Dave: I am writing about something that is connected to Amy’s recent posting of the woman who found her voice and lost her depression. This 71 year old woman recovers her lost spirit.
Last month I talked with some of the Psychiatry residents about sex—eroticism—love—curiosity—aging—creativity. I was talking about this in relation to my therapeutic work with a couple in their 70’s . I tried to talk about the eternal feminine, I used the words yearning, nurture, desire. The residents were polite, but I felt as though I failed to make much contact with them.
This is from Donald Winnicott, the British pediatrician/psychoanalyst, in Playing and Reality (1971):
“Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters, life is not worth living…”
And: “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
The Case: Jed and Janet, a couple in their early 70’s were referred for couple’s therapy. Jed had retired 18 months earlier. About 10 months after his retirement Janet became depressed. She saw a psychiatrist who treated her with medication and psychotherapy. The depression deepened and he had her hospitalized in another city because she had been active in community affairs in our city. Jed was an engineer who ran a small successful company. They were in the upper upper middle class. They enjoyed considerable wealth. When she came home from the hospital she started working with a very capable individual therapist in addition to the psychiatrist. After about 10 sessions the individual therapist referred them to me for couple’s therapy.
She was still depressed and experiencing bouts of depression that troubled and annoyed him and saddened and perplexed her. I had the feeling there were elements of suppressed eroticism in the depression, some fundamental expression of herself was suppressed, and they did not have any language for what was suppressed.
If there is a lack of authentic emotion in life, depression can be hard to get rid of because the depression comes to feel like the only authentic emotional experience. We hunger for authentic emotion throughout our lives. But the depression perpetuated her uncertainty about herself. She slipped into a condition I think of as “being depressed about being depressed”. Depression is a self-limiting human experience. But depression about depression is rarely recognized, and difficult to resolve unless it is recognized.
Both Jed and Janet were handsome attractive mature people who looked a bit younger than their ages. He was a tall slender dignified extrovert, thoughtful, but not inclined to question himself. The relationship was stable, married 46 years, but he was curiously patriarchal, out of cultural date. He regarded himself as “in charge”. When he said “in charge” to describe himself in the relationship with Janet, I thought he was being ironic. Then I thought I saw a shadow of hurt pass over her face, but she did not comment, as though it was not to be commented on. Something in what he said troubled her. He had worked hard all of his life. His work schedule dominated their life. She was involved in the community projects and was accomplished chairwoman, known in the community, but nevertheless had a slightly shy demeanor. She was the sort of chairperson who was likely to lead from behind.
I liked her. Though depressed she had an appealing feminine radiance. I met with them about 10 times in 6 months, 8 of the sessions were in the first three months. At the second interview she was curious about a book on my office table, and borrowed it. The small book, My Dysfunctions, is a delightfully ironic characterization of life. It begins with a question, “Do you or do you not know that we are all half crazy?” She was charmed by it; amused by it. It quotes Erica Jong, “Friends love misery, in fact. Sometimes, especially if we are too lucky or too successful or too pretty, our misery is the only thing that endears us to our friends.” And Anais Nin, “ I’m a neurotic—in the sense that I live in my world. I will not adjust myself to the world. I am adjusted to myself.” Janet kept My Dysfunctions for three weeks.
The language that goes with Psychiatry is a heavy somewhat inhibiting dispiriting language. It is a pseudo-objective practical language without acknowledged metaphor, irony or humor. It is conceivable that her treatments may have over-focused on pathology.
In a session one day, Janet and Jed were talking about how their life was organized. He was pleased with his days, but their living pattern seemed dominated by his schedule. I sensed she yearned for something, but I couldn’t tell what it was. What she wanted was outside of her language. I could say what she wanted was something spiritual, something erotic, something creative.
Several times during that session I had an in-the-head picture of them in their home. He was in the family room, contentedly watching a Yankees game, or reading the New York Times. My image of her was dynamic and weird. She was in the family room playing on a drum kit. Arms flailing, eyes closed, head rocking, blond hair flying, transported. The image was incongruous with what I knew of her so I chose not to mention it. But the same image came back two more times during the hour. Because of its persistence, near the end of the session, I described it. “I am not certain what this means, but three times during the session I had this image, so I will describe it to you.” Blank half smiles, not much response.
At my suggestion they brought Anna, their 45-year-old daughter, to the next session. Anna was a soft but slightly mannish woman, as though identified with her father. Her appearance and style was very different from her mother. She was larger than her mother. She had a seven-year-old son and was divorced from her husband. Something happened in that interview, I’m not certain what it was. The tone of the interview suggested mother and daughter discovered or rediscovered a common ground. Together they disagreed with something Jed was describing. Janet for the first time mildly challenged him. Anna’s supported her mother. They teased Jed gently about how he thought he was in charge. It was subtle, but seemed significant.
I didn’t see them for three weeks, Janet went to visit her 94-year-old mother in another state. Her mother was healthy, but weakening. Janet was both apprehensive about the visit and looking forward to it.
When she returned, the visit with mother had been better than expected. She said she had thought about me while away, and was remembering the art work in my office; a collection of framed prints, Jackson Pollock, Picasso and Brueghel, an art quilt hanging on the wall, a few children’s drawings. She talked about visiting her mother, then asked me about Jackson Pollock. …..she and I had a conversation about art and Jackson Pollock, something came up about the possibility of her painting. I like the idea of creative impulses in older people, and giving them free rein. I was not suggesting actually painting , nor was I telling her to take drum lessons.
They were away for a month, and came back. She was different. Something had shifted. She belonged to herself. She did not know why, but she was no longer depressed. I think she found herself. She said she was feeling better, adding that she understood Jed’s “limitations”.
In my work with them there were moments of play, moments of me teasing her and him. When I described my image of her with the drum kit, it was a form of play. Likewise our conversation about Jackson Pollock was a form of serious play, her curiosity was aroused. I made no interpretations. The play was largely with language. It was something like dancing with language.
One evening Janet took Jed out to dinner, and he enjoyed it. I think my few offerings, the reunion with her daughter in this primary process setting helped her soul return to her body. The hospitalization and the individual therapy laid the ground work for my interactions with them.
Octavio Paz in The Double Flame: Eroticism and Love: Sex, eroticism and love are aspects of the same phenomenon, manifestations of what we call “life”. The oldest of the three, the most comprehensive and most basic is sex. Sex is the primordial source. Eroticism and love are forms derived from the sexual instinct: crystallizations, sublimations, perversions and condensations which transform sexuality, very often into something unknowable. As in the case of concentric circles, sex is the center and pivot point of this geometry is passion.
Her passions were neutralized by the demand for compliance in their relationship. Remember Winnicott: “…Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters, life is not worth living…
…It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
Sex—eroticism—love—curiosity—aging—creativity—the eternal feminine, I used the words yearning, nurture, desire. I hope all of this makes some sort of poetic sense.