Boredom and loneliness were two of the main themes in my sessions yesterday (both for married and single clients). The “pandemic” is forcing people to face themselves and their families more. People are frightened about what they will do or talk about without the buffer of work, vacations, bars, etc. To put it simply, they are being confronted by the reality of their connection to self and other.
In one way–and I say this half-seriously and half tongue-in-cheek–I’m an expert on how to be alone. It is part of my humanness to want to tell them how I do it. I resisted the urge because I know that my way involves aspects of my soul that have been shaped and cultivated by loneliness and neglect: social isolation was a way of life for me not a societal mandate. I am grateful for how I have developed certain sensibilities; specifically, how I can see the world through the eyes of a poet, philosopher, dreamer and romantic. At times I even experience it as an empty vessel (in these moments I am purer of heart than a poet, dreamer, philosopher and romantic). My way may be helpful for the handful of clients who are already called to solitude, poetry and nature; but for the many clients who live in a more practical black and white world, nothing could be scarier than running out of things to do or talk about.
I see for my clients an opportunity to cultivate soulfulness but am not always sure how to help them. The fear is so very palpable for many of them. I don’t mean the fear of the virus or of the recession (though that is real as well), but the fear of what they are going to do if they don’t have as much work to occupy their minds. They fear that their minds and hearts will stumble into dark and lonely places. In many ways these are issues that both therapist and clients face whether there is a pandemic or not. The difference (and this is a big difference) is that the situation in the world is breaking down people’s defenses, leaving them exposed and vulnerable.
Last night a client with a sometimes volatile marriage was desperately looking for answers, “Maybe there are certain board games that my wife and I can play. Do you know any? How are we going to do this when we have nothing in common?”
“Do you ever just sit with your wife and do your own thing together?”
“No, because she complains that she’s bored and I feel responsible for entertaining her. She has even told me that I should find a person more like myself so that we won’t be bored.”
Ouch. I actually said “ouch” aloud. I couldn’t help it.
“Do you ever hold her?”
“Yes. We do that for about fifteen minutes before bed. We have a shitty sex life but we do that.”
“What happens when you hold her?”
“It’s nice having her there but I usually start thinking about problems at work and how I can solve them.”
“Okay, so let me stop you right there. If you’re stroking her hair are you aware of what it feels like? Is it thick and luxurious or is it thin and silky? Have you ever noticed that thin hair is warmer because it’s close to the scalp?”
“I don’t think about those things.”
“What would it be like to try it this week? If you are holding her pay attention to her scent, to the texture of her hair and skin. If you feel up to it, ask her questions about how she wants to be touched. If there is something you enjoy share it with her. How do you think that would be?”
“I can do that. I don’t know what it has to do with finding things to do or finding things in common.”
“It doesn’t. It has to do with learning how to simply be with one another. It is not the only way to be, but since you already have a ritual where you hold her before bed, why not use that as an opportunity to practice connection?”
“Okay, I think I see what you’re saying. But how about in the day?”
“You said you take walks together.”
“Yes, but we can’t walk all day.”
“No, you can’t. But you can connect more on the walks which might be more satiating to both of you. You have a very keen aesthetic sense. Look at all the beautiful watches you wear. You inspired me to enjoy watches more. Look at the way you left me in awe a few weeks back when you described how jade makes you feel. Take that sensibility into your walks. Describe to her what you see and enjoy”
I don’t know what it means to practice “good therapy” anymore. I’m in a sort of “dark night of the soul” about this work. I have been pulling away from too much interpersonal processing and from trying to help clients feel better. I know from my training and experience that “timing” is important but am also realizing that sometimes I’m too careful with my timing. I am left wondering if I did not lead this client too much. If I did not ask a very logical mind to go too quickly into being more sensual. And if I did, is it wrong that I’m okay with that? That I’m okay with it being the wrong intervention and to just go back to the drawing board if it goes nowhere? It’s going to have to be.
As I stop thinking about clients and start thinking about myself, I realize that I too am afraid of what it will be like to live through this. Just because I am better at being alone than some of my clients doesn’t mean that I won’t feel the impact of mandated social isolation. I realize that I want to call upon the souls of Mary Oliver and Fernando Pessoa. I want to channel the former in order to help me be more present to the world around me. And I want to channel the latter in order to remember that my imagination is capable of creating rich worlds that do not require touch or contact. I love the idea of channeling two poets that are so different. That offer different gifts: the gift of presence and the gift of imagination.
Of course, this is is merely an idea. Or an ideal, even. The reality is that it’s going to be messier than that. I will have good days and bad. I will feel sadness and rage. I will feel immensely sensitive and maybe at times numb. I will forget to walk and binge-watch mind numbing shows. I will be understanding to the friends who cancel plans and perhaps privately sob. I will go from finding my apartment cozy to tomb-like. I will miss X. I realize now that the sensitivity with which I talked to my client about his wife’s hair is indicative of the longing I have to touch her thin mousy hair; to feel the warmth of her scalp and the smell of her beach-girl (coconut) shampoo.
And I add a caveat to all of what I just said: if that is what defines messy then that means I’m blessed. To even think about those things means that my loved ones and I are healthy. That I have the luxury to think about soulful and existential matters instead of suffering physically or feeling helpless about a loved one’s ill-health. It means that I will have enough money to pay my rent and to pay some bills. None of this is a given.
But for now I can worry about frivolous things like…do I have the energy to re-read what I wrote in order to edit? Do I have the desire to see if any of this is even worth sharing? No. For today I am cursed and blessed to have a full caseload of clients, something that will not be true in the coming weeks and months.