Changing Sensations by Blake Davis

I peel myself from the leather recliner with a start, my vision blurred by sleep in the glow of street light pouring through the living room window. Emmeline’s voice warbles forth from our bedroom as she emerges from slumber and seeks us out with wild sounds. Her caterwauling punctures my gut with an urgency, the foreshocks of a murmur mouthing its way toward bellows.

My daughter is 8 months old. If I approach the crib gripped by her insistence I will jolt her need for soothing, a need that will surpass any implement but my wife’s nipple. The hallway leading to our bedroom offers an integral transitional space. In twenty feet of hallway, I focus my attention toward my thumping chest and the tightened bundle of nerves beneath my liver. I am tasked with breathing deeply and slowly, easing my heart rate and relieving the the pain in my side where Emmeline took hold. The coil in my side loosens and reemerges as a heaviness in my stomach, revealing a sadness for more. My daughter wants more: more soft skin, more gentle cooing, more time suspended in amniotic embrace. My daughter is teaching me about herself. Her life is changing rapidly. The desire to explore and ingest the world ripples throughout the day, cascading turbulently in daylight hours and slowing to a pool only when exhaustion demands it. She is relentless and nighttime affords her the opportunity to soak in her mother, effortlessly adrift in a fleeting newborn experience. Breast milk and soft flesh provide her the basic goods to pursue life.

In the vacillating experience of day and night, my daughter is also teaching me about myself. “It’s Emmeline’s world, and you’re just living in it,” my analyst recently remarked. What about her world is transforming mine? I am aware of that knot when she cries out, her siren of imminent deprivation. As I attempt to foster and feed her, I find my own insatiable infant breathing new life. She’s awakening new access to my youngest and most uncomposed self. Emmeline has yet to formulate a list of self-criticisms or a consideration for other people’s thoughts, feelings or needs. There is no interference between her needs and her communication of them, nor any reluctance to tell us whether we are meeting them. The newborn influence necessarily travels a preverbal path, and my desire to be present with Emmeline’s experience leads me to previously unmapped parts of myself. This discovery has expanded the terrain upon which my clients and I can wander together in my office.

On another Thursday night in my office, Mark (1) sinks into the couch with leaden authority. The anger seizing my diaphragm signals a familiar fear. All of us may flatline in group tonight if Mark induces the group as he has in the past. A hazy memory from grade school materializes, related to a documentary about nuclear testing in the southwest. In the desert, sand and rock will encapsulate radioactive material for centuries. “How long will group collude to keep things lifeless in here, and bury their aggression, acting in or acting out?” I think to myself. Already I note my helplessness with Mark, and I haven’t even settled in my seat. The primitive feelings trapped in his belly remain impotent while infecting the group. Other members’ histories leave them vulnerable to dissociative inductions. In torpid monologues, Mark becomes our sleeping surgeon, unconsciously implanting us with underground bunkers for our own primitive affects and ensuring that things remain lifeless in conversation above ground.

The newborn influence necessarily travels a preverbal path, and my desire to be present with Emmeline’s experience leads me to previously unmapped parts of myself.

Mark grew up on a West Texas farm where farmers must force their crops to grow. When I sat with him during individual sessions, I often related to the desert farmers of his youth. I experienced his relentless complaining as a harsh refusal of emotional feeding. It seemed no amount of irrigation could provide him turgor pressure to sustain growth. At the moment he began to come alive he would inevitably spring a leak, his body wilting before me in drab tones, “yeah, but I’m too short and too shy and too nervous to be happy…” Still there were moments when I would experience an aliveness with Mark, flickers of moonlight in the recess of undergrowth, and I wondered if group could help him explore his resistance to these moments without injury, in hopes of ushering a tolerable amount of life into the group.

My Thursday group is intimately familiar with Mark’s ability to transmit lifelessness into a room. I have observed them respond in various ways – explaining, advising, debating, convincing, sympathizing – all to no avail. I sense they too have felt stuck with him, hopeless for relief from depressive takeover. Frequently I have attempted to employ the group’s help in expressing their feelings toward him when his self-criticism droned on and on, also to no avail! After weeks of this I began to recognize these moments as a group resistance to talking about their own feelings that Mark embodied. The nature of these feelings and the qualities specific to each member remained largely unclear, but it became apparent that the members were bonding in their resistance. In time, the group would begin expressing their aggression toward me in non-threatening ways. Mark took an important role facilitating this with his fellow group members.

For several months, when I attempted to explain aspects of the group agreements or join with Nancy, she simply stared back at me. While Nancy’s expression might be mistaken for confusion by others, I could feel her hostility, a steaming glare beneath her puzzled appearance. Though she is in her sixties, I often associated Nancy’s non-verbal response with a 13 year-old donning a “whatever” t-shirt. It was almost like she assumed she could kill me and needed protection from the impulse. One night, after Nancy exclaimed that I wasn’t making any sense, I asked Mark if he could translate for me since I was so confusing to the group. Upon his paraphrase, Nancy and the rest of group sprang to life. “Why can’t you just talk like Mark!” Nancy implored. Members swapped remarks and shared laughter about my incomprehensible nature.

In the weeks that followed, members began requesting Mark’s translations, and each time he offered them, the room ignited with delight. During this period, members grew more bold in their dismissal of me, frequently averting their gaze and pointing while they referred to me as that guy. On several occasions members commented that no one needed to hear from me. Mark began facilitating life in group by helping his fellow members temporarily diminish my value.

In the weeks that followed, members began requesting Mark’s translations, and each time he offered them, the room ignited with delight.

Most weekday mornings before clients arrive, I amble along Shoal Creek near my office. My body loosens upon footsteps observed in dappled light, my thoughts settle to rustling leaves and the trickling ripples of city runoff. When I was a young boy I spent many days traversing the woods, and in the cooler months walked for hours along a seasonal creek that carved the limestone basin below the perch of my childhood home. Depending on the currents of the day, I may find myself crying at its edge or skipping rocks gleefully along its narrow embankment. The woods and the creek afforded me solace. I still find comfort in creek beds, and Shoal Creek with its urban encroachments offers me a soothing touch. It steadies me for a day fraught with feeling. On morning walks I have often found myself moved by Mark’s lifeless aggression, sensing a distant hope that his intrusion into my thoughts would help me understand how his feeble expression and self-attack had once afforded him notice by his family.

One such morning I sat flipping stones into a flat on Shoal Creek just above the 10th street bridge. I was reflecting on a series of voicemails Mark had left the day prior. Like his presence in my office, the voicemails weighed heavily on me. My thoughts left me disorganized as they scattered like park pigeons fleeing a wayward dog. Mark was touching on something horribly painful in me. “I would sink like a stone if I were to fall in the creek right now,” I thought to myself. With that I noticed my posture, drooping so my head nearly rested in my lap. Just then a pain seized my abdomen down my right side, a magnified form of the sensation Emmeline delivers each day. I arched back, stretching my abdomen and peering skyward, my shoulders pulling my chest up and out. The pain leached downward into my gut and I began weeping.

Then, the world brightened the way it does in revelatory moments. “How many times did Mark go unheard?” I asked myself, tears falling over a slight grin. An early life of unheard cries and desperate demands coursed through me as I discovered new awareness of Mark’s longing, mingling with my own. I considered his tight-lipped mother and his mechanical, distant father, how often Mark’s elemental pleadings must have rung on deaf ears. I considered his value as the group translator, the moments when he alone could be heard by group. Scampering up the bank I snatched a leaf from a stand of giant reed as if I were a boy. In that moment, it seemed change was possible.

When my daughter was four months old, I was no use to her at night. Only my wife could soothe her and Emmeline met my efforts with blistering yelps. Around this time, Mark entered my office for an individual session in his usual manner. “Hi,” I offered. “Hey,” he responded, with no suggestion of interest. My ears rang with echoes of screams, despite his flattened tone. “How are things?” I asked, cautiously. “Things are pretty terrible, and this isn’t doing any good. I don’t see the point of being here. You just keep saying the same thing and it’s no help. I’m really hopeless and coming here doesn’t do me any good. I’m just not cut out for happiness.” My stomach seized with anger and sadness. Mark was reaching me. In response to this I had typically proceeded with object-oriented questions, soft joining or reflection. We are still relatively early in the transference and past attempts at more ambitious responses had injured him. But today I was struck by a new opportunity. He had finally allowed me to be useless with him, and I perceived a faint invitation to move closer. I was also sleep deprived, unshaven and feeling particularly unreserved. We sat together in mutual deprivation. “This isn’t doing a damn thing!” I exclaimed. “It’s a horrible waste of time.” I startled myself, part of me fearing I had overestimated the significance of his invitation.

Today I was struck by a new opportunity. He had finally allowed me to be useless with him, and I perceived a faint invitation to move closer.

He sat up, alarmed. “Well that’s not what I want to hear!” he fired back. “It’s pretty hopeless if you think it’s a waste of time!” he shouted. I leaned forward in my chair, emboldened to move closer. “Well I’d like to sit here and waste our damn time together, if you’ll let me. Then again you may just eradicate yourself and push me out of the room in the process!” Instantly, his body relaxed into the couch. “Well, okay,” he said, suggesting relief. For the first time in memory, he expressed open curiosity about himself. He asked if he was pushing me away with his self-criticism.“Yes! And I’m helpless with it,” my reply tinted with longing. Tears welled in his eyes. “Really?” he asked. He remained newly earnest and open. “Whether you want to or not, you have an impact on me, Mark.”

In subsequent weeks, I noticed Mark whistling a different tune in my office. Whether we sat together for his individual sessions or gathered for Thursday group, Mark began sharing more specifically about his experience in relationships. He joined a dating website and reported to group that he had really enjoyed a date with a woman. He went on a vacation to pursue his interest in racing with a group of friends and enthusiasts. More importantly, he came alive in group, sharing the air with everyone in in the room, giving and receiving reactions more freely. In similar fashion, other group members responded with their own desire rekindled, reporting on their endeavors to risk new relationships. Two members plunged into the dating pool, and others began speaking more freely about their longing for intimacy and their fear of pursuing it.

Lately, I am seeing more clearly how my subjective experience mingles and combines with my clients’ worlds. Parallel developments in my group since Emmeline’s birth have inspired new consideration from me. In Emmeline’s presence, newly discovered fragments of my infant experience are emerging in my viscera, taking hieroglyphic form in my thoughts. As my clients and I encounter these parts of ourselves together, I find my attachment with them gripping more deeply and loosely, as our relationships expand in ways that are still seeking form.

(1) All names and identifying details have been changed

Blake Davis, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who graduated from the U.T. School of Social Work in 2010. Following graduation, he opened a private practice under supervision while working at Shoal Creek in both inpatient and outpatient settings. He has worked exclusively in private practice in Austin, TX since 2012 and is currently working toward the completion of the Weekend Training Program through the Center for Group Studies in New York, New York.

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