Robert Winer, M.D.

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DREAMS: Julia's dream


My late teenage sister sat next to me at my middle school lunch table; we were across from some of my socializing friends. I was acutely aware that she was sick and bald as she had been, and that she and I weren’t talking. I felt isolated somehow, until she suddenly looked at the girls across from us with an expression that managed to remain serene; it said, “don’t mess with my little sister.” We drew closer together and that constant void which I bear was crushed in the dream. She was my sister, and I was hers. And I didn’t need friends. (I’ve been depressed off and on since my sister’s death by cancer 3.5 years ago.)


I’ll tell you what comes to my mind as I reflect on this dream, to illustrate how an analyst might think.

The dream appears to occur in the context of a young woman’s continuing struggle with feelings raised by her older sister’s death a few years ago. The chronology suggests that Julia might now be a teenager, perhaps in high school. It would appear that she might have experienced her sister as an important protective figure and that she feels lonely and vulnerable without her. There is a suggestion that Julia feels socially isolated, perhaps actively excluded by her peers, and that she misses her sister’s support at times like these. (Which doesn’t exclude the possibility that her sister might have ignored her, and that the dream represents a wished-for relationship.) Her phantasy in the dream is that her sister is present to watch over her, and so she doesn’t need friends (who can let you down, or hurt you) and she’s fine.

Usually dreams are prompted by some event of the prior day that stirred conflicted feelings. I could imagine, for example, that Julia might have felt rejected by a peer (or peers) the day before; the person might have been a friend, but also might not have been one. Hearing this dream in a session, if Julia didn’t volunteer a context for the dream, I would likely ask about the previous day.

I imagine that Julia is past middle school now. (For one thing, the dream is much too well written for a middle schooler.) We all know that negotiating the social networks of middle school is often a harrowing experience. Peer cruelty seems worst at this age, especially for girls. So I am imagining that yesterday’s experience might have been a reprise of some painful experiences from that time, and I would ask about that. It might lead us to a useful discussion of what she went through during those years.

Some details: Julia speaks of “socializing friends,” not “friends who were socializing.” This suggests that her world might be divided into people who easily socialize (others) and people who are more isolated (imaginably, her). I was struck by the statement that she and her sister weren’t talking. This raises the possibility that her relationship with her sister might have become problematic toward the end (and that the dream imagines overcoming that). I would listen for that, and if that seemed plausible, and if she seemed ready to open that subject, I’d ask about it. I’m next caught by the phrase “managed to remain serene,” wondering about “managed.” Remaining serene seems to require effort – is she alluding to her own efforts to contain her feelings and not lash out? The idea of a void being “crushed” seems an odd metaphor (you can’t crush nothingness) – the word suggests aggressive feelings, perhaps the consequence of feeling socially isolated or rejected. Her phantasy at the end is that if her sister were with her she could feel completed, protected from the threat of loneliness.

I would like to stress that these thoughts are simply my associations to the dream, as it was presented to me, with no other knowledge of the dreamer (beyond some evidence that she writes well and is internet savvy!). If I were sitting with her I would treat these thoughts as hypotheses, possibilities to be further pursued, reexamined, or contradicted. As a therapist I don’t try to work toward certain knowledge, I look for plausibility. A good idea, for me, is one that seems plausible, given the evidence, an idea that can be pursued in the course of our dialogue.

How I Learned to Write

The first time I wrote a paper was for an Adolescent Psychiatry meeting in Chicago. I’d been asked to do it by a man who was like a father to me in those days, although later we would let each other down. The paper was obsessively thick, and I was going second. As I read it to the group, I became preoccupied with somebody in the tenth row who looked enormously bored. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Afterwards, the first speaker told me that the case I’d described was unbelievable; initially flattered, I quickly realized that he was accusing me of having made it up. I thought he was trying to curry favor with our shared mentor. Thirty years later, at the memorial service for this patriarch, this fellow spoke of how close the two of them had been over the years, but how in the last three years they had only hurt each other every time they spoke. So it came full circle, and my rival and I had this bond after all.

My improvement as a speaker came with the recognition that the trick was to zone in on someone in the audience who looked interested in what I was talking about. There has to be at least one in every crowd. Keeping that person entertained was easy and the other people stopped existing. This was my turning point as a public speaker. I also discovered that beginning with a funny story was tricky business because if no one else thought it was humorous I’d be demoralized from the start. Better to begin with an aphorism, something wise and slightly impenetrable.

Another mentor pushed me to write; over the years he invited me to contribute chapters to volumes he was editing. On one of those occasions he told me that I’d written the best essay in his book. I never thought he was impartial! Some time later I was moaning about how bad my writing was and he reminded me of what he’d said. I thought he was complaining that I wasn’t taking his praise seriously, and I believe he was right. I don’t think I’d been fishing for a compliment, it was more that I’d been uncomfortable with his praise, and I hadn’t let it mean as much to me as he’d wished I had.

On my fiftieth birthday I got a call from the human sciences (or whatever) editor at Basic Books. She said that one of her authors had spoken highly of some book chapters I’d written; would I consider writing a book for them? I picked myself up off the floor and met her in New York for lunch at some fancy place where I told her that Roy Schafer was one of my favorite psychoanalytic writers (he’d published with them) and she told me I was so much better than Roy Schafer. It took me a couple years to write the book, and then it took her three months to do whatever she did with it before she rejected it. I decided that she’d sent it to Roy Schafer to read and that he’d hated it. I haven’t been able to make eye contact with Roy since. Panicked, I sent the manuscript to Jason Aronson and he read a chapter, liked it, and sent me a contract all in the space of a week. Redemption! Months later, my best friend held a book signing party for me. The only thing he said about the book was: wasn’t it funny that the printer mistyped “Rodin” as “robin”. Painfully, I still remember that. What bothered me wasn’t that he was making fun of the book, but that my getting published had hurt our friendship.

After I discussed the film “The Pawnbroker” at the Lincoln Center and the New York Times wrote an article about this and about our group, The Forum for the Psychoanalytic Study of Film, a book agent approached me about putting together a volume of film essays. I gave him a batch of the papers that I’d already written and he told me they had too many fifty-cent words in them. He wanted me to make change? He wasn’t talking about the pieces being jargony, just too literate for what he saw as the intended audience. I think he didn’t buy me lunch. When I’ve run into him from time to time over the years he chums me up with, “Hey, how about that film book?” He doesn’t give up easily. He’s a friend of one of my close friends. Watch out for the friends of your friends.

Much of the writing I do these days is on-demand: I agree to discuss a paper, or to respond to a film. Over the years I’ve found something that I think of as my voice. A little showy; a little ironic; a little bit full of myself, but not too much. Even so, every time I sit down to face the blank screen I have this moment of dread that this time I’m going to come up empty. And then, voila, I find something to say. It’s like pulling rabbits out of a hat, except I wasn’t sure they were there! But it’s also like making it across the high-wire, defying death once again. I live to write another day. But isn’t that what writing is all about?

Advice For Therapists: A Lifetime of Experience in Nine Easy Lessons

First, accept that you will be at the mercy of the clock. Your patients may feel that the meter is running, but you don’t run the meter. You’re as much in debt to chronos as they are. You will start the sessions on time. And you will end them on time, even when you have more to say, or something that just now occurs to you to say, or when you feel guilty about having had nothing useful to say and are afraid that your patient will never come back because you’re too dense and you want to at least apologize by going five minutes over. The discipline takes no prisoners.

Second, accept that there will be long stretches in which you will have no truly useful ideas. Try not to fill those stretches with busyness. Try not to feel too stupid and inadequate. Bear the thought that you may never get to a clarifying insight about this person. Try not to think about a rival who would have been smarter. Well, you can’t not think about her, but at least try not to let it get to you.

Third. Remember that however your patient is negotiating his life, however abysmally self-destructive his choices may be, for him every alternative to this life is more horrific. Being alone is worse than being hated, for him. Try to get your mind around that, it’s the single most important thing about doing therapy. So it’s not going to be helpful to chasten him, in the encouraging and supportive and clarifying and interpretive ways that we do that. The first thing to understand, to really understand, is just this, that from his point of view he is doing the very best he can. Unless he knows that you get that, he may listen to what you have to say, and make apparently appreciative, even brilliant, contributions, but he’ll privately think you’re clueless, and that his plight is hopeless.

Fourth. Be grateful for small moments. One extraordinarily difficult young woman, who I was temporarily seeing for free after she was fired from her job, surprised me by saying that the smallest changes are priceless. I thought she wasn’t deliberately being ironic. Doing therapy is like fishing, waiting patiently, sleepy and alert, not too eager to jump but ready for the unexpected tug, while accepting that it may never come. Jesus said to the two mariners he took as apostles: Come with me and be fishers of men. Take delight in being caught off-guard. And when the moment comes, don’t commandeer it. Less is more.

Fifth. Never assume that you know what your patient means. The one thing you can never say too often is: Tell me more about that. You know less than you think.

Sixth. Harold Boris said that being your patient’s therapist is not an invitation to tromp around untrammeled in your patient’s mind. Knock before entering. Don’t try to be clever.

Seventh. Our therapies are strewn with compliance. We all figured out how to rescue our mothers. If we need to have our patients need us, they will do just that, in the guise of helplessness. Never take anything for granted.

Eighth. Don’t hold on. Our patients usually know when it’s time to leave, by their lights. Only hams are cured. Bear the fact that their departures are usually tougher on us than they are on them. Don’t be like the mother who yelled after her kindergartener heading off for his first day of school, “Some day you’ll miss me when I’m gone!” Let them exit graciously.

Ninth. Love your patients.

August 1, 2008
Stowe, Vermont