Shafts of sunlight piercing black cloud, such a dramatic landscape. Cold enough for a small bowl of mundane but warming oatmeal porridge. Like my Scottish father, I eat it with a little milk and salt. The housemate shudders. She grew up on soggy Kelloggs cornflakes with plenty of sugar and milk.
While I was eating my porridge with salt and rubbing the dog’s head with my slippered foot, I read Benjamin Y Fong on Freud in the New York Times. Not a quick read.
[Freud] proposed that we engage in a particular kind of conversation that runs something like this: one person talks without worrying about whether his words are “right,” in the sense of their being both correct and appropriate, and the other listens without judging any disclosure to be more important than another. In contrast to most conversations, which have certain culturally-defined limits and rhythms of propriety, this exchange has no such rigid rules. It ventures to awkward places. It becomes too intense. And more often than not, it is utterly boring, reducing both partners to long bouts of silence.
From an outside perspective, the conversation is pointless. And indeed, most of the time it appears to be a waste. But in its disjunction with routine human interaction, it opens a space for our knotted interiors, so used to “having a point,” to slowly unravel. As each piece flakes off, it is examined and seen in relation to other pieces. After a long while, we gain what might be called, to borrow a term from Martin Heidegger, a “free relation” to these parts of ourselves and our world, such that the unmovable density they once comprised becomes pliable and navigable. Some key pieces appear and others vanish, but the puzzle is never complete. The aim of the conversation, however, is not completion, which short of death itself is an illusion, but the ability to change. This change involves neither the victory of the secondary process nor the liberation of the primary process but rather the opening of lines of communication between them.
When I first began going to meetings in draughty church halls and basements, I learned a great deal from the emphasis on honesty. And the same was true of therapy that first year sober. At first this seemed to me a matter of talking about what was usually hidden away or not disclosed. Secrets. And then about admitting the tapestry of lies that had masked the alcoholism, revealing what had really happened, what we really wanted, what we knew would show us in a bad light. Not telling the old lies, making a place for new and uncomfortable truths. Mine eyes have seen what my hand did.
But then, meeting after meeting, therapy session and session, I found that truths emerged of which I had not been aware, that the truth was larger and deeper than just me and my habits of deceit or honesty, that certain understandings and patterns of truth-telling or fabricating were shared by this recovery community, by other troubled women who had sat down in counselling. And by those out in the workplace, in families, in churches and sports clubs and the wider community. That when people say ‘Speaking truth to power’, it is not always empty rhetoric but a recognition that truth and power are connected, that social conventions can be opened up and changed by telling the truth.
What Freud proposed, and what remains revolutionary in his thought today, is that human beings have the capacity for real change, the kind that would undo the malicious effects of our upbringings and educations so as to obviate the need for “breaks from real life,” both voluntary and involuntary.
Over the years I’ve listened to people in recovery tell their stories over and over again, admit ugly truths, attempt to break free of shame by saying what happened, move beyond the stuckness of victimisation, acknowledging responsibility in what went wrong, forgiving and/or forgetting, grappling with old terrors, giving hope a chance. There’s no magic formula for change or recovery. The deep irrational drives that govern the unconscious mind resist rational understanding and resist change. We listen and do not understand what we are hearing. Our listening, like our speaking, is motivated by unrealistic expectations, wishing for miracles, hearing only what suits us, refusing the parts of the narrative that don’t make sense. Wanting someone else to solve the problem for us, wanting them to make it all better, wanting the past to correct itself.
And yet every now and again, there is a ‘light bulb’ moment and a window is flung open in an airless room. I remember my own shift in understanding: it need not be this way for ever. And the listener who nodded and smiled, watching me change before her eyes.