The Road of the Dead


Myth has portrayed the rainbow as the highway over which the psyche’s supernal emissaries bring their messages to consciousness. ~ The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

The soul-spark, the little wisp of divine light that never burns more brightly than when it has to struggle against the invading darkness. What would the rainbow be were it not limned against the lowering cloud?

~ C. G. Jung, the Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, On the Nature of the Psyche, 8. General Considerations and Prospects paragraph 430

A dream, not mine (mine will come later). This is Jung’s dream:

Only the gods can walk rainbow bridges in safety; mere mortals fall and meet their death for the rainbow is only a lovely semblance that spans the sky, and not a highway for human beings with bodies.     ~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy pp. 58, Chapter 2, paragraph 69.


I don’t know how to tell this story, or if this story can even be told.

Maybe this is a story of the things that we cling to through dark times, or maybe it is a story of new worlds that emerge from disasters, or it could be a story of omens and portents – or just as legitimately one of superstition and magical thinking. Or maybe it is yet another story about how the psyche and our dreaming life can offer care and consolation. Or maybe it is simply a story written to thank someone for a deeply cherished gift, when I have no other way to demonstrate my gratitude.

Whatever kind of story it is, it starts a long long time ago and I have to reach all the way back to tell it.

Winter, 1988: New York City

I don’t remember much about that visit except that we hadn’t gotten along very well. We were clearly on each other’s nerves the way that only friends in their mid-twenties who have known each other since they were fourteen can. And we didn’t hide it either. I was hanging around with a bunch of Yalies – smoking filter-less cigarettes -and discussing the history of German expressionist film and theater over neat scotch. I could see how disappointed he was in what I had become.

Tommy arrived  fashionable and fabulous and ready to go dancing. He wanted to see musicals that I, with my new found pseudo-sophistication, now considered mainstream and pedestrian. He refused to see the subtitled foreign films or performance art pieces that were on my must-see list. (Why didn’t I just get us tickets to see Ludlam in The Ridiculous Theater? That would have been so delicious for us both.) He wanted me to look preppy and middle class instead of depressive and thrift-store revolutionary. He wanted to dress me up so we could go HAVE FUN and meet cute guys.

It was the first time that we had been in the same place without being able to come together. We were 24 years old, totally cocky and completely insufferable. And our life paths were diverging in a way we could never have imagined in high school.

It wasn’t as though we never fought. Rooming together in Los Angeles  had not been conflict free. I was a slob – an Oscar to his Felix -and we’d had our share of squabbles about joint finances, household chores and plenty of expressed and unexpressed disapproval of each others’ boyfriends.

Winter, 1984: Los Angeles

We lived in “off campus” housing together. We threw great parties. Tommy would dress me up – find something for me to wear – usually mixing and matching out of my deplorable wardrobe and his. And we would go dancing. He’d sneak me in into the boys town clubs in West Hollywood since I didn’t have a fake id, and he did.

And we would dance – we had been dancing together since we were fourteen – partnered in high school musicals and summer stock. We would go home too late, buzzed and flushed, sweaty and swing by a little bakery in Glendale, grab a carton of cold milk and a bag of warm apple fritters fresh from the oven at 2:00am – and sit in the living room watching old movies licking the sugar off of our fingers until we fell asleep on our thrift store couches.

This is what adults did, we thought.

Later that year Tommy came down with a mysterious fever – Now it would be diagnosed right away – the fever, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes that signal the “primary HIV infection syndrome.” In 1984 we thought it was some weird flu. Or sun poisoning from at day at the beach. I called campus health services – who told us to administer aspirin and Tylenol every hour. I wrapped him in a damp cool sheet – put him in my bed – and sat up all night checking on him.

We planned that if he ever got what was at the time a mysterious “gay disease” that we would empty all the cash out of our savings accounts and we would travel around the world with whatever time he had left.

Summer 1982: Small Town Southern California

We forged our friendship over musical theater: we were “triple threat” actors/singers/dancers and usually paired together like matching salt and pepper shakers. We danced and sang crawling all over each other -completely safe with each other’s bodies with no sexual threat to separate us. I remember sweltering summers – dancing on hard cement getting shin splints while choreographers hollered: – “Again! No! Stop! What are you doing my dear! ?! Again from the beginning!” Tommy would grab me and throw me – spin me and catch me – high up in the air on a tottery platform three feet wide and twelve feet high in the sky and I was never frightened.

He would never drop me. He would never let me fall. It never even entered my mind. I could trust him like my own breath.

Fall 1994: New York City

I had been aware for several years that Tommy’s lifestyle involved more substances than were healthful, especially with his HIV status- that he partied too much and stayed up too late and in general was not caring for his precarious health. He’d reassure me: “I look great!” He’d met (another) really really cute guy, he was making a lot of money, he got a new print modeling contact – he had a cute new studio apartment… I always hung up more worried than comforted by his cheer.

Today on the phone his voice was totally different. He was vulnerable – unraveling   – He told me that he missed me – he said he had no other friend like me (he’d never said anything so overtly affectionate or emotional about our friendship and that frightened me even more.)

He asked after my mother – and told me that he wanted me to thank her for him- he’d often thought of her kindness and affection for him – He began crying after a while – panicking. He told me he felt contaminated – “There is something inside my body that is trying to kill me!”

I pleaded with him to get to sufficient medical care – people were surviving now with these new meds, protease inhibitors, why wasn’t he taking them?! – My urgency or directive advice shut him down. His tears cut off, he said he was just being silly and dramatic and he hurried to get off of the phone.

I wish I had listened quietly and better, and maybe told him that I was scared too – that I didn’t want to accept death as a possibility either – I needed him to be in this world with me even if we had grown apart   – just to know that he was there – That the thought that he had a fatal illness was almost as intolerable to me as it was to him.

I had no way of knowing that this would be my last and only chance to ever share these feelings with him. I couldn’t know that he would never call me or let me know his whereabouts ever again. I didn’t know that this was my only chance to say goodbye.

Spring, 1996 : New York City

When I received the call informing me that Tommy had died- I couldn’t breathe. Those in our closest circles had not heard from him in too long. The silence told me it was coming – and he had died a only a two weeks before we began to fan out to find news of him. Yet it was still so horrible, inconceivable – I knew many people who have died of this disease – patients, friends, colleagues – and many more who were now surviving. But I always hoped – somehow believed – that Tommy would be exempt – that I simply needed him too much for anything like this to really happen.

For many weeks I carried around an unspoken nonsensical fantasy that Tommy had actually met some handsome older man, fit and wealthy and graying at the temples – who was keeping Tommy in the lifestyle that he aspired to. And that Tommy was just too aware of how judgmental I would be about it to call me. I could almost convince myself that this “death-thing” was a ruse to cover his tracks so the truth wouldn’t be found out.

I comforted myself with the picture of the first moment I met Tommy:

Fall, 1979: Small Town Southern California

We are sophomores in high school – neither of us native Californians. It is an audition/talent show to determine placement in drama classes the first week of school. We are the only people in the room who are not tan. The other boys his age are bigger, hairier and more developed – and he is still a boy – skinny, pale – with freckled skin and graceful fingers. He is wearing a red-checkered shirt like an Italian tablecloth – and a straw cowboy hat. He looks ridiculous. He gets up on stage and I can’t remember what he does – A silly country song? A comic monologue? But I laugh – really hard. Because he is really funny- and I tell him so when he gets off stage near me.

I’m heading up to the stage next to embarrass myself too. I am sick to my stomach stage fright. I start talking loudly into a pretend telephone and I look out in the audience for the boy in the checkered shirt- who’s name I do not know – and he is laughing. Really hard.

The terror dissolves and I am safe.

Sept 13th, 2001 New York City

Three days earlier I had watched, along with millions of other New Yorkers, 3,000 people burn to ashes in front of my eyes. I ran straightaway to a hospital where my husband worked, and volunteered there for the day at the hospital gates – as thousands and thousands of people queued up – to ask about missing friends and family members. I cross checked the names of the missing with a single sheet which listed maybe seventeen names attached to a clip board, a shockingly short list of ER admissions considering the scope what we had all just witnessed. It was unfathomable to consider, that soon after the collapse, that so many thousands had disappeared into smoke and dust. The world had flipped upside down since breakfast. It was only just past noon. I told every single searcher that their loved one was had not been admitted. And the crowd continued on in shock, in single file, winding their way further uptown, toward the next hospital.

Pliny said that the rainbow foretold a heavy winter or a war. ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

When cell phone signals were rerouted away from the great shattered antennae, and the phones began working again, I called my psychotherapy clients, those who worked or lived downtown first: A teenager whose elderly frail father worked in the courthouse, a child whose non-custodial father owned a business on the subway level of the trade center, a woman who had just started a new job in the financial district. Along with every other New Yorker who lived downtown, I tried to ignore the relentless un-ignorable smell, a stench that would persist for months – the smell of burning jet fuel and melting iron, the smell of flesh and death and shattered glass that hung in the sky, a bright orange haze at sunset, covering everything with a layer of glass twinkling dust and ash.

Tibetean Buddhism speaks of the rainbow body – in which the body dissolves in rainbow colored light – leaving only hair and nails behind.” ~ The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

So now, three nights after the attack, after seeing what clients I could in this upside down world – I put on the stereo and stretched out on the living room floor as the sun set and I began to dream:

I am matronly, white haired, in my 50’s living in a large old house, with a porch and a garden out front. I am still married to David, still a psychotherapist. I am a mother of a teenage boy, although I only see his dark head passing by in the periphery.

I am myself – but more so. There is an ease about me that is elusive to me at the age of 37. I am plumper, softer. The sharp and brittle aspects of my personality have been worn down and burned away. I am mellowed, wiser maybe than I have known myself to be.

I answer the doorbell and I see Tommy is visiting, who has been dead for the past five years. The realizations about mellowing and settling in to myself are recognizable to me only when Tommy comes in. I feel these things as he sees them in me.

I am initially nervous about how he will view my corny, Quakerly life. But he is not bored, or disappointed or contemptuous I can’t stop hugging him – even though I know he still not the “huggy” type – it has been so long since I have seen him. And although I know he is dead, this visit feels vivid, crystalline, more real than waking life. I grab his arm. I sit next to him on the couch. I am aware that this can only be a brief visit. He can only stay for an afternoon.

 He is still goofy and hilarious. Mugging and wearing a foolish hat for effect. He’s still fussy about clothes and accessories, still cruising for cute guys, still full of hedonistic hankerings. But in the dream his appetites and love of pleasure are not self-destructive but relieving, refreshing life-affirming.

In dream-time I am now many years older than he is, more settled down and my capacity for abandoning myself to play has grown rusty. But being near him makes me laugh harder than I have in a long time, tears streaming down my face, gasping for the next breath. I relish my food and drink more, feel more beautiful, more alive.

He seems happier, more grounded and giving, more empathic and more whole since his death. He is more sensitive to his own sadness, and the sadness of others.

He tells me he has made us an appointment for a manicure. I resist and tell him I have never had a manicure in my life and moreover I have never wanted a manicure. He drags me off to the salon anyway: “A manicure WILL make you feel better.” I’m overwhelmed with love and gratitude for the effort he has made throughout this visit.

I sense his loneliness. And I know, although he doesn’t say it, that he didn’t come only for me – but because the bridge between the living and the dead has opened wide as thousands of souls walk across it – and he came over to comfort himself a little too.

I relish his visit I feel loved as we can only in the presence of our oldest friends – relieved – and then he is gone….

A big dream. An unforgettable dream. A dream that feels more real that waking life. A dream that persists and is carried in my heart for years and years, that I return to, that I share with others who also grieved his loss. A dream I recount to my mother, who also loved this young man and had supported him through his tumultuous coming-out processes and had celebrated him and watched him grow.

A dream, that in my more superstitious moments, made me wonder what linked this projected future to the days following September 11th? Was it a warning? What would happen when I was 50? Would the road of the dead open wide again when I reached the life-stage shown to me in the dream? A disaster? My own death?

Or was the function of the dream to comfort me? To show me myself as I hoped to be one day, in a life I had not yet begun to imagine for myself: – A mother, living more gently, with a garden, in an old house away from the city?

A dream that I would return to over and over and wonder about as my future unfolds – as I grow white-haired, and plumper. As I become an adoptive parent to a dark haired boy.

A dream that comforts and guides me for decades about who I have the potential to become – as life chips away at my brittle bits, and breaks the sharp edges off of my capacity for self-righteousness and petty bitchiness. A dream that teaches me something ineffable about death and mourning and the connections we can sustain with a lost-life that we have cherished. A glimpse of the treasure that might await me at the other end of the rainbow.

Years pass.

A daughter joins the family.

My practice grows.

My marriage deepens.

Friendships emerge and recede, new ones blossom.

Family members and friends die and are mourned.

My mother joins us in the city, increasingly disabled and fragile.

I watch my dark headed children out-grow our city lives.

“Like two trout in a goldfish bowl.” my husband says.

We find a home outside of the city – an old house with a porch for my husband and a garden for me, a climbing tree for my daughter, a work-shop for my son, an accessible and private space to convert into an apartment for Grandma.

And the greatest luxury for a die-hard New Yorker: bathrooms for all.

We prepare to leave the city we have called home for thirty years

April 4, 2015

Tommy visits while I sleep again, and although I dream of him often, this dream has the weight and stunning clarity of his earlier visit:

I am looking through a lens or viewfinder. Zooming through a fancy lobby – of a hotel or an office building. There are large signs pointing to what is ahead and I ignore them. I am certain I know where I am headed. The viewer travels toward annex off to the east – it opens into a small – tiny amphitheater- behind the stage is a river, and deep valleys. 

 When I reach the stage Tommy is performing. He is singing a lovely, well-rehearsed number – at first I think it is “Over the Rainbow” but I realize that it is a different but similar song “Look to the Rainbow.”

 “On the day I was born, said my father said he,

I’ve an elegant legacy waiting for ye

‘Tis a rhyme for your lips, and a song for your heart

To sing it whenever the world falls apart…

 Look, look, look to the rainbow,

Follow it over the hill and stream.

Look, Look, look to the rainbow.

Follow the fellow who follows a dream.

So I bundled my heart, and I roamed the world free,

To the East with the lark, to the West with the sea.

And I searched all the earth, and I scanned all the skies

And I found it at last in my own true love’s eyes.

 Follow the fellow, follow the fellow

Follow the fellow who follows a dream.”

 He was a good singer in life, I think to myself, but better since death, his voice fuller. And something about the song, which I’ve always though of as trite is suddenly moving and lovely, haunting.

 I tell the woman sitting next to me that I have seen this before. It is one of my favorites. I tell her that this performance runs perpetually. 

 Tommy finishes the song and says “This is a important song to listen to and contemplate when you can’t find any comfort around you and you need to pull inward.” 

 Tommy’s performance is over but he is still nearby –and I recall the specific sensation of waiting and milling around backstage for someone after the show to emerge from the dressing room. The woman next to me tells me categorically that Tommy is dead. I become enraged at her: “Of course he is dead, but he is not ‘dead’ at all in the way you think. I can “tune into” him anytime I like. I can TALK to him ANYTIME I LIKE and I DO, and I tell her that it is not in anyway her place to tell me anything at all about my ongoing relationship with my oldest friend whether he is dead or not.

I carried the dream and the song around inside of me for several weeks – like a smooth cool stone in my pocket, a worry bead, turning it over and over – even though I couldn’t know what was coming, or how much comfort I would need in the weeks and months ahead.

“A rainbow is to be used as a bridge. But one must go under it, and not over it. Whoever goes over it will fall and be killed.” ~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy pp. 58, Chapter 2, paragraph 69.

A house for sale.

Packing up our home, my children’s lives, my mother’s home.

A move to transitional, temporary quarters.

For the Arawak of South America: When (a rainbow) appears on land it is an evil spirit searching for a victim. ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

 My mother’s rapidly and violently collapsing health

The horror of a terminal diagnosis.

Coordinating care, battling doctors,

Refusing nonsensical and contraindicated procedures,

Preparing for end of school and end of life.

Seeing clients,

Cancelling appointments,

Managing hospice care and final family visits,



Morphine, vomit and shit,

Sleeplessness, fear, exhaustion,

Relentless panic at the intensity and volume of the tasks ahead of me,

Resistance and rage,

Primitive denial and collusion,

Anticipatory grief,

Securing medical and end of life support in a new state, a new community

Frustration and tantrums,

Hypervigilance and unfathomable overwhelm.

Doctors incapable of naming the truth, death, that is staring us in the face.

Insufficient insurance and financial anxiety,

Obstacles to basic care.

And the grief of children: as they leave the only home, friendships, and community they have ever known, as they complete their diorama’s and year end projects on Viking ships and the Norse Gods, their grandmother will die away a little each day as we are all sucked up in a spinning cyclone.

They will lose almost everything at once.
Except us. Except each other.

Among the Semang of Malays the places where a rainbow touches earth are unhealthy. ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

And their Imo, a cherished chosen auntie/sister, a woman who selflessly and lovingly helped to care for my mother during an earlier phase of illness and disability would discover that she too was contending with her own difficult to diagnose, hard to treat cancer.

And while this all unfolds we must close on an old house and a new one, put our belonging in storage, tour new schools, interview babysitters, pay the bills, and act like psychotherapists.

Our household will be strained beyond anything we have ever known.

The bridge collapses under the destructive weight of the giants – and the gods are unable to preserve it ~ John Lindow, Norse Mythology; a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs

I will encounter my own limitations and my insufficiency on every front: as I face down the impossibility of caring for my children, my parent, my friends and my clients. I will spend most of my time trying not to feel wholly failed as a mother, a daughter, a friend, a psychotherapist as I stumble and stagger from one challenge, trauma, crisis, grief to another. I must contend with my utter finiteness through this whirlwind of crisis– attempting to address all these needs, and leave profound needs, all around me, unfulfilled or overlooked.

Including my own.

And I will try, usually  unsuccessfully, not to tear myself apart about the things I cannot do.

Underneath the rainbow I’ll peel away my skin

And when I’m done with peeling I’ll let you back in,

Somewhere under the Rainbow.

Underneath the black clouds

There’s sunshine on my floor

And with my nails I’m peeling it

To use it for my skin

~ Somewhere under the Rainbow lyrics – Stephen Jones

When you pass underneath the rainbow everything you have ever come to know about yourself and the world around you will be challenged.

“In Europe it is believed anyone passing under a rainbow will be transformed, man into woman, woman into man.” ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

I am consumed. I cry and rail and fret at the relentlessness of if all. I don’t know how to do this much, for so many people, for so long, on top of all of my own core-maternal-conflicts – my mother, my motherhood, my children, my childhood.

As a psychotherapist: I am cancelling appointments as medical realities and legal, contractual demands shift on a dime, with little notice. I am logistically less reliable than I have ever been before. I am noticeably exhausted. My bandwidth is narrow. My energies for penetrating interpretations are limited.

But: the hours that I spend in my office are the sweetest and most relieving – I have no decisions to make. I must do nothing but sit and be present for the people who have come to me. I am stripped of anything superfluous. AlI have to give is my time and my presence. I can do that. That is all I can do. I can care, and listen, and breathe and nod, and remember. That is it. I can go on being, with and for my therapeutic partners. And nothing else. Nothing extra.

There is nothing else.

Some clients feel abandoned. Some are enraged. Some feel fearful or annoyed. Some worry about me. Some ask. Some don’t. Some are patient, cutting me a break, and others can cut me no slack at all without harming themselves. Some I tell. Some I protect. Some I don’t trust, and with others we are intimate enough that I don’t trust myself to name what is occurring to me in a detached, processed way. Most offer me an escape into a world of stories that are not my own, that relieve me and give me solace from the mountain of impossibilities and unknowables that flood my own life.

I am hanging on to each moment with white knuckles. Every minute of every day I must negotiate the simultaneous pressures to fall to pieces and to function at the peak of my capacities.

I may have ignored the early signs but in just a few weeks the meaning of the dream had become crystal clear: I would have to sing myself some internal consolation while the world fell apart.

I download Dinah Washington singing Look to the Rainbow and listen to it, or sing it to myself in an endless loop – as I move and work, and change soiled linens and pack and un-pack boxes, and coordinate care and contact care managers and evaluate our finances and try to figure out what to do if she collapses into total medical dependency sooner than we think, or lives longer than we are prepared for needing more care than we can provide or afford.

I am simultaneously my best and my worst at all times. But I know that what offers me the greatest comfort is to be in authentic relationship. It is the deepest comfort I know- whatever I can or cannot do for my mother, my children, my clients I can at least keep my heart wide open – and thankfully, it is also what is most required of me.

The second I step out of the office and back into life, or am pulled out by an emergency: I am humming, or singing to myself, or listening to Dinah:

So I bundled my heart, and I roamed the world free,

To the East with the lark, to the West with the sea…”


 Rainbows are bridges between this world and the next.

In Norse mythology, the rainbow is Bilröst, or AEsir-bridge: separating and connecting the “world of humans and the world of the gods or between earth and heaven” ~ John Lindo. Norse Mythology: a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs

 In the Prosaic Edda the rainbow bridge makes the “best of” list – it is the very “best of bridges”:

Asked about the path to heaven from earth, H’ar tells Gylfi/Gangleri that it is made Bilröst, that the gods made it, and that it may be called the rainbow… it is very strong, and made with great skill and knowledge but it will break wheh the sons of Muspell (Giants) ride over it. Nothing can survive the harrying of the sons of Muspell, and describing the end of times, Ragnarök, Bilröst will break.~ John Lindo. Norse Mythology: a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs

 I am reminded of these mythic tales by my kids – as we work together in in our temporary, transitional housing – as one lifetime collapses out from under us and we fling ourselves blindly toward a new world – as I help construct Viking ships of balsa wood and proof-read school reports on Rangarök, the end of times.

The rainbow is a potent, burning transitional place – a shimmering fiery Third created at the intersection of two distinct realities, two disparate worlds.

A synthetic Hegelian Third perhaps, or if you prefer, a vibrant manifestation of Winnicottian transitional phenomena.

For Winnicott transitional phenomena are first seen in early infancy, in our first attempts to self-soothe – by sucking our thumbs, by ruthlessly loving a blankie or teddy bear. Or by singing ourselves songs:

An infant’s babbling and the way in which an older child goes over a repertory of songs and tunes while preparing for sleep come within the intermediate area as transitional phenomena.  ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, pp 2 Chapter 1 Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena

Winnicott is not particularly interested in the object itself -but in the ways that we instinctively use such transitional objects – as a bridge – to transcend the empty space between the absent omnipotent Comforter and our small, finite distressed selves.

Transitional phenomena lead us to a third space: “an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute. It is an area that is not challenged, because no claim is made on its behalf except that is shall exists as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated. – D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, pp 2



~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality , Chapter 1 Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,  Figure 2

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad articulates a similar construct:

There are two states for man – the state in this world, and the state in the next; there is also a third state, the state intermediate between those two which can be likened to a dream. While in the intermediate state a man experiences both the other states, that in this world, and that in the next.

In some form or another most of us rely upon transitional phenomena throughout our lives. Dreams and creative processes are in themselves a transitional phenomena, as is psychotherapy. They simultaneously rise up from within us, but they feel as though they exist outside of us as well. Transitional phenomena  bridge the gulf between worlds – between our unconscious selves and consciousness, between brain and mind, between this world and the next, between past and present.

Dreams, and songs and rainbows (and teddy bears and blankies and all other transitional phenomena) are objects of a certain kind – objects which seem to our perceptions to almost have autonomy from our will, some inherent agency.

“It must seem… to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture or to do something that seems to show it has a vitality of its own”   ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality , Chapter 1 Transitional Objects and  TransitionalPhenomena, pp, 5

Was the song I was given as a transitional object a gift from my own psyche? Or a message from a friend long dead? Was I merely processing some subtle intuitive awareness of my mother’s impending deterioration and death by focusing instead on the death of a childhood friend?

Was the dream that produced the song an external or an internal event? A subjective experience or objective reality?

This is exactly the paradoxical nature of transitional phenomena. The rainbow is a bridge that is simultaneously substantial and insubstantial. Transitional phenomena are Both/And, not Either/Or.

So, I don’t concern myself with whether or not Tommy came to visit, with whether or not my psyche dredged up the lyrics of an old Broadway musical I had once danced in when I was young,

I only know that it offered powerful consolation during a protracted period of labor and distress.

“Should an adult make claims on us for our acceptance of the objectivity of his subjective phenomena we discern or diagnose madness. If, however, the adult can manage to enjoy the personal intermediate area without making claims, then we can acknowledge our own corresponding intermediate areas, and are pleased to find a degree of overlapping, that is to say common experience between members of a group in art, or religion or philosophy. ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality pp 14

 I make no such claims, and find such claims – in either direction – to interpret such experiences as merely subjective or merely objective to miss the point entirely, sucking away the mystery and consolation of transitional phenomena.

Jung resisted making such claims as well and interpreted his own dream of the destruction of mortals upon the rainbow bridge as reminder to remain humble and grounded in the face of seemingly “spiritual” experiences:

We should not rise above the earth with the aid of “spiritual” intuitions and run away from hard reality, as so often happens with people who have brilliant intuitions. We can never reach the level of our intuitions and should therefore not identify ourselves with them. Only the gods can pass over the rainbow bridge: mortal men must stick to the earth and are subject to its laws. ~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy pp. 114, Chapter 3, paragraph 148.

This June, at age 51, a white haired, softer, plumper, me, a mother to two dark-headed tweens, moved into a large old house with a porch and a garden out front.

A few weeks later my mother peacefully, with great consciousness, acceptance and clarity crossed over the bridge that the rest of us had passed under.

Now may it not be that, under certain conditions, something quite new, different from anything that one knows, may come over the mental horizon, something as dazzling and splendid as a rainbow…?  ~ C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, Appendix The Miller Fantasies

And the very next day, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and the world, as I knew it, exploded in celebration of legitimized enfranchised love – a day that Tommy, who had contracted HIV at the peak of the AIDS crisis under a president who ignored tens of thousands of deaths for six years before mentioning the word AIDS in public – could certainly never have imagined. A day where he would have been present in my heart and in my thoughts even if he had never sung to me in my sleep.

…Follow the fellow, follow the fellow.
Follow the fellow who follows a dream…

A day of uncanny consolation as I walked through a world that was suddenly (and would remain so for weeks) completely enveloped in rainbows.

And I am for ever changed by the labors of those who have  traversed the road of the dead in both directions and grateful to my oldest, dearest friend for sending over a gift of such unsurpassing love and comfort.

~ Look to The Rainbow, from Finnian’s Rainbow, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg



























Death Notices

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

When I met my husband, his mother had been dead for four months. After a short time, he took me to meet his father, and to see the home that he had grown up in, the home that he had moved back into during the the last year of his mother’s life.

When he opened the door, and I stepped into the foyer, I had the sensation that comes when you walk into a room that someone else has just left seconds before. A palpable electromagnetic wake – the air molecules moving in eddies behind some recent but unknown activity. A purse plopped in the chair near the door. A gum wrapper folded neatly and placed in a decorative dish. A sweater with a tissue peeking out of the pocket slung over the arm of the couch in the living room. She was still there. Her presence, in her absence, remained everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the house.

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

A cook book with a page booked marked in the kitchen. A paperback novel, its spine cracked, pages splayed faced down on the coffee table.

It would be several more months after that, long enough for our relationship to consolidate, and for me to understand more about the family’s grieving process, before I would ask David and his father politely and tentatively, if it would be helpful to them in anyway, for me to pack up her things. Yes, they said, it would be very helpful. They were clearly emotionally and logistically at a loss.

When his father was away for the weekend – I spent two full days boxing up a woman’s life while David hid out, painting and listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio up in the small spare bedroom that had been set up as a studio. He had worked hard enough trying to support her through a long and painful dying process.

I began on the lower floors, collecting the objects that were most obvious to me whenever I entered the house. Her purse. Her coats, scarves, mittens and hats. The minty scent of her purse and the perfume lingering on her scarves and coat collar were the first visceral initiation into the profoundly intimate act that I had undertaken.

After gathering the downstairs items, I took them upstairs to set up base-camp, assembling cardboard wardrobes and packing boxes in her bedroom. I opened her closet doors, and discovered her sense of style, her clothes and shoes. I saw that she kept her things carefully and in good condition and had thrown nothing out for many many years – dresses from the 1950’s, 60’s 70’s and 80’s hung throughout the closet, all in the exact same size. She was long, slim, tall, small-breasted, large footed. Her shoes were comfortable and expensive. She wore dresses primarily. Some slacks, but not so many. No blue jeans. Her smell grew stronger, more personal, closer to her skin as I sorted through the clothes.

She liked bright colors, nice textiles, weavings, hand knitted sweaters, clothing embellished with folk lace-work, needlework and embroidery from every culture and tradition. She had formal wear and cocktail wear that was clearly required by her life and her husband’s life in academia – but most of her clothing was beautiful, simple, comfortable, useful, special, one of a kind. No designer labels. Nothing frilly. Never fancy.

Her wardrobe and everyday jewelry showed signs of her Czech-Hungarian upbringing, her familiarity with Europe, the many languages that she spoke, as well as her extensive world travels and time spent living in Israel, in China. Pieces of tile, or hand made ceramics set in silver or mounted as pins.

And collections. Never just one of anything but many: a drawer filled with embroidered handkerchiefs, chests and closets in every room filled with hand woven fine fabrics and textiles. Hand hewn wooden bowls, baskets filled with delicately painted eggs from all over the world, another with hand made painted tops, another with ceramic mushrooms. A box filled with hundreds of carefully wrapped tiny blown-glass animals. Decorative boxes everywhere, painted, or carved, or upholstered in silk – one filled to the top with jade rings in every size. Another with tiny turquoise pins.

I threw nothing away. I placed items that might not want to be saved or given away, in their own marked boxes for her sons and husband to look through for themselves. In this box I placed her tooth and hair brushes, make up lotions, perfumes, powder deodorant, razors and tweezers. The pill bottles from her long sickness. Her under-the-sink-things, her feminine hygiene products, her underwear, slips, socks, bras and panty hose.

I was told to set anything aside that I might want to keep for myself: I selected some textiles and scarves, a yellow linen dress with flowers embroidered around the yoke, a terry cloth housecoat from the 1950’s that was in the back of the closet and had clearly not been worn much at all and not in many years. A short black dress, with a white satin collar and cuffs, also from the late 1960’s, a blue and aqua hand knitted cardigan that fit me perfectly, and that I knew from her basket of yarn and the buttons in her immaculately organized Swedish sewing table that she had knitted herself. They offered me her 1947 Singer Featherweight 221 sewing machine, which is, to this day, my most prized possession.

As the intimacy of these items and this act revealed itself to me, I realized that although I had begun these labors to support those who were grieving: David, his father, I was really doing it for her. This thoughtful meticulous dignified woman, never met, who would have wanted her things collected, regarded, distributed, sorted, as thoughtfully and carefully as she had selected and tended to them in life. Who would have wanted to protect her family from the overwhelm and sorrow of packing her life away.

I imagined who I would want to wrap up my my unfinished business one day, and how I would want them to tend to it.

There is always an aftermath.

And although I do not believe that grief should be pathologized as a diagnosis or a medical condition, there is no psychotherapist who does not contend with the life-long implications of death or the processes of bereavement in some form every single day.

Memories of a weekend spent with the personal effects of the dead woman who would one day become my mother-in-law, are activated whenever I find myself professionally involved in the shockingly intimate processes of supporting people as they mourn the death of people that I have never met. And my mother-in-law’s specter spurs me, as it did that long ago weekend, to remember that in order to support the bereaved, we must, on some level enter into an internal relationship to the deceased ourselves, to understand who they were, to clean up the mess and the grief, to contain the emptiness and tie up the loose ends left behind with the living.

Over the years I’ve sat with parents grieving children, and children grieving the loss of parents, sometimes both at once. Adoptees mourning the death notices of first family members never met. I’ve listened to the unfolding evolving eulogies of siblings, grandparents, extended family, partners, best friends, classmates, chosen family, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends.

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

We can mourn total strangers too. Death impacts many people who may not ever know the names of those they mourn: eye-witnesses, doctors, nurses, soldiers, first-responders and psychotherapists can be changed forever by intimacies with those who have left their bodies behind.

I hear these sorrows and traumas too.

And although I remain firmly agnostic about such things – I have on more than one occasion had the sensation that the dead have led a client to my office, so I would care for the the good and bad, light and shadow, that they have left behind in the hearts of others.

And as I support the bereaved, I inevitably wonder: What would the deceased wishes be – how should they, would they have wanted the person in front of me cared for? How would they respond if they were here to witness what I am seeing? How would this client’s mother want me to deal with the rage and pain her death has left behind? How would that dead man want his son treated? How would a deceased husband respond to his wife’s relief at his passing? What might that young woman feel if she saw how her brother suffered after her overdose? How would the dead want me to understand them through the things they have left behind? How would their best-self – or their worst, most-defensive aspects – respond to their survivor’s anger, betrayal, relief, sorrow, terror, pain?

I don’t work from a distance. I frankly don’t know how to – the only way I know to support those grieving and bereaved is to try to learn about the size, shape and feel of their loss as specifically as possible. To use my heart and imagination to understand as much as I can about the person being mourned. To sit with those who mourn by entering into relationship with the dead myself. To allow myself to be affected by their life, their absence, their death.

To be caught in their wake.

I’ve listened to death-tales of suicide, murder, illness, accident, chronic self destructiveness, heroic sacrifice, masochism, police intervention, terrorist attacks, and statistically improbable, impossible deaths, as freakish as lightening on a sunny day.

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

I’ve learned how they faced death, who they were before death struck and the consequences that followed their lives and deaths through entire communities of people known and unknown to them.

Loss and life spreads out in concentric circles – in waves, in ripples through time and across communities.

This has happened several times, maybe more times than it should:

I have listened to people, who do not know each other and who do not know that they all know me, as they sit in my office and describe the life and death of the same person. Like the proverbial blind men describing the portion of the elephant that they can touch – I hear from one what it was like to be an eye-witness to the accident, from another what it was like to miss them in an exercise class, from a third how it feels to lose the most important relationship in their lives, from a fourth the shock of hearing of the death of a professional colleague, from a fifth sorrow of losing an old college friend.

And like my mother-in-law, I have come to know them intimately, through their most personal details, their character and their residuum.

We all cut a broader path, leave a larger wake, send out more ever widening rings than we can ever realize.

I imagine such circles of inter-connection surround us all the time. Perhaps I have as many interconnections with the man at the deli, the crossing guard, the woman in the high heels in the elevator who smells of strong perfume. If my job were not to sit still in my office, and listen to what emerges, unmasked, unfiltered by social convention I might never consider this.

And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated;
~ John Donne, Meditation #17 From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

The dead have taught me lessons I could learn from no living person.

Just as my mother-in-law departed before I entered the family, many years later my father-in-law died, just four months before our son came into this world. They never met each other either.

Shortly after my son came home I had this dream:

I was staring into a fireplace – watching the flames, and the logs spark and crackle. My father-in-law’s voice is behind me, a voice-over really- he is present and not present simultaneously. An accomplished scientist, pioneer in artificial intelligence, a biological reductionist my father-in-law believed in nothing romanticized or spiritual about death. Brain and mind were the same thing -and souls were non-existent. And as I watched the fire his voice said: “When you teach the boy about death, or when your own comes it is just like this: The fire converts the composition of the wood into another form of energy. See that spark? It breaks away from the body of the log, is carried upwards in the waves of heat and warmth, it burns out, and seems to disappear. But the warmth stays with you, is absorbed by you and those who are near, you inhale the carbon, the charcoal with all is uses remains long after the fire goes out ”

And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

Whatever I believe or you believe or don’t believe I have no question that life doesn’t disappear.  We leave trails, waves, wakes, after-shocks, hang-overs behind us.

Our lives keep living, unfolding  long after we are dead.

And we are all unquestionably of eternal consequence.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
~ John Donne, Meditation #17 From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions 

Hard Times

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.
Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
~ Hard Times lyrics by Stephen Foster

I didn’t mean to write this, or intend to write anything – it is probably unwise to publish it, but I suppose I will anyway. Frankly I’ve been thinking I should take a break from writing altogether for a bit.

I’m just not so filled with easy inspiration, or reassuring confidence, or heart warming feel-goodisms.

My husband and I are in midlife and are, like many of our peers, sandwiched in between caring for our elders and our children. All of whom, for the time being are in significant and legitimate need of our support through some more and less challenging medical realities. Testing, appointments, evaluations, treatments, follow up, referrals. We are in the thick of it and it looks like we may be for a while.

A summer which felt like it was ripe with openings, fortune, potential and new growth crashed into a shocking and frightening fall which will unavoidably open up to a tiring cold winter.

It happens sometimes. We’ve faced such things before, and will again. I’ve seen and supported clients and friends and neighbors as they’ve passed through similar hard times.

Just as all human beings do.

But psychotherapists are supposed to be invulnerable, no? Fully actualized? Enlightened? Able to absorb anything that comes their way?

And who would want to see (or read) a psychotherapist in the midst of hard times?

Better to source out some therapist who is perky and happy! Who feels in control of life! Who can make you feel better!

Yet, sometimes life gets heavy. Sometimes there is work to be done. Sometimes we are pulled in many directions. Sometimes our choices are narrowed down by circumstances beyond our control. Sometimes a great deal is required of us. Sometimes, despite our plans and intentions, our possibilities restrict themselves to a very few or none at all. Sometimes our external freedoms become constricted. Sometimes the wolf is at the door.

So, for me, this isn’t a silly, playful, easy season filled with boundless, bouncy energy.

I am sometimes weary. I am sometimes overwhelmed. Sometimes I want to run. Sometimes I am incredibly proud of myself and my ability to keep moving, to get done all that I need to, and stay connected to myself and others. Sometimes I want to spend a day in bed with the covers over my head. Sometimes I am swelling with appreciation for the tender comforts around me, the honesty and intimacy and contact that the relationships in my life, personal and professional, offer me whether they know it or not.

Sometimes this season has offered me glimpses of deeper truths, timeless ones, that transcend and soothe through the rough and jumble of the road I am on for the moment.

I am all right. I’m okay just as I am. Where I am feels healthy and appropriate. To be too cheery right now would be denial of reality, a self-deception, and would pull me further away from the phase of life and the external challenges I am passing through for the foreseeable future. But certainly not forever.

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster

Happiness doesn’t last forever, but nor does sorrow, and neither does trouble. All states have gifts to offer, lessons to teach, blessings to bestow.

Things get heavy sometimes. Its just a fact.

Sorrow has its season.

Even for psychotherapists.

Energy retreats, retracts, and peace can be found in small, still moments, in quiet spaces deeply internal. Fake smiles, chit chat, false reassurances would make me less present, banish me, send me away, exhaust and deplete me more and make me abandon myself, thinning out my resources to connect to others.

“How are you?” Some clients routinely ask – usually I respond, honestly, “Fine! How are you?” Now my response is more subdued, but still honest. “I’m okay. And you?” or “I’m hanging in. What is happening in your world?”

Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster

To do this work I need to be in contact with myself, and I need to stay in contact with myself, and remain loyal to my own energies, even when it is not comfortable.

Through my professionally arranged face, through my slower, quieter responses, through the circles under my eyes, (which can betray me – no matter how much “concealer” I apply) some still feel the shift in my energies. Some, especially those who come for time limited short term work, to focus on a single issue, or who use therapy as a problem solving space, take it as their cue that it is time to finish up, assuming that if I am offering less, that it is a signal that our work is complete.

Some clients know part of the story, as medical appointments for family members have caused me to cancel, reschedule and rearrange appointments more than I have ever before. Some know the whole story because they dream of it, or read me so closely, and so hard that it frightens them more not to be told what is happening.

Some don’t know anything, or know a little, but need me to protect them from thinking too much about me – as it is hard enough for them to stay loyal to their own experience.

Some become angry with me, without knowing why, because they sense, unconsciously, in their pre-verbal places that part of my psyche is working on my own challenges and conflicts. For those who had depressed or preoccupied early caretakers it is especially threatening, as they are sure that if they sense any dip in my energies that I will become unable, unavailable, to sustain my caring, loving attention.

There are those who are immersed in much harder trials, more consuming, more traumatizing, more violent conflicts, more emergent circumstances and more acute crisis than mine and it snaps my perspective into place, as I move my own experience further down the triage list – and immerse myself in the need that is in front of me with the skills I have accumulated over many years.

Some, who perhaps I have enabled by being more active than was necessary when my tank was full to overflowing, are being given more space to take up the reflective, interpretive work as their own, as I hold back to listen more, perhaps offering less direction or guidance than I might in a more buoyant time.

And there are many moments through my workday which lift and inspire me: A client falling in healthy reciprocated love. Another who feels ready to marry. The birth of babies through hard pregnancies, the courageousness of a client trusting me enough to share the ways that they do not yet trust me. The bravery and integrity of another in the face of danger. A piece of creative work shared, beautiful and transforming. The incredibly powerful, awe-inspiring imagery of dreams. Undeniable growth, accomplishment, achievement, mutual admiration, appreciation. Closeness in all forms, shapes and sizes.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster

And then there are actual gifts that come with hard patches.

When the ability to engage in the Extraneous is eliminated, the Essential reveals itself more quickly and incontrovertibly.

Priorities become crystal clear. And when you trust your exhaustion, you know that it will steer you away from the superfluous, unnecessary.

And when you feel alive and engaged you know you are in the presence of something vital and healing for all involved.

I can feel when I am barking up the wrong tree almost instantly. I can tell when it is better to wait something out, rather than bang my head against the wall. I can spot any opportunity for relieving contact with the healing processes of Life as they move continuously between and around us all.

I have more compassion for myself: if I have a harder time organizing, scheduling, getting my bills done, or it takes me a beat or two longer to understand what is playing out in the room, I know that I am doing my best. I accept and take responsibility for my errors without being tempted to punish myself for them. I am doing what I can do. I can model self-compassionate behavior, a way of being that is less concerned, for now, with pushing past limitations than accepting them.

I may now have less energy for heroic maneuvers, for flashy interpretations. I will not be leaping over tall buildings in a single bound or pulling a rabbit out of a hat in the season ahead – I am currently unable to be seduced by inflation or grandiosity, it is just too tiring – and life is simply too humbling at present. I cannot over-extend, bite off more than I can chew, or take on anything that could prove to be too much later.

I am in exquisite and direct contact with my own needs, and the fact that I am finite.

I treasure and value the impact and the necessity of stillness like never before.

And I understand “self-care” less as a discreet activity or a scheduled event and more as an on-going way of being, moment by moment, in the presence of people who need me – as I negotiate the balance between their needs and my own and attempt to honor them both.

We will all pass through such times. And we can receive something from them as well. And if I can do nothing other than try, and fail, and try again to model an experience of being simultaneously intact and overwhelmed, of staying in caring and compassionate relationship to myself, my family and my clients, perhaps, through hard times that is more than enough.

Never to ask for easier circumstances, but for greater strength, and to accept gladly, (when they come) rest and ease along the road. ~ Pierre Ceresole

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.


“We are lost, afflicted only this one way;
That having no hope we live in longing” I heard

These words with heartfelt grief that seized on me

Knowing how many worthy souls endured 

Suspension in that Limbo

 ~ The Inferno of Dante, Robert Pinky translator


The position of the (hanged) man: upside down, head below, hanging by one foot…. plunges us into the heart of the problem of the relationship between man and gravitation, and the conflicts the relationship entails. ~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, by Anonymous


I’m not sure what, if anything,  will come of this.

Its all up in the air, and it could leave you hanging too.

 I sit with my clients and listen as they move through their daily lives. Building careers, raising families, moving among and around weekly rhythms – work, commute, dinner, home, therapy appointment, weekend. The world is comfortably, or perhaps even oppressively predictable. The ground underfoot becomes a well-trodden path. The disruptive power of the Unknown, of the Unpredictable, seems reduced to a piffle. Lives are ordered. Choices are made. Cause and effect rule the day –  if x , then y.

Our sense of agency and ability to structure ourselves can appear inviolate. We imagine that we have the tiger by the tail, and that tragic, upsetting, disruptive things happen only to other people, to a colleague you don’t know too well at work, or a friend of a friend, or to the person whose photo is splashed  across the cover of of the NY Post being held by the stranger sitting across from you on the subway.

When suddenly, in a split second, the rules of every day are suspended. And we can find ourselves in a whole new world. A instantaneous slip into an alternate universe, one we did not choose and would never have picked if the choice was offered.

But it wasn’t.

The table turns in a flash – and any expectations that the next day will be better, or even vaguely resemble this one are disrupted. Crisis erupts or we fall into it, it flips us upside down – a job loss, a change of fortune, an unexpected diagnosis, a natural disaster.

Entrapping uncertainty can also creep up slowly:  we can find ourselves bound, against our will,  in long, excruciating waiting periods, slow builds, protracted searches for something or someone that may never be found, precarious processes with unclear prognoses. States where any and all  predictions might be reasonable – and our need to know what might come next is thwarted.  Incrementally or violently pressed into Life’s Waiting Room we thrash and writhe, or go limp and sleepy – we do all we can to escape this In Between Place where Life is neither feast nor famine, neither fish nor foul, neither here nor there.

This is the sorrowful state of souls unsure….

Who, neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him,

Chose neither side, but kept themselves apart. 

   ~ The Inferno of Dante

There are times when we find ourselves suspended.

And I find myself strung up as often as anyone.

Dante locates Limbo as the first stop on the “deep and savage road.” a  place just inside the Hell-gates of hopelessness.  But we commonly think of it as a  space between Heaven and Hell, where even the noblest souls may suffer.

Will circumstances stabilize? Or deteriorate? Is hope useful or foolish? Should we prepare for the worst? Is this the end of the world as we know it? Or the birth of a better one? Is it the  gateway to a perpetually unfolding tragedy, the horror and losses of our greatest fears? Or will we be granted our heart’s deepest desire?

Whether to invest in our dreams coming true, or resign ourselves to despair there is no way to know. Souls in Limbo are abandoned by the very ability to anticipate or prognosticate.

Those who are activated by anxiety find it a place of tortuous buzzing agitation, as their inherent optimism leads them to believe that proactivity could positively affect the outcome.

Hapless ones never alive, their bare skin galled

By wasps and flies… 

 ~ The Inferno of Dante

 The anxious-avoidant can find passive comfort in the intermission –  some even draw it out – experiencing the enforced break in the action as reprieve from pessimism and fear: at least the worst hasn’t happened… yet.

This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. ~ Oscar Wilde

 Limbo is an inconsolable, tension-filled deprivation. A lack of. A halting, a freeze, a holding of the breath,  a nothingness sandwich with hope on one side and despair on the other.

The soul seems to me to be in this state when no comfort comes to it from heaven and it is not there itself, and when it desires none from the earth and is not there either…

~ The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, quoted in Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism

Few recall Cicero’s morality tale about King Dionysius and his courtier Damocles who wished aloud that he might be king himself, and was cruelly threatened into gratitude for his lowly station. Yet, everyone remembers the heavy archetypal sword, the shiny point dangling just over Damocles’ head, suspended by a single horse hair.

We hope, like Damocles, for the opportunity to be returned to the moment before the threat loomed over us, to go on as we have been going on, to be spared further suffering or any darker transformation of our fate.

In suspense, we find ourselves exquisitely alone, the tension exacerbated by isolation:

The soul is suspended between heaven and earth; it experiences complete solitude. For here it is no longer a matter of ordinary solitude where one is alone in the world, but rather of complete solitude where one is alone because one is outside of the world  – the celestial as well as the terrestrial world ~  Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism

 The therapist needs to be acutely aware of their own and their client’s coping style, for when they are sitting with clients who are dangling between the worlds, one’s strategy may be intolerable to the other. “Let’s-get-this-over-with” mixes with “I’ll-think-about-it-tomorrow” as effectively as oil and water. And any misattunement  merely exacerbates the sense of banishment from the realm of the everyday.

My own experience twisting in the wind reminds me it is all too easy to fall into empathic error with those who are hanging in the Unpredictable In-Between. We cherish our rhythm of life and when we encounter others whose patterns have been disrupted we can too often rush past their powerless pause: “Oh I’m sure it will all be ok!” minimizes potential and looming threats. “Oh my god that is terrible!” smothers hope. Real empathy requires tolerating the dialectic, joining the tension of the opposites: “It must be so uncomfortable to not know what to expect, and to have to wait for any answer – I’ll hope along with you that all will be well, but know I will also be here for you if it doesn’t – I know that both possibilities feel very real right now.”

And although we may not be able to guess which way this cat is going to jump, the archetypes of myth indicate that there are gains to be had, lessons to be learned, from uncomfortable, even fatal suspension.

I know that I hung on a windy tree

nine long nights,

wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,

myself to myself,

on that tree of which no man knows

from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,

downwards I peered;

I took up the runes, screaming I took them,

then I fell back from there.

(~ Stanza 138 & 139 of the Hávamál)

The tarot’s Hanged Man is a rendering of Odin, who has strung himself upside down  in order to acquire wisdom. He will die from the suspension and be reborn hanging  from the world tree, a mighty ash known as Yggdrasil.

Perhaps the wisdom that Odin gains from his ordeal, and that suspension imbues is merely this:

We are always in Limbo, whether we recognize it or not. Life itself is a feral and untamed beast. Anything can happen, and many things beyond our control will happen. Even the most ordered and controlled life unfolds in a wilderness of unpredictability. We succumb to inflation when we forget this.

The Hanged Man is the eternal Job, tried and tested from century to century…~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism

 And maybe the only cure for such puffery and complacency is to intermittently find ourselves upside down, hanging, in a state of suspense until we are humbled and reminded that living is a wild unfolding, an eternally unpredictable event.





Keep Breathing Please

To breathe is to assimilate spiritual power. (~ J.E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols)

The word, in all its variants, that I heard most regularly in the early years of my own treatment, the most painful years, is also the word I repeat most often to my clients:


As in:
“Let’s take some deep breaths, please”

“Are you breathing? I’m pretty sure you’ve stopped breathing”

And more explicitly:
“You are holding your breath. When you hold your breath, you are trying to block the experience of a strong feeling – you are constricting your chest, your throat, it keeps the pain trapped, pressed down, it doesn’t let it move through.”

And sometimes this:
“Okay, listen, I can see this feeling is overwhelming, and your breathing has become very shallow and rapid, you are trying to find a way to keep breathing to stay on top of some frightened, maybe panicky feeling. I don’t want you to hyperventilate. I know you are scared, but I want you to just listen to my voice, and we are going to breath more deeply together. Put your hand on your belly, and breathe in slowly through your nose. Let just inhale slowly…. Good. Now breathe out, slowly… good. Lets just sit and breathe and then we can talk about what was coming up. But, first, I just want us to breathe together for a bit.”

I remember when the consultation room would start to spin. My head would feel very large, on top of a small, atrophied body. Although my therapist sat just a few feet from my place on his couch, he seemed a football field away. Only his reminders to breathe offered me a sense of continuity, an anchor to the present, to him, and to myself.

Other times I’d sit on the couch, certain that I was totally fine, making perfect sense, forming completely rational sentences filled with logically consistent deductions about whatever circumstance I’d been recounting. I thought his direction to take a breath was just silly, reaching for some feeling that simply wasn’t present, wishful shrink-thinking. I’d take a breath just to placate him – and then feel a sudden internal catch, a flipping sensation in my stomach, a shiver of fear. A wave of hot, shameful, dissociated emotion rose up from the depths, tears gathering behind my eyes, my throat shaking, I tried to stop myself from revealing the unbecoming repressed affect in front of his accepting gaze.

Such an intense internal combustion can occur when oxygen mixes with emotion that I sometimes worried that I might actually vomit. He wasn’t distressed by that possibility either – but simply offered to move the office wastebasket close to the couch if I thought I really needed it. I never did, thank god.

It was just pain, riding on breath’s coattails, as it rose up from below.

My own clients often release a small snort of recognition when I make the observation:
“You’ve stopped breathing again I believe… please breathe…” before their own swell of pain begins to crest.

Children, in stubborn fits threaten to hold their breath, a refusal to inhale new experience or unwanted information from the world around them, an attempt to freeze time, to arrest all change and motion, and to assert their omnipotence as Central Commander of the universe.

But, as our pediatrician once pointed out, you can’t hold your breath to death. You will simply fall unconscious and resume breathing.

Holding our breath only creates the illusion that we are in control, but the illusion is fleeting and ultimately empowers our unconscious to solve the dilemma itself whether we like it or not – without conscious assent.

Difficulty in breathing may therefore symbolize difficulty in assimilating the principles of the spirit and of the cosmos… and the rhythms of the universe
(~ J.E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols)

Sometimes the pain is so intense, that all you can do breathe, as all else has become overwhelming or impossible – like a woman in labor, or a post-operative patient in a recovery bed, or the concentrated, labored breathing of the dying.

And sometimes, when extreme emotional/psychological pain makes a client yearn for “Breath’s Departure” all I can ask of them is make a promise to me that they will commit to keep breathing until the next session, or the next day, or the next scheduled check-in a few hours away.

The regularly scheduled therapy appointment lets us know when our next respite (time to breathe) will arrive. The psyche learns that we will only have to hold our breath until the next session when we can at last exhale again.

We breathe in good air, and breathe out the bad. Breathe in cool energizing oxygen, breathe out hot toxic carbon dioxide. Breathing is the ultimate, most inherently non-dualistic, bivalent act of living, our embodied light and darkness.
And the archetypal representations of breath reflect this:

Vayu, (also known as Vata, or Prana) the Hindu god of wind and breath, is “a destructive god who has an intemperate character and is often subject to violent desires which he never strives to repress.” (~ Sumanta Sanyal Encyclopedia Mythica™)

In the Prasna Upanishad, the sage, Pippalada describes Prana variously as the primal energy of the universe, as the sun, as fire, as light that illumines all, as food, as the creator, the destroyer, the Self and as the breath. (~ The Upanishads- The breath of the eternal)

We take in anything new by inhaling, and dispose of anything no longer needed through exhaling. This is true in psychotherapeutic process too. And I watch my clients breath closely for clues about where my support is most needed and where the block resides, if resistance obstructs the processes of integration or release.

Ideally, psychotherapy allows previously unexperienced feelings, memories, instincts, intuitions, self-states to transpire (to breathe through, to become known) for the first time. It is where we say things out loud that we would, under normal circumstances, only mutter under our breath. Breath is the vehicle that we ride to conscious awareness.

We aspire to (breathe on) transformation, to new lives, to better worlds, and easier ways of being, fresher air and deeper breaths.

When we try to blow-off discomforting information about ourselves, minimizing injuries and anxieties, our dreams, our Unconscious processes, our true selves and our deepest needs, we become the destroyer, the squelcher, the smotherer of our own internal self-states.

Examining our dreams, our words, relationship patterns, assumptions, projections, and our internal responses to external events inspires (breathes into) and energizes us to press on through the stale air of stagnation. Greek pneuma means wind, soul, spirit, and breath, and represents an internalized fragment of the world soul, the generative, creative, healing principle that moves in and out of us.

Breath is the archetypal initiator of all acts of creation. In creation myths world-wide, gods breathe spirit on to the earth, into inert globs of clay, and in the therapy office the act of breathing likewise enlivens self-states that are inert, repressed or deadened.

The therapeutic process at its most elemental, is where we conspire (breathe together) to bring forth new experience of ourselves, and others into being.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford


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