Dr. Matthew Paldy

Thoughts on the Unconscious in Everyday Life

By Dr. Matthew Paldy

I have a cordial relationship with my neighbor, Janet, a delightfully pleasant Manhattan woman, 94 years old, who lives down the hall. She had recently begun telling me of a bothersome noise she was hearing in her apartment. She described it as an electronic hum that caused her great distress because it was so annoying. She believed that her next door neighbors, a young couple, had been operating an electronic device that was causing the hum. She said that the hum only occurred in the middle of the room and she could not stand it anymore, and often had to leave the apartment. I spoke with the doorman and learned that she had been complaining to building management about the noise, had called the police and other NYC housing authorities about it. None of the people who came to her apartment, including NYC Noise Inspectors, could hear the hum. I knocked on her door one day to see if I could help her in her distress by talking with her. She told me that it occurred only at certain times, and only occurred when she stood in one place in the center of the room. In my burgeoning analytic capacity I asked her about the noise and how it felt, how she experienced it. It became clear to me that her explanations didn’t seem to make sense, and I suspected that the noise she “heard” was some manifestation of an inner distress she was feeling. I returned to talk with her several times over the next week and learned from her that her good friend, another elderly woman in the building, had recently fallen ill and was taken to live in a nursing home. I thought to myself that Daisy may have been distressed about losing her good friend, and that her friend’s physical deterioration may have scared her and reminded her of her own mortality. In addition she had no family nearby to help take care of her in her old age. I wondered if the hum that Daisy heard was really an unconscious cry for help. It reminded me of a statement by the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, who implored new analysts to “trust the untold tale, not the teller.” I empathized and talked with Daisy about her friend’s illness, hoping it might bring some of Daisy’s unconscious distress to the surface. However it didn’t appear to help. In addition, I could see that Daisy’s mind was deteriorating because she also told me that she suspected her dentist may have implanted an electronic device in her tooth that could be causing the hum. I sat and talked with her on several more days and subtly employed various therapeutic techniques such as compassionate listening and reality testing. The noise had consumed Daisy’s daily life, and she would often leave the apartment to avoid it. It also now occurs to me that perhaps this represented an obsessive/compulsive component to her distress as Nancy McWilliams mentions – that obsessional people at all developmental levels may also use displacement as a means to divert the original feeling from its source to a “legitimate” target, which in this case it may have been the noise Daisy heard. It seems that Daisy may have also exhibited aspects of denial with regard to her mortality. Of course, this is speculation on my part because my interaction with her was not in an ongoing clinical setting. Daisy’s symptoms and experience of aging alone reminded me that social connections are vitally important to our wellbeing, especially in our senior years. I’m glad to report that Daisy seems to have been getting better, and she said the noise has diminished.