It was their time. The misty, chilly mornings of greeting their soft wiggling noses, nudging them aside in their effort to crowd out their brothers and sisters from the first taste of food or the first sip of fresh water were now at an end. Afternoons of laying on the fresh cut grass of the lawn, holding their little bodies against my t-shirt, whispering of many things, were over now.
I had whispered my secrets to them: The secrets of my childhood, it’s end held at bay with magic, the bewitchment of words in books that told of other places. Other places and times where magic was literal, and courage almost always won the day. And if not courage, loyalty and honesty, and where often, very often, friendship was real.
During that time, I read a book of a brother and two sisters who lived in the UK. There were elements of druidical magic, and in retrospect, I think it was an allegorical tale. But the detail that has stayed with me is of a fog. The fog crept into the country and slowly encroached into villages and homes. As it did so, it erased things—anything solid, people’s memories and eventually their selves.
The children were heroic. They fought against the rising fog and they did so with a lot of love for each other, with a deeply magical uncle and the usual complement of unwitting but well-meaning adults.
But, children do not always win battles, and on the day I’m describing, it didn’t even occur to me not to obey. I carried the first rabbit to where my father stood, with his ax leaning against the stump that was our literal chopping block. I begged him not to kill this one that was special to me.
Maybe I chose the rabbit without a front paw because he was more easily distinguishable in the wriggling, warm mass of baby bunnies. But, regardless, this was the one that I held most often and nuzzled its face under my chin. I pled, pointed out that we didn’t need this particular one, as there were many other rabbits to slaughter that day. I argued that we had enough food without this special one.
My mother did beg that I be sent inside, so I wouldn’t have to watch this. With an icy voice, my father said I had to stay. The wood stump was already stained with blood, and there were deep grooves where the ax had already bitten into the wood with its dull thud.
I can’t summon the moment of my special rabbit’s death, and I know that trauma memories can unfold at any speed, and with surgical precision absent the moments of denouement.
But, my memories pick up moments after its death. My child’s imagination had never gone beyond this moment and imagined what happens to prepare meat for the table. Every detail is crystal sharp, as sharp as the well-honed knife that split the rabbit’s skin. What brought the fog ever closer for me, though, was seeing the striated shiny muscles that form the sheath around every mammal’s skeleton.
And, by the fog, I am meaning something which separated me from myself. I have before and since experienced many forms of disassociation, from sharp and swift, to an ever-thickening wall between me and everything else, to fragmentation and blurring around the edges, pieces floating away, and a numbness so complete that I could stare danger in the face with total disdain. But, it started with the fog.
But, what I am here to share is how I made it go away. I have changed the story.
In my story, a flat chested girl with long chestnut hair in two braids wakes up early that morning, slipping outside while the sun was an orange line on the horizon, and the dew on her bare feet was quite chilly. She puts a sweatshirt over her flannel pajamas, pulling its hood around her sharp boned face. She slips the hook and eye latch of the rabbit hutch and pulls her favorite from the squirming musty huddles of warm rabbit bodies. Holding him tucked under her chin with one hand, she latches the hutch behind her, although she looks a moment longer this morning, knowing that most of them would be slaughtered later that morning.
Straightening up, she walks straight-backed through the yard, past the chicken coop and ducks under the barbed wire fence to reach a little moist sliver of high grass between the outbuildings and the pasture. She sits by her favorite plant, the mullein, whose velvety leaves she used to stroke against her cheek on long, sunny afternoons. Kneeling, she puts her rabbit by the mullein plant, amongst the fuzzy leaved grass, which was broad enough to make a whistle between your fingers if you knew how.
She imagines for a moment that this was a world where baby rabbits taken from a hutch learn to live safely in a world with predators. She is beginning to understand that this rabbit may need more protection than she thought. But, she read a lot of mythical stories under these very locust trees and learned that are other places, other times than this frightening time and place. She lays on the ground, curling her body around the small rabbit, and imagines her thoughts burrowing underground, spiraling amongst and into the tree roots, and from there to all the other plant roots, calling out for protection from this one, this special one, who just needs a moment to learn the ways of this bigger world. She imagines the fox and the weasel pausing for a moment, receiving this request.
And, she lets go. She nudges the rabbit forward with a gentle shove to its behind. It resists, and curls against the hand it loves, nudging its ears under her fingers to get a little caress. She nudges just a little harder and the rabbit looks at her under its eyebrows. It seems to ask her whether it can be safe, so she shoves it just a little more forcefully. “This place is not safe for you”, she whispers and nudges it a little more insistently. It hops forward again and again and starts to smell the cattails by the pond and the moss by the stream. Darting now, it is already beginning to forget her hand. Its nostrils are flared and drink in the wide unknown.
Joy is a social worker and an addiction counselor, currently working as Clinical Director of Naropa Community Counseling.
My husband had been working with a modern psychoanalyst for several months. I had noticed a significant change in him. He had developed a deeper view into other people’s characters, he could see and predict things that I was completely missing. He invited me into one of his sessions. At the end of this friendly first meeting, I decided that I wanted to meet with her on my own. I said, “I would like to set up a time to talk with you, but I only have time on Friday and you probably don’t work on Fridays.” She laughed at my resistance stating, “Oh Elizabeth, what wishful thinking.” This was the start of a long, sometimes difficult, yet profoundly transformational relationship.
The Moderns have been ahead of their time for many decades. Spotnitz understood the importance of interrupting procedural patterns with direct communications to the unconscious well before we had the neuroscience to support this approach. Instead of using shaming interpretations that speak more to the cortex, or even engaging in meta communications that express a therapist’s sincere engagement in the therapeutic alliance, Spotnitz’s approach relied upon understanding the emotional induction into the client’s psyche and crafting well timed limbic communications that were purposefully designed to interrupt patterns from the past. Spotnitz learned early on that being nice was not as helpful as working with a client’s aggression. When working with a Modern, it doesn’t often feel good. Rather the Modern transference evokes anything from the past and present that might be difficult to say, acknowledge, and face about oneself.
My analyst is not nice. After close to two decades together, she has more warmth, but for significant stretches of time, she came across as cold, quiet, and withholding. The quieter she became, the more regressed I was, planting a maternal transference into the silence, delving into old, uncomfortable states of rejection, pain, and aggression. If I answered a question with “I don’t know”, she would yell at me, “I don’t know means go to hell!” I learned to guess. To keep talking even when I felt that I did not know what to say, or had nothing more to say. Anything that gets in the way of me talking and learning to say new things is explored for more understanding.
Through understanding my historical feelings of shame, humiliation, aggression and loneliness in this analytical relationship, my character began to change. While I still have many faults and always will, I’m less defended. I work to understand, rather than judge. I’m willing to get mucky with my husband, my son, my friends, and my clients for the purpose of working things out in new ways, rewriting the old stories so that I’m not stuck in a perpetual, unconscious replay of the past. My analysis has helped me tolerate difficult states of mind and cultivate new emotional responses, while gleaning compassionate insights into why I have done what I’ve done and why I do what I do.
My analyst has a fierce toughness that she has imparted in me. Her resilience has given me a core self that feels capable of withstanding the hardships as they come. I’m less afraid and timid, I’m less shaming and judgmental, and I’m happier, more comfortable and tremendously grateful to her. She took on my fragile ego and through many hours of talking gave me the container to explore my voice and my desires. Analysis has helped my husband and I create a loving autonomous marriage that could have easily crumbled from our destructive, unconscious impulses. My analyst has helped me become a less punitive, more loving mother who reflects on my son’s most honest feedback and encourages him to have his own voice. My analytic work has helped me listen to and encourage my clients to live the new lives that they desire. Talking is the cure, lots of talking.
Elizabeth Olson runs the Collective for Psychological Wellness.
1/27/2017 1 Comment
Anxiety and OPTIMISM
Anxiety & Optimism
Without asking our permission life has a way of juxtaposing anxiety & optimism. Making a choice between the two now confronts America & the world. In my formulation the election of Donald Trump represents, for many, a rise in their anxiety quotient. Optimism seems embodied, more than ever, in this year’s observation of the Martin Luther King holiday.
Borrowing from Greg Moses’, Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence, we can learn MLK’s process of owning nonviolent direct action as a way of protecting our democratic institutions. Petitions and demonstrations are the public manifestations of nonviolent direct action. More significant and therefore more difficult will be the task of accepting the philosophical & psychic adaptations to make nonviolence one’s life choice.
MLK experienced religious, personal, and intellectual support for his nonviolence. His youth as son of, perhaps, the single most influential black clergyman of the time demonstrated the value of working to change your most vocal/vicious opponent into a possible ally. Growing up in the south, it was necessary for MLK, on a daily basis, to adopt a nonviolent method of maintaining his identity and confidence. His study of systematic theology at Boston University aided him in creating and codifying the ideology of nonviolence. For many civil rights activists nonviolence was a tactic, a strategy. For MLK nonviolence was a life sustaining philosophy. Moses posits that nonviolence is a coherent philosophical component of liberation politics. This writer endorses the difficulty of internalizing nonviolence but also supports its use in this period of political unknowns and anxieties.
Life’s pendulum swings along a continuum of optimism and anxiety. It will be up to progressives to maximize the optimistic arc. MLK often said, “that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Perhaps, that attitude can provide us with psychic grounding in the days ahead.
Harry Reed is a poet living in Boulder. He is a a former professor of history with 82 years of experience being human.
Here are some of his poems.
10/17/2016 3 Comments
SPOTLIGHT: Elizabeth STAHL
Nobody becomes a therapist without some history of psychological distress. I come from a fractured family that lacked strong community ties. For me writing and composing this newsletter is a way to work towards building community by exploring the relationships I have come across while cultivating a psychotherapy practice in Boulder. I would like to give attention to the people and groups that I have met and continue to meet along the way. Many of you already know each other, and many do not. My hope is that this newsletter becomes a space for local therapists to connect with and support each other.
This section of the newsletter will feature individuals that offer therapeutic perspectives. For this first newsletter the spotlight is on me, the creator of this forum.
I have been in therapy as a client, since I was 16. I became a therapist through being a client. My first career was as a professional visual artist, a sculptor. I have a lot of familiarity with the creative process. As an artist I moved to New York, where I began psychoanalysis (as a client) and discovered group therapy (as a client). After years of analysis and being a group member I decided to switch careers, got married, gave birth to two kids, eventually moved to Boulder, and enrolled in the Transpersonal Counseling Program at Naropa University which I graduated from in 2013.
I began my professional training as a therapist at the Center for Modern Psychoanalysis in New York. Modern Psychoanalysis is my theoretical foundation as a therapist, the first professional language that I learned. Like any first language it has become elemental in how I conceptualize my role as a therapist. I identified as an artist before becoming a therapist and that shaped my attitude towards theories and communities. As an artist you are expected to develop your own way of looking at the world. In Art History you are taught about movements, how one way of seeing can dominate and then splinter into several ways of seeing, recollect and then go to seed and get re-interpreted over and over again. In the art world it is taken for granted that no two artists see exactly alike, differences are valued over similarities and rebellion is encouraged. The idea that one theory dominates? Frankly, in the art world that would make things boring. Part of what makes the community of the art world exciting is the multitude of perspectives and getting to watch how particular artists interact and develop over time.
In the art world there are galleries, museums and other venues where artists can go to see what other artists are up to. That’s how I view this newsletter: as a place to discover what others are up to and to provide resources for further education and peer support. I see my role as a curator with an insatiable curiosity about how people become therapists and I am dedicated to representing a multitude of therapeutic perspectives and cultivating a community that encourages dialogue.
To read more by Elizabeth click on her name to go to her blog.
Writing about therapeutic relationships