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Linda AustinDeborah Anna Luepnitz has written a masterpiece about the living, breathing relationship of psychotherapist and client.
—What's Holding You Back
Each generation of therapists can boast of only a few writers like Deborah Luepnitz, whose sympathy and wit shine through a fine, luminous prose. In Schopenhauer's Porcupines she recounts five true stories from her practice, stories of patients who range from the super-rich to the homeless and who grapple with panic attacks, psychosomatic illness, marital despair, and sexual recklessness. Intimate, original, and triumphantly funny, Schopenhauer's Porcupines goes further than any other book in unveiling the secrets of "how talking helps."
In her 1972 classic, The Future of Marriage, sociologist Jessie Bernard wrote that every marriage is really two: the husband's and the wife's.
A Chinese aphorism puts it another way: "Same bed, different dreams."
* * *
The message on my answering machine made me sad. It was from a couple I had treated three years earlier, a husband and wife who seemed to be doing well enough when we said goodbye. I recognized the light Greek accent as Daphne's:
"Karl and I are in the middle of a crisis. We spent Friday night in the emergency room. I can't take this. I want a divorce. Please call...."
When I phoned back, they were out. I left a message, then sat down to think about them.
The emergency room?
They had no history of violence. Neither one had ever mentioned suicide. Their initial request had actually been for family therapy, involving Melina, Daphne's then-thirty-year-old sister, who lived with them.
I remembered the first time I went to greet them in the waiting room of the training hospital where I was working at the time. One receptionist whispered to another, "That new guy over there looks like Fabio."
Her colleague replied, "The wife could be Cher." I had no trouble spotting them. Karl Loeb, a forty-year-old construction worker, had a blond ponytail, tar-black eyes, and a long, thin nose. His muscular build was the kind that madechairs look too small for him. Karl's beefy hand circled the wrist of Daphne, a lissome thirty-six-year-old with smoldering brown eyes and long hair set off by rhinestone earrings. One might have expected languorous gestures from someone so lovely, but Daphne was restive and tense. At that moment, she was styling her sister's hair with quick, birdlike movements. A sweet-looking redhead, Melina was resisting the uninvited make-over with one hand while putting on her glasses with the other. She was the first to meet my gaze.
This image of them stayed with me like a snapshot of the family structure. Karl couldn't get close enough to his wife, who had eyes mainly for Melina, who was definitely in the picture but wanted Daphne out of her hair.
Walking over to them, I remember feeling pleased and confident. At thirty-two, with five years' experience seeing patients, I still had a lot to learn. But fewer new patients were looking me over and asking, "How long have you been doing this, dear?" I introduced myself and invited them back to my office.
The problem this little family brought to me was that they were making each other miserable. After Melina's husband walked out on her and their three-year-old daughter, Lily, she had asked to move in with her sister and brother-in-law "for just a few months." The few months had become four years, as Melina struggled to pull her life together. Then their mother died, drawing the sisters closer still.
Daphne was energetic, well-organized, and neat. Melina was an easy-going person who could tolerate a mess. Daphne hectored her daily about showing some drive. Melina would then attack Daphne for being "up my nose all the time," but she also invited interference by regularly running out of gas, money, and babysitters. Karl had long been the peacemaker, but he was getting tired of it. The battle had reached its current pitch three weeks earlier when Daphne learned she was pregnant. She had married late, and was thrilled finally to be having her own child. She wanted things settled before her baby was born.
As easily as those early sessions could become shouting matches, it was clear that there was a great deal of love in their household and that the fighting between the sisters masked a dense loyalty. Although they insisted that living together had become intolerable, even the most tentative question from me about Melina moving out set them both to weeping.
In time, all three came to realize how they had unconsciously arranged the current situation to distract them from the pain of the mother's death from breast cancer. Melina had suffered two major losses in four years, and was acting childlike to ward off the apprehensions of living alone. And as much as Daphne wanted her space back, she had loved having her niece there. Seven-year-old Lily brought a daily joy that helped mitigate the memory of the mother's excruciating illness and death. Daphne had to mourn the fact that her mother would never know the child she was carrying. Motherhood was the one thing that would have made her a success in the eyes of her parents, now both deceased.
The sisters recognized that they were duplicating a drama from the previous generation, as their mother and her sister had stayed bonded together with "super glue." The metaphor was Daphne's: "They were glued together with that stuff that tears your skin off if you're not careful."
What had passed from one generation to the next was a habit of loving that some therapists call "enmeshment." Mourning freed them up and made them ready for change. Over the course of five months of sessions, the three adults, and especially the sisters, began to feel the kind of genuine closeness that autonomy alone permits.
Was it their goal to continue to live as a family? It was not. Melina landed a good job and moved out. She also took her ex-husband to court for child support.
When Melina visited each week, the sisters were glad to see each other. What impressed me most was that Daphne had been able to say to Melina the words "I miss you" and, later, "I love you." Ironically, many people who are enmeshed in each other's lives are not able to say those things. For them, there is no space between the "I" and the "you" for "love" to fit.
After Melina and Lily moved out, Daphne found herself unhappy with Karl. For all the squabbling between the sisters, Melina had been a good companion, more emotionally present than Karl. If Daphne needed to talk over a decision about the holidays, or an altercation with a neighbor, Melina was there, easy to engage. Karl was not a big talker; his idea of a supportive moment was rubbing her neck as he watched whatever game was on the sports channel. If Daphne read something in the newspaper that incensed her, Karl would tell her to relax: World hunger was not her fault. As for housework, it was easier to do his share than hear him grunt at her reminders. She felt she was living with an adolescent boy, and she longed for adult company.
With just the two of them in the house now, and the baby due in just a few months, Daphne asked Karl to remain in therapy so they could work on their relationship.
Karl said he wouldn't mind, but he considered their marriage "near perfect." Daphne, in contrast, felt her list of grievances mounting. He felt they were temperamental opposites who complemented each other. She felt overworked and underloved. They were a case in point for Jessie Bernard's dictum: "Every marriage is really two." Daphne's was an unhappy marriage, and Karl's was fine—except for Daphne's unhappiness.
The problems they were having just a month after Melina left were not unlike those of the two sisters. Daphne saw Karl as lazy. Construction work was seasonal, and he should be doing everything to line up other jobs, now that they had a baby coming. Daphne was also bothered by the fact that his main interest was wrestling. She wanted to spend weekends at the orchestra or ballet. The fact that he did not want—in her words—"to better himself" put her in a dither. Both came from working-class, immigrant families, and both had lived at home until they were adults. She had managed to finish two years of college, working long hours and living frugally to save for a house. Karl, in contrast, was profligate. He had been introduced to gambling in his twenties, and gambling became his life for a ten-year period he described as "harrowing." He had reached the point of borrowing from loan sharks to pay off gambling debts. He would then borrow more money to place bets. He was the youngest of five children, tolerated by a blustering German father and adored by a beleaguered Polish mother. She, at times, would lend him money for gambling.
When Karl first met Daphne, he was dazzled by her good looks. He overheard her telling off a co-worker and decided she was "part Greek goddess, part street tough." The combination suited him.
Daphne loved his kindness and his sense of humor, and was not aware of the gambling.
"It's not your average stereotype, is it—a blond construction worker who gambles? But gamblers come in all shapes and sizes," she said. "There are some women, too." Daphne said she was drawn to Karl's handsome face. She seemed reticent to acknowledge that their extremely satisfying sexual relationship was one of her main reasons for marrying him. She actually asked me if that sounded like an awful thing to say.
The question caught me off guard, and I tossed out: "Why? Wonderful sex is important—especially to keep a marriage going."
Daphne looked at me as though I had just revealed secrets for splitting the atom. She repeated my simple words quietly, with obvious relief. A more experienced therapist would have explored this area further: Why did she feel it was an awful thing to say? With whom did she associate that idea? Fortunately, she was able to make use of my bluff remark.
Sex had continued to be the only uncontested area of their relationship. At this point, all other issues—chores, leisure, work, and English grammar—were combustible.
Karl and Daphne had not completely lost sight of the good they had done each other. Purveyors of extremes, they knew they had pulled each other toward some emotional center. Daphne had become less compulsive; Karl had moved from dissolute to responsible.
As a condition for marriage, Daphne insisted that he get help for the gambling. She did her research and found out about Gamblers Anonymous (GA), a twelve-step program modeled after AA. He agreed to attend meetings and decided to follow the program. That meant abstention from gambling of all kinds. GA also recommended that the gambler carry no credit cards for a while and never walk around with more than ten dollars in cash. For married members, the plan specified that their spouses handle the couple's money: the bills, taxes, purchases, and so on. It was a drastic change, but Karl was willing to follow through.
Daphne was only too happy to take on this responsibility, as it ensured that the family's money would be well-managed. And so it came about that for nearly ten years—through the buying of a house, the purchase of several cars, and four years of helping to raise their niece—Daphne had taken care of all the finances, held the credit cards, and given Karl his "allowance."
Like all the strategies we use to make relationships function, this one worked until it didn't. Daphne began to complain that handling the finances alone had become onerous. In money matters, she felt as if she was the mother and he, her son.
Talking helped. They said they had done more listening to each other in those additional sixteen weeks of therapy than in all their previous married life. By the time we stopped, three things had occurred:
1. Karl announced he was ready to handle money again, and took over the bill paying and tax figuring.
2. Daphne vowed to stop correcting him in public.
3. They agreed to alternate nights out and nights at home watching television.
The couple stopped therapy after four months because they felt they were ready to go out and "do it." The baby would be born any day, and they would have their hands full. Two weeks later, they sent me a birth announcement with a photo of a gorgeous baby named Rose born eight months after they had set foot in my office.
* * *
As I sat waiting for them to call back that Saturday afternoon three years later, I wondered if I had agreed too soon to their ending therapy. Had Karl gotten his hands on their pension fund and gambled it away? Had Daphne clocked him in sheer frustration?
And what about the decision that Melina and her daughter move out? A colleague of mine once worked with a couple whose parents were gallingly overinvolved with them. They had even joined the newlyweds on their honeymoon. After two years of marriage, and with the blessing of their therapist, the wife announced they were taking a vacation—alone. That very night, her mother had a heart attack and died. The more I thought about the possibilities, the worse I felt.
Around dinner time I received a call from the emergency-room doctor. Daphne had been the identified patient. Her symptoms were chest pain, tachycardia, nausea, and a feeling she was about to die. The diagnosis: severe panic attack.
* * *
I have never had a panic attack, but I have treated many people who suffer from these terrifying surges of anxiety. Some believe they are dying of heart failure, and indeed, cardiac trouble needs to be ruled out. Others speak of an overwhelming feeling of dread that something terrible has happened or is about to happen. It becomes dangerous to distract oneself from the thought, even if one can, because one will remember it momentarily and feel the wave of fear again. One young woman compared the physical sensation to "breathing through the eye of a needle."
When Daphne phoned me that evening, she was already feeling better. Still ruminating over the possibilities, I was feeling worse.
This kind of exchange of emotions—one person feels better as another comes to feel worse—is a subtle example of "projective identification," a construct that will show up frequently in these cases. It involves the splitting off of one's painful emotions and, in a sense, "storing" them in another person who in some way agrees to contain them. It's not a conscious strategy for making someone else feel bad but, rather, an unconscious means of transmitting unbearable information. One could say that they delayed phoning me back because they needed me to understand their experience, to feel some inexplicable or at least unexplained dread.
Daphne had no idea what precipitated her panic attack the previous evening, but she said that two months earlier, a strange kind of fear had come over her. It would strike once a day and she would need to lie down until it passed. But yesterday had been the worst of it, for she thought surely it was her heart. When the medical tests turned out negative, and the emergency-room doctor suggested anti-anxiety medication, Daphne became angry. She said she had a therapist and wanted to speak with her immediately. She signed a release so that the doctor could share information with me.
Daphne had never before been the officially designated "patient." She boasted of never having set foot in a hospital until her baby was born. During our family sessions, she had registered Melina as the patient, who often behaved accordingly Similarly, in the couple's therapy that had followed, she insisted that the person out of control was Karl.
For Daphne to have a crisis was something unheard of. In session the next morning, she spoke of how hard it had been to convince Karl she was in trouble.
"He thought I was exaggerating," she said.
"I hoped she was," Karl explained. "She is the Rock of Gibraltar that everyone leans on."
Daphne had never complained of anxiety during our earlier work. She was a busy person. If she had what she called "nervous energy," she would clean a closet or strip a floor. I asked if she could remember when the first attack had occurred. She had been feeling upset since early fall, she said, when her mother-in-law had suffered a mild stroke. Though sad and anxious, she hadn't felt panicked. The first attack came only two months ago, after her daughter's third birthday party. She had been packing up Rosie's old baby clothes for a pregnant neighbor. She suddenly realized that her daughter, while hardly grown up, was no longer a baby. She spoke like a big girl and was amazingly self-sufficient. Just then Daphne had felt a wave of nausea pass over her.
Excerpted from SCHOPENHAUER'S PORCUPINES by Deborah Luepnitz. Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Luepnitz. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Making Room in Love for Hate||1|
|1||Same Bed, Different Dreams||21|
|2||Christmas in July||66|
|3||Don Juan in Trenton||103|
|4||A Darwinian Finch||150|
|5||The Sin Eater||197|
|About the Author||276|
Posted December 12, 2010
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Posted April 5, 2011
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