Distracted

I am home with my infant son who is laying on a blanket, feet in the air, a toy block in his chubby fist, in front of the fireplace. The afternoon is stormy, the apartment, safe, and cozy. The baby boy is completely focused, happy, cooing, sinking deeply into his own experience. The wooden letter block is damp and gnawed, maybe teething? But not uncomfortable. I am knitting – what? Oh yes, a one-sie. I see the colors, the orange turtles I embroidered down the front. I feel the yarn in my hands. I smell the fire and smoke, with undertones of baby lotion and A&D ointment. I feel the rhythm of the rocker, my toes bending and stretching in time with the yarn and the needles. I glance, now and then, at my son, both of us deeply, equally, mutually peaceful in our own separate skins. I suspect it is the happiest, the most content I have ever been, or ever will be.

The scene suddenly crumbles, vanishing like a film-strip burning on the bulb of a projector. I am wrenched away, pulled by the ankles it seems, traveling back through the dark, returning suddenly, shockingly, into the office,

Whoa.
Where am I?
How long was I gone?
Who is sitting across from me? What are they talking about? I haven’t heard a word..

My attention crashes back into the office (to an imaginary client, let’s call him Sam, and a session that never happened and yet, seems also to have happened too many times to count):

My first focus is entirely on regaining my standing in the room, recapturing the thread. At first I just see Sam across from me: I reassess his well-known face – still not hearing his words. He really looks so tired, eyes puffy, and darkly circled – his voice and neck tendons strained, his energy edgy somehow. I’m just now noticing how depleted he is – I wonder how I hadn’t seen that before?

I concentrate now on the narrative, trying to align proper names with pronouns being used, doing what I can to catch up: Sam is talking about some minor argument, bickering with “him” again: His husband? Father? Son? Definitely husband. Just normal daily spousal bickering resulting in reparation… Lots of details, but, thankfully not much seems to have been required of me in my mental absence, in a second or two, I’m back where I belong:

“It sounds like you two really worked that through! Nothing escalated, you both heard each other out and got to the bottom of it…”

Yes, he’s proud of practicing new skills. Back in alignment. Whew.

Like automatic driving on a long high-way trip, when you suddenly stop singing at the top of your lungs to realize that you’ve missed your exit miles and miles ago – the first response therapists often have is self-recrimination: Slamming their metaphorical hand on the steering wheel: “Shit! Damn it! Why wasn’t I paying attention!!'” Quickly followed by shame, fear of being found out, fear of doing harm, and a wish to cover their tracks.

Once – only once – I was too far away to come back in time:
From far far away, I heard a client’s, voice:

“So what do you think?”
“Huh!?”
“What do you think?”
“Of what? Oh, yes, well: Wow.
“Really? Wow what?…..”
“Wow… just, well, the whole thing…”

The client, also a therapist, looked at me out of the corner of her eye. She shook her head, rolled her eyes. And cracked a sideways grin – letting me know with her canny smile that she had been in my seat and that therefore she was kindly giving me one free pass…

When the session was over I sat down with my notes:
When exactly had I left? Where in heaven’s name did I go?
and more importantly: Why?

Early in my practice I assumed that such mind-wanderings were betrayals of my client, violating the basic therapeutic contract: You talk. I listen. I saw these unintentional driftings as my fault, my failure to do the very least that was expected of me: Pay attention.

When I didn’t want to feel ashamed any longer – I attached to the narrative that these mind wanderings were my reactions to the client demonstrating “resistance” or my own “resistant” counter-transference. Something to confront, an obstruction to healthy relatedness, no matter who erected it.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that these day dreamings, fantasies, distracting little mind movies might be the best gifts I have to give, might be evidence of deep, ineffable connections between therapeutic partners.

In other words: your unconscious gets all tangled up with my unconscious and sends us a signal. These attentional tangents can be seen as signs from the depths, offerings, gifts floating up from the bottom of the ocean: important, rich data about what lies beneath.

This is Jungian transferential alchemy, this is the purpose of Freud’s “evenly hovering attention” which surveys the manifest and latent images in the room, this is the intersubjective field, this is the realm of Bion’s “alpha-function”, and Winnicott’s “playing” in the therapeutic relationship. This is what Philip Bromberg asserts when he reminds us that what both members of the therapeutic process “bring to the table includes what they are trying to hide underneath it”

And usually, it’s the most important, the most essential needs that try to hide underneath…

So, to poor exhausted Sam (who imaginary or not, doesn’t deserve to be forgotten twice in the same essay) I now say this:

“Sam, I’m so sorry, it is very hard for me to focus on what you are saying – for some reason I keep having this very strong memory, an image keeps coming to me, of a deeply relaxing afternoon with my son when he was just a baby. It was an afternoon when we were both completely relaxed in each other’s company, in contact and not worrying about each other at all, in a way that was indescribably soothing…. Does this touch on anything for you?”

His eyes moisten – Sam never cries – he breathes deeply, and says:
“I’m just so tired, I’m exhausted…. I don’t know….”

“I wonder if you were maybe just working too hard in here to bring up topics for the two of us ‘work’ on – maybe you just really yearn to rest a little together? To sink into yourself, to not have think about how to connect to me – but to just sit here, you in your skin, me in mine, restfully and still together without having to come out of yourself at all?….Maybe there is a wish it could feel safe enough in here for me to knit, and for you to lay down, and to just forget about me and be with me at the same time?”

He nods. He breathes, and lets his head rest on the back of the sofa.

I breathe too. It sure feels cozy in here suddenly.

Sometimes, when you’ve been distracted and you miss your exit, it takes you right to the place you are supposed to be.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

4 responses

  1. Now I know why my therapist occasionally makes these bland, generic statements. He wasn’t paying attention. I’m going to call him on it.

  2. I’m always grateful when clients confront me on my lapses. It makes me a better person and a better therapist.
    I hope your therapist will be glad to hear the things you have been protecting them from as well.

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