The image of the black hardcover in my client’s hands is so real that I stop typing and glance around the room. He’s reading the book in the waiting room, and this sentence feels as real as the image. Our session starts in five minutes. He’s having an important reading experience. There’s such certainty in these words in my head. It’s a thick volume. The title comes to me. I haven’t read it. I haven’t read any of Carl Jung’s books. I get to my feet. What am I doing? It’s as if my body moves me toward the door, toward the waiting room, toward the unknown. I stop. Words don’t have to tell me that I’m not thinking. All of this exists only in my head. The silence in the room helps me realize that this is not the state of mind I need to be in when the client enters the room. Suddenly I can’t remember the name of the book I imagine the client reading in a chair on the other side of the door. I glance at my watch. Four minutes remain before I open the door. I’m having an important experience, full of uncertainty. Reading can be an intense experience. Three minutes remain. So can writing. I realize that I have a sentence to finish writing. It can wait. Whatever is happening inside of me can’t.
I wasn’t accustomed to hurrying to my chair when a client entered the room. As I watched him move from the door to the chair opposite mine, which was his chair from 5:30 to 6:20 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I thought: he’s running. As a former runner, I wanted to move as fast as possible when I saw someone else do so. Then the thought above seemed to complete itself: maybe both of us were running from something. This sentence reminded me that I felt as if I had too much to do today. I was a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. I was training to become a psychoanalyst. Another client would sit across from me before the end of my workday. And then I hoped to read and write, perhaps for an hour, maybe more, maybe less, before heading home. Listening to my own words, I seemed anxious about another person facing me. I needed to be alone. I was tired. I was excited about all of the ideas in my head that I imagined writing on paper. My narrator was a psychoanalyst. He was writing a paper on knowledge and the state of mind of not knowing, which would be published in a psychoanalytic journal. Perhaps my client was in a hurry to recount a dream. A sentence came to me that I imagined writing in a journal that appeared in my hands: All of this is a dream. For me, being with a client involved a sort of dreaming while awake. I never knew what would happen next. Neither of us in the room did. Or so I dreamed.
She doesn’t know that I’m also a writer. There is so much to think about in each of her sentences. We started ten or fifteen minutes ago. These two statements, about me as a writer and about her as a writer, have repeated themselves in my mind during what feels like minutes. She has a brilliant mind. Her struggles to begin her career have been difficult for me to experience. Experience is not the word I want to use, which reminds me that what happens in my mind in this room has little or nothing to do with what I want. I should have used witness or observe. These are sentences in my mind. Why am I giving them such importance? I haven’t spoken in minutes. This is her time. My inner words suggest that I want her to use her time to discover that I am a writer. I’m discovering that I am frustrated. With whom? About what? I’m angry with myself. How might my client discover that I have written novels, none of which have been published? The word brilliant comes to mind again. And then I realize perhaps why. She’s speaking about someone she knows whom she considers brilliant. Someone else. Not me. I’ve been having an inner experience. How might it be related to what the client across from me is experiencing? I have asked the right question.
It’s a cold, cloudy, Monday morning in November. My mind feels at home in this room where I work with others in pain. Mental and bodily pain are one and the same in this second floor office, my imaginative home, where I also read and write. I listen and I speak to others, and I read and I write. That’s my working life, which in a real way is my life. I glance at the laptop and at the stack of books alongside it. The desk and chair are only a few feet from where I’m seated in my listening chair. The following unwelcome thought reminds me that I often don’t remain in calm mental waters for very long: it might not be possible to remain seated in one place during the next fifty minutes. The client who is about to call me is also a therapist and is out of town. I might move between the two chairs, both physically and in my mind. She’s a very creative therapist, and I wonder why the word creative comes to me in this moment. I could be more of a creative listener with her. As I listen to this sentence of mine, I realize that the only thing I can do is be present with her, and with everyone else who sits across from me for fifty minutes at a time. She’s far away, in another time zone. That’s a revealing sentence. We’re about to be in the same mental time zone, or so I hope. Perhaps I’m not ready yet. Seconds can last a long time. I’ll be ready. Finally a welcome thought.
I wanted to forget that I still didn’t know whether or not Y and I were going to have our weekly session in two days. He needs to tell me. I need to know now. It was important for me to listen to these sentences in my mind. They belonged to me, not to the client. I was pouring myself a cup of coffee down the hall from my office. I didn’t stop pouring in time and created a mess. Somehow, this last sentence seemed connected to my work with Y, who had told me that he would let me know by the end of today whether or not he could keep our next appointment. And if he could, the session would happen over the phone, which I was starting to realize I was more anxious about than I wished to admit. I’d done phone sessions before. Perhaps my anxiety was related to where he would call me from, from a city I didn’t want to see again. The appearance of the word see seemed to help me think and to calm me. Maybe the possibility of not seeing this client in person was connected to my fear that I would fail and that something bad would happen during the session. I was in my office, with my coffee. I checked my email. The client had responded. Now I knew. Y and I would have to wait another week for our next session. Meanwhile, my own inner work would keep me connected to him.
I thought I overheard a psychotherapist say to a colleague seated alongside him that he was forced to work more than he’d like to this month. Something in his words bothered me. Why? He wasn’t my therapist. I didn’t like it when she cancelled one of our sessions. He probably said something different than what I thought I heard. Mishearing and hearing seemed close to each other in my mind, as if they could physically touch each other, the image of which made me uncomfortable. The thought came to me that I was afraid of getting something wrong. Then the title of this talk that we were attending came to mind: Trying to Get It Right in Psychotherapeutic Listening. I don’t belong here, do I? The question frightened me. I was in a psychotherapist’s office every week, seated across from her. The psychotherapist whom I overheard speaking to the other middle-aged man seated alongside him was uttering more words. They belong here. You don’t. I thought I knew why I was here. I didn’t want to overhear more of this guy’s words. Listening was dangerous. What? Listening wasn’t what I thought it was. Another thought came to mind: no one forced me to come here. Therapy interested me. My inner life was important to me. I was not only afraid of getting things wrong. I was afraid of living my life in a way that felt right.
Once the images and words started arriving, I couldn’t stop writing. The sentences that were becoming a text felt autonomous. I knew where I was in the external world. I sat here every afternoon while I wrote. What I was experiencing in my imagination was old in a new sort of way. It was the late 1950s or early 1960s. My grandfather, an architect, was on his knees. The image didn’t make sense. He wasn’t religious. The word prayer remained, as if it were waiting for me to use it in a sentence, which I now have. I realized why my grandfather was on his knees: he was trying to stand up. He was alone in the drafting room, or so I thought. These sentences confused me as I wrote them, and I thought: the writer in me needs confusion. Prayer and confusion seemed connected in my mind as I imagined my grandfather the architect glance at the psychoanalyst who appeared as if out of nowhere. A couch also appeared. Psychoanalysis was a popular form of psychotherapy in this country back then, I thought. I stopped writing for a moment. I wished that my grandfather had experienced psychotherapy. Perhaps he would have behaved differently toward me. These sentences have treated me well. I have had faith in them. My grandfather designed buildings. Something has been created here in my mind. I was about to write: here on the page. I have faith in my mind, in my imagination, where everything is possible.