Fishing the Woolly Bugger in the Impasse Pool
Joan describes a sleepless night. She recites the litany of problems she faces related to her marriage and family life. She feels overwhelmed and unable to think about solutions to any of her problems. “I should just throw myself into the pond at the farm and be done with it. I’m so messed up right now….I need to be in the hospital.” I interpret to her that she is already in a hospital the two times a week that she meets with me at my office. She looks startled and then perks up and says, “That’s right.” I interpret further that maybe she is experiencing the need to be in my office more than twice a week. She is open to this interpretation and to the option to consult me more often in dealing with her feelings of being overwhelmed and stuck.
I discuss the situation with the psychiatrist to whom I have referred her for evaluation and Joan and I have a consultation with her spouse. It is agreed by all that a structural change makes sense. Joan and I will schedule five sessions per week for a month. We will evaluate her status at the end of this period.
I am convinced that Joan does not want to be hospitalized literally. I understand that she wants to have her overwhelming feelings contained, and she wants someone to help her begin to understand her life situation differently. This place of being stuck has something to do with the relationship between Joan and me and her ability to utilize me for this process. What are we going to uncover here? I keep this question in mind as we proceed.
With the structural change, the work becomes more intensely focused. Associations and interpretations flow freely from day-to-day. Joan’s anxiety and self-destructive fantasies decrease steadily. Am I simply experiencing that Joan needs more of a traditional psychoanalytically-oriented structure? I’m not a psychoanalyst. I’m a pastoral psychotherapist with psychoanalytic training practicing in a small southern town. Little awareness of pastoral psychotherapy exists here, much less of psychoanalytic thinking. But this process we have structured is working. Still, what else is lurking beneath the surface of the relationship between Joan and me to be discovered and understood?
In the beginning of the third week, Joan’s night is interrupted by her awaking to anxious, overwhelming and obsessive thoughts. In my office the following morning, her thoughts become more focused as we begin to talk. Toward the end of the session, she reaches into her purse and pulls out a small fishing fly. My office is furnished with several artistic pieces of fly-fishing memorabilia. In my community I am known as an avid and passionate fly fisherman. In this same community, Joan is known as an accomplished fly fisherwoman having participated in numbers of specialized expeditions all over the country. As had surfaced earlier in our exploration of her history, she was affectionately introduced to fishing by her maternal grandfather at an early age. Joan drops into my hand the fly she retrieves from her purse. I immediately recognize it as a Woolly Bugger, size eight. “I couldn’t sleep last night so I got up and tied ten of these. I brought one to you because I know you will use it. You are a fly fisherman.”
I look at the fly and study it. “I think you’re trying to give me something more than this fly you have tied. Let’s try to understand what it means tomorrow.” Her eyes widen at my comment. She leaves the office that day appearing more hopeful in mood.
Over the night, I mull over the meaning of this Woolly Bugger that has been given to me by Joan. The Woolly Bugger is known the world over by fly fishermen. A caterpillar worm imitation, it is probably in the top five flies in the world as a go-to in tough times. The Woolly Bugger is often used in deep pools when the fish are not active on the top and one has to go deep out of sight in search of them.
So, I go deeper. I consult Mr. Webster. Woolly cites a second definition…lacking in clearness and sharpness, marked by mental confusion, lacking order. Bugger cites a second definition…a worthless person. I get it. The Woolly Bugger has been dropped into the unconscious pool of dialogue between Joan and me. I am hooked.
The next day as we begin the session, Joan is eager to begin our exploration of the meaning of the Woolly Bugger. I tell her of my consultation with Mr. Webster and then I make an interpretation. I think when you gave me the Woolly Bugger you gave me a symbol of what you experience as the confused, disordered, ugly, worthless, mentally unfit parts of yourself. You want to see how we might make sense out of these experiences of yourself in a different way. The moment the interpretation is made, Joan sits up in amazement and excitement. She is hooked by the Woolly Bugger and the depth of her unconscious that it symbolizes.
The Woolly Bugger interpretation begins a long process of exploration of the unconscious work that Joan and I do together. The impasse is broken. We resume our earlier structure of twice a week sessions at the end of the month with much increased intensity and exploration. I place Joan’s Woolly Bugger in a display box that fly fishermen utilize to keep flies from special expeditions.Several years ago Joan suggested that the Woolly Bugger encounter needed to be in my book on flyfishing or psychotherapy or both. When I ask her permission to utilize it for this essay, she readily agrees. And as she and I remember the encounter, she is led to another depth of exploration in relation to her current life struggle. The Woolly Bugger is a great fly for exploring the deep pools. It hooks big fish and sometimes it hooks the human beings who fish it.