love psychoanalysis

pain and terror

One learns to live with pain and sadness. I ran across someone on campus the other day; his wife has seriously advanced dementia. They married relatively recently, when she was already sick. They had been an item on and off for years (decades?), but when she got sick he did the “honorable thing” (his words) and married her. They had a few good years. Now she’s a ghost of her former self. My friend’s wife used to be an extremely prominent and fabulously brilliant scholar. I used her work in my dissertation. I was thrilled she taught at the university to which I was moving. She retired soon after I arrived. I never got to meet her pre-dementia, except in her books.

My friend, who is still a young man of 50 or so, is living this experience with the sadness and bereavement it deserves. He is also a buoyant guy, and he’s hanging in tough. I wish I could be closer to them but I don’t have the emotional and physical resources to do more than the occasional email and a good listen on the rare occasions when we run into each other. Some time ago I would have tortured myself over this inability. I’m slowly making peace with the fact that I am far from omnipotent.

In my condo association a woman has been made the official community scapegoat. This woman is someone who seems to have been born to be the designated punching bag of any community in which someone has to be sacrificed to the gods of collective rage. I like her. She’s exceptionally kind. Yet, we had some seriously difficult times in the past because she has a very loose sense of personal space and for a while would invade my life in all sorts of ways that were very painful to me. There was no malice. Need, if anything; and I have nothing, not an iota of judgment against need. But I was in a precarious space too, beset by my own needs, and it was way too much for me (it still is). It took us a few years (years!) to negotiate safe zones. We have it down now. We can be on each other’s side and know it, while respecting each other’s need for quiet and space. Honestly, it’s taken tears to get here. For months, maybe more, her constant turning up at the door drove me to despair. I’m glad, though, that I hung in there, held on to her and to me, found a way to be her friend without sacrificing my health. I feel elation at this victory. Yeah, I feel elation.

She told me the other day that she gets incessant hate mail. She told me that people turn off the garden hose while she’s using it, just for the hell of it. She told me (I was shocked) that she washed three new pairs of canvas sneakers in the common laundry room and someone threw away all the left shoes. I couldn’t believe people in this seemingly “decent” place would do such a thing. (My husband always says: when I am tempted to do something less than kind, I think of how I would behave on the last train out of Prague). I wonder if this blood-lust is simply the result of insecure domineering people’s smelling weakness. But I can be angry at these people only so much. Hatred is its own form of torture. As in the other case, the case of my very alone friend and his dying wife, I relinquish my omnipotence. I am learning.

Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, which I am teaching now, is a declaration of war. It is, in fact, a tremendously strong and vulnerable book about what it means for a radical lesbian feminist activist to get a mastectomy. The way in which she examines herself and considers the implications of illness, amputation and mortality from the point of view of someone whose ideology is an integral part of her life (Audre Lorde was an activist before she was anything else) is admirable and powerful and inspiring. Occasionally, though, there are passages that give me pause. I can’t find any of them now, so I’ll quote from memory (I may fix this some time later): If I can stare this much fear/pain in the face, there is nothing they will ever be able to do to me.

Audre Lorde is a great poet and she doesn’t take pain and terror lightly. In fact, in The Cancer Journals she exposes her pain and terror with merciless vulnerability and courage. But the fact is, there is no pain or terror the suffering of which makes us invulnerable to future injury. Or, maybe, there is no pain or terror the overcoming of which makes future pain and terror less painful and terrifying. Or, maybe, it is possible that the overcoming of some ordeals may make people very strong in the face of future ordeals, but this is true of so few people, they are statistically insignificant.

I’m sticking out for pain and terror here, because they are the substance of my life and the lives of so many. As a culture, we cultivate relentlessly the fiction of invulnerability. Even a radical Black feminist lesbian can indulge a little in this fantasy. I don’t begrudge it to her. God knows her heart and mind are big enough to contain the fantasy and still be full of depth, light, and wisdom. But me, I don’t want to. I want to leave room, in the world, for those whom pain and terror do not make stronger. They are many. We are many. Pain and terror carve the flesh of the soul and sometimes reduce people to shells and husks. These people are not losers. They are our wonderful wounded brothers. They are champions.

There is no right way to confront tragedy. There is only compassion, mutual support, interdipendence, humility. Let us never be our brothers’ and sisters’ judges. Let us never be our own judges. I am learning to relinquish omnipotence. It’s a really good thing.


touch the pain

My body has been very angry with me. It’s given me an itchy and burning fungal infection and today, Sunday, the hardest day of the week, has kept me sneezing all day long. Allergies. To everything.

This afternoon, after managing to calm down enough to sleep, I dreamed of an ancient grief so deep, my dream forced me awake like forceps clamped tight on the sides of my skull. I don’t remember, now, the single neon-bright image/thought that commanded that I regain consciousness (I remembered it for several minutes but now I only remember its lurid brightness), but I know the dream was about my mother, my sister, exclusion, infinite exclusion, being cast away, being unwanted, being forever, unappealably banished from the village yet having to live in the village, invisible, unwanted, raging, dying, going crazy, trying to keep sane, every day, every night. Years.

I felt very little.

The feeling of grief was so pure, so tremendous I didn’t know how to endure it. And then it occurred to me that, in the past two-three years, I have dealt with it by transforming it into terror, and felt happy that this was not happening now. Nothing is worse than the terror. I held on to the grief because the grief is less unendurable than the terror, and because I could.

And now I have to say that, in this last difficult week, I have lost my dog. On Tuesday she was very unruly and I could not help taking it personally, as in: the dog is revolting against me. (This has been a week in which everyone revolted against me). But today, after my nap, flooded by grief, I moved toward the dog who lay next to me and started whimpering and sobbing. It was such a naked act. I felt so ashamed and vulnerable while asking my dog for love. It’s hard to explain if you are not me. I was the child cast out of the village asking a villager to take her back. The child knows only rejection. Asking the dog for acceptance was very, very brave of the child.

The dog, who was facing away from me, turned around, stared into my eyes with her big gentle brown eyes, and started licking my face. The dog and I don’t have much of a licking relationship so it was nice. I whimpered and cried and the dog kept her eyes on my eyes and licked my face. I thought, “She’s licking the salt.” Then I thought, “She’s kissing me.” The dog and I lay face to face for a long time, and when the whimpering surged the dog would lick my face. She licked my nose, my mouth, my cheeks, and my eyes. Her tongue was dry and there was no sliminess. There was no smell. It was warm and nice. She looked into my eyes the whole time. This is my dog.

I thought, could anyone else, right now, bring me the consolation this dog is bringing? I ran through people in my mind — this person, that person — and the answer was, “No, not really.” And I don’t know why.

But I feel tremendously, tremendously grateful to and for the dog.

(Artwork by Derek Bowhammer)


michael’s suicide

A book about suicide has recently been published by Harvard UP and I feel no desire to read it. Since there is the very tiny, very remote possibility the author may chance here, I want to say, immediately, that I have nothing against him, not a thing. Well, except for the fact that his research is about

Serotonin transporter gene’s relation to psychopathology; development and empirical tests of interpersonal and cognitive theories of depression, suicidal behavior, and bulimia nervosa; understanding the antecedents and temporal parameters of suicidal crises; defining the structure of psychopathological syndromes, using taxometric and structural equation modeling techniques,

and one of the articles he coauthored (why are people in the social sciences so into co-authoring while us monkeys in the humanities write our own stuff?) is titled “Association between serotonin transporter gene polymorphism and family history of completed and attempted suicide.”

What I mean is, I have nothing against him as a professional helper because I have no way to assess how good he is at helping people, but I have a lot against a model of psychological inquiry that frames pain in such a way that it can be measured, quantified, taxonomized. Dr. Joiner, of course, is hardly the only psychologist in America who thinks about mental anguish in these terms; in fact, he is part of a large, ever-expanding tribe.

(I even understand why one would want to think about mental pain in these terms. Psychologists are in the business of alleviating pain, and if we can box pain, reduce it as it were to nuts and bolts, and find the right spanners for those very nuts and bolts, then bingo! lots and lots of people are going to feel so much better. And, after all, why not try to make it easy? Maybe it is, after all, easy. Maybe it is all a matter of nuts and bolts and spanners, and if we put our heads together and try to figure it out we’ll find the holy grail of mental solace, we’ll nail that fucker mental pain, bomb the shit of it, pulverize it out of existence, send it to kingdom come. So, see, I understand them. Sorta.)

In fact, this is not a post about Myths about Suicide, which seems to have helped at least one person (the reviewer who brought me to it). This person is a suicide survivor: her ex-boyfriend killed himself barely a year after they broke up. She lives in tremendous anguish. She thinks that the book is required reading material. She thinks the book might help save lives.

Nor is it a post about psychological approaches. I’ve been yacking simply to delay getting to the heart of what I want to say, which is this. The ex-boyfriend guy who killed himself and caused the book reviewer (and doubtless many others) untold anguish videotaped his suicide note, and this videorecording, which is posted on youtube, is such a striking human document, it’s branded itself in my mind and heart. It is a surprisingly accessible video, deemed by youtube itself appropriate for all ages; it is level-headed, dispassionate, calm, even a little humorous. It is, as I said, remarkable. I’m not going to post it here, but here’s the link to it.

In the video, Michael (following his desires, the family published his full name) describes his life as a bad movie he’s had to sit through for his 30-something years; he talks of a terrible anguish that’s dogged him from day one; he says, I don’t see why I should continue sitting here and watching this awful movie. He acknowledges he has been loved, and thanks those who loved him for making the journey a little less tormenting. He encourages viewers to imagine there might be people in their lives who feel the way he does, people we might not even imagine are in such pain, and, if we can, to make things easier for them, provide a little solace along the road.

He regrets what he’s about to do. He knows he’ll cause a lot of pain. He repeats “It’s not your fault; it’s just me.” He begs people not to feel responsible. He hopes they might not be too hurt, too angry. He says, “I know this is selfish, but this time I just have to do something for me.” He sounds like he’s had all he can take.

Michael has a good job. He has friends. He talks about his family in nice terms. There is no animosity at all in his speech.

He has prepared a letter he’s going to send out seconds before he dies to everyone who knows him. From the video, it seems clear to me that he has tailored the letters to the various recipients. He says repeatedly that he’s sorry, but he doesn’t grovel and doesn’t over-apologize. He sounds and looks extremely dignified.

He has made very detailed plans to cause as little inconvenience to people as possible. He is going to call 911 on himself a few seconds before he dies to avoid traumatizing someone who may happen upon his body. He says he could have quit his job and blown a month on a holiday before dying, but that would have deprived his family of his life insurance and he didn’t want to do that.

I could continue. I am tempted to continue. I want to relay the entirety of Michael’s speech. I want to memorize Michael’s speech. I want to spend hours on each little turn of phrase. I am completely captured by Michael, his goodbye, his death.

And now I’m stuck, I don’t know what to say. Because I have dallied with suicide too and what Michael says resonates in me with the clarity of perfect understanding. In fact, quite frankly, I admire him.

If I had seen this two, three years ago, I might have felt so disturbed by the contrast between his courage and my pusillanimity, it would have been hard to bear. But I have found help when I thought help was entirely beyond the domain of possibility, and I feel differently now. The hopeless, solid, impenetrable despair Michael describes and that characterized my (longer) life too is and will always be a thing of the past. I have seen beyond the fog curtain. I know there is another future for me. If my analyst bailed out on me today, I’d still have seen the future on the other side of the fog. At the same time, I know the chances that anyone in such depths of despair might find the good help I have found are so slim as to be almost nil. I know what my analyst did to make me see through the fog and I know that it’s a little magic, a little miraculous, a little unique.

I cannot commit myself to the view that suicides should be prevented at all cost, regardless of circumstances. Some people have nothing left in the tank. Some people need the simple mercy of being able to check out.

Because of my work I’ve been reading a lot on disability, and the mantra of the disability scholar is access/accommodation. Take in-utero genetic medicine (not something we are yet able to do) and in-utero genetic diagnostics (a blunt tool we are using somewhat recklessly). There is a ton of money that’s being spent on this stuff. Disability advocates say, “Before you spend money on preventing us from existing, why don’t you spend more money on making life easy for us so that we and those who care for us won’t have it so damn hard?”

I’m going to make the same argument for suicide. Instead of fostering an anti-suicide culture with its accoutrement of laws and punishments (see for instance all the various measures that allow medical and police authorities to detain suicidal people), why don’t we create a culture in which people in agonizing inner pain are offered genuine help?

By genuine help I don’t mean the quick or not-so-quick remedies thought up by professionals in mental health or pharmacology that aim at getting rid of the pain. Getting rid of the pain, just like getting rid of disability, inevitably comes with the semantic, rhetorical and ideological association that pain is bad. Which, in turn, brings the negative association that people in pain are bad, i.e. have something wrong with them we must at all cost fix.

Thinking of pain in the simple terms of badness, unacceptability, and correction does exactly nothing to help people in pain. It helps, instead, those who are not in pain to feel better about themselves and their anxieties with respect to the inevitable encounters with pain that lie ahead of them.

Alleviating pain is one of the most serious imperatives for any human being, but dispatching pain is very different from alleviating pain. For one, pain has value. For two, pain is simply non-dispatchable. We can hold on to the fiction that pain is dispatchable for as long as we like, but it will be to our detriment. For three, pain can only be alleviated in relationship (we need each other). For four, engaging in a pain-alleviating relationship (i.e. a relationship, period, if that relationship is worthy of its name) is one of the most rewarding enterprises a human being is afforded in this life, and refusing to engage in such relationships is impoverishing beyond measure. For five, we must, as a society, move away from a culture of fixing toward of culture of engagement.

A culture of engagement requires, among other things, a return of the mental health profession to long-term, expert, compassionate, slow, loving, giving, patient, undemanding, not-money-driven, not-result-oriented practices. If we are unwilling to give the Michaels of the world serious access to this kind of healing, we are going to have to let them die without stigma and without posthumous punishment.


being alive/being dead/being alive

i harbor a tremendous sorrow.

can it really take a lifetime to learn that one never stopped fending for one’s mother?

i don’t blame her; i don’t blame anyone. i tethered myself to her, she hung on to the tether for dear life.

she tried with my sisters, too, but they knew she had me, so they let go.

there is a tether waiting to be untied, a simple knot one can loosen in a few minutes, but it’s a knot that means “being alive” to me, at the same time as it means “being dead,” and i can’t let go of being alive through being dead.

but i am. i am letting go. i am forming new connections. different connections. see, in some sense, i have always formed the same kind of connection. this of course is an exaggeration, but the meaningful connections, the ones that drew me most strongly, that meant the most, were all tagged “being dead = being alive.” they all sought to reproduce the lifelong tether that connects my mother to me and me to her.

i owe a debt of infinite gratitude to my therapist, who lent the entirety of her soul to give me a chance at a different connection. that’s what she did.

a. she recognized my desperate need to be alive without simultaneously being dead.

b. she recognized that i couldn’t be alive without creating a life-bond with another.

c. she said, “let it be me.”

d. she held fast when i tried to draw her into the only connection i knew.

e. she didn’t push the “being alive = being alive” connection on me. she just waited for me to find it inside myself, inside her.

f. she would have waited forever.

g. she was in no hurry.

h. i writhed and screamed in terror and pain.

i. she held fast and soft, oh so soft.

j. she trusted the process, the stumbling of a desperate psyche in a very dark place, the surety with which light-seeking souls will find souls that are lit even in the darkest, most tumultuous inner weather.

l. she gave everything.

k. she is still giving everything.

m. she wants me to trust that she’ll keep on giving everything.

that i cannot do.


but this is what i see. i see a reorganization of all my relationships. a shifting of balances. new dynamics.

it’s easier with new relationships, harder with established relationships.

i have strong friends. my traveling companions are patient, solid, and soft too.

i harbor a tremendous grief. will my mother be okay? will she miss me? will she survive without me?

i speak to her on the phone. i try to keep the same rhythms we have grown used to, three times a week. but i can’t. it’s sliding to two times. she is always the one calling these days. she says, “it’s been a few days.” i think, “really? wow, time went fast.” our conversations have become shorter. i speak to her as if from a great distance, a place of terrible exhaustion.

we spoke yesterday in the morning. at night, the memory of our conversation had acquired the same quality as a dim dream memory. sometimes dreams are very vivid. this dream was dim. dull. heavy. opaque.

i harbor a terrible sorrow because i love my mom. she loves me. and yet, just like i jumped in to save her and carried her in utter aloneness (with death as my companion), now i’m loosening up the knot, one mm at a time, and i am, as i have always been, all alone. it’s our knot, my mom’s and mine, and she’s going to hang on to it for dear life, because, like i used to, she doesn’t know any other way to live.


dreaming progress

Last night I had a dream that was a hallucination. I have never had a dream like this or a hallucination this hallucinatory, so it was all pretty strange and startling for me. I woke up, as I always do, with the help of my bladder. My bladder has taken upon itself the kind task of yanking me out of difficult dreams, and for this I am thankful, even though the awakening is often much, much worse than the dream.

The hallucinatory quality of the dream (I’m calling it a dream only because I was asleep) consisted in the fact that I was entirely inside myself, emotionally and sensorily.

It was the end of humanity, the dissolution of the world and reality as we knew it, and a substantial part of my body, a significant piece of my flesh, was hurtling at faster-than-light speed through visual landscape that contained no objects but only blurry configurations of color and darkness. As I moved at this extremely fast speed I was aware of moving through worlds, physical or non-physical, that humanity had never seen or experienced. Often there were stretches of pure darkness. I was terrified. The movement was entirely outside of my control. Sometimes it stopped. When I stopped the ragged stump of my body huddled as tight as a fist, hurt and confused and scared, and waited in misery and terror for the next thing.

Someone was following me, maybe other humans, maybe non humans. I knew I had to avoid them, and the hurtling through spacial/color scapes was also a flight for survival.

Yet, once or twice, someone who was behind me and from whom I was escaping caught up with me. We were in a very dark tunnel — maybe not a physical tunnel (the whole flight was taking place as in a tunnel, and I was burrowing) — I was huddled against the dark and the earth when this someone, a woman, reached me; it was horrifying, but she immediately said something that indicated to me that she was a friend, and I felt an intense feeling of well-being. I have never felt such well-being in the midst of terror, either awake or asleep. This happened a couple of times. The well-being stemmed not from the fact that the woman who reaches me was a friend instead of a foe, but from the fact that we were close and together. Or maybe it was something else entirely. The pleasure was unbelievable in the soothing and well-being it provoked in me.

I woke up and automatically got out of bed and went to the bathroom. I was aware, even as I went the short distance between my room and the bathroom, that i might soon be overcome by intolerable terror. I called the dog to come with me, but she is not used to following me to the bathroom in the middle of the night so it took three commands to make her move. This woke up S. He said, What’s going on?  I said, Come to me. I sat on the bed with my head on S.’s shoulder and the dog on my lap. The dog knew something was wrong because she was intensely close to me. I felt very comforted by the softness and physical malleability of the dog. She fit me like a very soft object.

Ultimately I didn’t get the terror, even though, for good measure, I took .5 mg ativan. I sat huddled against S. and the dog and thought of the well-being I had felt in my terrifying dream. I also thought about what it all meant.

Yesterday morning I recounted to my therapist a dream I had the night before that woke me up (same way, bladder) and caused me to experience a panic/terror attack that was quite painful and ended up lingering all day. Since I was drained from telling the dream — the telling brought back feelings of terror and helplessness and I had to fight to get through it — I did some associating but then asked my therapist to do the associating and interpreting herself. She interpreted the dream in a way that was so far from my way of understanding dreams, it felt almost ludicrous. She saw the dream as a full-fledged metaphor of something very good that is going on in my life, and interpreted the terror I experienced afterward, upon waking up (I  felt very fearful during the dream, too) as a reaction to the therapeutic progress the dream indicated.

I find it bizarre that dreams should be interpreted not as containing independent clues that point to this or that psychic reality, but, rather, as coherent metaphors, their various elements symbolizing various elements of the fully-constructed metaphor. It seems to me that our minds don’t work like that, or, at the very least, that mine doesn’t. It seems to me that we feel, dream, and think in clues and arrows, little fragments of thoughts and feelings pointing to memories. But my therapist’s interpretation, absurd as it sounded, was also extremely positive, a narrative of progress and increase in mental health, and it did wonders in lowering my anxiety and fear over the dream.

When I was lying against S. and the dog last night I thought about my therapist’s interpretation of my previous dream and how it fit with this dream, which was also a dream of moving forward, of progress (and also of palpable, exquisite well-being). In fact, the moving forward was so radical that it involved entirely new worlds.

I think this is the first time (many first times here!) that the terror comes with a complement of genuine, delicious well-being.

This afternoon, during a long nap, I had another dream which is too convoluted to report here, but which contained this significant small element. At some point I looked through a window and saw the early childhood trauma that I cannot remember but haunts me (I don’t know if there is in fact such a trauma, but it’s hard to imagine there might not be): inside the window was a dormitory and everyone in the dormitory was being exterminated. They were my people. I survived the extermination because someone told me how. Children were in any case supposed to survive the extermination because, unlike adults, they were being hit with arrows in their fingers rather than in body parts whose injury caused death. Still, even though there were other children, I was the only one who got away. Maybe I was the only one who wasn’t pierced by an arrow at all, even in my fingers. Children were swimming in blood on the floor with their fingers pierced, but I was watching safely from the window.

Then a little child who was both my younger sister and me was suddenly there, hugging me around my waist and burying her face in my body. I held her while I watched the spectacle that unfolded inside the window. The young child contained all the pain of the early trauma and of the revived memory. It was nice that I was able to see what had happened to me and hold the child who was so hurt by the recollection.

Other things happened in this dream, most notably a sexual attack by a woman on another woman in the middle of a woman-on-woman act of prostitution, and the rescuing of the attacked woman by a fellow prostitute who had felt suspicious about the client and had hung around to make sure everything went okay. It was all set in a Western constext, and the client, although identifiably butch in the way she bore herself, had a long gown. I was both watching and being the attacked lesbian prostitute.


new office

I could not possibly imagine that the move to the new office would have been so painful. I had no idea. I think it hit me a couple of days into the week, after two  sessions. On the first day, I was genuinely excited to see the new office and I loved it.

I have used the mental image of myself in my therapist’s office as a life-saver. When things get rough, my mind goes there. I didn’t know this was happening until it couldn’t happen any more. I mean, I knew that I was thinking about seeing my therapist as something I could look forward to, something that might and would save me, but I didn’t know that the specific image of the two of us in that office was what was doing the saving.

We think in images. Maybe I do. When the image changed there was no life-saving. I kept on sinking. I kept on drowning.

This is part of what I was talking about in my previous post when I discussed the physicality of the therapist-patient relationship.

My analyst points out to me all the time things that are peculiar to me, or to people who are like me in some significant ways, so maybe the physicality of the therapist-patient relationship does not apply, or apply equally, to everyone. Maybe I’m like a child who needs props — a reassuring and reliable environment. I know I like repetition. I have always known this.

Thinking of myself with my therapist in the new office was so unfamiliar, so un-reassuring, so un-lifesaving that I didn’t bother going.

I discovered in me, I think, a child who hangs on to rooms, carpets, dolls, blankets, sheets, curtains, colors, shapes, because that’s all there is to her world.

This is a child who plummets into unfettered, unprocessed terror quite easily. Sometimes I want this child dead.


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.



FAILE, Never Enough, 2010

There are things that are just too hard to say, not because there are no words to say them, but because words are like boxes, if I give you a box and you don’t open it the thing remains unsaid. People sometimes refuse to open boxes. On other occasions, people don’t recognize boxes as such so it doesn’t occur to them to open them. Some other people don’t know they have to open the box, think the box is all there is. Or they want but can’t open the box — the box is taped too well, sealed too well, their nails are short, they don’t have an x-acto knife available, their nails are the right length but they don’t want to risk breaking them, it’s too much work, they shake the box and the content breaks, be careful with the box, open it, be careful, don’t shake it too hard, go ahead, open it, open it, please open the goddamn box.

(For more information on image, click here)



I could say weekends are little deaths but that would be a platitude and it would be false. Weekends are journeys to a place where there is nothing. This place is the land of perpetual suspension. Death brings conclusion but this place, the land of weekends, is not blessed by the possibility of conclusion. This land is the land of eternal and inescapable nothingness.

Weekends are suspended in time in a way only childhood days are. Childhood is the only time in life when time truly never passes. Weekends are a return to the timeless nothingness of awful childhood days. Of those days, I remember the doom. Also, the impotent rage. Also, the wish for death. Also, the desperate (literally — no hope) desire for a rescue I knew could not possibly come.

I invented my own rescues, of course — every child does — but my rescues were rooted in emptiness and were just as desultory as the nothingness of those unrescuable days. My rescues were fantasies of impossible things. I reveled in the impossibility in order to try to give substance and reality to my pain. If I could truly imagine a rescue and then also imagine how this rescue could or would not come, I would be able to feel sad for myself and this sadness would be better than the nothingness.  At the same time, though, I knew I had concocted the whole thing in my head and my feeling sad for myself was phony. At the end, what was real and solid was the nothingness. Acres, miles, infinitudes of nothingness. Nothingness forever. I would get a lump in my throat but the-child-who-had-renounced-tears could not cry. (I would try to cry. I tried to cry for a long time. It took me decades to feel that I was entitled to tears.) Eventually the days passed but the sense of doom never did. The sense of doom stayed on even when the days passed and life trickled (flowed?) again. I had stared hell in the face and I knew hell was real, only a thin gauze away from the normality of my days. Hell was the foundation of my life, more real than anything else in it. The nothingness was what everything else in my life rested on. The nothingness would never, ever go away.

There is no color in the land of weekend nothingness. This is a land of interminable tedium, purposelessness, absence. It’s a land with no one but me. It’s a plain of white rocks, the occasional withered or burned tree stump, a pale sun, dust. There is no temperature and there is no life. There is no air. There is no wind. There is no movement.There is no past. There is no future. The land of nothingness makes a mockery of memory.

Weekends are places of banishment, just like the nothing-days of childhood were places of banishment. Why was I banished there? What had I done? What had I done? What had I done?

Oh, but to really ask that would have been to feel sad for myself and I didn’t feel sad for myself. I had done something awful and the nothingness was where I belonged. The nothingness had been with me from the day I was born or, better, the day I was thought of in God’s mind. I was a child doomed to nothingness. The nothingness would never go away because I was essentially different from everyone and everything in the world and this difference was that I dwelled in nothingness, belonged in nothingness, and nothingness would have me forever.


think difficult

Demo, by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan.

People say things about others that, in some sense, are most accurate and true, yet also intensely relative to that person’s perception or just the fact of their presence (their simple being there, among the people they assess). I knew someone once who told me that a certain department in a certain university was ruthless and cutthroat. Later, I met someone who experienced directly the ruthlessness of that department and reported to me about it in ways that corroborated the first person’s experience. Later yet, I met two more people who ended up not getting tenure in that department but who nonetheless described it as a lovely and supportive place. And then, by a strange turn of circumstances, I made friends with quite a few members of that department and what everyone had told me about it through the years seemed perfectly accurate — that it was ruthless and cutthroat and that it was lovely and supportive — and I could see perfectly well why each of these people would describe that department the way they did, and it wasn’t confusing at all.

So now, in my mind, that department is both wonderful and cruel, and I think I would know what people would find it preponderantly cruel and what people would find it preponderantly wonderful, and why. And if someone asked me, “Do you think I’d fit well in that department?” I’d have to say, “I don’t know, it depends very much on who you are.” But if they entered the department and then told me all about its duplicity and Machiavellian nature, I’d say, “I know,” and if they told me instead how caring and interesting everyone is, I’d say the same.


This is all to say that you can sincerely and non-condescendingly sympathize with everyone when they tell you how they feel about something or someone, but you shouldn’t form an opinion on the people they are talking about before you experience them yourself.

Maybe there are serious psychological studies out there about the kind of people who become ardent Republicans and the kind of people who become ardent Democrats. In general, the choice of political allegiance and belonging seems to me to say very much about the way people relate to themselves, others, the world, and God. I wouldn’t want for a second to suggest that there is some kind of psychological determinism in place here. But one’s history and the ways one finds to negotiate one’s relationship with the world shape very much how one views the world and what one thinks works best to make the world a better, more acceptable, more orderly place.

There is certainly a very complex interaction between psychology and morality, and reducing one in terms of the other would be facile, silly, and unfair (though people do it all the time, especially now that evolutionary psychology is oh-so-popular).  I don’t claim to begin to understand the vagaries of this interaction, but I think we should all make great efforts to eschew simple explanations and always aim for the complex, the difficult, and the tentative.