Liz was recording her thoughts about the session she’d just completed with a couple grieving the loss of their stillborn child when the ring of the telephone interrupted her. She hurriedly finished her thought and paused the tape recorder.”Yes?” she inquired.
“Dr. Evans, Patricia Williams just called to reschedule tomorrow’s session for next week instead,” the receptionist, Ashley, explained. “But next week is that conference, so I didn’t know if you’d be available or not.”
Liz felt a rush of irritation. In the past six weeks of seeing Patricia, who was planning an adoptive placement for her unborn son, she’d had to rearrange two appointments to accommodate her client. Patricia was making progress at problem solving the immediate problems in her life, and seemed able and willing to go deeper. But the therapeutic process had been demanding, too. Liz hesitated before answering Ashely’s question.
“No…, no, I’m not available at all next week. Though I’ll be back Friday morning, I hadn’t planned to come in to the office at all that day. I guess you’ll just have to cancel tomorrow’s appointment and set her up for the week after next,” she replied.
Liz returned to the work at hand, but felt distracted. She worried that Patricia would be reluctant to come in after two missed appointments, and fretfully questioned whether or not she should call Patricia herself. She began to feel helpless as her thoughts ran in circles. What to do? What to do?
It’s not as though she’s suicidal or as though there’s some emergency, Liz, she told herself. So what’s the problem here?
“What’s the problem, indeed,” she murmured to herself. “Time to call Doctor Vee, just what I need before heading off to a conference, anyway!” Liz picked up the phone and called her own analyst for an appointment; a reality check was needed.
calling doctor vargas
As part of her training as a psychotherapist, Liz had been required to undergo personal analysis. Her analyst, Michael Vargas, was a Zurich-trained Jungian who was nevertheless quite open-minded about other schools of thought. A big admirer of Freud and other pioneers such as Alfred Adler, Melanie Klein, and Carl Rogers, Doctor Vee, as she fondly called him, often said, “Different tools for different jobs; whatever theoretical approach works for a client works for me!”
She had been Dr. Vee’s analysand for nine years now, and felt a fond affection for the man, mixed with a healthy dose of respect. He had worked full-time as an analyst for 40 years and was still as vibrant and intellectually alive at age 80 as he had no doubt been at in his thirties. Seeing him would do her good.
Liz had already seen Dr. Vee once about issues that arose after she’d seen Patricia for the first time. Her idle musings about possible associations between adoption and base chakra functions had provided the fuel for a lively exchange in an enlightening session with Dr. Vee. But, lacking any significant emotional reactions to Patricia’s adoption plan, Liz could rest assured that she wasn’t herself complexed–emotionally knotted up–about adoption as an issue. Her work with Patricia since consulting Dr. Vee the first time had progressed, and Liz had been satisfied with the pace of therapy and the rapport she had continued to build with Patricia.
Now, however, she’d had a moderately strong emotional reaction against Patricia. During her training as a therapist, Dr. Vee had told her on more than one occasion that irritability can be an enlightened person’s most faithful companion, indicating where one is complexed or has unconscious drives operating. As she waited for Dr. Vee to answer his phone, Liz smiled. Going to see Vee had come to feel like a visit to her grandparents had felt when she was a child, and he was very much the wise old man figure in her life today.
the analyst sees an analyst
Four hours later, Liz sank into the buttery-soft leather sofa in Dr. Vargas’s office, kicking her shoes onto the floor. “Aaaah,” she smiled, “I’m so glad to be here, Vee! Bless you for seeing me on such short notice!”
Dr. Vargas peered over his glasses at her through bushy white eyebrows and smiled. “It’s not every day that you call and say, ‘I’m aggravated and I need to see you!’” Liz chuckled. This was true. Liz’s usual air was that of the cool, polished professional woman whose act was decidedly together. No complexes left in this girl! But clearly that wasn’t the case today.
“Tell me what’s gone on,” Dr. Vargas invited, settling deeper into his chair and folding his hands over his Santa-like belly.
Liz lay down on the couch and closed her eyes, recalling the scene that had prompted her feelings of irritation. As she recounted the story, though, she began to feel foolish and silly for being in Vee’s office over something so trivial. She faltered during her story-telling and a sentence trailed off.
“Go on,” Vee gently prodded, “what happened next?”
Suddenly Liz drew a blank. What happened next? She opened her eyes and looked up at the ceiling. Nothing. Her mind was as blank as the white ceiling. The table lamp cast a circle of light above her, and she idly traced its circumference. Nothing. Her mind was simply blank. “God, I don’t know!” she exclaimed. “I’m drawing a total blank!”
Dr. Vargas leaned forward and removed his glasses, punctuating his next question, “Where are you, Liz? What’s going on?”
Liz sat up on the sofa and began to wring her hands. “I don’t know! I feel like a fool suddenly! I’m just so… so damn frustrated with this client!” Liz’s recent frustrations with Patricia’s demeanor and take-charge attitude poured out of her, culminating with her complaints about Patricia’s demands that she keep changing her appointments. “I’m afraid of losing her as a client, because I know I can help her, but I’m not willing to give up my needs to do it,” she explained.
A wave of helplessness overcame Liz and she practically wailed, “I don’t know what to do! I just want to give up and let her have her way, give her the Friday appointment and give up what I’d hoped would be an exciting conference week followed by a come-back-to-reality relaxed weekend of processing. But now I don’t know what to do!”
“I really felt I needed the entire week off, but this client is expecting to give her child up for adoption, for heaven’s sake. She’s having a baby and all I want is a pedicure! What if she terminates therapy? What if she thinks I don’t care?”
Vee’s eyebrows shot up as Liz’s explanations became laments, and his normally level-headed, sophisticated client and colleague took on the appearance of a helpless victim. The look on his face brought her to her senses.
“I’m… I’m going the wrong way, aren’t I?” Liz asked, sitting up.
Dr. Vargas chuckled. “Yes, Liz, you’re going the wrong way!”
She chuckled, too, knowing that they were sharing a favorite line from the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Liz recalled the relevant scene: Unbeknownst to them, the two main characters in the movie, played by Steve Martin and John Candy, have taken a wrong turn and are headed down a one-way street going the wrong direction. A motorist driving parallel to them rolls down his window and begins to shout, “You’re going the wrong way!”
“What’s he saying?” Martin asks of Candy. “Oh, I dunno,” Candy replies, “he’s drunk! He says we’re going the wrong way.”
“The wrong way?” Martin asks, “How the hell does he know where we’re going?”
“Yeah!” exclaims Candy, dismissively mocking the other motorist by tipping an imaginary bottle at him. “He can’t possibly know where we’re going!”
By this time, the couple in the other car are frantically gesturing and shouting, “YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY! YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG DIRECTION!” And about this time, of course, Martin and Candy realize their predicament as a huge truck comes barreling down the highway straight at them.
Liz was going the wrong direction with an energy flow that wanted to externalize her problem. The problem wasn’t only with Patricia; at this point, it was also Liz’s problem.
irritation as a clue
“Your irritation was the clue,” Vee pointed out, “that brought you to me. It is very good of you to notice this uncharacteristic mood in yourself. Your vigilance is what makes you such an effective helper, and keeps your clients safe. Your vigilance makes it you worthy of their trust.” Liz began to calm down, feeling comforted by Vee’s warm smile and supportive words. It seemed he always knew the right thing to say. And he was right; part of being an effective therapist was taking responsibility for one’s own “stuff.” She had done that, and could be proud of her integrity. She felt better already.
“I hardly need to remind you,” Dr. Vargas began, “about the helpful work of irritation, do I?”
Liz smiled and shook her head. “No, but I want to hear it from you anyway.” Sometimes her sessions with Dr. Vee were more like story-telling around a fire than they were like analysis. But, then, good analysis involved story-telling and the stuff of legends, anyway. She relaxed against the back of the sofa as Dr. Vargas leaned forward in his chair. She almost expected him to begin, “Once upon a time…”
“Irritation,” Dr. Vargas explained, “is like any other outburst of energy, affect, bad moods, sexual excitement, and the like–anything that is emotive and disorients a person’s conscious condition, eh?” Liz nodded her agreement. “Thus another person or even symbolic beings such as an angel–as Jung suggested–can be a personified transmitter of unconscious contents that are seeking expression.”
“Something within you finally was stirred to the point of irritation,” Dr. Vargas continued. ” Your work with Patricia has had only good results thus far. You are closer, you have gained her trust, you have facilitated many insights. You have solved problems together as you ought; and just last week she brought you a dream for the first time. Her unconscious contents manifest themselves and suddenly, soon afterward, there is a crisis. Suddenly she must change her appointments. Suddenly you feel an irritation and then a helplessness that are not characteristic.”
“But fortunately you are aware of your irritation, and so you come to see me. You explain yourself, under the watchful eye of a faithful friend, and then suddenly we see your emotion. I witness a transformation. In an instant, I see in front of me a competent, intelligent, highly trained and experienced professional suddenly dissolve into a helpless hand-wringer.”
Dr. Vargas pointed to Liz’s hands, which were twisting in her lap.
enter the hand-wringer, stage right
Liz looked at her hands with surprise. It was as if they didn’t even belong to her!
“Who is the hand-wringer in this picture?” Dr. Vee asked. Because an immediate answer didn’t spring into Liz’s conscious mind, she began to list all her personal associations to hand-wringing and hand-wringers, ending with a litany of the events of the past two weeks, seeking whatever could be found that would trigger her bout of irascibility. Nothing came to mind until she suddenly realized that there was an invisible hand-wringer in her life.
“Oh my!” Liz exclaimed, “It’s Patricia’s mother! She’s the hand-wringer!”
“Ah!” Dr. Vee intoned, “the ever-present Ghost Mother. You’ve found her.”
Liz nodded her head sadly. “Yes, I walked right into it, didn’t I? The old transference, counter-transference dance. I can’t believe I did it.”
“Explain,” urged Dr. Vargas. “What do you see?”
“It’s as you said,” Liz replied, “we had made all this progress and of course once a client begins to dig deep and really trust you, any big complexes they have are likely to become manifest. The client will probably then use defense mechanisms to protect herself from the unwanted complex or emotional knot–defenses such as projection or transference. And this is exactly what happened.”
“Patricia needed to prove my trustworthiness, and more-or-less drove me into a situation in which I might be as weak and ineffective as her mother was, forcing Patricia to take charge even though she’s the one who needs the care. Her mother was the parent, and Patricia the child, just as I am the therapist and she the client. Sadly for Patricia, her mother didn’t fulfill her role of guide and protector, so Patricia had to take care of herself. Similarly, if I begin to helplessly wring my hands and give up my responsibility to actually be the therapist, she’ll know that she can’t trust me. I will in effect have become her mother. She can’t heal if I can’t represent to her what Klein called ‘the good breast.’”
Dr. Vargas slowly nodded his head in agreement, then arched a quizzical brow at Liz. “So, what now, Dr. Evans? Have you made any mis-steps that need correcting, any blunders that need attending to?”
Only the murmur of the traffic outside could be heard as Liz considered Dr. Vargas’s question for several minutes. “I think I almost certainly would have blundered if I hadn’t known enough to call you and come in,” she began, “because by having our receptionist return Patricia’s call rather than calling her myself, though I bought some time to think about things, I also acted uncharacteristically. I can see now that if I don’t call Patricia personally, I may be acting very much as her mother did in her life, letting other people take charge or handle my problems while remaining passive.”
“And what will you do about that?” Dr. Vargas asked.
“Call her myself, of course!” Liz exclaimed as she reached for her shoes.