Sunday, October 5, 2014

Intervention tidbit #1: The euthymic defense

Three clients: Two women and a man with depression that came – no doubt at all – from adultified, crazy, starved childhoods.  One girl, placed with father and stepmother after her drug-addicted mother disappeared, was the assumptive black sheep, stepmother’s project, kept outside the children’s circle, tolerated in neglect.  The second girl carried the weight of her methamphetamine-addicted parents’ immaturity, lived in shame, parented her sibling.  The boy’s father, insane but for the credentials, made him sleep with him through his early teens, beat and humiliated him.

They all turned twenty-one, donned the adult mantle, got jobs and relationships.  When you’re looking therapeutically at people like these, you are looking not at symptoms but at time: You are seeing years, themes, covers.  And you are seeing bottom-heavy time, as they are seated more in the past than in the present.  This is why they laugh so often.

I work a number of approaches (prescribed and serendipitous) with these individuals – here-and-now relationship problems, hard-hitting insight (which may turn into abreaction) about their past, efforts at ever-deepening diagnosis, and trying to create the warm and confidential “room of truth.”  But there comes a time when the analytical eye must open and what may have seemed the flimsiest of defenses reveals itself to be one of the most profound, obstructing all real progress.  This is the euthymic, or fake happy, character.

Therapists who don’t know this yet, please understand that the client who laughs and smiles when nothing is funny is not a real, grounded person lightening a tough moment of therapy or history.  She is not just leaving the serious plane for a moment of distraction, relief or reward.  And she is certainly not seeing the humor in a dreadful but survived situation.  This at-the-ready laugh exists as a constant, a shadow on the mind at all times.  It is the fist to the head by a guard permanently watching and frightening the person away from any emotionally truthful moment.  The client whose character is euthymic has probably never lived on his ground, and is resisting falling to it whenever the slightest stimulus – internal or external cue – manifests.

The frenetically intelligent man wonders why his estranged wife tortures him with her changeable convictions.  He wonders why she doesn’t like him anymore, but gives him another chance, voices hope and failure at the same time, cries then trashes him.  It does seem very mystifying, deserving of my sympathy, until we picture her being unconsciously baffled by his euthymic character that mystifies, in warm and bright colors, his own craziness, going back to his father’s bed and shame.  She sees a sincerely good guy who poisons her.  She breathes in his euthymia and his dystopia, believes them both, and her confusion at it is sent underground.

When I intervene, it’s to pause and ask him to listen to his laugh, see his smile that doesn’t belong there.  I say that this isn’t merely behavior, it is character, a character of running.  I may ask him to look at the instant impulse behind it, then feel the smile and the self-mesmerizing that makes it.  And more, feel the whole character of fake happy.  Where does it come from?  Who would you be without this costume?  Who are you with your wife?

These clients know but do not know their truth.  They had to escape in some way as children, I suppose through "positive thinking" and a thousand other defenses.  And now they are unreal, painting darkness with a smile, craziness and mourning with a laugh.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.