One of the stories my mom used to relish telling me was that, as an infant I would gaze at the light and ‘talk to the angels.’ That was her first (delusional) inkling that I was in possession not only of an above average intelligence but a supernatural gift.
I drew this memory in response to a chilling chapter in psychoanalyst Margot Wadell’s book, Inside Lives. In the chapter on thinking she describes children who have to adapt to environmental failures by finding ways to hold themselves together- she movingly describes an infant who stares, blank faced into a light as means of creating a skin or a ‘cohering presence.’ When a good enough carer is not available to knit our experience of reality (and therefore the child’s ego or self) together with their attention, we, as infants will find a way to do this for ourselves – but at great cost to our developing personality and capacity to think. It might be staring into a light, or developing a precocious intelligence or slavishly mimicking some aspect of parental personality – it’s an impoverished means of stitching together what is otherwise a fragmented, frightening, non sensical existence. I can’t actually talk to angels, it turns out, but I can definitely identify with the little girl who is trying to hold it all together by busily cobbling together a thin skin made of words. I stitched and stitched and theorised and read like my life depended on it and learned to glibly smooth-tongue my way through.
I have always been considered smart, but the quality of my intelligence has changed over the years- a change I attribute to the growth of my personality through therapy. I’m not so one dimensional now. To begin with, I was all head and no heart. I tried to solve emotional problems by reasoning my way out of them, by acquiring facts and knowledge and philosophising instead of feeling. This made, as Waddell observes, for a thin, ‘adhesive’ texture to my intellect. I was all talk. I was great at chat but there was an underlying emptiness, a hyper-verbal, densely packed quality to the way I interacted. I imagine I probably talked as if the whole world might unravel before me if I stopped trying to clickety-clack knit knit knit with my words and whirring brain.
I imagine meeting myself now, as I was in my early twenties- I think I’d enjoy my company but perhaps find being with me not very restful- having to frenetically pack a whole human being into a just a head makes for an exhausting personality.
I’m not nearly so clever these days. My intelligence has been re distributed to the rest of my body- as Yeats would say I don’t just think in the mind alone. I discern with my nervous system: my sweaty palms and breath and stomach and pulsing veins. I know things with my heart now: I rely on the vibes I get from people, the feelings I feel around them, first impressions, my dreams, metaphors and imagery that pops up in my speech and thought. I rely on my appetite and instinct too: I try to ditch the rules as often as possible and surrender to what I crave. I think thoughts in my marrow bone these days and I don’t worry so much about having a coherent intellectual answer for everything. I’ve stopped trying to hold myself together with mere words.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
Margot Waddell’s book, Inside Lives is a fascinating exploration of the development of human psyche.
She quotes Yeats’ poem, ‘A prayer for old age’ from which the title of this blog is taken