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A Visit to the Past.

18 January 2013

Today I am going to visit my old psychotherapist for a single session. I’m going for nostalgia, more than anything else. I spent a long time in psychoanalysis. I know there are a lot of people who consider that pseudoscientific babble, but I don’t have a dog in that fight. In my case, it helped in some areas, not in others, and in general led me to a far greater understanding of myself in ways that helped me be liberated from shame about my past and my desires. But it didn’t lead me to changes in behavior. AA did that. So, I consider psychoanalysis to have helped me, but it would not have been sufficient to bring about the substantive changes in my life that I needed to achieve independence from my past, and from alcohol.

I stopped seeing my shrink almost four years ago. I was a year sober, and my wife and I were going to try to have a baby. I had a great new job and was feeling invincible. I felt like I had a deep understanding of who I was, where I was going, and what I was doing with my life. I was happy. It was time to move on. And of course, over the next year and a half, all that fell apart (except the job). But even as it did, I didn’t fall apart along with it. I felt confident and capable even in the midst of all that confusion and misery. In part, that was because of the strength of my psyche that I had built while working with my shrink. In part, it was because as a sober man with the support of a strong community, I was able to confront difficult things.

Lots of drunks engage with psychotherapists, and for various reasons. Oftentimes, we do it in order to get people off of our backs. If we say we’re seeing a shrink, then we’re “addressing the problem” and then the fact that we keep drinking can be framed as someone else’s failure, not ours. Or we can simply use it to browbeat people who want us to quit: “I’m seeing a doctor about it! What more do you want from me?” Alcoholics are very good at presenting our failures and continued drinking as other people’s faults, and blaming our victims for our drinking. “If you weren’t such a horrible person, I wouldn’t have to drink so much.”

Most of us in AA have found, it seems, that psychologists never helped us much. As I wrote above, while I feel that I have gained an enormous self-understanding, and developed excellent tools for introspection, from psychotherapy, I don’t believe that psychotherapy would ever have led me to quit drinking. Maybe it can for others. The people who drink like I drank have not, in my experience, been led to sobriety through engagement with mental health practitioners alone. I think that alcoholism is recalcitrant to treatment imposed by others. It is best treated in a community of recoverers who all have a stake in the outcome.

But I am looking forward to seeing my shrink. I had a huge crush on her. She’s brilliant and beautiful, and of course the analytic relationship is enormously intimate. It’s a cliché to be attracted to your shrink, but it’s a cliché because it’s so natural. I want to go to tell her about the successes I’ve had, and the failures. I want to share my excitement and fear. I want to refresh the way of looking at myself that she helped me cultivate. And it feels like a bookend. I spent a great deal of time in her office, hacking my way through a jungle of terror and humiliation and rage. Now I get to go tell her about the clearing she helped me carve, the fire I built. The tree houses I’ve constructed and the wells I’ve dug.

Because what I’ve learned about myself is: I was born in that jungle. I was probably born an alcoholic. I was probably born a depressive. Challenges I was born with, and challenges that landed on me early in life, have shaped me, the way they shape all of us. My experience is mine, but it is not unique. And in hand with many challenges, I have been given many gifts. I am grateful, today, for all of them.

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