The Snake

Was it a gopher snake or a rattler? The man didn’t know, and initially, his question was delayed, subordinated to a frightful reaction. The man’s utterance was ambiguous. A half-bray, choked by inhibition, was matched by his physical response, a brusque step backwards. I didn’t see any of this. Listening, imagining the scene and its meaning, I waited, my patience countered by an ever-muted eagerness. “Are you okay?” I asked, half-thinking the problem was simply a matter of the line. The phone was always cutting out during sessions, and during those with patients who amid Covid prefer their sessions while walking amid nature, the competition from distracting sounds, the elements of nature like the enveloping sound of wind, or the glitchy, tenuous, un-natural features of cell phone technology, are often letting us down.

             “Is that a gopher snake?” The man’s rhetorical question, arriving within seconds of his first comment—a protracted version of something like “whoa”—was for his own edification. The fascination suggested a modicum of knowledge, for he was already determining the absence of danger. The fairly large reptile, situated amongst some dry brush across a trail carved over time by feet rather than machines, was not making the signature sounds of a dangerous predator. It had moved but hadn’t otherwise been aggressive. Its sideways darting action, according to the man, had been enough to deter approach. Learning. The man emitted a nervous laugh as he stepped away, soon to resume the process that is ever more uncertain, his analysis. Breathless, walking faster, he marked time by wondering aloud about my experiences of snakes. Not much, I was inclined to say. I’d barely heard of anything called a gopher snake, for example. Otherwise, I brought to mind mythological associations, plus discussions at an analytic society that lamented the stereotyped image of serpents in general; the disregard of their expansive, cross-cultural meanings. In mine, snakes have meant temptation, seduction, and in this scene that association, or something close to it, was prevailing for me.

             Distraction. The prior subject had been distraction, plus—allusively—the man’s tentative commitment to analysis. We’d talked about the couch before, long before Covid hit, when sessions at my office had been the norm, not sessions by phone in the background of naturalistic settings. During this fraught period, I’d stayed at my office, sat in the same chair, albeit with less disciplined stillness, gazing at the same office walls and unchanging art, feeling alone and vaguely envious. My patients, like this one, were not just obeying “lockdown orders” or later recommendations by the CDC, or even my cooperation with those same authorities. They were making choices of where to be when speaking their minds, and simultaneously deciding upon variations of repression: how to take one’s mind off things. The couch. “The couch”, I reminded, after the man recovered his breath and asked after the prior subject of discussion. With little or no sense of irony—not yet, anyway—he stuttered back to the topic, asking me to take the lead, remind him of his former thoughts also; to guide him. 

“Get back on track?” I said drolly, which cued a laughing recognition. Where is he? He understood.

             The man remembered the walls of my office, the blank white space interrupted by unchanging artwork. He admitted that nature offered more variety to his roving eye, his stimulation-seeking mind. He soon associated to the reasons for his treatment: that other reason that his eyes wander, seeking distraction. It had been this tendency that got him in trouble, brought him to my lesser stimulating lair. A typical night: he and his spouse would be at a restaurant, dining and having a pleasant experience, conversing easily, enjoying a good meal. At some point, a woman would emerge from an adjacent space, perhaps entering the dining area from a restroom or from a waiting area. The man would glance in her direction and—inwardly at least—utter “whoa”, thinking the woman was his type. His fantasy. Within an instant of that thought he’d be machinating, managing the unspoken, half-digested dilemma: how to steal another look while concealing the act from his wife. He MUST look again, he thought half-consciously. Consciously, before his wife, and for the most part with me also, he MUST NOT look again. Defensively, in sessions, he’d often turn to a point of debate. His wife, unlike myself or his 12-step sponsors, had been and was still the more likely witness to his wayward masculine gaze, but as a long-suffering eyewitness to such incidents, was she the most “objective” observer of his habits?

             On the couch he might contemplate this scene, these events that actually happened on several occasions, though now the memories recede into the background, dismissed by latter day wishes. He’d prefer to not think about such painful memories. Better to move on, hit the trail, so to speak. The couch is still. It forces subjects to lie down, even, portending sleep and the arrival of dreams, or their retrieval. The subject, as in the patient, is drawn inward by this device, this hoary tradition of psychoanalysis. The answers: they are inside, not in the environment, we think. Who is we? “We” is…doesn’t matter. I agree. That’s what matters. I’m trying to get patients to agree also, and they do for the most part, in theory anyway. “It’s true,” says the man in a cheerful voice, evincing an agreeable air. He is quieted now, his startled encounter with the wild over. His well-defended, good-humored, studied urbanity is back, ready to think with me, be reminded of his purpose. He recalls points made some time ago, before the material reality of the last year compelled a change in our process. “There are indeed less distractions in your office, on your couch. To see the mountain outside your window I’d have to twist my neck, strain to see it”.

             “Are you that desperate to look outside?”

             He laughed again. “No”, he eventually said, perhaps unsure. What did he want to say? What is he supposed to say? A dilemma. He affected neutrality, the cover of matter-of-fact observation. “Just not much to see in your office, that’s all.”

             “No snakes?”

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