En Attente (On Hold)

En Attente (On Hold)

by Anastasia Piatakhina Giré
A therapist struggles with her feelings of being put “on hold” by one of her more challenging clients.
Filed Under: Relationships


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Du Chat et de la Souris (Cat and Mouse)

He would reach out to me roughly once a year, usually during the summer, to let me know that he was still thinking about the work we had embarked on a few years before and wanted to come back… one day.

I grew accustomed to his limited reappearances and almost started to expect them.

he would reach out to me roughly once a year, usually during the summer
Sometimes he would get in touch by email, sometimes by text message. It would always be a cry for help from the middle of a crisis; he would sound distressed and eager to resume therapy… but each time he would postpone it until after the holidays or to the following month. And once the holidays and the crisis were over, he would find an excuse to defer again or simply vanish into the Parisian ether with no further explanation.

He was extremely well read and articulate and had a poignant, self-deprecating sense of humour, which would make him a perfect Brit, even though he was a Spaniard. His name was Pablo, but he was going by a more French-sounding Paul.

“I put myself on hold,” he would say. “You put us on hold,” I would reply.

This is the kind of frugal, WhatsApp dialogue that we produced once every six months or so instead of engaging in the one-hour, face-to-face weekly conversation that therapy usually requires.

And Paul certainly was putting me on hold.

As any therapist, I have learned to tolerate frustration, a great deal of it, but after a few years of this endless and fruitless foreplay, it was beginning to seriously unnerve me. Paused, postponed, and suspended – this is exactly how I felt, and it was not a pleasant place to be.

I tried every possible trick to get us back on track. Every time I would fail, and Paul would disappear for another year. “You should probably try to find another therapist,” I would suggest. He profusely reassured me that I was the best possible therapist for him. But was I?

I knew I had to put an end to it, but also sensed that this thin link Paul was maintaining with me was somehow important to him. I did not want to deprive him of that flimsy connection. This flimsiness became a kind of stable and reassuring buoy. He kept checking on me – are you still there? Are you still remembering me? Waiting for me? I was rattled by this game in which he made me a reluctant but nevertheless active participant. Was it his way of trying to tell me something he was not able to communicate verbally?

Au Début (In the Beginning)

Paul’s French was perfect, as he had lived most of his adult life in Paris. His relationship with his country of origin was as cold and uneventful on the outside as it was dramatic and complex on the inside. He spoke reluctantly about his childhood spent in a small coastal town of Southern Spain. From the very few clues that he had given me, I reconstructed a blurred image of a poor, ugly and hot place from which he had felt mostly alienated. He was an incredibly bright child, and all through his early years he was deprived and under-stimulated until finally, in the third grade, a new French teacher arrived at their school and made Paul discover a new language, which offered him an unexpected gift of novels and poetry.

Pauls’ teacher was the object of his first sexual fantasies and romantic dreams
Pauls’ teacher was the object of his first sexual fantasies and romantic dreams. She was tall, blonde, and, with her slim silhouette, indubitably French. Her small family arrived at this unremarkable town to follow her husband’s new position managing the local factory. With her sober but beautifully cut clothes, she stood out from the colourful crowd of local female teachers who all looked at her with suspicion and envy.

She was the one who showed him the way out of his misery and boredom. Paul knew that he was her favourite pupil; she always looked directly at him while reciting a poem or reading one of her favourite passages from Maupassant or Balzac. For the first time in his life he felt important and worthy of interest.

Compared to her, the girls of his age all looked pathetic. Fantasizing about his teacher, he missed out on the first kisses and romantic dates that all his acne-covered peers seemed to be absorbed by. For two years, Paul floated above them, binge-reading French novels and binge-watching French films in which the romantic heroines all looked very much like his teacher.

Did she know that her brilliant young pupil was desperately in love? She probably did, and he often felt that she was reciprocating silently, as her green eyes would pause on him while she recited from her favorite poets, Verlaine or Baudelaire.

Now the adult, Paul recognized that she was probably also bored in this foreign place to which she had been dragged against her will. Maybe playing with the feelings of a local boy gave her some solace and an opportunity to punish her husband (he was very manly, at least this is how he appeared to Paul during the few occasions when he had glimpsed him).

When I asked Paul about how this relationship had ended, he closed up.

that cheap folio edition of Maupassant was still on his bookshelf
The husband was dismissed from his job at the factory and her family disappeared as suddenly as they had arrived. She never said her goodbyes; the only tangible proof of her existence was a book, a Maupassant novel that she had lent him and forgot to reclaim in the fury of her departure. Why did they flee so hurriedly? Sometimes Paul thought that her husband had found out about them.

 “Was there something to find out?” I queried. No, nothing tangible really… a few notes left in the books she was lending him, a few Lorca poems that he translated for her into French. That cheap folio edition of Maupassant was still on his bookshelf.

Sa Vie Francaise (His French Life)

Now Paul was a teacher himself, a professor of modern literature at one of the Parisian universities. His current relationships with women seemed as unhappy and mostly unexamined as his relationship with his birthplace. His mother had always been depressed and exhausted by the five children she had to raise in poverty. He did not maintain contact with his sisters, who were older and remained in their native town. Now they all had lives that felt as foreign and distant to him as some old black-and-white films sometimes can.

somehow in his French life, which seemingly had all the attributes romanticized during his teenage years, he had managed to reproduce the very essence of his miserable childhood
Paul was married to very beautiful French woman, as he stressed in the very first session we had. She had experienced sexual abuse in her past, which made her wary of any intimacy. He knew this from the very beginning of their relationship but somehow accepted it as part of who she was. They had not made love in years, and he was barely allowed to touch her. They talked, though, and he loved their conversations about literature (she was a literary critic and a journalist). They had two children, and Paul loved the sense of family and security this marriage was providing him.

Somehow in his French life, which seemingly had all the attributes romanticized during his teenage years, he had managed to reproduce the very essence of his miserable childhood. Despite his perfect French and very Parisian looks, he often felt foreign, and was anxious to appear at ease at social gatherings.

Paul was frustrated by the lack of sex in his marital life but was unwilling to raise this issue with his wife. He was scared to bring up the demons of her past with his demands. At a deeper level, this situation allowed him to fantasize about other women – often his colleagues, or even his students.

as an adult, he felt confused about how unhappy he was despite the successful reproduction of his childhood fantasies
His fantasy life was full of shadowy women, all very elegant and very French, mostly coming out of the movies from his childhood. He shamefully admitted that he would lock himself in the bathroom before going to bed and masturbate to the imaginary films he would silently run in his head. Paul recognized that his wife certainly knew what his long evening showers meant. Did he ever think about talking with her about it, or inviting her in, I asked. No, how could he?

I guess that by maintaining his chaste marriage and chasing unreachable and mostly imaginary women, he remained loyal to his French teacher and to his early dreams. As an adult, he felt confused about how unhappy he was despite the successful reproduction of his childhood fantasies.

Toujours en Attente (Forever on Hold)

Even though we managed to slowly and painfully shift from the initial idealization to a more appropriate anger towards his teacher, Paul was still very protective of her in our sessions. He believed that she had saved him, offering him a path to a better life. He seemed to have accepted the hurt that came with this dubious gift. Something similar was probably re-enacted in his sexless marriage: he was offered companionship and a sense of safety by the woman whom he admired but was unable or unwilling to give him the intimacy he craved.

In keeping me on hold, Paul was probably reproducing exactly what the French teacher had made him feel. She had vacated his life, leaving behind a promise of richer possibilities. For a few years after her vanishing and until he finished high school, Paul secretly hoped that she would reappear in their town. He ached and could not believe she would never return to his life. Much later, when he finally moved to Paris—her native city—he secretly hoped to spot her in some café or to bump into her in the narrow streets of the Quartier Latin. This, of course, never happened, but he kept fantasizing about it for years.

an unresolved, unsatisfying relationship with a woman was everything Paul seemed to know
An unresolved, unsatisfying relationship with a woman was everything Paul seemed to know—his mother, the French teacher, his wife—and I was now designated by his unconscious to play a part in another variation on this sad relational refrain. But each time he disappeared, I was left feeling unable to do something differently, to create a different theme, a version that would include some stronger connection, and which would allow Paul to believe in the possibility of new relationships.

Each time he disappears, I have tried to change this pattern in vain. At least, so far…

© 2020 Psychotherapy.net, LLC
Anastasia Piatakhina Giré Anastasia Piatakhina Giré was born and raised in Saint Petersbourg (Russia), and, before moving to Paris, lived and studied in Italy, Great Britain and Spain. Her experience of evolving abroad, together with her multicultural marriage and trilingual family, makes her particularly sensitive to the sort of issues experienced by people living in a different country than that of their origin, or those who are part of a mixed couple. Life away from home and family brings along quite specific psychological challenges. An emigrant herself, she is passionate about fellow travelers. In the past she wrote for television and cinema, and has always felt fascinated by people’s stories. She offers online therapy as well as in-person sessions in Paris. Her book about online therapy during the Covid pandemic was released in US in April 2022. See her website at www.expatstherapy.com.