“I am a 34-year-old woman who (probably like many others) lies awake from 2 or 3am most nights. There is a calm but doggedly persistent stream of thoughts, images and scenarios running on a loop in my mind. I think about moving to our new house, all the things we won’t have and will strive to get but don’t really need, how life is just an accumulation of stuff and then you die, how none of my things are packed and how I pretend to like change when really I don’t. I think about the man at work who would have an affair with me if I said yes. I think about what we might do and how badly it would end, whether I am too weak and greedy for monogamy. I tell myself I should be a better mother, and then wonder if I have time to have another child. I don’t know what to do to break this cycle. I am very tired.”
This letter first appeared in the Observer.
I love this letter. It’s such a good example of how and why people come into therapy. The message here is: ‘I’m completely normal and there’s nothing wrong with me. However, I have this annoying little glitch that’s ruining my life so could you please give me some tips for getting rid of it. Thanks.’ And yet there’s such desperation here.
The ‘probably like many others’ is poignant. Partly it anticipates the recipient’s response, projecting a kind of dismissive attitude into her (a newspaper agony aunt). You’re expecting someone to say; ‘Hell, doesn’t everyone? Just drink some valerian tea and try mindfulness. Worked a treat for me.’ You’re used to being fobbed off, I think, told you’re happy when you’re not. You distance yourself from what is obviously something quite debilitating by massively generalising in the assumption that lots of people share the problem and then by moving into the third person ‘who lies awake…’
I suspect the response you got contained the life tips you requested. Your letter is very succinct, very clear and carefully designed to diminish and conceal the anxious and desperate state you are in at the same time as exposing it.
You sound as though you’ve had some CBT and talk in that language. ‘On a loop’ and ‘how to break the cycle.’ A loop and a cycle are a strange way of describing your own thoughts. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy basically suggests there’s a tape playing in your head and you need to learn to change the tape. Psychoanalysis would say something like; ‘You can’t change a tape if you don’t know what the tape is, where to find it, why it’s playing, who put it on and what kind of tape you’d like to replace it with?’ The CBT approach is a bit like putting plasters on skin cancer lesions. It might obscure the problem for a bit but it’s not a cure (in my – much contested – view).
You don’t seem to take yourself seriously. You bring up so many issues that might warrant real consideration and yet you hate yourself for having the thoughts, somehow feeling that the thoughts aren’t allowed. It sounds as though you strictly censor your thoughts all day but, at night, when the censors relax a bit, all the serious issues of your life come to the fore. Perhaps if you really talked these things through with a therapist, really addressed the things that obviously worry you, you might find they didn’t keep you awake at night.
You are worried about moving house. It will be a huge upheaval and it would be odd if you weren’t worried about it. You are 34 and are perhaps moving into a house which is supposed to be forever. This is bringing up acute anxiety about death, about the new house representing the end of things. There is, of course, existential angst here, the futility of life in general and fear of death, but you may also be talking about a real reluctance to commit to this life, to your partner, to this family future. You are unhappy. This isn’t a choice you feel you made freely and you’re sounding trapped. Why you dismiss these issues as some kind of condition that besieges you at night and might be cured by imagining your thoughts as passing clouds or some rubbish like that, I don’t know. It sounds as though nobody has ever really listened to you or taken your thoughts and feelings seriously before.
‘None of my things are packed’ is interesting. Perhaps you are saying that your thoughts and feelings haven’t been properly packed away, they’re sneaking out at night. ‘I pretend to like change’, you say. It sounds as though you’ve pretended to like a lot of things for a long time.
Then we have the affair. Strangely worded. He would have an affair, you explain, if you said yes. So he’s asked you? He’s a man who wants to have an affair with you and it’s only at night, censors drowsy, that you allow yourself to want to, to consider it, to imagine it. Then your guilt kicks in immediately and you think about the messy end to this and how you’re a terrible person for thinking about it at all. Your censors (your super ego) are extremely strict – apparently no negative thoughts are allowed at all (assuming you believe sexual fantasy to be negative). I suspect you keep on a false jolly personality in public at all time, pretending everything’s great and you have no doubts, fears or desires. You’re not allowed any of these. You feel anxious, weak, greedy and tired, you say. Keeping the pretence up then, must be exhausting.
When you say you’re wondering about another baby and feeling inadequate with the first, it sounds as though someone (your partner?) is expecting you to have another baby and this is making you feel trapped. You don’t want to move house, you want to have an affair, you feel guilty about all the things you aren’t and can’t do and you don’t want another baby. These are huge issues and all need a lot more air time than a couple of hours a night with no help. Presumably you are ambivalent and partly do want to move house, partly don’t want an affair, are partly proud of your mothering, partly want another baby. But you only allow the upbeat, morally marvellous feelings and thoughts out most of the time, the other side of things doesn’t get a look in and it obviously needs one.
Maybe your anxiety is very deep-seated and has always been there. Maybe you attach the feelings of fear and hopelessness to whatever is going on in your life in the present, regardless of circumstance. But that would need properly looking at too, rather than dismissing and diminishing. You are asking for life tips, but you need to think very deeply about all kinds of things that are going on in your life, about all your repressed desires and self-loathing, and about your depression which is exhausting you. You have sectioned off the thoughts you believe make you a bad person and want an agony aunt to get rid of them as though they are not your thoughts, not a part of you. When you say; ‘Playing on a loop’ you really mean ‘I think.’ These are your very valid and important thoughts that part of you hopes you can delete and be left with the ideal you who sleeps soundly, safe in the knowledge of being perfect. What you can do is allow them out during the day with a good therapist.
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