Note: sprawling stream of consciousness where tangents are the norm and by the end I’m not even sure what I really wanted to say. Catharsis. I remembered just now that in choosing to call my (unreadable) blog “Fragmented Thoughts” I gave myself a free pass from day one to jot down whatever the hell I want.
I’m tired. And it’s the sort of tired that comes not just from tending to clients but from being overly empathic; from feeling the energy around me–the love, paranoia, fear, beauty, sweetness, greediness, anger and sadness. In everyday life people often walk through the world without noticing one another. Now people are hyper-aware of one another. I get more responses and acknowledgments than ever; whether it’s a big smile and greeting or a subtle scowl. Some even tilt their heads away as though avoiding eye contact and moving their mouth two inches away (when there is already a dozen feet between us) will be the difference between life and death. Though I do not take any of that personally, I can feel it.
Now more than ever the challenge I have around creating psychological boundaries is being tested. This is a time where too much sensitivity can be exhausting and painful. I don’t know how to keep my heart wide open for clients and loved ones while also closing it up a bit when I’m walking through the world or reading a news article. I don’t think it has to be a binary choice, but given my limited capacities at this time it feels as though it is. And if it is then I choose to keep my heart open for as long as possible (I’ll let you know how that goes).
I’m often too quick to use the pejorative term “needy” whenever I feel any interpersonal want or need. The reality for me (and perhaps for billions right now) is that I have an increased desire for emotional and physical intimacy because I’m tired and afraid. I’m tired in the way everyone is tired and I’m tired because I tend to others in my work while growing through this [I meant “going” not “growing” but what a lovely typo!]. People long for support and consolation and mutual reassurance. People long to be held. I caught myself trying to make this impersonal. I long for consolation, support and touch. It feels important to say that aloud so that I won’t disown it and turn it into numbness. I wish to say it clearly and loudly: this is a really lonely time. I do not feel sorry for myself when I say that. I actually feel somewhat empowered. Like I don’t have to apologize for my humanness. It points me toward the reality that I’m going to have to be resourceful: take in the love that is there; be flexible and use forms of communication that I normally don’t prefer; write so that I don’t lose my voice; take walks and read soulful things. And one of the biggest challenges for me: I will need to stay connected with my sexuality in life-affirming ways, not in soul-numbing ways. That is always a work-in-progress but I’m aware it will become increasingly salient as the social distancing increases.
Yesterday I enjoyed having a laugh at myself. I saw a comic (or maybe it’s a “meme”) where a character realizes that his quarantined life is not that different from his “normal” life. I shared it with a few friends and it felt good to have them laugh with and at me. My colleague has a chocolate bar in the drawer next to our chair at work and I scratched out the “hemp” from the “Hemp Chocolate” and changed it to “CV-19 Chocolate”. They later added “death” to the ingredients list. Seeing how we created this gallows humor together felt delightful to me. It was like we were saying (even if not consciously): “We may not be able to conquer death and illness but we sure as hell can laugh at our mortality!” I’m not sure why I’m sharing this other than to add dark humor to the resourcefulness list.
It is indeed funny that in some ways my life isn’t that different so far. Still working a job that is both solitary and intimate. Still come home to an empty apartment. Still spend a lot of time alone thinking and feeling. The extra thinking and feeling leads to extra writing. And more than that, to writing without quite as much self-judgment (the voice that says “don’t publish something that isn’t good” is still there, but I’m getting better at bypassing it). In these ways I can handle the isolation better than many. But in some ways that makes the feelings about what will be missing more acute. A couple (hopefully) can take for granted that they have hugs and simple passing touches. I, on the other hand, am like a chipmunk: I store touch away in my cupboards for the winter months. Naturally, I long for hugs from my friends and–in my fantasy life–I long for X to hold me. I suppose this is an overly-wordy way of saying that despite a life that is defined at times by solitude, the fact that touch is not an option still hurts even if the math doesn’t compute a large sum total difference. Mmm. Yes. That’s it. The paradox is that, in some ways, this is even more trying for those whose personal lives have not changed that much.
Last night a young grad-student client (who is in my field) cried her heart out confronting the fact that she was essentially the mother of her family, despite being the youngest sibling (not uncommon in economically deprived Latino families). She realized that she had coped by focusing on the beauty and closeness of her family (and there is a lot of beauty in her family) but by neglecting the darkness of it as well as her own subjective experience. I gave her the space to sob (she is strong enough to sob) and sat quietly with her. I felt so much love for her that it hurt. I find it easy to love soulful, sincere clients. When she was done she looked at me and I looked back at her and I said, “You never got to be little.” She began to cry again but in a more controlled way. She nodded and then verbalized her unmet need to be nurtured. Again, I sat with her quietly. When I conjectured that she had been given enough space to feel, I asked, “I wonder if you can let yourself feel little here”. “I think I’m doing that right now.” She was right. It made me smile at her (so bright and self-aware) and at myself (hello, Captain Obvious! You’re not so clever!).
Last night a handsome, tall white undergrad had his closing session because he has finished his undergraduate work. He said that the end didn’t feel “real” (regarding the end of therapy). I said, “Well we can make it feel real by talking about how it’s over”. He immediately began to cry (something that has occurred maybe three times in three years in our work) and expressed appreciation for my being there for him. I teared up a little with him. I told him the truth. Uncensored for the most part. I told him that when I first met him he seemed to glide by on his intelligence and looks and that he hadn’t accessed anything much deeper. I told him it was off-putting but that I sensed a lot of untapped depth. I told him how I saw it in his curiosity and his willingness to look at things from different perspectives. I let him know how deeply I respected him for plunging into his own depths and becoming increasingly complex, sensitive and empathetic. I told him I believed that his strength was resting on something bigger than his societal privileges. I imagine that the session would have ended with a firm handshake from his immensely large hand (as is his wont). Instead it ended with a wave and a goodbye.
I’m afraid about how this pandemic is going to impact my ability to work. Not just economically (thought that anxiety is very high as well) but in terms of how the work feeds me at times. The reality is that when I correctly conjectured that my grad school client was never “little” I was addressing myself as well as her. I wasn’t saying it for me (not consciously), but I was nurturing myself while nurturing her. She cried the tears of every neglected child and I jumped into the lovely stream she made with them.
When I gave my client feedback at his closing session yesterday and I appreciated his courage, I was, in a sense, appreciating the strength in my own sensitivity.
Two days ago when I tried to help my client access his sensuality I was addressing my own lack of person-to-person sensuality and was cultivating it through my instructions and suggestions.
There is a way that we help ourselves by helping others. I worry that those who are not in the field will not understand. Or that the more linear thinkers in our field will misunderstand and think that I am using my clients to heal me. Well, I am. But I’m not.
I’m not sharing with them the details of my life. I do not allow them to directly tend to me (unless some subtle tending is actually necessary for their own growth as it might be with a more narcissistic person). But I do let them impact me and I allow for the reality that in good therapy our souls merge and diverge. It’s no different from our relationships in day-to-day life. We can be deeply connected and temporarily merge and yet, for that to be sustainable, we also have to diverge and own our ultimate separateness. When Rilke says that love requires us to stand guard over the solitude of our loved ones he is referring to the way that we must protect our loved ones sense of their own Self–to respect their need for solitude and space. At least, that has always been my interpretation.
My point is that my clients grant me as many gifts as I grant them. And though it’s exhausting to me it’s deeply meaningful. If we come to a time where we must shut down our doors completely and I am left with a few phone/video clients I worry that I will lose this. That is the selfish side of being a therapist. I need clients as much, if not more, than they need me.