Psychotherapy and
The Individual

Carlos Amantea

Psychotherapy is history, and in its pursuit, we become expert scholars, delving into our pasts. When we embark on this journey we spend years trying to figure out what event or series of events got us on this particular course. We descend into caves where lie the thousand memories of our lives and, utilizing two lights --- the therapist's, ours --- we begin to see what brought us into this hole. Our souls will be raised, turned around a bit, so that we can better visualize how the past shaped the present, how conflicts and pain made us what we are today. We also seek, in turn, to rework our psyches so we can escape these bats in the belfry. It's powerful stuff --- and for some of us, it's a lifesaver.

With this, I've been trying to figure out why Of Two Minds was so hard for me to put down. It's not just the good writing, nor the pacing, nor the (often) fascinating details of the training of psychotherapists. After a few pages, I began to see that the world that Luhrmann describes in all its strangeness (and it can be very strange) is very much my own, the world of many of us who have gone through psychotherapy. We, the patients, absorbed the vocabulary, the tricks, the mind-set that is the psychotherapeutic set, and the characters: the non-judgmental, non-emoting, non-exploitative person sitting across the room, or (after completion, in our heads), listening relentlessly to our "strange Miseries."

One cannot spend so much time with a professional who is, after all, paid to tend to us, without being caught up in what one writer called The Structure of Magic. If the outcome of therapy has been in any way successful, lifting from us the blanket of despair, helping us to get away from the endlessly repetitive cycles of a mind stuck, they have shown us --- by example, by silences, by patience, by quiet response to our worst thoughts --- that there is hope. This is the life raft, the magic that captured us, delivered us from a emotional spaghetti-factory that, may have made it impossible to survive if we hadn't been led out of the cave. As Salvador Minuchin said, we only go into therapy when everything else has failed; it's the Last Chance Saloon. If that doesn't work --- there is often only one other choice.

§     §     §

When I was in college, they gave me a triple whammy. I came down with a debilitating disease that took away, forever, my ability to run about, to climb mountains, to get about without orthopædic devices. It was a sickness which left half of my young body virtually immobile.

In those far off days, we went through physical therapy, but a therapy for the emotions was not thought necessary. We were on our own.

When I got out of the hospital, I was forced to forge my own physical and mental solutions (and a good word it is, too: forged; with both its meanings intact.) I had to learn the technology of surviving in a not-so-user-friendly world (stairs everywhere; inaccessible bathrooms; snow and ice on the ground that I had to move across). I also had to create, out of whole-cloth, coping mechanisms for the strange disharmonious black birds that were going to-and-fro in my head.

The disability cant of the 50s was that we were to go it alone. We were peppered with clichés like "It's ability, not disability, that counts," and, "When you walk through the storm, keep your head up high" (the official song of the National Infantile Paralysis Association) and "mainstream." It was assumed that we would make our own way to "normalcy."

So there I was with these two things to deal with --- a strange new physical world, coupled with a strange new mind --- and I quickly ended up with two people who were to turn my life topsy-turvy: my college roommate, Spicer, one of the most gentle people I had ever come across; and a kind, spectacularly beautiful woman, Faith, from the college across the way.

Now what I wanted to do was be best-of-friends with my roommate, and fall in love with and marry Faith. I was all set up for that. What I actually did was fall in love with my roommate and marry my best-of-friend, Faith. Both were terribly understanding, but Spicer wasn't about to love me, not in the dark 50s, where homosexuality was a felony. And, because she had fallen in love with me, Faith wasn't about to give up on me --- even though I confessed early on the Truth. "We'll work it out," she said. "What's wrong with me," I thought: "Why can't I control myself?" I figured marriage would fix me up.

§     §     §

Dr. Clark was a Jungian which was rare in those days --- thought to be a bit eccentric, like the Swiss master himself. Instead of my lying down on a couch, spilling the beans, I was allowed to sit in a chair facing him. I told him everything. Everything I thought I knew, that is. About me, and my world, and my compelling sense of woe. And, in keeping with the practice of the time, he very rarely responded to what I said. Rather, he would nod, showing himself to be an interested, sympathetic listener.

In the two years I worked with him, he only spoke up with any force on two occasions. The first was when I told him I was sleeping with Faith. He wanted to know if we were "protecting ourselves" (we weren't). The second was when I told him that on occasion, Faith would burn her wrists with cigarettes --- then she would hack away at the wounds with razor blades. He spoke to me at some length about potential suicides.

I finally resolved the whole mess by graduating from college (so I wouldn't have to see Spicer any more), marrying Faith (to get her to stop her from slashing her wrists), and moving to San Francisco. She was pregnant, anyway, so there was --- as was true in the many blind alleys we set up for ourselves in those days --- little choice.

§     §     §

Clark started me out on a journey through psychotherapy that would bring me, ultimately, into the office of a therapist who helped me to figure out why I was doing all these looney things: like falling in love with those who could never respond to my love, and marrying a would-be suicidal (who I had gotten pregnant), and --- most profoundly --- my pretending that I was not touched by all this. In that long journey (there were several other therapists along the way), I was able to experience first-hand many of the things I now read about in Luhrmann's book.

For instance, there's the uncanny and refreshing ability of psychotherapists not to judge; there's the safe haven of their offices where anything can be revealed; there is the feeling of love --- not of possession, nor sexuality --- but love in the best Christian sense ("Agape") that I felt from some of these who were trained to listen to me. For those of us who grew up in households where the biggest option was a violent taking of hostages, that was powerful stuff indeed.

    The intensity of the feelings, this great amplification [she writes], is the consequence of the unusual communicative structure of the analytic relationship: that the analysand tells the secrets of his soul to a person who does not reciprocate, does not respond in kind...

    In a "normal" relationship --- one that conforms to standard expectations of human relatedness --- when one person makes himself vulnerable to another person, that person reciprocates by being equally vulnerable, telling the story of her personal afflictions and struggles. In a "normal" relationship, one person's expression of love or hatred is met by a symmetrically powerful feeling, not a cool voice inquiring in what way the analyst is lovable or despicable...

    The emotional strength of the analysand's experience probably stems from a very general feature of human relationships, the fact that emotions intensify the way we communicate. Emotions help us to reach one another, but...psychoanalytic relationships have a distorted reciprocity in which one person is powerful, distant, and withholding and the other is vulnerable, yearning and revealed. They are relationships in which the patient feels forced to scream. That is useful to the psychoanalysis, because when a patient screams --- or rather, amplifies her emotions because she feels that she has not been heard --- the analyst can see the emotions all the more clearly.

§     §     §

In Buddhism, one is advised to follow not only the teachings of the master, but to consort with the sangha --- other like-minded persons on the same path. Over the years I have formed special relationships with those, like me, who have been through psychotherapy. And when I meet someone new who admits such --- it seems that we often speak the same language, a peculiar language where, as Luhrmann points out, one speaks about feelings intensely, and often, in a way that seems profoundly different than the everyday talk of our peers.

It's not a matter of gossip, nor one-upsmanship ("My analyst said that I was 'bipolar,' and prescribed Paxil...") Rather, it is a unifying communication with one who has joined in a similar long, sometimes rigorous, pursuit --- the pursuit to find the truth through the ritual of therapy, the therapy that may well ameliorate the sadness of our lives. It is a discipline and a confraternity which has its own rules, its own delights, its own frustrations --- and, ultimately, its own profound rewards.

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