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Losing and Regaining a Sense of Being

on September 1 | in Features, Stories | by | with 7 Comments

I begin with a poem about my youngest daughter entitled “Emily Running” (Stolorow, 2003), which I wrote in September of 2003:

My favorite time of day

is walking Emily to school in the morning.

We kiss as we leave our driveway

so other kids won’t see us.

If I’m lucky, we have a second kiss,

furtively, at the school-yard’s edge.

My insides beam as she turns from me

and runs to the building where her class is held,

blonde hair flowing,

backpack flapping,

my splendid, precious third-grader.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly,

a cloud begins to darken

my wide internal smile—

not grief, exactly, but a poignant sadness—

as her running points me back

to other partings

and toward other turnings

further down the road.

I recite this poem to myself every morning during my daily jog. The significance of this ritual will soon become apparent.

On the morning of February 23, 1991, I awakened to find my late wife, Daphne Socarides Stolorow, lying dead across our bed, four weeks after her metastatic lung cancer had been diagnosed. The loss of Dede, as she was called by loved ones and friends, shattered my world and permanently altered my sense of being. In March of 1993, still consumed by emotional devastation, I met Julia Schwartz. We married a year later and were blessed with the birth of our daughter, Emily, on June 3, 1995.

Although Julia, and my relationship with her, lit a candle in the dark world of my grieving, I continued to be subject to feelings of deep sorrow and to recurring traumatized states, the latter being produced by any event (I call them portkeys) leading me to relive the horrors of Dede’s illness and death (Stolorow, 2007, 2011). Julia tried valiantly to be available to me in my sorrow and traumatic states, but her ability to do this for me gradually eroded, as she felt increasingly and painfully erased by my continuing grieving for Dede. Eventually she told me that she could hear my grief no longer, and I responded by deciding to do my best to keep it to myself. I felt a terrible loneliness and, insidiously, my emotional aliveness began to shrink, as my broken heart, unwanted and banished, went into deep hiding. “I die slowly, so no one sees,” I wrote in a very dark poem from that period.

Christmases were particularly difficult. The symptoms of Dede’s undiagnosed cancer had significantly worsened during our last Christmas holiday together before she died, so Christmas was a time at which I was especially vulnerable to traumatic relivings. In such states I felt painfully isolated and estranged from the holiday cheer shared by Julia and her family. Even now, the words “merry Christmas” assault me like a thousand fingernails scraping against a thousand chalkboards. I covered my sense of isolation and estrangement with a defensive contempt for the holiday celebrants, much as I had covered the alienation I felt as a boy at Christmas time, being the only Jewish kid in my grade school in rural Michigan. Lacking an intersubjective context within which they could be held and voiced, my feelings of sorrow and horror lived largely in my body, devolving into vegetative states of exhaustion and lethargy.

Christmas 2004 something different and quite remarkable occurred. On Christmas Eve I remembered something very painful, which, perhaps sensing a greater receptivity in her, I decided to tell to Julia. One morning during Dede’s and my last Christmas holiday together, Dede had tried to go jogging with me, but had to stop running because of her worsening cough. As I conveyed this concrete image of Dede having to stop running, and the horror it held for me, Julia was able to feel my state as a retraumatization of me rather than as an erasure of her, and she said she much preferred my real emotional pain to the defensive contempt with which I had been covering it. On Christmas morning, when I was once again picturing Dede having to stop running, Julia held me tenderly as I quietly wept. Later that morning, as I was preparing to go jogging, I sat in near paralysis, unable to put on my second running shoe. In agony, I said to Julia, “I can’t stop thinking about Dede having to stop running.” Julia, a psychoanalyst with a fine intersubjective sensibility, said, “Your last poem–its title is ‘Emily Running.’” “Oh, God!” I cried out, and then burst into uncontrollable, hard sobbing for several minutes. In a flash I grasped the meaning of my ritual of running every morning with “Emily Running,” reminding myself each day that dear little Emily, unlike Dede, keeps on running. “My favorite time of day,” I now realized, is seeing Emily running, not stopping.

Julia’s interpretive comment was a key that unlocked the full force of my emotional devastation, which now found a relational home with her within which it could again be spoken. When I finally did go jogging on that Christmas morning, I felt a sense of vitality and aliveness that had been profoundly absent during the prior Christmases since Dede’s death. The blue Santa Monica sky seemed especially beautiful to me as I ran.

When my traumatized states could not find a hospitable relational home or context of human understanding, I became deadened, and my world became dulled. When such a home became once again present, I came alive, and the vividness of my world returned. I believe my vignette provides a powerful illustration of the fundamental contextuality of our sense of being and of the intersubjective contexts in which it can become lost and regained. Concomitantly, even though it took place within a personal rather than a therapeutic relationship, it illustrates a central and mutative dimension of the therapeutic approach to emotional trauma. In the bringing of unendurable emotional pain into language and human dialogue, a deadened sense of being is reborn.

References

Stolorow, R. D. (2003), Emily running. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 8, 227.

Stolorow, R. D. (2007), Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections. New York: Routledge.

Stolorow, R. D. (2011). World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.

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7 Responses to Losing and Regaining a Sense of Being

  1. Sylvia Schwartz says:

    That Christmas 2004 incident is very intriguing: under traumatic circumstances, an emotionally unbearable and anxiety-provoking meaning became inextricably intertwined with an otherwise innocent thing, jogging on Christmas morning, imparting a paralyzing effect. Julia’s remark communicated an accurate understanding of this fusion of meanings, rendering her a temporality-restoring “witness”, which, in turn, cleared the path to allow for new, life-affirming associations: Emily running…

    • I also think the title has two ways of seeing this, which I”m sure Robert already sees. The obvious is he lost his sense of being because he couldn’t actualize the feelings of the trauma which made him lose his sense of being and when he could, in another’s presence, he returned to being. Very similarly, and more simplistically, he lost his sense of being and then regained it, because we only truly exist in an intersubjective interaction. He went from one relationship where he existed, to dying with that relationship and coming to life again in a new relationship because it is the intersubjective context where we “come alive.”

  2. What beautiful writing. Thank you for sharing such a transparent piece.

  3. stacy barton says:

    finding that key to unlock the internal horror is such an incredible gift. a blessing. suddenly life is possible once more.

  4. Brent Potter says:

    Beautiful and thought-provoking, Robert. Thank you.

  5. Claire LeBeau says:

    The poignant sadness we feel in all of the turning aways is a rich haven of emotional wellspring. The ability to feel and feel fully is what makes possible our joy to the same extent. A vital aliveness that enables powerful living because it can reside and take shape in others. It also seems to show that our own stopping, so to speak, to live through, not around, is the work for ourselves (both professionally and personally), and ultimately, what we are able to give to others. This is a profound story and passage. Thank you. And thank you all for this lovely project.

  6. [...] Stolorow, traumatologist and psychoanalyst, shared this post on a blog project in Sept 2011.  I am sharing it here because later this week I will be looking at the different kinds of [...]

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