I often feel that the practice of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy is largely misunderstood. I really wish to be able to illustrate how far removed my experience in therapy was and has been from what textbooks illustrate and what the misconceptions of this school of thought often are. I wish for individuals who are or have been suffering to have a similarly empowering journey. It is thus that I wish to write about my experience in therapy.
The first time I began my own therapy was when I had begun to feel that there were spaces inside me that wanted to heal. I had spent a whole lifetime feeling the need to re-assemble the clutter and organize it inside and thus I got ready for a trial interview. I remember my first session with her. She was taking a casual interview. My knowledge of whatever I had studied kept interrupting. “First session is where you develop rapport with the patient. You inquire about the history of the patient. Their childhood. Their current life. Their work.” And so the interview began with the usual “What made you want to begin therapy?” I don’t know. “Have you faced any difficulties recently?” I don’t know. “What is your relationship with your parents like?” I don’t know. “What has your childhood been like?” After a period of silence I again uttered the words, “I don’t know.”
I don’t know. These words stood characteristic of me and my life. My three favorite words and the feeling I often found myself comfortably feeling. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and not knowing which one to take, I stood straight, watching my life pass me by.
In therapy, I re-awoke dormant parts of me that had lingered around in my life. I began to come to a heavy realization that though time was passing on, internally I was stuck in an extremely different and painful time. I remember I went to her in one session, heavy with tears as I read out words that were once only poetry:
I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with, I have kept.”
– Robert Frost
And what I would not part with, I have kept, I have kept it safely with a lot of care and a lot of love inside. It is so painful. Still I wonder, how do I grapple with this monster that has re-awoken that I also tenderly love. It is all so confusing. I really don’t know… I just don’t know. I’m still a student in myself, of myself, I’m still learning. But I write here to share how wonderful my experience has been in therapy. I write here to share my own thoughts and my own struggles about this school of thought. I write in hope that we are able to meet at a reasonable cross-point.
When I was in therapy the first time, after about a year, I was beginning to feel the knots of my life come alive inside me. Being in therapy didn’t just mean talking and listening to those words that she’d uttered. It meant feeling. It meant letting myself feel. Being in therapy meant allowing myself to stay with the “difficult interpretations” and feeling them inside. Initially, I used to feel blown away by all these “interpretations” and all of what she’d utter would leave me in this painfully heavy setback. It was as if what she was uttering was the eternal truth of my life. Soon, though, I had realized therapy meant knowing why you’re writing your story the way you do… and the pen was then left in your hands, you could continue writing your story the way you do, or you could consciously attempt to make a change.
Rumi said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” And so a wound need not just be a reminder that you’re a victim of your pitied story. A wound can be that place from where you can begin to feel like a survivor, like you withstood so much and you’ve survived! You have the capacity to survive! You not only so beautifully carved an etching around the wound, but also let it be that place from where your insides begin to glow, from where you feel enlightened.
I have come across so many people who think that psychoanalysis is nothing but talk and chatter. My own therapy has not been so. Even if we ‘talk’ in therapy, the point is not to ‘let it out and talk.’ The point is to feel your story inside, to hear your silences, to hear your echoes silently coming from the corners of that room, and to realize who you are… and with that realization come to understand who you can be. Even though earlier it seemed to me like what my therapist said was this verdict about me, that only she knew how my life would be, I began to realize, it was a dialogue… I too could speak about how my life could be… I was an active part of my own life. And I think it is this dialogue that brings you to realize that you can be an active part of your own life, that you needn’t be a passive victim, re-writing your wounds and sorrows over and over again.
In fact, while I was in therapy the first time, I had penned down thoughts and I’d written to myself that psychoanalysis is a myth, because what happens in that room between those two people is not ‘transference,’ ‘countertransference,’ ‘ego-id-superego.’ As a patient, what I acquire is an experience. It’s a struggle — a space to discover yourself, to feel, to shout, to smile — to tear a page, to write blank sentences, to test a pen, to write, to write your story and feel it inside. A dislodged part of you that’s silently screamed from within. I was wounded. And psychoanalysis? That myth? It’s about coming to terms with the fact that you survived.
I have been in therapy with somebody new for some time now. With a new therapist, sometimes different knots begin to surface. I am beginning to understand more and more now that there is a dialectical process in therapy — we are pulled to death, we are pulled to leave, and pulled to create, to stay, to be alive, to be close and to connect. There is a language that I am already aware of, a language that I become aware of in the process of therapy and a language that is being co-created together. And while in this alien clinic with all these objects that surround you, slowly by chewing this relationship, mulling over it, experiencing it and coming to a whole, you realize that winter’s cold, spring erases, plants die, but spring can also flower new ones.
As humans, we are constantly caught in this tussle between dying and coming alive all the time — it can at times be maddening. And I think through therapy we begin to realize that maybe, when we were younger, we have already lived through this bit — of dying and coming alive constantly all the time. And we as adults are forgetting and reminding ourselves constantly — we speak to forget, we speak to remember, all the time, about our own truths. Our words are striving to both be authentic to ourselves and deceive us, all at the same time. The words we use in our interaction with people have a dual process — they at once protect us and also reveal our vulnerabilities to the other. Our language is encumbered in this duality. Sometimes it is only in therapy that we can see ourselves drown in many oceans. We can be allowed to fill the empty air in the room with our unhinged thoughts that flood our mind. T. S. Eliot in East Coker wrote “…and that to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.” And sometimes, we fall apart, only to allow for a process of processing the unhealthiness, to allow for a union, to be restored.
Sometimes our own dreams can trickle drop by drop, drop by drop flooding our eyes and blinding us, making it impossible to tread uncertain paths. Sometimes the boundaries of our own memory separate the roses from the thorns. And though this musical instrument of knowledge echoes so loud, we realize in therapy that somebody is there helping you feel these thorns — we realize somebody is there removing this shield that’s been binding us, misguiding us all this while, and although it’s painful, this person in this clinic with us will bear through our screams and our anger; our anger will not dissolve the object, they will still be there. We sometimes realize we are safe in this room with this person who accepts and who allows us to accept our damaging parts.
In J. M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter and Wendy, Peter Pan told his human counterpart Wendy, “Come with me to a place where dreams are born and time is never planned.” Peter Pan was this magical boy who chose to remain a child, chose to remain in Neverland and chose to never grow old. Peter Pan fell in love with this young human girl called Wendy and he went to her and he said come, come with me, I’ll take you to a place where you don’t need to grow up, where you can be forever a young child, forever young. Wendy, though, chose to stay on Earth and grow old. Perhaps, Peter and Wendy are parts inside all of us — a part of us like a child waiting for magic to happen and a part of us like an adult growing up and growing old every day. And sometimes, in therapy, we allow this person in this clinic with us, to come with us to a place where we are like Peter Pan; we hold their hands and take them with us to this place inside our minds where there is a persistence of memory, where dreams are born and where time is never planned. Sometimes therapy is like that space of Neverland on Earth where we can allow our Peter and Wendy to play and to meet.
I am eternally grateful to both my therapists for allowing me to be and experience these parts and grow. While I have been in therapy, I have always made a conscious decision of “changing my behavior.” When I begin to see the reasons for the choices I make, even though it is difficult to stop my conscious thoughts and do the opposite, I need to in that moment do just the opposite of what my instincts would tell me. It is always easier to do the opposite, knowing my internal dilemmas with respect to these choices. It is easier for me to then ‘choose wisely.’ In therapy, I feel it’s essential to change, to step out of your repetitive (mal-adaptive) patterns and make new relationships, uncolored by the past, or make a conscious decision and choose the path you travel, rather than feeling like your path is being chosen for you. Therapy will always be about re-gaining and re-centering the locus of control from an extrinsic focus to an intrinsic focus.
I often feel theory is just a lens to view ourselves or the other. I suppose when we are working with individuals as therapists, our work with an individual is to experience this unique relationship and think about what this individual does to us, what that means for us and what that means for this person — always striving to come to a whole. Often theory is a protective pillar that we have found as mental health professionals. I feel our work in the clinic though is not to think through theory and help this individual. I feel our work in the here-and-now is to allow this couple (patient and therapist) to begin to think thoughts together; our work as therapists in the here-and-now is to travel with this person to a place where no theory can and let them feel it and voice it, voice that experience of having no words, no theory, giving an ear, listening to them and their stories and enabling them to hear their own echoes and truths. I think sometimes these things can only happen through love — by experiencing a trusting relationship in a safe space, by working through a love that you have known, that you now also know. And maybe that’s what this myth is about.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.