An education

by jexmas on January 2, 2011

Not long after I moved to the United States at the end of 1990, I took one class at the local community college, The College of Marin. When I filled out the application form, I was asked about high school and, since I had not graduated from high school in Australia, was required to take remedial classes in order to pass the General Educational Development test, the US high school equivalent. I took remedial math in the summer of 1993 and got an A at the end of it. Encouraged, I went on to take English literature and U.S. History and, at the end of those classes, knew more about America than I had ever known about Australia. I was 38 and slowly began to understand how so much of my life had been spent with my mind closed even though my eyes were open. I had thought I was stupid and there were too many ways in which I was.
Over the next five years, I took as many classes as I could at night at the community college and transferred to a local four-year college, Dominican University of San Rafael, where I completed my undergraduate degree in psychology. I loved Dominican University. Run by Dominican nuns, it has a very solid, well-regarded evening curriculum for adult learners. The classes were small and the teaching world-class. I was still a student at Dominican when my parents died in 1996. Although neither of them lived to see me graduate, I was glad they knew I was trying.
At that time, I was still working at an environmental consulting firm as a writer of marketing materials and, after a few years there, was offered a job by a small advertising agency in Healdsburg, California, about fifty miles from where I lived. Although it was a long commute, it was the best job I have ever had. The agency created advertising campaigns for the division of Hewlett-Packard that makes color print cartridges for inkjet printers. My job was to come up with as many projects as I could imagine making on a color printer with a very basic graphics software program. Then I had to write the instructions for how I made them.
For three years, I went to work and played all day. I made cards, napkins, iron-on T-shirt transfers, mobiles, stickers, playing cards, anything and everything. At one point, I wanted to print fold lines on colored sheets of paper to help those new to origami get the hang of the folding art more easily. I found a book of origami projects and tackled the most difficult: an elephant. After struggling through the first six steps, I was incredulous to read Step 7:
“It is helpful to open out the back edge of the pocket to create a large 3-sided pyramid, then invert point E and somehow revert the pyramid back to the 2D shape in Step 8.”
Somehow? Since when do instructions include the word “somehow?” I had an epiphany about life just at that moment. “Somehow” is the black box of how things happen in life. One sets out on a path of intention hoping for the best and somehow something happens. One cannot explain it. It just happens…somehow.
So somehow, I graduated from Dominican University summa cum laude feeling very satisfied and more confident that I was not as stupid as I had thought myself to be when I started there. With encouragement from the professors at Dominican, I decided to enroll in graduate school at the Wright Institute, a professional psychology school in Berkeley, California. Over the next five years, I completed a combined master’s and doctoral degree in clinical psychology and a pre- and post-doctoral internship at the Infant-Parent Program, a famous training site started by a remarkably sensitive woman, Selma Fraiberg, who collaborated with the University of California, San Francisco and San Francisco General Hospital. Perhaps not surprisingly, I had become very interested in the earliest relationship between mothers and babies and it was becoming a burgeoning area of research. I wrote my dissertation on this topic and titled it “What to be and how to think: a synthesis of ideas about the intergenerational transmission of psychic states.”
I graduated from The Wright Institute in 2002 and was licensed by the California Board of Psychology in 2003. I started a private practice in downtown San Francisco and worked there building my practice over the next six years until I decided to take one more step and become trained as a psychoanalyst.
More than anything else, this last training program has opened my mind and my heart in ways I did not know were possible for me. I did not know I could bear the depths of my own mind.  I did not know the fears that have gripped me for so many decades could be rendered so powerless. I did not break, although there have been times, as recently as yesterday, when I thought I might. My first analysis started when I was 28 and it saved me from psychosis. How do I know this? I remember my very first sessions with my analyst in Australia. Even making the shift from a chair to a couch was so hard for me, an act of submission. I felt ashamed, outraged, almost too vulnerable to lie down but I did it. I could so easily have walked out, but something made me stay. And it saved me.
I lay there with an ashtray on my chest, chain-smoking while we talked. Now, I am amazed he let me and I do not remember if the window was always open. Now, I hate smoking and, looking back, I feel bad for him breathing in all of my toxic smoke. But it was all so toxic anyway and he was steady and kind. Even then, it was several months into it before I began to realize these troubles I had might be about my mother and, even though it is such a stereotype, it is the truth.
By the time I went to see him, I was so anxious I could barely function. I spoke very quickly and it took me at least a couple of years to slow down to a normal rate of speech. It was almost intolerable to be alone.
Over the next few years, he helped me start to talk about my experience and begin to put my terror and profoundly overwhelming anxiety into words. The change in me allowed my mother to not be as frightened of herself and she sought psychoanalysis towards the end of her life. It gave her some relief, although I wish she had allowed herself to make use of it much earlier, particularly because her brother was a psychoanalyst. I need to be careful not to hate and generalize the reluctance of some people to take care of themselves and, as a result, deeply neglect and hurt their children, too. At the same time, this is precisely what is passed along, from one generation to the next, and I will devote the rest of my life to helping people stop this deadly transmission.
I went to see my first analyst initially three times a week and, when I could take in that it was actually helpful, added another session. Overall, he was extremely helpful but, in the end, I still did not understand love and was not able to reach into the deepest recesses of my mind, as much because I was still neither ready nor strong enough. Contrary to another popular stereotype, I did not fall in love with him and I did not ever feel loved by him. On the last day of my treatment with him, he said, “There will always be scars.”
When I told my second analyst this years later, he scoffed at the notion of there always being scars and, right then, I started to understand love. Even a psychoanalyst is only as good as the depths to which he or she is willing to go. One can understand existential terror intellectually or one can allow oneself to experience it and there is also the possibility of both. Understanding it intellectually is to distance oneself from it. Experiencing it is to take it into one’s body and feel it in one’s tissues, heartbeats, skin, shoulders, and muscles and allow oneself to deepen into a crazed mind.
My first analyst understood my pain intellectually. My second analyst, who is also my training analyst, has allowed himself to experience it, to really know what it was like for me and, together, we are finding our way to love, the kind of love every child should have the benefit of knowing. I am no longer afraid of living. And I sleep like a baby. Not the baby I was, but the baby I have finally discovered inside who feels safe, nurtured and loved.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: