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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist (tm)

February 1999, No. 2

Special Announcement: With Valentines fluttering and soaring throughout cyberspace and the 14th hurtling towards its rendezvous with destiny, here is the first of a two-part series on such tender themes as being codependently-challenged and commitment phobic. Today's existential biggie (actually a fairly serious personal exploration) -- are you readying for intimacy or regressing toward romantasy? (Also, if you haven't seen my classic Valentines essay about the opportunities and dangers of online romance, email for the FEB '98 newsletter.) Dear Readers. By popular demand, here is your gumbo of the sublime, the spicy and the ridiculous: a tasty mix of my writings along with humor jokes, lists and other sparkling entities that have descended from cyberspace. News Flash: Alas, only for AOL members, stop by my online "Shrink Rap and Group Chat," Tuesdays, 9-10:30pm EST: <A HREF="aol://4344:2993.chat.31195386.586807274">Clickhere: Washington LIVE CHAT</A> . It's a dynamic, lively, at times witty and always warm, thoughtful and supportive problem-solving group. We raise questions and share our ideas, hopes and experiences with each other. For more articles on a variety of psychology topics, try these links: www.stressdoc.com or <A HREF="www.stressdoc.com">STRESSDOC HOMEPAGE</A> and on AOL, Keyword: Stress Doc or <A HREF="aol://4344:972.doc.1264535.556723207"> The Stress Doc @ Online Psych</A> . And here's an AOL link with series of articles on burnout, downsizing, layoffs and career transition, <A HREF="aol://4344:972.docwork.1255066.562088752">The Stress Doc Interview @ Online Psych</A> . I've also started a bulletin board on my website - www.stressdoc.com . I encourage you to start a group dialogue. And, of course, I will stick my two cents in as well. If you know others who would like to receive "The Stress Doc Newsletter," please pass their names along. (AOL subscription link <A HREF="aol://1391:43-61027">form driven mail</A> .) And, if you wish not to receive the newsletter, just email me with, "unsubscribe."

(Author's Caveat: This is a work and psyche in progress. The serious outweighs the playful in pursuit of the relatively truthful. As psychiatrist, Ernst Kris, noted: "What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at." Hopefully, writing this essay is like planting seeds of the poignant and painful into transformational soil. One day, tilling and tending this psychic field will yield fruitful healing humor. As the Stress Doc inverted: "What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master." So please allow me some liberties as I project, examine and, perhaps, exaggerate the neurotic while searching for the artistic. As for mastery...perhaps in another life.) Triggered by a young couple's dysfunctional dynamics, the Stress Doc begins an intensely personal exploration of his subjective-logical and psychological -- ideas and emotions around intimacy and commitment in love relationships. Part I: Key barriers to developing the emotional integrity required for healthy, sustained, romantic intimacy. Just in time for Valentine's.

Codependency, Commitment Phobia and "The Intimate FOE" Fear of Exposure in the Pursuit of Romantasy While mentally meandering in the teahouse, my eyes and ears riveted on the attractive 20-something couple seated to my left. I found myself stirred up by their pattern of interaction. The young woman was animatedly trying to make conversation while her partner's head was mostly buried in The New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Occasionally, a reflexive smile or a halfhearted "Uh-huh" would manifest from the detached, seemingly bemused countenance. Perhaps I'm being generous. His manner was more, "I'd rather not be bothered with you." And, alas, the more he kept bunkered the harder his counterpart pursued. In fact, her chatter became increasingly anxious if not seemingly desperate. First she tried to win some recognition from her preoccupied beau with the astronomic cost of their recent long-distance phone marathon. When this only slightly softened into an "Ah-huh," she moved to a more sensitive topic: how worried she was recently when he did not return several calls made over the course of two days. She feared something had happened to him. Friends at work tried reassuring her, but she was still so on edge. A Cheshire cat smile, mostly sly with a touch of the sympathetic (or was it his sense of the pathetic?) curled from our male antagonist's lips. At this point, my boundaries were breaking down fast. I wanted to shake this seemingly "lovesick," desperate, codependent woman. It was fairly transparent that some of my emotional-historical hot buttons were being triggered. All too quickly I was in this woman's shoes, wanting to connect at all cost with "The Eternally Elusive Detached Object Of My Neurotic Fantasy" sitting across from me. Why did I once, why does she now, have so little sense of self? What makes the need for approval so great, especially from one so withholding? Why can't a noxious creature be called "a shark" or "a snake?" Why couldn't we extricate ourselves from this emotionally dismissive, if not abusive, relationship? Let me count the dysfunctional ways and the impact on aspects of adult relating: 1. Bottom-line Depression. In hindsight, a chronic, mostly low-grade (but certainly not always) high and low mood-swing depression, often denied, had much to do with my remaining in unhealthy and unhappy relationships. Then again, my imbalance also had me jumping from basically or potentially healthy partnerships. First, I'm convinced the underlying depression fueled a festering, ever lurking primal pool of angst and emptiness. This not only drew me toward women, but also in my mind and heart gave them inordinate powers. Women were my saviors; sexual tension and symbiotic fusion, romantic fantasy or "romantasy" (my semantic invention ;-) if not addiction, was the primary distraction from "the dark night of the soul and the biochemical black hole." In fact, I recall childhood dreams floating about in women's stomachs; this psychic regression an escape from the internalized family secrets, anxiety and imagined dread lurking without. While in early adolescence, near compulsive masturbation was the drug of choice:

The vacuum shrieks, the hours weeks The wail of solitaire. AWOL leaks, piranha beaks Affixed the meat of prayer.

What's Normalcy? When your historical and bio-psychological baseline is agitated depression, then turmoil is basically what you know. Actually, it may be what you are yet may not be what you know. For example, if obvious displays of dysfunctionality would expose family myths, including the myth of being "the good All-American boy" and having a "normal" family, then cover-up and collusion is tolerated, encouraged, threatened and/or demanded . Family members often walk around on ego shells to prevent individual breakage, to prevent shameful leakage and to preserve the aura if not the armor of grit your teeth sanity in an on the edge family system. And sometimes the family is not the most obvious source of torment. Emotional battering can occur by the adolescent's "second family"-his or her peer group. Those neighborhood (or school) piranhas know a wounded prey that can't defend himself, won't flee the scene of abuse because of psychological paralysis and a profound sense of inadequacy. Fear of rejection and greater retribution compels a sickly creature to endure the incessant biting and tearing at one's mind and heart for way too many years. Brain draining boob tubing, compulsive card gaming and all day ball playing momentarily numb the lying in wait humiliation and panic, gnawing emptiness and mostly bottled-up rage of a profoundly distracted male adolescent. (Based on the volume of email from troubled female adolescents, eating disorders and shopping seem to perform analogous dysfunctional shut down/stuff down maneuvers. And alcohol seems the cross gender drug of choice. I bet cybermania is not far behind.) So how does this lack of a solid inner and outer core and a precarious chemical-emotional equilibrium impact a capacity for exploring intimacy? For one thing, "love" becomes anxious longing. Trying to win the approval of a critical or withholding other leaves one in a FOG - still playing the unfinished "Family of Origin Game." And speaking of anxiety, relaxed relating may not provide the critical distraction from the emotional cauldron bubbling and churning within. Actually, a warm, calm relationship is particularly frightening. Not only is it foreign territory, but you're stepping into quicksand. At first there seems to be relatively solid ground. Then, before you know it, you are sinking into a primal pool of suffocating expectation and emotion. You are gasping and thrashing internally, raging yet helpless to escape such a mature relationship, to back away from such a fine partner. What's wrong with you? It's time to grow up! If you manage to sidestep this fearful loss of self, and you avoid being consumed by guilt or quicksand, then the other extreme may kick in. Something's missing. The relationship is not intense enough. I'm searching for the invigorating chemistry (okay, some lust) and the romantic ideal to compensate for depression and diminished self-esteem. Oh no! Creeping boredom. Next comes the projection and doubting. Is the other person "good enough" or "the right one"? Invariably these psychic weeds start crowding out and killing off whatever inner peace, self-acceptance and potential for intimacy exist. Your green garden of contentment never becomes that field of dreams. You're beseiged by an out of control thicket of crabbygrass. 2. The Family Furies. Especially when having a gaping void between your real and ideal selves, it becomes easy to place significant people in your life on a pedestal or, conversely, in a dark pit. (This perception and placement can be highly subjective, if not distorted.) For many years, I viewed my mother as the fairly intimidating Queen of Intellect while my father, often seemed depressed or withdrawn. In a challenge to stereotyping, he was more emotional, if not covertly labeled as "irrational." She more reasoned; her judgment more highly esteemed. Yet, despite a breakdown in his mid-20s, under acute stress, dad often was "her rock," while mom became highly anxious- both more controlling and excitable. And also noteworthy, dad was always prized for his dashing good looks. (His focused aggression and charm, mostly under wraps around the house for the first two decades, was well suited for a career in sales in New York's cutthroat garment/fashion industry.)

Unfortunately, mom, dad and I were enmeshed in the classic Oedipal family dance. Fortunately, and I say this with some envy, mostly worked through, dad had more energy and freedom to bond with my younger brother. But family history is fluid and unpredictable. (I'm not giving out all the details. Let's just call it my "Jewish Tennesse Williams Family Saga." Use your imagination to fill in the psychic spaces.) My father's mid-life cauldron furiously erupted. Long-smoldering unfinished, deep-seated pain and resentment pushed him, for a short time, out of the family household; this turmoil also eventually propelled him into a decade of group psychotherapy. He and I became the psychobabble junkies in the family. Therapy paved the way for needed raging and the reworking of the tattered threads of relationship. We gradually wove an uncommon father-son bond. Gratefully, too, filling some of the father-son childhood chasm was my mother's brother, Uncle Dave, a warm, exuberant and athletic male role model. And most blessedly, even if only for a handful of years, there was "Grandma," my mother's mother. Battling all kinds of physical illness, with an inspiring, never pitying genuine acceptance, even after having one, then a second leg amputated, barely speaking a word of English, this saintly woman created an unspoken, incredibly nurturing and loving bond between grandmother and child. Actually, she was the emotional glue for members of both the nuclear and extended families. Grams was my advocate in the struggle to emancipate from mom. Much of my emotional sensitivity and healing gifts were transposed through her intuitive, unconditional love. Grandma's death, when I was twelve, was like losing the good angel watching over the family. Grandma's eyes, age old crystal wisdom Starry eyes, to bathe in heaven's light Teary eyes, mirrored soulful freedom Cold marble eyes?...Farewell sweet dreamy nights.

Grandma's eyes, grandma's eyes Warmed your heart like a sunrise Grandma's eyes, grandma's eyes Rays of hope in a sea of lives.

(For the complete poem, "Kindred Eyes," email me.) Paradoxically, exposure to these divergent parental and spiritual forces yields a complex mix of low self-esteem, uncommon sensitivities and a sense of being special. And, of course, there's that narcissistic entitlement. Having silently endured all that pain and hurt, I now deserved special treatment. Or, at least, I shouldn't have to confront my psychological immaturity, feelings of inadequacy and related self-defeating survival and escapist mechanisms. I should be allowed to retreat into my own fantasy world. Maybe one day it will metamorphose into a world of productive and imaginative design. In any event, you've created your reality; don't tread on mine! (I'm really not that angry; just into some writer's primary process and working through lingering stuff. Actually, for the moment, the future is more vexing than the past: my inability to get a book publishing house to fulfill that fanciful design. Hmmm, maybe there are parallels with my pursuit of romantasy!) 3. The Femme (or Homme) Fatale Attraction

With gaping holes in self-esteem and insufficient pride in professional achievement, the main way out of the labyrinth was winning over a detached, high status-brains and/or beauty-woman. I was in constant pursuit of that elusive, seemingly unavailable "love object." And, of course, to quote a forgotten source: "Pursuing the unobtainable makes impossible the realizable." Or, on occasion, when successful in attracting a woman, if not stalked by boredom then a subconscious spinoff on the old Groucho Marx maxim might raise it's taunting head: Why would I want to be partners with anyone who wanted me? Of course, "What's wrong with me?" could suddenly mood swing into "What's wrong with her?" How quickly we can deflect the real issues, the real pain, away from ourselves and onto the other. Either way, exploring a friendship and relationship with a potential mate inevitably became an obsessive, if not a desperate, chess match: I was in check; I had to escape. Of course, as a good woman friend reminds me, there's also the family/couple scenario when one is incessantly challenged, questioned and ridiculed to the point of lurking and lingering self-doubt. Fighting a long-standing accusatory psychic voice-"why are you so disrespectful, disloyal, ungrateful?"-can undermine a capacity for knowing what's real. Does the source of the dysfunction lie within or without? So one stays, one endures, one hopes or tries to get the partner to change. The latter scenario will surely prove that you have worth: his bottled-up love for me, my healing love, will even transform a critical, withholding or repressed-explosive but deep down (sometimes way deep) lovable creature. But reality usually prevails, alas. Gradually, one's autonomy and integrity is held hostage to chronic hostility and/or abuse. Pseudo-intimacy becomes all too real bondage. And then the key existential question, "The Commitment Catch-22": Are You a Committed Being or Are You Being Committed? 4. Intellectual Mystification and Smoldering Motivation. When high anxiety, depression, chronic pain, attention deficit disorder and/or a learning disability reduces a capacity to focus, concentrate and absorb information, clearly, a prominent learning arena of childhood may well be impaired. Of course, for some, school may provide a nurturing escape from a home environment that labels thinking and actions as ridiculous, stupid, defiant or selfish.

I was the underachiever type. But even sadder than significantly diminished performance and enjoyment as a student was how clueless I was regarding the gifts and passion for expression within. Here's a vivid illustration. One day, in sixth grade, the class was working on an abstract drawing design. The teacher must have been surprised to see me coloring so intently. Clearly, my focus and fury contrasted with my typically pseudo happy or bland yet anxiously distracted bearing and behavior. Towards the end of the exercise, Mr. Winokur came over and discreetly remarked, "After eighth grade, you might want to apply to arts school" (such as Music and Art in Manhattan, the setting of the play and movie, "Fame"). The poignancy of this scenario still evokes watery eyes. My blank stare and seemingly deadened affect disguised a perturbed inner monologue: "What's the matter? You don't think I'm smart enough to go to a regular school?" And, sadly, this subject never came up again! It wasn't till my third decade that I had some inkling of the depths, my depths, into which this insightful teacher was plumbing. Recovering and discovering the passion, the talents, the risk-taking energy, the capacity to be vulnerable, even to fail, to endure great shame, fear and frustration, the obsessive devotion, the patience and persistence, embracing the pain and joy of commitment and it's creative offspring... Another twenty years of wandering, falling, rebuilding the fire and slowly evolving. As pioneering scientist and discoverer Jonas Salk noted: "Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down, being courageous one more time than we are fearful; trusting one more time than we are anxious." Another legacy of repressed underachieving was a smoldering desire to prove my self-worth, contrary evidence be damned. Not surprisingly, some of the narcissistic instincts and energy were not just in my head. Despite depressed self-esteem, even I could acknowledge a capacity for uncommon sensitivity and empathy. My problem was I couldn't truly appraise these gifts. They were natural, not hard-earned and, thus, less valuable. (Spoken like a true, irrational depressive.) And along with high "interpersonal intelligence" and intuitive leadership skills (for which you were never graded in school; these aptitudes, obviously, were less important than science and math), there was a yearning, a burning to be special. 5. Career Path Wandering. Not surprisingly, with this psychological cacophony whatever achievement gained was never enough. The uncommon productivity bar had to be raised ever higher. And not simply on one playing field. Discovering I had gifts as a therapist was not sufficient. Next stop on this relentless identity and image train was becoming a dynamic university professor (even while enduring massive burnout and bailout from a doctoral program). But one must break out from behind the ivory tower. Is becoming an organizational trainer and workshop leader a real accomplishment? But still the gnawing restlessness and never satisfied self-esteem.

I'm flashing on a parallel with my dad. A top-knotch salesman, he never felt he was quite good enough, either. His path reveals an emotionally torturous upbringing and breakdown as a youthful married man with child. While struggling to support a young family, there was constant fear that the inner, depressive demons would again erupt. He lived on the precipice of rage, shame and failure. This legacy was an ongoing burden till entering therapy in his mid-40s. Do you think this slice of family history, fears and genes weakens the resolve to combine a normal work life and love life? But I didn't just want productivity. No, the true narcissist also craves glamour and prestige, often to undo the primitive shame dramatically, if not magically. Let's break into radio and television. I may have burned out on my dissertation, but I'll pioneer a memorable language and concept base that blends psychology, introspection and humor. Alas, evolving an idiosyncratic voice just on local TV and radio is still too parochial...Why not national syndication for my two-minute "Stress Brake" radio feature? Or writing for a national paralegal magazine? Damn, still not past the worthiness threshold. (And my pattern of serial monogamy-nine months on, three months off-is proving mutually exhausting.) Okay, let's move to Washington, DC and do more conference speaking and organizational intervention: stress and violence prevention for the US Postal Service anyone? How's that for unique and daring? So the year on the postal battlelines tending to and defusing the disgruntled working wounded significantly elevates my blood pressure and requires being on meds...Small price to pay for guts (or is it nuts?) and glory! Stress Doc Enterprises or Bust! And now a columnist and "Online Psychohumorist" on the Internet and AOL. Pouring out blood, sweat and tears, words and laughs. Still not making much money; a lingering source of frustration and some sense of failure. Having a five-year younger sib with a Ph.D. who earns considerably more than I as a research psychologist and analyst for a major pharmaceuticals, naturally, has added fuel to this social comparison fire. So too his being in a four-year intimate relationship; of course, it's a bit neurotic-he's a Gorkin. Then again, this reduces some of the marriage pressure on me. ;-) Actually, I think my folks and family have given up on me in this area. So some of the codependent clinging to or running from intimacy gets entangled with refusing to make peace with a stable career role and creative identity. And while some progress has been made, those wage earning expectations-past and present, self and other-still generate their "buzzin, bloomin confusion." Not being able to accept or to integrate emotionally the breadth and limits of my achievement makes it hard to sustain a traditional profession or partnership not confounded by narcissism, pessimism and endless possibility. 6. Light At the End of the Psyche. I guess I'm both my father's son and my brother's brother. But there will always be FAME. At least I can be a legend in my own mind: the epic struggle between grandiose illusion and genuine imagination. And as I've learned, there's often a fine line between vision and hallucination! Maybe the line can become a conductor that transforms melancholic-manic energy into reflective wisdom and receptive connection.

Perhaps, I'm finally building a bridge between search and synthesis. Was it the need for novelty and variety or a glorified-terrified narcissism that prolonged choosing a stable career direction? And was the underlying motivational wellspring creative or depressive...or likely both? In addition to ego-aggrandizement, there was this irresistible force to make sense of, to retrieve, to articulate and express, to evoke, provoke and integrate so many diverse elements-memories, hopes, fantasies, the spectrum of emotions, skills abandoned...Could gifts be recovered, compulsions confronted, talents nurtured, concepts invented, identities juggled, self-respect and reputation resurrected? And, most important, envisioning "The Intimate FOE: Fear Of Exposure" as the passageway to my subterranean self. If one wrestled with fear and shame, however reluctantly, could these demons become catalysts for creative exploration and outer world courage? For me, what's clear is the real interrelation among such factors as a capacity for productivity and achievement, a vital self-esteem (including relative biochemical equilibrium) and sharing mature intimacy and commitment without disabling dependency. Of course, I'm hardly the first to make this observation. As Freud succinctly noted, the mature individual is able to work and love. I'm struck by Freud's ordering-work then love. Yes, I can relate and hope. For while much distance remains around "working at love," at least progress has been made at "loving to work." (Now if only having "a virtual life" could translate into a more genuine and intimate one.) This essay has mostly looked at the self-image glass as half empty. Next time we grapple with the half full perspective. Perhaps there will be some insights on how hard-earned autonomy and artistry may embrace depression and, even, overcome "commitment phobia." May a cautiously open, patiently passionate yet ebbing, flowing and evolving intimacy result? Hey...I'm as curious as you. Until next time, of course...Practice Safe Stress!

The Stress Doc Newsletter The Higher Power of Humor Section...

The second section will consist primarily of humor material that filters down from cyberspace. First is a personal vignette, an intimate, wicked moment never to be forgotten. The second a clever joke. These Valentine tidbits remind us never to take a partner for granted. And that also reinforce the power of the last word! His Moans, Her Moans, Hormones StressDoc@aol.com

I remember fondly an old girl friend, Georgia. This "southern belle" was quite an aroused and vocal lover. Now this would not necessarily pose a problem; actually it was pretty exciting. However, Georgia was Christian and I'm Jewish. Initally, when Georgia was calling out rapturously, "Oh God. Oh God"...I was still with her. But when she started crying out "Oh Jesus"... I started feeling a little strange. Perhaps I was fortunate. Imagine how I would have felt if Georgia was Catholic and calling out "Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph." (Actually, that would have been more familiar. I've known a few Jewish women that psychologically bring their whole family to bed with them.) Anyway, I'm trying to be broad-minded, but with wave after wave of "Oh Jesus...Ohhh Jesus," I'm becoming more uncomfortable. And, of course, I'm also getting perturbed because, hey, I'm doing all the work and he's getting all the credit. So after about the sixteenth "Ohh Jesus," I decide to get Georgia's attention by slowing down the action. When she finally opens her eyes, I say, "Georgia, let's be fair. How about an 'Oh Moses' every once in awhile!" Needless to say, we both lost it simultaneously. ;-) Give the gift of tolerance and, of course, Practice Safe Stress! ----------------------------------------------------------------

Mother of Six MissPastel@aol.com

A man had six children and was very proud of his achievement. He was so proud of himself that he started calling his wife "Mother of Six" in spite of her objections. One night they attended a party. When the man decided it was time to go home, and wanted to find out if his wife was ready to leave as well, he shouted across the room at the top of his voice, "Shall we go home Mother of Six?" His wife, irritated by her husbands lack of discretion, finally shouted back: "Anytime you're ready, Father of Four!" Seek the higher power of humor...May the Farce Be with You! And, of course...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, the Stress Doc, a psychotherapist and nationally recognized speaker, trainer, consultant and author, is also known as AOL's and the internet's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Check out his USA Today Online "Hot Site" website - www.stressdoc.com  and his page on AOL/Online Psych, Keyword: Stress Doc

** Join the Doc's "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City, Tuesdays, 9-10:30pm EDT (AOL Members Only) -- Dig City Promo - Stress Doc.

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All five portal links can be shared with and are operational for both users of AOL and the Internet.

** For his free newsletter, Notes from the Online Psychohumorist ™ or for info on the Stress Doc's Online Coaching program, email Stress Doc@aol.com

(c) Mark Gorkin 1998 Shrink Rap Productions