Death Notices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is always an aftermath.

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

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

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

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

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

I hear these sorrows and traumas too.

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

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

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

To be caught in their wake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortly after my son came home I had this dream:

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

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

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

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

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

And we are all unquestionably of eternal consequence.

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

Hard Times


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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as all human beings do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things get heavy sometimes. Its just a fact.

Sorrow has its season.

Even for psychotherapists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is What Happened

Someone asked me to write this. Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess the answer is yes.

It’s the Relationship…

I sometimes dread being introduced to other psychotherapists.

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

Uh.

Umm.

Shrug.

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

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

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

But that isn’t what I do.

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

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

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

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

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

So what do I do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I opened the door:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both members of the therapeutic couple.

All of us. Always.

Back to the Garden

And he (Jung) asked himself by what mythology he was living and he found he didn’t know. And so he said “I made it the task of my life to find by what mythology I was living” How did he do it? He want back to think about what it was that most engaged him in fascinated play when he was a little boy. So that the hours would pass and pass. Now if you can find that point, you can find an initial point for your own reconstruction.
~ Joseph Campbell

I might have liked to be an astronomer, as a child I spent hours on the deck behind our house looking up at the Great Nebulae in Orion and feeling a part of the entire universe. But, unfortunately I can’t do math.

In young adulthood, being a priestess of some sort seemed my best shot at a satisfying career and I supposed the sacred rituals around the theater came close. But, as you may know, there aren’t really too many priestesses in show biz.

A ritual is an action that puts the individual not only in touch with, but in the place of, being the agent of a power that does not come out of his own intention at all. He has to submit to a power that’s greater than his own individual life form. ~ Joseph Campbell

For several years thought it might be nice to be a Unitarian or a Quaker minister: I could picture myself in my 60’s plump and happy, with spikey short white hair, extremely sensible shoes, curled up in a worn leather chair in a well stocked church library surrounded by books written by theologians, ecumenicists, philosophers, anthropologists, depth psychologists, mythologists, my days filled with study, sermon-writing, teaching, and pastoral counseling. I still occasionally fantasize about getting an M.Div one day so that my psycho-spiritual practice might one day extricate itself from the professional restrictions and expectations of the medical model.

Although I imagine all that theism might get a bit wearing.

God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought…. So half the people in the world are religious people who think that their metaphors are facts. Those are what we call theists. The other half are people who know that the metaphors are not facts, and so they call them lies. Those are the atheists. ~ Joseph Campbell

When I am fatigued or overwhelmed I think it might be nice to be a cobbler. The smell of leather, the pleasure of making something tangible, real, practical, useful, that did not require that I take my work home with me, or feel too much. Maybe I could even get some elves to make the shoes while I sleep.

There is much much harder work in the world than mine, but every once in a while, after the 100,000th “I just don’t know how you can sit and listen to people’s problems all day. I couldn’t do it!” I begin to wonder what on earth I have gotten myself into.

Every individual has his own very special problem in this late mid-life crisis about what he has been doing. How deeply has it really involved him? Has he had other outside marginal interests of any kind whatsoever? What were they? All these are very special problems. ~ Joseph Campbell

No paid vacation, no sick days, and the out of pocket cost of crappy medical insurance for a self-employed family of four are daunting enough. When my kids or a family member are ill, there is more lost income. Income which fluctuates with the economy, with the season, with the twists and turns of fate, history, chance and my own bandwidth depending of the circumstances of my own life and ability to pay deep attention. Clients just don’t come, or don’t stick when you don’t have the psychological space to take them in.

Economics is what controls us. Economics and politics are the governing powers of life today and that’s why everything is screwy. You have to get back in accord with nature; and that’s what myths are all about. ~ Joseph Campbell

Late nights and weird hours mean missing several nights a week with my kids, who can also never call to check in or to chat while I am working. As well as being out of synch with those who live and socialize on the 9 to 5 time grid. “Time off” means running errands, answering email, doing paperwork and billing, none of which can be done during client hours.

There are therapists who have partners with large corporate incomes, or some inherited wealth, who are heavily invested in real estate, or who have discovered passive income streams of some kind. They have small part time caseloads and the luxury of pursing their work, not out of logistical necessity, but merely because it is meaningful to them. There are others who charge extraordinary sums and cultivate boutique practices geared at serving clients in the upper classes.

I am none of those. I am a working, work-a-day therapist. I have made my living as a private practitioner and nothing else along side my husband, who does the same thing. We have learned to ride the roller coaster together, and support each other economically and emotionally through painful binds and financial drought. We have learned to rest when we are “light” and not allow our financial anxiety to eat up all of our chance to renew ourselves. There will be another wave of overwork to come, an influx of new cases, a sudden mass return of old clients when the weather turns cold, or it is time for New Years resolutions.

So, if the goal is merely amassing wealth, early retirement and cultivating ease, this is not the profession, at least not the way I practice. My scale slides and my fee drops as I try to make sure that no client is abandoned when they fall into financial difficulties, or excluded because of their ability to pay. I’ve made choices not to accept insurance, which too often attempted to conscript and lure me into becoming my clients “care manager” -labeling them with diagnoses, counting out their allotted sessions, and referring to a psychiatrist if they don’t “get better” before their capitation kicks in.

And when you’ve got an invisible cure for an invisible disease, you’ve got something you can sell. ~ Joseph Campbell

And often, the work hurts too. It can burn and sting and instill fear sometimes, as clients often need to explore and test out the capacity to keep them safe in your most vulnerable, weakest places and moments. Narratives of trauma, cruelty and abuse can break your heart, and eat you up, and shatter illusions about yourself, about the goodness of humanity, about the realities of life. Even the best days, the ones filled with vicarious excitement and accomplishment are about other people’s accomplishments and successes, and can leave you totally tuckered out.

Its one thing to be equitable and give everything away. Its another thing to be equitable and give away yourself. Then you can’t really help anybody can you? ~ Joseph Campbell

And the people you work with often experience you as more powerful and fully self-actualized than you are or could ever be, and often feel abandoned, or annoyed, or intruded upon when you stumble and trip or they experience your limitations.

When I was young in this field, I once asked my therapist if he ever hated his job: “Just every time I see a copy of Travel and Leisure magazine” he said. And immediately looked worried, and began to back pedal a bit – as though his honesty might make me feel rejected.

Who wants to be remembered by the notes of his students? ~ Joseph Campbell

It didn’t make me feel rejected. It was a relief. There is a shadow that attaches itself to every job, every choice, every path. And in this field, which practitioners take up primarily driven by their own wounds, whether they know it or not, the shadow can be a particularly dark and thick one.

Who wouldn’t want to escape sometimes?

The saying that a friend of mine has given me for letting me know when you are in middle age is: You’ve got to the top of ladder and found its against the wrong wall
~ Joseph Campbell

Freud had clients lay down on the couch for no other reason than he couldn’t bear to be looked at, scrutinized all day. And I sometimes wish that I could escape the watchful, fearful gaze of clients who read the smallest crease in my forehead as a sign of my impatience, or intolerance, or judgement, when it may just be that my glasses are pinching the sides of my head. Consciously arranging my face all day to reflect exactly what the client needs to see reminds me often of what intensely physical work the process of “mirroring” can be.

My days, in and out of the office, are completely and continuously centered around people. Other people. No matter how much “self-care” I invest in myself, a life of meeting clients, living in a co-op, walking crowded city streets, caring for children, for older family members, is intensely peopled.

I’ve just come out of New York, and a place like this on the Big Sur coast just wakes another whole consciousness. Its further down. And the body feels, Yes, this is my world; Ive been missing this And it seems to me its out of the body and its relationship to experiences of this kind that the mythic imagination comes. This other experience of the city is far more rational, ethical… the I-Thou relationship in the city is to people The environment in the city is geometrical and rectangular, and there are no curves; its contrived by man, the whole environment is manmade. And here you find that there is a primal being experience of which man and nature are themselves manifestations; whereas in the city you just don’t get it. ~ Joseph Campbell

Everything we do, every choice, every gesture requires the sacrifice of some alternative, potential reality. At midlife, the sacrifices we made to establish an adult identity in our culture, to create security, to live out our values, to do what we should, to start a family, to build a life and pursue a career or a vocation – return to us, as fantasy. It returns as day and night dreams, yearnings or sometimes as symptoms. Whatever is repressed always returns to us in some other form

Jung speaks of the impact of the parents unlived life upon their children, and we should also wonder about how the unlived life of the psychotherapist impacts clients and the therapy itself. How does it constrict and constrain us in the room and why? Are these choices made consciously, with an awareness of their shadow and their costs, or unconsciously, reflexively, fearfully? How do our clients teach us about what we have given up? How do we respond to the experience of envy or yearning in the countertransference? Do we heed it as a call to reach for our own unfinished business? Or do we feel diminished? How do therapists, subtly or not so subtly encourage clients to make choices that either validate their own sacrifice, or diverge from our choices so that we can watch them live out our unlived lives?

The mid-life crisis is that of unshelling a system of life and immediately moving into a new system of life. Because if this life is unshelled and you don’t have a new intention there is total disorientation. ~ Joseph Campbell

These days my escape fantasy involves a farm house at the foot of small mountain. There are green trees and fields all around. There is a small food garden growing behind the house with big wide windows, with more sky, stars, trees, crickets, birdsong and empty space, both inside and outside, than will ever be available or affordable to me in NYC.

I read stacks and stacks of books filled with pencil marks and marginalia, and write a significant part of every day. Perhaps I teach a class or two at a nearby junior college, just for the pleasure of compiling the reading lists.

I remember Alan Watts asked me one day, “Joe what kind of mediation do you do?” I said, “I underline sentences.” ~ Joseph Campbell

I see as many clients a week as I now see in a day, some in a cozy home office, some for walking eco-therapies, others long distance by video conference or e-session. All arrange to talk to me only when and as they want to. They pay whatever they can afford, whatever they think the process is worth. I don’t concern myself with accounts or collections, or how big the children’s orthodontia bill is getting.

Or maybe, in this fantasy I stop seeing clients entirely. After a lifetime of operating as a Helper, a Caretaker perhaps I have sacrificed enough to that archetype to enable that myth to release me, as I take on a new role, a new task, a new myth.

This is the big problem of retirement … the life with you have involved yourself has suddenly been moved. And so what? I’m told that the life expectancy of a blue collar worker after retirement is about five years. That means his body says, “You’ve got nothing for me to do so lets just say goodbye” ~ Joseph Campbell

There is a trail out back behind the house that leads up the mountain and I take a long, contemplative hikes several times a week. I watch for hawks and eagles, woodpeckers, and other wild-life in an entirely deer-tick free woods. Up on the hillside I have constructed a small shelter where I sit for long stretches of each day silently asking that all sentient beings be relieved of their suffering, until my thermos of green tea is cold and empty.

I work in the garden, I cook meals for my family. I wash the laundry and hang it on the line to dry near the lilac bushes, so that in the spring, the sheets smell sweet.

But when the individual is acting only for himself or his family then you have nothing but chaos. ~ Joseph Campbell

This idyllic farm is somehow near to a racially and socioeconomically diverse small city which gives me a chance to engage in community processes and cultural and charitable activities. We travel whenever we want to. Take sabbatical years to live in other countries, in other cultures. My children never bicker. They climb trees, tame wild animals, swim in a clear water creek.

Fatigue is rare, and sweet, following labors that are restorative, generative for myself and others. Each night before bed, we climb the creaky narrow wooden stairs to the widows walk and aim our telescope toward the bright and visible Milky Way searching out our proper place in the universe.

Now there is a wonderful saying in the Buddhist world: “Life is joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” All life is sorrowful. You are not going to change that. Its all right for everyone else to be sorrowful, but what about you being sorrowful? Well, participate!” ~ Joseph Campbell

And as I dwell deeper in my soul’s fantasy, my unlived life, the life not (yet) pursued, new sorrows emerge of the clients and of the work left behind in this life. Those who would never tolerate a Skype or phone session, who would feel abandoned, who I might harm by leaving, or a least cause significant discomfort. The stories I would never see unfold.

And the people I would miss.

Fantasies of Eden, of Shangrila and the Land of Oz live in all of us, in different ways, and serve many functions. They compensate and correct our course, remind us of who we are, what we have forgotten and who we are supposed to be. Sometimes it is necessary to chase these images literally, although they will rarely be entirely captured. The processes of midlife can involve dramatic overthrow of pre-existing orders. We do out grow old shells and need to find new ones. But sacrifices can be mourned and managed consciously as well, responded to as metaphor, channeled into creative processes, or integrated into present structures through ritual and symbol.

The work can be heavy, and costly in ways that are rarely fully tallied or reckoned with.
But it is mine, for now.

The gate guardian is a symbol of your own fear and holding to your ego which is what is keeping you out of the garden. Buddha sits under the tree and his right hand says “Don’t be afraid of those guys. Come through.”~ Joseph Campbell

But sometimes, through a long day, as I nod, and listen, my brow furrowed, my ears and heart open to the pain that the person across the room is sharing with me, I imagine, that my office window, just past my peripheral vision, offers a different view.

I imagine that – instead of the floodlight and fluorescence of windows upon windows, instead of the sounds of a harsh and noisy city, instead of helicopters and barges, firetrucks and ferries – there are instead green branches, and the smell of fresh cool mountain air.

I imagine that together we could, if we choose to, pause to watch Orion, with his belt, and his sword, rising through the night, reminding us of our proper place in the universe.

All quotations from The Hero’s Journey, Joesph Campbell on his LIfe and Work, Phil Cousineau editor.

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

Skin Deep

Because skin is so nuanced in its response to environmental circumstances and psychic fields it serves as a barometer for physical and psychological well-being.
~ The Book of Symbols – The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

Extroverts are fueled by extensive social interactions in the external world while introverts are agitated, overwhelmed, and made anxious by such experiences, no matter how they appear on the skin’s surface.

Introverts are fueled by intensive contact with their own, and other’s internal, intimate subjective processes, while excessive focus on internal experience can unskin an extrovert leaving them feeling naked, exposed, anxious and uncomfortable.

My clients may imagine that I am an out-going, expansive and social creature – because, in our culture, extraversion correlates with being “well-adjusted” confident, and happy. But those who know me well, or who have seen my Meyers-Briggs know where I really fall on the continuum.

Introverted, highly sensitive, thin-skinned – any and all of those are accurate – I have developed some externally successful compensatory mechanisms that I wear as a protective hide in group and social settings: Because I like words, and have a lot a language at my disposal, I can be funny sometimes (humor is one of my favorite social shields). I am a good idea-person, a supportive teacher, an empathic healer and mentor. In groups, I am expressive and excited about new ideas, notions, theories, and problem solving.

Because I have a lot of thoughts to offer – usually drawn from reflecting on and by myself in private spaces – I can sometimes find myself pressed by the collective into leadership positions.

I am, in point of fact, a peevish and brittle leader: Non-intimate relationships and group dynamics can too easily drain and distress me even as we focus on solving a problem together or addressing a collective task at hand. When our work is over, I have a hard time understanding what a brief, curtailed, surface relationship might want from me or why they would want or expect anything at all.

To paraphrase C.G. Jung: Intensity is my aim, not extensity. (~ C. G. Jung, Psychological Types – General Description of the Types Ch. 10)

Non-intimate social events and groups can make my skin crawl and my feet itchy. Any chatty, surface engagement requires that I set aside significant recovery time afterward. It is depleting enough for me to take part in these processes that unless I calibrate my exposure, I can become fatigued, burdened, impatient, and plain old cranky due to the amount of energy it takes for me compensate for my inherent nature. I end up spending all my fuel and taking in little – because I only truly refuel in private and personal spaces.

Most frogs…have permeable skin that can easily absorb toxic chemicals. These traits make frogs especially susceptible to environmental disturbances, and thus frogs are considered accurate indicators of environmental stress: the health of frogs is thought to be indicative of the health of the biosphere as a whole.(web source http://www.savethefrogs.com/why-frogs)

I, and other introverted souls are biopsychosocial indicators. We are among the first poisoned by contaminants in the psychological environment. We sense too easily, and too intensely the unspoken, unconscious agendas, hostilities, resentments, hungers, wishes, at play in any social, non-intimate gathering.

Everything enacted in the room and yet unacknowledged seeps inside me. At any given community meeting, class parent gathering, cocktail party all the unnamed, unspoken affect rings louder in my ears than any verbalized dialogue, as I take in a mouthful of toxicity that I would be too impolite, off-putting or downright bizarre to spit out:

“Excuse me, but isn’t it interesting that you chose to cut Harriet off here, just as she was elaborating on her point? Did the two of you quarrel earlier in the evening? I’ve noticed that even though you are smiling, that something about your tone makes me uncomfortable, or even feel scolded… Is there something I have done previously that offended you? Perhaps we were discussing something that was unsettling or threatening to you? I can’t tell what the subtle tension in the conversation is about, but it felt hostile somehow, and I’d feel much more comfortable if you could talk about what may be angering you directly. Oh! and could you please pass that red-pepper hummus? So yummy!”

Instead, I quip and wise-crack, or try to talk, talk, talk, on top of the bubbling, oozing, latent content that bombards me and threatens, like quick-sand to swallow me whole. I keep my eyes peeled, sometimes ending a conversation too abruptly as I lunge for the nearest exit attempting to save my hide.

(The introvert) is always facing the problem of how libido can be withdrawn from the object. The object assumes terrifying dimensions, in spite of conscious depreciation… But, therewith, the introvert severs himself completely from the object, and either squanders his energy in defensive measures or makes fruitless attempts to impose his power upon the object and successfully assert himself. But these efforts are constantly being frustrated by the overwhelming impressions he receives from the object. It continually imposes itself upon him against his will; it provokes in him the most disagreeable and obstinate affects, persecuting him at every step. An immense, inner struggle is constantly required of him, in order to ‘keep going.’ Hence Psychoasthenia is his typical form of neurosis, a malady which is characterized on the one hand by an extreme sensitiveness, and on the other by a great liability to exhaustion and chronic fatigue. (~ C. G. Jung, Psychological Types – General Description of the Types Ch. 10)

This porous-ness requires that I reside primarily within the realm of intimate one-on-one relationships, with brief, purposeful and well-planned trips beyond this membrane. I am my happiest, most fulfilled and generative in interior spaces.

So, to live in the world of other human beings: I became a psychotherapist.

I can’t count the number of times thick-skinned folk say to me: ” I have no idea how you do the work you do! I couldn’t stand listening to other people’s’ feelings all day!”

Frankly, I don’t want to listen to much else.

Psychotherapy is the only job I could find, other than perhaps, living as a sponge on the sea-floor, where being such a pore-bearing creature gives me a significant professional advantage.

I connect to a single person, in a private space (or a natural space if we are on a walking session). We engage in inherently private processes, sharing excruciatingly personal or subjective details about our innermost perceptions. Where else would I be allowed, professionally mandated in fact, to offer my internal impressions back to the person who evoked them – and to have that returned in kind?

Skin is a responsive tactile boundary between self and other and the inside and the outside of an individual.
~ The Book of Symbols – The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

And, it is also true that the very same people who try my patience, drain and exhaust me in the world at large, are the very same people who I would undoubtedly feel bottomless patience, expansive empathy, warm affection and deep admiration for if we were to engage in the intimate processes of forging a therapeutic partnership.

It’s a pretty good gig for those who need to live in the interior-lands.

The finest clothing made is a person’s own skin, but of course, society demands something more than this ~ Mark Twain

A neighbor recently sent me an email which stated that of all her neighbors, I was the one that she felt least connected to, and that she found this distressing. (Was this for real? I was flabbergasted. ) She felt that whenever she encountered me that I was always in a rush, that I never seemed to want to stop and chat. (Chat? What on earth about? ) Moreover, she said, that even factoring in differences and variations in personal privacy, she had determined that I was insufficiently social, and that as a result, our relationship (Did we ever have one? I couldn’t think of a single instance when I had laid eyes on her in the past year) was in need of repair. How would I feel in her circumstance? (What circumstance exactly? The one where my neighbors want nothing more from me than a brief, cordial greeting? “Relieved beyond all imagining” were the only words that came to mind)

An extrovert, in external conversation, frustrated and injured that a confounding introvert was withholding much needed social contact. An introvert, misunderstood and in flight from an extroverted pursuer, in an internal monologue about the internal need to avoid extraneous social contact.

I forwarded the email to my more extroverted husband, who responded easily and effortlessly and who has made a point stopping and chatting more. No skin off of his nose.

The thick-skinned and the thin-skinned misunderstand each other all the time. It is not easy for us to comprehend each other. Our experience of ourselves and others, internal and external worlds is inverted. It is too easy to assume our own way of being as a template, and pillory or pathologize those who live inside or outside of their skin differently than we do.

Yet, we all live along a continuum of inner and outer spaces, some cluster toward the center, others distributed toward either end. We are all needed for our species to find balance. Our varied skills and awarenesses are incomplete without our complement. And ultimately the margins that divide us are as narrow as the skin of our teeth.

“Skin the rabbit!!!” my midwestern farmer grandmother would exclaim as we raised our arms high over our heads and she peeled our dirty play clothes up into the air before our evening bath. A false, active, social self stripped away, a true, vulnerable, private, home self set free.

Home and home-like environments are where the introverted return to refuel themselves, when supplies are running low. Retreat into natural environments is also extremely nurturing for the introverted.

One of the communities where I am most comfortable in my skin is a group of community gardeners. We focus on planting, watering. Our hands are dirty. We are unconcerned about external appearances. We sweat and work together. Our conversations focus on our common interests, our shared labors and our personal relationship with bees, seeds, sun, sky, vegetables and flowers. We have internal experiences outside together.

In Winnicotian theory, some of the aspects that Jung might classify as indicative of introversion, are framed as a developmental, maturational achievement: This is Winnicott’s Capacity to be Alone, which is above all the capacity for people to be alone together. To be in the presence of another person – simultaneously wholly in your own skin, and wholly present with the other, who is also wholly in their own skin and wholly present with you.

Not surprisingly many introverted people find their way into my office, and probably into many other therapists offices too. They want to find partners, to raise families, to secure non-toxic work, and ways to be connected to the community at large, to be of use, in ways that suit them. Many have internalized a culturally endorsed, critical bias against their own way of being.

Extroverts come to therapy fearful of their “people pleasing” tendencies, their need for stimulation, their difficulty being alone, their fear of intimate spaces.

And ultimately the psychotherapeutic process creates a space where intimacy can happen, in self-regulated doses, as we examine and accept our own and each other’s inner and outer layers, as we learn somehow, at last and over time, to get under each other’s skin.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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