NDJ:6 Catherine Ambrose, MMS LCSW

Before Words

I am falling asleep. Falling, tripping, tumbling, tipping, sliding into sleep. Every week, same time, same client. It is late afternoon, and the bright winter sun warms the room through the west facing windows. Dust motes drift lazily. I shift, digging my fingernails discretely into my palm. I blink, and my eyelids are soothing and warm over my tired eyes, like a soft blanket. I should have had coffee earlier. I clench my jaws shut, stifling a yawn, sucking air through my nose. I have no idea what she has been talking about. I’ve laughed when I’ve heard about therapists falling asleep in a session—who could do such a thing? My patient wanders on, and my thoughts slip away. Oh my god, was I nodding? Where is she? What is she talking about? Her mother? I grab a phrase, a lifeline, and cling to it, trying to follow her. Mother, visiting mother in nursing home. I jab my nails harder into my palm. I’ve missed the details, but probably I’ve got the thread of a theme—elderly parents failing, fears of loneliness in old age, of deteriorating: sore feet, arthritic hips, increasing nearsightedness, crumbling teeth. I shift my position in my chair again, and begin to think, to think I’ve been drowning, but here is the shore, I recognize the shore.

“It is as if no one listens to me.” Her sentence reaches me like a foghorn in the mist. Shame. I’ve been caught. Shit, I have no excuse. I am a lazy, inattentive therapist. But this is boring, lifeless, familiar, dull, dull, exquisitely dull, how can you possibly blame me for being bored? But wait, no, perhaps I am not snagged, because she continues, “It’s what drives me crazy about my relationship with her, she never recognizes what is important to me.” Ah. Not caught yet. But I know, of course, that she is talking about me. Egg, chicken; chicken, egg. Mother, me, now, then, hatched, unborn. I try, okay, not hard, but listlessly, responsibly, to locate some reasonable interpretive comment. I really do. How can I tell her about this? Something about how I have not heard her, and now am like her mother to her. I know there are words for this, and that the words are projective identification, but I cannot grasp what they mean and the thought is slipping away like a dream… and no, I cannot, don’t want to. My thoughts are fragments, wisps of mist in my dozy shame.

When I speak with my supervisor about it, he comments that there is a deadness in the room, and wonders about its source. I have some sense that he is right, but his words seem a far remove from the fog I experience when I am with her. In this kind of netherworld, words themselves are the foreign tongue. Fog is fog is fog is fog, it cannot be made to represent itself and so remains un-nameable. Mere words are wraiths, less than shadows of what they try to express. I say them anyway, dutifully, since after all when it comes down to it I have nothing else. “Something is making you afraid you will come apart.”

A few weeks later, she is confused about the boy who comes to her house to help her with the computer. “He’s cute,” she says, “but he’s too young for me, of course.” And she is puzzled by her rage at him when he can’t come again tomorrow—it is a hateful, murderous, inordinate rage. Her voice is rising, shrill, frantic, out of proportion. How dare he exert this power over her? So she kills him. She smiles with satisfaction. Who has the power now? Oh, it has been a symbolic murder, of course, she has found another helper, deflected that terrible of dependency and hope. But here is the really strange thing. “I have a feeling,” she says, “that this is a kind of microcosm of something that I do all the time. It makes me so angry when someone controls me. I feel so powerless, like I’m falling apart.” Words, not shadows, echoed back to me from sessions ago. Borrowed, given, hers, mine, ours? Her eyes meet mine. We are both awake.