Sister Moon: Close Encounters with a Third
When I rescued my dog, I considered bringing her to work, but was deterred by the difficulty of finding a pet-friendly office. Years later, stressful events arose, which made it necessary for her to accompany me to work. The successful integration of my dog into my practice was my only path forward. This chapter describes how I did so and how my patients made use of her to heal.
She was a complicated dog with a history of trauma of unknown cause, which was most evident when eager strangers reached out to pet her in the college town where I practice. She was a yellow labrador retriever with the warm soulful eyes of a hound. Her allure was beguiling, but the approaches of strangers were triggers for her. Head and tail lowered, a cautious backward retreat behind my legs, peering between, keeping her eyes on potential dangers. I was her ‘haven of safety’ (Harlow, 1958, p. 678).
We are unaware of the complex nature of our desire to engage a dog until the interaction does not transpire as we hope. It is an opportunity for others to bear witness to one’s goodness, as evidenced by a dog’s enthusiastic reception. An anxious mediator during these complex relational events, I aimed to both appease the stranger and protect my dog. ‘She’s shy,’ I would say, or ‘She has a history of trauma’. They were offerings, opportunities to gracefully disengage uninjured. Many approached, nonetheless. As if in slow motion, I observed a transformation. Beaming with desire, the strangers’ advances were met with my dog’s fear hastening their departure, licking their wounded souls. Unencumbered by the compulsion to repeat, she languished not in conflicts from the past; she needs to only avoid them in her present.
My dog was not an ideal candidate for a psychotherapy office - she was not a therapy dog - but our circumstances left us little choice. My colleagues disapproved. They hypothesized that I could not bear separating from my dog, that my relationship with her was ‘symbiotic’, or that I would be distracted by my desire to gratify her appeal for attention. While it impacted me, I tried to ignore the uninvited commentary. Our circumstances were unknown to them, and my dog rarely sought attention. We lived parallel lives.
First, 1 found an office with several easily cordoned off nooks for her to hide and rest. I placed a dog bed outside of my peripheral vision, but in the same space as my patients and I, should she want company. Second, 1 rather rigidly adhered to an edict not to look at her unless my patients called upon me to engage her with them. Third, I developed a protocol for introductions to give patients who wanted to interact with her the best chance of relational success. 1 instructed patients to enter the room quietly, avert their gaze, sit on the couch, and hold their hands low, palms up with a biscuit invitation.
Once I formulated the logistics, designed a protocol for introductions, coped with my colleagues’ opinions, and contemplated the character of our dyad, 1 turned toward the literature I hoped would illuminate the theoretical implications of bringing a dog to a psychotherapy office. One article discussed home offices, which 1 believed raised similar issues as bringing a dog to work. The author used phrases like: ‘overstimulated... by personal information ... flood ... overwhelming ... analyst hunger to be known ... fill a void ... forcing ... sadistic ... malignant regression ...’ (Maroda, 2007, pp. 174 176) - not unlike my colleagues’ concerns. 1 panicked. I could not afford to shake my confidence. I set the article aside and decided instead to lean on giants such as Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Frieda Fromm Reich-man, Harry Stack Sullivan, Karen Horney, Melanie Klein, and Lewis Aron, each of whom allowed their dogs into their psychotherapy offices. If they managed the boundaries, then perhaps I could as well. 1 also committed myself to an open-minded, keen-eyed hypervigilance in my triadic practice. Not quite oxymoronic, but one suggests ease and the other anxiety.
Sister moon and Saint Francis of Assisi: a song, a dog, and the artist change the analyst
A religious man began our analysis with a vow of silence hoping to hear from God. A quiet dyad awaiting a third. As if by a miracle, upon introduction, my dog was unusually at ease and affectionate. A fast, mutual bond formed between them. Breaking his vow, he gave us the blessing of new Christian names. He pointed to her and then to me and said, ‘Sister Moon and Mother Earth’. I later explored Saint Francis of Assisi’s ‘Canticle of Creatures’ (1999) and after reading the poem, I embraced our new names. Assisi’s Sister Moon is ‘clear’ and ‘precious’ (Assisi, p. 114). Clear because she is unconflicted about reality, precious because she could offer that wisdom to us. Assisi’s Mother Earth ‘sustains and governs us, and produces various fruits, coloured flowers, and herbs’ (ibid, p. 114). I nurture my patients and I govern the frame, a job now challenged with the addition of my dog. Creating meaning in complex transitions holds us together in times of uncertainty and distress. The name ‘Sister Moon’ was an affirming talisman holding the promise of the clarity it evokes.
A miracle perhaps, but the uncanny was also in play. I often referred to her as the moon in my orbit. Ever present, but aloof.
118 Gaiana Germani
Sister moon and the FBI
Patients often broke with protocol, and Siros was no exception. Siros was sixty when we met. Relentlessly depressed and profoundly alone in the world, he was unable to chart a course to connectedness. His childhood home was rife with violence and abandonment. Often extracted, he was helpless in the current of social services, drowning in a sea of his peers without a safe harbour. As an adult, his efforts to connect were invariably met with rejection. Afterwards, a fog descended for days until the lucid awareness of his loneliness emerged, lurching forward, penetrating his deadening depression giving rise to a soulful howling agony swallowed whole and replaced by fantasies of being followed by the FBI - one of the psyche’s cruellest solutions to loneliness (Michalska da Rocha et al., 2017).
Siros was thrilled by the prospect of meeting Sister Moon. 1, on the other hand, never having witnessed Siros’s transition from socially hopeful, to rejection, to psychosis, was apprehensive.
Our hour arrived, and I pantomimed, ‘do not look, sit down, palms up and low, never approach from above’, and so on before we entered the office. Siros instantaneously abandoned protocol. He looked directly at her with enthusiasm, gesticulating wildly, encouraging her to come near his hand darted out to pat the top of her head. She instinctually ducked and backed away quickly to her corner of the room. She was not a welcoming mirror reflecting his desire to be received (Winnicott, 1953). Sister Moon’s boundaries were clear, and recovery was dubious. 1 gently reminded Siros of the steps. Hands low, palms up, look away. Eventually, she gave him a second chance, accepted a biscuit from him, and a tentative scratch under her ear. Eventually, like with most of my patients, a natural rhythm evolved. After some mutual affection, Sister Moon lazily returned to her dreamscapes.
One concern 1 harboured regarding the introduction protocol was that it had the potential to be a re-enactment of the submissive stance adopted by Siros to keep himself safe while seeking comfort from family members. However, Sister Moon’s requirement for introductory submission was not cut from the same cloth. This submission liberated her, creating space into which their shared desire could expand. The submission required by his family was sadistically intended to dominate and scare him. Compliance was the price he paid for affection as a child. It was not real, but it was better than nothing, just like the FBI.
The submission Sister Moon required allowed them both to move towards a safe, authentic, and mutually gratifying connection. If Winnicott (1969) observed the encounter, he might define the unfolding of events as an example of‘good enough’ (ibid, p. 712) mothering, providing the safety of a holding environment in which two separate beings meet having become real for each other. The office space, the protocol, my guidance, and Sister Moon’s prerequisites, all components of a holding environment, made a developmental shift in Siros possible. Winnicott would describe this shift as
‘object relating’ to ‘object usage’ (ibid, p. 712). Siros was able to experience her as other than him. They shared reality as two separate beings. 1 believe Siros needed both Mother Earth’s governing (the protocol) and Sister Moon’s clarity (instinctually and incontrovertibly real, she can be nothing other than her nature) for the evolution of this shift. And while there was indeed a re-enactment of sorts, Sister Moon’s need for submission and his capacity to meet that need in a healing rather than sadistic context was what Dowd might have called a ‘repetition with a difference’ (2016, p. 7).
Sister Moon is not a miracle worker, and correlation is not causation, but, gradually, Siros experienced some social success in his communityjoining people for meals, and sharing community spaces.
The FBI was less and less a presence in his life.
After meetings with Sister Moon, he revealed he lived his life thinking his only hope for belonging and love was to find a way to be an ‘entirely different person.’ A tragic Winnicottian ‘false self’ (Winnicott, 1955, p. 21).
Siros learned with Mother Earth and Sister Moon that even a small shift in social behaviour could make a substantial difference. He need not change everything about himself to connect.
Phantasmagorical sister moon
Anath struggled to connect the depth of her despair to her experiences growing up in her family. ‘But nothing bad ever happened to me’, a neglected child’s near-universal refrain. The steam of her parents’ open sexuality and audible encounters, the promised crack of a baseball bat kept at her father’s bedside to murder inevitable intruders and the stench of mouldy clothing left to dry in the washer by her mother was the atmosphere Anath breathed as a child.
When 1 met Anath, she suffered devastating panic attacks accompanied by prolific paranoid thoughts of being followed by murderous men looking for the right moment to strike.
Her ‘baseball bat’ was her vivid imagination replacing intrusive thoughts of imminent murder with fantasies of safety and power. She kept pictures of Sister Moon and I open on her computer monitors at work. She was able to pull herself away from panicked states and paranoid thoughts with Sister Moon and me near.
The phantasmagorical imagination of Anath represented both her conscious desire to be safe in the world while simultaneously illuminating the rage she split off to keep safe her mind. One fantasy featured Sister Moon and me. Below, is the narrative as I remember it from that day:
As a warrior goddess with long blond hair flowing aft in the vespers, I walk before her, wielding a sword, Sister Moon at my side. She and I both radiate and exist in a magical golden flowing light trailing our course. Anath is entrapped in a blue glow holding her captive as she walks behind us. Sometimes she is able to free herself from the grip of the blue glow and take steps forward toward Sister Moon and me. When she does, she is enveloped by our dreamy golden atmosphere, leaving the blue behind her awaiting her inevitable return. In the golden light, 1 am at her command, and as my commander, she tells me to kill unhesitatingly and without question, anyone she thinks would bring us to harm.
Sister Moon’s role was complex. As a loyal vessel, she contained the love and warmth Anath received from me, which was unavailable during imagined homicidal rampages. Sister Moon was there to ‘bear witness’ to my atrocities, so I would not be ‘alone’ as I carried out Anath’s murderous commands. Lastly, she was to guard my imago, which would be necessarily split off from the traumatising horror of what transpired. Sister Moon contained, guarded, and protected what 1 would need to reintegrate and return the whole woman Anath counted on outside of the golden glow.
Anath’s fantasy evokes a thicket of theory. 1 will clear one path. Heinz Kohut believed that ‘agoraphobia resulted from maternal failures to function adequately as an idealised self-object, and, in this developmental context, to provide sufficient calming and soothing means of preventing anxiety from spreading and reaching “panicked states’” (Miliora and Unman, 1996, p. 220). Anath was unable to utilise her mother as a self-object. However, she made use of Sister Moon and me as an idealised self-object pair providing ‘the experience of merger [stepping into the golden glow] with the calm, power, wisdom, and goodness of idealised persons’ (Moore and Fine, 1990). She needed a mother who could remain intact and protect her from the savage in her home. Sister Moon, Mother Earth and Anath were the triad necessary for her ‘developmental second chance’ (Orange, 1995, p. 4).
Bringing Sister Moon to my office required logistical planning, protocols, and confidence in myself. Though she was not often a central figure for my patients, these vignettes illustrate the power of her presence when patients made use of Sister Moon to heal. For Siros, she offered the authentic responding to realise he need not change his whole self to relate. Anath called upon Sister Moon to hold our psyches together while she located the rage, which once integrated, will make her the powerful, unstoppable force of her namesake. In triads of trauma, my dog did the trick.
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