interior decoration

Today we moved office. Psychoanalysis puts a lot of stock on the embodiment, the physicality of the psychoanalytic couple — most of it, it seems to me, in negative terms. Since it privileges words and symbols so starkly, often psychoanalysis ends up cutting off avenues of expression that are non-verbal and non-symbolic, and this seems to me a shame. That any expression of feelings between analyst and patient should be “cut off” seems to me, in fact, awful. Cutting off anything in the course of analysis is bound to cause damage. Yet, it happens all the time. I think analysts should give a lot of thought to this, and work really hard at not cutting off.

The fact of the matter is, physicality is so hugely present in the therapeutic relationship — so essentially present — that it should be dealt with with great attention, care, sensitivity, and interest.

The office we just left was in an old two-story building with a nice layered personality. Apparently, the building used to be GI housing built after World War II. It was a rough building, with creaky doors, thin walls and floors, rickety A/C, rough wall surfaces, and rather nice molding around the ceiling. My therapist had painted her office blue and green and there was something endearingly homemade about it. The hardwood floor, though in good shape, was a bit scuffed; the office was small; the furniture entirely unfancy. The waiting room was so scuzzy as to be disgraceful, but the rest of the office was nice in a simple and homey way.

The new office is brand spanking new, large, and, to my really bumpkinish eyes, super fancy-looking. You can imagine really expensive furniture there and it would be entirely fitting. Two walls are covered by large widows, a couple of them floor to ceiling, so there is a ton of light and airiness. You can see the fabulous southern sky in all its summer glory: imposing cloud formations, sun, birds, airplanes.

I guess the three therapists who share the suite thought this would be their chance to gift themselves a major decorative makeover, and there is a palpable sense of quality-jump. One feels this is an office in which fees will be way higher than they were in the previous one (this may be entirely not true, but that’s the feeling). If I had walked into this office three years go, when I was therapist-shopping, I would have expected a price I could not afford then and can afford even less now. I would have sat on the edge of my chair rehearsing my exit speech, which would have gone something like this: “Look, I only came here because I’m going through the list of psychoanalysts or psychodynamically trained psychotherapists who work in this city, not to get a consultation, and since it’s obvious from the price you quoted to me that I will not work with you, I think I should leave now and not be asked to pay your full fee. If you had told me how much you charge on the phone, I would not have come at all.”

Clearly, as a patient, this raises a lot of issues. This is one: would these three therapists go back to their old office? From what my therapist told me, they would happily have stayed there forever, but one has a sense that, now, that would be such a downgrade, it would feel like returning to just-out-of-grad-school digs.

This place is professional, baby.

Look, it is entirely inevitable that such a change should cause all sorts of anxieties, and I’m sure a lot of our time together in the upcoming weeks will be spent talking about this. But let me focus now on the issue of embodiment.

The office is the therapeutic couple’s little home, the one tangible, physical object they both touch. The doors, the chairs, the couch, the lamps, the floor are intermediaries in the physical love-dance between the analyst and the patient. There is a ton of touching that goes on through them. The chair I’m sitting in now is a chair she may well be sitting in a few minutes after I leave the office. The carpet I step on with my bare feet touches her feet, too. Etc. I don’t know what other patients do, but I have touched just about everything in my analyst’s office. In the first excruciating, torturous, I-don’t-know-how-I-made-it year, I would touch the walls really slowly, with my hand fully open, feeling its texture (it had a ton of texture) on my palm and fingers, feeling its color.

I would get almost transfixed during this mesmerizing, intense, painful process of touching. I would think: “She painted this. She touched this.” I was starved for touch the way someone who is on the point of death from hunger is starved for food. I was in an agony of pain I had never experienced before and I hope to God never to experience again.

I have touched everything in my therapist’s old office. I have touched her chair (I have sat in both of her chairs for whole stretches of time till they came to feel entirely mine). I have touched the carpet (lain on it, rolled on it, felt it, got a number of rug-burns from it, too), the floor (same, burns included), the straight-backed chair, the edges of the desk, the computer, the lamps, the side-tables, the vase, the plants (lots and lots of time spent fingering leaves), the door. I have run my hand on just about every surface in the whole damn place.

I don’t know what a more traditional psychoanalyst would have done with this. A fabulous psychoanalyst I saw previously invited me to try to keep still. But I think ultimately he would have let me touch things the way my current, wonderful analyst lets me touch things. She looks at me watchfully and quietly while I touch things.  This watchfulness is a gaze of attention and love. It says, “I see what you are doing; I’m looking at you; I want to be here with you; I want to know you; I want to see you; you are wonderful.” To say that this means the world to me is very inadequate. It means life to me. It means air, water, food. It is the very matter of survival and, possibly, eventually, thriving.

So, about the new office. I love the new office. I haven’t touched everything yet but maybe I will. I don’t know how I feel about it, yet. I have just met it. But this is what troubles me. If the old office was my and my therapist’s chaperon, the physical intermediary of our love dance, the clothing of a someone you love but are not ready to make love to, so you focus on the colors and textures and shapes of their clothing and, if you are close enough, the feel, and sometimes touching a sleeve or a hem feels as intimate as kissing, well, if this is the case, and my therapist is choosing new shapes and designs for her office, where does that leave me? Was i always the subordinate even as I thought we were dancing together through these objects, and even though they are clearly hers they belonged to me, too, in some very important way?

I wonder what role the patient plays in the construction of a new office in the middle of a really intense, close, involved analysis. I have some thoughts about this. Here are the thoughts.

Ultimately, this is my therapist’s office. She is paying for it (though, honestly, I am paying a little for it, too, but that’s a complex matter, so let’s just say that she is paying for it and leave it at that), she’s got her name on it, she sees people I don’t know in it, I spend much less time in it, etc. This is point one. I think point one is a very valid point that could be belabored at length, but let’s just say that there is a very important line between me and my therapist, and this line is the line of our separateness, and the office lies on her side of this line.

At the same time, if I were a therapist, would I want to do something that is radically different with my office? Would I want to tell my patients, who know me and feel comfortable with me, hey, this is my new me, how do you like it? I don’t know. Of course, it might be very exciting for me, the therapist, to have a great new space to decorate and, in the process of decorating it, be able to reinvent myself, change style entirely, go a little bit crazy (this is very much NOT what my therapist wants to do; I’m thinking about the whole idea of redecorating a therapist’s office in general terms). But it seems to me (I may be wrong), if you are a therapist this is something you do with your own home, not with your office. The space you share with people, you keep it welcoming and universal. I am not saying bland, but bland is not very far from what I am saying.

And now I realize that I have skipped a ton of steps. I was talking about continuity, now I’m talking about a therapist’s space in general. Maybe I’m thinking of my therapist’s old office as “bland” in a tasteful, reassuring, comfortable, professional way. And I think I want it to stay that way. I don’t want the space to be telling me so much about my therapist that I feel excluded. I want the space to be open to me, to other patients who may be very different from me, to rich people, to poor people, to people with a flamboyant sensibility and people with a conservative sensibility — to signal welcome instead of a strong presence that boldly asserts THIS IS WHO I AM AND THIS IS MY OFFICE.

And I think this is all I have to say on the subject for now.