Unpacking the Suitcase: A Psychotherapist’s View on the Luggage of our Past

Adrian Ward Psychodynamic Practitioner

Adrian Ward Psychodynamic Practitioner

Welcome to this month’s Blog Spot where Psychotherapist Adrian Ward once again shares his enjoyment of film and television and gives a psychotherapists’ take on what is presented on screen.  Adrian has previously written on the Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire”, and now he shares his reflections on Mad Men, a TV series set in New York in the 1960’s.

I was recently watching an episode of the American TV series Mad Men. For those unfamiliar with the series, it recounts the lives and careers of a firm of advertising executives in New York throughout the 1960s, as they struggle to adjust to a changing world, but particularly focuses on John Hamm’s character Don Draper and Elisabeth Moss’s character Peggy Olsen.

The episode in question (“The Suitcase”) is on the face of it a race against time to produce an advert for Samsonite suitcases. Complicating this is the fact that Don is waiting for news of his closest friend’s health on the other side of the country, and at the start of the episode is told that he needs to “ring California urgently”. He instinctively knows bad news waits at the end of the phone line. He avoids making the call by throwing himself into the Samsonite work throughout the episode and drags his protégé Peggy into this too, making her miss her birthday meal, ruining her plans.

Don falls asleep in the early hours of the morning and sees his friend (in a dream, vision or hallucination), she is carrying a suitcase, smiles at him, turns and disappears. He rings California to find that she has died.

So what does this episode have to do with talking therapies? Don’s friend is the one person who knows his past, who understands and likes who he really is. He wants to avoid the inevitable change that will come along with the loss of this person, and the feeling of being alone in the world her death will (and does) bring. These events make him realise the future is rushing up to meet him, and facing the rush of change that is imminent (as set up in previous episodes) is going to be so much harder with the loss of his friend. So he tries to avoid facing this loss.

The grief he initially shows subsides into a show of professionalism (he is showered and spruced up ready for work despite having had little sleep during the night), and this is maybe a common reaction to grief. The feeling is that we must carry on as if nothing has happened, or only show our feelings briefly because we might be judged as weak or vulnerable if we show how we feel that loss.

The past is carried along with us like a suitcase; it can be protective and gives us a sense of security, and also is a bulwark of our identity. To lose something of our past throws our world into chaos for a period of time, and makes us feel lost. The contents of our emotional suitcase spill everywhere. It is at this time that we need others to help us sort through the jumble, and it is here that counselling can be of help. A chance to talk about the powerful, sometimes conflicting emotions aroused. To make sense of them, and maybe organize them in a way that means we can continue our journey into the future.

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