I was stuck in traffic. I would probably arrive late to my office, and he wouldn’t know what had happened to me. He didn’t have a cell phone. If I were to send him an email right now, he might see it before leaving home to walk to my office. He didn’t drive and he didn’t have a cell phone. The word primitive came to mind. I was frustrated that I couldn’t call him. Whether or not to send him an email would be an interesting therapeutic decision for me, or maybe not. Did the word primitive refer to part of my own mind? He was my only patient in psychoanalysis. In addition to my regular psychotherapy practice, I saw him four times a week as part of my training to become a psychoanalyst. I was about to start writing an email on my phone when a disturbing thought came to me: I was never sure of anything in my work with him. All of the cars around me were motionless. Maybe that’s how I felt in my mind. If I was going to send him an email, I should do it now while he might still be seated in front of his computer. The sentences in my head seemed to have become repetitive. Perhaps that’s what I hoped for, a sort of mental push to help me decide what to do. My fingers started to type words on my phone. I deleted them. Then I wrote another first sentence, added one or two more, and sent it. I wrote that I might be a bit late. I wasn’t sure yet. The cars in front of me started moving again. I was moving again, both in my car and in my mind. The email was sent. I still didn’t know whether I would arrive late to my office. Was I facing what was happening in my own mind, or was I avoiding something? Uncertainty was overwhelming me, for the moment. I seemed afraid of becoming both stuck and unstuck.
I realized I had no idea what would find me in the psychology section of the bookstore where I would meet a friend in half an hour. Thirty minutes was enough time for me to walk there, but I wasn’t on the sidewalk yet. I hoped to have time to glance at some titles before meeting him in the coffee shop that was connected to the bookstore. My shoes were on and I was about to open the door when it came to me that maybe something surprising would happen to me in front of the shelves. I was excited about walking. As a psychotherapist, I spent much of the week seated in a chair. I realized I was less excited to meet my childhood friend for coffee. Why did the words “childhood friend” come to me? In reality, we had met at university. He was in Seattle for a few days, and I’d thought I was looking forward to seeing him again. His life seemed to have creative purpose. And mine didn’t? I’d been a confused and unhappy child. My dream had always been to spend my life doing something meaningful, meaningful to me first and foremost. The last few sentences came to me as I was about to enter the bookstore. I decided to spend a few moments in the psychology section before facing another reminder of my past in the coffee shop. The twenty-five or thirty minutes of walking had helped. I no longer felt confused or lost. A few minutes later, in front of my favorite books, I felt as if I were dreaming on my feet. The hardcover on the history of the psychoanalytic couch might as well have appeared to me in a dream. I’d imagined finding a book like this. Now I held it in my hands. I was a therapist. I was training to be a psychoanalyst. My own dreams were finding me.
I had seven minutes to watch my mom’s early childhood appear and disappear before my eyes. The airplane wouldn’t wait for me. The present that became the future that then became the past wouldn’t wait either. Time seemed to listen to itself. I didn’t have to catch the flight, did I? I would fly from Seattle to San Francisco and return a few days later. No one would miss me at the conference. In eight minutes I would be missing the same experience in this room that I imagined was about to make the next seven minutes unforgettable. Several of us stood or sat around my mom, who was seated in her chair in the living room of the small condo that my parents now called home. I couldn’t experience seventy some years of moments in seven minutes. My mom’s Parkinson’s seemed to progress in its own time. Why didn’t I skip the psychotherapy conference? There would be another one soon enough. The minutes and maybe hours that the others in the room would spend with the photos from when my mom’s entire life was in front of her wouldn’t return. Maybe I would still be here in ten minutes. The relative from Norway who’d brought the photos with her would fly back to Oslo in a few days. I had seven minutes to decide what I would do the minute after that.
I listened to his words about a dream with his sister, and it came to me that maybe he was afraid the images would become reality. They were together in a basement from their childhood, two adults in their forties arguing about what she was doing with a hammer in her hand. In reality, the basement was now his. In the dream, was it his, hers, or were they intruders in someone else’s house? My patient on the couch sounded tired. I was suddenly tired. He described the hammer that his sister gripped with one hand. He couldn’t remember if the handle of the hammer was red or black in the dream. They stood facing each other. Then, without warning, she hit it against the cement floor, one, two, three times, before he told her to stop. As I listened to him describe this, I reminded myself that this was our first session in a week. He’d been away with a hammer. Did I just say that to myself? He’d been away on business for a week. He woke up with these dream images in his head a day or two after our last session. Perhaps I was part of the dream. Maybe unconsciously he saw me as his angry sister who wanted to destroy the foundation of our work together. In reality, he knew very little about me. I became many things to him. And I experienced him in many ways. Perhaps, in both of our minds, we were in that basement, facing each other. I glanced at the clock beyond the couch where he was lying. Our time was up for today.
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.
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.
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.