My patient came into the room and threw herself into the seat by the customary box of tissues. “I think there’s something wrong with my legs,” she said. She stretched her legs out in front of her so I had to look at them. “There isn’t,” I wanted to say, but didn’t. “Sometimes they feel tingly and numb. But it might be in my head,” she said.
I have been seeing her for more than a year now as part of my two-year training to become a psychotherapist. In our early sessions she used to stamp her feet up and down, as though desperately trying to run away but unfortunately finding herself tied to the chair. Later she began to cross her legs and twist one foot behind the other. “She is tying herself in knots,” my supervisor said when I presented her to the clinical seminar. (Every session with a patient is written up and discussed).
Most of us are aware that we pick at our fingers, chew our lips or eat too much or too little when we are anxious or unhappy; that we fidget when uncomfortable and need to leave the room when the tension is unbearable, but it is always surprising in therapy just how literally problems are expressed by the body.
When I lie down on the couch myself, as I do for 50 minutes every weekday morning, I find myself suddenly unable to breathe until I start talking. I’ve wondered if it’s the climb up the stairs, too much coffee, anxiety about what I want to say today.
But, really, it is because I am terrified of lying on a bed with an unseen man behind me. Rationally, I know I am safe, but my body is screaming at me to run. “Once you start speaking you are back in the adult world,” my analyst says. This is true. The acts of thinking and talking squash the infantile anxieties expressed by my body. Keep talking and it might be OK.
Early on in her treatment, my patient arrived with a livid gash across her forehead. She’d been taking drugs with friends, and had fallen in the kitchen and needed stitches. It was a violent and explicit demonstration of how chaotic and dangerous she felt, but also how obviously injured she is. “Look!” she was saying. “Can’t you see how bad it is? It’s right…