Containing the Anxiety

By Douglas Bernon
May 26, 2000
Newport, RI

Photo of Ithaka anchored at the Newport Yach Club Ithaka at Newport Yacht Club, May, 2000.

Even though I closed my psychology practice more than two months ago, it was not until today that I finally removed from the outside wall the oval, brass plaque with my name and degrees that I've proudly mounted on various doors over the years. Bernadette said the little sign is "much nicer and more subtle now that it's so weathered." Me too, I suppose. Surely more marked by life. I was glad she thought the plaque more beautiful now. As I backed out the screws, I thought of an old friend who waited six months after her dog died to clean the window pane against which he'd pressed his wet nose.

So many changes, all at once.

I have to grow out of the old skin at a pace that is manageable. Hyper-speed transitions make me a little nuts. That's why I took six months to allow for thoughtful, mutual goodbyes with my patients, who have been my professional dance partners and playmates for so many years. These endings were often sad and painful but sometimes magnificent, too. In the final weeks, conversations that had almost but never quite taken place, as if they were poised but stalled by fear, finally happened. For my patients and for me, saying goodbye made the depths more available and urgent. Sometimes these conversations inched slowly from hidden crevices at the edge and sometimes they absolutely galloped to the center, elbowing aside the mundane behind which it is has been easier to crouch. These were some of the most alive moments of my life. For the people I was with, I hope there was some of the same.

Meanwhile, going from the psychoanalytic world to the sailboat world is one massive lesson in humility, and we haven't even left yet. For two months I've been on the boat everyday, tracing wires and hoses, working on all manner of devices I've never seen before. Many days I feel as stupid and incompetent as I did in junior high school, which for the 36 years since then I'd always hoped was not possible, but at those other moments, when things actually work, this is very cool.

Phil Burton, of Atlantic Marine Group in Newport, who's worked all kinds of magic on Ithaka has been my main teacher in boat mechanics, and the best one I've had in anything for a long time. I suspect he can fix most stuff in the world, but I can only vouch for sailboats. Having me around as a hyperactive apprentice with endless queries and more enthusiasm than nuance, must have taxed him considerably. But I knew he thought I was catching on when he offered me a summer job sanding boat bottoms at $6.25 an hour. Now he says I've learned enough that I can be trusted as a part-time gopher and he'll raise me to $8.50 if I use my own car.

Awhile ago I told Bernadette I was a freshman at Phil U. I told Phil that today. As we finished wiring up an inverter and the new Inmarsat C (okay, much of the time he's management and I'm labor), he informed me that at Phil U no one ever flunked out and he was relieved to imagine I might not have to repeat the entire year.

In closing my practice, and moving out of the house and office, by law I had to carefully dispose of out-of-date psychotherapy records from prior to a certain year, which means I could have had a serious bonfire, or, better yet, in a culture where there are services for everything, call a 1-800 number and this neat truck — way better than any Tonka — rolls up your driveway. Inside the beast are two rooms. The smaller one holds the world's largest stainless steel jaws, which can chew through whole file boxes at a time without taking a breath, turning everything to bits and powder. There's also a window into the larger room so you can stand next to the jaws, actually feel the truck munch and shake while watching years of your thoughts and words pulverized into dust. At the end of this cosmic metaphor, the truck driver bestows an official, signed "CERTIFICATE OF DESTRUCTION," a spooky name that is way closer to the bone than I first realized.

In the weeks since, in an effort to grab a little control, I have upped noticeably the pace and number of my plastic container purchases. The check-out ladies at Wally's know me by name. I'm cornering the market on containers, especially the ones with burping, air tight tops. But egg-holders can temporarily contain my anxieties nearly as well, as do waterproof shoulder bags, floppy-disc caddies, Rubbermaid boxes and bottles, CD holders, every brand and every size of zip-lock bag. (I enthusiastically endorse the brand whose lips change color when they're pressed together.) I've also found bolt and screw holders, lure holders, fishing supply holders, tool boxes galore, fuse holders, light bulb holders. You name it. We now got plastic to contain it. And I have no idea where all this stuff will actually fit on Ithaka, onto which we move in several days. My Commodore has been moderately tolerant but her smile is thinning.

Photo of Douglas with a multitude of tupperware containers

My symptomatic downfall plays out at Long Wharf Seafood, a local fishmonger, who knows a habit when he sees it, and continues to sell me for only fifty cents each, these terrific, stackable, white, 10" x 11" x 2.5" plastic boxes with snap on tops that were shipped to him full of gray sole. He told me that as long as people crave sole, I'm in business. But I've known that for years. Anyway, I've bought all he has. I've got seventeen now but lust for more. Bernadette says I need to join a Tupperware Support Group.

The best advice I've received so far has cut right to the point, offered by a twelve-year-old boy I had treated for several years. On the way out the door of his final psychotherapy session, he slapped me a high five and said, "So dude, like don't sink the boat."