Stop the world and let me off

We've been working together for a few weeks, and the anxiety overload has, it seems, myriad causes. Most obviously, he's lived on coffee and in workaholic overdrive for too many years.

It's fascinating, in therapy, how different people's stories constellate different frames of reference: Freud, Bion, Winnicott, Klein, Jung. Until now, no particular body of ideas has surfaced in this case.

But today, my thoughts return to his opening question: "What is the 'matter'?" Overwhelmed by distressing symptoms, he has lost his moorings, and is desperately trying to argue things back into some kind of control. But in such conditions, it just isn't possible to impose mind over matter. Mind over matter! So that is it. That is the matter. There isn't enough matter. And this takes me directly to Jung.

Jung's work is full of references to "matter". For him, "matter" is the instinctive nature within us all that earths us. In some of his texts, matter is mater, the mother-earth symbol. In a world that overvalues the intellect, this ground of our being is easily neglected. Without any still point in our ever-turning worlds, we become unhinged from what matters and at war with ourselves.

My patient describes his dreams. In them, he is always there and everywhere, but never here. Always in flight, on the run. A couple of times, he falls from aircraft to earth. As Jung said, the unconscious is always complementing and redressing our conscious attitude. "Earth yourself," the dreams seem to be saying. "Go to ground. Stop the manic flight."

At first, my patient is having none of this. "So you want me to put my life on hold and earth myself by wallowing in mud?" he sarcastically queried. "It's your psyche, not me, that seems to want it," I reply.

Then, one day, I got a phone call telling me that my patient had fallen while running for a train and broken his ankle. For several weeks he was forced to go to ground. I couldn't help but smile. He called me at the times we usually met, and in this twist of fate, I listened as he spoke from his newly grounded space.

After venting fury on himself, he slowly adapted. He had time to mull over, digest. His dreams were full of cellars, caves, floods. A new integration of his unlived "shadow" side was occurring in the unconscious. A month later, he was again able to make his way to sessions. I was struck by how everything about him had slowed down. Being grounded had, it seemed, enabled him to connect with some abandoned cornerstone of himself. The accident had precipitously speeded up the process of integration.

We carried on working, and there was rarely the sense of him spiralling off into flight. Instead, there was a sense of some newly found anchorage in him he could trust. Spirit and matter, Jung said, are two sides of the same coin. When we can really live this integration, we'll live more fully and have a greater capacity for love. Surely that is what matters.

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the above details refers to specific individual people.