O’Donnell Day on Coming Home— Interview Conducted by Seth Aichele

Seth: I can hardly think of a word that arouses more pain and more longing than home. I’m wondering where this word takes you.

O’Donnell: What comes to mind is what Winnicott said—it’s the title of one of his books actually—Home Is Where We Start From. That’s what came to my mind, that we really do start at a home with our mothers, our families. It’s really, as a baby, completely dependent upon the kind of home this particular mother/mothering figure sets up, specifically an emotional home. The feel. [For example], you’re in your basement right now, [but] it really doesn’t matter in that concrete kind of way. A mother/mothering figure, who can be with us in all of our concrete basements. It is really the feel of this mother/mothering figure with us as babies and how specifically at home this particular mother is. If this particular mother is unable to be at home emotionally with herself, then I can’t be helped much to be at home with my experience. That’s really what comes to mind when you first brought this up.

As Franco would say, it’s the music that’s really important, her music, and then her helping me to have my music, my thoughts, my feelings, my experience. Otherwise, I think what can happen is we start looking outside for home. See it so much today in the “next house, next car, next job, next relationship, next child, etc,” that will transform this emotional homelessness. But of course, it doesn’t. It becomes about something out there that’s going to transform the lack of emotional home inside. Today for so many of us, it’s coming home to my experience, particularly the shame pains, what feels ugly, what my five-year-old calls “ugly, stupid,” and coming home to those feelings, terribly important. Working with those over and over and over again. Daily.

Seth: How do we come home? Say, if we haven’t had a maternal experience that has invited us into that?

O’Donnell: I needed to feel and say that I didn’t have a home really, that I was an orphan—a psychological orphan. Not that I was physically orphaned, no. But needing to feel being an orphan psychologically, emotionally, to feel that I need to be able to get that to someone rather than dressing it up and saying, “Oh, I’m fine,” or, “This is okay, great family, etc.” I needed someone to help me who understood their own “orphan-ness.” I don’t think that’s a word, but [I mean someone] who had their own experience of feeling orphaned, who could help me come down into mine: being an orphan, feeling orphaned. Coming home to these experiences.

Then today, it is, when do I orphan myself again? Throughout the day, will I orphan myself or will I pay very close attention to my experiences, in terms of mothering myself, fathering myself, both? Or will I turn my back on myself, orphan my experiences, let’s say, some feelings that I’m having? Will I abandon myself?

O’Donnell: As an example, I recently lost my dog and felt terribly sad. She and I walked daily. I was walking in the neighborhood without my dog, another neighbor was walking her dog, and I know this dog and neighbor, and I felt sad, and I thought, “Oh, it’s been a few weeks. Why am I still sad?” Kind of in that music. Of course I’m still sad. So it’s [about] not orphaning that part of myself, but being with that and respecting those feelings that I’m having, and then caring about my feelings in that moment. But that doesn’t happen easily, at least in my experience. It’s a long analysis. It’s a lot of working over and over and over with wanting to orphan. I don’t know if that gets at your question.

Seth: Well, it does. I mean, it stirs a lot. I’m just thinking about the way we might think of home [itself] as a feeling, or a corporation might sell us the feeling of “home.” But the way you’re talking about it, it’s kind of like: feeling itself is home, whatever that holds, wherever that takes you.

O’Donnell: And can I be at home with those feelings in myself? Or do I externalize, then go to action, or blame somebody else, or shut down, or whatever? It is that thing that I learned from my analyst, which I have the students do, a journal called “This Is Me.” I think that helps us get to this is me. Then when I’m wanting to turn away from my experience, and say: No, that’s not me, that’s a problem, a dead end. And so that would be orphaning myself, or not staying at home in my experience. But when we haven’t had someone to get to, we really struggle to work with ourselves. We have to have someone that we can get our [feelings] to. For me, it was in my analysis, and didn’t dress them up, didn’t call them things that they weren’t.

O’Donnell: Because what can get going is this narcissistic picture of being sold another house, so to speak. If you’re this or you’re that—or for me, it was if I went to med school and became a physician, then I would be somebody. Well, I went, and it didn’t help me at all. It actually took me back to what I really was in love with, which was psychoanalysis. But those pictures in us get going, trying to counter the homelessness, the psychic homelessness, and never getting really to first base with a mother emotionally. That’s just there and it’s the ongoing work with that over and over. Then getting at the table with other orphans who had that in their own experience. Did you see The Queen’s Gambit?

Seth: I didn’t.

O’Donnell: Well, I just started, I don’t have Netflix, but a good friend of mine who is a psychiatric nurse, she’s doing this potluck on Thursdays where a group of us go over and watch and we just started. Fundamentally, it’s about being an orphan and I’m watching it with these women who are married, have kids, grandkids, divorced, and all of us being together, in a sense talking about our homelessness as a child. That’s getting at that orphaned table together. It doesn’t transform being homeless psychically, but it does begin to grow and build a sense of home with the homelessness.

O’Donnell: For example, some people will say they hate homelessness. They hate seeing it on the street. My fantasy is always, “What do you hate in yourself about your own homelessness that you now locate in a homeless person, who has had trauma on top of trauma, loss on top of loss, [and] now they’re concretely homeless?” I mean, it’s very complex.


Seth: I’ve been thinking about this whole last year, and concretely, many people are spending a lot more time in their houses… And my experience in talking with people, (not to say personally!), but talking with people in therapy, is that it has been an intense and pressurized process that has led to a lot of fragmentation, and it has been this reverberating question for me, in the most general sense, can we live together?

O’Donnell: Yeah. People forced to be at home, concretely at home because of the pandemic, and all that that’s opened up for people—feeling trapped, at least that’s some of the stuff that I hear. Of course, they’re saying “trapped” at their home, well, that’s the concreteness of it. They’re trapped with their feelings and no way to work with their feelings. And then to work with someone else interpersonally, it’s been a nightmare for a lot of people. Then the externalization and even the further denial of people who refuse to wear masks and people who won’t get vaccinated, and all of that to me feels like defense to counter working with homelessness internally. “I’m going to be grand. I don’t need a vaccine. I don’t need to wear a mask. I’m above this.”

O’Donnell: It all feels like defense, to counter those trapped feelings, that emotional pandemic that I think has been exposed in this. Some people, at least some of my patients, they’ve loved being at home because then they’ve had to be at home and work with themselves in a particular way. They’ve actually nested and created space at home. So, it’s been interesting to see that spectrum of claustrophobia, and it has been enlivening for some people, and not in a manic way.

O’Donnell: Were you pretty much sequestered during the pandemic this last year?

Seth: Pretty much. I spent much more time at my house and realized that in some ways I feel most at home at a coffee shop. I’ve had to come home to what it’s like to be in my house more, what it’s like to be with my roommates more.

O’Donnell: Yeah. Your generation, too, at coffee shops—I mean, that’s part of your culture, and then losing that… I guess, [on] home: I would say home is being in my experience, whatever that is, however painful or shameful or alone, with satisfactions and pleasures and all those things too. But fundamentally: being able to be at home in my experience.

Seth: That’s a good closing statement. Thanks for speaking with me today.

Categories: Feature InterviewPublished On: July 14th, 2021Tags: