Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Barbara's Dead Relatives

"Oh yeah," she said, "it was at my father's house, and it was either Christmas or Thanksgiving. I came home and my father told me he'd invited some relatives over. I was a kid; well, in my teens. I said, 'Why didn't you tell me!' and he said, 'Well, I've got some turkey breast in the refrigerator.' I looked and of course there was maybe enough for three small portions, and no side dishes. 'Do you have any cranberries? Do you have any sweet potatoes? Do you have any stuffing? Do you have anything?' And they were starting to come in, Uncle Bill, Aunt Jean, Uncle Charles, Aunt Mary who he didn't tell me had died until after the funeral. I looked through all the cupboards and of course there was practically nothing, except for some pancake mix. I sent my brother Bob out to get some oranges and apples, whatever he could find. I decided to make the pancakes, and my brothers said it'd be fine, don't worry. I asked my dad and my brothers for some help but of course nobody did anything. I remember at some point I went out in the backyard, in the dark. It was snowing. I stood there in the snow and I knew, no matter how hard I tried, no matter what I did, it was never enough. "
She paused and I knew she was in the backyard in the dark, standing in the silence as the trees at yard's edge creaked and shredded, but right there, where she stood rooted by the impossibility of what she had to do, it was motionless except for the calm cold fingers of snow gently touching her mouth, her cheeks, her eyes. The seconds ticked on and she had to go back inside where her relatives waited for her to bring Thanksgiving.
She didn't ever save the day, save her family, save herself. Her brother never came back with the oranges. Her family was in the other room, being family, while she tried desperately to make a meal out of what might as well have been stones and mud and rags on a broken plate.
So that was the dream, but there was another part to the family that the dream came from. Barbara remembered her cousin saying to her, the last time they saw Aunt Jean before she died, "She always says,'Isn't this....'," and now, in the session, Barbara paused for a long time. "I can't remember."
I, sitting with her in her place and time, heard her aunt, imagined the intonation and knew the aunt meant exactly and undramatically what she said; "nice?" I said. "Yeah, that's it," Barbara said. "I'm glad you remembered," and she laughed, because of course I'd met her ten years later.
The elements of the dream supply the answer. Here were the dead relatives, brought back for a family holiday, and one of them knows exactly what Barbara needs to know: that one pancake apiece is plenty when the family's together. This isn't ignoring the great throbbing clashing crucible of the family. We know how blind and hurtful family often is. But Aunt Jean's voice, so much background noise when you're thirteen or twenty-five, says something about the glue, the caring, the banality of love, that is the family equivalent of grace: No matter how hard I try, it's always enough.
Barbara doesn't need to ponder over the meaning of "no matter how hard I try, it's never enough"; it's sewn into her clothes, it drips into her coffee, flavors even the best dark chocolate. But, "isn't this nice?" Her homework assignment is to sit for five minutes, when she's alone, with Uncle Bill, Aunt Jean, Aunt Mary; that is a marathon of stillness that will take time to emerge from the dream and into smudgery life.
This is a form of dream therapy that has several assumptions: (1) A cardinal attitude or issue may appear in the dream (no matter how hard I try it's never enough) and a key to an answer (that is, a way to move from inside to outside that attitude) will also appear. A cardinal issue is one that weaves its way across disparate situations and across decades in different guises, more often than not reflecting a basic life stance or attitude toward self reified by life events, either through repetition (the great stamping and shaping machine of the family reminding everyone who they are by the end of breakfast) or by trauma. Somewhere in the dimensions of the dream will be a key to changing the degree of crippling done by the cardinal issue. Safety, love and power are broad generalities of healing elements, the personal keys to which can be found more often than not in the dream. (2) the entire world of the dream is contained in a person, and the person's therapy is often to achieve modulated access to the elements (unmodulated access can be destructive in ways I will not here enumerate, although at the right time unmodulated access can provide a transformative experience); part of the therapist's role is to make achieving that access safe and gradual; repetition and overlearning are part of the process of the dreamer making the introjected therapist into a quality of thought to be kept; (3) this therapy is unlikely to stick if it is taught quickly, as a technique; the dream is full of introjects, and the introject of the therapist needs to join them in that vast universe under the skull.
Two examples: using the revivification technique of putting oneself into a world with every sense, close your eyes and find yourself on the wet deck of a large wooden ship, at night, with lights of the wheelhouse showing through the rain and sea foam. The waves are high, and the deck rises and falls with the waves, and the wind blows hard against your skin, and you hear the calls of the others across the deck. You hang onto the rail and look at the mast rising into the darkness, and as you see the mast and hear the flapping of sails, you can see, as from above, the large ship with you small on the deck, and pulling back, the ship plunging among the huge waves of the sea, and further, the sea, an enormous roiling darkness lit by lightning strikes, with the ship small on its vastness; further yet, one can see the far outline of an island in the dark, and if one comes back down toward the sea, one can go past the straining ship and the blowing rain into the sea itself, past the outlines of fish down and down into what seems bottomless, going on and on until one feels rather than sees that bottom, and is thankful for the safety of the process that keeps the enormous pressures of the deep from imploding one into none. The deep vents, formed before life itself, give heat and place to the unimaginable creatures of the dark. And now, coming away and up, up, up through the waters, past the vastness, into the air, and up until one can again see the tiny dot of the ship, the far edge of land lit by the first light of the sun coming blindingly around the curve of the earth, and all of this, earth, sea and ship, are in your skull, the whole world that contains you you contain. Oraborus.
For the other example, a recovering alcoholic with several years since her last drink, a social worker who has both given and been in many treatments of many kinds and has added them up to a helpful, funny, eyes-open forty-something divorced woman, interested in many things, sociable, living alone. Her dream brings her back to the Bronx, long-since left. She's in an emergency room, holding an unconscious girl of 7 or 8, who's been shot in the head, and there's lots of blood and the e.r. is so busy that the docs can't get to her. She's been triaged into "soon." It's hopeless. My patient was in a laundramat and heard the shooting outside, between gang members, and the girl was a casualty because she was playing on a street that also played out power and rage. The crucial situation: helplessly holding a girl beyond recovery, braindead, although the heart was still beating. Each word matters: helplessly. holding. a girl. beyond recovery. braindead. the heart. beating. Briefly, this is what she did in the first session and then over the next few months: She closed her eyes and sat in the noise of the e.r., holding the girl, and the dream's camera moved in on the wound of the skull and into the skull, into the brain, through the trail of the bullet, to the smashed-up bullet itself. And then, using the power of the dream we (me talking her through it, she inside her closed eyes doing it) reversed time and the bullet pulled back through the brain, leaving the pre-traumatized brain behind it, until she was holding a bloody unconscious little girl (why not dressed up in braids and sweetness? Come on. If you move more than one step beyond the patient you get left behind as they leave.), a step from braindead to bashed out of awareness. She took her home in a taxi, put her to bed, had a nurse come every day, sat with her, and this was the homework, every day for no less than 5 and no more than 15 minutes, sat with her, and told me about it every week as a small part of her sessions, until the girl was awake, aware, and continued to have her there until the girl trusted her, and was better, ready to return to school and family.
There are a zillion things wrong with this therapy. But this is what I remember: the woman I saw once who didn't come back and then a few months later had the thoughtfulness to write me and say she couldn't afford the therapy (and in that clinical group I couldn't modify its price), but that she'd used what we'd talked about, and things were better, she felt better, she lived differently. And the woman holding the little girl, who thanked me when we ended therapy after two years, and when she heard I was leaving town stopped in to tell me how much her therapy had helped her.
Persuasion and healing. Much of therapy is the persuasion that change is possible, that what was, was, and is not. That one's life moves only into the future and does not need to be the shadow while the glaring light of the past blares on. That child needed to have the bullet removed, she needed to be conscious, because the person who walked into my office was alive, and awake, and stunned into her limitations. She needed to awaken from being awake.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Twenty-five years ago I edited a print journal called The Journal of Rambling Speculation. It was pretty much completely a psychology journal by a post-internship all-but-dissertation ex-English major adding in the vivid experience of a beginning career. Around 1988 one particular psychological crash ended the journal for twenty odd years, the oddness filled with an increasingly busy professional life and my usual extremes of heaven, hell, abysmal ignorance and a sense of connection with the universe, or something, in my personal life. For the last ten years I have wanted to resuscitate the corpse, the corpse, in part, being me. But I've been too busy. Other stuff. Laziness. Now, thanks to my wife, who moves me past my quill pen technology, I'm planning on doing this, slapdash, not being as careful as I'd like, putting things down that I know that I'll later wish I'd revised first. If you're interested and ever want to comment, that'd be great, but I'm pretty sure I'd do this if I were the last person on earth. In fact, I'd be more likely to do this if I were the last person on earth. I have strong impulses, but I have an even stronger brake. My ultimate, catastrophic psychic collapse is into catatonia, a landlocked mountainous country between France and Spain with no coastline, no airport and a principal industry of smuggling. There, I factor license plates into prime numbers (which I do anyway) and become caught in shifting tectonic plates of ambivalence. But it's been a long time since I was catatonic and I'm willing to take the chance. Most future entries in this lottery will be less personal and more observational (I hope). But today I had to be Perotsky. It's the inaugural reissue. It's personal.
" 'S will be done." Said by the attackers in the name of of religion as they commit atrocities. Swill be done.