Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Impulse to Guardian - part 1

I have been working with a psychologist, “Dr. John”, for several months in an effort to overcome some psychological effects of my diagnosis of and treatment for esophageal cancer. Prominent among these effects were persistent, all encompassing fear and an inability to concentrate on my work as an attorney. In particular, while I could meet and interact with people, and respond and react to questions and other personal stimuli, I could not concentrate on anything analytical, especially written legal documents.

I was disappointed with my progress in psychotherapy. Each week, I wondered if I should conclude my course of treatment. Each week, I decided to give it one more week. If I wasn’t making progress, at least I had someone to tell my frustrations and fears to, other than my wife.

I was also dubious about the direction of the therapy. Dr. John seemed particularly interested in what he perceived as my anger, and in my perceptions of my father as “an undercover superhero.” I believed I was not angry, but fearful, and that my relationship with my father was a Freudian cliché, unrelated to my cancer issues.

Nevertheless, I’m a great believer in expertise, and if psychotherapy wasn’t helping, it certainly wasn’t hurting, either. More importantly, I wasn’t making much progress on my own. I’d begun to wonder whether a full return to the practice of law and an embracing posture toward life would ever be possible for me again.

Accordingly, I continued with the therapy, and agreed to try a technique using eye-movements and referred to as EMDR. On the Thursday before Labor Day, 2005, I met with Dr. John Lynch to try a session of EMDR.

Before we began the EMDR, Dr. John asked me, as he had several times throughout my treatment, what it was I was trying to accomplish. As before, I said I really wanted my old life back. This time, though, I acknowledged that for now, it might be enough just to recover enough function to be able to practice my profession as a lawyer. We talked a little more about my objectives, and about his respect for my wishes and insights. I emphasized that, notwithstanding my disappointment at the slow progress, if I had any better ideas, I’d certainly have let him know.

Beginning the EMDR session, Dr. John brought a chair close to the sofa I was sitting on, and asked me to move to the end, close to his chair. He asked me to remove my glasses. He brought his right hand up in front of my eyes. The first two fingers of his hand were extended close together, with the thumb tucked alongside the palm and first finger. His third and fourth fingers were folded into his palm. The effect was like the hand of an ancient pope or saint held up in benediction.

He moved his hand slowly toward my eyes, asking me to stop him when it got too close. I am very nearsighted without my glasses or contacts, and I did not stop him before he stopped himself. He then moved his hand back out a couple of inches and asked if I was comfortable with that distance. I was and we began.

He first asked me to think of a place where I felt safe and comfortable. I described the chair in my living room, by the fireplace, with the musical instruments on the wall, the harp and piano across the room, and the windows to the front porch and the side of the house. In fact, I’m sitting in the same chair as I write this.

He asked me to imagine myself in this place while watching his hand move, just with my eyes, without moving my head. Then he moved his hand back and forth in front of my eyes for 15 to 30 seconds. Then he asked me what I’d thought about or felt during that time. I replied that I wasn’t sure. We tried this a few more times. Each time, my answer was some variation of “I was wondering if I’m doing this right.”

After a while, he asked me to visualize and feel the “braced position” I had described in earlier sessions as representative of my mental and emotional posture. We did the hand movement thing a few more times. Again, I couldn’t really focus on anything but my questions and doubts about the process.

Then he took a different approach. He said he was going to start a sentence and that I should finish it. He said something like “This happened to me because . . .” Then he did the eye movement thing while I reflected on the sentence. Then he repeated the sentence and asked me to finish it. I just said I didn’t know. We tried a few more times with the same result.

Dr. John said that he was going to give me some examples of the ways people sometimes finished the sentence, that I should not adopt those words, but use them as examples. He said things like, “This happened to me because I’m bad.” “This happened to me because I’m not worthy.” This happened to me because of something I did.”

By this point, I’d become genuinely frustrated. We did the eye movement technique while I reflected on his examples. Then he asked me again to finish the sentence.

I said something like: “I don’t know. I don’t understand. I must have missed something. I thought I understood the rules, but it’s like I missed a subsection. This happened because I wasn’t vigilant enough.”

This answer surprised the hell out of me.

It also, finally gave us some purchase, and revelations really started to flow.

I don’t really remember all the steps from here, but I remember ending up persuaded of a few insights that were frightening and surprising:

  • That some part of me believes I got cancer because I had not been vigilant. That in my reading of the rules of the cosmos, something had slipped my attention, making me vulnerable to this attack.
  • That I believe a substantial portion of my reason for existing is to be a guardian for my people, and that my people includes a dauntingly huge population, including my family (both nuclear and extended), my clients, my partners and colleagues, my friends, my neighbors and my acquaintances.
  • That my failure, through inattention, to protect myself from cancer, casts into grave doubt my ability to fulfill my duty to be a guardian for others.
  • That I believe that most people and things are fundamentally good, but that there is a dark, hidden world of immense danger and evil from which my people need protection.
    That God and I were supposed to be partners in this guardian duty and that he let me down.
  • That part of my duty as a guardian is to shield my people even from the knowledge of their peril, and so my guardianship should be largely invisible.

My first reactions to these insights were surprise, fear and anger. I did not have any conscious conception of myself in these terms. I saw myself as an easygoing guy who likes people and likes to be able to help. I consciously saw the world as a great place to be, where good things just tended to happen to me and the people in my life. I was surprised to find these other tenets lodged in the foundations of my personality. It was like Bruce Wayne discovering to his surprise that he is Batman.

I was fearful and angry because I could not see how these revelations were the least bit useful, even if they were, as I could not contest, “real.” Moreover, I had just learned that the basis for my whole life, my successes as well as my weakness, was largely untenable. It was not the least bit clear to me how this type of self-understanding could be helpful.

Dr. John cautioned me not to jump right to trying to find the solution, when we were only just beginning to uncover the problem. I was leaving for Paris in 5 days, and tried to set an appointment 2 weeks after my return. Dr. John insisted that I see him sooner, and we settled on the date two days after my return.

I spent most of the rest of the day reflecting on these insights. I was “testing the hypothesis” against my recent experience, and using this new lens to examine my life, both before and after my cancer diagnosis. Our trip to Paris gave my some time and some literal distance to continue this process. I also talked extensively with Judy and with other family members and friends, both stateside and in France.


Blogger vkenny said...

Hi Jimmy, All I can say is WOW!!
This is really powerful stuff, keep going forward and see where the journey leads you. Keep fighting the good fight!

3:49 PM  

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