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Robert D. Stolorow Headshot

Losing and Regaining My Sense of Being

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I begin with a poem about my youngest daughter titled "Emily Running," 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 Feb. 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: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780881634679/) leading me to relive the horrors of Dede's illness and death. 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 a context of emotional understanding 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 re-traumatization 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 empathic 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 context-embeddedness of our sense of being and of the relational contexts in which it can become lost and regained. 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.

(This blog is dedicated to my wife, Dr. Julia Schwartz.)

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