Pernicious Hope

Jung hung a plaque on his threshold which read:

“Invited or Uninvited: God is Present.”

The sign that I’ve often imagined placing over my office door, not quite as cozy and inviting as Jung’s, would read as follows:

“Surrender Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”

Although I suppose that a slogan lifted straight from Dante’s Gates of Hell might be a little daunting for new clients.

For some Hope may float, spring eternal, and be a thing with feathers. But very often my job seems to be to squelch, sink or pluck it.

Hope is an angel, but also a demon.

Nearly everyone who walks into this office does so because, whether they know it or not, one way or another, they are trapped in Hope’s dark clutches.

Pandora brought the box of ills and opened it.  It was the gift of the gods to men, outwardly a beautiful and seductive gift, and called the Casket of Happiness.  Out of it flew all the evils, living winged creatures, thence they now circulate and do men injury day and night.  One single evil had not yet escaped from the box, and by the will of Zeus Pandora closed the lid and it remained within.  Now for ever man has the casket of happiness in his house and thinks he holds a great treasure; it is at his disposal, he stretches out his hand for it whenever he desires; for he does not know the box which Pandora brought was the casket of evil, and he believes the ill which remains within to be the greatest blessing, it is hope.  Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives Man hope,- in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man.  ~ Friedrich Nietzsche (Human All Too Human,  71. Hope)

Hope, may be the center of the three theological virtues along with Faith and Charity, but it carries dangerous and pathological aspects as well.

Hope, misdirected, misplaced, can cement our attachments to people and places that are destructive to us. Hope can dangle, like bait, with a sharp hook embedded inside to keep us waiting for transformations that will never come. Hope gone haywire lurks at the root of all addictions – and we all know the “definition of insanity” is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results.

Hope can block out necessary grief, forestalling or arresting entirely,  the sweet release of necessary loss and healthy mourning. Hope can deceive us, obscuring realities that we need to face. Hope can keep us waiting for Godot, who will never come. Hope to “get out of” is the root of all denial.

Pernicious hope lures the gambler to go “all in” on a long shot, and invites cowardice to search for means of magical escape. Hoping for divine intervention, waiting passively to be lifted out of circumstances that require our labor and our conscious intention, Hope can bind and paralyze us.

Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope. ~ Aristotle, Rhetoric

 Hope can keep us places that we need to leave, and seduce us into leaving places where we should stay.

Hope futurizes, pulling on us to abandon the present moment, and numbing us to it.

Hope insinuates that we can get out of our distress – when our soul’s only salvation may be to go through it.

Where Hope is, fear lurks just below.

We dread the dark lessons, the painful transformations, the inevitable losses  that life requires of us. We do not want to give up on the dirty well. Pernicious  hope tempts us to return to it over and over in search of clean water.

Hope is grippy, sticky, grasping.

It sneaks up quietly and carries a big hook:

Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. ~ Pema Chodron

Hope is the ally of quacks and con-men, and the sidekick of all duplicity. We cannot be tricked if we do not hope for an easy solution or a free lunch. Hope helps Illusion disguise itself as Reality.

Hope can distract, divert, drain our energies away from dreaded but unavoidable  responsibilities, stealing our focus, and our acceptance of the task at hand.

Every defense, every resistance, every form of self-sabotage contains, at the bottom of the box, Hope in some form. 

Many describe themselves as hopeless, who are in truth, being tortured by pathological hopes that they cannot let go of.

To surrender hope is an exhausting and terrifying process. Hope is a habit  that is hard to extinguish, a fix we can’t stop jonesing for. It reasserts itself, stubborn, persistent, sneaky, a craving, a crutch.

The work of psychotherapy is often to chase down and sort through the flock of slippery and Pernicious Hopes in all their diverse and daemonic aspects. To capture one at a time, examine it, to challenge and question its true mission, to uncover exactly which god this particular Hope obeys.

To exorcise it.

And the therapist’s hopes can have as much destructive power as the client’s. To hope too much on behalf of a client is a rejection of where they actually are. To hope to cure a client is inflated and grandiose as that prerogative is theirs alone. To hope to rescue someone from their circumstance is avoidant and can instill more fear in the client toward what may lie ahead, implying that it cannot be faced. Therapists may also hope to escape the painful or frightening aspects of a client’s journey and wrestle with the tempting hope, like Jesus did, that the dark cup will taken from them both.

Surrender All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

And much maligned Hopelessness, always given short shrift, can bring sweet relief. Giving up, surrender, admitting defeat, hitting bottom, allows us to lay on the damp earth, face down, grounded, maybe bloodied, but on the earth, and of the earth for good, for ill.

We can breathe again when Hope releases us from its clutches. When there is nothing left to lose, we are no longer afraid. We can rest, heal up, and when we have gathered our energies, face what is real squarely and without letting Hope deceive us.  Without Hopelessness we cannot embrace our fate or face our destiny.

The great gift of angelic Hopelessness is Acceptance.

To write without hope is the very best way to write.

Dante passed through the Gates of Hell, and descended through its terrible rings before he was permitted to rise up through Purgatory to glimpse Paradise.

True, angelic Hope lives on the other side of Hopelessness. It does not protect us from hopelessness or help us avoid it. It is the gift we are sometimes given when we have withstood hopelessness past the point of what we thought we could endure. It is often hidden, buried, or dwelling just past the horizon line of our limited perceptions. Sometimes it is just the sound of water, the smallest trickle, in the far distance. It is hard to hear, impossible to see, and rarely obvious.

Angelic Hope descends as an unexpected visitor, as a moment of grace as something we can never expect, demand, and will turn destructive if we cling to it too tightly.

It comes on its own. And not when it is called.

And we must too often abandon it, surrender it, kill it, in order to receive it again, anew.

And to extinguish hope is no guarantee of its arrival.

It will come in its own time anyway.

 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 ~  T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

 

 

 

The Boy Who Would Not Stop For Death

I’ve searched for the hard copy everywhere. A twenty paged paper typed double space, almost exactly twenty years ago, before personal computers were a household or academic necessity. It must be in the storage bin somewhere, yellowing, with old journals, spiral notebooks and my collected graduate school syllabi.

I remember the grade written on top, I remember the professor, now deceased, who I wrote if for. I remember the main source cited: a small black leather bound book from the NYU library titled: Thanatology, the author forgotten. And I remember the boy, a client who was going to die, as we all will. And who somehow knew, although his mother could not bear to think of it or discuss it with him. A charming young boy who may have grown into a handsome young man, who, with luck and treatment advances, may still be with us, or who may be dead by now, but who is certainly still with me.

It was my first introduction to Death as an entity in the consultation room, although I have learned to recognize that specter as it lives and lurks in every treatment. There are those who specialize in bereavement, but the Psyche of every psychotherapist, every client, every human, has its own language to speak to the experience of death, dying, and grief.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

~ Emily Dickinson

He was six or seven, and small for his age, the size of a five year old – likely due to the the ultimately fatal illness that will one day kill him, if it hasn’t already. His mother was stiff, strained, overwhelmed, impatient and brittle. I suppose I would be too. In his short life he had multiple hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and surgeries. As soon as his mother left the room he raised his shirt up over his head to show me the large surgical scars on his little round tummy just north of his outie belly button. He was funny, smart and wild. Acting out in school, not sitting in his seat, joking, distracting other children, disrespectful of any parameters. I spent a great deal of our play therapy together using Virginia Axline’s recommended limit setting intervention:
“I know you want to do X…. but you can’t.” And laughing.

I was a second year social work intern, placed for the year in a child and family clinic. His mother doubted I could be of help to her. She found him unmanageable and increasingly resistant to the nightly medical interventions that he needed to surrender to in order to keep on living. She didn’t talk to him about his illness, or explain the painful, boring rituals she needed to perform on him at home. And she certainly never told him that she needed his help keeping death at bay, and that one day, they would be unsuccessful.

She didn’t play with him either. He performed and clowned and mugged and joked like the corniest Catskills comedian trying to make her smile. She pretended that she wasn’t interested, that it wasn’t funny, that she needed him to listen to her, not to crack wise. But I could tell she was terrified that if she laughed, and played, and got on the floor and enjoyed him – Grief when it arrived, would destroy her. Instead, she brought him to play with me, and strove to keep soft sounds out of her voice when she spoke. She needed to stay cross with him, her brows furrowed, her mouth pinched whenever possible.

And so the silly boy and I played together twice a week. He chased me around the room, holding a big green stuffed monster-man doll. If the doll caught me I was to be buried. The throw rug pulled over my face like a death-shroud. He found a toy bulldozer on the shelf and dug “graves” in small piles of playdough and had the molding clay “swallow up” the playskool “guys” one after another. And then he would have me dig them up, and we would bury them again. The doctor’s kit was in heavy rotation, and I would be instructed to lay on the floor, while he would “cut me open” from my heart to my belly, and take my insides out, and sew me shut again, sweetly covering my shirt with bandaids afterward. In between games, he would giggle and tickle, wise-crack and tease, and bounce and burp, and laugh and laugh.

At my parental guidance meetings with his mother, who refused her own psychotherapy, I would encourage her consider opening up conversation with him about his diagnosis. She did eventually tell him the name of his illness, and explain what was happening in his body that required so many trips to the doctor, so many operations, so many painful practices to keep him healthy.

His prognosis remained unthinkable, and unspeakable. Once, at a consultation I explained that much of his play seemed to be about mastering an innate awareness of their mutual fears. And wondered if she thought it might be hard for him to sit on top of these terrifying questions alone. She decided that I was threatening to tell him, if she didn’t, that he would eventually die and threatened to remove him from therapy entirely. And although it had never crossed my mind to be the one to inform him, and I promised that would never happen, I could suddenly imagine him asking me directly: “Am I going to die?” I began to rehearse a response: “That is a very important question. What do you think?” as I simultaneously prayed that my inner dialogue would never manifest.

In our final weeks together, before my internship ended, we planned our goodbyes together. Specific treats were requested for our final two weeks and a scheduled review of our favorite games. The green monster-man chase, the “burying and unburying” playdough game, and the operation game. And for the final session: something else. He wanted his mother to join us, and for me to teach her how to play all of our games.

At first she refused. I was good at playing she said, she was terrible. I explained that I was always a stand in, the person he really wanted to work this through with was her. She was the only one he really wanted to play with. She asked about the games, and I made no mention of the internal interpretations that I assigned to our play: He like to chased me with a stuffed animal, and then cover me up with a blanket. He liked to use a bulldozer to dig some little guys out of a mound of clay, and, just like the doctor who they saw so often, and who seemed to be a role model, he liked to pretend to perform surgery with a doctors kit, and listen to my breath with a toy stethoscope, and put bandaids on the ow-ie. She agreed. Uncomfortably, but she agreed.

When she came into the session, he was thrilled. And decided to help her out: “So that no one has to be embarrassed, we will play in the dark!” he announced, flipping the light switches, plunging my windowless office into utter blackness. He agreed, after adult protests to open the door a crack to let a sliver of yellow light in from the hall. “I’ve got the green monster-man!” he squealed as he chased her around the room. They resurrected the buried doll-guys, and I heard his mother giggling in the dark as he tickled her while performing a joyful, and unorthodox surgery.

They left together laughing, his hand in hers. And I shut the door. Breathing in deeply through my mouth, trying not to sob, when there was a sudden knock on the door.

The boy stood there: “Hey!” he said, “HIGH-FIVE! Awww, too slow!” and turned to walk back toward the clinic entrance, with his thumbs tucked under his back pack straps. After a few steps, he tossed the back pack aside, turned and ran at me full speed, and flew into my arms.

Twenty years later, I still remember the smell of his hair.

The smallest sprout shows there really is no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Looking Back

Death will not part us again, nearer to heaven than ten thousand ancestors who dream of me… ~ Rickie Lee Jones

The ancestors possess this in-between quality of the flown soul and the hovering presence ~ The Book of Symbols

Until a short time ago if you googled my name, without initials, credentials or qualifiers you would find only text and images of my most infamous and tragic relative. My name would summon a black and white photograph of a lovely blonde woman, posed formally, in a light-colored taffeta gown, with stiff bows and many strands of pearls. To me, she resembled my father, and how beautiful he might have been in drag. I never knew her, and although she lived in a perpetual vegetative state since my early adolescence – since before the internet existed – her life, her story, preempted my digital footprint until I reached the half century mark of my own life.

I often wondered what clients who googled me would make of it, when my name emerged on their screens attached to her story. Would they glean our association, guess that I was/am her namesake? Probably not. I never met her and my relation is distant enough, and further obscured by an adoption – that it is in no way obvious. It is an inconsequential, silly, tangential anecdote, a piece of Martha trivia shared sometimes at dinner parties when I’ve had a glass of wine or two.

Yet, when I realized that I had dethroned the preceding and deceased Martha Crawford in the digital archives, I found myself examining the psychological legacy I had inherited from our common ancestors and my peripheral relationship to her.

The ancestors are those who have “gone before” (from the Latin ‘antecedere’) all the life that has ever been, leaving behind the traces of kinship ~ The Book of Symbols

When clients first come to therapy, the first thing that a responsible psychotherapist does is to “take a history” enquiring about the biopyschosocial events, achievements, traumas, and milestones that compose a clients history from birth to the present:

“When did you first have these symptoms? Who are the people in your family of origin? How old were you when your brother was born? When your parents divorced? When your mother died? What was school like for you?”

Many clients resist, annoyed, wondering why I am asking about stuff from long ago that “obviously” has nothing to do with what is going on in the present.

Others are protective: “Look, I’m not interested in blaming my parents for my problems. My parents were great.”

Blame is not the point – I am scanning for patterns, for repeating themes, for unfinished business, for unexamined loyalties to the way things used to be, that have grown into present day obstacles, or, at least, are no longer useful.

Thorough clinicians often try to reach back before birth: “Do you know the story of how your parents met? What do you know about your mother’s childhood? What was your father’s relationship with his grandfather like?”

Family systemic therapies look back as many generations as possible, creating complex genograms, family trees graphed out, dotted with triangles, circles, and squares.

I remember in social work school family systems class, as we were all asked to chart out our own multi-generational family histories – the students’ gasps of surprise as patterns suddenly seemed to pop off of the page – recurring generation after generation.

I had my own realizations: My paternal great-grandfather had died when my grandfather was nine years old, my grandfather had divorced and abandoned my father when my father was nine years old, and my parents divorced, my own father seemingly incapable of fathering any longer when I turned nine years old.

Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. ~ Exodus 34:7 King James Version

Working at a day treatment program early in my career, I sat with the aunt of an African-American client who had severe limitations in his ability to communicate about his own history. Together we sketched out a genogram on a legal pad as I asked her about who had married whom, how many children they had. Suddenly she asked me a question, gesturing to my name plaque on my door.

“Your middle name, is that a family name?”

“Yes” I answered, “why?”

“I just wondered…” she drifted off, her brow furrowing. She tapped her pen on my page as she then wrote in the same uncommon family name, my middle name, into her family tree. Surprised, I couldn’t wrap my head around her question.

“What do you wonder?”
“Any of your ancestors live in the South?” she enquired.

My heart froze, as I realized what she was wondering. I suddenly noticed that the naming patterns in her family and in mine were shockingly similar: the client’s mother (aunt’s sister) was named Martha, and their maiden name was the same as my unusual middle name. There were uncles and brothers who had my brothers’ names, and my own aunt had the same first name as the woman sitting in front of me. As I looked over the page I saw grandparents and great grandparents with similar (or exact) and fairly uncommon first names. My mind scrambled, my heart pounded as I rapidly flipped through that branch of my family tree as I knew it:

“No. Midwestern Quakers, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota – many many generations… Its funny, I see not only my name, but lots of my old Quaker relatives names, here, and here, and here, in your family tree.”

“Oh, Quaker names…” she smiled warmly, obviously relieved and took my hand “I suppose that its just some sign that you are the right person to help our sweet boy.”

It was the beginning of one of the sweetest, warmest, most touching relationships I have ever known with a cherished client and his family.

Yet, this exchange about the historical, cultural realities of our lives – of who our people might have been to each other – of an abomination that my ancestors would have been legally empowered to inflict upon their greats and great-greats – served as a reminder of what had, in fact, been inflicted, of what had been survived, of the strengths and losses of previous generations and what had unfolded for this family in its wake. What could have been between us, and what was, and the attending irreconcilable divergences were as alive in our relationship as the synchronicity of our mirror-names.

Our historical context matters. It lives in our names, in our bones, in our privileges, in our genes, in our family stories, and in our strengths, scars, wounds and failures.

How would we have survived had we not been carried on the shoulders of the ancestors? How would we have found our way had we not been guided by the psychic deposits they have left us as signs….They haunt us if neglected. The bother and disturb us if we do not honor their living presence. ~ The Book of Symbols

I’ve had many clients who saw their parents behavior as mystifying, intolerable, oppressive, unjustifiable. And when we looked into their deeper historical/cultural/generational histories – of curtailed freedom, poverty, oppression, famine, war, genocide – “bad” parental behaviors suddenly became acts love from another time, another circumstance. A crying child – while a family hides from a murderous army – must have its emotional vulnerability suppressed in order for future generations to exist and survive. Parsimony appears withholding and unloving until a family history, a generation or two prior, of extreme poverty is understood and acknowledged. Cloying anxiety about a child’s diet can look merely pathological if a deep family history – of not knowing when they might next eat unconsciously conveyed forward into the present – has been overlooked.

Sometimes awareness of the personal aspects of our deeper histories fade away due to simple disinterest, disrespect for what came before, from passivity, or lack of curiosity and empathy.

And we all know what happens to those who forget history.

The unconscious compulsion to repeat can extend well beyond the scope of an individual life.

The dead may be malevolent or benevolent, feared or admired, given bribes to keep them from mischief or gifts to make them happy. ~ Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend

And there are lost and stolen stories, the broken narratives of disrupted bloodlines: Adoption. Death. Family severance.
There are unspeakable, silent legacies: Trauma. Torture. Abuse.
There are intentionally suppressed histories: Secrets. Shame. Lies.

And certainly the stories and mysteries that surround both the Other Martha, and my grandfather, the events that bound them to each other, have been a hovering presence in my life: legacies which could not ever have been predicted, inheritances painful, joyous, and surprising. And that are also in some form, being passed on to my children for good and for ill.

According to traditional Korean beliefs, when people die, their spirits do not immediately depart; they stay with their descendants for four generations. During this period the deceased are still regarded as family members, and Koreans reaffirm the relationship between ancestors and descendants…
(http://www.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/AK/AK_EN_1_4_9.jsp)

But, I have seen too much to believe that anything is ever really lost, even when we do not have conscious access to our inheritance – our bodies speak, the ancestors whisper in our ears, live in our cells, in our genes and come to us in our dreaming.

They cannot ever be taken away from us completely, nor can we escape them.

They are with us always and everywhere,
whether we like it or not.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Strange Dreams

You know those nights, when you’re sleeping, and it’s totally dark, and absolutely silent, and you don’t dream, and there’s only blackness, and this is the reason, it’s because on those nights you’ve gone away. On those nights, you’re in someone else’s dream, you’re busy in someone else’s dream.

Some things are just pictures, they’re scenes before your eyes.
Don’t look now, I’m right behind you.

~ Laurie Anderson, Someone Else’s Dream, lyrics

The first time it happened was early in my career, too early for me to know or understand the phenomenon well – and certainly too early to trust it.

I was working in milieu therapy, a day treatment unit, where several hundred “severely and persistently” mentally ill adults came each day to receive their medication and case management, group therapy, art therapy and rehabilitation.

I dreamed that I was wearing a police officer’s uniform, and one of my clients was begging me to spank him, while he masturbated.

I was startled by the dream, it felt different in tone and quality from my “usual dreams” whatever that meant.

I explored it in my own therapy extensively – looking at the countertransferential sadistic and aggressive impulses that emerge when working with clients who have difficulty containing their own aggression. I considered the power and class differentials between me and my stigmatized, disempowered clients, and tried to examine my privilege and the authority, authoritarian, and social control functions that I was expected to serve on the treatment unit. I explored my personal, familial and historical associations to the specific client, to police officers, to spanking, and to domination and submission.

I explored my own sexual fantasy life – but, the sexualized aspects of the dream somehow felt off: a dream could have shed light on power/authority issues without sexualizing it.

But, the sexual nature of the dream just didn’t feel like my kind of kink.

The next week, the dreamed of client came in for an awake, daytime session and confessed that he had been embarrassed to tell me that he had been having masturbatory fantasies about me for sometime. He imagined me, dressed up as a police woman spanking him.

I felt enormous relief. The strange bits of the dream weren’t mine. The dream was about my role on the unit, and also about the ways I had been subtly, unconsciously pulled by this specific client to “police” and monitor his compliance and program attendance in ways that were stimulating to him, perhaps over-stimulating to him, and which made perfect sense with the clients history of sexual and physical abuse.

That was when I began to understand, many years, before I began to study Jung, that my own dreams about clients were not merely about my individual psyche.

I told my therapist excitedly about my new realization and he responded:

“Be careful.”

Be careful of what, I wondered? It seemed to me that I was in greater “danger” or getting pulled more deeply into some destructive authoritarian enactment, scolding or punishing, or chastising a client who could feel too stimulated by it if I hadn’t had the dream.

The dream had clearly protected me, and the client. Surfaced a dynamic, an unconscious currency, an exchange that was already present, but unspoken, unacknowledged.

The dream itself wasn’t the danger.

“If a dream shows me what sort of mistake I am making, it gives me an opportunity to correct my attitude, which is always an advantage”
~ C. G. Jung, Dreams

I left a long message on my therapist’s answering machine after that session, certainly too long, trying to shake off the undermining caution, and the traditional psychoanalytic models of dream theory that we had both been indoctrinated into

The various psychoanalytic branches which grow off of Freud’s ego psychological tree view dreams as subjective and individualized experiences, as a portal to unconscious conflicts which are about the clients personal history – and the conflicts from the past which have been transferred onto the therapist or other loved ones. And an analyst’s dreams could only reveal something about the analyst’s individual, private psyche, and transferences. If an analyst were to dream about a client, it would speak to their countertransference, the aspects of their own historical conflicts, or perhaps a dangerous over-identification, activated and constellated in the treatment.

I don’t know about your dreams. But mine are sort of hackneyed. Same thing, night after night. Just…repetitive. And the color is really bad – And the themes are just – infantile. And you always get what you want – And that’s just not the way life is…
~ Laurie Anderson Talk Normal, lyrics

There was another, more minor dispute about dreams a year or so later. Another one of “those” dreams – this time a strange dream I had about my therapist:

I was in his home, sitting on the treatment couch. His wife, as I imagined her, was nearby. A daughter, a son, and five month old baby boy. I sat and played with the baby boy while others went about their business around me, not interacting with me. The dream itself had little emotion attached to it, I was neither happy, nor distressed, perhaps a little bored, but enjoying the baby enough. Yet, in the dream, and afterward, I wondered why I was there, and worried that I was intruding on the scene.

Again, of course, I explored the dream extensively: as a transferential wish to have siblings, to be a part of his family, to be parented by him. To be trusted and invaluable member of his inner circle. I considered whether or not this tiny baby was an extension of my self, perhaps my inner child, that I wanted to be responsible for, as I was seated, held by the sofa now in the middle of his living room.

Four months later, he informed me that he would be taking a leave for a few weeks. Shorter notice than his usual vacation at an odd time.

“Are you about to have a baby? Is this a parental leave?” I asked.

Yes, he admitted, a boy.

I expressed my happiness and congratulations. But, I had a question:

“Do you remember that dream I had a while back? About you having a new baby boy?”

Yes, he said.

“Was your wife, by any chance, 5 months pregnant at the time?”

Yes.

“Did you think about that then? Did my dream seem strange or uncanny to you? Because I remember saying that it felt like a weird dream for me to have – and I worked very hard to try to understand how it might have been about me! But, now I see, it was also about you – or about us both!

Yes. He had thought of that.

“Well it would be very helpful to me if the next time that happens that you just let me know so we can sort it out. Maybe in a previous session I was sensing that you were internally preparing for the birth of your son, I’ve known you through other parental leaves, and I – or maybe both of us – felt that I was intruding on that scene. And you sort of left me trying to take responsibility for the whole unconscious scenario by myself.”

Fair enough, he promised.

Enlightening an interpretation on the subjective level…may be entirely worthless when a vitally important relationship is the content and cause of the conflict. Here the dream content must be related to the real object. ~ C.G. Jung, Dreams

Many many years later, following a weekend which involved a very emotional and excruciatingly painful crisis involving my family of origin, a client of mine reported this excerpted dream (with permission) which she had herself after the previous Thursday session:

“You were motioning me to wait – but this guy started to upset you.  I thought you’d tell him to stop going through your papers (they were certificates, I think, of your degrees or licenses or something). Instead, your emotions quickly escalated and you started yelling / pleading with him to stop – and you screamed ‘what are you doing! you’re ruining my life’ He was completely in control of upsetting you.

You sat down across from me, legs curled in and started crying out of control.  I couldn’t help but to cry as well – seeing you in so much pain. You were destroyed.  I think I tried to hug you but you were a broken, small, mangled version of yourself.

There was a pause in the dream. I’m telling you about the dream that I just had (above)- and how upsetting it was for me because it was so strange but midway through, it’s abundantly clear that you’re not listening.  You’re going through your papers.

I stopped talking mid-sentence and waited. You looked up at me and I asked you if you’re listening – if you’re with me.  but you weren’t. So I got up to leave, undramatically. but really very upset. And I said “I can’t do this.” you just watched and didn’t stop me.  I left without looking back.”

Her “strange” double dream not only anticipated my unexpressed concern with a crisis that was about to erupt, the distress I had been in – it showed me the ways in which I could re-injure the client, abandon her and damage our alliance if I chose to hide behind my professional papers, degrees and certificates.

We began by exploring her associations and history, her relationship with her wounded parent, and her personal subjective assumptions about the dream – I started slowly, as, frankly, I did not want to expose the details of a personal conflict that felt still vulnerable and I did not want to burden the client or require that she take care of a “small broken” version of myself. Neither did I want to abandon her behind a professional stance that exempted me from my responsibility for my own unconscious processes as they influenced the treatment relationship.

As we were about to move on, just as the subject was changing, I summoned my courage:

“So, listen, there may also be another component in the dream. You’ve been going through a very intense time, and I know that you have been really needing me lately, and whenever we feel we need someone, we watch them very closely. I am wondering if this dream may also be about me in someway… After our session on Thursday, I had a family emergency/crisis which flared up, and I think, I did, over the weekend feel quite small and broken and I did cry a great deal like in your dream. I wonder if you were reading the signs in me, maybe in the same way you learned to at home, to anticipate an upcoming crisis. And then, the second part of the dream expresses your fear that I could deny your astute perceptions of me, and just pretend that nothing ever happened. Kids learn to read their parents like the weather, and maybe you were reading me, and feeling my own storm coming on, and then expecting that I would just act like you hadn’t felt anything real about me.”

“Yes”, she said, breathing more deeply.
“I must have felt something coming on. I always had to do that at home, and my family would act like I was crazy.”

More deep, relieving breaths.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

“Yep.” I answered, “I take good care of myself.”

“It must be left to the analyst to decide how far he, himself, is the patient’s real problem” ~C.G. Jung, Dreams

In some therapeutic relationships, dreams become the transitional play-space where the patient and the therapists’ unconscious processes communicate and play with each other, telling us both about the aspects of the therapeutic relationship that we have consciously missed.

I’ve learned to trust my dream life, and my clients dream lives as they sense and sort through the unconscious processes that exist as a dynamic in relationship to others, to the systems we live in, to the culture and communities we embed ourselves in.

“That is to say, I take dreams as diagnostically valuable facts”
~ C.G. Jung, Dreams

I once dreamed about a client who was unable to tolerate weekly therapy and had terminated abruptly:

I walk down the streets of the city through various familiar neighborhoods and the client pops up randomly, here and there, as if they are making brief, cameo appearances -walking on the sidewalk next to me, coming out of a store, standing at the cross walk as I pass – in a movie that is about something else.

I realized upon waking that I needed to let the client come in as needed, pop up, pop-in, and not try to force them to into my story-board of weekly standing appointments.

Certainly there are many dreams that emerge entirely from our personal unconscious, our unprocessed conflicts alone, calling attention to our history of past traumas, losses and misattunements.

But in the past fifteen years of recording my own dreams, my dreams of clients, and my client’s dreams, it has become obvious to me that dreams serve many other functions as well.

Last night I had that dream again. I dreamed I had to take a test In a Dairy Queen on another planet. And then I looked around And there was this woman… She was writing it all down. And she was laughing. She was laughing her head off. And I said: Hey! Give me that pen! ~ Laurie Anderson Talk Normal, lyrics

I’ve come to think of dreaming as a natural, sensory and relational phenomenon, a means of digesting and incorporating our unconscious perceptions: dreams solve problems, anticipate transitions, highlight things we have overlooked, prepare us for dangers, help us communicate to each other, tell us what issues our psyche is working on in the background, reveal what lives and moves out of our awareness, point out imbalances in our relationships and environments, and extrapolate/project future outcomes from the current trends in the patterns we are embedded in personally, relationally, systemically, and globally.

All of nature talks to me. If I could just figure out what it was trying to tell me. Listen!
~ Laurie Anderson, Sharkey`s Day, lyrics

Many clients in the weeks before 9/11 reported dreams of the like that I have not experienced since. I had been enrolled in a Depth Psychology class studying Jung at an institute in the city, and everyone in the class was asked to keep a dream journal for ourselves, and for all our clients’ dreams. The week before the attack on the World Trade Center, we read aloud from our journals: Strangely, there were many dreams within dreams: of kamikaze jets flying down the streets of the city, of giant tornadoes coming “from the east” which destroyed tall buildings killing hundreds of people, dreams of four giant bombs dropped from the sky but the fourth one doesn’t explode. And those were just my clients. Other classmates’ journals contained surprisingly similar themes and images: lost pilots, building explosions and collapses, one classmate’s client dreamed of turning over the Tower card from the tarot deck.

We wondered together what violent shift was present in the environment that could be reflected in the community’s dreams.

Perhaps any random sample of dreams reported at any given time would contain similar imagery.

I don’t deny the statistical realities of probability or chance.

But I haven’t been privy to a similar thematic thread since.

And I would damn sure brace myself if I was.

Some say our empire is passing as all empires do. And others haven’t a clue what time it is or where it goes or even where the clock is.
And oh, the majesty of dreams, an unstoppable train, different colored woodlands. Freedom of speech and sex with strangers
~ Laurie Anderson, Another Day in America, lyrics

I’ve had dreams, for example, where one highly/overly intuitive client critiques my treatment of another client with a highly/overly developed thinking function: the dream itself offering me excellent insight and supervision into both of the clients undeveloped bits and the functions that I am called upon to strengthen in each of them.

Sometimes I share dreams that have been helpful to me in a case with the client.

Sometimes I don’t.

And another interesting “strange dream” phenomena, which I have experienced many times – A client and I dream a similar sounding dream, the day or two before session, from different vantage points: A dream of a terrible storm in a steep valley, me looking from the ridge of the hill, the client looking at the clouds coming over the high tree-line. A dream with the client swimming against the current, tiring in the water looking up at a woman in a small boat, and me, in a small canoe trying to figure out how to pull a drowing client safely on board.

The dual dream content itself is usually fairly obvious, and takes little work to interpret, but the synchronistic phenomena itself has come to represent to me a kind of alchemical consolidation of the therapeutic relationship itself.

Our unconscious lives have found themselves in the same place, in the same time, working on the same problems, from different perspectives.

I don’t claim that this is science.

Nor do I believe it to be magic.

I remain agnostic as to the ultimate causes or explanations for such synchronistic and unconscious experiences.

But, to the degree that the function of dreaming remains mysterious, and unknown, perhaps we can only approach such mysteries with faith.

And to learn how our dream lives, whatever their origin or function, can serve to deepen our connections to each other and the world around us.

There was this man…And there was this road…
And if only I could remember these dreams…
I know they’re trying to tell me…something.

Ooooeee. Strange dreams.
Strange dreams

~ Laurie Anderson, Sharkey`s Day, lyrics

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Wrong Road

“So what do you think is the right thing to do?”

“So should I leave him?”

“Should I take the job?”

“So are you saying I should tell my mother this?

There is one, simple, correct therapeutic answer to all of these questions:

“What the hell do I know?
What am I? A fortune teller?”

It is true that over the past two decades I’ve had a chance to watch a lot of people make a lot of decisions and I have borne some witness to the outcomes.

There have been trends, there are some patterns that emerge. I do have a sense, an impulse about the kinds of decisions will lead to conflict and chaos, or those that may make life more stable and comfortable.

There are statistical truths. But no one can tell you where one individual’s choices will place them along the statistical spread.

And in my experience, the worst outcomes from bad decisions emerge when bad decisions become cumulative.

It is generally true, perhaps, that impulsive, drunken Las Vegas wedding-chapel marriages between strangers are generally not successful – and if you were consulting with me – and if you paused the evenings revelry long enough to place a long-distance call for an urgent phone session and I picked up the phone (this has never happened and would never happen) I would undoubtedly express my concerns. I would encourage you to slow down, sober up, and think about it tomorrow – remind you that it is a decision that doesn’t have to be made tonight, and I would try to understand what lurks behind the intense urgency.

But always with the same caveat:

What the hell do I know?
Perhaps you’ll be divorced in a month, perhaps they will take you for everything you own, or perhaps, you’ll be married happily and prosperously for 50 years.

Chances may be slim mind you, but its possible.

If your intuition is pressing you forward despite all reservations – you will likely go ahead no matter what I say and meet your fate on the road ahead.

Perhaps this is the best or the worst choice imaginable, and either way it could change your life forever. Maybe it is the very wrongness of it that makes it a necessity. Maybe you in fact need to experience the terrible and awesome intersection of fate and free-will in order to face your destiny.

Such fateful decisions and dangerous trials loom at the heart of every myth and fairy-tale:

“Hansel, since you asked: I think you need to proceed with caution if you are planning to nibble nibble on that candy housekin like a little mousekin. And, you should talk to your sister, Gretel about it as well. Of course you are starved and abandoned – but, in my experience such candy houses are generally built by cannibalistic witches who use them to fatten children up for dinner – so be prepared. You do have other, more prudent options: you can collect kindling and try to fish from the nearby brook.”

“But what the hell do I know? Perhaps by surviving this witch, and finding a way to recognize and protect yourself from the Dark, Toxic mother, the archetypal Sow Who Eats Her Own Piglets you will be able to at least hear the song bird of your own psyche leading you back home, to your loving father. You’ll have to make your own choice, and encounter your own destiny. I’ll be here to back you up whatever choice you make.”

Some of the greatest saints and heroes of myth and scripture headed down the wrong road.

And there was no stopping them:

Before he became Saint Paul, he was a political assassin known as Saul, who set off down the road to Damascus “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (King James Bible Acts 9)

And as he set off down the wrong road of murderous intent, Paul met his moment of grace:

“And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? (King James Bible Acts 9)

An instructor who introduced me to Jungian thought once advised me with regard to a “problematic” case:

“You have to be careful not to take anyone’s Road to Damascus away from them”

Oedipus, on the other hand, did everything he possibly could to mitigate his fate. He tried to make the safest, most self-and-other preserving choices imaginable:

In spite of his beloved parents’ denials and their attempts to protect his royal inheritance, Oedipus struggles with a persistent nagging suspicion that he has been adopted. He decides to seek the guidance of the Oracle at Delphi to uncover the truth.

The Oracle apparently ignores his question and tells him instead that he is destined to “Mate with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire.”

Desperate to avoid his foretold fate, Oedipus leaves Corinth, believing that Polybus and Merope are indeed his only parents and that, once away from them, he will never harm them.

On the road to Thebes, he unknowingly meets Laius, his biological father. Unaware of each other’s identities, they quarrel over whose chariot has right-of-way. King Laius moves to strike the insolent youth with his heavy scepter, but Oedipus throws him down from the chariot and kills him, thus fulfilling the first part of the oracle’s prophecy.

And we all know what happens after that… poor man.

Oedipus made the most loving decision possible based on the data at hand – (although perhaps ignoring his own intuition that insisted he was adopted, driving his consultation with the oracle in the first place)

And he too, met his fate on the road.

I have no way of knowing if you are setting off on the road to Damascus or the road to Thebes when you find yourself at the crossroads of a potentially fateful decision.

The blatantly obvious Good decision, the choice motivated by the best intentions can lead to hell.

And the wrong road can lead to an encounter with Grace.

Both possibilities and their opposites exist.

There is no telling.

Whatever “wisdom” I may have accrued, I make no predictions.

I cannot seal your fate. I am no Oracle.

I can listen with you for the “tells” that your own intuition sends out. I can voice my own intuitions and sensations about what may lie down either path. I can help you prepare for what you may encounter. I can stay by your side, and help you respond in alignment to who it is you mean to be.

But, such choices will always be your own.

And listen to this:

Perhaps it is the very process of trying to make the “right” decision – the judgements we create against or in favor of what we perceive as a “good” or a “bad” outcome – that causes our fear and suffering.

Suppose there no merely good or bad option.

Perhaps there is only:
A decision and the consequences, -anticipated and unanticipated – that flow from it.

Light and darkness are always mixed up together. Good and bad luck too.

Darkness can never be avoided. It is present, in some form, in every choice we will ever make.

The question is how will we respond when it emerges.

As therapists, it is easy to be seduced into wanting to protect the people in our care from their own choices. To watch someone making a complicating, challenging mess-making choice can make us yearn to redirect and intervene. We wish we could “stop” it, and help them to make “better choices”

But, sometimes the hard road is the only road where we will meet ourselves.

And we must always bear in mind that everyone simply chooses the road they need to choose. Most often, we make the only choice we know how to make.

One of my kids favorite folk tales is found nestled in a popular children’s book:
Zen Shorts by John J. Muth.

The Farmers Luck is an ancient Taoist tale in which a wise farmer encounters many twists of fate. His horse runs away and the neighbors cluck: “Such bad luck!” And the farmer responds: “Maybe…”

The horse returns with a wild herd, and the neighbors cheer: “Such good luck!” and the farmer responds: “Maybe…”

His son breaks his leg and the neighbors cluck.. and the farmer responds “Maybe…”

Officials come to draft his son into the army, and the broken leg exempts him. And the neighbors cheer…

Maybe.

There is no right road. There is no wrong road.

But what the hell do I know?

Maybe, our task at the crossroads is simply to tolerate the Maybe.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Butterfly Effect

We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.
― Neil deGrasse Tyson

Every late August /early September it comes, whether I like it or not.

As soon as the wind shifts, without any invitation at all.

In fact, when I resist or forget that it is arriving, it bursts in a rage, like some slighted and pissed of fairy-witch that spits curses, wreaks havoc, and grinds the whole works to a stop.

When I just remember to behave with grace when it knocks it becomes a respectful, polite, if somewhat impinging guest who is aware that their presence is inconvenient, and unavoidably disruptive, and their scheduled stay just a little too long.

When I am attuned, prepared and accepting, it brings with it quiet pleasures and relief.

As the earth under my feet cools, and draws the heat out through the bottom of my feet, my sap no longer expands, but contracts, retreating from my extremities redirecting itself down, down my trunk traveling from the tips to the roots.

There was a time when I would have had no word for it other than “depression” – perhaps it was at the time, and could be again – maybe there were even a few seasons of my life -especially when I stubbornly refused to heed the signs or adjust my behavior- when it could have met the official diagnostic criteria.

Although I no longer think of it that way, not at all.

Now, with many years of practice, and deep listening to myself and the world around me, I know it is my body’s response to the season changing. It is time to start to pull my attention inward and conserve my energies again. To shift the rhythm of my household from spontaneous, open-armed outdoor adventurousness to books, indoor art projects, and homework at the kitchen table. To warm up my diet. To carry a light sweatshirt on my morning run. To eat less raw, cold food. To give up the iced coffees of summer. To start cooking again. To put cinnamon on my oatmeal, and to wear closed shoes on my feet. To find my light cotton scarves, to make sure my kids have windbreakers handy, and for us all to come in from outdoors a little earlier each day. To get the garden, and the rest of us, ready for a colder season.

The green drains from the leaves, the downward migration begins.

Everything turns, and begins to head south when summer is over.

Even the monarch butterflies

Why should I be exempt?

Why should you?

Living in NYC it is shockingly easy to forget that we live in a larger world, that we are among the animals on the planet, that we are inextricable from the natural world.

Our clocks, and TVs, computer screens and lightbulbs, our subways and taxis and over-air-conditioned workplaces and shops, the cement and brick and glass and steel horizons and the meticulously groomed parks help us forget our instinctive selves and our place in this world.

We cannot easily wade in the rivers, climb trees, we do not rake our lawns – we must schedule long car trips out of the city to see the leaves turn. We see only a few stars faintly, and the moon is more often than not, hiding behind a building. Windows look out on other windows.

Right now there is a storm raging outside, the winds are gusting up to 50 miles per hour, but out my office window you would never know it. Nothing moves. If I look long and closely, I see a pot of dead decorative tall grass bending on the sun-deck of the condo a few buildings over, only a very thin slice of the river far off and barely visible between skyscrapers shows some white caps on the waves.

But I have seen the Monarch butterflies – every single day for the past two weeks – but certainly not today in this wind – I have seen them, in purposive, directional flight, past my office window on the top of a Wall Street skyscraper. One at a time, flying by every couple of hours, migrating like birds, to their winter roost in Mexico.

The Eastern monarch migration is endangered, and monarch numbers dwindling. Stateside, municipalities mow highway medians covered with milkweed – which feed and sustain monarch breeding – to improve highway safety. Corn farming uses pesticides – which kill caterpillars – to insure sufficient crop yield. The local resident loggers in Mexico facing overwhelming poverty, cut down trees – that millions of butterflies route to, and roost in – selling lumber to feed their families.

Neither are the butterflies safe from the measurable effects of climate change: drought, dehydration, forest fires, increasingly severe storms.

And neither are we.

The clients who come to see me have heard many such stories, if not this one, then others. The plight of the distant polar bears, the poaching of elephants, the ever growing list of extinct and endangered species. The short-term, immediate desperate human demand for food, for folk medicine, for oil, for energy for money, for stuff, for power that makes us a danger to the natural order, and corrective natural phenomenon a danger to us as well.

The battle, a false dualism, appears to set human needs against the natural world. An intricate and complex interconnectedness has created a scenario that leaves all parties, residents and butterflies, in insufficiency.

This is the dark side of the archetype of Interconnectedness:

Nothing is without its shadow.
Every action has its reaction.
Everything we do can fuck something else up.

Acts of creation are usually reserved for gods and poets.
But humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how.
To plant a pine for example, one need neither be god nor poet;
one need only own a good shovel.
For one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun.

~ Aldo Leopold

as quoted in Monarch Butterflies, The Last Migration, by Benjamin Vogt

All archetypes are bivalent, and two-faced.

Every gesture we make has the power to heal something too.

What often looks terrible can be essential and transformative.
And what looks good and clean and perfect will eventually reveal a darker under-belly.

If we were to live with awareness that we are of the earth and effected by it, and that we also have a significant effect up on the world – what would change?

Many shut down such questions down, dismissing the dilemma entirely, defensively certain that none of it matters anyway.

Some live in constant fear about coming catastrophes. Some are paralyzed with hopelessness.

Some believe, self-righteously, that they know as a point of fact, the “best choices” to make, the one right and true and obvious answer.

Others are just trying to tolerate the questions.

I ask myself what are my responsibilities and capacities as a psychotherapist in the face of it all.

Social workers emphasize the importance of understanding clients as “persons in environments” and as therapists, we are further trained to assess our client’s (and our own) capacity for healthy relatedness and ability to empathize with others. We try to discern and describe attachment styles and strengths. We take note of how well impulses are contained, if gratification can be delayed, and the development, or lack of judgement as well as short and long term reasoning. We determine the of severity of symptoms, orientation to reality, rigidity and effectiveness of defenses. All of these assessments are based, in large part, on our proximal environment of human relationships and structures, particularly co-workers, immediate friends and family.

But perhaps we are also called to asses the larger circles of interpersonal functioning beyond the immediate tribe and social environments, widening to include our interconnections to the much larger communities we dwell within: the local, regional and global community, our immediate habitat, region and ecosystem.

Insurance companies do not require us to assess the sense of relatedness and relationship to the planet itself. Our training rarely helps us figure out how much our client may or may not feel themselves to be a indivisible part of the natural world, or how divorced they may be from understanding their integral and entwined position among plants, oceans, animals, weather, bugs, bears, bats, clouds, soil, light and climate. How aware are we of the fact that our individual beings, and our supposedly self-determined fates remain absolutely inseparable from each other and the rest of the creatures, minerals and vegetables and vapors swirling around on this blue dot?

Here is what I do know: we are rarely destroyed, but usually strengthened by facing our fears and integrating our shadows, both personally and collectively.

As psychotherapists it has always been our obligation to promote our clients awareness of themselves in a larger environment, and deepen their contact with strengthening realities, even if approaching reality is uncomfortable or difficult.

As clients, we are called to face and accept what we do not want to know about ourselves.

Jesus sat under the sky on the hot desert sands to face down his shadow, Buddha sat under the Bohdi tree, with a finger touching the earth. Fairy tale heroes and heroines must commonly align themselves with animals of the forest, and draw on the support of flora and fauna to conquer the witches and demons that threaten them. The desert, the tree, and the animals guide them into deeper contact with themselves-as-part-of-the-larger-world, and therefore, more in touch with themselves, and more in touch with the world.

When we allow ourselves to wonder about what it means for us to be absolutely intertwined and interdependent upon the natural world at this point in history, we may feel angry or impotent, afraid, overwhelmed, anxious about what is to come, disoriented about how to proceed when our culture produces so many diversions, distractions and explicit minimization and misinformation.

Raised in captivity in labs, experimentally living under controlled temperatures, sheltered from the wind, the sun, the rains, adapted to prolonged artificial lighting, or exposed to electromagnetism the monarchs also become lost and disoriented. When they are released during the migratory season they scatter in random directions.

How do the wild monarchs find their over-wintering trees? They have no cognitive knowledge of how the hell to get to Mexico. They are two or three butterfly generations away from the tree where their grandmothers wintered before laying spring eggs.

Like us, they are heading somewhere they have never been before.

But somehow they do know. Or they figure it out.

They feel the cold slowing the beat of their wings. Too cool, and they are paralyzed, frozen. Too hot and they dehydrate. They fly just enough toward the sun, to the south, toward conditions that allow them to keep moving, that maximize their strengths, and ultimately to the roosts that support the survival of their species and the lives of their offspring.

Like the Fisher King who must heal his own wound before his land and grounds will be fertile again, our work will begin by accepting that we hold many illusory beliefs about ourselves as entirely autonomous and self-determining, and by addressing our own estrangement from ourselves, and the truth of our essential, undeniable interdependent nature.

Some how, monarchs are able, with much smaller brains than ours, to feel their own bodies, to read the weather and to instinctively feel where they are and where they are headed and how they should respond to the earth itself.

They will start the trip all alone, heeding the warnings of colder realities. They glide and soar and flap toward the sun, and catch thermal winds that warm and animate them, they follow a circular and indirect route. In time, those that survive and are not eaten or blown off course will gather in a flocks – or more properly a rabble of butterflies. The rabble will increases in size until they are in the hundreds of thousand in flight together. As they near their destination millions upon millions of them will soar together, they will stop traffic, and darken the skies.

But for now, I sit in my office and watch for them – one at a time, caught in updrafts, swirling through thermals, sometimes switching directions and then switching back, undaunted and too small to be afraid of what lies ahead or to dread the arduousness of the long and treacherous journey, each slowly, steadily finding their way to where they are meant to be.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Books that informed me in writing and for more reading:

Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly
by Sue Halpern

Monarch Butterflies: The Last Migration
by Benjamin Vogt

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy
by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
by Alan Watts

Portrait of the Psychotherapist as a Young Artist.

Someone just asked me how I decided to become a therapist.

It’s a question I am asked from time to time. I’ve answered different ways at different times of my life, and understood my trajectory toward this point in different ways.

This is my answer for the moment.

There is of course, a longer, far more complex narrative, of which I am only partially aware. I suspect the unconscious processes, both personal and collective, that set me on this path began the day I was born, or maybe even before.

But there was, in fact, a moment when I actually decided, or perhaps realized, that this was the path I intended to pursue.

I had majored in Theater and Philosophy in undergraduate – and had dropped out, smack in the middle of my senior year – giving my parents a total heart-attack (and completely in keeping with their own history of totally impulsive shenanigans) and certainly disappointing many of my professors in both majors who believed in and supported me.

Why? I only knew that I couldn’t do it any longer – continuing to work to finish my undergraduate degree felt “wrong” and utterly intolerable. In fact, I felt that I somehow needed to “save” my final semester, and any graduate schooling for “later.”

That was the best explanation I could muster.

I could not invest any more energy consolidating the identity I had cobbled together out of scraps and left overs. I could not would not stack one more brick in the construction of a jerry-rigged persona. It would either work or it wouldn’t based on whatever effort I had already put in. “I” was held together with spit and duct tape but I was either “good enough” as is, or I wasn’t. It was time to find out.

I had started therapy the year before dropping out – and was certainly the most annoying, defended, overtly resistant patient that had ever presented voluntarily in a therapists office. Her obvious empathy annoyed me. I didn’t want someone to empathize with my “troubles.” I wanted someone to say I was going to be just fine, I was following my heart and that these instincts certainly meant something important. I wanted her to assure me that there were many roads to happiness, and that I was sure to have a bright future ahead of me if I stubbornly followed my intuition, and so to not be afraid. She said none of those things. She looked concerned. I hated her more than half the time. The rest of the time she scared the shit out of me.

I got a mindless gig in a nearby restaurant, relieved and happier in obedience to the pressing internal mandate. I gazed down on the ceremony from high up in the amphitheater the day my dearest friends and my class graduated without me – without a drop of regret. I had no desire to flip my tassel.

I left that state and that therapist the first chance I had, and never looked back.

The next seven or so years are a blur. I did a brief stint in a regional theater and eventually moved to New York with hundreds of thousands of other 20 year olds to act and act out.

Here is what I remember: the East Village & Alphabet City, waiting tables, various very bad boyfriends, auditions, panic-attacks, bar tending, head-shots, grief, acting gigs, mourning, the Equity Actors union waiting room, flash-backs, and scraping by.

I found my second and final therapist – and used all of my personal resources just to show up regularly. I offered up my cash tips from my black half-apron pockets for what seemed to have become my central task in life: Therapy. Twice a week. I didn’t know why it felt like I was living life in a giant pin-ball machine – buffeted from one misery to the next – and worse: I had the terrible, unshakable sensation that whatever the crap was playing out – it had all happened before.

And I wanted it to stop.

Of course it had all happened before – but I had no idea what a “repetition compulsion” was – I just knew I hadn’t liked it the first round either.

I was pursuing acting as a career. I worked in the restaurant industry. But, it was clear as crystal that showing up for therapy was my real job.

Somewhere in there I met a boy, a stable and kind boy, and would eventually move in with him. His parents had been holocaust survivors, and he seemed completely undaunted by my little shit-show. He remains undaunted and steadfast to this day.

This next part is aesthetically humiliating but true. I paid what must have been seven bucks at the time to see a matinée of the Prince of Tides. I went alone. I remember very little of it. The therapist, played by Barbara Streisand is bad – probably as terrible as the movie, and also bad as in naughty. Does she sleep with a patient? Or just the sibling of a patient? Not that that is okay either. She is categorically a bad therapist in a bad movie – but, I experienced a strange overwhelming confluence:

Here was an actress, playing a therapist. Something shook loose in my head. An actress, one known to have had a lot of psychotherapy, was acting as if she was actually a therapist.

Hmmmmm.

When the movie finished, I spent another seven bucks and saw it again. I next went straight to Samuel French theatrical publishers and bought every little paperback copy of every play I could find with a therapist in it.

It was in the early nineties that I purchased my own first book on psychodynamic theory. The title caught my attention as I had been reading Joyce: “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient” by Gerald Alper.

The first paragraphs of the preface sent me straight to the cashier to smooth out a stack of crumpled bills from the bottom of my backpack:

“The artist who appears here belongs to a special population of struggling, non-commercial, artist-patients rarely seen in the private office of a psychoanalytic psychotherapist (as is the case here) for the compelling reason that they cannot afford a normal fee”

and further down the page:

“Here is the common, recurring profile of the artist as patient: someone in their mid to late twenties, more likely female than male…. generally not indigenous to New York City, but arriving and settling in from the Midwest and even California, an aspiring actor, actress, dancer, musician, painter, singer or writer; generally unemployed in his craft and having to fall back on part-time survival work such as waiting tables in restaurants (almost unanimously despised) predominant presenting problem of depression (often narcissistic) work inhibition, creative block, paralysis of initiative, and day to day functioning accompanied by frequent feelings of inner deadness”

Yikes. Was he supervising my therapist?

In it, he discusses his caseload of young artists, in the 80’s, surviving and suffering and acting out in the East Village, in the ten block radius around my fifth floor walk-up.

I had no idea at the time if it was a “good” piece of clinical writing or not – and had never heard of any of the theorists he referred to – Kernberg, Kohut, Winnicott, and Bateson’s’ “double bind.” The book felt like a cold slap: pathologizing, harsh, objectifying. But, absolutely no less objectifying than the restaurant managers or casting directors that dismissed, criticized or hollered at me every single day. The case examples seemed off-point, and unlike any peers I could identify with. Little was discussed about the complexities of creative processes, or career building. No stories of hope or big breaks.

Just stories of symptoms and dreams of loyalty to a creative process going no-where. No Where.

Yet, Alper was clearly familiar and compassionate toward my tribe of misfits when he discussed us in aggregate. All of us thin-skinned folk, hoping to make a creative living off of the utter sensitivity of our exposed, raw nerve endings, bruised and battered by brute contact with the pointed corners of unyielding reality.

Many of us trapped, feeding the insatiable appetites of demanding patrons during the day, while unable to satisfy our own deepest hungers.

He even describes the “waiter’s nightmare” which haunted me for many years:
“gigantic outdoor cafes, peopled by hundreds of clamoring patrons, situated thousands of feet apart”

Re-reading it now for the first time twenty years later, clinically, it’s not my professional language, or model, and doesn’t speak to my practice or approach. The book is too focused on psychoanalytic diagnostics for my taste – all artistic processes redefined as a cocktail of healthy and pathological narcissistic processes – artist’s relationship to his talent/creativity: narcissistic, to the audience: narcissistic, and all artists and participants in the creative act: narcissistic. Kohutian, Kerbergian, or Winnicottian – it seems unnecessarily reductive of what, in my view, are essentially numinous, spiritual, unconscious processes of the psyche.

Of course, there is always danger of inflation and deflation when wrestling with archetypal content and the Unconscious. But in my work over the past 15 years with the same struggling creative population – too many writers, actors, musicians, playwrights, dancers to count – I have come to think of the suffering artist much more as an “identified patient” in a disordered environment. They are the Cassandras, the too willing scapegoats, the canaries in our coal mine. They feel the toxicity in any system first – and often respond before they know what they are reacting to. Artists struggle to give it voice, shape, movement, and symbol so the rest of the community can confront the shadow content that would otherwise be ignored, repressed, disavowed. The artists I have seen, seem to me, not narcissistic enough. Too willing to be dismissed as flakey, as failures, too willing to absorb the collective toxins, take them into their own systems to metabolize, and transform them into something beautiful or communicative or confrontative. Eternally, masochistically hopeful that they can make the deaf hear, the blind see, artists do so at costs to themselves they don’t always recognize.

A little like therapists.

Yet, Alper was clearly a caring and compassionate therapist, and the parallels between creative and clinical inspiration and artistry are not lost on him. Alper mentions that he was a novelist before becoming a therapist, and describes the pursuit of a career in psychoanalytic psychotherapy as a “decision to try and earn a living doing the thing we most love.”

Twenty years ago this was perhaps the first time I had the notion that 1) I had a not-so-common sensitivity, receptivity, and a relationship to my own unconscious processes, and 2) It was actually a skill set I had developed – as well as a deficit. Also, 3) that this skill set was maybe even directly transferrable to work as a therapist.

The same year, I was working on a piece of experimental theater – “workshopping” some obscure German Expressionist piece, with a group of other wounded waiters I knew. The two “producers” had hired a “director” with some family funds – and we were using psychodramatic exercises, along with our own significant trauma histories to “flesh out” the sparse, strangely translated text. Putting all our horrors “on their feet” and improving our way through our worst and cruelest “high-stakes” memories. Beatings. Abuse. Discovering suicided family members. Psychotic breaks and involuntary commitments. Drug overdoses.

We thought we were being brave and creative. Now, I can see that it was just so obviously, and on every level: A Very Bad Idea.

When the final actor had exposed his own darkest living nightmare for others to enact, I heard the director whisper to himself:
“This is good…. we can use this….”

That night, I called an old dear friend: She had walked through her own house of horrors – and wasn’t all the way out yet, but she had managed to get her MSW a year or two before and was, as a result, way more gainfully employed than I was.

“Use this??!!” I hollered into the phone, back when people talked on phones. “Use this?! Is this what all actors are doing all of the time!? Use this!! This SHOULD NOT BE USED! This shit is SACRED unto ITSELF! We should only respect it and sit near it and bear witness!”

The first eight words of her response changed my whole life:

“You don’t have to be an actor, you know. There are lots of actors who would kill to be getting the work you complain about.”

“Wait?! What did you say?!!?!? Excuse me did you say: “I DON’T have to be an actor?! I don’t have to be an actor..… “

I thanked her and hung up. Called someone and quit the hot German-Expressionist mess. The next day I ordered catalogues from every social work program in the city. And called my would-be alma mater to figure out how the hell I was going to finish my degree seven years after dropping out.

Interestingly enough, I found out that my credits were on the brink of expiration, and if I had waited even a few more months, I would have had to start my Bachelor’s degree over. As it was, I transferred some credits back – and completed some research projects for independent study credits: One on the history of the Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side, and another on the Psychology of Creativity, extensively citing my favorite book du jour: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient.

One year later: I had tied up my loose ends, and enrolled in a clinical social work program.

So it is with deep gratitude and thanks to my chaotic inheritance, my first half-detested therapist, my disappointed professors, several bad boyfriends, every restaurant manager I ever was oppressed by, my husband, my final and current therapist, a sadistic director, Gerald Alper, my dear friend Julie, a Very Bad Idea, and of course ladies and gentleman, the Incomparable Barbara Streisand, that I exist as I am now:

A psychotherapist, no longer young,
but in many ways walking the same path,
practicing the art of psychotherapy,
with some success and some failures,
still struggling to remain loyal to the inner guidance of my own psyche and the creative process.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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