I recently came upon this passage as I was re-reading Alice Miller’s Prisoners of Childhood for a larger project.
And the words tore through me:
In Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin I have found a story that may sound rather bizarre, but nevertheless has much in common with what I have presented here. I shall summarize the story briefly.
Once upon a time there was a child who had a golden brain. His parents only discovered this by chance when he injured his head and gold instead of blood flowed out. They then began to look after him carefully and would not let him play with other children for fear of being robbed. When the boy was grown up and wanted to go out into the world, his mother said:
“We have done so much for you, we ought to be able to share your wealth” Then her son took a large piece of gold out of his brain and gave it to his mother. He lived in great style with a friend, who, however, robbed him one night and ran away. After that the man resolved to guard his secret and go out to work, because his reserves were visibly dwindling. One day he fell in love with a beautiful girl who loved him too, but no more than the beautiful clothes he gave her so lavishly. He married her and was very happy, but after two years she died and he spent the rest of his wealth on her funeral, which had to be splendid. Once, as he was creeping though the streets, weak, poor, and unhappy, he saw a beautiful little pair of boots that would just have done for his wife. He forgot that she was dead – perhaps because his emptied brain no longer worked – and entered the shop to buy the boots. But in that very moment he fell, and the shopkeeper saw a dead man lying on the ground.
Daudet, who was to die from an illness of the spinal cord, wrote below the end of this story:
This story sounds as though it were invented, but it is true from beginning to end. There are people who have to pay for the smallest things in life with their very substance and their spinal cord. That is a constantly suffering recurring pain, and then when they are tired of suffering…
~ Alice Miller, Prisoners of Childhood
Many are familiar with later editions of Miller’s book: The Drama of the Gifted Child. But its first edition was drawn from her observations serving as a training analyst in a psychoanalytic institute.
So let’s be clear: When Alice Miller wrote this, she was writing about the dilemma of being a psychoanalyst.
Psychotherapists are the prisoners she is referring to. They are the ones who live in constant danger of giving out of their core, excavating treasure out of their very central nervous systems, tearing fistfuls out of their spinal cords to care for others.
It is often said that psychoanalysts suffer from a narcissistic disturbance… This can be confirmed not only inductively based on experience, but also deductively from the type of talent that is needed by an analyst. His sensibility, his empathy, his intense and differentiated emotional responsiveness, and his unusually powerful “antennae” seem to predestine him as a child to be used – if not misused – by people with intense narcissistic needs. ~ Alice Miller, Prisoners Of Childhood
I’ve read this all before. Many times over the past twenty years. I’d read it feeling smug and well-analyzed, so very processed, I had mourned, and finished with such archaic relational patterns – so relieved that I was conscious and had avoided such unconsciously created calamity.
Daudet’s original fable offered other warnings, which I’m sure I would have been just as dismissive of, if I had read it before cancer.
Before I knew had a rare and chronic cancer in my spinal cord and central nervous system, floating throughout my cerebrospinal fluid, swirling around my brain. Before lesions on my lower spine deadened my nerves and distorted my sensory perceptions.
Before I fell.
The full story of The Man with the Golden Brain tells how the man left his mother’s home and squandered his treasure. Spending lavishly on everyone around him.
“You would have thought his brain inexhaustible. And yet it did become exhausted..”
~ Alphonse Daudet, Letters from My Windmill
It tells of his horror upon realizing the enormous hole he had slowly torn out of his core. It tells of an attempt to reform and rehabilitate himself, to create a new and corrective scenario where he would set and hold self-preserving parameters. And of the lure and seduction of his central problem, his compulsion to repeat, to re-enact his core-conflict, to give himself away to death.
Daudet did not have cancer. He had advanced syphilis of the central nervous system.
And I do not have a golden brain.
Nickel or silver or copper at best. Maybe just some useful, work-a-day cooper wiring, the kind they steal from abandoned homes and sell on the underground construction market – supplies that would not buy me or others indulgent luxuries, but that could be sold for some modest profit.
And which I gave away as if my supplies were inexhaustible.
Until I learned that my supplies were exhausted.
Until I saw the gaping hole.
Until my ability to spend myself recklessly perished.
Until I fell on the ground at the crossroads.
A pile of stones marked the intersection.
There was no turning back.
Everywhere that Hermes appears, even when it as “guardian,” there is an influx and invasion from the underworld. This is not an invasions of death but rather, of “underworldly life” ~ Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
As I sat (and continue to sit) in meditation through this cancer I found my mind sheltering in a new imaginal space: I lay on the ground, on my back, on the floor of a contained and insulated biosphere, surrounded by plants with broad leaves and the smell of rich loamy earth. The arched glass dome above me is silvered with mercury. The quicksilver allows only a healing opaque light into the sphere while it also obscures and protects me. Its outer shell impermeable and reflective.
And for months I lay there in that spirit-bubble. Inert. Unable to move at first, and then over time, having no idea how or where to move.
I had fallen into a new world. A space between life and death.
Life inside my body was changed, confusing, unrecognizable to me in its depletion and limitation.
A life that has no prognosis. Not a bad prognosis.
Just none of any kind.
In real time I listen to others speak confidently of their long term plans, their retirements, their vacations, their children’s future college careers. They speak with a certainty that I have lost. A confidence, that I do not begrudge, but I know is illusory.
An illusion I do not get to participate in anymore. A confidence in the future that I will never have again.
This is difficult, impossible for most people to understand. Or maybe it is just intolerable to contemplate until you have to.
No one wants to imagine that I have been altered, permanently, pressed into living a new and unrecognizable life. They imagined that I would be sick for a time, and die – or be sick for a time and then “get well again” my gold, (or nickel or copper) brain restored.
Back on the ground in my domed solarium I knew that I could not move, that I was not permitted to move until I was shown a way forward.
Until it was certain that I would not go back to the road I was on before, certain I could protect myself, preserve my very spine, my treasure, and leave the childhood prison behind.
He guides souls out of his realm – the world of paths and roads – back into the warm life of the household. ~ Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
And this is what I contemplated above all as I lay broken on the ground, basking in the warm light, guarded from predators, sheltered by broad leaves, near the pile of stacked stones:
Whatever labor I undertake must take nothing away from my children, my family. Any energy expended must be returned to me in full, in kind. It must provide me with more time, resources, gold to invest in my home life. I cannot afford to become depleted for their sake. My family is my primary mission on this earth. They were my ground, the rich, yielding earth that held me as I lay on my back. The soil that infused me with life and with purpose.
For months I couldn’t imagine how I could ever return the profession of psychotherapy again. I could not envision how to return to work, or make a living or pull my weight or feed my children. My old way of being, my grandiose belief that I was inexhaustible, my cocky confidence in the future, my faith in my capacity to be abiding, and consistent and to “go on being” – all of that was gone.
Or perhaps I gave it away.
But I was not left in a void.
I was not banished to Hades.
I was deposited in this other-world,
And the mercury sky-light guarded and protected me,
and I listened to the implicit directions and I would not move until led.
I lay there a long time.
(I am still there now)
Hermes reveals a new kind of thieving or larceny, a divine kind. ~ Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
A great deal was stolen from me, and subsequently from those who were attached to me.
My children lost a healthy mother, one who could take on big ambitious projects, who planned big adventures, who was physically strong, who could support them logistically, financially, and make them feel safe. I am now a source of worry, a fragile mother, who they must stay away from when they are sick. A mother with a chronic illness that will be terminal one day but who knows when, who gets bone tired even on a trip to the nearby mall and needs to sit down to rest. Who has a doctors appointment, or another test, or who forgot to take her medication. Who needs them to get their chores done, who asks for help cooking dinner, whose limitations now impinge on their adolescence, constricting our finances, limiting our recreations and freedoms.
My husband lost a reliable partner, a fellow bread winner, and was left with a weepy, shaken wife with a damaged body numb from her waist to her feet. Who is courageous for the kids and chatty with the neighbors- but who saves up her fears and frets and floods to share only with him.
Clients in authentic states of primal dependency, negotiating psychiatric crises lost their therapist entirely – and were referred on when I was diagnosed to seek out other professional supports. I no longer have the fortitude to tend to them as their needs demand. I am too flooded with my own vulnerability to withstand, contain or carry anyone else’s profound dependencies. I am no longer anyone’s life-ring. No one can cling to me hoping that I will save them. They must find other therapists who have the resources and abundance to follow more self-sacrificing gods.
Other clients, with greater autonomy and stability, those who come to accrue wellness rather than to treat illness, will need to choose whether they want to work with me as I am now: My perspective changed, my needs more explicit: Higher fees. Fewer hours. They lost a comfortable, easily affordable, accommodating and convenient psychotherapy.
It may not be worth it for many.
Hermes is a trickster, and the paradox became clear – that “going back to work” actually meant releasing it all, letting it all disappear if need be, leaving a vacuum that may or may not be filled.
Maybe we were all fooled. Maybe the violence of this theft was necessary for us all.
Hermes is the god who leads you on. ~ Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
And a stranger tweeted this to me:
J.D.@juanviejo: Hermes as ψυχοπομπός, guide of souls, conducts the soul of the dead to whatever lies beyond the wreck of this life.
J.D.@juanviejo: Hermes did not heal. Like him you are and have always been a guide of souls.
And these words were not only kind – they were relieving, enlivening. Only then did I realize I had been sheltered under Hermes/Mercury’s quicksilver sky, and that my work was simply to take up residence at the spot where I had fallen.
To live out the rest of my life at the cross roads.
I remembered how I helped my mother to cross, as she gasped autonomically, like a fish out of water, in her final hours of life. I don’t know how I knew what to do, but I knew: I told her to lay on her back, on the dirt, in the grass at her childhood home and look up into the sky. I told her to watch a hawk, circling, higher, higher into the sky, until it was just a tiny speck, disappearing in the clouds and then returning, disappearing, higher and higher until it was impossible to tell if the speck was still there or there was nothing but sky.
And I told her: Grandma and Grandpa are here to meet you. And you know that Grandpa never ever comes late. And he never comes early. He only comes right on time, and he is here to meet you now. Go straight to them.
My mother took her last breath. And shut her eyes. And went.
Gentle Hermes led them down the dank dark passage ~ The Oddessy
I remembered all the words I have written and shared here and spoken and emailed to friends and family members and clients who have died or who have wrestled with death and lived.
And the bereavements I have guided others through as I negotiated my own grief.
And I also thought about Mercury’s function as escort to the living through moments of fate filled challenge and decision. He does not travel with his charges for long distances or assume responsibility for them forever- but simply escorts them through from one state to another.
And then he is gone.
Hermes escorting men is your greatest joy, you above all gods. ~ The Iliad
Hermes the messenger. The giant-killer who destroys all states of self-inflation and aggrandizement. The guide to the underworld. The escort at the crossroads.
And from my prone position I saw a path began to open near my right side, through the underbrush. An image of a feasible, sustainable, way to work in the world. The only way that was possible or ethical for me.
It is only a nascent vision, a tentative plan, that may take a long long time to manifest:
- Short term work: five to ten sessions because I cannot carry the dependencies that I used to. (and who knows what the future holds.
- Escorting the living through crossroads and decision points
- Guarding and guiding others who are facing down the underworld
- Clinical guidance and supervision
Hermes is a trickster, and the crossroads could begin to spin and send my fate flying in an entirely different direction.
There is no way back.
Only the emerging possibility of a slow road forward.
Whomever does not shy away from the dangers of the most profound depths and the newest pathways, which Hermes is always prepared to open, may follow him.
~Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
This story sounds as though it were invented, but it is true from beginning to end. ~Alphonse Daudet, Letters from My Windmill