The Failure of Therapy, or What Makes My Shrink So Awesome

I've been seeing this shrink recently. He's unlike any shrink I've seen before (which, admittedly, is not many) and unlike any shrink I've ever heard about. When we picture a shrink, we tend to picture confessing the minutia of our sordid lives and anxieties, the details of how our parents neglected or overshadowed or scared us, the flood of ambivalence we have towards sex or love or relationships, our fears of parenting and dying and working. And the shrink's job is nominally therapeutic: he will help you navigate your all-too-human and decidedly bourgeois worry-drenched lives.

When I tell people I'm off to see my shrink, they say something like, Have fun spilling your soul! What's funny and telling about this is we make an easy and dangerous conflation: we believe indulging all the petty bullshit of our lives is spilling our soul. When it's quite to the contrary! (There's something great about using 'quite' and an exclamation point. Try it, you'll see.)

When we mull over the absurd details of our anxieties, we're skipping our soul — whatever that is — all together. We're just recapitulating the world that is irrelevant but has such credence in our lives. We actually believe that if we get this job or not, if she texts us or not, if mommy loves us or not, matters! That our very lives depend on it! And, in a way, they do in that if we remain enmeshed in the bourgeois crap, we will surely die — perhaps not our bodies but something far worse: we'll experience soul death.

Isn't this our great fear of zombies, that there's this living death? This is why I love Shaun of the Dead which makes zombies an explicit symptom of bourgeois life — working, going to the bar, watching tv, bickering with your lovey; doing it again the next day and repeating ad infinitum.

Unfortunately, our fear of zombies is trumped by our fear of overcoming our bourgeois selves.  Which is to say, we'd rather be zombies popping Adderall, Ambien, Xanax, and Zoloft than give up our fears and become joyful Jedi knights. Or something. Like Luke in the swamp trying to lift the ship, we're afraid of our own power. We prefer the safety and certainty of relentless fear, regardless of how debilitating, to the presumed uncertainty of being free and fearless.

The Peter Weir film, Fearless, nails this so well. Jeff Bridges is an anxious architect, a husband and father, who's terrified of flying. And, sure enough, his plane crashes. But a funny thing happens on the way down: he sheds his fear. As the plane, its hydraulics blown, hurtles to the ground, people screaming and crying, he's cool as a cucumber. He survives the crash but, freed from his fear, he has no taste for the pedestrian life he once lead and basically abandons his wife and child. He's discovered the immense power he has once he's no longer afraid. Where he was once severely allergic to strawberries, he now joyfully eats them by the bowl full.

But everyone around him — his family, the airline's shrink, the lawyers — all believe he's nuts. And, from their psycho-juridico-medical perspective, he is. He's outside a society that is premised on fear —fear of loneliness, fear of failure, and ultimately, fear of death. By the end, he realizes that if he's going to return to his wife and family and work — to society — he needs his fear. At the end, he's once again deathly allergic to strawberries.

And this is his therapy! The return of his fear! From the perspective of a prevailing ideology, therapy is not the overcoming of fear but its rigorous maintenance. Which is nuts!

So much of our therapeutic culture enacts the very sickness from which we supposedly seek remedy. We go to the doctor because we're afraid we're sick and are going to die. The doctors then do anything and everything to keep us alive, pumping us full of poisons that kill us. Anything to keep us alive! Even kill us! But it's this very fear of death that is, in fact, a fear of life. It is precisely this fear that makes us anxious and insomniacs and impotent and....sick. Going to the doctor for remedy is a symptom of the disease we need to cure!

Kierkegaard says it well: death is not the sickness unto death. Death happens just as life happens. Death is not death; death is life. Death — that awful nothingness — is not the end of our bodies but the end of our attentive livelinesss, our vitality.  Death is not the passing of the body. Death is remaining distracted by relationship drama and guilt and fear.

My shrink don't play that fear game. He doesn't want me to return to my bourgeois existence, to all that chatter in my head about my parents, my relationships, my parenting. When I bring one or another of these things up, he says (more or less), Who cares? Shut the fuck up (he curses more than I do). You're bouncing off the walls. Just be quiet. Do nothing. 

Whenever I tell him I trying to do this or that, that I'm trying to be calm, to be this or that, he tells me to stop. Stop trying to do anything! Just do whatever you do and like it. Don't judge anything. Don't assess anything. Don't do anything. When I tell him that  doing and saying nothing sounds like death he says, Yes. Exactly. It is death. You have to move into your death, not fear it. 

This is to say, rather than join the idiotic fear based conversations in my head — Am I good parent? Should I be with this or that woman? Should I forgive my parents? — he shifts the conversation itself. He takes a line of flight, as it were. All that crap, he tells me, is my mind. It's not me. My mind is telling me all these failures, all these ideals, all these ideas of what I should be doing. But there is no should. So every time I say something like, Should I tell my son this? he retorts, Forget what you should do. Do nothing. 

I first saw him a few months after my sister died. I was crying hysterically every day, devastated by her absence, lying about in my pajamas and watching way too much "Chopped." We're sitting there in our very first session and he says to me, more or less: Your sister sounds so beautiful. How lucky you are to have loved her and to have helped her die. What a gift. So why grieve? Why feel loss? This is fullness. She wasn't here; she was here; she's gone again. It's beautiful. In fact, part of you envies her for already having died. 

And then he went on: You're crying because you feel guilty. You think your tears prove how much you loved her, as if you needed to prove it! Stop it. Just feel the love. Death is not to be feared. On the contrary! He tells me I should meditate a few minutes a day. I tell him that meditation is a kind of death. And he says, Yes. Yes it is. Which is why you should do it. I tell him I want to call it quits on this whole life thing and just die. He says: Good. I don't blame you. It looks exhausting to be you. Good riddance! Don't use a bullet but, yes, die. Now that's a bold move for a shrink. There's no: Oh, no, don't kill yourself. Instead, without batting an eye, he says, Yes, kill your self. Don't end your life but kill your self. Great idea. And then he laughs.

He's not a Buddhist but has a Buddhist sense of what it means to be and become. Together, we discuss Jesus, Nietzsche, Wilhelm Reich, Kierkegaard, Castaneda, and yes, Buddha. So if you're not down with thinking about self this way, think about it like this. All that chatter in my head is the Spectacle, the morass of capitalist-consumerist-societal voices all vying for power over my being, keeping me afraid so I'll cower and buy their meds, their cars, their houses, their debt, their demands for family and career and status and accolades.

In any case, what makes my shrink so awesome is that he doesn't offer me therapy per se. He refuses to engage me in the demented conversations in my head. He refuses to indulge my fear with more fear. Instead, he offers me a reminder that all my anxieties are based on nonsense, namely, a fear of death. How can you fear death when death is part of life?!? It's stupid! Rather than engage me in the sick mechanics of my mind, he points elsewhere, to something much more beautiful, much more powerful: a fearless life.


Alexis said...

Have you read Denial of Death?

Daniel Coffeen said...

I have not; I know of it but never read it. Should I?

Alexis said...

I just read it because Marc Maron is always talking about it (not sure if you are a WTF fan?). It had a lot of interesting stuff very similar to your great post. So probably nothing new to you, but always nice to read another interesting formulation of it.

"The defenses that form a person’s character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. He is driven away from himself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character, his automatic equanimity. But he is also drawn precisely toward those things that make him anxious, as a way of skirting them masterfully, testing himself against them, controlling them by defying them. As Kierkegaard taught us, anxiety lures us on, becomes the spur to much of our energetic activity: we flirt with our own growth, but also dishonestly. This explains much of the friction in our own lives. We enter symbiotic relationships in order to get the security we need, in order to get relief from our anxieties, our aloneness and helplessness; but these relationships also bind us, they enslave us even further because they support the lie we have fashioned. So we strain against them in order to be more free. The irony is that we do this straining uncritically, in a struggle within our own armor, as it were; and so we increase our drivenness, the second-hand quality of our struggle for freedom. Even in our flirtations with anxiety we are unconscious of our motives. We seek stress, we push our own limits, but we do it with our screen against despair and not with despair itself. We do it with the stock market, with sports cars, with atomic missiles, with the success ladder in the corporation or the competition in the university. We do it in the prison of a dialogue with our own little family, by marrying against their wishes or choosing a way of life because they frown on it, and so on. Hence the complicated and second-hand quality of our entire drivenness. Even in our passions we are nursery children playing with toys that represent the real world. Even when these toys crash and cost us our lives or our sanity, we are cheated of the consolation that we were in the real world instead of the playpen of our fantasies. We still did not meet our doom on our own manly terms, in contest with objective reality. It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours."

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