Afraid of Being Wrong

There was no doubt in his mind that I was wrong. Was there no doubt in his mind? He had a good reason for wanting some certainty in those initial minutes in my office, on the couch, with me seated out of sight, surrounded by uncertainty. What was I wrong about in his mind? I couldn’t remember what he’d been speaking about. I might have been seeking my own certainty. Experience had taught me that it didn’t help to try to remember anything during a session. Anything or everything would come to me on its own. It was unclear what he thought I was wrong about. I realized that I was confused in part because I’d yet to speak since he’d walked through the door five or six minutes ago. Was he referring to something from our last session? It was unusual for me to remain quiet this long. My own silence might have created too much uncertainty in myself. I wasn’t the only silent person in the room. “I was wrong” were the last words he’d spoken. Or maybe I was wrong about that. The few sentences he’d uttered had seemed to disappear. I wanted some certainty, a fact, something I could be sure of, during this silence. Suddenly, the opening minutes of the session returned to me: he’s spoken in a low voice and said that he was frustrated with himself because he wanted me to tell him that he was wrong and I was right (about what was unclear). There were no facts in my head. I wanted no doubts in my mind. Both of us were afraid of being wrong.

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Birthday Wishes

Perhaps the first thing she told me today was that she couldn’t believe how many emails had been in her inbox this morning. Then she started to talk about something that had happened at work a few hours before the session. The anxiety in her voice as she’d mentioned those emails remained in my mind. What else might she be anxious about? She hadn’t said whether or not those mails were important to her. Something she’d said last week came back to me, and I realized that today was her birthday. Or maybe it wasn’t. I was overwhelmed. Could those emails have been from family and friends wishing her happy birthday? She was speaking about a problem she had with a coworker earlier in the day. The coworker had complimented her on something, which seemed to frustrate my patient. It was unclear what, if anything, she said in response. Then she said that last night she’d dreamed of being present at a birthday party for Freud. Celebration of life, or fear to celebrate it, came to mind. Receiving compliments had always been hard for her. She often didn’t know how to respond in such situations. I didn’t know how to respond in this situation. She hadn’t asked me a question, had she? Yes, she was asking me what I thought of her dream. I asked what associations she had to the dream. “I was in a room with many people, and I was invisible to them. I could observe without being seen. I wish I could do that in real life. Even, or maybe especially at work, I am uncomfortable communicating with others.” I asked how she felt in the dream. First she said she was relieved to be invisible, and then added that she was also sad. Those emails she’d received felt important again, and I wondered whether or not she would have preferred to have been an invisible observer looking at someone else’s inbox. Freud’s birthday seemed connected to this psychoanalysis. She was an invisible presence at the party. Was she having doubts about the treatment? Maybe she experienced our sessions in a similar way to feeling inundated with emails or having to communicate with a coworker. I couldn’t recall her ever mentioning Freud. Was today her birthday? Maybe I would never be sure.

Right Moment

It was a question of time, he said. My mind was both with his words and somewhere else. For a long moment, I was uncertain what he was referring to, and then, without warning, his previous words returned to me. He was here, on this couch, several times a week, because, in his words, he couldn’t seem to accept that loss in life was inevitable. Reality appeared to tell him it was so. His mother had died a year earlier. Yet both this loss and that of others close to him who had died never seemed real enough to him. Perhaps death had become an overwhelming presence inside of him. New beginnings, such as this treatment or his recent decision to train to become a psychotherapist in his mid forties, didn’t seem any easier for him. It occurred to me that he was experiencing another kind of loss during this session, related to speech. His sentences seemed without freedom of movement, as if they lacked action and stopped before they’d started. Then I became aware of my own body: I seemed filled with anxiety and sadness, which seemed connected to what my patient was experiencing on the couch. Overwhelming anxiety and sadness might have been making it hard for him to construct sentences. “It was a question of time.” This was the same sentence that had surprised me minutes earlier. He continued: “I wanted and needed to experience this form of intensive psychotherapy a long time ago. But I didn’t think I could afford it or make such a time commitment.” Without thinking about the words that came to me, I reminded myself what I was listening to: my patient’s inner world. Then my own inner world reminded me that it too was involved: where were my own words in the room? I realized that part of me felt I should speak. Seconds later, the word “should” appeared in one of his sentences: “I should be happy about what I’m doing in my life, but right now I’m not.” Time, loss, sadness, determination, and hope all came to me simultaneously. I waited for them, or for other words, to appear together in a sentence or sentences that felt right to me. Then I might speak.

Frustrating Silences

I heard the word patience and thought of impatience. Was he impatient with me? He said that he hadn’t lost patience with me. The word lost seemed important. He’d recently lost his job. Losing came to mind. A week or two earlier he’d told me that he was afraid of losing his mind, which I associated with total destruction. Seconds after the word destruction came to me, I realized that he was silent on the couch. His silence seemed partly responsible for the following thought: the room belonged to his silence. A few minutes later his words seemed to become the room. He said that I should listen carefully to his words about patience, because they were based on his own experiences. Was he frustrated or envious that I was younger than him? I was becoming frustrated. Frustration became the room. He was silent again. It was unlike him not to be speaking on the couch. I was anxious. He said that he was frustrated with me for being silent all of the time. I wasn’t doing my job well enough. The phrase “all of the time” seemed important. Did he want something from me all of the time? What might he want or not want from himself all of the time? He didn’t seem patient with himself. The word “unlike” returned. It was my word, not his. Maybe he was struggling to make contact with a part of himself that was unlike the him that he thought he was. He seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I seemed to be waiting, too. For what, I wondered.

Hope without a Word

The word no had appeared in three or four of his sentences in the last few minutes. We’d been in my office together for a few minutes. I wondered whether no originated in Old English. He spoke in English, though both of us also spoke Spanish, and there had been moments in previous sessions when he’d spoken in español. I glanced at the Oxford Dictionary of English on a shelf across the room from the couch, which would be occupied for another forty-five minutes or so. I imagined looking up the word confusion, which seemed to describe my current state of mind. How had he used no? His use of it seemed to have affected my ability to think. He uttered it again: there was no excuse for what she had done. She was his wife, no? Another sentence came to me: there was no time left. Who needed more time? Maybe my patient on the couch felt that time was running out. What had his wife done that was hurting him? Perhaps he was the one he wouldn’t excuse. After a pause, he started speaking again. He wasn’t angry with his wife. A female colleague had criticized him in a meeting at work. Silence returned. How long did it last? Then he said: she was right. There was something more than sadness in his voice. Hope seemed present too.

Rain in My Head

It was 10:07 on a Monday morning. I felt his frustration as if it were mine. The rain pattered against the window. I was anxious as another week of work started. I took a deep breath. I had yet to speak. Images of him at his office over the weekend surprised me. The number nine was repeating itself in my head. Where did it come from? Did he just ask me a question? Had he said anything about working at his office over the weekend? He said that he had to work nine more days before flying to Boston to visit family. Wasn’t his family in New York? Wasn’t I frustrated? He said that he’d worked over the weekend, at home. I imagined him with his laptop, on a sofa, in bed. He became silent. Sentences arrived in my mind uninvited. He blamed me for his troubles. He was frustrated with me for not speaking. The session wouldn’t end well. It was 10:16. I imagined that both of us were listening to the rain pattering against the window. He was on the couch. I was seated behind him. Our minds were separate, whether we liked it or not. Maybe he was frustrated. Maybe I was too.

Effortless Rescue

Practice makes perfect weren’t the words I’d expected to hear repeating themselves in my head at 4:30 am. It was dark inside the cabin. As I walked down the stairs from the loft, I imagined myself falling down and reaching the ground floor with something broken. There was no doctor or hospital on the island. I hadn’t imagined such a situation before. No one would know that I’d fallen. I would need a miracle. Someone would need to rescue me. Rescue felt like a familiar word. This early morning departure and the trip to Seattle seemed connected to being rescued. I thought of practice again, this time without perfect. The following three days would be about practice, wouldn’t they? I was in the small kitchen, with the lights on, I prepared myself coffee, and practice makes perfect appeared again, along with images of one of my favorite former professional basketball players, Chris Mullin, who retired years ago. The images were inner versions of what I’d seen on YouTube, a few minutes of footage from a game in the mid 1990s in which Mullin’s shots seemed effortless. He played that well. I felt as if I were watching an artist at work. These words, the ones I created sentences with each and every day, were the heart of my practice. I needed caffeine to think. I was a vignette writer, wasn’t I? Whatever I wanted to call what I wrote, I wrote as many of them as possible, and although I hoped all of them were good, I knew that both life and writing didn’t work that way. Chris Mullin must have had games when he felt that all of his practice in the gym had been worthless. Worthless wasn’t a welcoming word. Maybe it would come to mind during one of my psychoanalytic sessions on the couch in the next three days. Living in this cabin in the San Juan Islands a few days a week was new to me, and I sometimes felt as if I’d never set foot inside before. I would be both here and in Seattle, where I had yet to rent out the four-room condo that, like this cabin, I’d received through inheritance. The writing group I’d joined was also new to me. Finally, I had caffeine in my system. Maybe I would have a good day. Maybe I wouldn’t feel worthless. I didn’t want to just practice. I wanted to play in the game. Was I really living my life?