Relationships that last a lifetime
My friend has been seeing her therapist for 30 years—and why not?
I’ve known Sally since I was about 10. When I first met her she used to run marathons in yellow satin shorts. Perhaps they weren’t satin but they looked like satin, bright against her tanned legs. We ate lobster together in Cape Cod and went on a speed boat, also yellow. She looked young enough to be my sister, but she wasn’t.
The years rolled by and disasters struck us both. When I was in my late teens she went into psychoanalysis with a woman I shall call Deborah. She talked sincerely about her daily sessions with Deborah and I felt dismissive (my excuse—my age). “Each to his own,” I thought. “But how Woody Allen, how American. Lucky for me that I can just… smoke these cigarettes, drink these bottles of vodka, sleep with these guys and… lie awake in terror every night to deal with my problems.” And yet I listened, and what she said stuck in my head.
When finally I lay myself down on the psychoanalytic couch as Sally had always suggested, I thought about her. When I gave my analyst an inscribed book (I’d written it, he featured in it), I remembered the matching coffee mugs she’d once bought Deborah as a present and how Deborah had reacted. (I once went to a seminar on how to deal with a present-giving patient—interpret it, of course.)
It had been, what? Maybe 20 years since we had spoken. Far too many. We were on Skype. My teenage children, Sally’s teenage children (I had mine relatively early, she relatively late), work, money, dogs—hers white and fluffy, mine big and black. Relationships. For, perhaps now is the time to confess that the biggest relationship, the most spectacular and the most damaging, in both our lives was with the same man—my father. Sally and I are both single.
We could say, and sometimes have said, shocking things to each other, but last week she surprised me. “I was talking to Deborah about you yesterday,” she said.
“Deborah?! What do you mean?”
“I still have sessions. Once a week now.”
“Sure,” she said, laughing. “I’ve been seeing her for more than 30 years.”
Something about this made me want to cry. And I couldn’t believe Deborah was still alive. In the late 1980s, I had pictured a little old lady with white hair and glasses, a German accent. A female Sigmund Freud. In fact, it turns out, Deborah was the same age as her patient, she had perhaps just finished training when they started work together. But why was I so staggered? I mean, I’ve been seeing my analyst on and off for 20 years now. Ten more would seem easily possible if it weren’t for his malicious retirement plans.
So, when a patient asks me, as one did this morning, how long this cure is likely to take there is no answer. I could say: “You’ll feel much better in a year.” This is true. “We could get a lot done in, say, two or three years.” I think this is the answer my analyst gave in 1994. Also true. It’s not open-ended so that therapists can cash in and therapy isn’t addictive. In training, quite a lot of emphasis is put on “the end” and managing endings (especially as the NHS tends to offer a year with the possibility of a three-month extension but no more).
But, if the important factor in therapy or analysis is the relationship between analyst and analysand (and it is), the establishment of trust and the thinking together then… well, like any deep and important relationship, it could last a lifetime. It often does.
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