Life of the mind

Thinking of you
July 18, 2013

My friend, who has been in psychoanalysis five times a week for the past year, puts his coffee down and glowers at me as if his analyst’s behaviour is my fault—which, given that I’m training to be a therapist and encouraged him to have analysis in the first place, perhaps it is.

“Why does she keep asking me how I feel about her? Why does it all have to be about me being late and how that denigrates her? I don’t feel anything about her for God’s sake. I pay her, I go, I talk about my stuff. What more does she want?”

I sigh. “You get all emotional about the woman who sits on that bench on the Heath. How can your analyst be the only person in the whole world with whom you have no emotional involvement? And of course you’re denigrating her if you’re late. If she offered you a million pounds to be on time you’d be on time. She’s pointing out that you make unconscious choices.”

He harrumphs, resentful of me for ever having mentioned therapy to him in the first place, holding me responsible for his enslavement to the miserable process.

“Anyway. It would be stupid to start feeling anything. She doesn’t care about me. It’s a business transaction,” he says.

“Aha!” I pounce, pleased he got to the point so quickly.

The cynical and very vociferously voiced belief about therapists is that they are charlatans, mystics and probably morons who take your money, laugh about your problems over boozy dinner tables and gleefully do up their house in France on the proceeds of their patients’ pain. The idea that a therapist’s head is very much occupied by his or her patients, both in and out of the session time, is not one that gets much airtime, but it’s largely true. The news that my friend’s analyst probably has him in her mind most of the time, in one way or another, seemed to stun him.

“This is you playing hard to get at the beginning of a relationship because you don’t want to invest in someone who might reject you,” I said. I am an irritating friend, I’ll grant you. “When you trust her more you’ll be mad about her, then when you know she’s yours you’ll denigrate her and start trying to leave. See?”

The next time I saw him she was no longer “the shrink,” but “Gabriella.” Satisfying.

Of course, patients can occupy a therapist’s mind in good ways and bad. One of my colleagues talks about a patient whose behaviour is so disturbing that he finds himself having nightmares. This is how she is communicating her mental hell to him. Other patients just exist alongside the rest of our thoughts. This morning, for example, a friend of my late father’s emailed me a photo of himself with my dad in a bar in Belfast in 1975, and I immediately plunged into that grim, grainy time of free milk, the Troubles and power cuts. I thought of my patient and his own fragile childhood memories of a father who died. I haven’t told him that we have that in common, but surely my empathy must show?

So much are our patients part of our lives that an analyst I know recently told me that she was taking a break for a few years because she wanted to “dedicate her mind’s lap”—the area reserved in a therapist’s mind for her patients—to her children. When my analyst made it clear he didn’t think I should take a job abroad when my son was a baby I assumed it was because he’d miss the cash. Fifteen years later, privileged that my own patients are sharing their lives with me, I wish I had known he had my best interests at heart.