Behind the couch

I came of age career wise under the weight of psychoanalytic thinking where your internal world was the richest place imaginable and although there might be things happening to you in your external world, those things only mattered in so far as they could be viewed through the majesty or horror of your inner world. 

That’s why as an aspiring trainee therapist I longed for the day when I would feel brave enough to suggest to the people who came to see me for help that they rest their heads on my couch, their eyes hidden from my view as I sat in a chair behind them, rather like my analyst did when I began to see her in the mid-eighties, an experience of which I was terrified, until I first tried it myself.

Once on the couch, I could not resist that space.

I could lie there on my back, close my eyes and fire away from the depths of my mind, whatever thoughts or feelings came to me, knowing that Mrs Milanova was behind me listening to my every word and trying to make sense of it all for and with me. 

I could not see her as I lay on her couch. I could hear her breathing and on those few occasions when she snorted loudly into her handkerchief to blow her nose, I was indignant.

I could not see her to anticipate the sound, to me like geese honking. I’ve been sensitive to this ever since.  

When I’m seated behind the couch, listening to the thoughts of another, I feel some pressure to keep those bodily noises – the inevitable sneeze, the occasional grumbling stomach to a minimum, even as I know my body’s gyrations are normal and inevitable and part of the quality of being human – under control. 

Apart from her nose blowing, Mrs Milanova’s words and noises, tended to soothe me, even the shuffling of her shoes on the floor. Not being able to see her made it possible for me to say things I would never dare to say face to face. 

If I had looked into her eyes, I would have needed to get some measure of what was going on there inside of her. But out of sight on the couch was not out of mind, at least not out of my mind.

I could treat her like the parent I never had, one entirely dedicated to me, at least for the fifty minutes of every day when I saw her. 

A precious time, one I came to value above all other times. A time when I could be centre of attention even as I spent much of my time talking about and thinking about the others in my life. There were other times when I worried about Mrs Milanova and whether she was okay with the terrible things I said. 

She taught me to speak the unspeakable. 

For instance, even as an adult when my babies were little I talked to them of ‘breaking wind’.

The word ‘fart’ like other expressions of bodily activity bothered me to the point I could hear people say the word and I’d blush. 

When my third daughter was six or seven, the age when everything toilet wise is fascinating, the age when kids’ insults stretch to expressions like poo-head and bum-bum, she took a fancy to a poem my husband – who did not suffer from my squeamishness in relation to the word fart –  recited for her amusement:

‘Here I sit in silent bliss

Listening to the trickling piss

Now and then a fart is heard

Followed by a plopping turd.’

My daughter wrote down these words in her best handwriting and attached the verse to her bedroom door where I saw it daily and often enough to have it embedded in my memory and confident enough to recite it during one of my sessions with Mrs Milanova.

We talked then about my fears of bottoms and bodies and other things to me unmentionable.

After that day I could say the word ‘fart’ with equanimity. It had lost its shameful aura.

All this evolved through the painful process of coming into myself.

Of getting beyond a feeling I experienced often during those first few visits to Mrs Milanova, when I felt like a slug, a black slimy creature with no skin who walked up the curving path to her house for session after session to tell her about the horrors of my internal world.

In so doing, I grew a human skin, which I wear today even though it’s not a perfect skin and cannot fully help me against the ailments I describe living in a world where there’s real scarcity and imagined scarcity, in a world where people are persecuted by their fears of not having enough to the point they are cruel to others more needy than them, cruel to the point of barbaric, and my heart breaks down into small fragments of grief.

If only we could share more and not worry so much about whether only we will survive. Not if it means we hurt one another with our disregard.

Unlike Mrs Milanova who brought me back to life with her loving interest and regard.

6 thoughts on “Behind the couch”

  1. I love this idea of lying on the couch where you can’t actually see your therapist. I used to sit facing my counsellor, and when I found that too challenging I would get up the courage to push my chair further back or move it so we were at 45 degrees to each other and I didn’t have to look straight at him. I still do the latter if I go to a cafe or restaurant with one person – otherwise it is way too intensive.

    1. The eye to eye experience can be overwhelming Lian, especially when you’re trying to convey something from your innermost deaths. I also prefer sitting on an angle to a person, so that there is room to look away without giving offence. thanks Lian.

  2. This was such an interesting piece. I go to a therapist weekly and lie on the couch. It is as you said, although I have never thought that my therapist is a sort of parent. She IS, though! So much has been unpacked in that safe place. I don’t know how I would have coped with my life without it.

  3. Euphemisms and slang—never wholly sure what divides one from the other—are commonplace here. It’s probably the same the world over but I expect it’s worse here because we have Scotticisms too. We literally talk in code. And it was worse still in my house growing up because my parents being from the north of England brought their own unique expressions like “buffet” for stool or “Cornish” for fireplace or, and this is the weirdest one, “house” for living room. We didn’t fart or break wind though, we trumped and it amazes me with all that’s been said against the present president of the USA no one has turned that on against him. Not that we’re short of ways to slag him off—God, he makes it so easy—and now it looks like the UK’s about to get our own mini-Trump too. Oh lucky us!

    I’ve seen four mental health professionals over the years. All women which I liked but I’m not sure women were the best fit. Not for that job. Not that I was ever shy in talking to them but then I’ve never had much trouble expressing myself. If I didn’t talk to someone I’d write about it. Either way nothing got bottled up for long. All our sessions were face to face. I’m not sure I would’ve liked someone sitting behind me to be honest. I like to try to read faces. Maybe that’s the whole point of sitting out of sight.

  4. The whole point indeed, Jim, being out of sight to look inside and not out, though you look inside much of the time. It’s to look inside and make a different sense of it, one punctured by another’s understanding. An amazing process. Thanks, Jim.

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