from diagnosis to poetry
I almost never hear the word neurotic these days in the conversations and writings of mental health professionals. Quite a paradox in that neurosis is all about me observed both in myself and in my friends, not to mention patients. Neurosis is nothing more than being at odds with oneself. The spectrum of neurosis is a continuum from harmless and amusing to disabling.
I'm not sure why the concept of neurosis has been neglected, but I'd guess it has to do with the 'scientificizing' of our field, a fear that something as messy as people being wrapped up in the poetry of their lives and the challenge of interpreting these poems, is a bit overwhelming to the scientifically minded.
To say that neurosis is 'being at odds with oneself,' is to say that the neurotic experiences tension between various stanzas in the poem of his life. The connections between these stanzas are unconscious leading to a lack of harmony between aspects of the self . Mental energy becomes stymied and wasted.
Along with the word Neurosis, we hear very little of Sigmund Freud these days, except perhaps in the halls of literature departments in universities or psychoanalytic gatherings. That Freud is so missing from common dialogue is strange. Think what you will, but he was a master writer, a thinker with diverse interests, a man whose ideas evolved over the span of his career. What Einstein is to physics, Freud is to clinical psychology. He was perhaps the single most important figure in popularizing the concept of psychotherapy, of leading us to realize that there is depth to our psychology, and the possibility of developing psychological tools to help us make personality adjustments.
I'll try and gently follow the the lead off Freud in trying to explain the concept of neurosis. Freud didn't hesitate to share some of his personal life experience in his writings, He did so in a charming way in some of his brief clinical vignettes. One of the more memorable of these, 'A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis,' inspires the image accompanying this essay. So let me venture forth with my own story in a little personal case history. It has to do with the on and off passion I have had over the years with mastering the Golf swing and discovering that this passion was fueled by a neurosis.
For some time I suspected my preoccupation was neurotic because of the sheer amount of energy it was consuming along with so little reward in playing the game. I began to notice that I was more driven than attracted to golf.
Golf was around me in a minor way growing up. My mother belonged to a little municipal golf club and played some. She was amused by the game, had little skill, and had little interest in mastering it. She played largely to be with her friends. As a kid I dabbled a bit with the game, but never developed a keen interest. All this changed when I neared 40 years of age.
Mt father had just died and the family was gathered to begin to settle affairs,. In a bit of free time my brother-and-law and I found ourselves on a golf range. Paul was quite skilled and his swing led to straight balls and consistent strikes. In contrast, my shots careened off to the right. When I managed to make contact on that day no amount of fiddling or adjustment was correcting my rightward shots. I started to see the golf swing as an uncanny puzzle.
Thus began my golf career which I pursued for about 10 years before giving up the game. In all that time I played well enough to enjoy a walk with friends, but never enough to feel that the golf swing was a natural or consistent event.
I laid off the game for about 15 years until a friend gave me a Groupon to play a few discount holes. The coupon remained unredeemed but I gave me a new incentive to pull out the clubs, This time around I was determined that I would pursue an understanding of the golf swing until it felt as natural as riding a bike.
So its now time to unravel the neurosis.
First, it's curious that I picked up the clubs in a serious way at a time when my dad was being memorialized. My father was among the final cadre of Americans fo be afflicted with Polio just on the cusp in the mid 50s of the vaccine being widely introduced into the public. I was three when he became afflicted, and my father was in his early 30s. The disease took out 75 percent of the power in his legs. In the aftermath, he could move about successfully with the help of canes, but only gingerly on his own. Due to my young age at the time he was afflicted I have no memory of him as a fully walking, striding person.
Back to golf. As I was renewing my acquaintance with the game another curious behavior was that I joined a club, but hardly ever played. I was practicing like a demon out on the range at least 3 times weekly, but would tell myself that there was little purpose in going onto a golf course until my swing was consistent and felt natural. I told myself that swinging a golf club properly was nothing more that a complicated instance of mastering a physical skill, somewhat like learning to ride a bicycle. Why compete in a bike race before knowing how to balance on a bike, so why go out on a golf course I would tell myself wobbling about with an unbalanced golf swing.
Coincident with my efforts to master golf, I also stumbled into an attic box of old world war two letters my dad authored to his parents during the war. The letters enthralled me as I read them. They rekindled the powerful sense of mourning the loss of my dad that I thought I had resolved years before. At the same time the letters gave me a window into what he had been like as a walking man.
The father I knew was a stoic man who privately dealt with the stress and frustrations inherent in his disability. He never complained, and though a reluctant adventurer was usually good natured about participating as best he could in the mobile outings of his family and friends. He was a conservative fellow prone to hedging his bets. He didn't exceed the speed limit, disdained fancy food or drink, in short, he was careful and methodical, to an almost annoying degree he didn't take chances. In contrast his son imagined himself to be somewhat of a reckless adventurer.
How different was the fatherI discovered in the wartime letters. My dad wouldn't hesitate at the drop of a hat to board a night train to visit a girlfriend for just a day. He equally was outgoing with friends, once taking a rickety truck for an all night ride to Paris to visit a friend who was recuperating in a hospital in the aftermath of the war. The letters portrayed him as having humor under adversity and hardly concerned with creature comforts.. In one letter he describes laughing his way through the eating of a piece of watermelon during an uncomfortable train ride to summertime Florida. Soot from the engine was accumulating in the cabin from the open windows. My father describes with amusement the juice from his piece of watermelon melding with sweat and soot dripping down his chest as he ate.
Were someone to ask me what it is like to be a three year old and grow up with a dad afflicted with polio I would be a loss for words, it is the only world I know. My thoughts never became organized into what one might call a coherent emotional reaction. On the other hand, if I look at the stories in my life that likely are related to polio's impact I can begin to reconstruct polio's impact on me. I remember, for example, that as a little boy I took pride in my mobility and imagined it would help my dad; on occasion I would pretend my dad was President, and I, his secret service protection, would boldly venture out into the street as we crossed to assure his safety. I also remember times of frustration when my dad would ask me to do a chore such as mowing the lawn, and I would feel a constraint as I went about my work, sensing his looking over my shoulder, and sometimes hearing that I was not proceeding in the same manner he would if he were doing the job himself.
When I look at my neurotic relationship to golf, its meaning is that golf is a personal metaphor for 'walking,' In the netherworld of my unconscious my struggles with the golf swing are experienced as a kind of disability. By assuming this metaphorical disability my unconscious had imagined that I was making a physical sacrifice in order to pay homage to all that my father had lost with his disease. By making a conscious connection between two apparently disparate parts of my life, my father's polio and golf, I was reading a personal poem. And like the reading of many poems, the experience was beautiful.
All is well with me, there are worse ways to be at odds with myself. In becoming aware of the connection between golf, walking, and my father's polio, I have become more whole. It is enriching to unravel a neurosis. It's like reading the poem of ones life.
I still work on the golf swing, and take a bit of pride when I notice on the golf range that few swing as well as I do. And as for walking, I'm getting my legs, there's no more comforting experience than going out for a round of golf with my son, who from good fortune, never had to witness his father suffer as mine had.