- The world does not know that we must all come to an end here; — but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once. ~ The Dhammapada
Every minute of 2015 someone who loved and needed me was dying,
And my experience, for every minute of 2015, was one of consistent, contained, unrelenting terror. I felt joy, gratitude, hope, sorrow and anger as well – but coursing under it all, was a river of pure fear, visceral horror – a kind of adrenal fuel that drove me into extraordinary feats of care taking, as I crawled along the edge of a knife.
And when they left this earth, my very first experience was relief- a relief that continues to expand – even through the early waves of sorrow – a relief that grows and solidifies underneath me as I integrate my losses and the intensity and duration of the waves of grief modulate, and as I return to life changed and grateful for all that they left behind with me.
And in its absence, I have become intensely curious about the specific nature of this terror, its origin, form and function:
Okay, so I was scared shitless. What was it for?
What, if any, good did it do?
- As a fletcher makes straight his arrow, a wise man makes straight his trembling and unsteady thought, which is difficult to guard. Difficult to hold back. . ~ The Dhammapada
I am not afraid of loss, or living with loss, or my own pending sorrows. I have lost many loved ones in my life and know how to take them into me, and keep them with me and draw strength from my evolving internal connections.
But I was and have always been terrified, horrified by the presence and the threat of suffering in those I love, and in others.
And when death came, it meant that suffering, or the threat of suffering, or both, were over, and I was unburdened of my most primal fear.
All of this is fairly straight forward, nothing earth shattering or bone shaking here.
Just basic empathy: We would of course, as empathic people, feel distressed by the suffering of others.
But my primal fear irritated me like a severe allergy, it whispered in my ears all day long and it told me this:
“You must do whatever you can, every single thing you can, to control, eliminate, prevent, head off, or reduce their suffering. Any suffering they experience is your responsibility to respond to with all of the resources at your disposal. You must be available 24 hours, ready in a flash, to take action to do anything, everything, you can to prevent it.”
- “May both the layman and he who has left the world think that this is done by me; may they be subject to me in everything which is to be done or is not to be done,” this is the mind of the fool, and his desire and pride increase. . ~ The Dhammapada
I’m sure my red-alert-readiness, my foolishness, actually bugs the shit out of others in the moments when they are working hard, and maybe even succeeding at withstanding their own emotional and physical suffering.
And of course, I have to consider how this reactive allergy to the discomfort of others led me to this profession, how I am called every single day, to sit in the presence of sufferings that are not mine. I have chosen a life that requires that I sort through- thirty some hours a week for twenty plus years – what sufferings I can help alleviate and what suffering is not mine, is beyond me, is unsoothable.
And to tolerate my own impotence in the face of it.
- Him I call indeed a Brahmana who, even here, knows the end of his suffering, has put down his burden, and is unshackled. . ~ The Dhammapada
As a psychotherapist I am so often powerless – pressed into circumstances where any action I consider or any power I claim only serves to disempower the client I hope to serve. The more powerless I am the more I must acknowledge that the person sitting opposite me on the couch is the only one with the power to make sense of their own anguish.
Sometimes even actions as still as listening, bearing witness or sitting near are worthless in the face of suffering.
Then, I am afraid.
Sometimes fear is all I have to offer.
Because I’ve become curious, I have asked clients who experienced severe suffering in my presence how my fear impacted them.
“It let me knew that you really cared.”
“I could see that you really got what I was going through and understood how horrible it was.”
“It meant a lot to me, it showed me that you loved me.”
Hearing this offered its own relief, but still, I wonder what I might have offered if I had been less afraid.
Fear can create an inflation, an adrenal hubris, which can seduce me into assuming responsibility for distresses and discomforts that I can never soothe or assuage.
And although I have built up the capacity to contain my behavior, the fear rings like a malfunctioning alarm that cannot be turned off once it detects suffering in the air.
- Him I call indeed a Brahmana who has traversed this miry road, the impassable world and its vanity, who has gone through, and reached the other shore, is thoughtful, guileless, free from doubts, free from attachment and content. . ~ The Dhammapada
What if I could accept other people’s suffering as inevitable and unavoidable, as their own property without being afraid? Could I be more present, more connected?
Could I have been more effective if I weren’t so afraid?
Can I “hold” fear differently?
If this fear is a kind of empathy in itself – and I suspect it is – if I am holding and absorbing fears that others cannot hold alone, is there a way for me to withstand them differently or better?
Is it a human necessity for the alarm bell to be activated ?
Is it possible or desirable to remain committed to ameliorating what suffering we can and still stay peaceful in the presence of intractable suffering?
Is it even “right” by my own values to “stay peaceful” or detached in the presence of intractable suffering?
Is that healthy detachment? Or indifference? Self-preserving? Or self-centric?
Or just cold?
- Him I call indeed a Brahmana who has left what gives pleasure, what gives pain, who is cold and free from all germs of renewed life, the hero who has conquered all the worlds. . ~ The Dhammapada
These are questions that, consciously or unconsciously, psychotherapists and care providers wrestle with every single day. Psychotherapists need to build defenses and force-fields, finding ways to detach, to self preserve and allow others to claim ownership of their intractable sufferings.
And let’s be frank: I suck at detachment.
I wonder if it is possible not to defend, or distance – but to remain authentically attached, compassionate and peaceful when others suffer near us.
Isn’t the capacity to maintain some internal peace intrinsic to our ideas of mature compassion?
Can we allow ourselves to be empathically affected by the intractable suffering of others and not tremble in its presence?
I just wonder if it’s mandatory.
It might be.
If it isn’t mandatory it might still be unavoidable. I am no Buddha, and no one I know thinks I’m on the road to Nirvana.
Yet, I also wonder what life might look like, what consolations I might have to offer if I could accept my right and limited place in the world, to love with all my heart, to do all I can and should do, to be able to recognize clearly and preceisely when I should do no more, and then to calmly instill confidence in others that I believe they have the power and capacity to contend with, withstand or come to terms with their own suffering.
And then, at that point, allow myself to rest, still and present, peaceful and unafraid.
May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,
May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.
(The Dhammapada translated by F. Max Muller)
I might, sometimes, be a good enough psychotherapist – although there are certainly those for whom I have not been good enough.
But I am most certainly a terrible business woman. I dread doing my professional accounts each month, my financial books are shaggy and unkempt.
And an interesting unconscious habit, a persistent black out, a fiscal “tick” has stuck with me from the moment I hung out my shingle: I spend hours making up bills – and I forget to hand them to my clients to collect my fee.
I have even (and this has happened repeatedly) written up a statement in the last five minutes of a session, for the client sitting in front of me, said “Goodbye! See you next week!” walked them to the door and listened to the elevator doors closing behind them – and looked down to find a monthly statement: the CPT code and session dates, any previous balance (from the month before when I also forgot to give them their bill) the total due and my license number – still in my hand.
I’m a shrink, right? I am trained to think about such things – so of course I do, and I have – for the past twenty years – and I still haven’t cracked it.
I’ve tried all kinds of behavioral interventions and mnemonics – set alarms, and organized visual reminders – nope.
I’ve set up rituals, which I adhere to, of reviewing the bookkeeping tasks for the day – uh-uh. Nothing penetrates the blank-out.
I’ve even held the remaining bills for the day in my lap, and forgotten to distribute them.
I mean, I get them distributed eventually. Some by hand, some electronically –but in fits and starts and herky-jerky – and in the end I feel very valued and valuable to my clients – and I am grateful that I usually get paid, and paid well enough to care for my family. But this odd billing disorder isn’t born of complacency. There have been many years where I was scraping by, or short on rent – and still found myself with a stack of undistributed bills sitting on my office end table at the end of the day.
I own my worth. I can set my fees at a rate that reflects my value and training and expertise. Sure, there are lots of therapists in NYC who have a higher average fee than I end up with as my sliding scale and flexibility with clients in crisis, and pro-bono cases drag my averages down. But that is not unconscious. That is my choice, those are my values, and that is what helps me to curate a healthy and diverse generalist caseload.
I’m not inhibited about talking about money, and I like getting paid. I can talk openly, and even enter into conflict about my fees – I make sure to manage fees in a way that protects my clinical relationships from resentment or overextension. My fees are high enough to require a significant, if proportional, commitment from my clients, and to meet my own needs for reimbursement for what I have offered up.
And so I dig deeper than that:
I sit in a room of my very own, and the world comes to me.
Seekers, from every walk of life, from every profession, from many different cultures, come to my door.
They bring with them, each of them, hundreds and hundreds of stories to tell. Thousands upon thousands of myths and dreams, narratives, of hopes and heartbreak are laid at my feet. The more still I sit, the more stories are offered to me.
Like gifts. Like precious offerings.
These stories, priceless and sacred, are left behind with me, a pile of totems, charms and talismans to protect and instruct me as I move through my own story.
Like a safe deposit box I am filled with other people’s treasures.
If I am very very lucky, and I have held still enough and said the magic words, whatever they may be, often enough (I am very very good finder of magic words) I may be allowed to become a part of these stories, and to help create their meaning and influence their outcome in some small way, and hopefully for the better (but you never know for sure with magic words, what forces you will unleash).
There are boring bits. Long periods of exposition or sometimes endless description of the landscape – but I’ve learned to rest during those patches because soon enough – the tale will pick back up and we will be facing demons and dragons and rescuing royalty and sitting on the edge of our seats and escaping by the skin of our teeth.
And each session there is a new and amazing hero, in a new story, and I am their trusty side kick, or their genie in a bottle, the village fool, the scape-goat, the ugly step-sister the crone in the hut at the edge of the forest, or the princess they have yearned for, or the Queen on her throne or the wickedest witch of all.
And the protagonists move through their tasks so heroically, with such courage and fortitude, I am continuously stunned and surprised by each new trick, each riddle solved, and every feat of strength.
And the story is so engrossing, so compelling, and it offers me so much even as I play my delimited part within it, that I am swept up and satisfied and filled. And like all big stories, big myths and dreams, I have been transformed myself by the tale.
And I think what happens – is that I just forget.
I forget, and sometimes it just makes no sense to me,
that I am actually supposed to be paid at this point in the adventure, as I wait, dangling in suspense for next week’s installment.
I can’t write authentically about anything other than early bereavement right now. Except maybe compound bereavement, complex bereavement, working as a therapist while you are actively bereaved. After your toes have been curled around the edge of the abyss watching several loved ones slowly slowly fall into it every single day for a year or two.
How you think, but you have thought before, that it has stopped – that the dying has paused – and that maybe the universe will offer you a decade or two to catch your breath before you again lose someone who is part of your psychological and logistical infrastructure – but what if it doesn’t pause (last time it didn’t) and what if it keeps going – and swallows someone else up you love, or you?
What if lightening strikes repeatedly in the same spot? What if freak events, school shootings, car accidents, house fires, drug overdoses, aneurisms or just more cancer cancer cancer keep coming?
About the feeling of falling down a rabbit hole, the floor pulled out from under you, and having no idea when or if you will hit solid ground again.
About the terror of looking forward – because it means encountering the days, years, minutes ahead without someone who you might have assumed would travel through time with you but is gone, and not just gone for right now, but gone always. Never to be seen or heard again
I can only in this moment write about how it is also hazardous to look back – because if you calculate all that you have negotiated and all the heartbreak of the death and dying cluster you hope you have passed through (but who really knows for sure) you will feel a fatigue so great, so crushing, so heavy that you know your body actually demands three solid months of sleep to recover – but there are children to care for and bills to pay, and the unflinching and unceasing demands of life to keep up with.
And the past has other dangers – sometimes called memories – which can comfort and soothe and strengthen you but can also turn against you into a brutal accounting of what exactly has been taken from you, and what is no longer with you in the present moment.
About the strange alienation when you hear normal people talking about everyday things – and who, understandably try to engage you in conversation about everyday things, while you are actually still living in the crack between the worlds where every second is both sacred and terrible and as far from everyday as humanly imaginable – but you somehow – strangely- without understanding how – are still able to chat and smile and nod and act “as if” you are a part of this earth – when you haven’t really come back yet, and aren’t sure who you will be when you do return.
And the times when you do feel normal – uncannily normal – like nothing happened, nothing changed – when you go about your business, and again, kind and well meaning people treat you as if you are still altered (you aren’t are you?) but you feel regular and you just want to cash in on that for the time being but everyone’s concern disrupts the illusion and you remember you have just had a human being that you cherished amputated from your life.
The self-compassion that you have to cultivate in order not to push or shame yourself, when you feel nothing, or you feel totally fucked up, or you feel fine, or you feel the worst, searing burning pain, or you feel terrified, or you feel lost, or you feel a little manic-y in your love of life, your appreciation for what is good or kind or just or beautiful, or your slightly panicked need to say every positive grateful thing you feel to the people around you over and over again in case you don’t get to say it later, or in case the moment arrives where you will never get a chance to say it at all.
How you search for places to put your thinking – or behaviors to engage in – that comfort you for a second and how you hope that thought or that photo, or that song, or that peaceful spot doesn’t dry up on you and lose its ability to function as a balm for all your sorrows.
Gathering your thoughts before sleep, trying to court dreams which make this make sense, or which offer consolation.
And how, you go to work, and you want to go to work, to tend to and care for others who mean the world to you – and stand shoulder to shoulder beside other people who are contending with challenges and suffering, loss, illness, bereavements, alienations of their very own – and your power to take those in, take those on, and mirror it all back can make your own wound useful – but can also exhaust you and expose you to profound re-injury – the most painful kind of re-wounding when you work from your vulnerability and it is rejected or attacked.
And can you really withstand that right now?
Usually, yes, absolutely. The connection and the potential of intimacy makes it all worth it, and probably there is an internal mandate to keep doing it because what else can you do? What other way of working in the world will cook this stew into something digestible?
But sometimes momentarily no. Not at all. It is not withstandable and why did I ever take on this fucked up job of absorbing other people’s aggression and confusion and wishes for me to be perfected when I am not I am not, I have never been and I am certainly not now, not at all. Who did I think I was? I suck at this, it is the worst and is there anyway to get out of this at this point?
Suddenly remembering that even your breakability is valuable because it connects you to the brokenness of others
Finding seconds of relief and stacking them upon each other.
Remembering you are grateful for the love that you are now grieving and for the love and kindness, and the attempts at kindness that are all around
Remembering what those you have lost would want for you.
Trying to see yourself as they saw you.
Arguing with them in your head. Giving them back the fucked up bits that they might not have accepted when they were alive.
Learning to speak to yourself in their healthy voice.
Recalling that everything you are contending with that feels unnatural is natural.
That grief is part of the natural order of things, and allowing it to function in your life as a natural force.
And remembering that it is all expectable. Necessary. Unavoidable.
That all this is just grief itself.
Nothing less. Nothing more.
(For an accompanying discussion on the processes of bereavement and how you can support those in early bereavement please read this. )
Update: The Astraea Ellie Conant Fund closed on June 30th after six months of fundraising and after an amazing glorious float in her honor rode down the middle of the NYC Pride Parade. At the time of its closing just over $18,000 had been raised in her memory to support LGBTQ youth in Korea.
I know many people who read this blog made contributions and I thank you for your kindness, and support and for helping to change the world in Ellie’s memory.
Recently I wrote a post entitled “Death Ed.” for a dear friend, a chosen sister who was facing a terminal illness.
She died early New Year’s Day, peacefully, in the arms of her amazing partner. We received the call as we were eating ttok mandoo guk, the traditional Korean New Year soup that she had taught us to make.
It is nearly impossible to describe Ellie to those who have not met her. It is also nearly impossible to explain to those who do not know us how it is that we became a family. Her own words are more effective than any of my own.
She helped to raise my children. She helped me care for my sick and dying mother.
She fed my Korean children the food her Korean mother fed her as a child and taught them to cook it for themselves.
She was there on our worst and best days as a family.
She understood my children in places that I will never comprehend, but will always respect.
She made me laugh my ass off even in the darkest times. She stepped up for me, and permitted me to do the same for her.
She changed people’s lives who met her one time, for ten minutes and never ever forgot her.
It has always been easier for both of us to give help and harder for us both to receive it. But somehow we learned to ask and accept and receive help from each other.
And because Ellie was such a supportive soul, and so encouraging about this blog:
I will take what we learned together and ask my What a Shrink Thinks community to help us make sure that this loss generates care and consolation for others:
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.
To my beloved adoption community:
So many people have reached out to us to ask how they can support our children through the loss of their dear dear Imo.
This is how:
Our bonds as a family were forged & solidified there, it is an annual community/family reunion for us and we hope you will all help us to keep Ellie’s generous spirit present at the conference so the kids can see that she is not forgotten.
She left us with so much , and I hope that we can extend that abundance to others.
With a full and grateful heart,
“I will say to God ‘Don’t just condemn me – tell me why you are doing it.”
The Book of Job, 10:2
Everyone writes about the Book of Job at some point – and maybe, every one who ever writes is really just writing about the Book of Job.
A lot of people really hate this story.
Not me. I find it relieving. It tells the truth straight up, no bullshit.
The world is not fair or just. God is not merely moral. Life is feral. Fate is fickle.
If we are concerned about being “good” it better be for our own sakes, so that we can feel clean and proud of ourselves with few regrets when the shit hits the fan – because the shit will hit the fan someday, and often more than once, sometimes so repetitively that you cannot bear it. Because Life won’t be good to us just because we are so very busy trying to be good.
Being “good” protects you from nothing. Evil can win. And karma isn’t always the bitch you hope it will be.
So if you haven’t read it (just in case there is anyone who hasn’t read it) here is what happens: God bets Satan that his most faithful follower, Job, will remain faithful no matter how he is tortured. Satan takes that bet: destroys his crops and herds, kills all of his servants and children. Seven sons and three daughters in one fell swoop.
Job is traumatized beyond all imagining, but retains his faith in a just and powerful monotheistic God. So Satan asks to up the stakes: Illness? Physical suffering will surely break his faith: Sure, God says, just don’t kill him: Job is covered in boils from head to foot.
At first it seems like he is holding it together:
“Shall we receive only pleasant things from the hand of God and never anything unpleasant?”
But when Job finally speaks to his three closest friends – we learn that he is traumatized to the point of suicidal despair. He has lost everything that was ever comforting or meaningful to him. And he is grieving the destruction of a cherished fantasy that there is order and justice in the universe. It is dawning on him that whatever he thought God was, he is not an omnipotent parental God who rewards goodness and punishes evil.
And over the course of the next few chapters he will also learn how much his friends suck.
They all, one after another insist that God is both omnipotent and just. And therefore, Job is responsible for his own agony, a sinner who must repent.
None of them will stay with Job for a moment as he ponders these excruciating questions: What if God isn’t just? What if I didn’t do anything wrong, or certainly do anything wrong enough to warrant THIS – then what? What if God isn’t what or who I thought? What if I projected my own sense of morality onto an entity that is something else entirely? Does my blameless suffering, and the blameless suffering of others prove that I am more moral than a God who would torture me on a whim? How do I stay attached to Life, to a sense of meaning or purpose or beauty or awe if I live in a Universe that would allow dark forces to destroy everything I have ever held dear? If Evil is permitted to dwell in comfort and decent men are permitted to suffer – If I chose to continue to believe, what can I believe in?
And the God of Life comes to Job as a Whirlwind. And speaks of wild animals and the Big Bang, and the wind, and rain – of the firmament and lightening. And of instinct and intuition. The Sacred Whirlwind speaks of lions, of ravens, of mountain goats and wild donkeys and oxen. The Divine Hurricane roars about ostriches: who abandon their eggs without a thought, completely devoid of maternal impulse but who can run faster than the fastest horse. The Holy Tornado of Life goes on and on, about hippopotami and crocodiles (the crocodile actually gets eight full paragraphs of Jehovah’s speechifying). The most primal, powerful, lizard – a being designed purely to devour and survive – a creature that we would never dream of considering on moral terms, except in our most anthropomorphizing moments: “Oh that poor baby zebra! That terrible monster just ate him right up!”
A crocodile, a hippo, an ostrich or a hurricane are neither right or wrong, moral or immoral. They are. They just are. Beauty and horror swirl and twist together in the Awesome Cyclone.
Job and his shitty friends have it all wrong.
Once I asked my martial arts master about the role of aggression in all of the animals forms we studied: The Monkey, The Tiger, The Dragon, The Sparrow, The Snake.
“They will all kill, you ” he said “but it is not their intention to kill.”
These are the forces that the God of Job identifies with.
Life is feral. God is not in the business of justice. The Sacred is a wilder and more primal, more ancient force than Job or his cronies knew.
It is not our fault. It is not the Whirlwind’s intention.
The Whirlwind may strip us of all the things we have ever believed or loved. It may tear our lives apart. And it will be completely natural for it to do so.
The Cosmos is neither wicked, nor just. It is not fair or unfair. Life is not reasonable or unreasonable.
To ask “Why?” is simply a wrong question, and mistakenly assumes a reasonable, moral explanation.
And there is a worse question, one that will lead us to wish we were never born and to yearn for the grave. A question that compounds trauma and impotence with rage and shame:
The most destructive question we can ask, with our fists raised to the heavens:
A question as senseless as asking Why matter? Why anti-matter? Why ostrich-eggs? Why crocodiles? Why hurricanes?
When we expect that the Holy Tempest is supposed to operate within the parameters of human morality, when we imagine that we deserve justice from the Hands of Fate – we have set ourselves above nature. We imagine that we should be able to command The Storm of Life to unfurl itself neatly even though there is nothing tidy about a storm. It assumes that the balance of Nature is morally ordered.
To ask “Why me?” in a wild amoral universe – is a dead end proposition: The only possible answers – explored all through out Job – lead to the depths of despair: 1) Trauma and clusters of cumulative trauma are the fault of the individual due to sin, foolishness, or error. Or 2) The Universe, God, Fate, the Powers-That-Be are intentionally, purposively sadistic or criminally neglectful.
Fairbairn says that in this circumstance most of us will turn trauma in on ourselves – that we would prefer to eat the sin and take the blame than to live to in a universe steered by the Devil’s whims.
The only psychologically tolerable answer to “Why me?” is this:
There is no answer. The laws of probability mean that some people will experience cumulative traumas and losses and some will not. In terms of moral explanation it is an inherently unanswerable question and any answer you attempt to extract can lead you toward suicidal despair.
The Book of Job suggests that you need to ask different questions entirely:
Questions like these:
Can you look squarely at the cruelty and beauty of life – at the awesome power of a Wild God, of a Universe which is not centered in anyway around you or your comfort or your goodness and still choose Life? Can you summon the energy to find meaning in living when everything is taken from you? Can you still love a God that might strip you of your very identity? Can you feel awe for a primal force, for a Sow who will bear and suckle her piglets but who might also eat them? Can you withstand the horrors of living and stay committed to the miraculous precarious balance of the world? Can you cherish your own brokenness and suffering and the brokenness of others? Can you lose people you love, or many people you love, can you be profoundly harmed, can you suffer and still continue to love?
Can you withstand the fact that living is in no way a secure proposition and be filled with awe at its power and fragility, even as it destroys you? Can you embrace this feral universe – with all its destructiveness and creativity – as surely as the God of Job loves the potent, dangerous, glorious, primal crocodile?
We may be sacrificed like Job’s children, as the gods gamble with our fate. We may shatter like ostrich-eggs. We may also acknowledge that the fragility and destructiveness of all of nature lives in our own wild hearts. That, within us, lives the terrible crocodile and the frightened zebra that feeds him.
Each of us also inherits a second-hand social universe –
an organizing principle, I didn’t know the
architectural design, question before I
elemental philosophy, learned the answer.
if you will – which
imperceptibly becomes yet another part of the total life-map.
In truth though, what you see
Is not what you get.
Sooner or later, that social universe –
is going to break
Then what will remain?
~ Martin Bell, 1983, Sweeping Meditations #12 & 17
Earlier this week, I don’t know why, I woke up with the sudden certainty that Row Row Row Your Boat was a song about death.
I didn’t do any research, and still haven’t. I didn’t hunt down its origins or its permutations. Who cares? I just knew, that even if it wasn’t intended to be a song about death, and even if no one else in the world thought that it was or someone could summon definitive proof that it was in fact, merely a song about boat rowing – I still would believe, utterly and forever, that row row row your boat, whatever it was meant to be, was also, simultaneously a song about death.
I mean, Ring Around The Rosey has that disturbing bit about ashes and “we all fall down!” And then there’s Rock A Bye Baby with its broken bough and fallen cradle. And so many of our lullabyes which we sung innocently to our children, as nonsensical clusters of unexamined word and rhyme, when you look closely are haunting/soothing as we take on the role of psychopomp, luring our wide awake children, like the Pied Pieper humming a seductive tune, over the cliff of consciousness down to the land of Morpheus.
So: yes, I’m sure that all these things are silly little transliterations over hundreds of years, and there is no determining what they originally were intended to mean or why. But can’t we also ask ourselves why these words, and images and variations stuck around, and why we keep singing them to our children, who, until very recently, were far far more likely to die in early childhood, and how terrified to our bones we are that even now, even with all our “affordable” health care and medical technology they still may not outlive us?
Constantly and everywhere as individuals we think we are doing one thing when we are also doing the opposite. We think we are being kind when we are actually being undermining or causing offense. We meant it as a joke and are shocked when the brunt experiences it as an act of hostility. Our conscious intentions are easily and often conscripted by an unacknowledged, un-conscious agenda which will have its way with us when it is activated and or when we have set our consciousness in opposition to it. Our unconscious will out, whether in dreams, or by acting out, or often by creating symbols which seem to contain both what we wish for: a loving, forgiving God, and what we most fear: a murderous, wrathful destructive deity – now molded together into a crucified human son of God who contains all of our ambivalence and terror and forgives us all our sins.
Or by singing haunting lullabies, or teaching our children creepy nursery rhymes.
So, imagine Charon, the ferryman guiding souls across the river Styx, leading his passengers in song as he rows:
Row row row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily merrily merrily merrily…
We sing in it a round, in sequence – groups together, one after another, one group finishing before the next, until the last group sings the last line all alone.
Life is but a dream.
Life is a but dream which we will one day wake from. We might as well go merrily.
No one gets to sleep forever, even if some of us are permitted take longer naps than others.
“Myth is society’s dream” said Joseph Campbell, talking to Bill Moyers.
We dream to allow content which is necessary but also threatening to our conscious functioning to pass into our awareness in way that are palatable.
Religion and myth and fairy tales and nursery rhymes are the dreams of cultures, generations and societies.
And we don’t often know why we are collectively doing something, or what story we have written together and taken in as truth, we just know that it how it has always been done, or that is what everyone else is doing.
It almost seems as if these images had just lived, and as if their living existence had simply been accepted without question and without reflection, as much as everyone decorates Christmas trees or hides Easter eggs without ever knowing what these customs mean. The fact is that archetypal images are so packed with meaning in themselves that people never think of asking what they really do mean. ~ C. G. Jung, Vol. 9, Part 1, paragraph 22, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
And this morning I had another thought that asserted itself in the space between dreaming and waking: That as our generational and social universe begins to buckle under extraordinary data-strain – as we tell ourselves millions and millions of stories and create hundreds of thousands of myths every day – many based in the realities of news-stories, events which begin as actual, witness-able events but which then become instantly told and retold and repackaged and re-edited and curated like a giant game of telephone (or more properly a game of internet) – we are all co-producing myths (and half-myths and incomplete myths – myths which split our ambivalences rather than contain them) at lightening speed and immeasurable volume. Collectively, culturally, societally, we are dreaming more and faster than ever before. We are in the center of a veritable hurricane of societal dreaming and myth-making. If myths are society’s dreams then humanity is in the deepest, thickest, fastest REM state is has ever been in.
And we don’t really know what we are collectively dreaming, or why, or what dream we are caught up in or how long it will last before we are plunged into reacting to the next upswelling myth or when one myth begins and another one ends. We are just moving through a flood of myths and images and symbolizations, deciding some are real and some are true and some are right or wrong, that some activate our fear and others activate our self-righteous outrage and some make us sad, and some drive us into ill-considered action, and that some are good dreams and others are nightmares.
We forget that collectively we are sleeping and that we are dreaming. And we have no idea why we hide Easter eggs to begin with or why we are rowing our boats, merrily merrily as fast as we can down the rushing rapids of partially digested incomplete, unprocessed collective myth.
We are so busy making and responding to symbolic content wrapped and plastered all over current events that we have no idea that we are producing and reacting to symbols, and we aren’t even all that curious about it.
In reality, however, he has merely discovered that up till then he has never thought about his images at all. ~ C. G. Jung, Vol. 9, Part 1, paragraph 22, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
And every once in a while, I try to unpack a symbol that I see racing past me in the flotsam, and try to pause for a moment to examine it and wonder about it – and sadly, more often than not, when I do that it is absorbed into yet another myth, a politicizing dream, a dream that says this is a stance which includes or excludes my dreaming and I object to it being examined or reframed at all. And I’m sure this same thing happens to others who become curious about all the symbolic content flying past in this not so gentle stream.
And when we wake? What, if anything at all exists underneath all of this collective dreaming and myth-making?
Then what will remain?
Merrily merrily merrily merrily, Merrily merrily merrily merrily,
Life is but a dream.
Merrily merrily merrily merrily,
Life is but a dream.
Life is but a dream.
I’ve been thinking about writing, about being a writer, about writing books, about how and why people write – the professional and psychological functions and processes of writing – and how each writer I’ve met or listened to or worked with writes for different reasons, is immersed in different processes.
Some experience themselves as servants to a sacred Oracle. Others write purely out of their daydreams with little insight or awareness of how the story is connected to their own lives and history. Some write to keep themselves alive. Others feel driven by a need to share their story with an audience. Some write for a living, even if it is a sparse living. Some write as a method of self-regulation, self-exploration, self-help. Some are driven by deep narcissistic injury. Some write to reach others, to persuade, to change the world.
Here is the story of the first book I ever produced:
In 4th grade, after seeing him lead a Shakespeare workshop for elementary school students – I fell madly in puppy love with television actor and teen idol Henry Winkler, aka “The Fonz”. I wrote long, long letters to him, about his performances, and all the wonderful heroic, kind, generous qualities I imagined he possessed. I confessed my ten year old troubles to him. I shared the solutions I’d found and how I imagined he would be proud of me when I was courageous, or protected someone weaker than myself. After about a year I collected all my heartfelt, “no one will ever understand me except YOU” letters and I stapled them between two pieces of decorated cardboard from a Lays Potato chip box. I wrote, in my very best cursive: “The Collected Winkler-Crawford Letters” on the cover.
It never once crossed my mind to attempt to mail these letters, or share them with a fan club, or to try in any way to get them in his hands.
I knew, even in fourth grade, that the imaginal audience that I was writing to served a symbolic function. I wouldn’t know what to do if I made contact with the actual subject of my devotion. When we moved a year or so later, I hid the book on the closet shelf before we left for good: just in case a girl my same age, facing similar struggles, moved in next, and needed to know that she was not alone.
For me, this is the most sacred aspect of writing: rolling up a message, stuffing it in a bottle and flinging it to the sea as an act of faith in something. As a gift to someone.
But not anyone specific.
Blogging is a way to do that regularly, with hundreds of small bottles, tossed into the sea at random intervals.
It is the actual process of releasing it – blindly casting it out and away, out of my hands, following its own trajectory and landing somewhere or landing nowhere – that feels honorable, a form of obedience.
I can’t see how it’s possible that this idiosyncratic process, this weird-ass form of prayer could ever result in something publishable. I’m not sure I feel that I actually own it, after I have released it – or that it belongs to me in anyway. I don’t understand how to have a goal, or an attachment to any specific outcome for anything I’ve ever written.
I’m not sure I could write at all if it were not an impractical, nonsensical, nearly pointless act of faith.
In Quaker process when you feel compelled to share a message, it isn’t your business to think about who the message is for, or its reception. It’s only your business to articulate the message faithfully.
Maybe it’s for everyone or only one person in ear shot. Or just for you.
Or merely to be faithful.
The outcome is not predictable or even your business.
So, in the past several months I have felt the impulse to work on a much longer, expanded message, to roll up an entire sheath of paper, and to stuff it into a very large bottle.
Or maybe it is time, again, for me to write and sort and gather many letters – and collect them into a stack,
stapled into an old potato chip box, decorated with a fancy calligraphy and leave it somewhere hidden, trusting that it will be found, or will find the person who most needs it.
One copy, one bottle, one ocean.
And if it lands somewhere and is of use to someone: fantastic.
What if I never hear of it again? If it sinks to the bottom of the sea and deteriorates into salt and sand and pulp? Or washes on to some far shore, and someone finds it and discards it? Or decides to make it of use or repurpose it in their own life in some way that I will never ever find out about?
That satisfies too – I’ll will have done it for faith’s sake alone.
As silly as that may be, for me that is enough.
The truth is , because of this, that I have a hard time considering myself “a writer.” I experience myself as a work-a-day psychotherapist who writes to keep herself afloat, to make sense of what she has absorbed, to wrest meaning out of the suffering I encounter every work day.
People tell me their secrets – confessing their sins, reaching for reparation, aspiring to live out their callings. The psychotherapeutic process is for me, a spiritual path of relationship, compassion, self-reflection, contemplation, and empathic praxis. It is also a path which has offered me a unique position to observe the ways our own stories intersect and collide with larger historical, generational and cultural myths, the ways that larger cultural trends and beliefs press upon our sense of who we are and tangle themselves up with who we should be. The tangles that tie each life to life.
My work in the office, in writing is in large part, about untangling and sorting these threads: memory, fantasy, mythology, history, spirituality, culture, archetype, community, and individuality.
I am at a quaint, dusty used-bookseller. There is a table near the front window where a mother and a young boy are having tea. I pick up a box from the floor which seems to hold some new kind of Lego construction toy: long tubes that snap together in various colors, used for sorting threads and wires and undersea cables; these pieces extend like a large net or a web around the world yet each through-line, origin and end-point of each thread can be identified easily. I am thrilled with the toy, and notice, as I show it to the woman sitting near me, that it reads: “This is not a toy. This product is intended for use by responsible adults only.”
Within the dream, I was lucid enough to recognize that I was immersed in a dream about writing, researching, and organizing a larger project – a book that tries to sort a complex and large web of interconnection – about the intersections of spirituality and psychotherapy, of agnostic faith in The Whole and about healing.
I understood this within the dream not only because I was surrounded by beautiful, delicious books with well-thumbed pages, but also because I worked with a poet for many years who struggled with dry spells. This manifested in his dreaming life as unconnected individual Lego “blocks” held in his hands, that were strangely relieving. As we accepted and worked with these blocks and just before the capacity to write returned – we knew it was coming as the poet began to dream of building complex towers, and all the pieces clicked together.
This is a psychotherapists’ brain: Dreaming of my client’s dreams and trying to make sense of the maze of through-lines that connect us all.
And knowing that we are all connected in ways we cannot easily imagine.
It is too daunting for me to say “my book” or the “book am writing” just as I dare not say I am a writer when I really have just created a peculiar method of prayer to the Unknown. Writing as a way to surrender to the Void.
But maybe I can say this: If I were to write a book, this is the book I would write: A book that explores the ways our unconscious lives impact each other – How my personal story is re-membered, changed by and changes my clients – how my client’s stories seep into my bones and mine into theirs – and how these subtle transformations spread out into the larger world. A book that tries to identify some of the universalizing unnoticed, unnamed forces that press in on us from the outside and bind us all to each other.
Every one of us.
Whether we recognize our insoluble interconnectedness or whether we don’t.
I don’t know what, if anything, I can actually construct by sorting through these tangled strings (I am cautions of the hubris of Arachne and do not wish to be turned into a spider.) Here is what I do know: I would be sure not to play with these connections frivolously – but to make it of use and to offer up whatever pieces I am able to sort out and snap together as a book, to any interested readers, to my community, my clients, and in service of my own growth. “This is not a toy. This product is intended for use by responsible adults only.”
And then I will search for a large and beautiful bottle.
And I will stand at waters edge, and I will throw it as hard and as far as I can.
Shooting with a LEICA is like a long tender kiss, like firing an automatic pistol, like an hour on the analyst’s couch. – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Maybe being an analyst is like shooting with a LEICA. Analysis has to shoot the truth, and open fire upon dearly held illusions. Love sometimes means engaging in aggressive assertive disruptive acts for the sake of the relationship, for another’s sake, for your own sake.
In session I notice that I’m pointing. The knuckles toward the ceiling, my thumb and three fingers curled under my palm, my index finger out – jabbing, poking pecking at the resistance, at the defense, at the cherished illusion that has come between my client and me. I am trying to perforate, to jab a hole in the obstacle between us, or maybe to insert a new reality into the closed off soul in front of me.
Our illusions can entrap and isolate us. We can live whole lives sidestepping the complex truths of who we are, and how we feel, and the impact we have had on others. We can construct false and comforting narratives that soothe ourselves and placate those we love. We can erect firewalls and moats. We can abscess an infection rather than tend to it. We can project distortions onto each other to avoid our own broken and fucked up bits. We can pretend that life is stable and manageable, rather than encounter the inherent insecurities of living.
And we lie.
And we can become lost in the lies that others tell us. We can spin status-quo justifying narratives. We can pretend we are okay when we aren’t. We can scream and aggress to divert from our shame and fear. We can cry and collapse instead of taking responsibility. We can shirk and ignore challenges that we should face and we can fling ourselves wildly at self-sabotaging risks. We can make problems that rightfully belong to others all about ourselves. We convince ourselves that we are the problem when it is outside of us, and we can blame others when the fault is ours. We can believe things that aren’t true, and we can convince others to join us in our false beliefs.
And sometimes all this needs to be pointed out.
Usually, it is better for this to be a gentle process. Our illusions and false beliefs exist for a reason, even the most destructive ones. Shame or dominance will only make them more entrenched. You should never strip away a defense without knowing what it is defending against, without understanding its original purpose, what might get much much worse if the security operation was not activated. Symptoms are sometimes the best available solution to an intractable illness- and to remove a mild symptom can allow a disease to cause greater harm.
So usually, the process of dissembling an illusion should be a slow, respectful cautious incremental process.
But there are times when the stakes are too high, or it has gone on way too long, when the costs are too great, and you’ve tried every subtle sensitive approach imaginable over months or years and both of you have had just about enough and its time for shit to get real. And often, it is seeing my own finger unfurled that points out this moment. The finger in front of me is ready to puncture the illusion before I have consciously registered that it is time.
Sometimes an hour on an analyst’s couch is like being shot with an automatic pistol. Sometimes looking at a stark reality in black and white is like a long tender kiss.
Love is feral. It is not always civilized, subtle or domesticated. It summons us to wild spaces and demands that we look at our most uncivilized selves, or reveal them to another.
Sometimes our defenses need to be cracked. Sometimes our illusions need to be destroyed. Sometimes old covenants need to be broken for new ones to emerge. And sometimes we do this out of love, and for love’s sake.
Sometimes the most loving gesture is also the most violent: to show someone the truth as you see it. To demand that they encounter you, or encounter themselves or the effect they are having on others.
(These are often all the same thing).
And sometimes – disappointing, upsetting, frustrating, annoying or enraging the other is really just disrupting the illusion they have created that tells them that the status quo is sustainable. Sometimes the people we love are living in a dream about who they are or who we are – and attacking this illusion is really an invitation to leave their illusion behind and join hands with you in reality. An urgent, frightening invitation.
Authenticity is a wilderness. Reality is feral and untamable.
Sometimes, being an analyst for an hour is like letting other’s take stark, unflattering black and white photographs of you and holding them up for you to examine. Sometimes being an analyst is like being shot with an automatic weapon – absorbing aggressions that you did not instill or create but that you are called upon to survive and accept as your client’s reality, as the truth of where your relationship and alliance actually stands or fails. Sometimes being an analyst is like being surrounded and filled with a warm, dizzying tenderness.
(These are often all the same thing, and all of these things can be love, even if it doesn’t feel like love at all.)
Sometimes when you feel you are being attacked you are actually being loved, wildly and more authentically than anyone has had the courage to love you before. Sometimes we need to point harsh truths out to each other for love’s sake.
And love can be an hour on an analyst’s couch facing realities that are too stark to encounter alone, that can be as terrifying as a gun shot, as tender as a kiss, as clear and focused as photograph.
You can’t shine a light in one corner with out the other three corners becoming darker.
Who said that? Jung maybe? Or some Jungian? I have no idea – but we’ll go with that… it sounds Jungian enough.
And nothing makes this clearer to me than when I am pressed into large groups of psychotherapists, social workers and psychologists. Nothing makes me want to leave my profession more than listening to other members of my profession.
And being terrified that I am hearing myself.
I am usually either lured in by the wish to hear a specific author speak on their area of expertise, or forced (grousing the entire time) by professional mandate to maintain licensure or certification.
And if I can just sit quietly and read a book, or listen to music or embroider before the presentation begins – if I can close out the chit chat, and the jockeying for status and position, if I can just ignore all the narcissistic injuries and the needs and the hungers that seem to be pouring out of all these well-scrubbed people in glasses, with their expensive sweaters and sensible shoes, if I can just get to the part where there is a teacher who is going to talk – and who might even say a lot that is useless for me- but who will hopefully leave me with one or two gems – just a single lovely, good, and useful idea, one new thought, one interesting insight into one case – I will be good. It will all be worth it. If I can just toss up my filter to screen out everyone around me except the person far away on the podium…
But sometimes I can’t. Sometimes my filter is down, or I forgot my knitting bag, or my phone battery is on 12 percent. Sometimes the presenter wants us to break into small groups, or introduce ourselves to our neighbors on either side, or worse: wants to lead us in an exercise.
Then it is inescapable and I see the marks that this profession has left on all of us, the starvation to share our perceptions, to have our work acknowledged. I hear how needy and hungry it makes all of us. How all our profound insight can leave us blinded to each other and ourselves outside of the consultation room. Used to hiding behind our professional persona we are too accustomed to our utterings being treated as the Words of the Gods and are annoyed and agitated when they are not greeted as sacred pearls of wisdom by our peers. In love with our clients, enthralled with their growth, and drunk with the fantasy that we have done something “right” to facilitate their transformation, we overshare uninteresting self-congratulatory details of our client’s therapeutic successes – like way too many baby pictures – patting ourselves loudly on the back because as private practitioners it is unlikely that anyone else will. We forget to seek out what may be actually useful or universal in the story we are telling. We forget that those around us are contending with the exact same starvation we are and may not want to feed us. At all.
Spending our days on the wrong side of our client’s projections – we cannot bear to be mis-perceived, or understood in inexact ways. Or invisible.
Heads nod. Tongues click. Brows are empathically furrowed as case material is laid out. Hands shoot up in the comments and questions portion of the presentation. Points are made. Exceptions are taken. Opinions are expressed. Expertise is demonstrated.
And disagreed with.
“In my experience…”
“But don’t you think….”
“I’ve found that when….”
“I worked with a similar population and one of the things I found to be very effective was…”
Yet somehow nothing at all is being said.
No one says:
“This work is lonely sometimes, do you find that too?”
“This client scared the shit out of me for a long time and I didn’t know what to do- I felt really lost – but then one day they started opening up, started trusting me, started feeling better and I was so relieved…”
“Sometimes I want to be an expert and I feel frustrated when my clients don’t respond to my years of professional experience and training – and then I remember that I am a broken fallible human being too – and it is so much more reliving when I quit thinking of myself as my ‘role’.”
“I don’t know what the fuck I am doing half the time – that is what intuitive work feels like – like wandering in the dark together until we stumble onto something that feels helpful – but it is hard to feel so lost so much of the time with clients who feel lost too.”
“I worry that my world view, or my methodologies are becoming outdated – in the face of new realities how much are my perspectives as a professional at mid-life or beyond really worth? I want to stay open to this world that is moving so fast, but I worry that I am falling behind…”
“I want to be seen as smart and perceptive. I want to say things that my peers and clients will value. I want my career to keep building – I’ve been feeling stuck lately, like I may have hit the top of my capacities”
“I want to appear to be healthier and more appreciative than the rest of the people in this room, so I want to personally thank you for a wonderful presentation that I’m sure spoke to every single person here.”
“What have you accomplished? Is it more than I have accomplished? Should I walk away from this brief interaction feeling superior or inadequate?”
No one says anything like this at all. But I can’t stop hearing it.
No one speaks from their own wound. It isn’t safe enough and we don’t know each other. We speak only from inside our suit of armor and the noise we emit echoes and clangs and deafens.
Our profession casts a dark and reaching shadow, one that can wreak havoc with other’s lives, often claims to accomplish more than it can and regularly appropriates the healing processes of others as our own property.
We are all so aggressively empathetic and such competitively good listeners.
But, I hope, more of us are in touch with our own woundedness when we are safe in the confines of our own workspace, in brokered relationships with clients that feel safe with us, and with whom we have earned some degree of safety for ourselves.
However we talk, or fail to talk about the work in public, in enforced mandatory community – I hope we are able to tell ourselves more humbling and humiliating truths about our work and our professions in private, and in the safe supervisory and peer relationships that we have built as way stations for ourselves on this lonely path.
And as much as I hate it when my filter is down and I am surrounded by darkeness on at least three sides: Later I will gather myself and hope that somewhere, it may mean that others are shining a very bright light in their own small corner of the universe.
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.
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