more commonly titled The Magician) was considered a symbolic entity important enough to be placed in the front of the archetypal gallery of Major Arcana.

The cards are said to represent balance, as a positive action. Reversed, the card implies imbalance, the need to recover the center and rhythms necessary to keep the balls steady and flowing movement through the air between human hands. The message of the Juggler is this:

Learn at first concentration without effort; transform work into play, make every yoke that you have accepted easy, and every burden that you carry light.
(Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, p. 8)

The conception of medical, physiological homeostasis permeates psychological diagnosis. Traditional western psychology and psychiatry seek to identify and quantify the archetype of a perfectly balanced mind, as well as create diagnostic codes for all the ever multiplying transient or enduring ways that we can find ourselves out of balance. Even the Diagnostic Manual’s Global Assessment of Functioning Scale (which assigns all human functioning a number between 1 and 100 – 1 equaling imminent death and 100 representing The Perfectly Balanced Human) evokes the archetypal Master Juggler:

100-91 Superior functioning in a wide range of activities, life’s problems never seem to get out of hand, is sought out by others because of his or her many positive qualities. (DSM IV Global Assesment of Functioning Scale – emphasis mine)

And certainly, a preoccupation with the processes of balance, counterbalance and imbalance in all its forms: equivalence, compensation, correspondence, fairness, justice, homeostasis, equilibrium, equality, symmetry, evenness, centeredness, quid pro quo, and tit for tat have been woven into the very fabric of all psychotherapeutic contemplation.

In Freudian thought all dreams, slips and symptoms are potential solutions to states of internal imbalance. The uncoordinated triplet team of consciousness – Id, Ego, Superego – attempt to pass and juggle conflicting needs between each other. One member aggressive and full of appetite, another practical and concerned with working the crowd, and the third, the conscience of the troupe trying to keep the other two in check. A symptom, in this model, is merely one aspect of the self over-correcting for the wild toss of another. The analytic therapist’s job is to help the bickering internal troupe get their act together.

For Jung, dreams, and unconscious phenomena are acts of counterbalance and compensation for whichever stance we have consciously identified with. The Unconscious swings and tilts to balance out whatever it is we believe to be true about ourselves in our waking Conscious life.

In narrative, social and environmental therapies the circle widens. The individual is embedded in a system which is inherently out of balance. Personal imbalance is seen as an extension of and appropriately reactive to injustice, narrative burden, unsustainability, or unconscious guilt stemming from being the un-entitled beneficiary of or hoarding resources without true entitlement.

And each of these seem to me, as always, to be single facets of a still incomplete truth, all of them more incomplete without the others.

An overcommitment to consciously maintaining personal balance creates its own form of disease: A life that is seemingly, superficially never “out of hand” simply banishes chaos to its hidden depths.

A perfectly and consistently balanced human, if one were to exist, would be inert, fixed, stagnant, immobile, inanimate. How monstrously impervious this perfectly balanced human, would be, more of a “thing” than a “who.”

The existential therapies remind us that we are no thing, nothing at all, and that teetering on the brink of meaninglessness, discombobulation and existential dizziness are necessary to apprehend the brevity of our lives, and begin to take real responsibility for our choices and our effect upon each other.

Some ascetic Sadhus, Hindu holy men, spend many years standing on one foot, discovering the balance that can only emerge from negotiating an asymmetrical stance.

Life is inherently out of hand; death, illness, pain, loss, grief, war, disasters natural and man-made, trauma, heartbreak, abuse, cruelty, racism, sexism homophobia and heteronormativity, oppression and injustice in all its forms, including the depletion, exploitation, and hoarding of the earth’s resources. In the face of all that life can throw at you there are times when blatant mental imbalance is the sanest, healthiest most healing response.

We are all embedded in enormous systems, familial, social and planetary, which are also cycling, swinging wildly, falling in and out and passing through imbalance, equilibrium and back again. Living and breathing balance requires and contains imbalance within it.

We will all lose our footing.

No one is impervious. We will all drop the ball.

The universal deadly sin of every routine is The Drop. Dropping is so common in juggling that every performer must come to terms with the inevitable accident that breaks the rhythm of the routine and calls one’s skill into question.
Since drops are inevitable, and even the most accomplished professional jugglers drop in public performance of their routines, one might well ask why a drop should be considered such a disaster.

Part of the reason has to do with the psychological interaction between the audience and the performer….Admiration for the juggler becomes submerged in the more general feeling of wonder at what the human mind and body can accomplish together. It is the overcoming of gravity with style and grace, and produces the kind of internal affirmation that comes with any art or sport done supremely well.

The drop breaks the spell. The audience is reminded of human fallibility when the juggler has to stop and start all over again. Now the creeping doubt has entered everyone’s mind: will the juggler drop again? The second drop confirms this doubt, and the audience now sees only a struggling human being endeavoring to ward off disaster. After the third drop, even the memory of the magic is gone, as both performer and audience only wait for the ordeal to conclude.
(Arthur Chandler, On the Symbolism of Juggling: The Moral and Aesthetic Implications of the Mastery of Falling Objects. http://www.juggling.org/papers/symbolism/)

Extreme imbalance, too many too repetitive “drops” become destructive in their own way. They break down the faith that others have in us, along with our faith in ourselves, our resilience and the world around us.

One of the most common early by-products of imbalance in intimate personal relationships is resentment. If the spirit of quid pro quo is violated, exploited, or ignored, and the energetic, logistical and personal exchange becomes too chronically lopsided resentment compounds, festers and mutates into toxic contempt, hopelessness, and love-killing exhaustion.

Learning how to make necessary corrections and adjustments to preserve the loving core of intimacy is the work of couples and family therapists: Do I accept and try to accommodate the low ball, hold out for a higher toss, or stop trying to feed my partner the ball in just the way they demand it? Should I ask for more, settle for what I’m getting or give less?

When one member of a family or social system changes their rhythm or their stance – the entire network is thrown out of its precarious homeostasis, everyone reels and teeters. “Change back!!” they seem to cry, as their footholds crumble out from under them. A deeper equilibrium, a truer justice often requires that we mourn the loss of an unjust balance and pass through a period of disorienting imbalance before we find a stance that allows everyone to have some part of their need acknowledged and met.

Our relationships, and perhaps Love itself require some balancing component in order to thrive, and without it, we will too soon reach breaking points, beyond which the old center can never be recovered.

We hold many apparently imbalanced relationships as sacred in the service of growth and nurturance: Parent and child, teacher and student, sponsor and sponsee, therapist and client. There are vast power differentials, discrepancies in knowledge and experience and attention, the most obvious giving flows in one direction. Yet, there are symmetries, larger circles of justice exchange and evenhandedness at play: Someone gave this to me, so I now give it to you. In caring for you, I care for untended aspects of myself.

The mystic symbol of justice, that is equivalence and equation of guilt and punishment. …In its most common form two equal scales balanced symmetrically on either side of a central pivot. A Dictionary of Symbols, J. E. Cirlot

All of our theologies and most of our philosophies circle around cycles of cosmic balance and justice. We construct an evenhanded tit for tat, eye for an eye, the equivalence of opposites: Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil. Alternately we embrace the long view of cyclic karmic justice: what goes around comes around. Souls are weighed and balanced in the afterlife in the mythic psychostasis: in ancient Egyptian cosmology, the human heart is weighed on cosmic scales against the feather of Maat, the goddess of order and justice – while a monster “waits below the scale, ready to devour the unbalanced heart.” (The Book of Symbols The Archive for research in archetypal symbolism pp. 512)

Individual psychological equipoise and the ultimate cosmic balance intersect to complete the hermetic formulae and the Master Juggler’s circuit: As it is above, so it is below. As it is below so it is above, As it was in the beginning, so it will be at the end. As it is within, so it is without.

The therapist, is only supposedly, a skilled juggler and juggling teacher – able to keep many balls in the air, managing their own internal and external challenges to equanimity and flow while incorporating all that the client throws at them, and passing back the ball at the right speed, spin and rhythm so that the client can receive it, polish up their own act, and expand their bag of tricks. Therapists make split second assessments as to whether a client is trapped in sticky bullshit stasis, if they need to pushed off of a false-too-comfortable standpoint – or if they are reeling too near to dangerous overwhelming imbalance requiring all the therapist’s skills to help them stabilize. Young clinicians often wonder, when they have fallen on their asses, in life or in session, if they themselves are stable enough to go forward in the work.

I am no Master Juggler although in session I have learned to keep quite a few balls up in the air. Usually just one or two more than any given client, (although sometimes, admittedly, I must scramble to keep ahead).

Just as the Juggler or magician has had to train and work for along time before attaining the ability of concentration without effort, similarly, he who makes use of the method of analogy on the intellectual plane must have worked much, i.e. to have acquired long experience.
(Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, p.10)

I’d better at least look like I’m good at it by now. I’ve been practicing almost everyday for nearly two decades – and perhaps for long stretches I can manage to appear as if it never gets out of hand.

But it does. Of course it does. I get knocked off my pins, blown off my center, lose my flow and rhythm and toss out ill-timed passes with humbling regularity.

The drop is inevitable.

And although I can still be shaken when my act has inadvertently slipped into an ordeal for the most part I have learned to enjoy the momentary peace within intervals of rising and falling.

copyright © 2013 All rights reserved Martha Crawford

New Tricks


Therapists become ecotherapists when we… look to nature (both our own human nature as well as the natural world) as a teacher and source of healing; when we see that human suffering is intimately connected with the destruction of the web of life, and that healing is about making deep changes in the way we live and relate to the world around us.
~ Why and How Do Therapists Become Ecotherapists, by Mary-Jayne Rust
from Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind

Its happening again. Its happened before – so I know a little about how this goes but it is never an entirely comfortable process.

My stance is shifting, my professional identity reorganizing, my perspective and world view heading in a new direction.

There are always anxieties: How will I bring these new to me thoughts into the room, how will my clients respond? How will this change things? Will my colleagues think I’ve gone off the rails? Will I lose clients, income, reputation, momentum if I veer unexpectedly off to the left? Will I recognize myself in this new model, am I being true to my skills, my gifts, my values, my training, my clients needs, and my community?

When the therapist changes, the work itself changes. The questions we ask, the metaphors we choose, the subjects we become animated about or feel distance from, the defenses we challenge or suddenly accept, all have intended and unintended affects on the content of the work and the client’s communications.

More than that, when the therapist explores new aspects of their own identity – it impacts the client’s experience of themselves, invites new content into the room, changes prior assumptions of what therapy is for, opens up new challenges, and closes down old expectations.

What psychotherapists direct their attentions toward, what we express authentic, energized interest in, and what we consciously or unconsciously overlook has a powerful shaping influence on what clients feel is legitimate to discuss in session. By nodding, or staring blankly, our clinical mirror legitimizes or undermines a notion about the clients idea of themselves and what might be “good” grist for the mill.

A common clinical synchronicity: the very moment that a therapist is able to face down their own anxious conflict and incorporate the previously split off aspects of the Self that live behind it – clients suddenly and spontaneously speak up, initiating dialogue about the very same conflict within themselves.

A supervisor of mine would say with a twinkle in her eye:
“They must have been eavesdropping on your supervision session again.”

Bion says: “When two people meet an emotional storm is created” as their unnamable, ineffable unconscious bits swirl and entangle, exchanging information without our awareness.

My stance has shifted, mutated and incorporated new bodies of thought many times since my original training and clinical inheritance. Trained through social work school in ego-psychological models, and an analysand in a object-relational/self-psychological treatment my earliest clients were used to a certain kind of response from me: one that avoided conflict, was primarily “supportive” of strengths. I saw aggression as a secondary response to injury, as a regressive obstacle to relatedness, or a developmental phase. I believed that it was my job to accept and “absorb” aggression from the client, withstand it, and if I could survive it without retaliating, it would support the clients’ developmental journey to mature relatedness.

For some cases, it provided what they needed – but I noticed that for certain clients, it wasn’t working at all – and perhaps it wasn’t doing me any good either. I began seeking supervision and studying Modern Analytic models and suddenly I found a new voice.

I was joining resistances!
Confronting treatment destructive behavior!
Allowing my aggression into the room to protect the treatment!

New words came out of my mouth and into the room that I would NEVER have thought to say before.

To a client that continually questioned whether or not I was experienced enough:

“It’s certainly a possibility. Would it be more helpful if I referred you to better therapist?”

To another who complained repeatedly about their previous therapists failures:

“When I disappoint you will I get to hear about it do you think? What are all the ways that I am likely to fail you? “

After great prodding in supervision, I finally confronted a client who constantly sought validation by men and regularly missed therapy appointments:

“Perhaps, therapy would be more of a priority for you if I were a man.”

As new concepts trickled down into practice and tentatively inched out of my head into actions and language, it was both terrifying and exhilarating. I never knew what would fall flat, what would be soundly rejected, what might provoke rage or scorn, what error I might make in this new schema or where the unforeseen dangers might hide.

As shocking as it felt to say such things – each time I did it, far more often than not – I saw the client feel safer with me, an obstacle surmounted, a test passed, a barrier between us, removed – and the work would flow again.

Not all clients needed this, but some did – and learning to form these words with my mouth, figuring out what to say – how to implement a theoretical idea about resistance and aggression and make it come alive in practice, was like learning a new language, while simultaneously trying to teach it to someone else.

When I dove into Jungian thought several years later it happened again: a new vantage point, a new clinical language, new tools, added to the old favorites in the box, a new bee in my bonnet, a new schema to try on, and incorporate. A new model to figure out how to make my own, to sort through what was useful, and practical in the consultation room for me for any particular client, and what was not.

I’d always included exploration of dream work, metaphor and symbol in my practice, but this was so much more explicit: I began bringing in more metaphors and analogies drawn from myth, folklore and sacred texts, discussing archetypes, ego inflation, shadow, encouraging clients with sufficient ego strength to reach for their underdeveloped aspects.

I explicitly asked newer clients to keep a dream journal and tried to introduce the notion to “older” ones. Some bit, some nibbled and others spit out the hook.

I encouraged appropriate clients to court and consult their psyches about the topics they were consciously focusing on. We began to bring the Unconscious into the office as a full collaborator to assist and guide the treatment, rather than scorn it as a mere symptom-generating, conflict-laden mess-maker.

I felt the same nervous sense of exposure as I tested out new ways of being in the room while playing with constructs that I was just beginning to understand – and would only be able to integrate and comprehend through use, failure, success and practice.

In ecotherapy we venture beyond the traditional questions. The ecotherapist is curious about human-nature relationships as well as human-human relationships radically expanding the range of discussion. ~ Asking Different Questions: Therapy for the Human Animal by Linda Buzzell from Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.

I am yet again, finding myself trying to wrap my mouth around new words, trying to engage in unfamiliar dialogue about how the natural world effects us, and how we affect the natural world. Attempting to summon the same confidence and professional aplomb that I would draw on to explore any “legitimate” mutually interdependent relationship.

I’ve had more and more outdoor, walking sessions, through the parks of lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn riverside. We notice the urban wildlife as we walk – plantings, and wildflowers, cormorants, hawks, mockingbirds, nuthatches, and Zelda the wild turkey.

The hurricane forced many outdoor walking sessions, as well as sessions in the community garden – with clients I wouldn’t have considered interested candidates otherwise – while the office was inaccessible with no power or heat. It has opened up a new world of connection and communication for some clients, and it is clearly second choice, too diffuse and distracting for others.

Words flow differently as our bodies move, as we watch the waves along the river and scan the horizon side by side.

In and out of the office a new realm of connection emerges, as I meet and invite and clumsily try to introduce new aspects of myself and my clients to each other.

To a client who focuses regularly on perceived conflicts with neighbors and co-workers:

“Wait! Did you just say that you were feeding the birds when you spied your neighbor? Do you do that every morning?”

The client no longer clenched with fear and agitation – brightens, and tells me about the taming and feeding wild birds by hand, the fruit trees, past and present that have thrived and died behind the house, and shares photos of carefully tended rose bushes in bloom next to the garage.

To another, a parent, chronically fretful, obsessive and sometimes completely panicked about toxins and contaminants in their child’s environment:

“What if there is nothing you can do? What if you are absolutely right and there are chemical hazards all around? What if our culture has filled our environment with so many pollutants that there is nothing that you can do to prevent exposure? What if there is no way, as things stand now, to keep our children ‘safe’ from toxins in our air, food, water and homes?”

The client breathes deeply as if for the first time in many weeks and says softly:

“Then I guess I’d just have to live in the moment and face each day as it comes.”

Following the hurricane, a client who had avoided the worst disruptions of the storm describes it as a “no big deal for me personally.” When I ask if they had any thoughts or concerns about climate change, and how related events might effect them in the future, the client shuts me down:

“I prefer to focus on things I can control”

It seems a uncontestable given, a unilaterally accepted rule of life, an obvious and practical mandate for healthy coping, proof that the through-line I am pursuing is pointless. I surrender, just a matter of days after the city flooded, to talk of families and jobs, and online dating.

On the subway ride home the response I wished I’d had surfaces -my thoughts too slow, and my new learning too unintegrated to parry-repost in real time:

“Why, I wonder? What would happen if we talked about all the things we cannot control and how we might feel about them? What might we be avoiding in ourselves and in the world around us by focusing only on what we might be able to control? What if that makes your life feel unbearably small, and is not actually safer in the long run? What if that is an illusory construct ? Is it frightening to feel out of control? Too vulnerable? Might there be something reliving or even healing in it?

What if feeling whole in this lifetime comes from understanding our real relationship to benevolent, destructive and wild forces far beyond our control?”

You can lead a horse to water, but perhaps before you can teach old dogs…

You have to learn the new tricks yourself.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Confessions of a Wanton Theory-Wonk

Commonly, at the beach, at the playground, in waiting rooms, on the subway people notice whatever paperback I have my nose stuck in. “A little light reading?” they say, with just a little Seinfeldian snark in their tone. Or “Catchy title!”

I never know how I am supposed to respond.

I think the satisfying answer would be to say that I am being forced to read whatever theoretical, psychoanalytic, philosophical or mythological esoterica I am currently dog-earing the corners of – as required reading for something or other. I suspect that the friendly commenter is actually asking me to betray the theory that I am devouring, (that I in fact find more delicious than any small talk or chit chat with a distant, if pleasant, acquaintance) by saying something derogatory about it. Maybe they want me to confess that I find it dry, or incomprehensible, or a bunch of nonsense and that I would prefer to read a detective novel. They want me to tell them that its not for pleasure. Its for work.

I just can’t ever bring myself do it.
In this I am loyal.

“Heh, heh, yeah, well… This is just the stuff I always read. I’m guess I’m weird that way”

It always seems to put them off, although I don’t mean to.

Its as if I’d just insisted that I think myself very fancy for reading it.

Listen, I have plenty of room in my heart and mind for both you and the book. I’ll happily close it to chit-chat if I sense that you have a strong need, and I think it would be relieving or occupying for you in someway.

But, please don’t make me choose between you and the book.
Or I will choose the book.

Although I might refuse to break faith with the book on my lap for a chatty interloper, I will show the theorist who wrote it little fidelity. I’ve admitted to myself that I am incapable of theoretical monogamy – and have never been able to bring myself to accept one body of thought as enough to keep me interested for life.

Commitment issues? Problems with authority? Introversion? Self-sabotage? Fear of engulfment?

I’ve committed to many many people for the long term, but I remain steadfastly polyamorous when it comes to those I study. Any attempt I’ve made, and I’ve made several, to approach one therapeutic path always seems to reach a crossroad, where I am asked to promise my whole brain, to forswear, at least for a significant amount of time, all other contradictory theories. The thought of it makes my breathing constrict. The freedom to follow my nose from book to bibliography to book, to wander the spaces between the tribes is like oxygen to me.

Many years ago, after I’d completed a post-graduate advanced certificate program in clinical social work at NYU, it seemed natural that I would apply to psychoanalytic institute. I was flooded with a low-grade panic as I looked around the room and listened to the aspirations of other candidates during the group interview. They all seemed to be so hungry for things that I wasn’t: They were excited about taking on identities as analysts, and being initiated as devotees to specific psychoanalytic camps. They looked forward to building networks and study groups, belonging to a professional community, doing committee work together, committing to a set of beliefs and a process. They were apparently gung-ho to give class and group presentations, expose and defend their treatments choices among competitive peers, and earn certificates and titles that had little or no appeal to me.

I’d had a long-term analytically informed, therapeutic process that was rich and satisfying to me and that I had no wish to disrupt. Access to supervisors, and peer supervision that I trusted and admired. A private practice that was building nicely. What was it that had motivated my application to post-graduate analytic institute?

I realized that I really just wanted to get my hands on the bibliographies to every single seminar. And the designated time and quiet to read through it all.

I respectfully declined my acceptance to the institute.

And just kept reading.

When my son was in second grade he said to me: “I like reading non-fiction better than fiction- because who wants to think about other peoples Central Problems all of the time?”

I almost never read fiction. I hear enough stories. I don’t need any more direct exposure to central problems in my off-hours.

I’d much rather read the words of someone else who also spends all day immersed in other people’s central problems and see how they make sense of it all. Preferably someone really smart, who can tell me something new, inspiring and useful.

Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Fairbairn, Rogers, Mahler, Kohut, Bion, Lacan, Sullivan, Searles and their interpreters and followers and apostates. Ego psychology, object-relations, self-psychology. The modern group analysis theorists (ie: Ormont and Rosenthal) the existentialists and logotherapists, the contemporary relational analysts, the inter-subjectivists. Buddhist psychotherapists, and depth theorists, Jung and the Jungians. Narrative therapy, feminist therapy and queer theory.

(I won’t bother to list the moral, existential, spiritual and religious philosophers and theologians. That would just get ridiculous.)

When my kids were babies, until my youngest about 6 or so, I was too exhausted to digest such a fibrous literary diet – and lived instead on a daily intake of myth, fairy tale, and sacred literature. (I lapped-up the hidden parental guidance I found there too, from the parents and defacto adoptive parents that support heroic journeys, and the angry, competitive, devouring, oblivious and narcissistic evil “step” parents who thwart the hero’s way.) Adding a little Von Franz, or Bettelheim, or Joseph Campbell on the side when I needed to think a little more, and my intuition was occupied elsewhere.

As the children became more independent – and I got more of myself back – Jung became the main course in my private studies.

Though I am certain no true Jungian would claim me as one of their own.

And in New York City, the psychoanalysts I encounter just want to know what institute I am affiliated with.

The social workers usually think I’m too psychoanalytic to represent my profession.

And frankly, when I am sitting, off to the side, listening to a bunch of analysts discussing the hostility expressed by the strong, unpleasant odor of a newly paraplegic, depressed, post-traumatic client my unexpressed impatience mounts: Do you even know if his shower is accessible yet? But I don’t throw my impatient wrench into the conversation because I know that when I am sitting with a group of social workers who are over-focusing on getting the necessary accommodations and accessibility in place – I am just as likely to squirm in my seat and groan internally : Do you think perhaps he smells of urine to tell you how pissed off he is?

And certainly both camps are entering into the same empathic contact through different doorways.

I am particularly drawn to those who write from in-between the therapeutic tribes, the disloyalists, the contrarians, the ecumenicists, the synthesizers: Mitchell, Eigen, Barbara Stevens Sullivan, Guggenbuhl-Craig, Bromberg and many others – those who have let their clients lead them off the grid to attempt find the threads between theorists who may have even explicitly rejected each other.

With a long a personal self-psycholgical/intersubjective analysis, individual and peer supervision drawing from modern/group psychoanalytical models, a belly full of mythology, a contrarian and introverted nature, and my hunger for undisturbed reading I claim identifications with many therapeutic tribes and belong to none.

I feel real love and gratitude toward my favorite theorists, although that doesn’t mean I will be faithful to them, or agree with them categorically. Reading their works feels extremely personal: I hear their words and their tone, I sense when they are defending themselves against anticipated or real criticism, I follow them as they take great intellectual leaps, and sometimes crash before they reach solid ground. I’ll flip quickly through the paragraphs where they have buried their thoughts alive with professional jargon until they return to straight-talk.

But I do love them all. And I hate them too. I wrestle with all of them – and pit them against each other. I disrespect their words with snotty, snarky marginalia: shocked and rejecting exclamation points, (really!) multiple question-marks (but how do you account for ?????) and scribble out the ways their enemies would counter their arguments – especially the passages I disagree with.

Their ideas and schemas negate, debate, enhance, expand and argue with each other: many of my dearest theoretical guides would loathe each other. (Anyone else want to see a Klein – Kohut cage match? Melanie might take him down in the first round with all that biting, and poisoning and destructive aggression but Heinz could still win on sheer endurance…)

And I ruthlessly batter every book, with dog-eared pages – random dreams and tangents scrawled on the inside covers. I underline and asterisk everything that speaks to me. Everything. Paperbacks in pen. Hardbacks in pencil, if one is handy, pen if not. Kindle? Highlights everywhere – but a tablet can’t offer as much opportunity for spontaneous insubordinate back-talk. Theory is my football. Half the fun is yelling at the screen.

Their words and word-paintings float through my mind in session: bad breasts, tantalizing-bad-objects, oedipal triangles, unconditional positive regard, distorted mirroring, split archetypes, alchemy, O, therapeutic play, joining the resistance, hatching, security operations, enactment, empathy. Different clients call us to different self-states, and each aspect of my professional identity wants its own mentor. I can’t imagine practicing without every one them

In Quaker process – the Truth is not seen as something that one person can posses. We must struggle together, with our little crystal clear partial truths – committed to the sliver of clarity that we posses, and search for ways to incorporate it with the truth that others hold.

And although I deeply respect those who have found one teacher to follow -
I know that I need all these voices whispering in my ear, to supervise and guide me.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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