Psychoanalysis 101 by George Merrill

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Faithfully, four days a week, and for three years at precisely 10:00 am, I rode the subway from downtown up to West 79th street, then caught the crosstown bus to arrive at my analyst’s office on Manhattan’s East Side at 10:45. I’d lie on a couch, talk for fifty minutes and leave. It was then the early nineteen sixties when I was enrolled in postgraduate studies in psychotherapy at the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry. Undergoing an analysis was part of my training. Most students were clergy of different denominations. My analysis was also a therapeutic investigation to enhance my own psychological awareness. Did it? Was I less neurotic when I completed the analysis? Depends on whom you ask.

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-8-56-54-amMy analyst never said one way or the other, and my wife’s opinion changes from time to time. My own take is probably not. However, I had an experience I will treasure for a lifetime. There is something deeply transforming about speaking your heart to another human being (at least as much of your heart as you’re aware of) and knowing what you say is being listened to carefully, never judged and being taken very seriously.

My analyst, Dr. Kildahl, was a kindly man. His face was round, with a broad smile, and his skin pitted with scars from acne he must have suffered as a boy. I saw him face to face only when I arrived for a session and when I left.

His office was dark, soothing for its dimness, with only one light aglow on the desk across the room. I could hear him breathing above the muffled sound of city traffic. The office was paneled in mahogany. The bookshelves were filled with old leather covered volumes including the works of Freud written in German – Gesammelte Werke. They lent to the room’s ambience an old world mystique. Papers by Charcot and Jung lay on the desk. A faint odor of cigar smoke permeated the room, giving it a masculine character. Freud himself was an inveterate cigar smoker. Being here in the office was like having a wise mentor or even a father all to myself.

I felt safe there. I was also inspired as though by my frequent visits to this learned man I’d ingest the wisdom from those books. And after I’d plumbed the secrets of my heart, flushed out and faced its dark demons, I’d be equipped to guide others to enlightenment. I’d also be as wise and confident as I imagined my analyst was.

With Dr. Kildahl sitting out of sight just behind my head, I would lie on the couch looking up at the ceiling, talking into a void. It felt awkward at first. I soon got the hang of it.

I talked about my thoughts and feelings. There were many I never told God in so many words. When I prayed as a child, I preferred to assume that God was already aware of my thoughts and deeds and therefore to mention them was only repeating what he already knew. Actually, I edited my thoughts for the analyst more carefully than I did for God. Analysis was a little like confessing my sins to the priest, but more embarrassing. I knew the analyst had seated himself behind me so there was no doubting his presence. Dr. Kildahl was of the flesh and hard to pretend he wasn’t there. God, on the other hand was of the spirit and easier to mentally blow off whenever I had the kinds of thoughts that I was sure would make God wince.

In Dr. Kildahl’s office, however, I appreciated one perk; I had no inkling of divine retribution. The analyst never issued penances to perform as the price for forgiveness or patronized me by calling me “my son.” In the confessional, the priest half-hid behind a curtain. He seemed furtive while performing his vocational duties, or, I wondered, was he so embarrassed that he had to hide from me? The priest always asked me when I’d made my last confession. Dr. Kildadal already knew I’d been to therapy the day before so that was one less question to be addressed. I always wondered about the bars across the window in the confessional between the priest and the penitent: just who was protecting whom and from what?

I tried to impress my analyst. I wanted him to like me. I presented my dreams to Dr. Kildahl because I could tell he liked dreams. After presenting one I’d hear the rhythm of his breathing change slightly and knew if he was ever to break his silence this would be the time. Bringing dreams to sessions was like taking an apple in to the teacher and then waiting for a nod of appreciation. I’d wait, listening expectantly. Mostly my dreams were met with silence. Nevertheless I kept pitching them. Hope springs eternal.

The aim of psychoanalysis, its product if you will, is to make the unconscious, conscious. For all the hours spent in free association, interpreting dreams, being confronted with my resistance, and making excursions into the dark and wounded corners of my personality, it was the process that stayed with me more than its product. Never before in my life had every word I spoke to another human being been listened to so carefully.

I’ve reflected on the experience over the years. I saw some parallels to one of my boyhood religious practices, particularly those regarding prayer. Every night, kneeling bedside my bed I’d pour out my heart to God. There wasn’t any immediate reply, but I always found solace in knowing that someone was listening, that I was being taken seriously and not judged.

NB The accompanying image is copy of a letter sent by Freud from Berchtesgaden, Germany to Smiley Blanton, M.D. in 1929. Blanton was among the first American physicians to have undergone psychoanalysis with Freud. Blanton served as instructor and co-founder of the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry in NYC.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Martin Hersey says:

    My experience of psychoanalysis was over a period of seven years in a long term mental hospital in Maryland with a German analyst. After a period of some twenty years, I found myself alone without anyone. My consciousness began expressing itself quite differently to me. I fell into a psychosis of long duration. I laid it all at the feet of my previous analysis. Released to my mind was an overwhelming amount of unconscious material which I was unable to deal with in any sane way. I supposed that this material was released due to the years of psychoanalysis I had gone through previously in those seven years in the long term mental hospital. I am still struggling with being alone and with my consciousness expressing itself sometimes in the form of a voice. I have internalized the analyst, who is long gone. I have difficulty with trimming my outer world to my inner world and with speaking with other people.

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