Today in my own therapy, I noticed a ladybug crawling up the window. “There’s a ladybug on the window,” I said. The session continued. I kept associating, thinking, talking, and feeling. I noticed the ladybug fly away. “The ladybug flew away,” I said.
“What is your association with ladybugs?” asked my therapist.
“Well… they’re cute. They’re small. They’re helpful. I would get a tattoo of one, to go with my other garden bugs, but it would have to be too big in order to make sense of what it is.” I paused for a while. “I just had this image of the ladybug’s wings sticking out from under the shell. I wonder if it hurts when they don’t put their wings back in all the way.”
My therapist said, “You are thinking about the wings, about flying away, about being free.”
“Yes- but I am more wondering, when their wings are sticking out, does the shell that’s supposed to keep their wings safe… does it hurt them?”
I pause again, for some amount of time. While I pause, I am thinking about the time I let go a whole carton of ladybugs in the garden, and they crawled all over my arm. I felt happy. And then I thought about the ladybug flying away from the window.
I didn’t say anything about it, but somehow my therapist knew what was on my mind. She asked me what I thought about the ladybug flying away.
I said, “When the ladybug flew away, it made me think about- if I fly away, like if I want something and go toward it, will I feel safe to leave? Will I ever have a place, a home, to come back to?”
When I think back on it, this is about five minutes of the therapy session. Maybe less, even. But a session like this feels timeless and spacious. Psychoanalytic therapy bends time and space in a way that feels unquantifiable, magical, and also totally cosmic. You only get 50 minutes at a time, but those 50 minutes can span a lifetime of reverie, memory, and association.
In therapy like this, you go backwards and forwards in time and memory. You get to connect with parts of yourself that are always around, but rarely talked about.
The therapy relationship is unlike any relationship you will ever have. It is intimate and spacious while also being boundaried and contained. There is a frame held by the therapist of time, money, and place. You can feel that it’s safe enough to let go when you’re inside this frame. (It’s kind of like having wings with the capacity to fly, and having those wings contained until they’re ready to use… maybe by a red shell with black polka dots). Therapy is a space and a relationship in which you get to speak whatever comes to mind, with someone who knows you well and is interested in you. That person is there to listen, think, and help you connect one thought to the next. Inside this personal and unique relationship is an opportunity to explore your relationship to yourself, the relationships you have with the outside world, and your anxieties about relationships yet to come (like flying away). The two of you (your two wings) form something altogether new, being shaped by your experience of each other as you think – and “unthink” – together.
Therapy in which a person can be free to dream, to make associations, to explore fears, assumptions, power and desire is a way of making links between parts of ourselves, and with the rest of the world. I find that the deeper we let ourselves go in therapy, the more expansive our consciousness can become. I think about this quotation by Carl Sagan: “We are a way for the universe to know itself.” The universe is this ever expanding, ever condensing, pulsating thing. It is as alive as our consciousness, and as vibrant as our desire. Both the universe and our human psyches are chaotic and destructive, full of magic and connection, and oscillating in a continuum of knowing and not-knowing. I think that continuum of knowing and not-knowing is important in making use of being human.
We are a way for the universe to know itself. In all its desire, its power, its chaos, its possibility, and its connections.
The day I had the therapy with the ladybug, I came home late and tired, and was ready to settle into the comfort of my home. I set my bag down on the floor, and in the shadows of the bedroom lamp I saw a small dark thing fall from my bag and start to wriggle on the floor. My first thought was that it was something dangerous, and I wondered if I should squish it. Instead of acting on that impulse, I became curious – what was that wriggling little thing? I watched it for a while, until I realized what it was.
It was a ladybug.
I set my hand down so that the little bug could crawl on my finger, and watched it move up my wrist and through the hairs of my forearm. I paid attention to it crawling, searching, and testing with its antennae to sense where it was going. I had an awareness, at that moment, of the links I was making between the ladybug on my arm and the ladybug on the window in my therapy earlier that day. I could feel, both sensorily and psychically, this multi-layered process of discovering that the bug – or the meaning of the bug – was being uncovered, linked, and connected in that very moment. Right then, what landed for me was my answer to whether, if I flew away, I would have a place to come home to.
It isn’t always the case that we have the kind of awareness and conscious linking that happened to me that day. Much of the time, therapy can feel like a slogging and frustrating process that doesn’t always relieve the distress and anxiety we feel on a daily basis. But that does not mean links are not being made, and that we are not continually growing, even when growth appears to be a state of moving backwards. Therapy that can make room for your unconscious can open up possibilities that you might not ever expect. For example, I would not have been able to make that link without mentioning the ladybug to my therapist, and my therapist’s ability to help connect my feelings about it.
Like the universe, humans are ever-expanding, ever-shifting, and ever-growing. As we grow to know ourselves, we make space for meaning to happen. Does it matter how “productive” my experience with the ladybug was? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s a profound and meaningful life when I am open to these momentary gifts and connections. As a therapist myself, I only hope to offer the same opportunities to make links and meaning with people who come through my office door.