In Conflict

Anger (v) c.1200, “to irritate, annoy, provoke,” from Old Norse angra “to grieve, vex, distress; to be vexed at, take offense with,” from Proto-Germanic *angus (cf. Old English enge “narrow, painful,” Middle Dutch enghe, Gothic aggwus “narrow”), from PIE root *angh- “tight, painfully constricted, painful” (cf. Sanskrit amhu- “narrow,” amhah “anguish;” Armenian anjuk “narrow;” Lithuanian ankstas “narrow;” Greek ankhein “to squeeze,” ankhone “a strangling;” Latin angere “to throttle, torment;” Old Irish cum-ang “straitness, want”). In Middle English, also of physical pain. Meaning “excite to wrath, make angry” is from late 14c.  ~  ( http://www.etymonline.com)

So someone is always angry at me about something. At least one person a day, often more than that.

Often enough with good, fair reason and because of something I have done or not done, said or not said. I am running late. I push when I should have held back, or held back when more was needed from me.  I can make my own errors, stumble about, bang into a painful bruise. Sometimes I am clumsy, slow, frustratingly thick-headed. Or lost in my own projections, operating on an erroneous assumption, or stuck in my own subjectivity.

Sometimes people are angry because they have been sold a bill of goods, hopefully not by me, although I am probably also a participant, that psychotherapy can offer them a cure, some relief, when the truth is less certain. Sometimes it can and sometimes it can’t.

People get angry that I don’t have the magical powers to take their pain, their confusion, their ambivalence, to heal the wound away.

Some become angry that I don’t just know. Right away, instantly, what is needed and how to provide it. Sometimes people become angry because they have told me what they want from me, and they believe that I am withholding, refusing to cough it up.

Some want to control, extract, command that I fill their need to their exact specifications and are enraged at the dereliction of my professional duties when that need remains thwarted, unfulfilled, exposed, empty when I can’t. Or won’t.

Some become smaller, exceedingly polite, self-diminshing in order to metabolize the anger that a mis-attuned moment has activated. And then I have to drag  it out of them:

“I wonder if something I said made you feel angry?”

“No. I am not angry….”

“Well, something shifted in our conversation and it seems like maybe I said something that hurt? Maybe anger is a strong word for you? How about annoyed?”

“Well, okay. Yes. Maybe I was a little annoyed”

Some become angry because I can see the pathway in, I have gazed at a vulnerable and naked space in them – and they want to cast me out and drive me away. Some are secretly terrified that I will go and their anger helps them organize a pre-emptive strike. Sometimes anger helps people self-regulate, manage their dependency, separate.

Sometimes the anger that emerges in session, or is directed toward me is obviously displaced, patently unfair. A lashing out. And still, somehow, it is almost always understandable to me when I can hold, or uncover the subjective context that it is embedded in.

Usually I am a participant. I bear at least some responsibility. At the very least I lit the fuse, even if I didn’t build the bomb.

Sometimes the client is angry or disappointed that I have my own wound. And they have found the very spot where my needs, my history, my trauma, my vulnerability lives and they want something from me in the exact pocket of my psyche where I have nothing to give at all.

Some attack or express contempt for my core values, my stance, my beliefs, my sense of what is right. Some reject the models of psychotherapy I have embraced, the patch of ground I stand my professional identity upon.

And of course, I get angry too.

I breathe and do my best to stay cool. I contemplate the tightness in my chest: What am I responding to? Where do I feel strangled, offended, tormented, grieved, distressed? What needs to be opened up between us in order to be released from this constriction? Where has our relationship grown too narrow?

If I am caught off-guard, or feel too reactive, too agitated, I  may ask to table the discussion until I can think with a cooler head. But the arrival of anger must never be ignored or forgotten. It is a sacred signal and attention must be paid. We must return to it, examine it, discover its gifts and lessons once our nervous system and our heart-rates have settled.

Anger and aggression have important, constructive functions too: to establish boundaries, to protect privacy and autonomy, to fight for justice, to correct imbalances, to guard vulnerability, to take risks, to hunt for prey, to compete for resources, nurturance and provisions, to challenge and surpass ourselves.

And sometimes to forcibly remove obstacles to intimacy and wholeness.

In relationships, anger points our attention toward the tight, narrow, constricted, strangled, tormented, wanting aspects of ourselves and others so we can broaden and console our hearts, release our fears, open wide our souls.

As frightened as we are of it, anger is a sacred energy – and a central one in the psychotherapeutic process.

I don’t ever intentionally provoke a client’s anger, but I am not fearful of it.  I don’t avoid conflict, because I know the gifts that it can bestow.

I try to inform every new client that comes into my office that anger has a place in our work:

“There will be times when I  disappoint, disturb or upset you. I won’t have done it on purpose, although it might feel like I have. Sometimes you may not notice it while you are in session – as most of us are taught to be agreeable and polite and avoid talking about such things – but it may strike you after you leave – on the subway ride home or even the next day. You may notice something sticking in your head, something I said or didn’t say that struck you the wrong way, that feels off, or annoying, or wrong. You may think to yourself  ‘Why the hell would she say or do that?’  If you notice any feelings or thoughts like that it will be extremely valuable and important, if you can, to bring that back in to our next session, or even to jot down a quick note so it doesn’t get lost in the weeks events- so that we can remember to talk about it. It may be hard and uncomfortable, but its really valuable  – and its an essential part of how therapy works.

It helps me to understand you as precisely as possible, to be a better therapist for you. You may point out things that I haven’t recognized or considered- or that I had a different perception of. Sometimes you may be distressed by some real limitation or blindspot I have, or even some core value that I hold that you disagree with. That is okay too. I can’t promise that I can always change or stop it whatever has been upsetting, but I can promise that I will always do my best to examine my part of any divergence that  comes between us and I will absolutely care about how it makes you feel. And if we can talk about it frankly, it may give us a chance to find a new way through, a new solution, a new space.”

It seems that whenever I have neglected to invite anger to enter into the process as a welcome guest, conflict barges in unannounced and unexpectedly, harming the therapeutic relationship – sometimes irreparably. Anger and conflict are experienced then, as definitive proof that something is wrong in the therapy, rather than as a vital component, a therapeutic mechanism of healing and connection.

Or, the relationship proceeds walking only the most avoidant and  domesticated paths, making the woods and the wilds of our innate aggressive impulses appear more terrifying, a place too dangerous to ever venture.

Conflict is part of the therapeutic process, not a failure of it. And part of this job is to initiate people into the generative, creative, and intimate uses of anger, and to learn how to move through the angry states in our psyche and our relationships in order to live, to love courageously, fearlessly, and honestly.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. ~ (Standard King James Version Genesis Chapter 32: 24-26)

Even when seems to have knocked us out of joint, conflict can bring blessings. Owning our anger explicitly, consciously, and constructively makes us more whole, and less afraid of ourselves.

And other times my job is just to survive it, withstand it, not be destroyed by it, and not let my love or my empathy be destroyed by it. To continue to have compassion for the distress that is present in front of me, to take all the responsibility I can for my part, and to understand that the rest is not about me at all.

If I can. I can’t always.

And sometimes even that is not enough.

It does neither of us any good for me to merely withstand abusive energies. Limits must be set. There are things I can’t accommodate. Angers I cannot absorb. It is my responsibility in those moments to set limits, protecting us both. I cannot let a client who needs me, harm me or compromise my integrity or we are both lost.

Anger is at once an energy which destroys and derails, and one which creates, strengthens, and fuses and purifies, through its refiners fire and alchemical heat.

Part of my job, as I see it, is to initiate clients into the constructive, transformative, generative uses and processes of anger.

Any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy ~ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109a.27)

If we can manage to wrestle through conflict squarely and bravely together – operating in good faith – or setting limits when anger has temporarily washed good faith away – certainly it is not difficult to see how to carry those processes out into the world, into other relationships.

The word wrestle, derives from “wrest” from the Old Norse, meaning “to bend” and the healing forms of anger make way, when we have listened to each other deeply, for us to release our tormented tightness and constriction, and discover how to bend toward each other.

What is external occurs internally as well, so our well negotiated conflict also becomes model, a mirror to help us sort through purely internal arguments between conflicted self-states.

It is exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings with equal rights, each of whom gives the other credit for a valid argument, and considers it worthwhile to modify the conflicting standpoints by means of thorough comparison and discussion or else to distinguish them clearly from one another.  ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.

How else will we change each other? How else will be transformed?

If we avoid what we fear in ourselves, and in each other – what will be possibly be able to learn about ourselves?

The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites. The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living third thing… A movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation. ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.

But first we must embrace the wrestling match.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Seed

To see things in the seed, that is genius – Lao Tzu

At the initial consultation with any new case, I search for the seeds. The small, encapsulated point of contact that is filled with all the potential for whatever might be able to grown between us, as well as the seeds of destruction: the previous patterns and pre-existing conditions that will challenge any healthy connection and may even block our growth together entirely.

And there is something else I am scanning for as well. Something more mystical maybe – something that a good evidence-based skeptic would scoff at; a sense of the soul-seed of the person sitting across from me.

There are intuitive indicators internal and external: a client who reports a dream that led them to me, a certain kind of swelling identification, a little empathic heartbreak, the wish to soothe and console or a restrained impulse toward all-out rescue. A sensation that makes my heart feel bigger than it was before we were introduced, a rising courage to withstand something I had been afraid of seconds earlier, for the sake of a just-met person whose name I am not quite sure how to spell yet.

This Soul of mine within the heart is smaller than a grain of rice, or a barley-corn, or a mustard-seed, or a grain of millet, or the kernel of a grain of millet. This Soul of mine is greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than these worlds. (The Upanishads, Chandogya 3.14.2-3)

I look for some intuitive confirmation that we may be right for each other and that I can provide the necessary conditions for their truest destiny, the best, deepest, highest, hardiest Self to emerge. I am trying to assess if I have the resources to support them in withstanding and thriving even if the elements are less than ideal, if the therapeutic connection I can provide will prove to be fertile soil.

But even if I spy these tiny potentialities, there is no predicting with any degree of certainty what direction they will grow, or if they will take root at all. What we hope for together may not manifest. Who you think someone will become may bear no resemblance to who they turn out to be. Nothing is as consistent over time as we would hope.

Farmers know this in their bones, there are few certainties.

Except for one:

The Mother and the Mustard Seed
A woman whose child had died asked Buddha to resurrect her babe. Buddha promised that he would do so when she returned to him with a mustard seed from a home that had not been touched by death. She traveled from village to village seeking a home where no one had died. She returned to Buddha without the seed, realizing that death and suffering were inescapable, and vowed to spend the rest of her days seeking to console the suffering of others.

Personas, false selves, and even what were seemingly core identities can, terrifyingly, die on the vine in an instant. As external conditions are always changing, our route to survival and growth can cause us to diverge from any anticipated trajectory. We are epigenetic creatures: we are no fixed thing. There is a step-wise process through which the inner germ of our identities, triggered by external and environmental influences, can lead us to act in ways that we could never have planned for. And which could never be discerned from gazing at the dormant seed, or the picture on the front of the seed packet.

Too many people I thought I had known throughly – both in and out of the office – have suddenly blossomed or gone to seed, flourished or died out, transforming into someone, or some alternate way of being that I could never have anticipated and which surprises me utterly. Sometimes it is a heartbreak as they become something I can no longer recognize, relate to or understand at all. Sometimes the harvest is more abundant than I could ever have hoped for.

And certainly, there are times that whatever I envisioned at the outset – for good or for ill – was just dead wrong. Even the gods don’t hazard such predictions.

Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. ~ Matthew 13 King James Bible

The surprise unfolds in both directions. Cases I thought I was foolish to take on become deeply gratifying. Connections easily established fall to pieces. Perhaps the most surprising is when my initial impressions bear whatever fruit I thought they might.

Survival, and certainly the processes associated with thriving are inherently creative, and therefore surprising acts.

The “Seed of Life” is a sacred geometric pattern, consisting of seven circles in sixfold symmetry – an interlocking pattern of spheres and seeds – which forms a basic component of the Platonic solid known as the Flower of Life. ( http://www.geometrycode.com/free/seed-of-life-pattern-construction-using-compass/ ) In Kabbalistic thought it represents the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest.

The creative processes of adaptation and Life itself, which seems to unfold in a straightforward, sequential uninspiring manner, can startle and amaze us with their symmetry when viewed all at once or with hindsight.

The pattern repeats, until we become aware, and sometimes continues, even then, without our choosing. Organic growth rarely shows us where it is heading in advance. We never know for sure if the seeds we have sown will feed us or leave us hungry. It is, too often, only revealed after the fact.

Some seeds never sprout above ground at all, but do their work entirely deep below the soil, in the Underworld.

In Greek myth, when Persephone is kidnapped by Hades she retains every chance of being rescued by Demeter, her mother, assisted by Helios the sun – who locates the missing maiden – and Zeus who demands her return to resolve the global famine triggered by Demeter’s grief-tantrum. Until Hades offers Persephone a quick snack: six pomegranate seeds. Unbeknownst to her, swallowing those six small seeds -certain they were harmless refreshment, something she thought she knew and recognized, and yearned for as familiar nourishment – sentenced her to live as the bride of Hades, Queen of the Underworld, separated from her devoted Earth-Mother and all that she loves above ground for six months out of every year, half of the rest of her eternal life.

Attaching too certainly to our expectations of others, banking on potential outcomes can take us on dark and harrowing journeys.

When we fall in love, we are attaching to the archetypal Seed in the romantic Other. In the early months of connection, we fall for their potential, who they hope to be, what they might grow into, and who they wish they were – rather than who they actually are. Only time can reveal that.

And we can be proved wrong. Or perhaps we were exactly right, but that seed exists only as one potential among many. We can fall in love with something the beloved does not even know exists inside themselves. Certainly the mustard seed has no knowledge that it can grow into the tallest and most useful of plants.

Sometimes we can believe so much in the unrecognized potential of another that we can help them to manifest it, but only if it is what they yearn to grow into.

Other times, we find ourselves more committed to a Seed in our loved ones than they are. Anyone can choose to arrest or prune their growth, change direction, or yank a potential Self out at the roots. When this happens, attaching too tightly to our favorite Seed or the as yet unmanifest Best Self in our lovers, friends, children, parents, clients – can deplete all of our resources and yield nothing.

In ego-psychological terms this Seed can be thought of as the ego-ideal. In the Venn-diagram of Freud’s tripartite structure – the Ego-ideal lives in the seed shaped overlap, ( a vesica piscis) between the Ego (our conscious sense of self) and Superego (our internalized moral injunctions) It is the seat of our conscious dreams, ambitions and aspirations of who we believe we could and should be.

Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. ~ King James Bible, Luke 13:18-19

It is our ideal and idealize-able self, the Self that we need never feel guilty or ashamed of. The favorite Self that we wholly morally approve of, the Fulfilled Self, the Be-All-You-Can-Be Self. The Self many of us spend our lifetimes pursuing at a distance, our Actual Self lagging far behind.

Lovers, parents, (and therapists for that matter) need to see this in us, nurture it, admire and believe in it, but not too intensely. If they attach too exclusively this Seed, we will feel abandoned in our daily deficits and vulnerabilities. We will not feel loved for who we are, but only for the potential gratification our Seed-self can offer. We want our shitty, stupid, annoying, pain-in-the-ass bits – to be acknowledged – for that is where our deepest needs lie.

Loving relationships of all kinds wither when they are nurtured in the wrong way, loved too much for incomplete reasons. Too excited for the imagined harvest, there is no quicker way to kill a seedling than by overwatering. You cannot pry open a bud to see the flower or eat the fruit that lies within the pit.

The inherent mystery of the Seed – and perhaps of the therapeutic process itself – is this: It is a small piece of the whole which also contains the whole within it while at the same time it is also nothing definite at all, unmanifest, pre-existent, uncertain.

It is the starting point,
or not,
of a future completely unknowable.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Fire-Mouth

Persona: (Latin, “actor’s mask”) One’s social role, derived from the expectations of society and early training. A strong ego relates to the outside world through a flexible persona; identification with a specific persona (doctor, scholar, artist, etc.) inhibits psychological development. ~ Mario Jacoby The Analytic Encounter

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth. ~ Oscar Wilde, quoted in The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images

It started with a dream about red lipstick.

Bright red. A color I’ve never worn, except maybe during my onstage past.

When I woke up – I let my mind wander, and could almost smell my grandmothers lipstick, the blot of red lips imprinted on the tissue paper that floated down toward the wastepaper basket from the vanity.

My maternal grandmother – a farmer’s wife – put on her red lipstick, her girdle, her clip on earrings and sensible shoes before church on Sundays, or maybe in anticipation of a day trip up north to the city. By the time the car pulled off the rural route and back up the driveway home, the girdle, the earrings and the lipstick were all off – removed in the car on the trip home, if not even earlier in a powder room somewhere, stuffed in her handbag.

My paternal step-grandmother – on the other hand – wore red lipstick, and carried a long black cigarette holder in every photo and every single time I ever saw her (which was not all that often) at home with a martini playing bridge or for dinner at the Lafayette country club.

Their red lips marked them as surely as their affectionate kisses marked their grandchildrens’ cheeks: as women of a certain age and era, as women who were beyond thinking what the young thought of them – in the early 70’s the young wore heavy eyes and no lips – or no make up at all – and as old women who had no further interest in current fashion or trends.

Perhaps, in their twenties and thirties in the 1920’s and 30’s the same crimson mouth carried different connotations. Maybe at first a certain youthful, flapper-esque daring, and later a hat-wearing-lady-like respectability.

I thought of it as the fire-mouth, a severe slash of horizontal seriousness and propriety, as a war-face applied before heading into the fray. You took grandma seriously when she wore it. When the lipstick was on, she meant business, and would put up with no truck from a whining child. Red lips meant she had expectations of you.

I’ve never worn red-lipstick, because I associated it with elder maturity, the mark of the Crone, the kiss goodbye to youth and girlhood. For me, red lipstick is what white-haired old ladies, who you do not want to mess with, and who don’t give a shit about looking young anymore, wore when they meant business.

As I dozed and remembered the smell of my grandmother’s lipstick, the eye-watering pain of clip on earrings, and the click of a string of costume beads or the tap of the black cigarette holder in the ashtray and brittle looking ankles rising out of suede high heels I laughed to myself – realizing that already, twenty years younger than I ever remembered either of them being – I am already a white-haired woman, who doesn’t give a shit any more.

And who is done putting up with nonsense.

Time to bust out the red lipstick – and claim my own fire-mouth.

All transformations are invested with something at once of a profound mystery and of the shameful…. Metamorphoses must be hidden from view, and hence the need for a mask. Secrecy tends toward transfiguration: it helps what-one-is to become what-one-would-like-to-be;…. The mask is equivalent to the chrysalis. – Circlot: A Dictionary of Symbols.

As a kid, I was “taught” make up at the local community theater where I spent as much time as possible – as part of the actors craft. It made me younger when I needed to play a smaller child, could change my coloring and ethnicity when coupled with a blonde wig, and could turn me into a boy when needed. It’s first application marked the transition from rehearsal to performance. I once even raced from the theater, still covered with painted freckles, to my mother’s second wedding.

The directors who led our motley troupe – in a pick up truck and gun rack town – were older men: actors, opera singers, musicians who had modulated their big dreams to fit into an underfunded ramshackle theater in small town suburbia. After three or four years of loyalty and hard work as part of the repertory, at 14 or so I was invited to my first “grown up” cast party. The front door opened and I saw men known to me in the rehearsal hall as beige, gray, unshaven, and irritable, in all their glory: A silver turban, a sparkling purple beaded robe, an ivory kaftan with golden thread… and those rosy faces, cosmetically shaped jaw lines, flushed cheeks, dramatic eyes…

and of course, bright red lips.

The finicky and easily exasperated “old” men (probably younger than I am now) who barely tolerated a precocious child actor and regularly shushed me in the wings were suddenly alive, smiling, embracing me – offering me my first ever sip of their gin and tonic: “Just one sip! I do not want your mother to hate me!”

As beautiful as butterflies, as shimmery as peacocks.

Their painted masks introduced me to who they really were.

There are aspects of self that are only accessible and able to be revealed through a mask – as the external image and persona is manipulated to reveal aspects of our true selves that would remain hidden otherwise.

Since the mask stands between one’s self and the world it has a dual nature: It looks both in and out. A mask can disguise, cover, veil, lie, capture, release, reveal, project, protect, disown, recollect, deceive, dissociate, embody and transform. ~ The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images

Winnicott speaks of the True and False self in the same space that Jung speaks of persona and for both the false socialized self is seen as healthy and necessary to some degree for social functioning – without it we would say and do things impulsively, selfishly, that could expose our vulnerable true self or harm others. Healthy false selves keep us from killing when we feel murderous, or initiating sexual contact with everyone we are attracted to.

It also protects what lies underneath: Winnicott says that the False self often brings the true self to treatment – like a protective babysitter – to make sure that the therapist is safe enough, and has created a safe enough environment to let the True self emerge.

Aggression, rejection or distortion aimed at someone’s consciously crafted persona is annoying, but the same act committed upon a True Self is utterly annihilating.

Winnicott also chillingly describes the pathology of the False self:
A False Self that has convinced itself it is the True Self.

It is common for clients to present in therapy in great distress when they have become lost in their persona – when their relationship to their external facade has become disrupted, uncomfortable or painful as internal pressures, changing life-stages, or external events require the surrender or adjustment of the face they have constructed and presented to the world.

Clients can lose their jobs, their function, or their standing in the community that they equate with their identity: How will I recognize or myself if I am no longer wearing the mask of a philanthropist, a church volunteer, a doctor, an artist, a lawyer, a psychotherapist?

Some attach to their role in the family system: as spouse, son, daughter, parent, sibling. When the family system is disrupted by death or separation, divorce, adoption or reunion – they find themselves disoriented in relationship to their own persona.

Internal prods, the insistent Unconscious eruptions of the psyche, the push of pain and the pull of hope also can put us in a dissonant relationship to our mask of choice:
“I never thought of myself as some one who would have an affair”
“I used to love my profession, but I’m so burned out I think I may have to give up teaching”
“I’ve become someone who only takes care of children – if I don’t figure out who I am other than a mother – I’m going to explode – I can’t take it anymore!”

Suddenly, the soul demands that the old persona retire itself and a new mask must be painted that creates a face that matches and protects newly emerging aspects of the self.

Age and body changes associated with adolescence, mid-life and old age should move us through our make up and wardrobe transformations as well – some of us accept such mandated role and costume changes more willingly than others, and for some they evoke profound identity disturbance as their appearance no longer fits how they think of themselves.

There are darker functions served by masks as well:

Masks are also instruments of lies, tricks, and self-deception Our culture endorses the manufacture of many “good” and “branded” personas which mask greedy, devouring and destructive behaviors. Many of us think of ourselves as exemplary citizens while we have hidden from ourselves or flat-out ignored the destructive effects of our cars, consumption habits, institutions, corporations and governments on unseen or disenfranchised others and on other species, and upon the planet itself.

Pigs wearing lipstick abound:

Our culture denies bias, racism, and heteronormativity even while it remains manifest, food labeled “healthy” masks toxic farming practices. Clean coal. Industrial growth is the face of the dark trickster that depletes planetary resources.

Disasters emerge to pressure us to shake off our collective, cultural facades and bring our false fronts into alignment with our realities: terrorist acts, war, extreme weather events, gun violence. But, too often it seems that our collective cultural and national False Selves have usurped the Truer collective spirit.

We all lie to ourselves and to each other continuously. Those who hold on to their personas lightly are willing to adjust their sense of self to accommodate new information about their effect on others. Those who cling tightly to a false self, delete and deny any information that disrupts their status and sense of public persona.

Therapist’s very often find themselves sitting with clients who are actively consciously, or unconsciously deceiving themselves. Sometimes, they choose to maintain the front at all costs, as they hang on to a persona at the expense of their souls. Re-painting the house while the pantry is empty: Staying in dead marriages for fear of the neighbors’ judgement, managing to other parents competitiveness rather than to their own children’s needs, arranging outer-appearances to look just so while mess, chaos, and destruction storm within.

A mask is a disguise which transforms the wearer, hides or heightens his personality, or identifies him with the character of the mask. Purpose: Impersonation of deified natural forces, spirits of the dead, totemic, hunted or phallic animals, respected or derided human beings for:
1) arousal of a desired emotion: bravery, self-esteem, prophetic trance
2) exorcism of baneful sprits
3) coercion of more favorable spirits.
4) Social prestige
5) Moral control and social therapy by fright or burlesque
6) Entertainment by presentation of stories, sacred or secular or by laughter producing satire

Usually more than one motive is involved.

~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend.

I still put on my make up when it is time to perform.
Not much really, it’s the ritual that I require, the transition from the comfortable introverted privacy of home to the extraverted bustle of the city and the rigors of the office.

It puts my impinging vulnerabilities away inside. It draws out my sense of strength for those who need to see me as stronger than I may be.

I stand in front of the mirror as my grandmother did, as I did for years in the dressing room before curtain.

I stand still and look squarely in my own eyes: I pull out my brushes, with long black handles. Like my grandmothers cigarette holder, like the set of brushes that waited for me in the drawer at North County Community Theater.

I put on clean smelling lotion, and some translucent powder. (interesting slip – I first wrote “power”) I apply some mascara- I need big eyes to see deeply into complex problems.

And the last thing before leaving the house: I apply my fire-mouth:
For screwing my courage to the sticking point.
For telling difficult truths.
For giving voice to intuitions from the edge of awareness.
For calling bias, contempt, racism, objectification, and abuse by their true names.
For finding words for the destructive realities that we hide from ourselves.

And for reminding the world that I have expectations, and I am well past the point of putting up with nonsense.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Myth of the Good Client

So you want to be the best, most gratifying client ever? You want to insure that your therapist adores you, always looks forward to your sessions, gets as much out of working with you as you get from them? Thinks of you as polite, funny, intelligent, astute, self-reflective?

All that probably makes you totally anxious, ties you in knots, and blocks your ability to teach your therapist what it is you actually need from them. And what you don’t.

But it won’t make you a good or a bad client.

There are in fact clients that I’ve thought of as “bad clients” – and I’m certain that if you are concerned at all about “being good” that you are probably not one of them.

“Bad” therapy clients are those have presented in therapy with completely ulterior manipulative non-therapeutic motives (See Deliver Us: Thoughts on Evil in Psychotherapy http://wp.me/p1AOzF-74) who want nothing to do with engaging in a therapeutic relationship. They come because they think it will help them win a legal case, to create false “pain and suffering” for a spurious lawsuit, to establish trumped up psychological disability to subsidize leave from work while they look for a better paying job, to inflate their insurance claims following an accident, to do some seat time to placate the demands of some other person who has “forced” them into treatment – to prove to their employer or their partner that they don’t have a substance abuse problem (when they do), to try to coerce me into helping them rationalize abusive or destructive behavior toward others, to prove to themselves that therapy and therapists are all full of shit and therefore they won’t have to take responsibility for the pain they inflict on others or on themselves.

Those cases usually come to an impasse in a few sessions and they leave quickly as it becomes obvious that I will not provide whatever it is they are seeking from me.

But, not every “good” client shows up because they want to.

When I was in agency based practice, I worked with many legally mandated clients – clients whose probation or alternative to incarceration requirements (or parents or school principals – practically all kids and teens are “informally mandated” clients) required that they remain in some form of treatment. The first step was to assess the client’s capacity to engage in the process on their own, for their own purposes and to “undermine the mandate”:

“I know that to avoid trouble that you are required to be in treatment, but you are not required to be in individual psychotherapy with me – and there are many kinds of appropriate treatment I could suggest to your P.O. or to the courts (or your parents). I have a good communication with them and it won’t put you in harm’s way at all if I say that you would benefit more from an anger management group, or a recovery support group or some other kind of help. You’ve shown up at this appointment to meet your requirements, and part of my job today is to see if this is the right kind of support for you or figure out what might work better. Also, I am not mandated by anyone to provide services to you or anyone that I think will be ineffective, destructive, or waste my time or yours. So can you think of anything that you would like to talk about in therapy with me, or work on for yourself, to make your own life feel better? In other words: Is there is any part of you that might actually want to be here?”

Many stayed because they wanted to and to fulfill their mandate simultaneously, and we went on to do constructive, deep pride-inducing work together -and some were referred to other kinds of services.

Perhaps the rest of us are just mandated to seek therapy by Life Itself.

Ultimately what is a “good” case and what is a “bad” case has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the hope and fears, world view, strengths and limitations, and unconscious processes and projections of the therapist.

A “bad” case is lazy language for a case that activates the therapist’s sense of inadequacy.

I have no specialized training in eating disorders for example, and although I did a brief tour of duty in drug rehab and recovery for a few years – and have a working knowledge of the most basic treatment methods for both issues, I know that I do not have the skills necessary to support anyone but those in the very earliest stages of either of these conditions, those with the very best prognosis, or already well along in their recovery.

Sometimes clients don’t view themselves as having an eating disorder, or substance abuse problem – and present to therapy trying to address their depression and anxiety without treating the addictive or compulsive disease. Answers to assessment questions are minimized, or denied along with the painful core issue. No matter how much I may like someone, no matter how much I may wish to attach, support or help them, I will experience these as ill-fitting cases for me, cases where I will not be of use, where my hands are tied, my skill set the wrong one, or the modalities I offer are inappropriate to apply to the issues at hand. I will end up – in service of best practice and the clients well-being – referring the case on, (sometimes sadly and unfortunately experienced by such client as “sending them away” no matter how I try to articulate my limitations)

But these are not in any way bad clients, they are merely clients for whom I would be an expressly bad, or at best a not-good-enough therapist.

I have also been the wrong therapist for clients who may think that they want analytically informed therapy, but who in actuality want a great deal of concrete advice, or for me to dictate the number of sessions, focus exclusively on symptom reduction (rather than also searching for deeper understanding, more meaning in life, and greater acceptance of themselves) assign homework sheets, want me to provide concrete answers and prescriptions to “so what should I do now?” or expect that I will be the one to somehow “fix the problem.”

There are plenty of respectable therapists and coaches who work in a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and solution focused models, many of whom I admire, as well as groups and programs which will also offer more highly structured services. I begrudge no client (or therapist) their path or their process – it simply isn’t mine.

I’m going to ask you about your night-time dreams and try to engage you in exploring the symbolic content within and around you. I’ll ask about your past, your future, your relationships other people animals, the Earth as a whole, and to me. I’ll try to understand if your work and sexual life are satisfying and meaningful to you.

And if that isn’t what you want from therapy, I am sure to annoy the hell out of you. And you will blanketly reject what I do have to offer, which won’t be that much fun for me either.

(Although I do love being honestly and authentically disagreed with when my course need to be corrected. If you really want to be a “good” client, you’ll find some way, however polite and subtle to let me know when I’ve missed the mark, and hold out for being understood as precisely as possible)

There is another kind of client, that senior clinicians often call a “good training case” which is short hand for a client that would be a bad fit for their practice, but would benefit from a therapist who is building their practice, perhaps with a smaller case-load, where the client will have to share the therapist’s attentions and energies with fewer “therapeutic siblings”. There may be more space in the schedule for extra sessions, and more room to go the extra-mile for clients who may need more support, email or phone contacts than a therapist with a full and established practice can offer.

Therapists sometimes also need to balance their caseloads for their own well-being as their needs shift and change. Too many clients of one type, or with similar needs, or with one kind of presenting problem can leave a therapist burned out, overwhelmed, or as disconnected as a flight attendant offering instructions on how to buckle a seat belt. Too many challenging cases can fatigue a therapist, rather than keep them on their toes: too many easy-going clients can let a therapist phone it in as they lay back in their recliner.

Winnicott used to only allow one or two clients at a time to move through regression to stages of intense dependency as he would become too overwhelmed otherwise – and would either need to hold their dependency at bay until he was emotionally available, or refer the case to another analyst.

Therapists also balance their caseloads out by modality – (couples, individuals, groups, supervision etc) by diagnosis, by areas of speciality, and by fee. Early in my practice, I was firmly instructed by supervisors who cared about me, that I was not allowed to take on any more sliding scale clients – no matter how connected I felt or interesting the case until I had cared for my own basic financial needs. I now pass the same instructions on to overextended supervisees.

And by the way: A “good client” can look an awful lot like a “bad client” before trust, and an alliance is earned:

I remember presenting a case at my first clinical conference about a client I cared deeply about. During the question and answer someone asked if I had felt connected to him right from the start: In fact, when the case was assigned to me at the clinic where I was working at the time, I’d had an immediate and intense aversion to his written case history, for no obvious reason. After our first meeting I’d entertained the fantasy of handing his folder to my supervisor and refusing the case outright because I was confident I could not connect to him.

Yet, quickly, I developed warm affection for him, the work had been rich and rewarding and my understanding of symbolic content archetypal forces cracked wide open. The very client I’d imagined ducking out on became a profound honor to serve.

I realized then, that quite often my first response to a client that I was about to connect to deeply, who was going to require a new level of intimacy from me, who was going to change me, move me, press me into new terrain, was likely to be a semi-conscious sense of dread.

(In total honesty – I felt a similar fear, trembling and sickness unto death the week before I moved to NYC, on my first date with my now husband, and of course again in the hours before we married. I was filled with terror on a Biblical scale the evening before becoming an adoptive mother to both of my children, and immediately preceding every single good, disorienting, transformative blessing that has ever befallen me)

Even now, still, with many years of this awareness, the unconscious resistance to being changed asserts its self, as many cherished therapeutic partnerships tease me about how I didn’t return their initial calls right away, or lost their initial emails, or sent them back to the preceding therapist for further closure, or how I just sounded “weird” on the phone, or somehow unwittingly made them run some minor obstacle course to get to the first appointment.

When my son was in kindergarten he once said (after several readings of Pickles the Fire Cat – which I highly recommend for the under 6-year-old set) in words that might make my favorite non-dualistic theoretical and spiritual mentors proud:

“You are not a Good Mommy.
And you are not a Bad Mommy.
You are a Mixed-Up Mommy and that’s the Very Best kind.”

And you, in all likelihood are not a Good client or a Bad client.

But, the Very Best Mixed-Up kind.

And nothing is better for a Good-Enough therapist than that.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Flooded

Sometimes a flood destroys a world already made and the people in it; sometimes creation itself begins with the primeval water.
~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

I am not going to over-write or over-think this one.

This is going to be way too long, and under-edited. I give myself permission to not have to be ruthless with my thoughts this week as they float up. Perhaps something valuable will drift in among the debris.

Maybe something that spills out here will help to prepare other therapists and care takers when climate change driven disasters, in one form or another, emerge in their communities.

And make no mistake: they will.

If the weather can disable this fortress of concrete and steel, no one can be assured they are exempt.

According to Oxfam International “last summer the US declared 1/2 of their counties disaster zones due to storms, floods, fires & severe drought after 12 month of record temperatures.”

Katrina already happened, and we didn’t take it in. Increasingly violent and recurrent tornados have devastated whole towns, and we continued to respond with our standard disaster/trauma responses. Drought has devastated huge swaths of farm country, brush-fires, and mudslides, and deadly heat waves don’t seem to change our tune.

These are not mere disasters.

This is an initiation into a new way of life.

These are the consequences of our consumption, our drive for convenience, our wish to accumulate, the speed that is never fast enough.

We need to face the realities we have created.

As therapists, social workers, crisis interventionists we have to take this in. This is not about helping people process an anomalous disastrous event.

This is about helping everyone, traumatized, or not, prepare for a whole new normal.

This is about practicing for storms to come, for profound challenges to an unsustainable way of life. This is about learning to let go of what does not work. This is about looking at our energy dependence, and learning new ways of living that respond to dwindling oil supplies, our fragile power grid, our hungry batteries, and addictive fuel consumption.

This is about understanding something about how easily it can all be disrupted by the wind, rain, water, and heat produced by a wounded planet trying to re-establish healthy homeostasis.

Has it only been a week? It feels like 40 days.

Monday – a day of preparation and fear:

The wind began picking up in earnest late Monday afternoon and we retreated from the park and playground into the house.

My kids channeled all their fear into fretting about Zelda and whether or not she would be all right. Zelda, a wild turkey I had seen roaming in Battery Park, the week before, had fascinated them. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zelda_(turkey) ) They had proudly told their classmates about Zelda, the turkey who had wandered by herself, from north of the Bronx all the way downtown. She had lived, the only one of her kind, in Battery Park for the past 10 years.

We assured them that wild birds knew special secrets to keep safe, and that we too had prepared in every reasonable way.

We told them the truth: a big storm was coming, yes, bigger than Irene. We might lose power. That the weather centers were saying that water was going to flood areas near the rivers and ocean and in neighborhoods nearby, but that our house was high on a hill and no one thought the water would come this high. We explained that many friends had evacuated, and were all in safe places, waiting. We assured them that if we were told to leave by weather scientists – that we too would leave right away – and would do everything we could to keep them safe always.

Most importantly, we treated this storm as part of unfolding new realities. We said that this storm would be good practice and teach us important things about how to take care of ourselves and others through future storms, and that we should use it learn everything we could.

On high ground – we watched the waters rising, engulfing the neighborhood two hundred yards away and driving out neighbors immediately adjacent to us. Red Hook, a few miles away where clients and friends both live and work, was submerged, flooded out before the sun even set.

As the night wore on, and the wind’s howls became more ferocious – I began to check in with clients who still had power, some trapped and unable to evacuate in flood zone A, some who lived on the Jersey shore. Colleagues friends, and clients were on disaster calls, working continuously through the storm, and beyond, in the city hospitals. Others who were first responders I was able to catch glimpses of in news clips and know they were okay, at least at the time of the report.

For a few people who didn’t have access to TV or radio, I conveyed by text, the wind and weather reports as I heard them.

Our home was safe enough. We never lost power, and were able to follow the reports of cars floating down Wall Street near our office, of the East Village- our previous home and home to many friends -waist high in flood water.

As the night wore on and the wind intensified, and the power outages began we retreated to the safest room in our house, and followed the storm as best we could, through our phones – on twitter, facebook, and the NYC office of emergency management.

Bellevue, where my husband had worked and I had volunteered through 9/11, where we both had many professional and personal connections – had lost power and the hospitals were evacuating. Beyond unthinkable, trying to imagine negotiating those labyrinthine hallways in the pitch black, surrounded by panicking and disoriented patients.

Every harrowing report implicated someone we knew, someone we had treated, someone we cared about, someone we loved.

The wind began to die down around 10:30 pm. The flood waters began to recede around 11:30 and most communities were starting to drain by midnight.

We have lived, and worked in this city a long long time. Between the two of us, we have lived in many neighborhoods, worked in many different communities, and been professionally invested in hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the city and its surrounds.

On my own roster of open cases – I have clients who live in every severely effected area: The Rockaways, Breezy Point, Astoria, Hoboken, Jersey City, the Jersey Shore, Long Island, Red Hook, DUMBO, Coney Island, the East Village, and of course, all of Manhattan below 28th Street.

I, my children my immediate family members were safe and fine, but I had empathic connections to someone in every devastated community. I knew personally, professionally (which are not so separate in times like these) people and their stories of their families, their friends, their neighbors, their associates – I could envision and imagine a woman I never met but had heard tell of with a severely disabled child in a destroyed area of Queens, someone else’s elderly stubborn parents refusing to leave the Jersey shore, the exhausted communities of cops and FDNY and their families weathering the storm without them. I could see in my visual and imaginal memory folks I know and know of living high in towering urban housing projects, cold with no lights, in the dark.

Floods archetypally and collectively represent the washing away of one epoch, and the birth of another: Noah, and before him Gilgamesh, with their big boats, matching doves with tree branches and their same rainbow promises that the Lord of the Universe would abide by a new contract now that the old one had been washed away.

Personally, in an individual dream, floods are symbolic of great waves of unprocessed emotional experience – that floods out our capacity for thinking, for analysis, for strategy.

This flood was symbolically all of this and more.

This was real, happening to real people, in my real extended, personal, and professional community, to human beings and families that I was really connected to, had intimate knowledge of, and attachments to.

There was no opportunity to derealize, to pretend it was happening to random “others” somewhere else. This was happening to my chosen family, my closest friends, my neighborhoods, my clients, my communities, my city.

When you work close and warm using your own Self, in the heat of transference, intersubjectivity and alchemy, cold distancing isn’t an option, even when it might be useful in helping you to keep your bearings, or protect you from getting washed away.

Tuesday – a day of shock and awakening:

In the morning, after little sleep and a little breakfast, we went out to explore what had been lost. We stopped counting downed trees when we lost count on our square block. We went down to the river which, although still swollen, had retreated back to its banks. We traced the waterline by the shattered windows and ruined store fronts that we passed.

My husband and I hiked across the Brooklyn Bridge in the lingering rain to see if our office had taken in water. Our superintendent had spent the night, turning off the electricals to prevent shorting and fires. He estimated only a foot or so in the basement, although we had been in zone A, and Wall Street, one block away, had been completely flooded.

I reached out to several people on my caseload who I knew had been in significant danger, and sent a mass “bcc” email to all letting them know that the office was out of commission and I would be scheduling walking/talking sessions for clients in Brooklyn, and phone sessions for clients that needed to talk on Thursday and Friday.

Responses came trickling in – many who thought they were “fine” with or without power, or “not effected at all” on high ground. And as many stories of crisis, trauma and loss: photos of clients homes destroyed, tales of watching rising waters out of windows, cold and blacked out apartments, people evacuated unable to return to their homes, people trapped in their homes by water, by downed trees, by cold, dark stairwells.

People rescued and assisted by kind neighbors and strangers.
I fell in instantaneous love with every Samaritan who selflessly assisted a client in need.

Wednesday- a day of giving, taking and disconnection:

After a fear-free nights sleep, we woke up activated:

Wednesday was Halloween, and I could not stomach the thought of talking my kids door to door, in fancy costume, begging for candy – when there were people unhoused and unfed and unclothed in our own communities a few miles away.

We went through closets and gathered all of our extra blankets, coats, wool socks, sweater, canned goods, bottled water, hurricane candles, extra batteries, flashlights.
On line I found Redhook.recovers.org run by OWS, and was directed to a church that was gathering supplies and taking deliveries to Red Hook and the Rockaways.

I contacted all the people in our co-op and our neighborhood, sent notices out on email and facebook, asking for donations of batteries and flashlights, blankets, coats and sweaters.

I asked people to drop off supplies in our vestibule, and said that we would be glad to transport any supplies all week.

One family, among our closest friends, responded immediately, ran up to their apartment and brought down their canned goods.

All others stared at us blankly. “I don’t think we don’t have any extra batteries… ” one lied vaguely. Some were more direct: “I am going to keep my own bottled water.” Some offered useless items instead: ” Hmm – I might have some summer clothes…”

No thanks – they need food, warm clothes and coats because its cold outside and their homes are gone, also batteries and flashlights and water.

People looked at me as if I was doing something unbecoming, annoying, impolite.

I tried hard not to judge their response and also not to turn it in against myself. I knew from other disasters and from 9/11, that this was my typical activated response to the devastation around us.

My professional practice as a social worker and a therapist is to imagine something about the core needs of others and cultivate the most supportive, effective response. Its what I do all day – why should others react in the same way that I do?

I’m certain many that rejected my outreach found, and will find in the long weeks ahead their own ways to respond over time – with goods, services, time, money.

Everyone is allowed their own response to shock, me included.

Maybe they didn’t have the opportunity for this to feel real to them, maybe they had no experiences of or relationships to people in the communities that were directly impacted, maybe this didn’t feel personal to them, yet, this time.

Maybe we can’t respond to anything easily or effectively if we haven’t forged a personal connection somehow.

We stopped by our local mini-mart and they donated a full cart of canned goods for us to transport, bless them.

The kids worked hard through the day sorting, bagging and boxing supplies along side of us. They gave generously, appropriately, and I was touched by their maturity, industry, and autonomy. Proud to bursting.

But, at the end of the day, and for the rest of the week, our vestibule would remain empty. Not a single donated can or a battery or an old coat.

And this thought too: I must also consider, and with thoroughness, that my rush to offer up goods and services may not have been particularly helpful at all. Perhaps my boxes of canned goods and rice and beans and coats in all sizes and blankets are sitting somewhere, in a cold basement or the back of a van, or an evacuated shelter – burdensome and unused.

Perhaps I simply created the illusion of being useful, because I needed to be of use.

There are times when the most useful thing is to sit still, and stay out of the way.

And perhaps others succeeded at that where I failed.

By nights end I need to check in with my husband: “Do I seem crazy or off-putting or too agitated when I am asking for donations? Because I feel like people are staring at me like I have three heads? Is anxious impatient energy pouring off of me? Was I inappropriate or demanding?”

“No” he said, “you were asking normally – I think you just have to ask a lot of people and thats how it goes – between our friends, our things, and the mini mart we gave them a lot of stuff, and I’m glad we responded the way we did. You are just always the canary in a coal mine – and remember what happens to them!”

Thursday – a day of gathering and outreach

On Thursday we began hearing from chosen family – our children’s god mothers and god fathers – whose homes were without power. It was growing colder. The darkened parts of the city were feeling edgier, less safe each night. Walking uptown to harvest power was creating irritable crowds at the power outage borders – as hundreds searched for places to charge their phones, buy hot foot and drink, and more batteries before heading back into their darkened homes.

They came to stay until power and heat were restored – which comforted us as much as them. It felt healing, soothing, strengthening to have our tribe gathered.

We were anxious about our clients well-being. Without an office available, I scheduled any client that wanted or needed to talk on Thursday. I had walking/talking sessions for clients who lived in Brooklyn, I had sessions behind the locked gates of our community garden, I had phone sessions in my room while one of the godmother’s turned our daughter’s room into her temporary office. For the first time ever: a half-phone/half-text session emerged as a treatment modality when the cellular system refused to allow our phones to stay connected.

It was both comforting and exhausting to try to cobble together jerry-rigged pseudo-structure out of the chaos, and brought into sharp focus how much injury the city, its inhabitants – and its infrastructure- had sustained.

When a twitter friend forward me the information that Zelda the turkey had survived, with a photo of fat, happy turkey on top of a dumpster – everyone in the household cheered as though Noah’s dove had just returned bearing an olive branch.

Friday – a day of gratitude and taking stock

The house remained warm, kid- and friend-full, and I spent the day feeling enormously grateful for the reading on ecotherapy and ecopsychology and climate science I had been led to explore over the past several months.

I felt prepared by the reading I’d done, startled by the timing of the events, heartbroken for others, for but not surprised, or stunned.

Even more grateful that I listened to my own inner leading and had organized a study group of smart and thoughtful clinicians that will soon be gathering together to look at the way that our disconnection from a wider awareness, and our denial of the consequences of our collective behavior effects our community’s and our culture’s mental health.

I need more than ever to find words, in the company of a like minded group, to speak to clients about our collective denials, our estrangement from realities, our defenses against science, our minimization of disturbing realities.

It was a day for me to starting waking up to our own disturbing realities and secondary losses as well: two self-employed private practitioners, with our office out of commission, it was becoming clear that we would feel a significant blow to our businesses and household finances.

Many clients have sustained unfathomable losses, and will need pro bono and reduced fee support. Some may move, as many did after 9/11. Others will lose their jobs, some have lost businesses, many have also lost, and will lose several weeks of income themselves. Paying for therapy becomes a low priority or an impossibility.

I have made a policy of never abandoning a client because of financial crisis, I reduce or suspend fees, perhaps reduce sessions if large balances are still accruing, or schedule on an “as needed” basis, until the crisis is negotiated.

I hope I can afford to maintain that policy going forward while also caring for my family.

A weekend of celebration and passing it on:

Saturday with our extended chosen family gathered we had a full day of joyous celebration, and permitted ourselves to forget all that was happening around us.

Because a fantastic force of nature, far more generative and creative and consequential than Sandy, arrived on this planet 8 years ago when our daughter was born, and that deserved to be celebrated no holds barred.

Sunday we returned to reality, and used our car and our gasoline to shuttle donated supplies to Red Hook, the Rockaways and Breezy Point.

Monday and beyond….

This week, we have returned tentatively to work, in a building intact, with power but with no phone, wifi, or heat. The night time view from my window is eerie: One window looks out on buildings filled with light and flickering TV screens. The other window faces a chasm of darkness, pitch black, unlit, unoccupied buildings

Clients seem to fall into four different categories of response
(I have seen similar responses before, including my own, in the days and weeks after 9/11):

1) Those who are totally and directly affected, and know it, but who are very busy coping, and not feeling much yet. They are in the throes of loss of home, loss of businesses, loss of community, loss of neighborhood, loss of place and root. They are wandering through their days, displaced, unmoored. At particular risk are those who have survived trauma and disaster before:

Standard disaster/post-trauma/crisis intervention training is extremely helpful here – and there has been a great deal written about that elsewhere. But it is probably not complete or sufficient in and of itself, as climate-driven disasters are likely to continue to unfold, in some form or another. This is about all of us coming to terms with a new way of life.

2) Those who were not in the direct path, but feel disturbed, disorganized, anxious about what is to come – or guilty and hesitant to permit themselves to “feel bad” when they are so “lucky” – or who sense that everything has changed although they have “no right to complain” because “nothing bad really happened” to them:

For these clients it is important to validate that it is healthy, and normal and appropriate to feel distress when your community is profoundly wounded. Some worry that their non-personal distress is a sign of personal weakness or low grade hysteria rather an expectable experience of empathic connection to those around them.

“I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices had cried out in terror….” Obi Won says when a distant planet in a nearby galaxy explodes. The quote is resonant and memorable collectively – as if we too can imagine sensing such massive, collective, disturbances with Ben’s sensitivity. How much more powerfully do we feel such disturbances when the millions crying out are those we encounter every day, when we have been seated side by side with them on the broken commuter trains and subways?

3) Those who were not affected, or were secondarily affected, who are involved in advocacy, who are working to assist others and those actively grieving the injuries to their community and environment:

– sometimes to the point of burnout or exhaustion.

These clients first and foremost need their perceptions validated and their grief supported. This is particularly difficult for therapists struggling with their own estrangement and denial. These may, or may not need help discerning their own limitations, their need for self-care, and managing survivor’s guilt.

Too often, these responses are pathologized as mere activations of events or injuries from childhood, when they are a healthy, appropriate and related response to real events in the present.

4) Those who were not directly externally affected, and who are not internally affected by the disaster either:

Some might report that they had a relaxing time away from work, might describe the city slow down as a “vacation”, some might even describe having a good time partying and see the event as having little or nothing to to with them.

Some may have cursory awareness of the losses around them, but are not moved, distressed or upset for anyone else, or for the community – beyond being glad that they themselves were not in harms way.

Others among the unaffected, living just miles away, may have paid no attention whatsoever to the disaster around them, have not read a paper and ignored, or avoided coverage of the event, and do not even know what has happened all around them.

To be sure, some of these have marshaled panicked defenses: flung themselves into manic hedonistic binges, strapped on their narcissistic armor or thrown up walls of primitive denial to manage their own fear.

And many who imagine they are truly “fine” have suffered from (or will suffer from) other, displaced symptoms, stemming from the lack of sufficient relatedness to others to their communities and the planet. These are often clients who feel anxious, estranged from meaning in their lives, friendships and in their work, who have significant difficulties forging and sustaining empathic and reciprocal relationships.

These are clients who often don’t seem to know what other people are “for”, what their own central purposes and values are, and sometimes seem at a loss as to what it is they want from therapy itself.

How disassociated have our lives and our culture become that we can imagine that it is normal to be unaffected by devastation in our community a mile or two away, or by a feverish planet creating recurring superstorms?

Denial prevents us from preparedness, prevention, and harm reduction with regard to climate change- exacerbating the toll in disasters like these.

Why didn’t people leave evacuation zones?
Why did people stay with their children in harms way?
Why do we want to rebuild in flood-zones when the water levels are rising?
Why have we not listened to the obvious, clear scientific consensus and mounting evidence?
Why do we ignore every warning?

Just like addicts and their cohorts living in collective denial – clinging to short term comforts while accruing disaterous long-term consequences: our culture, communities, and individuals need to begin to face painful, grief-filled realities in order to reduce harm to ourselves and the living world.

Addressing, confronting, and working through treacherous resistance is the therapists purview.

This IS our job. We do this everyday. We know how to work through and around unhealthy defenses.

We need to offer up our skill set to help our culture and our clients respond to reality or our clients will continue to suffer.

More than they have already.

For myself and my practice:

I want to support my clients’ and the planet’s attempt to heal from the injuries our inflated consumption and denial has inflicted.

I want to mourn with my whole community when we are brought low and humbled with profound losses of life, of our way of living, of property, home, rootedness and place.

I want to appreciate the dark and painful relief that comes when we are reminded that we are not so powerful and we restored to our proper place and size on a planet that lived and thrived for thousands of epochs before humans and will spin and live richly far past us.

I want to cultivate gratitude for and strengthen the resilience and health in others, in my community, and the world around me.

There are people doing amazing good for each other.

There is one kooky, wild turkey happily roaming free in the middle of a concrete jungle.

There are birds, bearing olive branches, all around us.

There is comfort and empowerment in that.

Please help Hurricane Sandy victims in NYC by donating to New York Cares http://www.newyorkcares.org

or by donating to The Red Cross.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Confessions of a Wanton Theory-Wonk

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

I never know how I am supposed to respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I respectfully declined my acceptance to the institute.

And just kept reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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