A celebration

Dear G.

1. You died before the pandemic, missed it by a year, exactly. The way you were in the last few years, you would have found it exciting. But you would have found it exciting before the cancer, too, I think. You loved nothing better than an excuse to stay home, chill. Universal chilling would have been a gift for you.

2. You would not have been scared. You had a nice house in the woods and great faith in the love of God. I do too (have faith in the love of God; my house is smack dab in the city), but I am scared for all those who will die of neglect, because our country is built to safeguard the rich and the White.

3. You would have cared about others, too, but you would have found a way to help those around you, way more than I am. You would have been busy on the phone. You might even have risked your own health to make sure others had what they needed.

4. You might have taken someone in. Something tells you me you would have taken someone in. Those who are alone. Those who are scared. It was routine for you to put people up. You and I. were the most generous people.

5. You died way too soon, but I am happy you do not have to be here for the pandemic. I know I just said you would have been okay with it, even liked it, but still, it gives me peace to think of you safe and happy basking in the presence of Love.

6. I haven’t felt much of you since you died, G., I’ll be honest. I thought our conversation would continue uninterrupted but that didn’t happen. You and I, we talked so much. I know there is a plan of love for me in this, too, this silence of yours, or, rather, this deafness of mine, and this is why I carry on.

7. It feels strange to be left here. You and D. and many others, gone. Yet we talked about this, didn’t we? You said you’d help. You promised. I know you are helping me. You are not someone to break a promise — never.

8. What do you want for the anniversary of your death? I know you would like a celebration. I will celebrate for you, honey. I will have a feast here on my own, maybe get S. to join. We’ll have a cake, maybe, some cookies at least. We’ll sing. We do this a lot now. We sing together when we are happy. You would have gotten a kick out of it.

Painting by Beate Tuback, Leaf-Line.

love psychoanalysis

How not to be sad

1. Tell your therapist you love her madly.

2. Tell your husband you love him madly.

3. Tell your girlfriend you love her madly.

4. Call your mom and tell her you love her madly and forgive her absolutely for all the ways she fucked you up.

5. Call someone scared and tell them they won’t die of COVID19, then tell them again until they believe you.

6. Call someone who is going under financially or in other ways and tell them, “I am here,” and mean it because after this is over the world will be a newly communal space and we will be all there for each other and the silly things will no longer matter so you can definitely share a bowl of soup.

7. If someone’s car battery dies help them jump start it (stay at 6 ft of distance from them while you do this because no one needs to get sick while jump starting a car). If they need a car, lend them your car because this is not a time to hold on tight to a car or anything silly like that.

8. Tell your dog he/she is a good dog, such a good, good dog. Same to cat, pet rabbit, pet snake, etc.

9. Ask your friends, “What can I do for you?” and mean it because chances are they won’t need anything other than to hear you say that.

10. Forgive everyone.

11. Do your bit for a world based on decency, love, and cooperation. Do your bit to save the planet. Then, when you have done your bit, be at peace because this is literally all that is asked of you.

Art by Shepard Fairey, posted today on his Instagram, @obeygiant

love psychoanalysis

Psych drugs, moms, and transitional objects

1. There is a site called Street Rx where people anonymously post how much they paid for street drugs.

2. It’s a crowdsourced way to help people not get overcharged.

3. I am not myself a consumer of street drugs (don’t need to; I have a good psychiatrist who gives me all I need and health insurance that pays for it, a tremendous privilege I never take for granted) but it gives me a strange comfort to see which ones of my drugs have street value.

4. When I get scared, or worried, or feel that my drugs are not enough to hold me together, I go to Street Rx and see that my drugs are sought after by people who are maybe also scared and worried, and I think that if these drugs are sought after by people then they are good, helpful drugs, and they will keep me together.

5. A psychiatrist once told me that drugs are psychodynamic. I believe this deeply. All care is pyschodynamic.

6. For me, at this time, drugs are transitional objects. They are the long arm of my analyst sitting at the bedside of little scared me and giving me a glass of warm milk and a kind, kind smile.

7. After my parents separated (a brutal and violent affair) I had night anxieties. I don’t remember much. I was very young. What I remember is that I had to call my mom. I would lie in my bed a long time trying to tough it out and always caved.

8. Maybe I caved only a handful of times and those few times feel like always.

9. My mom doesn’t remember any of this.

10. I couldn’t possibly get up and go to my mom myself because I was scared of the ghost men that populated the dark, so I called and called until my mom came.

11. I remember calling a lot. I remember calling with despair. I didn’t want to call my mom. I wanted to leave her alone, let her sleep. I was worried about her. She made constantly present to us how terrible everything was for her and us, how precarious and dangerous our situation. I wanted to take care of her. I needed to take care of her so that she would take care of us.

12. But I did call, and she would come, eventually, and say, What? and I would say the only words I could find to say.

13. I can’t sleep.

14. She would go into the kitchen and make me instant chamomile tea. She would sit on my bed and cool it with her breath and give it to me in spoonfuls.

15. But she didn’t smile. She was exhausted and anguished and worried. She would say, Hurry up, drink, and I tried to hurry up.

16. That is and forever will be the tastiest hot drink in the world.

17. Much earlier, before my parents separated, I promised myself I would never show weakness in front of my mom or dad.

18. But I did, on these post-separation nights, and my mom came, and, albeit not very graciously, she took care of me.

19. I know now, and in some small part of me I knew then, that my mom had no room in her mind to empathize with her kids.

20. I know now, and in some small part of me I knew then, that she would always take care of our physical health, but would never be able to connect with our minds. Our feelings were not something she worried about. I don’t think she could conceptualize that we had feelings at all.

21. I have been reading a lot of literature written by people with troubled childhoods real or fictional and I know I’m not alone in my experience of a radically absent mother. But I have seldom seen, in literature, a mother with such profound inability to form any understanding of the fact that her kids need her more than for clothing and food.

22. The only two places, in real life or in representation, where I have seen this complete abdication of the tenderness of motherhood are the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante and the film version of Ordinary People (I have read the book but don’t remember it).

23. I scroll Street Rx and see those drugs that are the equivalent of a cup of hot milk (not chamomile tea, it’s hot milk now) my therapist is giving me while I lie scared and lonely in my bed in the dark, and see they are coveted, and think, I have this coveted thing that scared people seek. My psychiatrist has given them to me. My therapist (through my psychiatrist) is here with me and sees my pain. My therapist loves me.

24. I am not alone.

Painting by Vincent Buchinsky, via All Things Beautiful

love psychoanalysis queerness

Lesbian pain

A backlit girl in silhouette has her hands raised in a door-like opening. Beyond the opening there is a large body of water, out of focus. The larger context, which I have cropped out, suggests that the girl is about to jump into water, or use a zipline. The cropped image gives a sense of isolation, surrender, and a jump into the unknown.
Photo by Марьян Блан | @marjanblan on Unsplash, cropped by me.

1. The other day I quoted three lines from Gentleman Jack — I am sure they are pretty accurate but I am quoting by heart.

2. As always, I can’t write in full discursive paragraphs about this because my mind is tired and fragmented, so let me use again numbered paragraphs.

3. I have always known that being a lesbian made my life difficult, but this TV show, alongside painful and incremental seeing of myself as someone who had a lesbian childhood/adolescence/twenties/life in analysis, ripped a veil of not-knowing.

4. Women go to great lengths to convince themselves that “it’s nothing.” Gay women, straight women, trans women, all women.

5. Ann Cvetkovich talks about lesbian trauma (trauma qua lesbian) in An Archive of Feelings, which I read years ago (this is not a perfect digital copy but it’s free so THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH to those who put it online!). The second chapter, “Trauma and Touch: Butch-Femme Sexualities” does particularly good work at describing the kind of pain that butches, and femmes, in different ways, accrue simply in virtue of being. The kind of butch the chapter describes is very much not the kind of butch I am, though, so, even though I was really taken by this chapter, I couldn’t apply it to me.

6. Still, if you don’t know anything about lesbian pain and lesbian trauma, this is a good thing to read. It’s particularly good because it emphasizes how femmes and butches heal each other in ways that an uninformed, quick-judging eye would find dysfunctional (hint: it’s not dysfunctional if it helps).

7. My non-lesbian, lesbian-ignorant analyst has brought me here. She has created a space in which I can grieve decades of ungrieved lesbian trauma. Sometimes you need a lesbian therapist. Other times you just need a good therapist.

8. The instant the veil of not-knowing was ripped I knew everything. The parts fell into place like tetris bits. I knew and knew and knew. And I knew that this pain started pretty fucking early.

9. Parents of queer girls: don’t underestimate the suffering of teeny tiny queer girls in playgrounds, day cares, and kindergartens. The world is truly, really designed to make them feel like they don’t belong, however good the intentions of those who surround them.

10. [flashback of tiny me tantruming in my underwear because my mom wanted me to wear a skirt].

[flashback of early grade-age me approaching the director of the choir I sang in and loved days before Christmas night because he had said, “Boys wear blue pants and white tops, girls wear blue skirt and white tops” and I knew that a) I would have to miss Christmas if he didn’t allow me to wear pants and b) I would (probably) have to lie to my mom as to the reason why. People: I loved that choir. I loved it so much I was crazy about it. And I. would. have. missed. Christmas. night. mass. Small me approaches director: “Can I wear pants?” Director looks at me puzzled, waits a beat that lasts a lifetime, then, barely thinking, says, “I don’t see why not.” People: this kind of relief, you get it a handful of times in your life. I ran all the way home and jumped on all the little walls and cavorted like mad in the street because I could sing at Christmas night mass].

11. But no, no, no, these are not good examples. These things are easy for an aware parent to catch. This is what is difficult:

When your little girl’s heart is silently and inconsolably broken because the little girl she is friends with and loves passionately does not love her passionately back because she, your girl, is just too different and the games she, your girl, plays are not the games the little friend plays and yes, yes, they are friends, but the little friend is mostly friends with other girls who are more like her. And your little girl bends herself over backward to find points of commonality: she asks to do homework together, she walks her little friend home, she brings her cookies — she tries all the things. And her hopes are raised with each successful and intimate encounter, then dashed like clockwork the following hour or the following day.

Your little girl has awesome little boy friends she gets along with like a house on fire, and a beautiful little girl friend you can do absolutely nothing to convince to passionately love your girl back.

12. Sometimes the little friend is her sister.

love psychoanalysis

Gentleman Jack

Suranne Jones, playing Anne Lister, with a big, expectant smile on her face. Bright green hills blurred in the background.

I knew there were lesbians in the production team of this show at

1. Anne, to God/the skies/the ceiling: “Don’t you do this to me again.”

2. Ann: to Anne who is a million miles away, via the mirror, telepathically: “Don’t leave me.”

3. Anne: to Ann, who is holding her and looking at her with tenderness and reassurance: “Don’t hurt me.”

(This may just be historical accuracy, but that the two protagonists are both called Anne/Ann seems to me a sign of exquisite depth of understanding. Here’s one reason: the patriarchy has codified nomenclature in such a way that this never happens to heterosexual couples. Other reasons to come when democracy is in less acute meltdown and I’m less anxious and despondent about fascism in America #IowaCaucases).

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What psychoanalysis owes

1. I think it’s been 2 years with this analyst: more? Some of us have trouble finding a good fit. Psychoanalysis, the discipline, is in love with making us feel — those of us who have trouble finding a good fit — that it is our fault. Or that we should turn somewhere else. Or that we should stay untreated.

2. Of course we don’t have the luxury of staying untreated, and, really, there is no one else.

3. Whose problem are we? What if psychoanalysis* really is not for those of us whose hurt is deep and massive and goes way back — and what if really there isn’t anywhere else? Maybe we are no one’s problem except our own and, if someone loves us, theirs too.

4. Does this mean that psychoanalysis fails? Maybe not. Maybe psychoanalysis is fine with being only for some people. It already is for some people — White (very few psychoanalysts of color), affluent enough, articulate enough to talk their pain through, resilient enough to stick it out for years.

5. Maybe no one, really, owes me anything, not even my analyst, who fails me repeatedly at something very, very important to me, which she regrets, and tries very much to give me, again and again, in a feedback loop of good will, love, and hurt.

6. And why should anyone owe me anything? Why should anyone owe anyone anything?

7. But this is know: I owe it to myself, and those I love, to keep trying, with the assistance of professional healers or alone, to keep trying to salve my wounds, find a way through the madness, and maybe hope the wounds won’t hurt so much, one day.

8. Here’s a confession though. I believe in a world in which we all owe each other however much love we have to give. And this love is not a smile or courtesy. This love is easing up other people’s pain, seeing them, sharing a bit of the road with them, giving whatever respite and joy they need.

9. But the trick is, we are all responsible only for our part in this. We are not entitled to others’ love. And if we die alone, unloved by other humans, we still will be able to say, I have loved.

* This blog uses “psychoanalysis” as meaning psychodynamic psychotherapy, either applied intensely as psychoanalysis proper (however you understand it) or applied intensely or less intensively as therapy.

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having people

I am suddenly very tired of some people. Please don’t judge me poorly. I think I have exhausted myself chasing them. I feel tired.

I realize there are people in my life who can give me x, where x is way not enough and way not what I want, yet I have spent years investing a tremendous amount of energy in the pursuit of more-than-x, an intimacy, a closeness, a mutual lovingness I should have known was never going to happen.

I have done this all of my life. My husband said to me once (a long, long time ago): “When people tell you something about themselves, you should believe them.” People have told me repeatedly, often in so many words, that they can only give so much, that they don’t like too much closeness, that they need time, that…

It’s not that I don’t understand what they are saying. I simply don’t believe them.

Now I see that I could not, simply could not, follow my husband’s advice. My mind was structured in such a way that the possibility of not pursuing, at all costs, intimacy with people I like and love was simply not there. I am learning so much about psychic structures. I am learning that people can’t help themselves. I couldn’t help myself.

I think I am learning for the first time in my life not to pursue people who don’t want to be pursued. What a concept. And here’s another concept I have learned but I am having a hard time, still, putting into practice: it is of no use whatsoever to tell people that some of their behaviors are damaging to them. It is infinitely more helpful to give them as much acceptance as we have to give and hold our peace.

But sometimes this need to tell and tell again comes from that other need, the need to get close to them. You need a solid measure of self-love to hold your peace. There is no peace at all to be held without self-love.

I have despaired for years (I say years but I should say decades) over the loss of friends I never had in the first place, some of them people who had no idea I longed so much for them, and would have been astonished to learn it. Now I’m sitting quietly, finally mourning their never-to-be-changed distance from me, their being not-what-I-want. I mourn my relinquishing of them and my relinquishing of a whole way of wanting, desiring, and having people. It’s being a long and painful mourning.

Once I had a therapist who was a kindly woman but didn’t know enough about the soul and the mind of people; I saw her for many years to little gain. One day, in a moment of what felt to me great openness and vulnerability, I told her about my anguish at the prospect of losing someone. There was huge anxiety and loss in that statement. I was in great pain. My therapist memorably and lapidarily said: “We can’t lose people because we don’t own them.” I count this as one of the two or three most useless/hurtful things she ever said to me.

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obsessing with the fantasy of another

I learned this week that we don’t obsess over real people but over our fantasies of them. I learned this on myself, but I’m willing to generalize, just for the heck of it, and also because it seems right. In fact, this seems right in such a trivial way, it barely stands repeating. Yet it came as a revelation to me.

This thing is, if you had told me some time ago, when I was obsessing over someone, that I was obsessing over my fantasy of that someone, it wouldn’t have helped at all. I would have probably said, “Yeah, I bet you’re right,” then carried on with my obsession and the behaviors it dictates.

But what I learned this week goes a bit further than that. I learned that, when we obsess over someone, we have lost touch with the reality of that person. Okay, this sounds trivial too, but bear with me. Let’s say that someone obsesses over a famous person. There’s plenty of people who do that; it is so common, there are laws against acting on such an obsession. In this case, there is no real relationship between the person of your obsession and you. This is someone who is simply and solely a fantasy.

But let’s say you fall in love with someone because they are groovy and cool and lovely in all the right ways. Let’s imagine that. And then, let’s say, these people don’t pan out in quite the way you want them to. They are a little less groovy or cool or lovely, or maybe they are just as cool and groovy and lovely but they don’t have enough time for you, or you think they don’t. Maybe you want to be around them all the time but the dictates of real life don’t allow that. They have to go to work, you have to go to work. Or, let’s say, you start worrying that they don’t love you any more, or not as much as they did at the beginning, in the golden times of your relationship. You worry so much that this anguish gnaws at the delicate roots that keep your love for them anchored to the earth. They tell you over and over that they adore you, but it’s not enough. You feel bereft with loss.

This is clearly a pathological situation. In fact, chances are you entered this love relationship already in a state of extreme psychological weakness. People with a solid sense of themselves and others don’t fall into these traps.

Now what you have is a tremendous infatuation that nonetheless leaves you miserable. What you do, then, is detach yourself from the reality and attach to the fiction, the fantasy of the other person. There is a mirror person of that person in your mind who can be and is the perfection you seek. You need this person. You need this person more than you need food or sleep. So you stop eating and sleeping and work really, really hard at sustaining this fantasy. It’s tremendous work. It’s soul-killing work. It’s misery work. It is hell, really.

What happens is that, in most cases, you find that person. Magical moments do occur, and confirm to you that everything is okay. You tell yourself that you love person X, not your fantasy of person X. You tell yourself that person X is attainable. She is there for you. You can have her. You just must work really hard at keeping her. You can’t let her slip away from you.

This obsessiveness leads to separations. No one can endure interacting with someone who is in love with a fantasy of them. If they are healthy, they’ll leave. If they are not healthy, they’ll stay and you’ll kill each other. If you, the obsessed one, are prone to violence, you will become violent.

The solution is to connect to the real person. If you have the real person, you won’t need the fantasy. But some of us don’t know how to connect to real persons. Somehow, we didn’t make it to class the day the teacher explained how to go about doing that and we never got a chance to catch up. We missed that boat. We have been stuck in fantasy-land (misery-land) ever since.

When people think of psychoanalysis as obsolete or burdensome, they don’t realize that there is no other way, for people who missed the class where the teacher explained how to attach to real people, to learn it. There is no other form of therapy that can teach you that. The reason is that psychoanalysis alone offers you the chance to build inside yourself the structures that missing that class forfeited you. Only trained psychoanalysts can engage in the lattice-work of transference and counter-transference necessary for this delicate reconstruction.

Now I know many people who had horrible experiences with psychoanalysis. I also know people who had horrible experiences with friends, husbands, wives, students, fellow drivers, and dogs. Most people don’t stop seeking and constructing friendships because one or two friendships went sour. People remarry. People get new dogs.

I hope all people who never learned how to attach to real people give themselves a chance to find an excellent psychoanalyst, because there are some miseries in life which should not be endured. Being unable to attach meaningfully to others is one such misery.

Art by Carolyn Cole


serious crisis #327

My therapist and I are emerging from Serious Crisis #327. The emergence involved: one pumpkin pie; one pecan pie; one chocolate cheesecake; one large under-skin sebaceous lump; one proper cuddling session.

Cuddling is essential when you are little.

I am little.

I am about 7.

Seven is a difficult age because you know so much, you understand so much, yet you look so little. You are little, too. You need your milk warmed up for you; you need someone to make your bed; you need help organizing your book bag in the morning; you need piano lessons; you need help finding and obtaining books; you need to have your rage heard; you need to have your sorrow heard.

Today my therapist did something extremely moving. I was in the middle of saying something that was really important to me, and she was very absorbed in trying to make me understand that I had misunderstood what that something was about. I have no memory at all of what it was, but I have a distinct memory of thinking at some point during the back and forth, “Don’t fight me on this; I may be wrong, but I need to be heard.” In that instance, because she was very tuned in, my therapist stopped herself in mid-sentence, took a mental deep breath, put the breaks on the train and assumed the physical and mental stance that says, “I don’t care about winning this point, I want to hear you.” It was such a powerful moment. It was as if someone were running away away away then, suddenly, stopped, turned around, and came back to you; said, I decided not to go, I’ll stay here, I want to be with you.

I was so touched I dry-sobbed.

Then I became little. I used to be extremely little, but now I’m 7. Strangely enough, even though seven is a lot older than one, two, or three, I don’t feel any less little. I still feel pretty damn little. I love feeling this little, because I get attended to the way a seven-year-old should.

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.