On Being Psychoanalyzed
(At the Hyatt Regency Bar During
A Conference on Family Therapy)The last night of the psychotherapists' conference, I repair to the Hyatt Regency watering hole. I have become autistic from psychodynamic overload, coupled with traces of anxiety (will I ever get out of Phoenix?), alienation (there are too many psychotherapists in the world), displacement (I need another drink), and psychotaxis depression (if I hear one more schizophrenia success story, I'll go bonkers).
Despite my burgeoning catalepsy, I attract the attention of a wiry counselor from the eastern shore of Maryland by the name of Lisa. She is a helper, another that I define as a Trench Worker. She tells of alcoholics, the wife- and child-abusers, the lonely and the depressed, all the terminal cases that she sees in the course of a week. "The trouble with this conference," she says, "is that they tell you techniques for dealing with stuck families, or wife beaters, or alcoholic, violent fathers - - - but they don't tell you how to deal with all of these in the same family: Where do you begin?"
Like most people in the helping profession, Lisa is in there trying to help. She gets a crummy salary, miserable working conditions, and terrible bosses. Every time there is a budget cut in Maryland social services, it is her department that is affected. She does what she can - - - as best she is able - - - to bring some kind of solace to the hundreds of clients in her all-too-large service area. She is a social worker because she cares about the job. Like most of her peers in the profession, she is conscientious, thoughtful, and wise beyond her years. She does some counseling on her own.
"What do you do for a living?" she asks me.
"I'm a taxidermist," I tell her.
"Really?" she says. "How interesting. Why are you attending this conference?"
"Actually I'm at the meeting next door," I tell her, "The AASA - - - the Ataxic Animal Stuffers of America. We just happen to be here at the same time as - - - what do they call your group?"
"What do you do for a living?" she asks.
"I was just joking. All that about me being a taxidermist. I'm a reporter - - - press and radio. I'm here covering your conference," I say. "I just said all that about taxidermy because I'm basically shy."
"Hm," she says. "You say you're shy. What do you mean?"
"It might have something to do with the fact that my father was a taxidermist, and my mother was into ichthyology. I was always afraid that they were going to stuff me."
"You say your father was a taxidermist?" she says.
"No, I'm just being silly. Actually my father was a lawyer who divorced my mother and married his job. And my mother divorced her children and adopted stocks and bonds."
"What makes you think you are shy?" she says.
Those therapists! They never really stop practicing their craft, do they? Do surgeons come home and cut up their children? Do plumbers come home and take the hot water heater apart? Do attorneys come home and cross-examine their wives?
"I never know what to say to people," I say, "so I just shut up."
"Can you think back to the time in your life when you first felt that way? I mean, can you shut your eyes right now and go back to where you first felt this?" Lisa is the compleat therapist, and I suppose she'd have to be fairly enthusiastic about her chosen profession to stay in it for thirty years and stay alert and alive, much less go to the trouble of psychoanalyzing me in the Fern Room of the Hyatt Regency. I can tell by her determination that she is a full time mind-worker.
"I don't have to shut my eyes," I tell her: "I already know." I haven't been on the receiving end of the Shrink Biz all these years for nothing. I tell her a few of my secrets. Lisa and I embark on a bit of Friday evening barroom Psychotherapeutic Sunday Afternoon Touch Football. She's been a "helper" for as long as I have been a "client." We both know the rules of our respective trades, and we are both good at them. This brief interchange hints at what she and I do in our outside, non-conference world, a give-and-take, leading us together into the next stage of our lives, whatever that might be.
Murray Bowen, in his wisdom, says there have been therapists around for centuries, perhaps for as long as people have been speaking with more than guttural grunts and cries. Somewhere, three thousand years ago, in Chaldea, at the edge of the Euphrates, there must have been a good, nonjudgmental, non-critical, supportive listener. In India, at the time of the birth of the Masters, there was another kind of Master, wasn't there? - - - an early Master of the Masters, not saying "No," or "What you are thinking is wrong," or "You have sinned!" but, rather, giving forth with an understanding phrase: "It may be best not to judge others or even yourself," she might have said. "The dreams," she would say: "They are hard to give up, aren't they? Harder, even, perhaps, than giving up the anger . . ."
Our seer from the past, living in a simple place, with whitewashed walls, two chairs, a bottle of wine, a table - - - perhaps even a golden bird to turn its head, to watch what is transpiring with unblinking, bright eyes. "Of course," the sage says, "Of course it hurts. It goes around, going around, again and again. You aren't sure what you have lost," she says, "that may be the pain of it."
I can see the two of them now, see them seated at the edge of the dusty square, or in the darkness at the side of the temple; along the great wall, next to the quiet stream. One listens patiently to a tale of suffering that we, as humans, seem to be capable of inflicting on ourselves, and on others. The quiet listener nods, making it easy to speak, to ease out the hurt - - - the gulf of pain, the birthing of agony. She is the midwife of a freedom - - - giving us the chance to escape what they used to call "the agenbite of inwit."
Et semel emmisum volat irrevocabile verbum. Once the words take flight into the void, they need not return. Words carry the buzzard out, the buzzard that has been pecking so viciously at the soul for so long. The wound that we think can never be healed is, slowly, despite ourselves, ameliorated. It never goes away entirely - - - but it does get turned, like a great flawed jewel. There are other angles from which we can view it, making it not so unendurable. The words pass, the pain gets pared a bit; the soul comes to feel lighter, raised out of the dark.
Murray Bowen is right. We've been talking ourselves out of the worst of agon for æons, telling secrets to the one who understands, who cares, who will not judge. The feelings we have nursed are not futile, and they certainly are not wrong - - - but they can be transcended. The yielding in itself may cause anguish. It is part of the knowledge that we are surrendering - - - but it is also the knowledge that we are surrendering to ourselves. That knowledge is magic. Painful it is, but, at the same time, magic.
A non-judgmental hearer, there to ease us out of the midnight of feelings, ease us into freedom, with our own words. It is magic. Perhaps as special as the magic they say grew from the visions of Lourdes.