This is a rather dramatic image for what I am writing about-but it is the best description I can find. No, I am not dying. I have not received a diagnosis that I have a terminal illness. I am between jobs. I am leaving university and going back into practice (assuming my CRB check is ever completed)! Not a major trauma but it is an interesting place to be. I am a ghost. I walked back into my office after two and a half months away and nobody said a word. I walked through the doors, passed several of my colleagues and sat down at my deal. I now knew what a ghost feels like. I thought I was real but it seemed as though I had become invisible in my absence. (In fairness several of my colleagues came and gave me a hug as the morning went on. Which made me feel a bit more real.) But it was an odd experience and a little unnerving. Had anyone noticed that I had been away? Did anyone care? Should I turn round and go home again? Since nobody seemed to see me I couldn’t be missed.
Since telling people that I am leaving, my relationship with the university has changed. There is no point in asking about next semester’s teaching. I won’t be there. I don’t need to worry about my timetable. I won’t be there. Sadly there are relationships that I shall lose. I shan’t be there .The people who have looked after me during my time there and who are important to me.(And vice versa) Equally strange is my lack of involvement in my new job. I don’t know how big my caseload will be. I don’t know which surgeries I will belong to-if that’s the ways things still work.It is an uncomfortable situation with so many elements beyond my control. Yet they impinge on my daily life in a significant way. I simply have to stay with the discomfort and occupy myself usefully.
I begin to see how it feels psychically to be in limbo. The work that I do is often with people who are struggling with existential issues. There may be some depression. Some anxiety. Some issues with anger. But these are not the core problems. The core issue is “Who am I? How do I live? What is it that defines me?” These questions may be triggered by relationship difficulties. Or problems at work. But they are existential dilemmas. I remember a patient many years ago who was part of a group a friend and I ran. We used projective techniques to help our patients find new ways to explore their inner lives. We did a series of sessions on masks. The mask we present to the outside world. The mask we show at home. (Fairy tales lend themselves very well to this kind of work. We used Little Red Ridng Hood.We thought about the woodsman as both Eco warrior , defender of the forest but also hardman who hated his work. Two faces of the one person.) After one session I called in to see her. She talked about a recent dream in which she saw herself as faceless. We explored it a little bit and decided one meaning was her own passivity. She had been a “patient” for so long that she had lost any other identity. She spent most of her day sitting in her armchair either sleeping or watching TV. .She relied on the system to do everything for her. Provide financial support. Diagnose and manage her mental health.Provide her with a limited social life. She had lost touch with the healthy parts of herself that might have galvanised her into more self care. She had become faceless.
She occupied a limbo land. She had lost her past self. A husband. A daughter. Parents etc who needed her. Who gave her a reason to get up in the morning and have some purpose in life. Equally she was not so terribly ill that she needed permanent hospitalisation. She existed in two worlds, with no real investment in either of them.In Kleinian terms she lacked good objects inside her. What she had was a rather flaccid breast that was almost incapable of providing any nourishment. Yet like Harlow’s monkey’s, no matter how unsatisfactory this breast-mother was, she feared it was the best she could hope for. Thus she clung to it tenaciously.
A lot of my work as a counsellor is about helping my patients to find a face that belongs to them. To strengthen the healthy parts of them that will enable them to make their own claim on their future. I have always found the phrase “Dead Man Walking” utterly cruel and humiliating. It denies hope and smacks too much of a demeaning power game by the system. The person’s humanity is lost. They are only a dead man walking.The film “Bucket List” may have sen about two dead men walking. But they walked outrageously. That was what was missing for my faceless patent .She walked like a zombie. There was no outrage.It is one of the pleasures of clinical work to see a patient leave “outrageously”
My university has set itself what it calls “an outrageous ambition”. It hopes to become on par with the Russell Group of universities .Who knows if it will succeed or not? But it does have an ambition. It is alive. Perhaps that should have been the image at the top of this blog. “Outrageous ambition”. (If I was clever I would find a way to place them adjacent to each other. I shall learn that trick another day. But I think I make my point. Even dead men need an ambition.