We met for the first time on a warm Tuesday afternoon in mid August. For a few years before that day, after returning to Seattle from Madrid where I’d lived for nearly a decade, I passed the building countless times without imagining it, as if part of my future remained near me in silence. Our voices had met on the phone the previous Friday. I’d already left her a message when I left another, and she called twenty or thirty minutes later. Writing about this phone conversation ten months later, I’m relying more on my imagination than on anything else. I’ve read the notes I took afterwards. They don’t help me much in trying to discover what kind of narrative I want to write. Sometimes writing sentences helps me feel as if I were on a psychoanalyst’s couch. How I wish I could write freely without having to stop to correct something, which perhaps is why I try to welcome fantasy into my sentences. Fortunately, reality doesn’t disappear, either here in my writing room or on my psychoanalyst’s couch. My efforts of these last ten months to free-associate for fifty minutes at a time in Mary’s consulting room have convinced me that Freud’s ambition was limitless. Saying whatever comes to mind can sometimes feel like an impossible task to me, and I haven’t felt much better about myself after reading papers by psychoanalysts who agree with me. I can’t remember for how long Mary and I spoke on the phone. Maybe I’m afraid to remember. It was a frightening experience, which is not what I’d hoped to write. She could have said no to treating me. It’s difficult to see my anxiety in the last sentence. The phone call ended, and over the weekend I wondered what might happen on Tuesday when I would enter the building I’d never imagined for the first time.
I was in a hurry in my mind. I wanted to be anywhere instead of where I was in my own head. There was something dangerous and unknown about where I seemed to be inside of myself. Danger and unknowns seemed connected in a threatening way. I wasn’t alone in my mind. Something awaited me in mental darkness. Don’t forget about me, I felt my body saying as I fidgeted on the couch. I imagined myself saying in a defiant tone: there’s no room in me for sadness. Then I heard myself speak, and I felt the person seated behind me listening: Darkness, sadness, body, and mind are all together, in me. But it’s a crime for me to think these things. More words left my mouth, as if arriving out of nowhere: I don’t want to witness what’s sad and dark in me. Seated behind me, Mary said something about me being a witness to my own mind. I associated the word witness with a crime or an accident, as if I were breaking the law by thinking creatively. I stared out the window at the dark sky. I glanced up at the ceiling, at bookshelves across the room, and I imagined turning around and looking at my psychoanalyst, which I knew I shouldn’t do. Should I speak or should I be silent? As if the realization had been waiting for this particular moment to reveal itself to me, I realized I was no longer in a hurry in my mind. I was remaining in what had felt like a threatening mental and bodily space, and I was sad. I said this aloud. Something important was happening inside of me. I imagined a cross, thought of sacrifice, and I was sad. And it wasn’t a crime.
All of me wanted to speak. Come on, speak! I imagined my body saying these words as I lay silent on the couch, as if I were uncertain what to say. I couldn’t tell her what was passing through my mind. I couldn’t. The last two sentences sounded definitive, as if I were eager to decide something. I wanted to know the immediate future, even if it were the future of only a few minutes. What was passing through my mind? Mary stood up in my imagination and walked past the couch to a chair nearby where clients in face to face psychotherapy sat. Maybe I was anxious to see the expression on her face. I almost wrote know instead of see, as if someone could know what a look on someone else’s face meant. In reality, I saw clouds outside, and I heard silence from Mary seated behind me. The images in my head didn’t stop with Mary walking to the other chair. A red hardcover appeared in her right hand, she opened it as she sat down, and from the couch I glimpsed images on a page. I imagined that the images were the ones passing through her mind as she listened to the silence in the room. Or maybe the images in the red book were what she imagined was happening inside of me. In reality, this might have been when Mary started to hear my voice again, while I imagined her studying a heavy red hardcover filled with spontaneous images that were appearing and disappearing in my mind. As I spoke and listened to myself speak, I wondered whether voices in plural was a more accurate way of describing my moment to moment imaginative work. As if my body were listening to everything, I somehow knew that silence was ready to return.
The thirty something year-old man on the couch speaks intensely about a recent argument with a friend. If this were another moment, I might recognize the intensity as my own. As if out of nowhere, an image that I seem unprepared for comes to me, which in itself shouldn’t surprise me, but does. I imagine my patient at home writing a letter – another part of me interrupts and wonders why it isn’t an email – and as I read the sentences that appear on the paper, I realize he’s writing to me. These images seem to communicate more than words can formulate, and experience in this chair behind the couch has taught me to wait for images to speak to me in their own time. The session started fifteen minutes ago, and I try to remember whether he was this intense when he entered the room. Don’t try to remember, I say to myself. Listen and imagine. Don’t try to think or remember. They’ll happen on their own. I hear more words from the couch, and I wonder whether the intensity I’ve heard in his voice might be own: “I got to my feet and left the room. I couldn’t take any more.” What was the argument with his friend about? The image of him writing me a letter returns, and I realize I don’t know what to do with it. Inner words speak to my uncertainty: Let the image speak to you. As the patient continues speaking, a new image of him and his letter to me arrive: he takes a lighter from his pant pocket and lights the page on fire. My own intensity has become undeniable. I glance at the clock. We’ve spent less than thirty minutes together. Minutes matter much less than our words and images, and again I imagine him burning the letter he was writing me. Somehow, fire and speech become connected. Together, they seem to say that the room is full of emotion, which is a good thing in a session.
Speaking on the psychoanalytic couch this morning felt as if I’d just drunk two or three espressos. I can’t remember how many minutes of the fifty-minute hour passed before I recounted a fantasy that had come to me the evening before, and which I wrote down before falling asleep. Caffeine is helping me to write these sentences. It’s noon, and I usually wait until after lunch to have another coffee. I’m afraid of what might happen next. Maybe I believe that a good experience can never last long. So far, today has been good to me. I needed a break from my editing, and no new work has been sent to me since I woke up. This seems a strange way for me to think, since I need the money I make from editing to live. But the last clause of the previous sentence isn’t true. I edit articles that don’t interest me in the least for my own masochistic reasons. Money isn’t a problem for me. I could spend all of my time writing sentences like the twelve before this one. Perhaps one day I will. Psychoanalysis is expensive, and for some reason deadlines seem to help me through my days. I often think I need more help with my life than I probably do. This realization came to me on the couch last week. The fantasy I told Mary this morning on her couch (I sometimes feel as if it were my own while I’m on it and struggling to speak whatever comes to me) might make a good story: I enter her consulting room, find her seated at her desk writing on a laptop, her back to me, and I look over her shoulder at what she’s creating on the screen. The few sentences that I have time to read lead me to think she’s writing fiction, based on the real work that happens in this room with people like me. I’ve become so involved in these sentences that seem to appear all at once on this screen that for a moment I forget that the image of Mary writing fiction on her laptop happened in my imagination. The fantasy ends with her turning around, realizing she didn’t hear me come in, she stands up, walks to her chair as if nothing unusual happened, and I lie down on the couch. Mary listened to my fantasy in silence this morning, and then I started to talk about something else. These sentences, and this story about this morning’s psychoanalytic session, must come to an end. Another editing project has arrived in my email inbox. Maybe I’ll imagine myself on Mary’s couch, with this laptop, writing fiction of my own, while I edit someone else’s words.
The fifty-minute hour was probably only minutes old when I imagined Mary lying on a couch alongside me. Who would listen to me now? Both of the above sentences appear on this screen in what feels like seconds. I’m at my desk at home, writing about what happened earlier this morning in a nearby fourth floor consulting room. The image of my psychoanalyst on a couch alongside me, in her office, grows in my mind, and then the following realization appears: we’re both seeking the truth. Another sentence demands to share space on this screen: Whose mind are we analyzing? A memory comes to me, here at my laptop, of the first time I struggled to free-associate on Mary’s couch, twelve months ago: I was afraid of the words that left my mouth, one second at a time. This last sentence reminds me that I felt the same way a short time ago, earlier this morning, during our Monday session. In reality, Mary was seated behind me, not lying on a couch alongside me. Maybe part of me desired her to be a patient like me, which in reality, who knows, she might still be. I wonder what she’s doing right now, as I write this sentence. I should be editing something, shouldn’t I? The question feels a little dangerous, as if I were tempting fate, since I know from experience that a job could arrive in my email inbox at any moment. And of course I want work, which is how I pay for the psychoanalysis, yet these minutes, and maybe hours, of time just to imagine and write, seem more valuable than money. To write, and to lie on a couch and speak whatever comes to mind, knowing that someone is seated behind me, focusing both on my mind and on his or her own, is one of the most valuable gifts I’ve ever received. And who have I received it from? From myself? Today, Monday, feels like a slow day, as if neither God nor my parents were in a gift-giving mood. As I write more sentences, hopefully more of today’s session will become clearer to me.
The impossible had always seemed possible. Or maybe in moments of fear I’d eliminated the word impossible from my mental dictionary. I doubt these two sentences would come to me on the couch. I’m writing and reading these words on the screen after the Monday morning session. Typing sentences like this one becomes another form of couch speaking, which I experience in my psychoanalyst’s fourth floor office four times a week, fifty minutes each time. In both cases, what seems to help the most is that the inner experience leaves my head in a form of translation that I’m sure I could never learn if I tried. Experience has taught me that both good speaking and good writing comes to one as a gift. I can’t achieve them through hard work alone. Fear came to me on the couch this morning, and probably more times in fifty minutes than I dare to imagine. Perhaps it was in the opening minutes, while I struggled to become comfortable speaking with no one in front of me, that I became frustrated with the whole idea of psychoanalysis. For years my problem with psychoanalysis was that I couldn’t move beyond the idea to the reality of it, with me on the couch and with a psychoanalyst listening to everything, words and silences, out of sight. The impossible was that for years I wrote fictional accounts of psychoanalytic sessions without having experienced it myself. I said this on the couch this morning, or did I? Maybe I said something similar to: I was unwilling to make the commitments of time and money that experiencing psychoanalysis involved. In any case, I imagine I started speaking during the opening minute. Mary had been listening to me for twelve months. Maybe both of our minds remained in the weekend that had just ended. Then I heard words from behind the couch: Maybe I wanted her to make the impossible possible for me, even before these fifty minutes were over. I often wanted Mary to solve my problems for me, and I knew it would never happen. I wanted her to do so this morning, although I had no idea what impossibility I wanted her to make seem possible.