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The Sleeping Cure

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Browsing through the literature on sleepy analysts, I was struck by how united the analytic community is in interpreting its own sleep. Variations of the Dean defense abound. And yet analysts stand utterly divided on what the sleepy patient might signify. Is it primary narcissism, hallucinatory regression, a desire to retreat into a womblike state? Freud thought each of these at different times; he even thought it could be a repetition of our infantile withdrawal from the pain of our own childbirth. Or maybe it’s a hostile urethral (no joke) reaction to the analyst? Or maybe the desire to be united with the good mother, or a regression to the infant’s inability to accept the nursing breast? The disdain its critics feel for psychoanalysis is not hard to fathom. You pay a handsome sum to sit across from a real, living, breathing human being who, when confronted with your agony, presents you with a toneless expression and the gelid “And how do you feel about that?” Meanwhile, in his notebook, he jots: “Patient exhibits hostile urethra …”

Back in New Haven, passing the hulking Gothic enclosures designed to protect Yale students from, seemingly, everything, I am in a morbid way. It’s true, grad school bestows freedom upon its attendees to luxuriate in the best of what’s been thought and said (and in beer). But over time, you’re in danger of becoming a lifer—part veal calf, part hothouse flower. At Yale, I had a swank fellowship, met literary critics I’d worshipped since childhood, read English Romantic poetry, studied Latin and Greek, and I went to the gym ceaselessly. The weightlifting could stand in for the entire experience. I piled higher and higher weights on top of my meager frame, lying on a bench, beet-faced, pushing them off me, and as I did, I only seemed to get weaker. In grad school, I read more and more books, and as I did, I only seemed to get stupider. In therapy, I added more and more sessions, and as I did, I only seemed to get sicker.

My therapist here was a Freudian who pushed me to take more sessions, to become a fully subscribed, five-day-a-week head case. I remember him only indistinctly, as a tweedy-shabby figure, a lifetime of neurotic confession—oh, city of thwarted glory!—clinging to him, the way a lifetime of johns clings to a prostitute. Does it come across how much I looked forward to this reunion? And yet the man who greets me at the door of his office is … Judd Hirsch. Circa Ordinary People. Seriously. An evidently humane and friendly middle-aged Jewish man in chinos and a button-up oxford. He is genuinely puzzled when I tell him how bitterly I recall our working relationship. “Really?” he says. “You speak of transference. Well, there is countertransference. And I remember you fondly.”

Asked about falling asleep during our sessions, he replies, “Oh, after lunch, glucose in the bloodstream, insulin, tryptophan …” I press him, and he says, “Well, why did the English take their tea in the afternoon?” Pressed, he says the question of his sleep “clearly distressed you.” To a man with a hammer, Mark Twain wrote, everything looks like a nail. Sitting across from my old doctor, in the late afternoon, in an old New England mansion, with its soughing radiators and pockets of gray light, it’s hard not to think of psychoanalysis not only as a dying art but as a ball-peen to the right eye.

Soon after moving from New Haven to New York City, my wife and I made fast friends with a woman who was French, in the film business, and beautiful. If someone were bullshitting her, I reasoned, it would have to be exquisite bullshit. So when my wife learned that she was pregnant with what would become our first daughter, and I flew into a panic, I called our new acquaintance for her shrink’s phone number. She referred me to an elderly man, deep in his seventies, with an M.S.W. and a shingle in the West Village. I remember carefully scanning his face for evidence of stupor, even as I labored to stay vividly and emotionally present. He fell into the deepest sleep, snoring like a bass clarinet. I was left to decide whether to wake a kindly old man or tiptoe silently from his office.

The morning I returned to him, for this latest and last of my therapeutic journeys, I stumbled upon a poem by John Betjeman called “Loneliness.” (“What misery will this year bring / Now spring is in the air at last? … But church-bells open on the blast / Our loneliness, so long and vast.”) A grim meditation on death, but what a relief, I thought, that someone once called it loneliness, and not depression—to be alleviated by intimacy, not medicine or pity. I had forgotten how on his bookshelves, aside from the usual shrinky tomes, sat volumes by Berryman, Lowell, and Sexton. He is thinner now, less robust. I ask him about falling asleep, and he says, cheerfully, “I have no memory of that whatsoever.” This is surprising, considering he passed out cold, I exited quietly, and we later spoke about it intensively. “What did I say?” he asks. That I had been locking him out with emotionally evasive speech. “What did you say?” he asks. That that was a bullshit answer. He pauses. He smiles. “Good for you.”


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