A point in time

by jexmas on May 31, 2013

I am about to complete my fourth year of training to become a psychoanalyst. Next week I will take my very last didactic seminar. The classes I have taken every week on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning since September 2009 will come to an end. I will also have completed one of my three training cases (people undergoing psychoanalysis with me four times a week on the couch for two years, supervised by a senior analyst with whom I consult each week), and the two-year requirement for my own personal psychoanalysis. I will finally graduate in approximately two years with a Certificate of Psychoanalysis, after my second and third training cases have been completed. As the four years of academics draw to a close, everyone in my cohort of five people has been asked to write a paper taking stock of where each of us are in our development towards the end goal of becoming a qualified psychoanalyst. It has been an incredible journey: one of the hardest things I have ever done and, undoubtedly, the most rewarding. So this is what I wrote to try and capture something of what it has felt like:

As I draw up the threads of my life into words, they clear a path through the years of hope and wonder, sorrow and despair. The barely-there wisps of love I could bear to carry with me have stayed in the tiny little places behind the tiny little doors off the corridors in my mind. I was full of my own hating and was used to being hated, although the former was hidden under platitudes, jokes and bonhomie.

I paid for being born, just as my mother had done when she was born “a mistake,” living proof my grandmother had sex beyond the age when having sex was still seemly. When I was born, I could not know I made my mother sick with gestational diabetes, a disease she never mastered nor felt the least bit implicated in with regard to its etiology. Consequently, she never forgave my father for impregnating her or me for being born, but spent fighting and bitterly resenting her disease for the rest of her life. But she was tilting at windmills and her protest and rage at having to deal with the imposed and unasked-for limitation usually resulted in comas, more often than not deliberately arranged but not all the time. Diabetes was her shame and everything she felt but could not think about spilled out messily behind the front door of our house of cards.

“Oh, Jane,” my mother would say disapprovingly, the downward inflection pulling the corners of her mouth down with it. I had just saved her again and it became a commonplace she hated intensely: a trip to the hospital and exposure to people who saw her powerless. She loathed being powerless and was ashamed of being helped. But I could not let her die and she did not seem to want to live. It was literally impossible. My father was a pilot and a kind man, but clueless and, more often than not, in the clouds where he preferred to be. We were frozen as a family and the impasse lasted for years, decades, until my mother died in her seventies, ironically of a different disease. And even she was surprised her life had taken so long to go by.

As for me, I was frightened, ashamed of myself, guilty, in crisis, and frozen in my own way. I chain-smoked. I bit my nails. I spoke too quickly. I drank too much. Worst of all, I worked in advertising, a profession my mother hated. Everything about me was wrong and everything I did pointed to the cracks in the family veneer, even though I tried to keep it smooth and polished. It was too much for me: time was compressed and everything was urgent. I had no past and no future, only the 10-second window of the present, a window too small to feel anything over time. It was so much easier not to feel at all, for years, decades until I came to this country when I was 38 years old and was born into a new world.

So how is it that am I becoming a psychoanalyst?

For one thing, I have had to face what it means to know myself. This is ironic, since I had spent almost my entire life trying to avoid knowing myself. But with my own analyst’s encouragement, I turned around and, with my joints creaking and stretching into places I did not know they could be coaxed, looked myself in the eyes. What I have seen in my own eyes is nothing but human.

Screaming, crying, devastated, outraged human

Soft, responsive, murmuring, gentle human

Competent, calm, organized, strong human

Worried, overwhelmed, tense, tired human

Sexy, flirty, radiant, desiring human

Each of these last sentences captures something about me in small packages of four descriptors. Each sentence is neatly tied as if the contents are not messy, as if each word is the end of it.  They do say something of who I am, but not all of me, not by a long shot, and they change depending on the circumstances of my life at any point in time.

My experience of my own life makes me think of others in this field who have written so intimately and poignantly about the experience of their own lives. In particular, Allen Wheelis’ memoir, The Life and Death of My Mother, profoundly influenced how I think about myself becoming a psychoanalyst. Although I have been similarly touched by the memoirs of other analysts (for example, Marion Milner and Paul Williams), Wheelis’ book, in particular, made me realize the transformative power of speaking my emotional truth. Speaking my truth in words and having it heard by another person has given me the most deeply personal, unassailable connection to the felt experience of living my life.

Word presentations was a phrase Freud used to describe how thoughts move from unconscious to preconscious thoughts. In his research on aphasia, he concluded there are no word presentations in the unconscious mind, only thing presentations. When unconscious thing presentations can be spoken in words, they can be brought to consciousness.

This elegant explanation helped me understand how the hieroglyphs written on the ancient, earth walls of my mind, bloodied and stained from battles I fought and lost for my independence, became words released out into the world to be witnessed, heard and felt by an other. I know these hieroglyphs, and have learned to understand them in a particular way, but they are not pictographs of camels or bison or stick figures with spears. They are abstractions, the overwhelming and indescribable experiences inscribed indelibly onto the walls of my internal world, waiting to be put into words.

At some point, a very early undefined place of intense despair and loneliness and starvation, when my mother was in that place, too, but nowhere in sight, my internal world became a desolate and empty warehouse with few, if any, decipherable images on any of the walls. The walls were blank, painted over, even white-washed with denial and dissociation.

My patient tells me he becomes someone else when he goes home at night to his family. His hopelessness and defeat after years of feeling ignored, first by his wife and later his children, make him an empty warehouse, too. Decades later, he is opening the tiny little door to the tiny little space where he has kept his hope alive, nurtured with drops of tiny tears he has shed in the dark, all alone. But he is not alone. I have been there, too, and, in some way, that is the point of psychoanalysis.

This journey to become a psychoanalyst has, more than anything else, shown me how much I have tried to hide my humanity. Some dimensions of my life are easy to show with confidence: the out-in-the-world dimension, the living-only-in-the-present dimension, the not-stopping-to-register-the-world’s-touching-me dimension.

When I started stopping for long enough to scratch through the whitewash on the walls, I could let myself observe and start to understand the meaning of the ancient hieroglyphs scrawled on the walls so long ago. I was astonished at times. Is that what I am thinking? In my own analysis, I caught onto the thread of these thoughts as they become sounds, words, and let myself be carried by what I could hear, that rumble in the background always there, disquieting at times, terrifying at times, anxiety-provoking, intensely over-stimulating, exciting at times.

I did not know I knew love, not really. I thought I did but I did not know love loves to feel. And when I could let myself feel it, the walls of my empty warehouse came tumbling down. The walls become sheets of gossamer woven by spiders. They dissolved and washed away, drifting down with the melting snowflakes, released as tears and years of grief cascading, splashing, wild water flooding out into glorious sunshine.

Now, as an analyst myself, I realize I am worlds away from the facts of my patient’s life. But, at the same time, our lives are close and intimate, as close and intimate as I wanted the world to be with my mother. We feel our lives together, in the same room at the same time: the same but different. I know his hieroglyphs. I recognize the stains on the walls of his warehouse, the stick figures who mercilessly pierced his body and heart with their spears. The battles he fought and lost for his independence. He can be dependent on me only because I can be dependent on someone now, too: my analyst at least. In that way, we arrive at our place: who we were, who we are and who we will be. Human.

And how I now know I am becoming a psychoanalyst is because I have written these words, words I could not have written when I was, but can now that I am.

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