Lying on the couch this morning, I was staring up at the bookcase, all 24 weathered volumes of Freud, once so mysterious, now so familiar. “What are you feeling now?” my analyst asked. I lie rigidly in an arms-across-my-chest mummified position, so unmoving that often I get paralysed pins and needles in my right arm. “Nothing,” I said, truthfully. He must be exhausted by me, I think. “Well,” I said, “a minute ago I felt slightly nauseated by the smell of last night’s supper.” I have my daily sessions in the attic room of his house and can often smell the breakfast porridge, the curry of the evening before, the soapy smells from the bathroom as I pass. “But you didn’t mention it at the time,” he said.
This seemed absurd. If I mentioned every tiny little thing I noticed about my surroundings I would fill the whole 50 minute session talking about the ticking clock, the Bulgarian builders’ conversation outside, the spider on the ceiling, my analyst’s small movements, his bottle of water, his cough, the ping of his emails arriving. You get the picture. He pointed out that my hyper-vigilance was so constant that I barely noticed it happening. I agreed and said it makes me a good driver. “And it would be brilliant if I was a detective,” I said. “I almost want there to be a crime so that I can show off my skills.”
My analyst and I both caught the fact that my vigilance was related to an anticipated crime, or perhaps to a past crime. I lay stiff on the couch, listening , smelling, looking, mind whirring. “Yes,” I said. “I am always ready for escape, just in case. I could disable you, if I had to, and get out very quickly.” I was stunned by my own revelation—that I am always coiled, ready for flight. “I do,” I admitted, “usually keep a machete by the bed.”
I have been in analysis a long time and there have been revelations big and small, so it was surprising that something so fundamental to the way I think had not made it into the room explicitly before. I talk and talk about my childhood, my children, my husband, my psychotherapy training, the lecturers, the supervisors. I ruminate, I ponder, I explore, but I had never mentioned quite the extent of my ceaseless scanning for anticipated danger.
My unconscious is so good at keeping my acute anxiety secret that I even filter it out myself, so how, without a clever analyst, could I possibly bring it up? For it is what we don’t say, can’t say or won’t say that is often the most important thing in the room.
I have a training patient who talks in theoretical terms about her thoughts and feelings, but never names members of her family or friends she has spoken to, or places she has been. I put this to her and she said, “I suppose I think you’ll laugh at me.” She laughed herself and said she generalises and intellectualises with everyone for fear of exposing some humiliating detail.
Another patient told me he had remembered something he had hoped was forgotten, but he was nonetheless unable to tell it to me. “I have practised in the mirror, but I can’t say the words,” he said, tearful. “If I say it then it will be true.” When we edit our thoughts for public presentation we tend to choose the things that are easier to articulate, that won’t expose us, embarrass our audience or put us in real or imagined danger. But what we hardly dare think, let alone say, is perhaps the material that will lead to real insight and change.
Only when I have acknowledged that I am braced for attack 24 hours a day can I begin to wonder what kind of attack I expect and why I might be expecting it, machete at the ready… Be warned.