The unconscious has its genius.
When my daughter was eleven years old and I was in my mid-thirties, I learned something – the hard way – that has proved useful both in my life and in my work with patients.
It happens like this. My daughter, at the cusp of adolescence, is already taller than my five feet four. Shades of Alice in Wonderland, she has grown five inches this past year. The atmosphere of life these days feels something like it must down the rabbit hole. One day while we are shopping together and separately at the neighborhood supermarket, she with one cart and I with another, I glance down as I pass an aisle, and see but do not immediately recognize my daughter, she has grown tall so quickly.
Until that time, I had been pretty relaxed about being a mother. Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, I found myself at times frantic with worry about my no-longer-so-little girl. The occasions for anxiety have a common element: she is away for a day trip or an evening. What happens is that I’m okay for a while, but as the time for her return home approaches, I begin to be obsessed with the possibility that something dire may have happened to her. I suffer terribly with irrational thoughts verging on panic. And then, dependably, as soon as she returns safely home, the whole miserable neurotic episode evaporates. That is, until the next time.
Taking myself back to those fraught days:
This will be my daughter’s last summer at Green Acres, a nearby day camp she has attended for the past six years. Early in the summer, she has an “overday” – a day when, instead of coming home in the late afternoon, she and the other senior campers stay on for a campfire dinner. At about 4 o’clock that afternoon I begin to worry. Big time. I have to discipline myself not to drive to the camp to reassure myself that lions and tigers and bears, or worse, have not this day invaded a Boston suburb. I am miserable with worry. And then, the moment my daughter arrives home that evening, I’m back to life as usual, all worries gone.
The end of this summer marks my daughter’s last day of day camp for all time. She and the other senior campers are “graduating” — a day and night marked by a couple of special events: her camp group’s performance of their production of Peter Pan, followed by an overnight of camping. Parents are invited to the play. Of course I attend.
Sitting in the audience at the rustic outdoor amphitheater, I watch the other groups of campers file in: the five-year-olds from Treetops, the six-year-olds from Brookside, the seven-year-olds from … In my mind’s eye, I see my little girl at five, at six, at seven … The play begins, and there she is onstage, eleven years old, tall, and growing into womanhood. Too soon the play is over, I am congratulating her and the other kids and kissing my daughter good-bye until tomorrow. There is, of course, that overnight.
Back in my car, I find myself overcome with sadness. No more Green Acres. No more little girl. Sobbing, my chest heaving, I have never before cried so deeply.
I am left, finally, with a quieter sadness. And an odd sense of peace. Still, as I drive home, I begin to gird myself against the irrational anxiety I expect to suffer this night.
But the panic never comes.
In fact, it is never to come again. I have been taught a lesson about the genius of the unconscious. Its generation of neurotic pain functions as a distraction from the pain of living.
At the time of my daughter’s transition from childhood to adolescence, when I worried irrationally about some dire happening, I created a circumstance that was destined in all probability to have a happy ending. Again and again, as she was restored safely to me, all the pain disappeared. This construct was an effective distraction from the reality that, day by day, my daughter was growing up and becoming increasingly independent — growing naturally away from me. While of course I supported her growing independence, I resisted feeling the depths of my sadness at the ending of her childhood. Catalyzed by the event at the day camp, when finally I succumbed to this sadness and wept, I no longer needed the distraction of the neurotic worry.
The process of therapy can be described as trading neurotic pain for existential pain. The key matter is that the sadness that comes with living, when acknowledged, felt, and put into perspective, follows the natural path of grief and eventually fades, releasing energy for life’s ongoing adventures. Neurotic pain, on the other hand, can go on and on and on, consuming the energy of life. Living takes courage.
I am reminded of something my dad used to say: “A coward dies a thousand deaths; a brave man dies but one.” Our work with patients who suffer with worrying is to accompany them through the process of finding the real pain of their lives and do what we can to help them to acknowledge it, to bear it, and finally, to put it into perspective.