Moirology

… Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skilled women to come;  let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water.
 ~ Jeremiah 9:17-18 The New Oxford Annotated Bible

Nowadays I take long walks and talk to dead people. And my favorite dreams are visitations. Sometimes just comforting glimpses, or on fortunate nights rich conversations and a visceral felt presence. Sometimes, when I’ve hit the jackpot I wake and am still surrounded by their smell.

But we don’t only mourn the dead. We must mourn everything we cherish, for all things are impermanent. We don’t get to hang onto much. And even wishes die and are reborn.

And those who cannot mourn and those refuse to will sicken and eventually break under the strain.

I am, and have always been, a moirologist, a professional mourner, a hired lamenter, a grief facilitator. Sometimes I think that is really all that psychotherapy practice actually entails – the ability to notice what is lost, and to make the sounds-  the ritualized keening and ululation – that allows others to surrender to fate, to release their grip, to accept their losses and to bury their dead along with  the hopes and expectations attached to them.

And although it made no sense to me at the time, people called me “wise” long before I was old enough to be entitled to the carry that label. Only now do I know what it means, and it is only this: I had learned, at young age how to lose things, to remember and acknowledge my losses, and to transform those losses into fertile ground to survive upon. And I did this while others around me pretended that nothing of import had happened at all.

When they called me wise all they meant was that they could sense I had survived something. Although I wandered for a while in the empty hallways of nostalgia searching for lost a time and a place that could never return, I had given up the futile search and chosen life. I had surrendered all false hopes and come to a new land seeking  love and faith and sustenance.

In my adolescence and young adulthood I had to learn these lessons over again in the realm of romantic love, but it didn’t take me too long, with some therapeutic instruction,  to learn that ritual lament and find my way across the gulf of grief for lost love.

And my years and years of psychotherapy, as client and as a therapist have shown me that mourning is a skill that must be nurtured and developed. And that those who have learned how to grieve are the ones who are able to survive,  and love,  and appreciate the extraordinary and delicate beauty of Life.  And I remind myself of this as I support my children in facing down their own losses, rather than attempt to shield them from grief.

Only the professional singers of the funeral dirge are truly wise.
~ The New Oxford Annotated Bible: annotation Jeremiah 9.10–26

People seek out psychotherapy for every kind of loss and fear of loss imaginable. Job loss, lost love, lost opportunity. Lost hopes. Lost relationships. Lost childhoods. Loss of innocence. The loss of who we might have been. The loss of who we wish that others might be for us. The loss of the parent we needed but never had. The loss of potentialities that never came to pass. Lost youth. Loss of faith. Lost bearings. Lost motivation. Lost joy in living. Lost investments. Loss of limb and health. The loss of life. Lost friendships. Lost attachments and lost happiness. Lost trust. Lost time. Lost memories. Loss of respect and self-respect. Loss of reputation. Loss of safety and security. Loss of control and temper. Identity and soul loss. Lost freedom. Lost autonomy.

And the losses of essential privation – the things we yearn for and never ever have enough to even lose them.

And above all: what psychoanalyst Charles Brenner calls the “greatest calamities”:  the loss of the object of our attachment and loss of that object’s love.
Mourning is commonly the reaction to the loss of a beloved person or an abstraction taking the place of the person, such as fatherland, freedom, an ideal and so on.
~ S. Freud, On Mourning and Melancholia

We fear such losses. And we resist the loss itself. And once all is lost we then resist accepting our losses.  And there are so many scenarios where the only choice in front of us is between  losing something and the loss of something else.

All our  “frantic attempts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” are in service of one thing: trying to avoid or forestall mourning. If we can’t  grieve, we can’t accept and we can’t release. A refusal to mourn is a refusal to accept the reality of impermanence, injustice, violence and mortality.  If we don’t mourn we will abandon what is real to preserve a comforting illusion, a very expensive one, an illusion that may cost us everything.

I resist too. I cling to my illusion. Such resistances are part of the process. We pretend we are fine. Or that it never mattered. We summon our aggression and ride on our agitation or just feel some judgmental contempt for our utter powerlessness in the face of it all. Sometimes we are just so tired of having to be sad, again or at all and we just would rather not thank you very much.

My therapist was particularly skilled at cracking through my crusty resistances to mourning with a simple technique I have come to call “the boo-boo face intervention.”  I’d be talking about something completely normal for god’s sake, some story or recounting some event that really wasn’t the thing that bothered me one bit because… why was he making that face? Why did he look so sad all of a sudden? His brow furrowed, his lower lip in a slight pout, a grimace of pain in his eyes…  Sometimes he would close his eyes and his breathing would change and I could see him contending with some vicarious hurt.   I would look at the sorrow in his face and see that he was embodying the loss that I could not yet acknowledge, he was not sorry for me, he held my sorrow for me, until the pain of it reflected in his face, and then back to me, and a hot rush of tears raced up through my throat and the pain sounds were now coming out of me and I was the one grieving.

He was my designated mourner.

Mourning allows us to have compassion for ourselves. It is a way of being tender to ourselves in our defeat. Mourning is pain which we are allowed to accept as an understandable and  justifiable response to real events.  We don’t blame ourselves for sorrows which we have defined as mourning. Mourning allows us to see our  sorrows and losses as natural, expectable.

It is also most remarkable that it never occurs to us to consider mourning as a pathological condition and present it to the doctor for treatment, despite the fact that it produces severe deviations from normal behaviour. We rely on it being overcome after a certain period of time, and consider interfering with it to be pointless, or even damaging.
~ S. Freud, On Mourning and Melancholia

We can more easily allow waves of sorrow and pain to move through us – without castigating ourselves as  weak or sick –   because it is natural to mourn. If we are terrorized by mourning, or if we reject the flood of grief we will find our ability to love withers as if in a drought. If we are so afraid of loss and its processes, we will love  life  –  and each other – less,  in a sorry attempt to protect ourselves from inevitable, ubiquitous, loss.

If we hold ourselves out of grief, we will also deprive ourselves of the  opportunity to engage in actions which honor what we have lost and allow us to live meaning-filled lives.

Avoiding loss begets loss.
There is no way out without being a loser. The only way out is through.

And although my mastery of the the  boo-boo face lamentation ritual has never reached the skill level of my dear mentor’s  – I can rarely help a client cry with just a glance – I have found my own funeral songs and spells that I  begin when I am the first professional mourner on the scene of an unmourned loss. That is what we do, a great deal of the time, those of us who have therapy offices –  we are the ones who initiate the dirge.

In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing;  in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord.
~  Amos 5:16-17 The New Oxford Annotated Bible

We ululate.

We begin the mourning process so that others can join in with the sound of  keening.  So they do not need to be frightened by the sound of their own sorrow alone, their own voice crying out.

We lead the way in, and know the dirge and the ritual and the dance.
We know how the waves rise and fall. We set the pitch and tone of the mourning cry.

We know that the flood of tears fertilizes our lives.

We know how it begins:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
~ Matthew 5:4 New Oxford Annotated Bible:


Address

In psychotherapy no subject is off limits.

We need to be reminded of that sometimes.

Some clients (and some therapists) have been taught medical models of psychotherapeutic care that suggest therapy clients should be focusing on “personal problems” and not “politics.” That talking about their place in the larger world is psychotherapeutic “resistance.”

Well, sometimes it is but sometimes over-focusing on individual problems is the resistance.

I’ve had clients who have talked about nothing other than the latest headline in the Daily News, for years. And clients who are so insulated or overwhelmed that they make no reference whatsoever to 3,000 people dying a mile from their home on September 11th, or a hurricane that floods and incapacitates the very city they live in.

Some are too porous, unable to insulate themselves, buffeted by every news flash, every Op Ed. Some have lost, or never had, the ability to discern between what is their business, their next necessary step, their ultimate work in the world and what lies beyond them, what is a fruitless or even destructive diversion.

Others live as if the larger community has no impact upon them, as if they have no civic or collective responsibilities of any kind.

We all live, embedded, in a particular personal, relational, familial, local, national, international community.

REBECCA: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her
minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.

GEORGE: What’s funny about that?


REBECCA: But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God–that’s what it said on the envelope.           

~ Thorton Wilder, Our Town, Act 1

We are fragile pack animals living in a particular time, in a particular place, at a particular point – embedded most certainly in the March of History and maybe also in the Mind of God.

Our personal patterns of denial, anxiety, despair, action and paralysis can affect the course of history as surely as historical forces shape and build, contort, lift up, oppress or destroy our lives

My grandmother-in-law told us a story over and over (retold here with my husband’s permission) about how she had learned of the concentration camps from a refugee who had escaped the camps by some miracle, to whom she had offered a meal as he fled, passing through her small town in Hungary.  Her assimilated Jewish husband and family didn’t believe her when she told them about what was coming their way. “You are being hysterical. It would never happen here. The Archbishop dines in our home!”

She wanted to flee. No one would listen. She was a canary in a coalmine, smelling the lethal gas long before the others who were focused on the problems and pleasures of everyday living. She could feel the vibration of the giant, pounding, destructive footsteps of a world historical event as it lurched toward her, soon to load her onto a cattle car annihilating her husband, her siblings, her nieces and nephews.

Her primal fear mounted, hysterical or valid, she couldn’t be certain, culminating in a choice between horrors: Two cyanide pills placed on the table. One for herself, one for her thirteen year old daughter.

“When they come they will put us in a terrible place, we will starve, we will be tortured. They may separate us. We will suffer. We will almost surely be killed. Or, we can take these pills now, together, and die peacefully. What do you choose?”

Our lives shape all of history and history shapes our whole lives.

But in each moment, all any of us can do is to assess, for ourselves: Are my fears founded? Are they over-reactive? Is this a cloying worry or a healthy fear? All any of us can do is to question ourselves: Am I too impervious? Am I in denial? Am I ignoring the signs and signals? Will I be on the wrong side of history? Or is this background noise that has nothing to do with me, that would be pointless to get caught up in?

Her daughter chose life. And they stayed together and survived the horrors of two deadly concentration camps – but the horror never left them. It shaped them forever, and their family and my family.

So: Sometimes I will explicitly ask clients how historical/political events are impacting them. I am certainly asking these questions now, at this point in time, in this particular moment in history.

Clients whose identities are marginalized or oppressed don’t assume I am safe to talk to unless I actively invite the content in. Other clients may simply not know that it’s considered legitimate for them to examine their place, their responses and responsibilities inside these events. Some need to be gently nudged awake or even shaken. Some need to be soothed. Some have constructed denial bubbles to insulate themselves but I can feel the anxiety churning underneath. A few know exactly how they are effected, monitoring their tendency to flood or to shut down or both – and actively work to stay calibrated and grounded. The activists I see are exhausted, absorbing so much vicarious and community based trauma they need extra permission to pace themselves. Some struggle so intensely with the pulls of their own internal conflicts – that there is scant energy left to take note of world events swirling around them.

The place where your identity makes contact with your community, your nation, and the historical moment is you too, and is absolutely as legitimate to discuss in psychotherapy as an argument with your partner or conflicts from childhood.

We can suppose we are insulated. But we aren’t really. It’s an illusion. We live in community. Our communities affect us like the water we drink, the air we breathe.

Almost everyone is feeling of powerless, worried, afraid of the deep polarizations taking place all around. Many are in active conflict, debate, estrangement with family and friends. Some feel that they are asphyxiating in avoidant silence. Some have drawn battle lines. Almost everyone expresses feeling simultaneously activated, and concerned that any action they may take will be impotent or destructive to themselves or others.

This tension of this particular place in time and history is a real psychological force that needs to be tended to and observed. We don’t know whether the tension will dissipate or constellate, and we don’t know how our choices will affect the outcome or how the outcomes will affect us.

Psychotherapy, at its best must make space for all of this too.

But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.

 

Death Notices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is always an aftermath.

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

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

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

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

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

I hear these sorrows and traumas too.

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

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

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

To be caught in their wake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortly after my son came home I had this dream:

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

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

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

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

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

And we are all unquestionably of eternal consequence.

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

In Conflict

Anger (v) c.1200, “to irritate, annoy, provoke,” from Old Norse angra “to grieve, vex, distress; to be vexed at, take offense with,” from Proto-Germanic *angus (cf. Old English enge “narrow, painful,” Middle Dutch enghe, Gothic aggwus “narrow”), from PIE root *angh- “tight, painfully constricted, painful” (cf. Sanskrit amhu- “narrow,” amhah “anguish;” Armenian anjuk “narrow;” Lithuanian ankstas “narrow;” Greek ankhein “to squeeze,” ankhone “a strangling;” Latin angere “to throttle, torment;” Old Irish cum-ang “straitness, want”). In Middle English, also of physical pain. Meaning “excite to wrath, make angry” is from late 14c.  ~  ( http://www.etymonline.com)

So someone is always angry at me about something. At least one person a day, often more than that.

Often enough with good, fair reason and because of something I have done or not done, said or not said. I am running late. I push when I should have held back, or held back when more was needed from me.  I can make my own errors, stumble about, bang into a painful bruise. Sometimes I am clumsy, slow, frustratingly thick-headed. Or lost in my own projections, operating on an erroneous assumption, or stuck in my own subjectivity.

Sometimes people are angry because they have been sold a bill of goods, hopefully not by me, although I am probably also a participant, that psychotherapy can offer them a cure, some relief, when the truth is less certain. Sometimes it can and sometimes it can’t.

People get angry that I don’t have the magical powers to take their pain, their confusion, their ambivalence, to heal the wound away.

Some become angry that I don’t just know. Right away, instantly, what is needed and how to provide it. Sometimes people become angry because they have told me what they want from me, and they believe that I am withholding, refusing to cough it up.

Some want to control, extract, command that I fill their need to their exact specifications and are enraged at the dereliction of my professional duties when that need remains thwarted, unfulfilled, exposed, empty when I can’t. Or won’t.

Some become smaller, exceedingly polite, self-diminshing in order to metabolize the anger that a mis-attuned moment has activated. And then I have to drag  it out of them:

“I wonder if something I said made you feel angry?”

“No. I am not angry….”

“Well, something shifted in our conversation and it seems like maybe I said something that hurt? Maybe anger is a strong word for you? How about annoyed?”

“Well, okay. Yes. Maybe I was a little annoyed”

Some become angry because I can see the pathway in, I have gazed at a vulnerable and naked space in them – and they want to cast me out and drive me away. Some are secretly terrified that I will go and their anger helps them organize a pre-emptive strike. Sometimes anger helps people self-regulate, manage their dependency, separate.

Sometimes the anger that emerges in session, or is directed toward me is obviously displaced, patently unfair. A lashing out. And still, somehow, it is almost always understandable to me when I can hold, or uncover the subjective context that it is embedded in.

Usually I am a participant. I bear at least some responsibility. At the very least I lit the fuse, even if I didn’t build the bomb.

Sometimes the client is angry or disappointed that I have my own wound. And they have found the very spot where my needs, my history, my trauma, my vulnerability lives and they want something from me in the exact pocket of my psyche where I have nothing to give at all.

Some attack or express contempt for my core values, my stance, my beliefs, my sense of what is right. Some reject the models of psychotherapy I have embraced, the patch of ground I stand my professional identity upon.

And of course, I get angry too.

I breathe and do my best to stay cool. I contemplate the tightness in my chest: What am I responding to? Where do I feel strangled, offended, tormented, grieved, distressed? What needs to be opened up between us in order to be released from this constriction? Where has our relationship grown too narrow?

If I am caught off-guard, or feel too reactive, too agitated, I  may ask to table the discussion until I can think with a cooler head. But the arrival of anger must never be ignored or forgotten. It is a sacred signal and attention must be paid. We must return to it, examine it, discover its gifts and lessons once our nervous system and our heart-rates have settled.

Anger and aggression have important, constructive functions too: to establish boundaries, to protect privacy and autonomy, to fight for justice, to correct imbalances, to guard vulnerability, to take risks, to hunt for prey, to compete for resources, nurturance and provisions, to challenge and surpass ourselves.

And sometimes to forcibly remove obstacles to intimacy and wholeness.

In relationships, anger points our attention toward the tight, narrow, constricted, strangled, tormented, wanting aspects of ourselves and others so we can broaden and console our hearts, release our fears, open wide our souls.

As frightened as we are of it, anger is a sacred energy – and a central one in the psychotherapeutic process.

I don’t ever intentionally provoke a client’s anger, but I am not fearful of it.  I don’t avoid conflict, because I know the gifts that it can bestow.

I try to inform every new client that comes into my office that anger has a place in our work:

“There will be times when I  disappoint, disturb or upset you. I won’t have done it on purpose, although it might feel like I have. Sometimes you may not notice it while you are in session – as most of us are taught to be agreeable and polite and avoid talking about such things – but it may strike you after you leave – on the subway ride home or even the next day. You may notice something sticking in your head, something I said or didn’t say that struck you the wrong way, that feels off, or annoying, or wrong. You may think to yourself  ‘Why the hell would she say or do that?’  If you notice any feelings or thoughts like that it will be extremely valuable and important, if you can, to bring that back in to our next session, or even to jot down a quick note so it doesn’t get lost in the weeks events- so that we can remember to talk about it. It may be hard and uncomfortable, but its really valuable  – and its an essential part of how therapy works.

It helps me to understand you as precisely as possible, to be a better therapist for you. You may point out things that I haven’t recognized or considered- or that I had a different perception of. Sometimes you may be distressed by some real limitation or blindspot I have, or even some core value that I hold that you disagree with. That is okay too. I can’t promise that I can always change or stop it whatever has been upsetting, but I can promise that I will always do my best to examine my part of any divergence that  comes between us and I will absolutely care about how it makes you feel. And if we can talk about it frankly, it may give us a chance to find a new way through, a new solution, a new space.”

It seems that whenever I have neglected to invite anger to enter into the process as a welcome guest, conflict barges in unannounced and unexpectedly, harming the therapeutic relationship – sometimes irreparably. Anger and conflict are experienced then, as definitive proof that something is wrong in the therapy, rather than as a vital component, a therapeutic mechanism of healing and connection.

Or, the relationship proceeds walking only the most avoidant and  domesticated paths, making the woods and the wilds of our innate aggressive impulses appear more terrifying, a place too dangerous to ever venture.

Conflict is part of the therapeutic process, not a failure of it. And part of this job is to initiate people into the generative, creative, and intimate uses of anger, and to learn how to move through the angry states in our psyche and our relationships in order to live, to love courageously, fearlessly, and honestly.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. ~ (Standard King James Version Genesis Chapter 32: 24-26)

Even when seems to have knocked us out of joint, conflict can bring blessings. Owning our anger explicitly, consciously, and constructively makes us more whole, and less afraid of ourselves.

And other times my job is just to survive it, withstand it, not be destroyed by it, and not let my love or my empathy be destroyed by it. To continue to have compassion for the distress that is present in front of me, to take all the responsibility I can for my part, and to understand that the rest is not about me at all.

If I can. I can’t always.

And sometimes even that is not enough.

It does neither of us any good for me to merely withstand abusive energies. Limits must be set. There are things I can’t accommodate. Angers I cannot absorb. It is my responsibility in those moments to set limits, protecting us both. I cannot let a client who needs me, harm me or compromise my integrity or we are both lost.

Anger is at once an energy which destroys and derails, and one which creates, strengthens, and fuses and purifies, through its refiners fire and alchemical heat.

Part of my job, as I see it, is to initiate clients into the constructive, transformative, generative uses and processes of anger.

Any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy ~ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109a.27)

If we can manage to wrestle through conflict squarely and bravely together – operating in good faith – or setting limits when anger has temporarily washed good faith away – certainly it is not difficult to see how to carry those processes out into the world, into other relationships.

The word wrestle, derives from “wrest” from the Old Norse, meaning “to bend” and the healing forms of anger make way, when we have listened to each other deeply, for us to release our tormented tightness and constriction, and discover how to bend toward each other.

What is external occurs internally as well, so our well negotiated conflict also becomes model, a mirror to help us sort through purely internal arguments between conflicted self-states.

It is exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings with equal rights, each of whom gives the other credit for a valid argument, and considers it worthwhile to modify the conflicting standpoints by means of thorough comparison and discussion or else to distinguish them clearly from one another.  ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.

How else will we change each other? How else will be transformed?

If we avoid what we fear in ourselves, and in each other – what will be possibly be able to learn about ourselves?

The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites. The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living third thing… A movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation. ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.

But first we must embrace the wrestling match.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hard Times


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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as all human beings do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things get heavy sometimes. Its just a fact.

Sorrow has its season.

Even for psychotherapists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is What Happened

Someone asked me to write this. Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess the answer is yes.

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