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Saturday, 23 September 2006 00:00

Use Eagles if Necessary, Chapter 24: Who Should see a Shrink?

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My buddy, “Ralph,” teaches at a major university. He is about as bright a guy as I’ve ever met and one of the most well rounded. He can expound on any topic from the physical sciences to the formation of black holes, to Shakespeare, classical music, the stock market, the Greeks, you name it. One night at the school’s annual fund-raising gala he and I were discussing a mutual friend “Edward,” who was coming unglued.

Edward was a tenured professor at the university. We learned that in the middle of class he tipped over his desk, told his students they were a bunch of morons; told his boss the same thing and resigned. Soon his wife left him and took the kids. He was in his house, alone, drinking — day and night.

“How would you diagnose him?” asked Ralph.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Depression, mania, perhaps some phobia got lose and overwhelmed him. It doesn’t matter.”

“How can he be treated without a diagnosis?” Ralph asked.

“Easy. Get him dried out — evened out — and then ask him to tell you about his mom and dad.”

“Of course,” he said, mock hitting his forehead with the heel of his hand.

Even the brightest often forget. It’s too simple and doesn’t seem right. Mental illness should be much more complicated than that but, bafflingly, it usually isn’t.

Once Edward told me “My life is a losing battle. I see no hope.” He was a man with a wonderful wife, kids and nice house. He was published and respected by his peers. With his professorship came prestige. The life battle he was losing was, obviously, within his mind. I suggested that he seek psychotherapy and volunteered to recommend someone. I could not see him because we were friends. “Psychoanalysis is a bunch of bullshit,” he angrily said. “All that Oedipal Freud crap about me wanting to sleep with my mother.”

Perhaps I should have been insulted — he just called my profession bullshit — but he was in such an agitated state I wasn’t even mildly offended. I laughed out loud. What I could have said, but didn’t, was that there was a flip side to Oedipus. His mother also wanted to sleep with him, but I thought I’d leave that startling piece of news to his therapist — if he ever found one.

Once a professional athlete, after learning I was a psychoanalyst, said, “I went through therapy for about a year. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot.” Naturally I was pleased to hear this and told him so. Then he added, “We talked about things no one will ever know about.” Naturally I did not add, “You want to bet?”

All patients in therapy talk about the same “things,” and there aren’t that many of them. They think their experiences are unique, and they are, but only in the details. The dynamics in the unconscious are the same with everyone. The reason Edward the professor flipped over his desk, denigrated his students and boss, resigned and alienated his wife and kids was simple. The man was full of rage, which was manufactured at an early age. Finding the sources of his rage would not be difficult, but getting him to re-live the manufacturing process, both intellectually and emotionally, then re-direct the rage and eventually diffuse it would not be simple. It could take years. Understanding the causes of emotional illness is easy, but the process of abating them is not.

The problem is our defense mechanisms. They are elusive, multi-layered, strong as granite, and slippery as wet clay. Each layer of defense must be discovered, examined, understood and re-felt. This layer must be slowly removed before the next layer is tackled. Psychoanalysis has been compared to peeling an onion. We analysts are cautioned not to hurry this process (as in slicing the onion) because each layer has its own important reason for being. With particularly ill patients if we go too fast and arrive at the raging fire of anger too soon, we will allow in too much oxygen (truth). Then we really have a mess on our hands. The fire will burn up the already fragile ego (person). It took decades for patients to get to the crisis point in their lives. To think they can be fixed rapidly with counseling and a few interpretations is not only dangerous it is supremely naïve.

This is not to say that counseling and some well-chosen words do not have their place. Often that’s all that is needed to get someone back up and running. School counselors and clergy come to mind as well as wise parents and good friends. But if you think talking to the desk flipper will make him better, don’t aspire to be a psychotherapist. He’s the one that’s got to do the talking. But, by now, you know that.

I have often been asked if everyone needs to go through psychotherapy. The answer is “no.” Some people are genuinely happy, loving and most comfortable in their own skins. And, equally important, their families and friends find them delightful to be with. They do not need psychotherapy. (But I think most people could benefit from it. Who among us could not be “better.”)

Those who do need therapy are among the following: Suicidal; depressed to the point of constant malaise; unreasonably anxious; unreasonably fearful; frequently stymied by guilt. Any emotional state where a feeling of well-being is unattainable or unsustainable, when there is no apparent reason for this, qualifies as a need for therapy. Also, those who cannot make and maintain friendships, over an extended period, would benefit from therapy. Certainly people who can’t stay married, or are miserable in that state, should see a shrink. The two common complaints I heard most often from new patients were: 1) I’m 35 years old. My life is half over. If the next half is as empty as the first half, what’s the point? 2) I know a hundred people who are married but none that are happy. And my marriage, for sure, sucks. (Time for the “T” sign.)

One of the confounding things about many people is that it is easy for them to love, but almost impossible for them to be loved. That’s often a marriage tilt. When we are doing the loving we are in control. As recipients of love we are vulnerable. Being vulnerable is too scary for many. In his famous prayer St. Francis of Assisi, stated “... For it is in loving that we are loved. It is in giving that we receive.” That’s true, Frances, but it’s not the whole story. In receiving love we also give. We give our trust, which is a great gift. Therapy teaches us to trust.

I have written about pain and tears in the analytic process, and they are part of it, but mostly it is fun. Getting to talk about yourself without interruption, and learning truths about you (The “Holy cows!” and “That’s rights!”) are a pleasure to experience for both analyst and analysand. The usual mood in a shrink’s office is not a somber one. Rather it is upbeat about the good things happening and hopeful for better things to come. I often found my analysis, and that of my patients, to be uproariously funny as myths and misconceptions of the past were exposed and expunged by the light of truth.

It is understandable that fear and trepidation accompany the first visit to a shrink (it certainly was the case with me), but soon those visits will be the highlight of a patient’s week. What could be more valuable, or more interesting, than learning more and more about one’s self? And this learning process, actually a growth process, doesn’t end when the therapy ends — it will continue for the rest of life. I know it sounds like I’m “selling” here and I am. But I’m doing it for you, not me. I’m retired.

By now, you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be a patient and also a shrink. You’ve learned some basic theories on the workings of the emotional system. You have been exposed to the unconscious mind and its powers. The concept of psychotherapy is no longer mysterious.

You’ve learned the unconscious mind does not follow the rules of logic, reason and common sense. Its prime intent is to perpetuate itself without change — like the broken record — repeating the same dynamics over and over and over again with no concern whether the outcome is good or bad. If the outcome is invariably bad the unconscious mind could care less. That doesn’t make sense.

It is a paradox, then, that it is precisely common sense that can correct a faulty unconscious mind. For instance, if a woman continually finds herself in abusive relationships she should learn why. To do this we go back in time to discover when this pattern began, and who caused it. This is done by remembering events from the past and talking about them, thus taking these causes (the people) out of the unconscious mind and into the open. They are defined, understood and put into perspective. Now she can deal with them. She has exposed them to the bright lights of the analytic process so they can no longer lurk in the dark waiting to pounce. They (the people) have been “found out.” This process is eminently sensible.

It is not logical or reasonable to accomplish something wonderful and then screw it up. It is stupid to hit a crushing line drive into right-center field and then lollygag around the bases only to be thrown out at home plate. It is even dumber to get a promotion at work, then later get drunk at the office party and tell your boss that, at times, he can be a real asshole. It is ludicrous to marry the girl of your dreams and one year later begin taking her for granted — causing her to resent you. None of these actions make sense.

But to go back in time and discover that these are not isolated instances but patterns of self-destructive behavior which can be traced to the present — that makes sense. They can then be diffused and abandoned.

Psychotherapy is offensive to many people for many reasons. To begin with we therapists assume that everyone — our patients and ourselves — have some mighty nasty things going on in our minds. Things we’d rather not own up to. Things that might even be considered sinful. Feeling great fury at a deceased parent, for instance, is not something most people would admit to. Admitting to certain sexual fantasies; feeling secretly gleeful when a friend falls on hard times; being distraught when a sibling is doing better than we are; secretly thinking it would be neat if the boss got sick so we could have his job; feeling smug when our kid makes the team and our neighbor’s kid doesn’t, etc. These are all thoughts that most would agree are unkind. I agree, too, but I also know they are within us, whether we admit to them or not.

The essence of psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, “The talking cure,” or whatever you want to call it is to get patients to be honest about their emotions. This can be difficult and at first glance appears to be in conflict with our Western, Christian culture, which encourages us to deny or instantly repress “evil” thoughts. It takes guts to do just the opposite — admit to them, get them out in the open and expunge them.

But if we do this we’ll, paradoxically, become better people. Our base wishes, fears, and guilts (that everyone shares) will be exposed and released into consciousness where they can be laughed at and discarded. By taking the lid off of our “evilness,” we’ve diffused it. Put into fancy words, “The development of the ego weakens the id.”

So it’s acceptable to wish that our pompous neighbor falls off his ladder, but we can’t pull it out from under him. Or to fantasize an ex-spouse runs into one of those blow-em-up trucks on the highway. Evil thoughts aren’t evil, only evil actions are.

The study of the emotional system has taught us over the last hundred years there are unkind, jealous, selfish, petty, mean-spirited, sides to every human mind. These unholy thoughts and feelings lurk in the unconscious, occasionally popping to the surface and showing themselves — often to the horror of their owners. (“I didn’t mean that!”) Then they slip back into the dark. When people deny possessing these negative thoughts and impulses they set themselves up for emotional illness.

Also stashed in the unconscious are repressed (forgotten) memories of our imperfect childhoods. Children are sometimes physically abused, and sexually abused — either directly or by innuendo. They may also be emotionally (or literally) abandoned, ignored, lied to, put down, made to feel frightened or insecure, pushed beyond their limits, slighted and ridiculed. No kid is immune from at least some of these elements of childhood. If severe enough and left festering and unexamined they, too, can lead to mental illness. Painful memories too, need to be exorcised into consciousness where they can be dealt with. If properly done, such exploration can’t hurt. It can only make people better. Getting at, and properly dealing with, unconscious feelings and memories cannot be done alone, however. Only with the assistance of another person can this be accomplished. Our repressed feelings and memories are so intertwined, compressed, and disguised we cannot untangle them alone.

Unfortunately, friends or family members won’t be of much help. First of all, they don’t know what to listen for. Secondly they’ll have preconceived notions about us (and maybe an ax or two to grind) and we’ll never be able to trust them to the point of complete candor. They’re not neutral. They’ll be judgmental. They can’t help it. So we must find a professional psychotherapist if we’re to delve into our unconscious.

How does one find a therapist? They are all over the place, so finding them is easy. Finding a good one may not be so easy, however, because the mental health field attracts many emotionally flaky people. Before committing to a specific therapist ask the following:

Has therapist been in therapy prior to going into practice? If not, keep looking.

Does he have at least seven years of experience?

Does therapist consider himself to be analytic or more “Direct counseling?” If the latter, he will not be treating your unconscious mind.

Will you be considered patient or client? If client, same as above.

What is his fee? If it isn’t at least $100 per hour (2006 prices) he’s insecure, keep looking. (If it is $100 or more, and that’s too much for you, ask if he’ll consider less. He probably will.)

Is the therapy offered faith-based? If so, walk away. There is nothing wrong with counseling with a religious bent for spiritual growth and enlightenment, but that is not psychotherapy. Faith-based counseling is not designed, or equipped, to probe the unconscious mind.

Lastly, if the therapist suggests a written contract outlining frequency of treatments, duration of the therapy, and numerous do’s and don’ts, tell him you feel that is contrived, and naïve. Walk out. You are not starting a corporation or building a new house. You are about to explore your unconscious and there’s no predicting where the process will lead or how long it will take.

Psychoanalysis is designed to do the following:

End depression and anxiety.

Eliminate or greatly abate neuroses to include phobias.

Put an end to physical symptoms which are psychosomatic.

Enhance one’s abilities to love, be loved, work and create.

These are realistic, legitimate expectations from the process. Given enough time, along with candid input from the analysand and expertise from the analyst, they will be accomplished.

Because analysis deals with the dynamics of the unconscious mind (that combative relationship between id and superego) it transcends cultures and societies. The id is below them, and predates them. It comes first. The id says, “Gimme, gimme, gimme.” When the superego says, “No you can’t do (have, wish for, feel) that,” the ego then must arrive at a compromise. That’s the way everybody’s mind works. Acquiring this realization is broadening and makes life more understandable and fun. Now when we hear the movie actor described as “Mysterious, complicated and moody,” we are no longer intrigued. We’ll know the truth. His emotions are screwed up. Healthy people aren’t moody. They are upbeat and predictable.

Another positive result that comes from being analyzed is that the discipline makes people more tolerant of others because they have become aware that:

In any conflict they may be the one who is at fault, so before they become defensive, or lash out, they’ll give their personal history of their feelings some thought regarding the dynamics of that conflict.

Because they know everyone has unconscious forces working within them, they will be prone to be more forgiving. Their understanding of others has been heightened, so they become more tolerant, nicer persons.

Being analyzed makes it easier to comprehend the actions of some of history’s more vicious characters — Hitler, for instance — because we know that this deranged mass murderer was taking out displaced rage on fellow human beings as revenge for his terrible childhood. Remember there is no connection between the emotions and intellect; thus this awful human being was shrewd enough and bright enough to get into a position of power. Then he could do unto others what was done unto him — millions of times over.

Being analyzed also makes it easier to comprehend the terrible events that constantly bombard us from the media. Remember Susan Smith, the young mother from Union, S.C., who murdered her two children? She drowned them because her boyfriend didn’t like kids. “How could she do it?” was the question asked by millions who followed this awful story. She must have gone crazy; she’s just plain evil; she must have been possessed by the Devil were some of the reasons given. But these words are nebulous. Her unspeakable crime demands answers that are more sensible. Those who’ve been analyzed are attune to psychic determinism realizing that positive input during childhood creates emotional assets, and negative ones create liabilities.

From the news reports we got a glimpse of the psychic determinism that molded Susan’s emotional balance sheet. When Susan was 8 years old her father blew his brains out. When he pulled the trigger, he emotionally bankrupted his daughter. The article stated that Susan’s classmates teased her endlessly about her father’s suicide and that she, too, attempted suicide more than once while in high school. She was in big trouble early on. When Susan’s father killed himself, Susan’s ability to take the life of her own offspring was greatly enhanced. In a very real way, by his act of suicide, Susan’s father “killed” her when she was a child. The horror of the act “stuck” her at the emotional age of 8 — and kept her there. Susan never grew up.

Psychological dynamics may be passed from generation to generation. Her father destroyed himself. This destroyed Susan. Susan destroyed her kids. The baton was passed. Horribly simple to understand.

Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site. All previous chapters are available online. The book can be purchased at, and may be ordered through bookstores.


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