Up the Ladder
May 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
Doctor and psychotherapist Alfred Adler believed deeply in what he called “early recollections.” He believed our lingering early memories—the handful that stick with us throughout our lives—are templates on which we project our view of the world. These subjective memories are notable not for their accuracy but because they reflect key themes in our lives.
Adler himself had a vivid memory of walking through a cemetery on his way to school when he was five. Terrified, he challenged his fear by running back and forth through the cemetery several times.
When he was 35, Adler returned to his old neighborhood and looked for the cemetery. It didn’t exist. It never had.
What did his fictitious memory mean? He believed it stemmed from having nearly fatal pneumonia at five. After he recovered, he decided to become a doctor when he grew up. Fear of death became a major theme in his life and work; most likely his unconscious constructed this memory to express how he dealt with that fear—i.e., by directly challenging it.
My key early recollection is being stuck halfway up a sheer cliff face studded with vertical ladder rungs. I was six years old and my family was visiting Pueblo cliff dwellings in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. I had been dutifully climbing upward, and then a shocking awareness of my own precariousness overtook me. Fear paralyzed me. I couldn’t go backward—people were jamming up behind me—and I couldn’t climb upward because I was too scared.
I don’t remember how I got to the top of the cliff. I vaguely recollect some comforting voices surrounding me, maybe a hand or two offered. I must have gone so deep into my determination that everything else faded away. I had no choice but to keep moving. There was no going back.
This memory comes up for me at key times, especially times of difficulty and transition. This spring has offered plenty of both. A month ago I had a spectacular meltdown that landed me in a locked ward—the last place in the world I wanted to be—and I’ve spent the last month inching my way out of depression while finishing the grueling final weeks of my master’s program.
I’m graduating with more questions than answers, more doubts than sureties. I feel like an impostor, a counselor who has nothing of substance to offer her clients except my too-vivid identification with their pain. I don’t know if I have what it takes to be a counselor. What is my next step? I have absolutely no clue.
I feel like I’m halted halfway up that Pueblo cliff.
And yet I can’t stay stuck on the ladder. There’s no going back. The voices that surround me, urging me upward, belong to the people who love me, who believe I can keep climbing. My own doubts get in the way. But I have to reach for the next rung.
The thought of what makes the journey worthwhile helps me set my gaze upward. That thought is horses—using them in counseling, going deeper into natural horsemanship, learning how these exquisitely sensitive animals can team with humans to help enrich the lives of both species.
Deep breath. Focus. Hand upward. Think horses.
One rung of the ladder at a time.