For Jessica Mesman Griffith
A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell,” is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of a man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being.
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
When I first started to see my therapist—now fifteen years ago—her office was in the former caretaker’s cottage in back of what had once been a private mansion off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. The little two-story house, its exterior a mix of Tudor and Richardson Romanesque, sat in a formal garden with a flagstone terrace and fountain, like something from a storybook.
To bail out of a cab or the Vulcan forge of the Metro escalator onto Connecticut Avenue, down the hidden side street, and through the creaking wrought iron gate was like entering another world: The garden was open to the public and children played on the quiet grass; office staff sat with their lunches leisurely in the sun.
I punched in the code for the door, then bounded up the stairs for the corner office where I lay on the sofa and cried.
I did this each day, for four days a week, because for three years of this fifteen, I was in traditional, strict Freudian psychoanalysis, where she said nothing and I said everything.
She’d moved to the second office around the same time my son was born. This time, the suite was in a midcentury, International-style apartment building that was also on a spoke leading off Dupont Circle. There was free coffee in the lobby, and the concierge was a Nigerian man who started off gruff but over the years was charmed by my son and grew kind to me, when I, like all the other psychotherapy patients, inscribed the visitors’ book with only my initials.
Oddly, the architecture of these offices mirrored the transformation of my own psyche: The caretaker’s cottage was the Victorian pastoral of an adolescent girl, the place where, metaphorically, I could throw myself on the bed in the upstairs room and read until dinner.
And it was my own sad little story I read: That reading had started in nothing less than the Confessional, where a priest both kind and irritable declared that what I was confessing had nothing to do with Sin, but were dynamics I’d need to work out elsewhere, and—because I was both newly married and neurotic, and he had an interest in my marriage succeeding—he said I needed to get to a therapist and get to work.
By the time the therapist had moved to the apartment building, I was a mother, and my chief recollections of the time where of parking that car, figuring out how to get the stroller up the marble steps of the chrome-and-mirrored lobby, and finding an unused office to nurse the baby in, along with the fresh wave of memory that having a child had prompted:
How does a mother who is not depressed look her child in the eye? To affirm reality rather than to squash it. (“Let’s just not talk about it” was apparently the tribal cry of my people.)
“Shouldn’t you be done by now?” I’ve had more than one person observe, and wonder out loud about how much they wished they had that kind of time, or money. (It wasn’t much time, and I got the discounted rate.)
But psychotherapy is not the self-obsessed navel gazing that far too many people are still wont to call it. Everything we talked about—the lowest and most frightening moments, the very valley of the shadow of death—I did so in the name not of wallowing around, but in getting rid of it. And thus, in getting over the child’s anxiety I had been trapped by.
After about seven or eight years, I had dug enough ground that I found a solid place on which to stand, and I ramped back on going to see her so regularly. There’s a wonderful essay called “The Tornado in the Carpet,” which is specifically about psychoanalysis, by the poet Susan Wood (who happened to be on my Master’s thesis committee, though this essay came out years later), whose feeling at the end of her own termination expresses my own better than I ever could:
“I looked up at the light leafing through the branches and I felt something inside me, an actual entity, like an organ, that I’d never felt before…. Solid and full. What, for a lack of another name, I call the self. And I was shot through with happiness.”
My therapist moved to her latest office not too long ago, and I went to see her after she had been there some several months. It, too, is near Dupont Circle, in a 1930s Georgian townhouse that, she told me, was where Adlai Stevenson had lived during the middle of World War II: I punch in the code of the covered door, and traipse up a grand set of wainscoted stairs. Her office is high-ceilinged, with expansive windows hung in drapes.
This is the last office, I can see. Certainly mine and probably hers, as well. I am sitting ladylike with ankles crossed, a matron now.
It is as though I am grown up at last, come home from far away, just to take a glance at my old room and the Stones albums under the bed, the photographs I’ve memorized by heart.
And then, as though to my mother, I’m up, and just like that: Gone.
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.
Image above by Aubrey Allison, used with permission.