Academic journal article Generations

Fragments of a Mid-Life

Academic journal article Generations

Fragments of a Mid-Life

Article excerpt

In most hearts there is an empty chamber waiting for a guest.

-Nathaniel Hawthorne

Either the psychoanalyst thinks he knows the best stories, and therefore should convince his patients of their viability; or . . . he thinks of himself as an expert listener, someone who can bear and process what is called up in him when people talk about their urgent preoccupations and predicaments; someone who, by definition, traffics in the provisional and doesn't need to be believed.

-Adam Phillips

I made my first visit to Dr. Mitchell in late 1991. I was really hurting. Every morning, I woke up with dread-expecting that something awful was going to happen. Simple daily life seemed to require more energy or confidence than I possessed. My first book, The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America had just appeared. Rave reviews appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Houston Post, the New England Journal of Medicine. Cambridge University Press nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize. Yet I felt black and empty, immobilized.

Dr. Mitchell came highly recommended. Though he had just recently arrived in Houston, he was already regarded as one of die city's most accomplished analysts. He had trained as a physician at Oxford, had published extensively, and was a welcome addition to the psychiatry faculty at the University of Texas Health Science Center. After some initial sessions in December 1991, Mitchell concluded that he could help me. His tone was authoritative and businesslike. This would be serious psychoanalytic work, not cuddly supportive psychotherapy designed to help me feel better about myself. Three times per week, a hundred dollars per session. I'd be responsible for any missed sessions, except for two weeks of vacation per year and days when he'd be out of town. He'd work from the assumption that my recurrent depression was rooted in the death of my father when I was four years old.

Beginning in January 1992, I left my house before dawn every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 6:40 AM and headed for Mitchell's office. Down Sunset Boulevard and under a tunnel of live oak trees, to the edge of the Rice campus. Across Fannin and into the bowels of the Texas Medical Center. My body stiffened as I got off the elevator and headed to his corner office. I'd glance at the readings on his desk: The New Torker, New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, his own writings on the nature of obsession, pictures of the current class of psychiatry residents.

Dr. Mitchell asked if I'd like to lie down. I walked across the room and lay down on the blue couch next to the wall of windows. The couch pitched like a sailboat in a stiff wind. Any moment, I could fall overboard. I worried constantly about what he was doing behind me, out of sight, where I couldn't see him. I could not shake the feeling that he might harm me at any moment. I needed to sit up, so that I could keep him in my sights.

So we began working face-to-face. In a corner formed by two book-lined walls, we sat at the opposite sides of a triangle lit by a corner lamp sitting on a circular table. Blue stuffed chairs. He wore thick black glasses and often folded one leg underneath the other; I usually crossed one leg over the other, mimicking the way my childhood rabbi sat on the stage at Temple Mishkan Israel in Connecticut.

In those first few months, I came to see that my professional accomplishments, wonderful though they were, could not erase the sense of abandonment and emptiness that followed my father's death in the autumn of 1954. Humbled, I came to know the bereft child that lived inside my forty-three-year-old self, and I learned to accept the task of my still incomplete mourning.

After my initial depression lifted, I began talking about my spiritual life, which involved an increasing commitment to Jewish study and prayer. Mitchell himself was Jewish, and-like Freud-he saw religion as an illusion, a childish collective wish for an all-powerful Father. …

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