One of those days…

I had all kinds of ideas for what I wanted to write about today – more about therapy or maybe some thoughts I have about a workshop I am developing or maybe the way the flowers in the garden are hurling their beauty out for us to see before frost comes in a matter of weeks to make everything brown and gray again. But I can’t wrap my mind round those things today.

I am sad about RBG’s death.

Heartbroken about all the people who have died in this horrible pandemic — in my mind’s eye, I see them as tiny lights blinking out, one by one by one.

I am tired of the confinement of the pandemic, of the anxiety it arouses, knowing this invisible virus could bring the end to my life.

I missing able to touch people and be touched — and deeply grateful for the enduring and endearing presence of my husband. 

I feel the anxiety so many of us feel about the upcoming election. I eagerly await the arrival of my ballot so I can vote.

So what do I do on a day like this? 

Well, it is chilly here this morning, so we gave in and turned on the heat for the first time this season. It feels good.

I have loads of yarn. Knitting socks feels satisfying, the magic of a single thread, unbroken from toe to top, delights me. And everyone can always use socks.

My Kindle is full of books. Today I choose to read one in paper.Good books and good yarn and a mug of tea go a long way to soothing.

What do you do to soothe yourself, to care for yourself in these anxious times?

Misfit Produce, Lady Ragnell, Mr. Rogers and Me, Part 1

Today I am beginning a several post series looking at bodies, especially fat bodies, and psychotherapy.

You might very well ask what this image — used by the company, Misfit Market which describes itself “Misfits Market delivers ugly, but otherwise perfectly edible fruits and vegetables”. I have frequently seen this image online for several months now. It struck me that even fruits and vegetables are expected to conform to some standard of beauty in order to be acceptable, even though appearance has little or nothing to do with their actual nutritional value. And that sounds so very familiar.

Take a look at this from John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing:

“A woman must continually watch herself.  She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.  Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….  

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

When we women don’t rise to the standard of beauty expected of us, we become as misfit people, not marketable nor desirable. And we must survey ourselves constantly to assure ourselves that we acceptable. And when we don’t measure up, when we fall outside that conventional range of attractiveness, then like the misfit produce, in a way we become freaks.

Irvin Yalom is much loved by many therapists. Yet in his book, Love’s Executioner, he too reveals an all too common view of fat women as akin to misfit produce.

“I have always been repelled by fat women. I find them disgusting: their absurd sidewise waddle, their absence of body contour‚ breasts, laps, buttocks, shoulders, jawlines, cheekbones, everything, everything I like to see in a woman, obscured in an avalanche of flesh. And I hate their clothes‚ the shapeless, baggy dresses or, worse, the stiff elephantine blue jeans with the barrel thighs. How dare they impose that body on the rest of us?”

To his credit, Yalom acknowledges that this is an instance of countertransference, and that is good. But in the many comments that refer to this essay, I have not seen anyone be critical of the attitude he expresses nor what effect it had on his patient. Because though he did not voice his feelings, they were there in the room and no doubt she felt them, especially as they aligned with what she and any of us who do not fall within the range deemed attractive experience every day.

What is this issue with the body about? Let’s look at the body as shadow.

Jung, in Collected Works,Vol. 18: The Symbolic Life wrote:

We do not like to look at the shadow-side of ourselves; therefore there are many people in civilized society who have lost their shadow altogether, have lost the third dimension, and with it they have usually lost the body. The body is a most doubtful friend because it produces things we do not like: there are too many things about the personification of this shadow of the ego. Sometimes it forms the skeleton in the cupboard, and everybody naturally wants to get rid of such a thing.”

Jung sees body as shadow, avoided because it inevitably brings into the room those aspects of life we most wish to avoid — death, aging, desire, greed, excess. Certainly the female body, and especially the fat female body carries this shadow and inevitably activates in both patient and therapist all of the anxieties attendant upon these shut off aspects of life.

One more look at this trap of attractiveness from a Jungian analyst, Polly Young-Eisendrath:

From the Pandora story we can see that identifying with this “power”[of beauty] is a double bind – you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you identify with the image of female beauty, you put yourself into the Pandora box: beautiful but empty. Increasingly as a woman ages, she finds that identification with a beautiful appearance is a losing game. She will lose the game through aging when she no longer looks like Pandora, a “maiden” – youthful, slender, lovely. To identify with a beautiful appearance and to pursue that power leads to depreciation of her other strengths and ultimately to depression about falling short of standards. To disidentify with the power of appearance (and “let herself go”) usually leads to feeling like an outsider, feelings of low self-confidence, and fears of failing to find a heterosexual partner or to be the object of a certain kind of male regard.”

Damned if we do and damned if we don’t, where do we go from here? That’s for the next in this series, where we will look at the story of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell. Look for it on Wednesday.

On My Shelves

 The NY Times Book Review has a regular feature called By the Book, a Q&A with an author. I have published a book, though the NY Times has yet to discover me and I do read a lot, so here is my take on their questions: 

What book is on your night stand now?

Truthfully I no longer keep books on my nightstand as I no longer read in bed. And as you can see, my bookshelves are anything but tidy. Still next to me and on my Kindle I have a pile of books waiting to be read or in varying stages of being read:

Sarah Perry The Essex Serpent

Matt Haig How to Stop Time

James Lee Burke A Private CathedralAbigail Saguy What’s Wrong With Fat

Michael Eigen Rage

Francis Weller The Wild Edge of Sorrow

Michel Pastoureau Blue: The History of a Color

What was the last truly great book you read?

I come back again and again to Barbara Stevens Sullivan’s The Mystery of Analytical Work: Weavings From Jung and Bion. There is so depth to this book. I wish I had people I could read and discuss it with.

Or When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. I love this book and have given it or recommended it to many women.

What is your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I love memoir. I am endlessly interested in the stories people tell and write about their lives. 

I also love mysteries and thrillers. They are my popcorn reading.

Have you read any good books on philosophy lately?

No.

What were your favorite books as a child? Did you have a favorite character or hero?

I had a book about a man who sold balloons in the park. I don’t know the name but I can still see the illustrations. I also loved the book of fairy tales that my grandmother had and would read to me.

I had a book that had been my father’s when he was growing up — Cop: A Police Dog.I liked it more because it had been my dad’s than that I liked the book itself.

I read Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. I used to go to the library and come home with armloads of books — everything from poetry to novels. I started reading biographies when I was around 10. The libraries on the Army posts where I lived didn’t limit what I could check out or how many books I could have at a time. So I read everything that looked like it might be interesting.

What books had the greatest influence on you when you were a student?

Man and His Symbols was published when I was in college and it made me a Jungian before I really even understood it.

What was the last book that made you cry?

What comes to mind first is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

And there were passages in Naming the Gods by Gary Astrachan that moved me deeply.

The last book that made you laugh?

I must be brain dead this morning because none comes to mind right now.

The last book that made you furious?

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump. Everything about him makes me furious.

What’s the best love story you’ve ever read?

Like Water for Chocolate. 

Are there any psychotherapists that you think are also particularly good writers? What are your favorite books on psychotherapy?

There are indeed wonderful writers among psychotherapists. Barbara Stevens Sullivan is a favorite of mine. Michael Eigen. Christine Downing. Naomi Lowinski.

And if you could meet a character from literature, who would it be?

A friend of mine, Janice MacDonald, writes mysteries, terrific mysteries set in Edmonton, Alberta where she lives. And as it happens I am a character in one of her books, Hang Down Your Head. So I know one!

Who are your favorite writers of all time? 

Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Jung, Freud

What are you planning to read next?

I have a Kindle app full of books to read. I just started How to Stop Time by Matt Haig.

Do I look okay?

These days all of my work is online, both via telephone and video. Whether with Zoom or Skype of FaceTime, not only do I see the person I am working with but also myself. It was disconcerting for me at first to see my own image while listening or talking with another. I realized that ordinary concern about looking okay is heightened this way.

 This heightened awareness of appearance called to mind John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing, where he writes:  

“A woman must continually watch herself.  She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.  Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….  

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

I have realized that I rarely leave the house without asking my husband “Do I look all right?” though he never asks that question about himself. And when I do, I am still scrutinizing myself, still assuming I have to meet some external standard in order to be okay. Now I see it in myself every time I see that small image of my face on the screen.

How about you?

The Inward Gaze

“A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words….To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy.” Orfan Pamuk 

I ran across this lovely quote about writing some time ago. While I write — here, in my journal, and in fits and starts on various pieces I hope someday to publish, I struggle to think of myself as a writer. A few years ago, an editor friend of mine told me that the difference between a writer and a person who writes is that the writer works on what she writes, revising and editing and struggling to find the right words to say what she sees or feels. A person who writes — well, that person just writes. For the longest time, I rarely wrote more than one draft of anything and the thought of revising came only when someone else told me I needed to do so. But I took those words of my friend seriously and began to think of what I write as worthy of more attention and energy from me. Of course, now I must learn when to stop and allow what I have to just be as it is, even though it is not exactly what I hoped. Baby steps.

Anyway, recently when I read that quote again, I thought of writing and my own journey as a writer, but I thought also of the process in analysis and therapy. Because it seems to me that he describes that process also. In analysis, the gaze also goes inward and the effort is to transform the images and feelings and memories into words which eventually transform experience and, by opening new possibilities, make change. And we do this work with “patience, obstinacy, and joy” — though the joy sometimes comes late to the experience.

Signs of hope

Yesterday our Governor, Janet Mills, announced the next stages of measures for dealing with COVID-19. While the usual number of people grumbled that restrictions remain in place, still she brought a ray of hope that eventually much of what was will return. Or will it?

 Many speak of returning to normal but the normal we once knew will not be ever again, if only because we now know what it is to live through a life-threatening pandemic, knowledge we cannot bury. And we do not know what the new normal will be because we will still be living under threat of new waves of illness from this virus. And what effect will having lived like this, with daily reminders of the death toll, seeing masks on the faces of friends and loved ones, knowing now that touching each other or our own face can be life threatening? We have all been and continue to be experiencing trauma on a mass scale. What will be the lingering effects of that trauma?

And what of school children missing a quarter of the school year with uncertainty still about how next year will run? In my own family, my granddaughter is a high school senior — all the hoopla attendant to the ending of that phase of school is missing. She is supposed to be off to college in the fall — how will it be open? So many questions and we adults cannot provide definite answers.

New words have entered the collective vocabulary — Zoom, zooming, social distancing among others. We visit even doctors and therapists like me via video conferencing. We wrestle with tired eyes from much more time in front of screens.  A friend and colleague of mine died(not from the virus but that was of course the first question) and a memorial for him was via Zoom.

I have seen among fellow therapists on social media speculation that the new normal may well not focus so much on sessions face to face in our offices, but will remain in significant part on various video platforms and telephone. Telemedicine is not going to go away, especially for people in rural areas.

And will we return to shaking hands or hugging or will we evolve some new way of embodied, yet touch-free greeting?

Certainly the last great pandemic of 1918-1919 left its mark and surely played a role in what became the roaring Twenties. What do you imagine will follow from this?

Please take good care of yourselves. Masks are far from a fashion statement but they help. And even as restrictions are lifted, be out and about with caution. We are a long way from being out of the woods. To help cope with anxiety and fears and other feelings, if you don’t already, start writing a journal. Write down your dreams — I will be talking more about dreams next time.

And please share your thoughts in the comments.

 

For this Sunday- Three Things To Remember

Here we are near the end of April. In Maine, snow is forecast for tonight into tomorrow. Spring snow is not rare here, but this year maybe more than any, it feels cruel. It feels as though spring with green and flowers and leaves on the trees is being withheld from us. So this morning I bring you this from Mary Oliver:

As long as you’re dancing,
you can break the rules.

Some times breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.

Sometimes there are no rules.

So find some music that makes you move, and dance. 

What ?

I noticed the other day a help wanted ad for a “behavioral health specialist” — it makes as much sense as that car in the middle of the field. Back in the old days, when I was at the beginning of learning to do what I do, there was no such thing as a “behavioral health specialist” nor a “behavioral health center”. We aspired to be psychologists and psychotherapists and to work  in mental health clinics or in private practice. In the years since the advent of managed care,  “psychology” and “psychotherapy” have fallen out of favor for more corporate and scientific sounding terms like “behavioral science” and “behavioral health specialist”. Think about it — these terms call up notions of scientific specificity. 

Now I don’t know anyone who dreamed of becoming a behavioral scientist or behavioral health specialist when they grew up. There is something about the coldness of the terms, bespeaking laboratories and machines that doesn’t lead to the images that terms like psychology and psychotherapy can create. The word psychotherapy comes from the Ancient Greek words psychē, meaning breath, spirit, or soul and therapeia or therapeuein, to heal or cure. Thus the psychotherapist is the healer or nurse of souls. That feels dramatically different from “behavioral health specialist. 

The realm of the psychotherapist encompasses dreams, wishes, fantasies, art, passions, emotions, thoughts, relationships, myth, metaphor, fairy tales. Like the Roman god Janus, psychotherapy looks in two directions — backwards into the past and forward into the desired future. 

I remember talking with a behaviorist when I was first in graduate school. He told me he was not interested in how people describe themselves or their lives because “self report is unreliable”; he was only interested in observable behavior. Now admittedly this is a pretty radically behaviorist stance but it is the ground for behavioral science just as the ancient Greek psychopompos,  guide of souls, is the ground for depth psychotherapy. 

A Baptist preacher and a Russian Orthodox priest may both be Christian clergy with some common beliefs and a common point of origin, but their ways of performing their sacred roles have diverged enough that they hardly seem part of the same faith. So it is in mental health with behavioral health specialists and psychotherapists. We have a common root but the branches we each occupy have become so far apart that it becomes harder to discern that we are part of the same tree.

Wanting to be wanted

When I was nine, we lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My mother, not an easy woman, thought I would never become a desirable catch, as I was too preoccupied with books. Her poking, prodding, and criticism did not work, so she enrolled me in a ballroom dance/etiquette course. As it happened, that same year, the University of New Mexico was mounting a production of Euripides’ “Medea”. They needed two nine-year-olds to play the sons, but it was thought that nine-year-old year old boys were too rowdy to take the discipline to be in a play like that, so they came to the dance class to pick two girls. I was one of them.

 I remember being fitted for the costume, being taught to walk like a boy and to scream like a boy. I did not know what the story was, but it was fun learning those things.

I finally saw the play all the way through the day of the dress rehearsal. I remember standing in the wings watching. The meaning of the play rolled down the aisle like a dark cloud and swallowed me as I realized she kills her sons. In a moment, I understood what role I was playing. I can remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck and the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  

 I woke up the next day with a fever and by the end of the day, it was clear I had the measles. I missed the whole run of the play.

Fast forward many years to graduate school. Medea continued to fascinate me so I decided to write my dissertation about her. I was struck by how modern her situation seemed. Imagine Medea as a girl, star-struck by the hero, Jason. Her name means cunning or knowing. She is the niece of Circe, granddaughter of Helios, daughter of a king. A powerful woman, a priestess of Hekate. Yet, when she sees Jason, described as good-looking, tall with long blond hair, a Fabio of his day, she becomes infatuated. Jason represents the glory and civilization of Greece, adventure. In order to help him to survive the tasks given him by her father as the price for obtaining the Golden Fleece, she must choose love over duty. In turn, in order to secure her help, Jason swears to marry her. In choosing Jason, Medea breaks the tie to family and home to go with Jason to a land where he is hero and she a barbarian.

Jason wants her, needs her, in order to successfully complete his quest. He is willing to give her what she wants—that feeling of being wanted and a place to hide her power and control. In agreeing to marry Medea, Jason gains everything—his life, the Golden Fleece, his safe return as a hero. In one version of the play, the Nurse raises the important question: “Why must a woman seek a man who seeks his special gold?”. Men with this kind of commitment, more to their quest than to the woman, seem unlikely to match the devotion of a woman like Medea. But she feels wanted, needed and so surely, perhaps she thinks, he must be the one for her.

I hear variations of this story again and again in my office from smart, competent women who spend their days wanting to be wanted and being disappointed time and again. To a degree I lied it myself when I was a young woman. Too often the women seem to see themselves as trophies or dolls on the shelf and convince themselves that whoever chooses them must be the right one, because after all, he is choosing her. And too seldom see themselves as also in position to choose, not merely to wait until being chosen.

Following from Lacan, who asserted that women want to be wanted more than they want to be loved, women too often seek to be desirable rather than to be fully known. Polly Young-Eisendrath explores this “wanting to be wanted” not as the normal outcome of female development but as a problem in her book, Women and Desire: Beyond wanting to be wanted. 

She observes

“The compulsion to be desired and desirable undermines self-direction, self-confidence, and self-determination in women from adolescence through old age, in all our roles, from daughter to mother, from lover to wife, from student to worker or leader, whether or not the affliction is conscious.

Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions. We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want for ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others. We find ourselves always wanting to be seen in a positive light: the perfect mother, the ideal friend, the seductive lover, the slender or athletic body, the kind neighbor, the competent boss. In place of knowing the truth of who we are and what we want from our lives, we become trapped in images.” (Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to Be Wanted, p.3)

Sound familiar?