Friday, October 26, 2012

When Times Collide

Last night I received an email from Jane Dobija, a writer friend of mine from California asking how I was doing, now three days after the fifth anniversary of my husband’s death. I wrote back that I was starting to come back to myself. I went on to say that this had been a particularly difficult anniversary because the days of my husband’s birthday, October 14, and his death day, October 24, corresponded to the days of the week five years earlier. As a result, much to my surprise, I found that those days, as well as the days in between – his entering the hospital, his consent to a “do not resuscitate” directive, various medical procedures, and his entering hospice – all rolled through my mind as though I were watching a movie, bringing the experience back to life in a way that felt far too real and immediate.

In her response, Jane wrote back, “Important experiences, recent and past, merge at various junctures.” She was, in essence, saying that the intensity of my experience of both the past and the present converged on these similar, though not identical, days. 

Probably because I was shifting away from my preoccupation with my husband’s death, I saw her comment as expressing a truism that ranged far beyond my experience of vividly reliving my past trauma in the present. I read it as the underpinning of one of the most powerful forces that shapes our being in the world, transference, our tendency to see the present through the lens of our past.

Transference is a term first introduced by Freud. At that time, it was used more narrowly to explain how the patient came to see the analyst as important figures in his or her earlier life, particularly parents. Transference was then seen as being confined to the treatment room and was basically considered a one-way street. The patient transferred onto the analyst. If the analyst happened to transfer his or her image of early caretakers onto the patient – called countertransference – that was considered pathological, something the analyst needed to understand and curtail.

There is no question that transference does occur in the treatment room. Just yesterday I had an exceedingly anxious patient I will call Rebecca come into my office wringing her hands, saying that she knew I was angry with her. I was surprised. As far as I knew, I was aware of no such feelings. Psychoanalysis has progressed sufficiently from the time of Freud that I also knew I couldn’t dismiss her perception of my being angry without further exploring both her feelings and mine. After all, analysts have an unconscious just like everyone else, so I might have feelings that were out of my awareness. Proceeding with an open mind, I asked why she thought I was angry with her.

“Because I had to change my appointment time. And when I called to ask you to change you sounded mad at me. But I couldn’t help it! I’d had this gynecology appointment for months and I’d forgotten about it and if I had to change that appointment it would have been another three months! I’m sorry. I know it was irresponsible of me. I should have looked, but I just can’t think straight these days!”

So what is going on here? And what is going on inside me? Recollecting my patient’s phone call, I do not remember my feeling at all angry. I tend to be a flexible therapist who will accommodate my patients’ requests as best as I can, as long as I do not feel that they are chronically demanding or unreasonable. On the other hand, listening to this patient’s explanation of why she experiences me as angry with her, I do find myself a bit impatient and exasperated. We have worked for months on her consistent self-effacement and her tendency to blame herself for anything and everything, a legacy from her critical mother who demanded nothing less than perfection. I also wonder if she has the unconscious wish to provoke me into being the angry mother with whom she is so familiar. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Rebecca,” I say, “As far as I know I wasn’t at all angry with you. You’ve rarely asked to change appointments and when you have your requests have been entirely reasonable and it wasn’t as though your request inconvenienced me in any way. Are you sure that you didn’t experience me as angry, even though I wasn’t?”

“Well if I experienced you as angry, that’s all that matters! Don’t you always say it’s my feelings that matter?”

So here we are, at an apparent paradox. Yes, Rebecca’s feelings matter. They most definitely matter. But just because they matter, doesn’t mean they reflect an actual reality, assuming we can ever know reality apart from our own subjectivity. I would say that Rebecca has just had the experience my writer friend described, a juncture of past and present experiences. Because Rebecca grew up with a highly critical and demanding mother, when she made a request that felt entirely reasonable to me, her own past history – her own fear and guilt and anger – made it impossible for her imagine that I could respond in an accepting manner.

So, yes, Rebecca’s feelings matter and in this case they matter because they help to shed light on the lens through which she sees the world – a place where any request, however minor, will be received with anger or rejection.

To demonstrate how this juncture of past and present experience is not confined to either patients or to the consulting room, I’d like to turn to an incident that occurred for me many years previously. I had had an argument with my niece and, quite out of character for me, I hung up on her. I felt guilty, tried calling her back, but she refused to speak with me. I asked my husband if he would please do me a favor and call my niece and explain to her that I was experiencing a lot of pressure right now and that I really didn’t mean to yell at her or hang up on her and that I would like to make amends.  My husband complied and did as I asked.

Listening to him say exactly what I had asked him to, I found myself becoming furious at him. Insightful enough to know that my reaction was completely irrational – after all he was repeating word for word what I wanted him to say – I asked myself what was going on. The answer was crystal clear – I was experiencing an intersection of past and present junctures. Outside my awareness, I had asked my husband to say the same words to my niece that my mother used to say to me after my father had verbally exploded in some extreme, out of control manner. I was furious at my father for his explosion - as well as terrified – and wanted nothing to do with him. My mother would come beseeching me to make peace, unable to understand my fear or accept my anger. I would then feel angry with her, just as I now did with my husband. The words and the feelings were the same. What my unconscious didn’t know was that the time was different. “Important experiences, recent and past, merge at various junctures.”

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