I recently attended a workshop for continuing ed. focused on oral narrative, narrative therapies and trauma – It reminded me of this case, and this paper I wrote about integrating narrative therapy and Winnicott a gazillion million years ago – probably in the late ninties (and published in the New York State Society for Clinical Social Work’s Metropolitan Forum – mailed out on paper – from the time before everyone had a website and there was no such thing as a digital newsletter)
I still use writing, narrative, and storytelling as part of my clinical practice – and in my own processes, (as this blog obviously demonstrates.)
What follows below is a Winnicottian case study using writing therapy with a client who had suffered trauma and attended a daily out patient program for adults with psychosis. The client’s name, the client’s stories, and identifying data have been changed and disguised to reflect the spirit of the work while protecting the client’s privacy and confidentiality.
THE STORY OF ROBERT ALONE:
At the time I began seeing “Robert” – fresh from social work school – I operated on beginner’s instinct with little theoretical grounding beyond a vague understanding of ego-supportive process. I saw myself as lending patients my ego strengths; as undermining maladaptive defenses and supporting adaptive ones in hopes of forestalling rehospitalization. Working under a medical model, I reluctantly began to view my patients as a mass of ego-deficits and developmental failures.
A deeper exploration of object relations theory, and Winnicott in particular, provided me with a far more meaningful and useful model for work with psychosis, allowing me to reorganize my understanding of the completed work. What follows is a summary of my relationship with Robert, conducted in the spirit of fearless idealism only readily available to new clinicians. A discussion of Winnicott’s model reveals the phases of Robert’s emotional development, his capacity for creativity, his use of transitional phenomena, and of the importance of play in the therapeutic relationship.
IDENTIFYING DATA AND PSYCHIATRIC HISTORY
“Robert” is a thirty year old man from the Virgin Islands. His skin is clear and dark, his eyes black, and the gray at the temples of his curly black hair makes him look somehow distinguished if you catch a glance of him in a still moment. He is rarely still, Parkinsonian symptoms and Tardive dyskenisia twist and jerk him about; his tongue juts in and out past his teeth, his head falls forward as though a hinge in his neck has come loose. His fingers splay open and shut when he is excited or agitated. He speaks with a heavy island dialect.
The treatment relationship took place in the context of a therapeutic milieu, five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., where he received a variety of services including: psychosocial, medication, group and individual therapy. We began at the day program the same week . I left the agency and transferred Robert to a new therapist in three and a half years later. I met with Robert twice weekly for individual treatment, twice a week in group therapy, as well as informal contact throughout the day on the treatment floor.
Robert had been hospitalized many times for paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations. He reported hearing up to seven different voices, both male and female, who he insisted were “real people in from home.” He was also preoccupied with intrusive, obsessive thoughts, which he called “dangerous stories” He would “listen and watch as they play through my head.”
Robert is one of the middle children of twenty-one siblings by one father and three mothers. He describes his father as having had three families: each living in a separate house built on adjoining property. He remembers falling asleep while his father told all of the children bedtime stories. His father died when Robert was eight years old.
His mother, the second wife, began experiencing psychotic symptoms sometime before his father took on a third wife, and was hospitalized, intermittently throughout Robert’s childhood, latency, and adolescence. He was never told where she was or why she was gone. Her children were absorbed by the other two households during her institutionalizations. Robert remembers being beaten by his older half-siblings when he misbehaved.
In my first months with Robert, I felt invisible to him, without a therapeutic partner in the session. Communicating with him was nearly impossible. His world consisted of slips and slides, bizarre responses and loosened associations. The past and present jumbled together in a tangle of primary process. His thick accent further obscured his illogical statements.
In the countertransference I experienced an overwhelming ennui, a numbing, rhythmic, almost dizzying boredom. This quality of boringness is at the core of Robert’s illness according to Winnicott; more debilitating than the hallucinatory symptoms associated with schizophrenia (Winnicott, 1971, p. 66, & Winnicott, 1972, p. 1).
Yet, I sensed that Robert was attempting to share something important about himself with me; a frightening gift, which I was, in essence, rejecting. Unable to tolerate the chaos, I would cut him off, hoping to find surer footing by soliciting details of his day to day reality. Robert’s “essential lack of true relation to external reality” creates initial transference difficulties, in Winnicott’s view, which must be dealt with in order for the therapeutic relationship to proceed. In infancy and in adult illness, hallucinatory fantasy is seen as an attempt to gratify primary needs which external relationship have failed to fulfill (Winnicott, 1992, p. 152 ). Like a child who prefers the thumb to the mother’s breast – Robert’s stories disrupted his relationships to people and to daily reality. Nothing of the present could exist once the stories began, not me, my office, or his fellow group members. They were truly the stories of Robert alone, and unrelated.
One day , I tentatively asked Robert about his hallucinatory world, releasing a flood of content and rapid pressured speech. He began telling me a dangerous story that “starts up in his brain” – consuming him entirely. He demanded that I write the story down verbatim, serving as his scribe with a day-glow green pen which he had selected for the purpose.
Queasily reviewing the pages of green ink, I felt even more disturbed by the glimpse of Robert’s internal life. It was clear that no external connection to me or the group could be as compelling as these hallucinated relationships. The stories were too psychotic – full of disjointed nightmare images of broken doors and angry dogs. The voices were too vivid, frighteningly alive and defined personalities. I wondered if he could be hospitalized; I wanted to put him away from me, and cast these entities out from my office. I felt frightened, revolted, and sick to my stomach. Robert had left me in a fragmented muddle, a countertransferential experience of madness (Winnicott, 1965, p. 147).
Across the top of my notes, Robert had written in his perfect elementary school printing “THE STORY of The Man Who Protected Robert.” The disjointed third-person tale that followed told of Robert and his close friend “Haad”. At the center of the story, Robert finds himself in trouble. He has lost the night deposits of an office where he works as an errand boy. Only his friend Haad comforts him: “‘It’s all right. I know the boy.’ I know the boy. This is what Haad said to me!” At the story’s end – Haad is killed in a car accident – and Robert believes that he is not dead – he is alive and protects Robert from all danger. The final words are: “It is finished” written in Robert’s own hand.
His struggle to formulate a consolidated identity seemed central to Robert’s story. He had created the story to say: “I know the boy” protecting him from an even deeper sense of fragmentation. By viewing his ability to organize the story as a developmental achievement, I could support the story’s ability to consolidate a sense of Robert’s own thoughts, feelings and impulses.
The creative impulse is something which can be looked at as thing in itself, as something that is present when anyone – baby, child, adolescent, adult, old man or woman – looks in a healthy way at anything or does anything deliberately, such as making a mess with feces or prolonging the act of crying to create a musical sound (Winnicott, 1971, p. 69).
The next session Robert made it clear to me that we were on the right track. He asked me to tell the story back word for word. Robert was particularly concerned that I understood the story to be true, not made up, and not crazy. He stated, “This is True. This is what happened, Do you believe that this is a true story?” I said I trusted that Robert had told me exactly how it had felt to him.
He then regretted telling me the story. I might tell the insurance company, I might send him to the hospital, the dangerous story could be stolen by those who might hurt him. He also worried that I might be injured somehow because I knew the story. I reassured Robert repeatedly that I did not want to hurt or hospitalize him. Moreover, I had to demonstrate to him that I was strong enough to contain and protect both of us from the aggressive impulses within his story. We would only approach the stories in a way that made us both feel safe.
I offered a suggestion. Perhaps we could close the story by stapling or folding it and then locking it in my file cabinet. After testing the lock on the cabinet, as well as my locked office door, Robert appeared convinced. The story could be left safely with me; it would remain in the therapeutic setting, and would not emerge to surprise, hurt or frighten him outside of the program.
Robert’s internal relationship with Haad, both historical and hallucinatory, reflects his yearning for protective holding. He used to sense Haad’s protective presence “all around” him, in the walls of the room, in the air that he breathed. Haad provides Robert with a holding “environment mother” who has formed an attuned identification in order to soothe and regulate the environment (Winnicott, 1965, p. 33).
As Robert’s and my relationship progressed, I began to take on Haad’s holding functions. I literally held the stories, the locks on the drawer and the office door serving as concrete symbols of the protective holding environment. He began to look to me as an environment mother, warding “off the unpredictable” and actively providing “care in handling and in general management” (Winnicott, 1965, p. 75).
Moreover, the environment mother is needed to “to continue to be herself, to be empathic toward her infant, and to be there to receive the spontaneous gesture and to be pleased” (Winnicott, 1965, p. 76). These are the very functions that he could not find in his own psychotic mother; a mother unable to regulate the environment for herself or her child; a mother who was not able to be reliably there, due to her own illness and hospitalizations.
The reliability of the treatment environment, and the structure of the story work, held Robert suspended safely, as if in a medium, “like the oil in which the wheels move” (Winnicott, 1972, p. 188). This holding started off fairly simply, as a consistent time, my general empathy and attention, allowing Robert’s story to emerge. Perhaps my ability to face and survive Robert’s projected psychotic anxieties distinguished me as a mother who would not breakdown and abandon him. In the weeks ahead, Robert began, very slowly, to tell a “more dangerous” story to me, as I wrote it down.
PROCESS: STORYING AND RESTORYING
The Story of Robert Alone
Robert’s sister said to get a job. Robert went to a department store. He applies to be a porter, putting out the garbage. The form asks why he left his last job. Robert thinks of the insurance company and writes: “Because of the deposit bag.” He didn’t want to go to the bank at night because this is too much for him.
One day, a lady who worked in the office said Robert to pick up the empty bank bags. This was too dangerous, like before with the insurance company.
He was all alone: no father no mother no brother and no Haad.
Then the manager told Robert “Its cold out, bring your hat” and Robert thinks of Haad. There must be danger if Robert needs protection. Robert quit this job. It was too much.
Robert has honesty.
It is finished.
Eventually, Robert told me all of the dangerous stories that had consumed his attention. The process repeated itself each time: telling, scribing, repeating. The stories were always locked in the file drawer at the close of each session, and he would check the locks before leaving. Winnicott predicts that this holding “steadily becomes extremely complex, yet remains just the same, a holding” (Winnicott, 1965, p. 228). This was demonstrated in Robert’s increasing demands that I mirror him word for word, that I enact a protracted complicated ritual around closing the stories, week after week, without error.
When I first met Robert he was entrapped hallucinatory omnipotence, with no real experience of me or of his external environment. This also speaks to his inability to retain good enough internal objects, as evidenced in the Story of Robert Alone, with “no father no mother, no brother and no Haad;” no internalized object to rely upon for comfort or safety.
Haad, says “I know the boy” representing Robert’s attempt to maintain a distinction between Robert and not-Robert, to identify himself as unique and embodied.
Our relationship could be said, in Winnicottian terms, to reflect Robert’s recent development of the capacity to be alone, his progress from ‘I’, to ‘I am’, to ‘I am alone’ (Winnicott, 1965, p. 33). In this phase of our relationship, and the story work, Robert and I formed a relationship which, in hindsight, can be seen as a good example of Winnicott’s ego-relatedness: “Ego relatedness refers to the relationship between two people, one of whom at any rate is alone; perhaps both are alone, yet the presence of each is important to the other”(Winnicott, 1965, p. 31).
If Robert could not come out of the story to meet and relate to others, I would have to go in and join him there. Maybe he would eventually trust me enough to follow me out into the present. In short, I would have to convince Robert of the real advantages of accepting external reality – that despite its many failures and frustrations, it offers many real consolations and comforts. In Winnicott’s words: “Real milk is satisfying as compared with imaginary milk (Winnicott, 1992, p. 153).”
Robert arrived one day complaining of “heat in my head” because the story had not been locked up securely enough. I suggested that if I told him my own story about the department store, it might help. Robert agreed, and sat down to listen. What follows is my re-storied version of The Story of Robert Alone.
The Story of How Robert Took Care of Himself
Soon after Robert moved to the United States, his family wanted him to get a job, and he wanted to get working again too. He applied for a job at a department store. He tries to tell them on his application that he doesn’t want a job that has to do with errands or bank deposits. He had a job like that before and it had been too scary, and his thoughts had gotten all confused. He sure didn’t want to go through that again. He asked for a job as a porter and he got the job. He was very happy about it.
One day, they asked him to run an errand at the bank! Robert felt terrified that he would be hurt or mugged, or get in trouble again! It was scary for him and he felt alone and overwhelmed.
While he was upset like this, the manager told him that it was cold outside and reminded him to dress warmly. The past and the present were getting all mixed up for Robert, and he thought the manager asked him to bring his friend Haad along for protection. But the manager couldn’t know that Robert had a friend named Haad in because he had only known Robert a short time.
And his friendship with Haad will always be with him in his heart and his memories
Robert wisely recognized that this job was too much pressure for him, and he quit the job to keep himself healthy and safe.
He had been able to take care of himself all on his own, even with no father no mother, no brother and no Haad.
He had made a good decision and he felt proud that he was able to protect himself with out help from anybody else.
Robert behaved like an honest and responsible adult.
Robert’s response to this story was a large grin:
M: What do you think of my story?
R: Its good. Its true too. I like your story better.
M: What is it that you like about my story?
R: Your story has all of my feelings in it.
He went on to say that this story of mine was a safe story, with nothing too bad happening in it, only bad feelings. In the next few months Robert would take in several of my re-stories. The stories and re-stories constituted our entire process for a period of approximately twelve months. For the remainder of our work together – our relationship traveled well beyond these stories – but would occasionally revisit and review them when they asserted themselves during times of stress or when they had been triggered by external events.
It would be important in any discussion of Winnicott, but especially in this case, not to overlook the concepts of the transitional space and transitional objects. Robert’s stories are explicit examples of transitional phenomena, comparable to an infant’s babbling, or an older child’s songs and nursery rhymes (Winnicott, 1971, p 2). They come from within Robert, but the same time they come from with out – he passively watches as they omnipotently play through his mind. This passivity reveals pathological use of the transitional object, which feels as though it has a dominating external vitality of its own.
Winnicott describes transitional phenomena as an attempt to bind fears and sorrows: “a word, or tune or a mannerism – that becomes vitally important to the infant at the time of going to sleep and is a defense against anxiety, especially anxiety of a depressive type” (Winnicott, 1971, p. 4).
Denial of loss and separation plays an important role in the pathological aspects of the transitional space (Winnicott, 1971, p. 5). The first story “came into” Robert after Haad’s death, a loss which was devastating to Robert in itself, but also reactivates much earlier, overwhelming losses: his father’s death and his mothers’ frequent long, mysterious absences. It is likely, that Robert began relying upon such fantasying far earlier in his life, perhaps at the time of his mother’s first hospitalization, or following his father’s death.
Perhaps Robert’s stories served as a stand in for his father, and the safety Robert experienced as he fell asleep held in his father’s stories. As Winnicott points out: “A need for a specific object or behavior pattern that started at a very early date may reappear at a later age when deprivation threatens (Winnicott, 1971, p. 4).
One day Robert reported that his stories were changing. My stories had been “mixed up good” with his, and he would remember both stories together. He said that his stories were safer now, not as angry. When Robert relived these old memories, a newer memory of telling them to me, of my listening, writing, and responding, had become a part of his story.
Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play (Winnicott, 1971, p. 38).
Re-storying served to promote relatedness in the transitional space, without challenging Robert’s “neutral area of experience” through playing with the stories – passing them back and forth between us , allowing the story to change, and to change us as well. Ultimately, the stories allowed Robert to move from a place of hallucinatory omnipotence and merger to being in relation to myself and the group.
When Robert started at our program his only relationships were with Haad, and the other “story people” Eventually he formed several close friendships at the program. He says that stories and the voices are “no bother” now, although they remain in “the back of my brain.” As instances of imaginative play and creativity emerged in Robert’s daily life – at first a giggle, then playing with riddles and funny stories, and eventually developing into full fledged mischief- became as breathtaking and moving as they had once been rare. In this light, Robert’s stories can be seen not a symptoms, but as an emergence of the True Self, a spontaneous, creative gesture that was waiting to be met.
During our last week of work together Robert passed the US citizen examination, which he described as a commitment to “live life in the present, instead of the stories.” – an acknowledgment of his wish to maintain an attachment to external reality, rather than psychotic fantasy. Through the course of treatment, and this course of study, I have adjusted my expectations, my goals, and my understanding of the task at hand with regard to this and similar cases. The job is much simpler than I thought, but also much harder. It is I think; to wait patiently, to watch very closely, and to try not to miss an opportunity to celebrate the client’s capacity, however fragile, for creative living.
Winnicott, D. W. (1965). The maturational processes and the
facilitating environment; studies in the theory of emotional
development. Madison CT: International Universities Press,
_________ (1971). Playing and reality. New York: Tavistock
_________ (1972). Holding and interpretation; fragment of an
analysis. New York: Grove Press
_________ (1992). Through pediatrics to psycho-analysis: Collected papers.
New York, NY: Brunner /Mazel Inc.
Macbeth: If we should fail?
Lady Macbeth: We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking place, And we’ll not fail.
Macbeth, Act 1, scene 7, 59-61
Committing psychotherapeutic acts takes extraordinary courage.
Facing down anxieties, digging down underneath painful symptoms, revealing vulnerabilities, casting out demons, seeking salvation, asking forgiveness, challenging abuse, severing damaging relationships, examining your failures, flaws, weaknesses, revealing your shames, contending with guilt, grieving, preparing to die, coming out, fighting for intimacy, encountering emptiness, apprehending your own murderousness, and the depths of your hungers and desires, setting limits and boundaries, saying “no”, tolerating exposure, baring your soul, withstanding the pain, changing your life, telling the truth…
Telling the truth.
These are terrifying acts.
I can think of no psychotherapeutic action that does not require courage.
I cannot think of a single split second of the 30 years I have spent engaged in the psychotherapeutic process, as a client or as a therapist – that did not require extraordinary bravery – and sticking to it week after week after week.
There are thousands of moments when one or both of us in the room wants to run, in the presence of awful, awe-filled, awe-some realities and potentialities.
Choosing to face reality – really looking at yourself, and your life, at the world around you, at those you love, at those you hate – should scare the shit out of you.
Of course Mr. and Ms. Macbeth were preparing to murder for status and power …which we would obviously, never condone.
But be warned that telling your truth to another person in a confidential office can kill off quite a few comforting illusions.
If it doesn’t, you may be missing something essential.
Some people suggest that anxiety is an entrenched, immutable biological response and that courage has nothing to do with it.
I could debate that idea in a million ways – but I don’t want to feed that notion, because it negates the flabbergasting acts of courage I watch take place in my office every single day.
My therapist would sometimes ask: “Do you want to talk about __________?”
“No.” I would say. “Of course I do not want to talk about that. I don’t want to talk about that at all.”
Screw your courage.
“Do you think we should talk about it?”
“Yes. Of course we should. But if you ask me if I want to I’m going to have tell you ‘No fucking way’.”
I’d leave therapy drenched in sweat. As if I’d fought a dragon barehanded. Or wrestled with an angel all night long. I never understood why I’d leave so damp from exertion until I sat in the therapists chair and watched my clients, one after another, search for their sticking place and screw their courage there committing staggering acts of bravery. Of will, of strength.
For some the sticking place is the therapeutic relationship itself, the trust built, brick by brick, between therapeutic partners.
Other’s find their solid ground by imagining the parents their child deserves, or the partner that they hope to be.
Some are able to summon their bravery when they think of what others have sacrificed for them.
Some find their line in the sand through religious promises or moral mandates.
And still others will locate their courage by honoring a relationship lost.
Or by wanting to protect others from the horrors they have survived.
And sometimes, it is simply the commitment to authenticity, the wish for wholeness that lets us stick and stand strong in the face of challenge, conflict, distress, sorrow, pain, fear.
Sometimes bravery sounds like this:
“I just couldn’t any more”
“It just came out of my mouth before I realized”
“I didn’t feel like I even had a choice. I just had to.”
Sometimes it is even more elemental than that.
Bravery can sound like this:
“I hate you.”
“I love you.”
I am afraid too. We can at least be terrified together, and maybe find our sticking place there.
And if we should fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail.
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
It’s You I Like
~ By Fred M. Rogers © 1970
I’ve been re-reading a lot of Ronald Fairbairn’s works lately. An object relational psychoanalyst- writing through the 1950’s – a man who worked with abused children, “shell-shocked” war vets and introverts. He was number one on my theorist hit parade for many years, but dropped off of my radar after reading and re-re-reading him – I must have decided that I’d digested his message completely (foolish of me) – and incorporated him into my infrastructure.
I didn’t forget his amazing contributions to psychoanalytic thought: His most seminal contribution is a construct known as ‘The Moral Defense” : the way children, especially abused or neglected children but also all children, find their parent’s destructive aspects so intolerable – while they remain so dependent and for years beyond – that they take the burden of their parents’ badness onto themselves. Maintaining primal attachments at the greatest cost by talking to themselves in the parents’ bad voice, believing that if only they were “good” inside or at least better Mommy or Daddy would love them more, or at all.
I didn’t forget his ideas or even forget to give him credit for his perceptions. I forgot him. I forgot his writers voice, the way that he never stopped advocating for “unanalyzable” clients in the face of the traditional Freudian analysts who had historically rejected anyone who has sustained a real psychological injury, or blamed them for manufacturing their own ills. I forgot his loyalty to sexually abused children and adults, and his belief in them and in their stories of trauma. I forgot that he thought mandating clients to lie down on the couch to be coercive, and potentially retraumatizing, and really just a way to protect analysts from the clients’ relational hunger and legitimate needs. I forgot his unceasing willingness to stay near his clients – to let them look him in the eyes and to look back – as they talked about their most personal private thoughts and beliefs – about their bodies, about sex, about defecation, about God. I forgot how his belief that clients come to therapy to seek salvation – forgiveness for their sins and freedom from the demons that haunted them – meant that he was committed to seeing them as loveable in the face of their darkest deeds and secrets, how it meant that he would try never to flinch in the face of their most traumatic memories, and how he would allow himself to be hated, to withstand the full force of his clients hate, so the hatred could be released and modulated.
I missed Fairbairn, as a voice, as a teacher, a role-model, a surrogate.
I realize that when I’ve described myself in the past as a theory-wonk, that is not exactly true: I am really just a theorist-wonk, a psychoanalytic groupie. A goofy geeked-out fan-girl, nothing more.
As a young child I was crazily devoted to Fred Rodgers. (If you don’t know who he is, or if you do you should really read this. Really. Do it. I re-read it all the time.) I kept my secret devotion hidden well into upper elementary school and beyond. I had his song books and read his gentle lyrics over and over basking in their paternal kindness. By junior high I had transferred my crushing to Carl Sagan, to Walt Whitman. By high school, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot. By college: Ibsen, Checkov, Kant, Hegel, Keirkeggard, Buber, Freud. Graduate school led me to Fairbain and Winnicott, and Kohut.
I realize that one of the reasons that I don’t read as much fiction as I should is that I don’t want to read about imaginary character’s relationships to each other – I want to be in imaginary relationship to the philosopher without a fictional middle-man separating us.
Fred Rodgers would sit down and break the fourth wall of my television screen to show me new things, to tell me about something he learned that day, or something he had thought about. To tell me that he liked me just for being me, to tell me what might come next, or not to be afraid of having “scary bad wishes” because wishes don’t make things come true. He spoke directly to me, giving me guidance that led me through the spiritual thickets of my childhood.
Post-graduate studies brought me many more such guides -Searles, Sullivan, Guggenbuhl-Craig, and most influentially, Jung.
There are women too, a good handful: Mahler, Miller, VonFranz, Anna Freud, Klein, Bebee, Ornstien, Stevens Sullivan, – but clearly these imaginal compensatory relationships skew toward my daddy-issues more than my mother-complex.
I read and re-read and revisit these men’s and women’s words over and over – grateful for their mentorship, for the kindness and generosity in their voices, for their willingness to speak their thoughts out directly, unfiltered. To hear of their patience, and their warmth, their limitations, their forgiveness of themselves and others, their willingness to press or even fight against the prevailing models to be sure that the client population they served would be considered, to hear them talk of “real relationships” and “life-long self-object needs” – to watch them debate respectfully and civilly even when they disagree vehemently or hold personal dislikes or even hatreds. To watch them battle against practices that they believed re-traumatized or damaged or omitted too many. They are all limited, bound by their histories, pathologies, narcissisms and their own era, but their commitment to psychoanalytic love, love with out using the word, still shines through their jargon and their own woundedness.
To hope to be as brave and clear, committed and creative in my own small way.
To try to give of myself as generously – and not only to my clients – but to offer my own voice – to break through that fourth wall and talk through the screen to anyone who needs to feel forgivable and worthy of patience, and deserving of kindness.
To say, as all these guides have said in their own language, through their own filter and stance – as Fred Rodgers said to me through the TV screen (as I try to repeat each day in session after session) over and over, each week, without fail:
“There is no one in the world just like you. And I like you just the way you are.”
A good friend is visiting, a friend who has a potentially terminal cancer – which is also a potentially survivable cancer. This is a friend who has helped raise my kids, and helped care for my ailing mother. And she needed to talk about death, frankly, explicitly, and very few people in her life are able to talk about it with her without becoming distressed and uncomfortable.
So, if you read this blog – you know I have written a fair amount about death and bereavement. My mother died of cancer a few months ago after a long period of dependency and disability, and before that my grandmother-in-law died (she was very old, almost 102 and we had taken care of her for a long long time) A few years earlier, on the same weekend while I was at Disney World my father (a fall/ head injury secondary to narcotics dependency) and one of my two oldest and best friends (AIDS), both died. My father-in-law passed away (after a seven year cancer process) – about thirteen years ago: I know this because it was in the middle of the adoption of our first child, and we paused the adoption process for our mourning and bereavement. And a few years before that – just after I became a social worker – I lost my my “best” friend from high school & college (AIDS).
Other than that: My mother-in-law died (cancer) a few months before I met my husband and his family in fresh bereavement. I’ve lost all my grandparents and their peers by now of course – And I lost many mentors and teachers and my step-father as a result of the AIDS crisis.
And I’ve had many clients die, and clients who come to my office to talk about deaths that have transformed their lives – deaths that annihilated their former ways of being and forced them, unwillingly and forevermore into a new world. And clients who talk or fantasize about their own deaths, their fear of death, or their terminal – or potentially terminal diagnosis. And those who cannot talk about it. I’ve also sat with people – in and out of my office – as they have talked about terminating their own lives– sometimes as part of a conversation about terminal illness and “death with dignity” and sometimes because they were in the throws of a pernicious, torturous depression and contemplating suicide.
And I’ve had too too many clients in the throws of perfectly healthy bereavement processes come to my office simply because no one around them had any willingness or ability to sit and talk and listen about death.
This isn’t just my job, to be able to talk about death. It is everyone’s work. If not yet, soon. If not soon, eventually. We will need to find the words and the capacity to listen and to face our fears for those we love. And for our own sakes.
But believe me most won’t do it until they are forced to. And they will do anything they can to get away from it, using every tactic in the book: denial, avoidance, minimization, magical thinking, victim-blaming, death-denying “power of postive thinking” and sometimes even aggression and just plain rudeness when all else fails.
I’ve watched this phenomenon throughout my mother’s dying – people in stunned silence when I would name what process we were all immersed in. I see it in the face of some (not all) of my new neighbors when they ask how my recent move went – and I tell them bluntly and directly it was actually crazy traumatizing because my mother began dying in the middle of it all.
I watched people I was generally friendly with – who knew what was happening to us, kind people, “normal” people, refuse to name or acknowledge or ask about or incorporate the reality they knew was upon us.
I felt the extraordinary relief when my mother’s hospice workers arrived who knew how to talk this talk. Explicitly. Without beating around bushes.
It is not a hard language to learn, it really isn’t. You just have to be brave and take a deep breath. To refuse to let fear drive you to abandon those you care about.
You just have to say: “I’m glad treatment is going well and I’m sending you all positive thoughts – but if you ever feel frightened I can always listen”
“I’m with you, and right behind you no matter what lies ahead – either way I’m sticking right by you”
“You never need to worry about burdening me – I don’t need to be protected”
“Lets get together and shoot the shit! And if you ever need to talk about the harder parts of all this – my ear is always open”
I don’t love the boilerplate: “Oh, I’m so sorry” – although of course I have used it myself – because I have experienced deaths that I was not sorry about at all. Not one bit. And even when I am sad, the statement makes me feel like an object of pity. Pity offered instead of actual support.
Bereavement and dying processes can be a relief, a liberation, temper tantrum, a trauma, a terror as well as – or instead of – a sorrow. There is no one size fits all response to death. Your experience with death is not mine, and mine is not anyone else’s.
And if you ask “So how are you doing?” with furrowed brows, be prepared to actually listen without requiring that those who are contending with death, in one form or another, confine themselves to your preconceived notions about how they are supposed to feel.
I have a wish that more people could be brave for each other when death emerges on the scene. It is not a conversation that anyone wants to have – but if we fail to have it, we abandon those in our community who are (or might be) dying, in their hour of greatest need. It is so much worse to have to hide it, to press it out of polite conversation, to have it silenced and shushed. To be isolated in it for the lack of anyone willing or able to talk frankly and openly.
We have to learn, and re-learn, as a culture, how to be braver in the face of death. To stare down the primal existentialist dilemma for the sake of each other.
Death isn’t a failure. It isn’t shameful. And it isn’t impolite. It can be frightening but it is a moral imperative to be courageous for those we love and care for.
It isn’t “negative” to discuss death. It is healthy and self-regarding – especially when it is on the table as a potentially imminent event. We need to develop, as a culture and as individuals, a basic literacy about death, to learn death-talk, so that we don’t have to leave people alone in the hard process of preparing to say good bye.
The best sexual education curriculums teach people how to communicate about sex and sexuality. It is vulnerable, frightening, uncomfortable, exposing to talk about sex, yet – we generally understand that it is healthy and necessary to do so. We have no common curriculum to teach lay people about how to talk about death and dying.
We all need to practice forming the words in our mouths, and listening to threatening content. If you are reading this I encourage you to challenge yourself, challenge others. Initiate frank conversations with your parents, your partners, your children, your friends. Learn how to say the words, learn how to name the fears, learn how to move past the terrors – the fear won’t go away, but it needn’t control us. Practice telling others about losses you have survived or are negotiating. Ask others to practice listening. Let other people talk about their losses, their health or lack of it, their fears. Practice being braver so that those immersed in death and dying processes don’t have to protect you on top of all the other hard hard work on their plate.
It will probably always be necessary to have “experts” – hospice workers, thanatologists, chaplains, clergy, psychotherapists who will speak and listen into these conversations, but this work should not be reserved for experts. To live in authentic community with each other, we all need to speak this language.
It is one of the most pervasive manifestations of ableism – the way we refuse to face our discomfort and anxieties and subsequently abandon those who are facing down death and dying. It didn’t use to be this way. This didn’t used to be a professional specialization.
It is one of the shadow-aspects of psychotherapy as a profession: that as these conversations are relegated to the therapist’s office, everyone else gets to abdicate their responsibility to withstand these conversations for themselves. We allow our listening skills and capacity to lay undeveloped and atrophied. We’ve professionalized this conversation so that the rest of us don’t have to face down these anxieties for another’s sake:
“Let me give you my therapist’s card: You really should talk to someone about that.”
Why should people in healthy bereavements need to see psychotherapists at all? Only because no one else thinks it is their job to withstand those fears and listen.
I wish we were more willing to be disturbed for one another’s sake.
I used to be fascinated by mediums and their hokey TV shows, because – cold reading or not, con or no, they could talk openly and frankly about death – which I suspect was as relieving to their clientele as any “message from the beyond” that came forth.
And skeptics mock those who turn to psychics to seek comfort – but really how many spaces exist for those who are being transformed by death and dying ? Mediums, clergy, some psychotherapists, bereavement counselors – Almost everyone else wants to avoid the subject.
And too often the dying can’t even talk to their doctors about it, because doctors are afraid as well.
Such a cruel double bind.
When we don’t let fear control our response – we are rewarded with each other’s intimate company, with presence, with connection and with surprising joys and closeness.
Let’s practice. Let’s get to it. It is the one great universal – it is the single experience that we must all contend with and it has the power to connect us as nothing else can.
Let’s us all take it on as the normal work of life.
Ellie Conant, who I wrote this piece for, died on Jan 1st 2016.
It is a great happiness to me that this post was explicitly helpful to her – she shared it with friends and family to help them talk with her about the realities she faced.
(And I should also mention here, that she mocked me mercilessly when she uncovered my guilty secret: saved episodes of John Edwards and the Long Island Medium)
Part of our job as the survivor of a loved one is to integrate their life lessons, their core values and manifest them in the world. This is grief work.
In that spirit: I am attaching a request to this popular post:
Before her death, Ellie spent time thinking about her legacy, the causes and the people on this planet that she most wanted to support – projects that would serve as extension of her core values and passions. She decided that her memory would be most honored by caring for LGBTQ youth in Korea. With the help of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice we are able to direct donations made in her memory toward a shelter in Korea for LGBTQ youth, as well as other projects.
Please help her extraordinary and nurturing spirit continue to work for change, compassion and liberation in this world.
Please share this post and follow this link to the Astraea donations page, and be sure to indicate that your donation is in memory of Ellie Conant.
Donations will be accepted through June, 2016–both the month of Ellie’s birth and the annual Pride celebration she loved so much. How fitting that we support her in spreading Pride into the world.
Myth has portrayed the rainbow as the highway over which the psyche’s supernal emissaries bring their messages to consciousness. ~ The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism
The soul-spark, the little wisp of divine light that never burns more brightly than when it has to struggle against the invading darkness. What would the rainbow be were it not limned against the lowering cloud?
~ C. G. Jung, the Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, On the Nature of the Psyche, 8. General Considerations and Prospects paragraph 430
A dream, not mine (mine will come later). This is Jung’s dream:
Only the gods can walk rainbow bridges in safety; mere mortals fall and meet their death for the rainbow is only a lovely semblance that spans the sky, and not a highway for human beings with bodies. ~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy pp. 58, Chapter 2, paragraph 69.
I don’t know how to tell this story, or if this story can even be told.
Maybe this is a story of the things that we cling to through dark times, or maybe it is a story of new worlds that emerge from disasters, or it could be a story of omens and portents – or just as legitimately one of superstition and magical thinking. Or maybe it is yet another story about how the psyche and our dreaming life can offer care and consolation. Or maybe it is simply a story written to thank someone for a deeply cherished gift, when I have no other way to demonstrate my gratitude.
Whatever kind of story it is, it starts a long long time ago and I have to reach all the way back to tell it.
Winter, 1988: New York City
I don’t remember much about that visit except that we hadn’t gotten along very well. We were clearly on each other’s nerves the way that only friends in their mid-twenties who have known each other since they were fourteen can. And we didn’t hide it either. I was hanging around with a bunch of Yalies – smoking filter-less cigarettes -and discussing the history of German expressionist film and theater over neat scotch. I could see how disappointed he was in what I had become.
Tommy arrived fashionable and fabulous and ready to go dancing. He wanted to see musicals that I, with my new found pseudo-sophistication, now considered mainstream and pedestrian. He refused to see the subtitled foreign films or performance art pieces that were on my must-see list. (Why didn’t I just get us tickets to see Ludlam in The Ridiculous Theater? That would have been so delicious for us both.) He wanted me to look preppy and middle class instead of depressive and thrift-store revolutionary. He wanted to dress me up so we could go HAVE FUN and meet cute guys.
It was the first time that we had been in the same place without being able to come together. We were 24 years old, totally cocky and completely insufferable. And our life paths were diverging in a way we could never have imagined in high school.
It wasn’t as though we never fought. Rooming together in Los Angeles had not been conflict free. I was a slob – an Oscar to his Felix -and we’d had our share of squabbles about joint finances, household chores and plenty of expressed and unexpressed disapproval of each others’ boyfriends.
Winter, 1984: Los Angeles
We lived in “off campus” housing together. We threw great parties. Tommy would dress me up – find something for me to wear – usually mixing and matching out of my deplorable wardrobe and his. And we would go dancing. He’d sneak me in into the boys town clubs in West Hollywood since I didn’t have a fake id, and he did.
And we would dance – we had been dancing together since we were fourteen – partnered in high school musicals and summer stock. We would go home too late, buzzed and flushed, sweaty and swing by a little bakery in Glendale, grab a carton of cold milk and a bag of warm apple fritters fresh from the oven at 2:00am – and sit in the living room watching old movies licking the sugar off of our fingers until we fell asleep on our thrift store couches.
This is what adults did, we thought.
Later that year Tommy came down with a mysterious fever – Now it would be diagnosed right away – the fever, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes that signal the “primary HIV infection syndrome.” In 1984 we thought it was some weird flu. Or sun poisoning from at day at the beach. I called campus health services – who told us to administer aspirin and Tylenol every hour. I wrapped him in a damp cool sheet – put him in my bed – and sat up all night checking on him.
We planned that if he ever got what was at the time a mysterious “gay disease” that we would empty all the cash out of our savings accounts and we would travel around the world with whatever time he had left.
Summer 1982: Small Town Southern California
We forged our friendship over musical theater: we were “triple threat” actors/singers/dancers and usually paired together like matching salt and pepper shakers. We danced and sang crawling all over each other -completely safe with each other’s bodies with no sexual threat to separate us. I remember sweltering summers – dancing on hard cement getting shin splints while choreographers hollered: – “Again! No! Stop! What are you doing my dear! ?! Again from the beginning!” Tommy would grab me and throw me – spin me and catch me – high up in the air on a tottery platform three feet wide and twelve feet high in the sky and I was never frightened.
He would never drop me. He would never let me fall. It never even entered my mind. I could trust him like my own breath.
Fall 1994: New York City
I had been aware for several years that Tommy’s lifestyle involved more substances than were healthful, especially with his HIV status- that he partied too much and stayed up too late and in general was not caring for his precarious health. He’d reassure me: “I look great!” He’d met (another) really really cute guy, he was making a lot of money, he got a new print modeling contact – he had a cute new studio apartment… I always hung up more worried than comforted by his cheer.
Today on the phone his voice was totally different. He was vulnerable – unraveling – He told me that he missed me – he said he had no other friend like me (he’d never said anything so overtly affectionate or emotional about our friendship and that frightened me even more.)
He asked after my mother – and told me that he wanted me to thank her for him- he’d often thought of her kindness and affection for him – He began crying after a while – panicking. He told me he felt contaminated – “There is something inside my body that is trying to kill me!”
I pleaded with him to get to sufficient medical care – people were surviving now with these new meds, protease inhibitors, why wasn’t he taking them?! – My urgency or directive advice shut him down. His tears cut off, he said he was just being silly and dramatic and he hurried to get off of the phone.
I wish I had listened quietly and better, and maybe told him that I was scared too – that I didn’t want to accept death as a possibility either – I needed him to be in this world with me even if we had grown apart – just to know that he was there – That the thought that he had a fatal illness was almost as intolerable to me as it was to him.
I had no way of knowing that this would be my last and only chance to ever share these feelings with him. I couldn’t know that he would never call me or let me know his whereabouts ever again. I didn’t know that this was my only chance to say goodbye.
Spring, 1996 : New York City
When I received the call informing me that Tommy had died- I couldn’t breathe. Those in our closest circles had not heard from him in too long. The silence told me it was coming – and he had died a only a two weeks before we began to fan out to find news of him. Yet it was still so horrible, inconceivable – I knew many people who have died of this disease – patients, friends, colleagues – and many more who were now surviving. But I always hoped – somehow believed – that Tommy would be exempt – that I simply needed him too much for anything like this to really happen.
For many weeks I carried around an unspoken nonsensical fantasy that Tommy had actually met some handsome older man, fit and wealthy and graying at the temples – who was keeping Tommy in the lifestyle that he aspired to. And that Tommy was just too aware of how judgmental I would be about it to call me. I could almost convince myself that this “death-thing” was a ruse to cover his tracks so the truth wouldn’t be found out.
I comforted myself with the picture of the first moment I met Tommy:
Fall, 1979: Small Town Southern California
We are sophomores in high school – neither of us native Californians. It is an audition/talent show to determine placement in drama classes the first week of school. We are the only people in the room who are not tan. The other boys his age are bigger, hairier and more developed – and he is still a boy – skinny, pale – with freckled skin and graceful fingers. He is wearing a red-checkered shirt like an Italian tablecloth – and a straw cowboy hat. He looks ridiculous. He gets up on stage and I can’t remember what he does – A silly country song? A comic monologue? But I laugh – really hard. Because he is really funny- and I tell him so when he gets off stage near me.
I’m heading up to the stage next to embarrass myself too. I am sick to my stomach stage fright. I start talking loudly into a pretend telephone and I look out in the audience for the boy in the checkered shirt- who’s name I do not know – and he is laughing. Really hard.
The terror dissolves and I am safe.
Sept 13th, 2001 New York City
Three days earlier I had watched, along with millions of other New Yorkers, 3,000 people burn to ashes in front of my eyes. I ran straightaway to a hospital where my husband worked, and volunteered there for the day at the hospital gates – as thousands and thousands of people queued up – to ask about missing friends and family members. I cross checked the names of the missing with a single sheet which listed maybe seventeen names attached to a clip board, a shockingly short list of ER admissions considering the scope what we had all just witnessed. It was unfathomable to consider, that soon after the collapse, that so many thousands had disappeared into smoke and dust. The world had flipped upside down since breakfast. It was only just past noon. I told every single searcher that their loved one was had not been admitted. And the crowd continued on in shock, in single file, winding their way further uptown, toward the next hospital.
Pliny said that the rainbow foretold a heavy winter or a war. ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend
When cell phone signals were rerouted away from the great shattered antennae, and the phones began working again, I called my psychotherapy clients, those who worked or lived downtown first: A teenager whose elderly frail father worked in the courthouse, a child whose non-custodial father owned a business on the subway level of the trade center, a woman who had just started a new job in the financial district. Along with every other New Yorker who lived downtown, I tried to ignore the relentless un-ignorable smell, a stench that would persist for months – the smell of burning jet fuel and melting iron, the smell of flesh and death and shattered glass that hung in the sky, a bright orange haze at sunset, covering everything with a layer of glass twinkling dust and ash.
Tibetean Buddhism speaks of the rainbow body – in which the body dissolves in rainbow colored light – leaving only hair and nails behind.” ~ The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism
So now, three nights after the attack, after seeing what clients I could in this upside down world – I put on the stereo and stretched out on the living room floor as the sun set and I began to dream:
I am matronly, white haired, in my 50’s living in a large old house, with a porch and a garden out front. I am still married to David, still a psychotherapist. I am a mother of a teenage boy, although I only see his dark head passing by in the periphery.
I am myself – but more so. There is an ease about me that is elusive to me at the age of 37. I am plumper, softer. The sharp and brittle aspects of my personality have been worn down and burned away. I am mellowed, wiser maybe than I have known myself to be.
I answer the doorbell and I see Tommy is visiting, who has been dead for the past five years. The realizations about mellowing and settling in to myself are recognizable to me only when Tommy comes in. I feel these things as he sees them in me.
I am initially nervous about how he will view my corny, Quakerly life. But he is not bored, or disappointed or contemptuous I can’t stop hugging him – even though I know he still not the “huggy” type – it has been so long since I have seen him. And although I know he is dead, this visit feels vivid, crystalline, more real than waking life. I grab his arm. I sit next to him on the couch. I am aware that this can only be a brief visit. He can only stay for an afternoon.
He is still goofy and hilarious. Mugging and wearing a foolish hat for effect. He’s still fussy about clothes and accessories, still cruising for cute guys, still full of hedonistic hankerings. But in the dream his appetites and love of pleasure are not self-destructive but relieving, refreshing life-affirming.
In dream-time I am now many years older than he is, more settled down and my capacity for abandoning myself to play has grown rusty. But being near him makes me laugh harder than I have in a long time, tears streaming down my face, gasping for the next breath. I relish my food and drink more, feel more beautiful, more alive.
He seems happier, more grounded and giving, more empathic and more whole since his death. He is more sensitive to his own sadness, and the sadness of others.
He tells me he has made us an appointment for a manicure. I resist and tell him I have never had a manicure in my life and moreover I have never wanted a manicure. He drags me off to the salon anyway: “A manicure WILL make you feel better.” I’m overwhelmed with love and gratitude for the effort he has made throughout this visit.
I sense his loneliness. And I know, although he doesn’t say it, that he didn’t come only for me – but because the bridge between the living and the dead has opened wide as thousands of souls walk across it – and he came over to comfort himself a little too.
I relish his visit I feel loved as we can only in the presence of our oldest friends – relieved – and then he is gone….
A big dream. An unforgettable dream. A dream that feels more real that waking life. A dream that persists and is carried in my heart for years and years, that I return to, that I share with others who also grieved his loss. A dream I recount to my mother, who also loved this young man and had supported him through his tumultuous coming-out processes and had celebrated him and watched him grow.
A dream, that in my more superstitious moments, made me wonder what linked this projected future to the days following September 11th? Was it a warning? What would happen when I was 50? Would the road of the dead open wide again when I reached the life-stage shown to me in the dream? A disaster? My own death?
Or was the function of the dream to comfort me? To show me myself as I hoped to be one day, in a life I had not yet begun to imagine for myself: – A mother, living more gently, with a garden, in an old house away from the city?
A dream that I would return to over and over and wonder about as my future unfolds – as I grow white-haired, and plumper. As I become an adoptive parent to a dark haired boy.
A dream that comforts and guides me for decades about who I have the potential to become – as life chips away at my brittle bits, and breaks the sharp edges off of my capacity for self-righteousness and petty bitchiness. A dream that teaches me something ineffable about death and mourning and the connections we can sustain with a lost-life that we have cherished. A glimpse of the treasure that might await me at the other end of the rainbow.
A daughter joins the family.
My practice grows.
My marriage deepens.
Friendships emerge and recede, new ones blossom.
Family members and friends die and are mourned.
My mother joins us in the city, increasingly disabled and fragile.
I watch my dark headed children out-grow our city lives.
“Like two trout in a goldfish bowl.” my husband says.
We find a home outside of the city – an old house with a porch for my husband and a garden for me, a climbing tree for my daughter, a work-shop for my son, an accessible and private space to convert into an apartment for Grandma.
And the greatest luxury for a die-hard New Yorker: bathrooms for all.
We prepare to leave the city we have called home for thirty years
April 4, 2015
Tommy visits while I sleep again, and although I dream of him often, this dream has the weight and stunning clarity of his earlier visit:
I am looking through a lens or viewfinder. Zooming through a fancy lobby – of a hotel or an office building. There are large signs pointing to what is ahead and I ignore them. I am certain I know where I am headed. The viewer travels toward annex off to the east – it opens into a small – tiny amphitheater- behind the stage is a river, and deep valleys.
When I reach the stage Tommy is performing. He is singing a lovely, well-rehearsed number – at first I think it is “Over the Rainbow” but I realize that it is a different but similar song “Look to the Rainbow.”
“On the day I was born, said my father said he,
I’ve an elegant legacy waiting for ye
‘Tis a rhyme for your lips, and a song for your heart
To sing it whenever the world falls apart…
Look, look, look to the rainbow,
Follow it over the hill and stream.
Look, Look, look to the rainbow.
Follow the fellow who follows a dream.
So I bundled my heart, and I roamed the world free,
To the East with the lark, to the West with the sea.
And I searched all the earth, and I scanned all the skies
And I found it at last in my own true love’s eyes.
Follow the fellow, follow the fellow
Follow the fellow who follows a dream.”
He was a good singer in life, I think to myself, but better since death, his voice fuller. And something about the song, which I’ve always though of as trite is suddenly moving and lovely, haunting.
I tell the woman sitting next to me that I have seen this before. It is one of my favorites. I tell her that this performance runs perpetually.
Tommy finishes the song and says “This is a important song to listen to and contemplate when you can’t find any comfort around you and you need to pull inward.”
Tommy’s performance is over but he is still nearby –and I recall the specific sensation of waiting and milling around backstage for someone after the show to emerge from the dressing room. The woman next to me tells me categorically that Tommy is dead. I become enraged at her: “Of course he is dead, but he is not ‘dead’ at all in the way you think. I can “tune into” him anytime I like. I can TALK to him ANYTIME I LIKE and I DO, and I tell her that it is not in anyway her place to tell me anything at all about my ongoing relationship with my oldest friend whether he is dead or not.
I carried the dream and the song around inside of me for several weeks – like a smooth cool stone in my pocket, a worry bead, turning it over and over – even though I couldn’t know what was coming, or how much comfort I would need in the weeks and months ahead.
“A rainbow is to be used as a bridge. But one must go under it, and not over it. Whoever goes over it will fall and be killed.” ~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy pp. 58, Chapter 2, paragraph 69.
A house for sale.
Packing up our home, my children’s lives, my mother’s home.
A move to transitional, temporary quarters.
For the Arawak of South America: When (a rainbow) appears on land it is an evil spirit searching for a victim. ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend
My mother’s rapidly and violently collapsing health
The horror of a terminal diagnosis.
Coordinating care, battling doctors,
Refusing nonsensical and contraindicated procedures,
Preparing for end of school and end of life.
Managing hospice care and final family visits,
Morphine, vomit and shit,
Sleeplessness, fear, exhaustion,
Relentless panic at the intensity and volume of the tasks ahead of me,
Resistance and rage,
Primitive denial and collusion,
Securing medical and end of life support in a new state, a new community
Frustration and tantrums,
Hypervigilance and unfathomable overwhelm.
Doctors incapable of naming the truth, death, that is staring us in the face.
Insufficient insurance and financial anxiety,
Obstacles to basic care.
And the grief of children: as they leave the only home, friendships, and community they have ever known, as they complete their diorama’s and year end projects on Viking ships and the Norse Gods, their grandmother will die away a little each day as we are all sucked up in a spinning cyclone.
They will lose almost everything at once.
Except us. Except each other.
Among the Semang of Malays the places where a rainbow touches earth are unhealthy. ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend
And their Imo, a cherished chosen auntie/sister, a woman who selflessly and lovingly helped to care for my mother during an earlier phase of illness and disability would discover that she too was contending with her own difficult to diagnose, hard to treat cancer.
And while this all unfolds we must close on an old house and a new one, put our belonging in storage, tour new schools, interview babysitters, pay the bills, and act like psychotherapists.
Our household will be strained beyond anything we have ever known.
The bridge collapses under the destructive weight of the giants – and the gods are unable to preserve it ~ John Lindow, Norse Mythology; a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs
I will encounter my own limitations and my insufficiency on every front: as I face down the impossibility of caring for my children, my parent, my friends and my clients. I will spend most of my time trying not to feel wholly failed as a mother, a daughter, a friend, a psychotherapist as I stumble and stagger from one challenge, trauma, crisis, grief to another. I must contend with my utter finiteness through this whirlwind of crisis– attempting to address all these needs, and leave profound needs, all around me, unfulfilled or overlooked.
Including my own.
And I will try, usually unsuccessfully, not to tear myself apart about the things I cannot do.
Underneath the rainbow I’ll peel away my skin
And when I’m done with peeling I’ll let you back in,
Somewhere under the Rainbow.
Underneath the black clouds
There’s sunshine on my floor
And with my nails I’m peeling it
To use it for my skin
~ Somewhere under the Rainbow lyrics – Stephen Jones
When you pass underneath the rainbow everything you have ever come to know about yourself and the world around you will be challenged.
“In Europe it is believed anyone passing under a rainbow will be transformed, man into woman, woman into man.” ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend
I am consumed. I cry and rail and fret at the relentlessness of if all. I don’t know how to do this much, for so many people, for so long, on top of all of my own core-maternal-conflicts – my mother, my motherhood, my children, my childhood.
As a psychotherapist: I am cancelling appointments as medical realities and legal, contractual demands shift on a dime, with little notice. I am logistically less reliable than I have ever been before. I am noticeably exhausted. My bandwidth is narrow. My energies for penetrating interpretations are limited.
But: the hours that I spend in my office are the sweetest and most relieving – I have no decisions to make. I must do nothing but sit and be present for the people who have come to me. I am stripped of anything superfluous. AlI have to give is my time and my presence. I can do that. That is all I can do. I can care, and listen, and breathe and nod, and remember. That is it. I can go on being, with and for my therapeutic partners. And nothing else. Nothing extra.
There is nothing else.
Some clients feel abandoned. Some are enraged. Some feel fearful or annoyed. Some worry about me. Some ask. Some don’t. Some are patient, cutting me a break, and others can cut me no slack at all without harming themselves. Some I tell. Some I protect. Some I don’t trust, and with others we are intimate enough that I don’t trust myself to name what is occurring to me in a detached, processed way. Most offer me an escape into a world of stories that are not my own, that relieve me and give me solace from the mountain of impossibilities and unknowables that flood my own life.
I am hanging on to each moment with white knuckles. Every minute of every day I must negotiate the simultaneous pressures to fall to pieces and to function at the peak of my capacities.
I may have ignored the early signs but in just a few weeks the meaning of the dream had become crystal clear: I would have to sing myself some internal consolation while the world fell apart.
I download Dinah Washington singing Look to the Rainbow and listen to it, or sing it to myself in an endless loop – as I move and work, and change soiled linens and pack and un-pack boxes, and coordinate care and contact care managers and evaluate our finances and try to figure out what to do if she collapses into total medical dependency sooner than we think, or lives longer than we are prepared for needing more care than we can provide or afford.
I am simultaneously my best and my worst at all times. But I know that what offers me the greatest comfort is to be in authentic relationship. It is the deepest comfort I know- whatever I can or cannot do for my mother, my children, my clients I can at least keep my heart wide open – and thankfully, it is also what is most required of me.
The second I step out of the office and back into life, or am pulled out by an emergency: I am humming, or singing to myself, or listening to Dinah:
“So I bundled my heart, and I roamed the world free,
To the East with the lark, to the West with the sea…”
Rainbows are bridges between this world and the next.
In Norse mythology, the rainbow is Bilröst, or AEsir-bridge: separating and connecting the “world of humans and the world of the gods or between earth and heaven” ~ John Lindo. Norse Mythology: a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs
In the Prosaic Edda the rainbow bridge makes the “best of” list – it is the very “best of bridges”:
Asked about the path to heaven from earth, H’ar tells Gylfi/Gangleri that it is made Bilröst, that the gods made it, and that it may be called the rainbow… it is very strong, and made with great skill and knowledge but it will break wheh the sons of Muspell (Giants) ride over it. Nothing can survive the harrying of the sons of Muspell, and describing the end of times, Ragnarök, Bilröst will break.~ John Lindo. Norse Mythology: a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs
I am reminded of these mythic tales by my kids – as we work together in in our temporary, transitional housing – as one lifetime collapses out from under us and we fling ourselves blindly toward a new world – as I help construct Viking ships of balsa wood and proof-read school reports on Rangarök, the end of times.
The rainbow is a potent, burning transitional place – a shimmering fiery Third created at the intersection of two distinct realities, two disparate worlds.
A synthetic Hegelian Third perhaps, or if you prefer, a vibrant manifestation of Winnicottian transitional phenomena.
For Winnicott transitional phenomena are first seen in early infancy, in our first attempts to self-soothe – by sucking our thumbs, by ruthlessly loving a blankie or teddy bear. Or by singing ourselves songs:
An infant’s babbling and the way in which an older child goes over a repertory of songs and tunes while preparing for sleep come within the intermediate area as transitional phenomena. ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, pp 2 Chapter 1 Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena
Winnicott is not particularly interested in the object itself -but in the ways that we instinctively use such transitional objects – as a bridge – to transcend the empty space between the absent omnipotent Comforter and our small, finite distressed selves.
Transitional phenomena lead us to a third space: “an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute. It is an area that is not challenged, because no claim is made on its behalf except that is shall exists as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated. – D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, pp 2
~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality , Chapter 1 Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, Figure 2
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad articulates a similar construct:
There are two states for man – the state in this world, and the state in the next; there is also a third state, the state intermediate between those two which can be likened to a dream. While in the intermediate state a man experiences both the other states, that in this world, and that in the next.
In some form or another most of us rely upon transitional phenomena throughout our lives. Dreams and creative processes are in themselves a transitional phenomena, as is psychotherapy. They simultaneously rise up from within us, but they feel as though they exist outside of us as well. Transitional phenomena bridge the gulf between worlds – between our unconscious selves and consciousness, between brain and mind, between this world and the next, between past and present.
Dreams, and songs and rainbows (and teddy bears and blankies and all other transitional phenomena) are objects of a certain kind – objects which seem to our perceptions to almost have autonomy from our will, some inherent agency.
“It must seem… to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture or to do something that seems to show it has a vitality of its own” ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality , Chapter 1 Transitional Objects and TransitionalPhenomena, pp, 5
Was the song I was given as a transitional object a gift from my own psyche? Or a message from a friend long dead? Was I merely processing some subtle intuitive awareness of my mother’s impending deterioration and death by focusing instead on the death of a childhood friend?
Was the dream that produced the song an external or an internal event? A subjective experience or objective reality?
This is exactly the paradoxical nature of transitional phenomena. The rainbow is a bridge that is simultaneously substantial and insubstantial. Transitional phenomena are Both/And, not Either/Or.
So, I don’t concern myself with whether or not Tommy came to visit, with whether or not my psyche dredged up the lyrics of an old Broadway musical I had once danced in when I was young,
I only know that it offered powerful consolation during a protracted period of labor and distress.
“Should an adult make claims on us for our acceptance of the objectivity of his subjective phenomena we discern or diagnose madness. If, however, the adult can manage to enjoy the personal intermediate area without making claims, then we can acknowledge our own corresponding intermediate areas, and are pleased to find a degree of overlapping, that is to say common experience between members of a group in art, or religion or philosophy. ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality pp 14
I make no such claims, and find such claims – in either direction – to interpret such experiences as merely subjective or merely objective to miss the point entirely, sucking away the mystery and consolation of transitional phenomena.
Jung resisted making such claims as well and interpreted his own dream of the destruction of mortals upon the rainbow bridge as reminder to remain humble and grounded in the face of seemingly “spiritual” experiences:
We should not rise above the earth with the aid of “spiritual” intuitions and run away from hard reality, as so often happens with people who have brilliant intuitions. We can never reach the level of our intuitions and should therefore not identify ourselves with them. Only the gods can pass over the rainbow bridge: mortal men must stick to the earth and are subject to its laws. ~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy pp. 114, Chapter 3, paragraph 148.
This June, at age 51, a white haired, softer, plumper, me, a mother to two dark-headed tweens, moved into a large old house with a porch and a garden out front.
A few weeks later my mother peacefully, with great consciousness, acceptance and clarity crossed over the bridge that the rest of us had passed under.
Now may it not be that, under certain conditions, something quite new, different from anything that one knows, may come over the mental horizon, something as dazzling and splendid as a rainbow…? ~ C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, Appendix The Miller Fantasies
And the very next day, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and the world, as I knew it, exploded in celebration of legitimized enfranchised love – a day that Tommy, who had contracted HIV at the peak of the AIDS crisis under a president who ignored tens of thousands of deaths for six years before mentioning the word AIDS in public – could certainly never have imagined. A day where he would have been present in my heart and in my thoughts even if he had never sung to me in my sleep.
…Follow the fellow, follow the fellow.
Follow the fellow who follows a dream…
A day of uncanny consolation as I walked through a world that was suddenly (and would remain so for weeks) completely enveloped in rainbows.
And I am for ever changed by the labors of those who have traversed the road of the dead in both directions and grateful to my oldest, dearest friend for sending over a gift of such unsurpassing love and comfort.
~ Look to The Rainbow, from Finnian’s Rainbow, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
We are all breakable. Or maybe it is more accurate to say, we are all broken, each in our own way.
And our attachments to each other are no less fragile.
They can be broken outright and permanently.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the King’s horses, and all the King’s men
Cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Therapeutic alliances can fail, collapse under their own weight. Sometimes the death of a clinical relationship happens so slowly that it is imperceptible – the poison, so diluted accumulates incrementally, so neither therapist nor client can detect it until the connection has withered away. Hopeful attatchment shriveled into something dry, thin, brittle.
Other times therapeutic relationships can erupt, explode – felled by a single, violent event.
A therapist can destroy relationship out of their own limitations, unprocessed injuries, or simply because they are knocked off their pins by events in their own lives.
Sometimes therapeutic relationships are completely devoured by a client’s insatiable hunger that no psychotherapist can ever (nor should they attempt to) fill. And sometimes it is because the therapist sat back and didn’t try and they should have at least tried and failed. Or because they tried too hard, foolishly, and frustratingly when they should have left well-enough alone.
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell;
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell!
Sometimes you can make sense of it all later – and sometimes it will never ever make any fucking sense at all.
In Restoration of the Self Heinz Kohut asks: “Why does one layer become actively engaged in the therapeutic work, while the other sinks into darkness and remains out of sight? ”
When I first began this work, as a therapist on an outpatient day treatment unit for adults, most of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia by psychiatrists, I had a dream, that still makes me hold my breath when I recall it.
A kind, twinkly, toothless older woman, who who I believed I had a warm, amiable alliance with knocked on my apartment door. I greeted her happily, and began following her down the apartment stairs. At the next floor landing she turned to face me – and I saw a look in her eye that terrified me: She had no idea who I was. No understanding or trust, or even memory of who I was at all. Her look was suspicious, paranoid, rage-full – I saw that I had somehow, without realizing it – become her enemy. My intentions, my labors on her behalf, the real and positive effects that had come from our work together – a new and supportive living situation, a lowered medication regimen, a romantic partnership that was stabilizing and growing sweeter – all lost – entirely. Deleted. Erased.
Horrified, I realized within the dream, that not only was she unable to retain a consistent sense of who I was – but that she was also unrecognizable to me. Perhaps that she was even unrecognizable to herself. She was not at all who I had understood her to be, and our relationship had instantly dissolved because we could not now comprehend who the person was in front of us.
In waking life our relationship remained stable enough – but I’ve seen, over the course of my work on that unit, in this field, in my own therapy and in my life – this dream play out many times, as repressed, or minimized shadows suddenly race forward from the far horizon to the looming foreground.
The shadow relationship – the one that lives on the other side of the looking glass – can reach through, can take over. And then the relationship you thought you were in seems to disappear entirely, and often over a trifle.
Molly, my sister and I fell out,
And what do you think it was all about?
She loved coffee and I loved tea,
And that was the reason we couldn’t agree.
The greater our hope that we will never be disappointed the more assuredly we will be. The more we yearn for someone to be All Things, Abundant, Unlimited, the more injured we will be by their inevitable failures.
Psychoanalytic theorists might talk at this juncture about lack of “object constancy” – as the child struggles to keep the depth and force of their hate from contaminating their admiration and love of the parent.
Winnicot might talk about the “good enough” parent needing to engage in a commensurate process in order to metabolize and guard the child and themselves from their maternal hate. A primal hate called forth by the depth of the infant’s hate and frustration.
When the force of our hate has not been metabolized and modulated – we fear that our hate and sadism could:
– annihilate our loved ones
– destroy their love for us
– or ruin our own ability to love them anymore.
So often (but not always) a client’s attempts to destroy the therapeutic relationship are pre-emptive strikes – attempts to drive the therapist away – rather than wait to be abandoned or injured when they are unprepared.
But that is not always the case.
Clients may be trapped within an obedient, compliant, pseudo-alliance. And then lashing out may be healthy: self-respecting emotional violence. Rage, aimed squarely at the therapist, may be the most authentic gesture they can muster.
And sometimes clients know, better than we do, exactly what they need to survive or heal –
and it is not us.
And the only way they can sever the weighty attachment and the unrelenting pressure of your good intention is to break it off,
to break you off, to break you into pieces.
There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.
In Kohut’s words: “While a rapport between patient and therapist may be established, the diseased, or potentially diseased sector of the self does not enter” into the therapeutic relationship. ~ Heinz Kohut, Restoration of Self
Sometimes hatred and sadism are unleashed upon the therapist because it is the first real relationship where it is safe to do so – rage and destructiveness cannot be calibrated or modulated without someone to be injured, to survive the injury, to forgive and to accept reparation.
You tolerate your client’s illogicality, unreliability, suspicion, muddle, fecklessness, meanness, etc. etc., and recognize all these unpleasantnesses as symptoms of distress (In private life these same things would make you keep at a distance.) ~ D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development
And lets face it. Sometimes we just deserve it. Certainly, we all know that psychotherapists can be totally fucking insufferable. But hopefully not always unforgivably so.
But still, there are many instances where you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Absorbing, deflecting, reflecting upon, and attempting to survive hurtful, destructive rage is unavoidable as a psychotherapist because unmodulated, rage is often, precisely what has brought the client into therapy to begin with – expressed as dysfunction in relationships, or internalized and disguised as nihilistic, suicidal despair.
A client’s rage can activate our own – just as maternal hate can be triggered by a child’s rage.
There were once two cats of Kilkenny.
Each thought there was one cat too many;
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails,
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.
It is then that the psychotherapists job is to buckle up, hang on for dear life, try not to defend or retaliate – absorb the blow, protect ourselves against the sharp bite, become curious about the cutting contempt, or go home and have a good cry and try to put ourselves back together again so that we can return to session ready to connect again, to sort out abuse from necessary corrective experiences, sadism from developmental maturational process, angry breakthroughs from pointless, relationship destroying temper-tantrums.
You accept hate, and meet it with strength rather than revenge. ~ D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development
It is not easily done. And often you rotate though a series of attempts at empathic guesses, hunches, theories and formulations before you find the one that might transform destructiveness into connection.
If you can find the one that fits. Before the relationship breaks.
Before the client breaks. Before you break.
Before your capacity for on going concern is broken. Before their faith in you is lost for good.
But none of this teaches therapists what it feels like:
I pull over into a roadside attraction. There is a large hand painted sign, of a wolf with a vicious mouth – dramatic “all the better to eat you with” teeth, and the words: SWIM WITH WOLVES. The doors open on to a large indoor pool, where a pack of wolves are swimming like a school of fish. There are “experienced guides” overseeing the experience but they do not actually get in the pool with you – and as I inch into the deep end I realize that they will be of little use if this actually starts to head south. I wonder what I am doing, and why the hell I am doing it. But the wolves are wild and gorgeous, and I am drawn into the waters by their fear, their vulnerability, (they are profoundly out of their element after all) by their beauty, and power and by their exhaustion as they swim and swim in circles. I am concerned for them, I want to help to keep the wolves afloat. I want to be near them, to be accepted by them, trusted. Do I want to tame them? Not necessarily, but I surely want be seen as their ally. I swim in deep. One, so exhausted it is near drowning, lets me hold it afloat while it gasps for breath and takes in oxygen. Yet, I must also be skillful enough to let go the split second that the wolf regains its full energies – because I am supporting it before it can possibly have any reason to actually trust me. I smell its hot breath, I feel a low growl gathering deep in its belly I feel its dog-paddling legs gather strength and I swim away before it can go for my jugular. I hear it SNAP just milliseconds after I have kicked toward the far side of the pool. I look at the old, white-haired, experienced guides – who are gathered drinking coffee and see that they are all scarred, and have survived many deep and tearing bites. It is part and parcel of the work.
I get out of the pool, exhilarated to have been of use, to have been close to such an extraordinary creature, grateful that the wolf, and I have both survived.
Therapists can be seduced by the client’s idealization – or by the therapists own inflation and narcissism in to enjoying their own prowess and brilliant interpretations – We can over identify, assume that we understand what we do not, we can wander, unwittingly into a minefield – believing the relationship is on solid ground when it is not.
A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard;
Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird.
As clients we can come to believe that we need to find therapists who are perfect mirrors of ourselves, and therapists can also attempt to cull clients who are the very easiest for them to treat.
Birds of a feather flock together,
And so will pigs and swine;
Rats and mice will have their choice,
And so will I have mine.
But are psychotherapists really fulfilling our moral commitments , are we truly engaged in the work if we restrict ourselves to the most domesticated and shallow end of the pool?
It is the therapists job to pace themselves – to alternately invest and divest – step in and step-back – in order to preserve their empathy for their client over the long haul. To do all they can make sure that resentment never accumulates or toxifies in any way that could undermine their ability to continue to empathize with the client’s experience.
But not every relationship makes it that far, and some last for years and still end before they have begun.
In all these respects you are, in your limited professional area, a person deeply involved in feeling, yet at the same time detached, in that you know that you have no responsibility for the client’s illness, and you know the limits of your powers…..” ~ D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development
For every evil under the sun
There is a remedy or there is none.
If there be one, seek till you find it;
If there be none, never mind it.
Never mind it?
Maybe. One day.
But not anytime soon.
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
…another mechanism used by some organisms… is that of dormancy, during which an organism conserves the amount of energy available to it and makes few demands on its environment. Most major groups of animals as well as plants have some representatives that can become dormant. Periods of dormancy vary in length and in degree of metabolic reduction, ranging from only slightly lower metabolism during the periodic, short-duration dormancy of deep sleep to more extreme reductions for extended periods of time. ~ Encyclopedia Britannica
I spent the summer in a state of pleasant dormancy, following the Lethargian’s schedule:
At 8:00 we get up and then we spend
From 8 to 9 daydreaming.
From 9 to 9:30 we take our early mid-morning nap
From 9:30 to 10:30 we dawdle and delay.
From 10:30 to 11:30 we take our late early morning nap.
From 11:30 to 12:00 we bide our time and then eat lunch.
From 1:00 to 2:00 we linger and loiter.
From 2:30 to 3:30 we put off for tomorrow what we could have done today.
From 3:30 to 4:00 we take our early late afternoon nap.
From 4:00 to 5:00 we loaf and lounge.
From 6:00 to 7:00 we dillydally.
From 7:00 to 8:00 we take our early evening nap and then for an hour before we go to bed at 9:00 we waste time.
~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, pp. 26-27
Actually: I attended and presented at two conferences, I began volunteering my easy, instinctive labors with a new (to me) non-profit organization, I attended a children’s summer camp that is under the auspices of that organization. I did a little work compiling contacts for a benefit committee that is honoring a friend of mine. I watched a lot of Korean dramas filled with beautiful actors in lovely clothes wandering through gorgeous apartments. I read the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes out loud with my family. I stayed up late. I slept in. I went on vacation.
I met with my clients. I took care of my children.
Here is what I didn’t do: I didn’t read anything longer than a magazine article, I read no psychoanalytic theory. I didn’t write more than a single essay. I didn’t challenge myself, I didn’t worry or strain. I didn’t recall or record most of my dreams unless they felt big and vivid and clear and even then I’d let it slide for a few days. I didn’t see my analyst. I didn’t meditate much. I couldn’t run or practice bagua because I injured my foot, so I walked when I felt like it, and didn’t calculate or worry overmuch about how I was going to get “enough” exercise.
I didn’t try to get better at anything. I didn’t practice anything or try to learn something new. I didn’t challenge or press myself. And I didn’t think about anything that I didn’t have to.
“No one’s allowed to think in the Doldrums,” …. “It shall be unlawful, illegal, and unethical to think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate, or speculate while in the Doldrums.” ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 24
Growth and challenge are not always sustainable. And sometimes self-care means not having to think so hard about caring for oneself. Sometimes it means switching off, and staying that way for a bit.
And if not, the switch can flip on its own, a fuse blown protectively and there is nothing you can do about it but bide your time and perhaps even learn how to enjoy the wait.
I went proactively, contentedly dormant. But when dormancy takes over without volition, we often fret and fuss, strain and thrash about, fearful that we will never ever be “productive” again.
A fallow period is has come to mean a period of shameful unproductivity but it actually refers to field that as been plowed but unsown. The ground is in a state of active waiting, resting in service of eventual generativity.
A plateau in the vernacular may be a “stage at which no progress is apparent” But it is also a flat, clear highland. A leveling, a tableland which requires no ascent or descent. In the Americas such mesas are sacred spaces that put humans close to the sky, near to where Coyote dwells – and other supranatural entities of the Navajo – Changing Woman and the Hero Twins return to restore themselves every dozen years under exposed skies.
The doldrums has become a phrase associated with depression and lethargy – but it is in fact a low-pressure area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. A zone where sailors dependent upon moving air for income and livelihood pass through a state of enforced stillness.
“The Doldrums my young friend are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.” ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 23
Seeds will germinate again in fertile soil, the grade will steepen, and the winds will pick up in good time.
But there are times when there is nothing to work at. when the hamster wheel stops spinning. When the most natural thing is to disengage, to shut off the motor, and drift, rolling along in neutral, without burning any fuel.
“We don’t want to get anything done, ” snapped another (Lethargian) angrily: “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.” ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 24
What is happening when we pass for months with unrecalled dreams? What goes on when we are stalled, bored, or blocked in our march toward our chosen goals or estranged from our creative force?
We still dream. Even if our dreaming self is simply doing its work without our awareness or involvement. Unproductive periods may ultimately be more life-enhancing and generative than you can imagine.
I hear this all the time:
“Um, nothing much is going on… same old shit I suppose”
“Everything is good. Fine. Hmm, what to talk about…”
“Nothing wrong really. I haven’t had any dreams. Work is fine. Nothing new there. Stuff is okay at home. This is going to be a boring session I guess…”
“And if he wasn’t entirely happy, he wasn’t unhappy, either. Rather, he found himself inhabiting the vast, empty plateau where most people live, between boredom and contentment” ~ Jess Walter on Pasquale Tursi, Beautiful Ruins
Many in my field are trained to pathologize unproductivity in life and in psychotherapy as defense or resistance. But a pathologized “defense” can be viewed instead as an adaptive “security operation.” And resistances can be respected and honored, rather than confronted.
What if, periods without words, without intense self-scrutinty, without probing active exploration or self-examination were treated as valuable rather than problematic? What if conscious productivity is only a small and culturally, economically over-emphasized part of life and not the most important bit?
“Well if you can’t… think what can you do?” asked Milo.
“Anything as long as its nothing, and everything as long as it isn’t anything.~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 26
Jung’s conception of the Self places Consciousness – “ego” our identity, thoughts, recognizable feelings, known beliefs, accessible memories and chosen persona as the smallest capstone on top of a large pyramid:
(I know, I know. This attempted illustration is so so sad. Feel free to take a short break to laugh and mock my stunted graphic and technological skills)
Most of the Self, in Jung’s view is unconscious.
Preconscious perceptions and unrecalled memories are stored out of awareness, as is Jung’s Shadow – the repressed, rejected, or unknown aspects of our personality. Anima and animus energies are more easily understood as the realm of unconscious complimentary opposites the strengths which lie under our perceived vulnerabilities, and the weaknesses that live underneath our conscious capacities; the yang to our yin and vice versa; which we project on to our partners, and which assert themselves at mid-life and in our dreams guiding us toward wholeness.
And the Collective Unconscious: ancestral knowledge and the instinctive energies and archetypes which the human species organize themselves around collectively, in much the same way that migrating birds order themselves hierarchically and instinctively in V formation. This is also the transpersonal space – where we are in direct relationship to a whole that is larger than our individuality, to humankind, the Earth, to the Universe, or to the gods.
If most of the Self, most of our organism is operating underground, out of awareness, and without our conscious consent, then the unconscious aspects of our psyche must be quite busy – whether we know it or not – continuously making adjustments, metabolizing traumas great and small, preparing for growth and transformation, compensating and correcting our conscious course.
So whatever it is that we think we should be producing, is really just the smallest tip of the iceberg. We are mistaken, and in Jung’s view, and in a state of dangerous ego-inflation if we believe that the conscious aspects of the individual can control the whole Self. We can no more control our unconscious than we can urge our digestion to hurry along or will our eyes to never blink again.
“It is the almost universal mistake of the ego to assume total personal responsibility for its sufferings and failures. We find it, for instance, in the general attitude people have toward their own weaknesses, an attitude of shame or denial. If one is weak in some respect, as everyone is, and at the same time considers in ignominious to be weak, he is to that extent deprived of self-realization.” ~ Edward F. Edinger, Ego and Archetype, p 153
The Self has autonomic functions to perform. Processes which don’t require our conscious approval or interference. Hunger, appetite, craving and digestion are unconscious processes. Hunting, gathering healthy food, preparing meals, and eating are conscious acts. In healthy organisms these functions work together in mediated concert toward mutual satisfaction. In symptomatic creatures, the conscious and unconscious are operating at cross-purposes.
And egos that have no humility with respect to the totality of the Self will soon find themselves devoid of meaning. Imbalances in either direction will create symptoms: anxieties, despairs, depressions, neurosis – or external conflicts which are symptoms projected out, on to others, or created unconsciously and experienced as ill-fortune.
Just as there are times when we need to exert significant conscious effort to ensure our logistical and psychological survival, and some unconscious forces which need conscious channeling or restraint in order to uphold our part of the social contract – there are also times when our psyche needs our conscious agendas to get the hell out of the way.
While our ego may feel we’ve been stalled, it is oftentimes in service of deeper functions that our ego’s cannot fathom. Fighting against flat, fallow, and windless periods may be as disruptive and endangering to our psychological organism as insisting upon running a marathon with a high fever or immediately following a feast.
It is the ego’s job to be fit and strong enough to bring itself into alignment with and to serve the entire Self as an organism, as an individual and as part of a larger collective. Our unconscious purposes do not perform merely to satisfy our puny egos, or our personal, or culturally instilled “sense of accomplishment”.
In the fall just after the first frost – the North American Tree Frog freezes solid. It just has to touch one single ice crystal and its organism begins the process of sinking into a shocking and complete death-like dormancy.
I don’t know much about frog-egos, or frog-cortexes. Yet I imagine that there is likely a small piece of even a froggy-psyche that would – if given a choice – prefer to keep hunting down juicy crickets and enjoying the full-belly-rewards of its labors.
What does it feel like to the frog, whose body has begun to shut down its brain and bodily functions? First, a slowly mounting paralysis, and then complete gross and small motor shut down, a stoppage of neurological functioning, sight, smell, hearing and tactile senses fade. No heart beat, no respiration. No work of any kind.
Is there a little froggy panic? Any anxiety that it will go hungry if it doesn’t keep hunting? A sense of frog-failure for not living up to its summer-time work ethic? Is it frustrating? Terrifying to feel the pseudo-death begin? Is there an internal protest? Does it put up any internal fight? Or has evolution and Nature herself structured its dormancy so that it feels no discomfort, or maybe even pleasure as it falls into a hard, icy rock-like sleep?
I imagine that animals in their natural state are organized more efficiently than we are – and that some kind of neurological “acceptance” or systemic surrender is activated that is easier and more efficient than fighting against these extreme death-like life-preserving processes.
But we humans fight, fret and judge ourselves – usually without ever assessing the whys or wherefores of our systemic shut-downs. And although that frozen frog looks as dead as a doornail – as close to death as a still living thing can be – it has moved into this inert state to preserve its vitality, its ability to hunt and feed and do its frog work for another season.
Just because it is apparently lifeless and inactive, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still chock full of life, a seasonal clock still ticking, a system waiting for an external signal, a thaw, the opportunity and the conditions for activity and labor to begin again.
“To be aware of individuality is to realize that one has all that one needs. It also means that one needs all that one has, namely, that every psychic content and happening is meaningful.” ~ Edward F. Edinger, Ego and Archetype, p 168
And maybe what isn’t happening is as essential to us as anything that ever happens.
“There is perhaps one attitude toward that environment which can be said to be characteristic of the emotionally mature human being… however widely and richly his feelings in this regard may fluctuate, over however wide a range, in the varying circumstances of his everyday life. One can think of this basic attitude as a firm island upon which man grounds himself while directing his gaze into the encircling sea of meanings, more or less difficult of discernment, and some no doubt inscrutable, which reside in this area of human existence.
This basic emotional orientation can be expressed in one word: relatedness.”
~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
I am simultaneously being pressed by internal forces and consciously resisting writing this. Perhaps that is always the case – but this one feels both like it needs to be written, and that maybe this is not the place.
Is it really about psychotherapy as a practice? Or is it just about me? And to what degree is that the same thing anyway? I seem to understand my client’s experience most when I reach down through some deep point of heavily processed identification, broken down to its nearly universal archetypal core.
So this is personal. And perhaps as it helps me to listen more deeply, reach for unprocessed content, and feel my way into the stories and memories my clients share with me more specifically and thoroughly – it is also professional.
I was raised, as we all are, in a particular place, in a specific environment, with objects, landmarks, buildings, animals, trees, roads, yards, sidewalks, walls, bus stops, schoolyards, playgrounds, woods, bugs, beaches, and homes – my own and others.
And I see, in my own children, the intense and self-regulating meaning that rivers and bridges, neighborhoods and subways stops – and our little house-like apartment hold for them.
We live in a peopled and people-focused world, and traditional psychoanalytic models focus primarily on our relationships to other human beings – but sometimes we need to value and talk about our relationships with creatures, non-human living things, inanimate objects, places and whole environments.
Winnicott speaks of the almost magical properties that transitional objects – lovies, blankets, pacifiers and teddy-bears have- to soothe and self-regulate – as well as to absorb our aggression in the form of chewing, yanking, pulling, biting, dragging, wearing down and using up. Yet, for Winncott these are symbols, developmentally useful displacements for content that would be otherwise directed toward our caretakers.
They are not relationships in and of themselves. Object-relational theory refers to human objects, and any non-human object is most-likely merely representative of a human one.
You can’t have relationships with a non-human thing – can you?
Jungian clinicians might reach beyond the personal, childhood human caretakers, and explore our relationships to the non-human aspects of our environment – approaching the relationship as a symbolic, numinous manifestation of archetypal content.
I once knew of a client in a psychiatric day treatment program whose psychiatrist wanted to increase his medication because the client held on to a persistent belief that all pens, rings, and water had magical, sacred properties. When this was discussed in team-meeting, I suggested: “Well, then I suppose you will have to medicate me as well, along with every poet and writer, anyone who has ever worn or removed a wedding ring, and all the people who have been baptized or been immersed in a mikvah.”
The universal archetypes that live embedded in the psyches of the human species that organize our instincts around forged metal, perfect circles, writing implements, and purity are present, to some degree, in every ring, pen, and pool of water.
But Searles suggests there is another layer as well, a simpler one:
“…man relates to his nonhuman environment on a dual level. That is, however important is the level of his relating to, for instance, a cat or a tree in terms of their constituting, in his perception of them, carriers of meanings which have to do basically with people (by way of displacement and projection of his own unconscious feelings on to the cat, or the tree, transference of interpersonal attitudes on his part on to them, perceiving them through various cultural distortions and so on), there is also another level on which he relates to them: to the cat as being a cat and to the tree as being a tree.”
~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
And not a cat that is universally representative of Cats as an archetype, but a cat with a name, and multi-colored paw-pads, and spots and stripes and a temperament that are all unique to him, and a tree that is a certain size, with branches positioned in a specific way, leaves of a certain type and color, that becomes a tree that is known, nearly memorized in all its specificity – loved, that grows with us over-time – and is not merely representative of The World Tree – although perhaps that is present too.
When animals die, trees are torn down, old homes demolished or renovated beyond recognition there is a self-consciousness to our grief. I too often hear clients say: “Its silly of me to be so upset! Its just a…” dog, tree, house, neighborhood…
Kohut might see some of these relationships as self-objects – as experiences and transactions that help us to understand, organize, experience our Selves, discover the shape and size of our identities.
Searles might agree:
“The environment can be seen to provide a milieu… as contrasted to to the interpersonal milieu, in which the child can become aware of his own capabilities (referring here to physical strength and dexterity, ingenuity, and various intellectual abilities) and of the limitations upon those capabilities. In his relatedness to the environment he has opportunities to see, in a particularly clear-cut, realistic fashion, that he is in various ways powerful, but not omnipotent.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
And most of us feel strange and self-conscious speaking of such relationships.
I do to. (See, this hasn’t gotten very personal yet, has it?)
So I’ll wade in:
A book I read over and over as a young child made perfect, exact sense to me for many years:
A friend is someone who likes you.
It can be a boy…
It can be a girl…
Or a cat…
Or a dog…
Or even a white mouse.
A tree can be a different kind of a friend.
It doesn’t talk to you, but you know it likes you, because it gives you apples….
Or sometimes a place to swing.
A brook can be a friend in a special way. It talks to you with splashy gurgles.
It cools you toes and lets you sit quietly beside it when you don’t feel like speaking.
The wind can be a friend too.
It sings soft songs to you at night
when you are sleepy and feeling lonely.
Sometimes it calls you to play.
It pushes you from behind
as you walk and makes
the leaves dance for you.
It is always with you
wherever you go,
and that’s how you know
it likes you.
A Friend is Someone Who Likes You,
~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958
And certainly our relationship to non-human organic systems or time spent at your favorite sitting rock cannot entirely compensate for the lack of healthy human love.
“I have no illusion, for example, that a beautiful maple tree, beloved to one’s childhood, can really have made up for the lack of a childhood friend.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
Culturally, we see the idea of having living relationships with non-human objects as childish, as unreal, as not valid, as unimportant, as pretend, as mere anthropomorphizing.
But perhaps we need not think so hierarchically. Maybe all of it is important. Maybe it is all part of how we come to know ourselves, to be soothed, to give back, to experience the limitations and finiteness of the world, and of our own resources.
“Thus the exploration of this whole subject… impinges upon a deeply rooted anxiety of a double-edged sort: the anxiety of subjective oneness with a chaotic world, and the anxiety over the loss of a cherished omnipotent world-self” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
What if our expansive childhood sense of connection to the world is a naive template for healthy relatedness to our environment, the first step that can later be forged into mature understanding of our connection to the natural world we are embedded in, and which is too often derailed and subsumed by cultural and economic pressures and demands?
Sometimes you don’t know who
are your friends.
Sometimes they are there all the time,
but you walk right past them
and don’t notice that they like you
in a special way.
And then you think you don’t have any friends.
Then you must stop hurrying and rushing so fast…
and move very slowly,
and look around carefully,
to see someone who smiles at you in a special way…
Or a dog that wags its tail extra hard whenever you are near…
or a tree that lets you climb it easily…
or a brook that lets you be quiet when you want to be quiet.
A Friend is Someone Who Likes You ~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958
So, I stopped hurrying and rushing so fast and looked around very carefully on a recent visit to the home of my childhood: a very small lake community outside of Minneapolis.
At the age of fifty, I had no remaining connections to any people left in the area – the humans and pets that I had been attached to had all died, relocated, or our paths diverged to the point of well-established disconnection. I had only returned once, for four hours, about ten years earlier – and that was my only visit since my early twenties.
I was able, without the distraction of relationships to humans from the past – to visit the town, as anonymous as a tourist, to a place, a location, a lake, an ecosystem, that had introduced me to myself and the larger world – that had given to me, and terrified me and taken from me, and introduced me to my powers and my limitations, and that had vulnerabilities and strengths of its own.
I lived lakeside for a decade – walked barefoot or bicycled down every narrow street, the hot, melting tar left sticky spots on my toes. I knew every dock, every patch of sand, every good swimming spot, every duck nest, every climbing tree, every chipmunk hole in the square mile around my home. I knew where the snow banks gathered, the best spots to make snow angels, the secret pathways through the trees into neighbors lawns and the short cuts home when the dinner bell rang.
I haven’t thought about, haven’t spent time remembering this relationship in years. As I sat by the lake, under the railroad overpass, near the old people fishing for sunnies- I realized that I had been to many many lakes in the past thirty years – but none of them was my lake. And, not mine in the possessive sense, but my lake in the relational sense. I had a relationship with this lake, that was like no other, and was representative of nothing else and was too specific to be merely symbolic. It is a relationship, in and of itself.
The lake was as alive as any person to me. A babysitter who rocked and cradled me while floating on my back, or dozing in the sunny bow of a bobbing whaler. A lake that sung me to sleep through my bedroom window with splashes, lappings against the shore rocks. A being that loved and consoled all that was inconsolable. An entity that was always present, and always accepting of my return. A playmate to re-create myself with and within, a toy box filled with shiny rocks, agates, treasures and mysteries, salamanders and snapping turtles.
A mentor that challenged me to strengthen my skills and test my capacities: How long could I hold my breath? How far I could swim?
A being that tolerated no hubris – when I tried to walk across the lake on the muddy bottom and breathe in water as I’d seen in Tom and Jerry cartoons, I learned quickly what I was and was not capable of.
An organism that taught me about the earth’s vulnerability – as one weekend we all awoke to the lake belching up green sludge, a shocking, overnight algae overgrowth, provoked by an imbalanced and ill-use of its waterways. The towns around its shore began to feel sympathies with the “ecology” movement of the early 1970’s and we all donned patches on our jeans and bumper stickers which read “What you take to the lake – TAKE IT BACK!” to discourage polluters and dumpers. Endangered fish, and rare water lilies grew in ponds and inlets – and we hammered signs into the trees warning others not to tamper with the lake’s delicate balance
A teacher who taught me my first lessons about fate, error, injury and death – as children and adults alike succumbed to its powers: drownings, boat accidents, and floods. The lives of people and animals swallowed through thin ice in the winters or summers’ destructive storms that we watched come toward us across the lake – a violent wall of wind and water, lightening and thunder, snow and hail and ice.
A punitive authority figure: arbitrary and unyeilding, drawing down lightening strikes, tornadoes, slicing uncareful toes on sharpened rocks unseen in muddy shallow water.
A transforming creature, whose shores and trees and wildlife shifted and adjusted with the years and the seasons from liquid to frozen and back again.
A location that instructed me about theft and injustice and my own complicity – as it retained is Dakota name with no trace of the Dakota people, except for a few remaining ancient mounds and middens.
The more we are able to relate ourselves to this environment as it really is – the more our perception of it becomes freed from seeing it to be bathed in Evil or Good or what not – the more satisfying and rich is our relatedness to it. ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
It was, and is, a relationship – although I own no property there, have no lake access or boat, and have only visited substantially once in thirty years. I had an effect on that non-human entity – I threw rocks, and caught fish, and cleaned trash from its shores, guarded and disrupted its wildlife, tended to it and harmed it as it soothed and warned, scolded, frightened and instructed me in the realities of life and the challenges of living.
I suspect we all have such primal relationships with some environment or non-human relationship specific to us – a city block, a park, a summer camp, a rosebush in the back yard – and it is part of the work of the psychotherapeutic process to help us identify the imprint we leave upon our environment, and the imprint it leaves upon us.
And whatever happens next, as this world heats, and storms, and floods, and bakes – we should not miss a chance for intimacy, for relatedness with the living world around us.
We live in a world of human relationships. And we must all, at this historic crossroads, come to recognize the relationships that we have, as human beings, with the world. We have affected each other. We have been affected.
Whatever happens next: That is relatedness. That is intimacy.
Some say that originally every proper dragon carried a pearl under his chin… ~ Ernest Ingersoll, Dragons and Dragon Lore
When a pearl oyster is injured, it will form a pearl sac to contain the wound…. as part of the healing process.
For wherever there is a pearl there is a monster lying on it, wherever there is a treasure, there is a snake wound around it… You cannot get near the Self and the meaning of life without being on the razor’s edge of falling into greed, into darkness, and into the shadowy aspect of the personality. One does not even know if it not necessary sometimes to fall into it, because otherwise it cannot be assimilated.
~ Marie Von Franz, Individuation in Fairy Tales
I wake in the middle of the night from a dream:
A young man, dressed in dark clothes, lurks nearby on a dark street, slithering in the dark silently, tight next to the buildings he passes. He is following me. I think nothing of him, I feel safe and at home, until I suddenly lose track of myself and drop my wallet, change spilling all over the street, shining in the moonlight. I stoop down to gather the coins, and feel suddenly uneasy – I lift my head up to see the young man charging toward me, at a remarkable speed, with the wide-mouthed unhinged jaws of a serpent. Glistening teeth the last thing I see before I awake terrified, frozen – heart pounding.
After a few minutes – I drift back asleep – wondering about the young man, and before I know it, I have gone in search of him. I find him in a cave along the banks of a lake near my childhood home. He is hiding, and has made himself a shelter there, in the damp and dark. I notice an elaborate graffiti mural, a beautiful work of art on a cement wall with a word painted at its center: “Wound.”
I assume this is his tag, and it becomes the dragon-boy’s name to me.
I climb with Wound up a steep hill and show him up into my self-made childhood tree house. I bring him blankets and bologna and white bread sandwiches.
As we sit together in the tree he says: “You didn’t come and visit me for a long time. I think you forgot about me.”
I admitted that I had.
“If you promise to come back sometimes I’ll give you a gift.”
“I’ll come visit again. I’m sorry I forgot. I don’t need a present.”
He insists on giving it to me anyway: He pulls out a red-velvet bag and tugs open the drawstring to reveal an enormous pearl.
In the weeks that followed, I found myself thinking about the sacred gifts that our wounds can sometimes bestow and the dragons that threaten to devour us.
So this is the roundabout story of a dream and where it led me: on a long adventure of mythic research and psychoanalytic theory, in search of an unknown treasure. I got lost along the way in tangential explorations. I forgot my original mission as I wandered through many not-obviously related texts and was engrossed by them. I became deflated as I gathered more and more snippets, pieces and fragments, uncertain that I would ever be able to create one whole cohesive thought. My spirits rose as I saw glimmers of a unifying notion on the horizon, although as I write I remain unsure as to whether or not I have uncovered anything new or valuable, or if I’ve surfaced with any pearls of wisdom at all.
Pearls have not only been seen as archetypal symbols of healing and wholeness- but have been used through history as actual medicine: ground into powder, dissolved in water, ingested and applied to the skin. It is thought that pearl powder soothes pain, slows aging, coats and heals intestinal distress just as it tends to the oyster’s wound.
Perhaps pearls do have healing properties. Or maybe our very wounds grant us magic gifts. Or both.
And maybe the mini-myth that emerged in my sleep is connected to ideas and images that could be of some value for others as well as myself, about treasure seeking journeys, wounds and dragons, as well as the gnostic awakenings and creative processes involved in psychotherapeutic healing.
Knowledge of the Heart
One of my first associations, as I sat with the dream and began to work with it, was a decades-old memory of the Gnostic poem: The Hymn of The Pearl. It took me several weeks to get around to pulling the text off the shelf, and a week or so more before I had the time and clear head to read it.
Gnosticism refers to a cluster of second-century mostly, but not entirely Christian religions, for there were Jewish and Manichean Gnostics too. Gnosis means knowledge and in this context it refers more properly to revelatory knowledge, or insight. We rely on gnosis as a root word daily when we speak of cognition, agnosticism, and recognition as ways of knowing, not knowing and re-knowing. For the Gnostic sects, the ability to see into our sacred “fullness”, our most whole, authentic self, and our divine, incorruptible nature – is true spiritual awakening.
This knowledge, or Gnosis, they did not see as a rational knowledge or even a philosophical knowledge of truth, but rather a knowing that arises in the heart in an intuitive, mysterious manner. ~ Stephen, A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung
And of course we should remember here that in Judeo-Christian texts it is the serpent that leads humanity to their first taste of gnosis from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
Unsurprisingly, Gnosticism had a profound impact on Jungian thought, and Jung’s conception of the individuation process: sorting through and becoming aware of our “fleshly” ego-consciousness and complexes, the public persona that confirms to socio-cultural norms and pressures, and the call to apprehend something of our whole encompassing Self, which contains all of our conscious and unconscious aspects.
The Hymn of the Pearl, found in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, recounts the mythic journey of a divine youth, sent by his heavenly parents down to the earthly plane in order to:
“Bring back the one pearl,
which lies in the middle of the sea
and is guarded by the snorting serpent.”
The descent is treacherous. The guides who accompany him at the start of the journey leave him to complete his trial alone, as he draws nearer to his destination.
“I went straight to the serpent
and settled in close by his inn,
waiting for him to sleep
so I could take my pearl from him.”
But the young hero is waylaid, as anxiety pressures him to conform to the cultural requirements of the nearby villagers.
“Then I put on a robe like theirs
lest they suspect me as an outsider
who had come to steal the pearl;
lest they arouse the serpent against me…
…And they gave me their food to eat.
I forgot that I was a son of kings,
and I served their king.
I forgot the pearl
for which my parents had sent me.
Through the heaviness of their food
I fell into a deep sleep.”
The divine Father and Mother see what has occurred, and write a magic letter to their boy:
“Awake and rise from your sleep
and hear the words of our letter!
Remember the pearl…”
The letter magically descends to earth in the shape of an eagle – the rustling of its wings wakens the nameless hero.
“I took it, kissed it
broke its seal and read…
I remembered the pearl…
And I began to enchant
the terrible snorting serpent.
I charmed him into sleep …
I seized the pearl
and turned to carry it to my Father.”
The hero then casts off the “filthy” borrowed robe, and begins the ascent back to his heavenly parents, where the glorious pearl is added to his jewel encrusted royal robe, a robe vibrating with living, divine awareness of all things.
(~ The Other Bible, Willis Barnstone editor)
Decades ago, I’d read The Hymn of the Pearl as historical theology in a comparative religions course – and always found it a disappointment. I yearned for it to move me somehow, but it hadn’t. A title so beautiful, yet as allegory it lacked interesting tension for me. Divine plane: Good. Material plane: Filthy. Appetite-laden, debased. A call to humanity to shake off contaminated earthly garments in pursuit of being enrobed in divine salvation. I liked my religious philosophy more ambiguous than that. Less dualistic. I’d known about, but had never shared, Jung’s identification and passion for the Gnostic literature.
And I’ll admit that re-reading the hymn this time left me just as flat. “Oh, yeah” I thought, “I remember, I never really did like this poem.” But I certainly noticed much in common with my dream: A dangerous serpent, a descent, a deep body of water, enchanting the dragon (although I am not sure that white bread and bologna sandwiches would constitute “enchantment” by any good Gnostic’s standards) an ascent, a forgotten promise, a pearl. So I re-read it several more times and – remained unmoved.
But a few days later, the ball dropped, and flipped my usual orientation on its head: I commonly look to myth to clarify dream content, but perhaps the dream was the key to my understanding the myth itself, as well as the ways that it plays out in my life, and in the psychotherapeutic journeys I undertake in my office each day.
Perhaps mythical dragons are related to our very wounds – and must be pursued, encountered, and contended with before we are granted their treasure.
So maybe this is one way of many to understand pearls and serpents: when we descend to the watery, dark unconscious, to make contact with our wounded, hungry or unacknowledged self-aspects, we fear we may be completely devoured or destroyed.
These dangers are psychologically all too real. The internal energies that are released, the flood of emotion, rage, anxiety, adrenaline, and terror when we approach our most personal vulnerabilities can threaten to consume, flood and drown us.
Fairy-tale and folklore tell us of multitudes who were eaten by dragons, and lived experience has shown us that people can be consumed by their wounds and weaknesses. Too many of us know, among our families and friends, those who go to battle with such dragons as trauma, despair, addiction, denial who do not succeed, who never return, or are never whole again after their encounter. There are many who die of their wounds and the serpent’s bite – some instantly, some all too slowly.
And unsurprisingly, during the arduous process of thinking and writing about this dream and this myth, I would be reminded, both in and out of the office, about how threatening the demons lurking in our psyches can be, how overwhelming the contact with a core-injury, and how visceral the experience of being devoured can be. But they can also serve to peel away the finite, enfleshed self, revealing something beautiful, valuable and timeless hidden under our hard work-a-day armor, growing out of our soft mortal flesh.
The oyster is a fitting symbol of the corruptible fleshy animal nature, but out of it is produced, or there exudes this incorruptible thing… Just as the pearl comes out when you open the oyster, so in death our fleshy existence would fall away and decay, and the immortal part of our personality, the pearl, would become visible.
~ Marie Von Franz, Individuation in Fairy Tales
Our most frightening wounds may be the only things that can ever make us whole.
And what of the pearl itself? In the Hymn of the Pearl it is a symbol of gnosis: hard won insight into the luminous Center, the fullness of being, Wholeness. In Quakerism it is called the Seed. Some call it Buddha-nature others call it Christ-consciousness. Jung saw it as the transcendent Self at the center of the mandala, and the Gnostics call it the Pearl.
Only what is really oneself has the power to heal. ~ C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology
Why a pearl and not a ruby, a diamond, a lump of gold or some other treasure? And what kind of pearl (for there are many in ancient texts)? The Vedic text the Garuda Purana lists a group of pearl stones, all blessing their possessor with various virtues and fortunes: Conch pearl, Boar and Elephant pearl (growing out of tusk roots), the Bamboo pearl, the Whale and Fish pearl (intestinal bezoars swallowed by the animal to aid digestion) and the mythical, powerful Cloud Pearl. The Serpent Pearl, also known as Cobra pearl, is probably also mythical – or perhaps grew as an organic stone from the snake’s gall.
The possessor of the serpent pearl meets with rare good fortune, and becomes a pious and illustrious king in time, with a treasury full of other species of precious gems… Neither the serpents nor the Rakshas (demons), nor diseases, nor disturbances of any kind would assail the man amidst whose treasure such a snake pearl would lie. ~ Garuda Purana Chapter LXIX
It was also common for any large sea animal – whales for example, to be categorized as serpents and dragons throughout antiquity
.…Pearls were regarded as in the special possession of the sea-gods and water-spirits; and these beings were often pictured in forms far more fishy, or crocodilian, or shark-like, than were the terrestrial, serpentine dragons ~ Ernest Ingersoll, Dragons and Dragon Lore
The archetypal serpent-goddesses, the Naga of the Mahabharata wear strands of pearls in their underwater palaces. In Buddhist teachings the third eye of wisdom and self-knowledge is represented as a pearl, as is the “jewel in the lotus.” (~ J. E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols) Krishna wears the entire universe strung around his neck as a string of pearls ( The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, The Book of Symbols) The Tao is also a pearl, and in traditional Christian texts it emerges as an image of the kingdom of heaven:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man seeking goodly pearls who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (~ Matthew 13:46)
We are cautioned in The Book of Matthew not to “cast our pearls before swine”– offer up our souls most sacred, True Self to those who will trample it, and “turn again and rend you” (7:6) – while the Book of Revelations summons an image of the gates of the New Jerusalem, each carved from a single pearl.
One of the most stunning images of pearls as immortal transcendent bodies crystallized within the mortal body was documented in the film The Unmistaken Child following the aftermath of the death of Lama Konchog. The monk’s disciples sift through his cremains for a handful of sarira pearl-like objects left behind after the funereal flames have burned out, viewed as a pure embodiment of the master’s accumulated spiritual knowledge and teachings.
So is this what we are seeking? Is this what we may receive after facing down a deadly dragon? Self-knowledge? Gnosis? Immortality? Vitality? Power, Wealth or Wisdom? And/or something else entirely?
Pearls, unlike other jewels, are created gems. They are not discovered, mined, or extracted pre-existent from the earth’s crust. Our personal pearls of wisdom, our sarira, should not be cast before swine, because they heal from and grow out of our very wounds. They are valuable, sacred even, because they encapsulate, emerge from, soothe, and heal our injuries.
They are made, formed, and manufactured: a creative response to damage inflicted upon living flesh. The pearl has an embodied and literal function, more primal that its decorative value. It is a creative and created response to injury, and as such represents healing as an inherently creative act. And indeed, we often experience artistic and creative inspiration as something akin to divine revelation, a passing up of deep mysterious knowledge from the unconscious, to the consciousness, and sometimes onward to the benefit of the community at large.
The First Danger: Refusing the call
The mythological literature suggests that there is no easy way to apprehend your own vital, transcendent, creative core. There will always be a serpent wrapped around it.
To have eyes and not see, to have ears and not hear; these are the typical unmistakable symptoms of occlusion to the call of creative vitality” ~ Erich Neumann, Art and The Creative Unconscious
And some will not return, as we know, and others won’t set out on the journey at all.
Which is the greater danger? Is it more dangerous to risk being devoured, destroyed, to face the annihilation anxieties that are activated by the serpents at our wounded core? Or to avoid the central tasks of healing and creative living entirely?
Let’s say that in the severe case all that is real and all that matters and all that is personal and original and creative is hidden, and gives no sign of its existence. The individual in such an extreme case would not really mind whether he was alive or dead… ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality.
The Second Danger: The Descent
And even if we do decide to set out on the journey and seek out a life worth living, the descent can be both steep and treacherous. We may require the assistance of guards, sherpas, and guides who know the path and have skills to usher us over the early obstacles, ward off predators and keep us from getting lost along he way. This may be part of a psychotherapist’s function, although not exclusively. There are all kinds of teachers and elders familiar with the twists and turns, slippery spots and predators that lie along the path to Self-Knowledge.
But no matter how far we are led, at some point we will find ourselves facing the central task of forging a meaningful life on our own recognizance with nothing but our courage, cleverness, and resources.
The Third Danger: Forgetting, Sleeping and Waking Up
There is more than one way to get lost.
The hero of the Hymn falls into full-belly sleepiness – losing track of his mission entirely – as my own dream-myth was disrupted by startling fearfully awake out of my unconscious processes. Whether becoming engrossed in earthly realities is experienced as a falling asleep or as a waking up, the compelling realness of the “real world” poses its own threat to undertaking the journey toward Self-Knowledge.
Money, power, governments, the raising of families, paying of taxes, the endless chain of entrapment in circumstances and obligations, none of these were as rejected as totally and unequivocally… as they were by the Gnostics. ~ Stephen, A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung
The pressures to conform to cultural and societal expectations (wearing robes like the others) the sleepy seduction of hedonism (satiated by a heavy meal), or chasing after earthly treasures (in the form of scattered coins on a dark street) can all distract us from the central purposes of our lives.
Whereas the normal man to a great extent pays for his adaptation to life in Western civilization with a loss of creativity, the creative man, who is adapted to the requirements of the unconscious world pays for his creativity with loneliness, which is the expression of his relative lack of adaptation to the life of the community. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and The Creative Unconscious
To withstand the solitary aspects of the journey, to reject the comforts of conformity, to pursue Jungian individuation does not mean merely to live a selfish or unrelated life. The call of individuation, the pursuit of gnosis, puts us in deeper contact with our creative generativity, our most authentic business in this world, a clearer sense of who we are, and what we actually have to offer others.
Although we are all certain to fall asleep and lose the thread of what is important and most central to us, moments of grace also intervene: Grace descends, sends us letters, and rustles its feathers re-awakening us to our life’s purpose. And sometimes, late at night, we can drift back to sleep and Grace may lead us back toward the fading wisp of a dream so that a story can continue to unfold.
The Fourth Danger: Drowned, Destroyed, Devoured
Then there is the danger of becoming lost at sea, flooded, drowned or devoured in the under-water kingdom of the Sea-dragon. The realm of the archetypes lurks deep in the bottom of our watery Unconscious, and our wounds often reside in dark hidden caves. This is Jung’s Collective Unconscious – where instinctive archetypal forces can grant us extraordinary transformational energy – but only if we have the strength, savvy, cunning, skill and humility to prevent those same energies from taking full possession of us, and tearing us to bits in their mighty jaws.
What does this mythological flooding, drowning, entrapment under the sea look like clinically? What happens to clients, or to ourselves when we tangle with archetypally primal forces and they take us over? It looks like experiences of madness and psychosis, transitory or enduring. Voice-hearing in which the voices have full control. It looks like states of depression, of anxiety, of despair so powerful that we could die from them. It looks like soul-shaking panic attacks, annihilation anxieties in all their most flooding forms.
We need sufficient strength, support, and maybe also some accumulated skill and practice at facing down smaller more manageable reptiles before we descend into the watery realm of the Dragon King. Jungian “ego strength” is measured by our conscious and accrued ability to contain, tame, endure, negotiate, withstand, and survive the dangers that lurk in our Unconscious.
We know that the creative power of the unconscious seizes upon the individual with the autonomous force of an instinctual drive and takes possession of him without the least consideration for the individual, his life, his happiness, or his health. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious
But no matter how strong we are, no matter how skilled, practiced, or well-analyzed, none of us makes it through this life without some profound vulnerability or limitation. We are all weakest at the site of a previous injury, and this is where both the dragon and its treasure settle: nearest to our most fragile and broken bits, in the weakened places that require the greatest courage for us to move toward, alongside our most stunted and undeveloped aspects. Only if we can face down powerful archetypal forces in our most vulnerable states will we really have a chance at a life worth living.
And maybe this is also the sacred function of the dragon and the unconscious forces that call attention to the wounds: So that we remain cognizant of them, so we recognize that our injuries and our vitalities are always intertwined, so that we remember to return and visit and comprehend that life without our wounds really just means that we are less alive.
The Fifth Danger: Repression and Defeated Dragons
But if dragons serve their sacred functions, if they are representative of our extraordinary and simultaneous capacity for destruction and creativity, of the forces of woundedness and healing, what future treasures will we lose when the serpents are slain, driven out, or overpowered?
Repression by… consciousness creates an underworld with a dangerous emotional charge, which tends to erupt, to overpower and destroy the world of the victors, this underworld is inhabited by the vanquished and suppressed gods… the dragons which form the perilous substructure of the dominant world of the victors. But as the myth implies, this repression does not transform the powers; it merely chains them temporarily. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious
In “Western” cultures organized more explicitly on dualistic Judeo-Christian religious myths – hanging out in trees accepting the gifts of serpents never leads to good outcomes. That is just simple, obvious heresy. That is what gets you cast out of paradise and sentenced to life long toil. Potentially disruptive gnosis must be repressed and overcome.
…And the powers that had been repressed but not transformed must again – at least according to an absurd dogma – be repressed but now forever. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious
Dragons can be vanquished in too many ways, and there is a danger not only of killing off a powerful source of vitality, but killing off essential aspects of ourselves in the process. In the Yoga Upanishads - Kundalini, serpent power or life force is depicted as a snake, “coiled round upon herself she holds her tail in her mouth and lies resting half asleep”
Perhaps there are better and worse ways to gain the prize.
Why in tales of European dragons is the dragon vanquished, murdered, and her treasure claimed as booty? How is a treasure transformed or contaminated when it taken by violence, trickery, or enmity rather than given freely as a gift?
Perhaps we never get to travel to the depths just once; maybe there are many serpents to contend with, many pearls. Or what if we only have one dragon within us, that produces a
multitude of pearls? One way or another, life may require this journey of us repeatedly.
The heroes that rely on violence and theft are young, untested, frightened men – encountering their dragon-wounds for the very first time. Maybe fear leads to them to overkill, to theft, snatch-and-dash.
Whereas I am a white-haired woman who has spent many years studying the ways of dragons and the energies that surround our wounds. And although I try never to underestimate the feral power of such wild forces, I may have learned through the years of my own therapeutic process and soul-work, that bologna and white bread sandwiches often comfort dragon-wounds. Perhaps without realizing it, I’ve become a little bit of a wound-whisperer, a dragon tamer. I can sometimes teach others how to enter, – cautiously, carefully, respectfully- into relationship with fearsome creatures who may offer up their fortune freely, without need for theft or bloodshed.
So many come to psychotherapy seeking assistance to kill off their wounds, to repress their distress, to eliminate symptoms, to find a way to get away from their pain and somehow snatch happiness from its jaws. They are convinced that the serpent is the enemy. Just like those who petitioned Asclepius, (the Greek God of medicine) for healing, they stare at me flabbergasted when I suggest that they must sleep among the snakes and enter into relationship with their wound in order to be healed. Psychotherapy (as I practice it) is not, after all, the business of dragon slaying. It can only teach us the language of the serpents.
And maybe we will also return from the trial with a treasure: the psychic victory of the creative gesture.
Creative transformation on the other hand, represents a total process in which the creative principle is manifested not as an irruptive possession, but as a power related to the self, the center of the whole personality. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious
This pearlescent “creative principle” is the source of artistic work, both profound and personal. In “From The Wrong Side: a Paradoxical Approach to Psychology” Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig distinguishes between “personal creativity” and “transcendent creativity.” Personal creativity occurs “everywhere human beings are found” in his view; however, transcendent creativity, is rare, moving beyond the creative processes of personal healing, serving a symbolic function for the community as a whole through works of true art. Transcendent creativity is as uncommon as a pearl in nature.
Let us consider the psychological ideas of the majority of us psychologists and psychiatrists. By and large, our ideas are completely unoriginal and collective! We can hardly recognize any kind of creativity and even less something truly new in them. In form and content, these ideas are but repetitions or simply plain hard work. They are not genuinely creative, something really rare. ~ Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig, From The Wrong Side
So the treasure, the gift, the mystical pearl we receive is unlikely, for most of us, to manifest as a great work of art, although the journey, trials, obstacles, blocks, and dangers are similar. The psyche of the artist offers up pearls of a truly transcendent quality.
Yet, healing is itself a creative act, as is living.
Not an artistic one, in all or even most cases, but a creative act nonetheless.
The creativity that concerns me is a universal. It belongs to being alive. ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality
There is a final task, as well as some potential pitfalls once the pearl is in our grasp. The jewel must be acknowledged as coming from, and belonging to forces beyond our conscious ego.
The impulse to keep the gift, hide, bury, or hoard it, constitutes a psychological danger and a severe distortion of heart-knowledge. A corresponding trap is when we succumb to the narcissistically inflating illusion that we have conscious control over the creative process. Grace has always played a hand. The muses must be courted, and dragons must be honored as magical creatures who grant us talismans from realms beyond our own.
Creativity happens outside of the individual psyche. Phenomenologically, at least, it seems that a power external to the one creating is at work, that the creator is but a tool or a vessel. ~ Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig, From The Wrong Side
Moreover, as any devoted reader of fairy tales knows, the gift we receive, must be given away and passed onward or upward in some form, or its powers will turn against those who pretend to own and control it. The hero ascends with his booty, his gnosis, and although he is allowed to adorn his robe with it, it is clear that the robe itself carries a mantle of responsibility along with it. We must make sure that the wisdom we accrue serves purposes far larger and more sacred than our own interests – or it is not wisdom at all.
This is part and parcel of the work of a psychotherapist – to offer up the gifts we have received to strengthen not only ourselves, but also others who have begun their own quest.
In the office, I am always fearful when the descent begins. I am both confident and I tremble inwardly as I accompany clients through the familiar obstacles and dangers, although I try not to show it. I am often speechless and awe-struck when, after long and strengthening testing, we encounter the wound directly. And I am always grateful when we survive, and I have the honor of watching clients move more fully, more deeply and creatively into a life worth living.
I laugh, and sigh with relief, as I watch a client take possession of the treasure, and begin to carry it out into the world with them:
“I hoped that this is what would happen!” I hear myself saying “I had faith that it would, but nevertheless, it is always a relief to see it become reality right in front of me! These are the times when I wish I had a time machine, and could record this moment, and travel back to the beginning of this process so I could show us both what amazing things would grow out of the journey. It might have been relieving to you, but it sure would have been relieving to me too!”
It is a fear that I have grown used to, and one that no longer threatens my faith too intolerably. And both the receiving and the giving of the gift are always miracles.
So I share the long and winding story of my dream, and its mother-myth here.
I do this because I was reminded, and perhaps others need to be reminded as well, that the processes of healing, self-knowledge and creative insight always depend upon heroic acts of bravery and Divine Grace together.