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May 12, 2015
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Counseling v Psychoanalysis

I used to see a counselor who was kind, supportive, chatty, and nurturing. I would confide in her as she sat across from me, her tiny body dwarfed in her big armchair, her curly hair piled on top of her head. She would sadden or grimace or laugh as she listened. Her task, it seemed, was to get me to a place where I could formulate a coherent narrative about why I was feeling depressed or anxious and what I could do to stop engaging in self-destructive behaviour. She would tell me I was brave and point out the ways in which I was victimized. If I was self-critical, she would beg me not to be hard on myself. She seemed to love me, and I was anxious to keep that love, to make sure that she would take my side, think me in the right, or at least understand me.

Our need for each other was mutual, a painful truth which dawned on me as she continued to see me even as she was dying of cancer. I was her last client, the one who needed her still and gave her professional life relevance and meaning. I hadn’t even known she smoked, so I didn’t really know the demons of addiction and illness she was fighting the whole time she was working with me. And she probably didn’t really know my cyclical repetitions of self-destruction and splitting because I presented myself to her as someone who learned from her recommendations. We co-created a space in which each believed what the other said had a one-for-one correspondence with her compulsions and behaviors, and that by interpreting them for each other we could modify them.

After she died, I knew that I could not face another relationship in which I paid someone to be my supporter or confidante. I needed an impersonal listener who would not become my friend or seek to make me feel better. I was sick of being articulate or charming or engaging or seductive, of getting others to like me or even love me. I had a hunch that every time I tried to be myself, I couldn’t stop being what I sensed the other wanted me to be, that my interactions always, on some deep level, repeated the same question: “who do you think I am?” or “what do you want me to want for myself?” and that any answer I got was not quite right.

So I found a Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalyst, and we had our two initial consultations in which we sat face-to-face and he asked me questions about myself. At the end of the second session, he told me he would enter into an analysis with me, and we began to discuss meeting times, settling on one that I said I would confirm by telephone. I reached for my address book and asked him to give me his phone number since I had misplaced it. As I fumbled for my pen, I realized that he wasn’t saying anything. I looked up at him, smiled quizzically and said, “your phone number?” With his chin resting on his hand, he said, “the analysis has begun. Why don’t we see where that phone number could be?” Of course, I had called him initially to set up the first meeting, so I was asking for something I didn’t need.

I was flustered and embarrassed by my impulse to engage, to ask for help, to be given something by the other as a token of reciprocity or understanding. I left the office knowing that I had come up against something new: I was going to talk to someone who was going to listen to me, know my most intimate thoughts, and not respond to them as had anyone else in my life: not judge or reject, not be charmed or disgusted.

For the next five years, I talked, I blanked out, I shuddered and shook and sobbed and hyperventilated as he quietly listened, intervening never to reassure but rather to point out a pattern of speech, a repetition, a symptom. I would try to tell a self-assured story about myself, but then the next day, would find myself retelling it from a different point of view or with added details that forced me to see how I had clung to that first version so as to avoid the more troubling aspects. It is terrifying to undo the fortress of yourself that you have built up over the years, even if you have been slowly dying in its containment. Things definitely got worse before they got better, as if I had to act out every possible destructive behavior I had ever had, so that he and I could see how unfixable and impossible I was.

When I look back, I see all the big changes that happened during that time: I ended a friendly but unequal marriage, became a more engaged mother, got tenure, began a new writing project, got involved with a wonderful man, and learned not to juggle too many balls at once. It wasn’t because I ever had a huge revelation that led me to make a momentous decision (though before I started, I had imagined that psychoanalysis was all about the discovery of a forgotten trauma that, once unearthed, would no longer cause symptoms). It was more that the obsessions, fears, and desires that had led me to hurt myself no longer held the same grip over me. Though they still pull at me, their tug is less powerful and demanding and urgent and so they usually pass by without more effect than a sleepless night.

Why did psychoanalysis help me more than weekly counseling ever had? I think it’s because I never trusted someone who seemed to fall for me and my stories. With the lovers and friends and teachers that did, I always seemed to be engaged in a struggle to assert who knew the truth about me. I put my counselor in the impossible position of being my friend, my confidante, my mother figure, and a wise older woman who knew how to live life and could tell me what to do. And she stepped onto that pedestal, only to topple brutally off of it when she revealed herself to be a needy self-destructive human. How could I have trusted someone so flawed?

My shrink, on the other hand, resolutely resisted all the projections I tried to put on him. He listened carefully without judgment or advice. He was neither elated nor upset by anything I did or said. I wasn’t a goddess or a sinner, and I came to learn that he wasn’t a magical seer or a powerful authority, no matter how much I wanted him to be. As time passed, I came to trust that we are all just ordinary humans. None of us have the absolute answers of how to be and what to do. All we can do is bring into words those urgent inchoate demands that our unconscious makes on us without having to act on them.

On the last day of analysis, I said that somehow I felt that maybe one of us needed to give each other a farewell blessing. He said, “well, it was your decision to end the analysis.” I concurred, and he asked, “What better blessing than that?” Indeed. Instead of waiting for him to tell me something about myself, I ended because I knew that there is no one out there who holds the answers I seek. There are, however, many people with whom you can learn as long as you don’t ask them or yourself to be more than human.

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