Monday, February 25, 2008

The Independence Fetish

I've never been in therapy, or in any kind of psychiatric treatment. OK, I was required to see a "guidance counselor" in sixth grade once, when I had just started in a new school, and was really really miserable, but I refused to say anything interesting to the person (was it a woman? I don't even remember) so I don't count that.

It's not because I've never felt in need of treatment. I have. It's more that the psychiatric establishment has always scared me a little. It's scared me enough that I figured, unless it was an emergency, unless I was in serious need, unless it was obvious that things really couldn't go on as before, I'd be better off staying away. And luckily, knock-on-wood, count-your-blessings, I've never been in a bad way like that.

So, why all the suspicion? In part, I've been wary of the methods. Why should we trust these people to know anything? For most of my life, it's been part of the orthodoxy of therapy that when something bad happens to you, it's really important to talk about it, revisit it, be open about it, reconsider it, and generally have it all right there.

This always seemed odd to me. I mean, I'm sure in some cases people bury things and are made better by opening up about them. But why should that true in general? If something is painful, maybe not thinking about it is good for you, right?

And lo! This past year, we find news that repression can be good for you, that some psychologically healthy people are healthy because they bury things, not because in spite of burying things.

This kind of thing tends to undermine a person's confidence in the whole enterprise.

But I've also long been bothered by the particular conception of health the mental health establishment values. There are lots of thing here, but one big one has to do with the nature and value of independence.

I'm no expert, 'cause like I said, I've never been in therapy. But from talking with friends who have been, and reading about therapy, I get the sense that there's a huge emphasis on independence: on being happy within yourself, on having a sense of self that doesn't depend on family, job, friends, home, and on asserting the rights of that self within relationships.

Those sound like reasonable things, sure. But it's also weird that they're directly at odds with basic beliefs most of us have about how close relationships work, and why they're so valuable. I mean, isn't caring about someone a kind of dependence on them? Isn't thinking of your own good as separate from, and maybe at odds with, the good of others a way of keeping them at arms length? Isn't being close with someone undermined by a kind of cost-benefit approach to what you're getting out of the relationship?

Two things in yesterday's Times reminded me of all this. First, there was a letter to the editor about that story about the increase in mid-life suicide that I liked. The writer was struck by the aptness of the phrase "inexplicable gloom," from the original story, as a description of what ails people, and he described Durkheim's theory that such gloom comes from a lack of connection to others. Our independence, the writer seemed to suggest, was making us miserable.

Then, there was that wacky Modern Love piece about April Fool's Day. Toward the end there, the narrator describes the break up of his brother with his long-time girlfriend, a break-up that was first prompted by her therapist's suggestion that the two had become co-dependent.

Maybe they were, maybe they *should* have broken up; I don't know. But it struck me as so funny that being too interdependent with another person is considered a kind of problem, or illness; something that needed to be cured. And cured, in part, by breaking up!

You know, dependence sucks: it's scary; it makes you vulnerable; you risk being used and abused.

But just because dependence sucks doesn't mean independence is any better.

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