On being lost for words

For me, this is, ultimately, what brings people to analysis. What does this mean, i.e. to be lost for words? Not being able to speak? Maybe. Or is it rather a matter of being able to speak almost too well – except that nothing is really said at all? Many people in analysis can speak only too readily – sometimes the problem is to get them to stop talking so much!

Of course, being lost for words can mean both these things – not being able to speak at all, and saying too much (of the wrong thing), which really amounts to the same thing as not being able to speak at all.

More to the point, what has being lost for words got to do with human suffering – which, after all, is what really seems to be the motivation for entering any kind of talking treatment? But then again, what exactly do human beings suffer from? And how do they suffer?

A person who is deeply depressed might reasonably answer this question by saying that they are suffering from depression, that they are depressed. Another person might say they suffer from anxiety. Yet another might complain of terrible nightmares, and so on. These are all ways to suffer – and yet…….what makes all these experiences (perhaps one might also use the term ‘symptoms’ – though strictly speaking anxiety is not a symptom at all) so unpleasant, so troubling?

This is not an easy question to answer – which is perhaps why most people don’t bother to ask it in the first place. However, it seems to me that one way to approach this whole matter is to ask how such symptoms (for want of a better term for the time being) upset the balance of a person’s life: how, in fact, such symptoms call a person’s life into question.

Not for nothing perhaps did Lacan describe symptoms as formations of the unconscious. The key point here, in my view, is that symptoms are a form of ‘language’ – a construction of signifiers. This might seem fairly obvious in the case of dreams, but perhaps less so in cases of conversion symptoms, which are characteristic of hysteria. But perhaps this is because we tend to have too rigid a distinction between words and things, and forget what Freud knew: that once words were things. Or maybe an even more fundamental idea: that in the beginning there was the Word…….

Getting back to being lost for words. Symptoms may speak their own language, but most people find this language rather difficult (impossible) to decipher. So often all they are left with is an unpleasant experience. They may get as far as being able to call this unpleasant experience ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, a ‘nightmare’ and so on, but often this is as far as they get. Then, understandably perhaps, all they want is for this unpleasant experience to go away so they can get back to their normal life. What gets missed in this rush to return to normality is that it’s precisely ‘normality’ that might be the problem, and it’s their symptoms that are calling this ‘normality’ into question.

Of course, in many ways I’m grossly simplifying things here, but the general thrust of my argument is quite simple: being lost for words is being unable to ‘decipher’ one’s suffering, which often manifests itself in a range of unpleasant and troubling experiences, which can also, loosely speaking, be called ‘symptoms’.