Mid-Life Metamorphosis

alchemy in actionMid-Life Metamorphosis

by Stephen Larsen, published in the Chronogram, 1997

Last month I wrote about cracks in the world and healing the flaws of children. Lest I be accused of adult chauvinism, since I am one, let me say that the adults I have known have far deeper fissures than most children. (Life only deepens them.) My meditation since the age of fifty has been: How do we pass into and through the second half of life gracefully, without succumbing to our own innate flaws?

My best friend from college died a couple of years ago exactly as he turned fifty: Kenny was a mad Celt, who loved life. He was curly-haired, poetic, prankish–fond of coming up with mythological names for people and places–one of my own pecadillos as well. We were at Columbia at the same time as Simon and Garfunkel, and more than once, people in the West End Bar on Broadway–the true beating heart of Columbia–mistook us for them. Some folk thought we were gay–but that attribution actually helped us meet more (juicy intellectual) women. Our heroes were Blake, Yeats and Jung. We read Gurdjieff and ordered boxes of peyote cactus from Lawson’s Cactus Gardens in Laredo Texas while it was still legal.

We spoke a language together called “Beast,” that was a peculiarly mythological flavor of English: “Communist yo yo’s secretly glom the myth of capitalism,” we would say wisely; or “Those trundles (bag ladies) are full of lustfulness for my sandwich!” We would infect the people around us, and they would start speaking it as well.

While I “settled down” after graduate school with a job and family, Kenny came within an ace of finishing his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Maryland. But I had introduced him to Keruoac in 1960, sitting in the West End Bar; and something mythological “glommed onto him”. Kenny went “on the road”–he became an itinerant philosopher. He began doing horoscopes and something like psychic readings–coast to coast. He would hitchhike across country wearing his great tweed overcoat–sleep in it if necessary, and not so infrequently. He would catch a ride with some existentially-thirsty soul into Kansas City, and stay in the guy’s loft for a week, doing horoscopes and expounding on the nature of existence. He would seduce three women, cause a lot of laughter, engender massive self-examination on the part of everyone, and split.

Kenny died in a little apartment in Queens two years ago, drowned in his own blood. The coroner’s explanation: an aesophageal hernia, probably caused indirectly by a damaged liver, had ruptured, and filled his stomach and then his lungs with blood. He was alone when it happened. I called my doctor friends, as if we could undo the tragedy by endlessly discussing it. There were no easy answers, except the demon that plagues so many Irishmen: Alcoholism: cirrhosis. The life of a poet vagabond is harder than that of a settled man–the psychology textbooks all say it. He drank every day, but I never saw him drunk–just fey. He was in pursuit of an elfin daemon, and she ambushed him secretly.

I think I seemed a little conservative to Kenny in those latter years, with my teaching and writing and therapy, my committed relationship and family. My own wild mind had settled down a little; I really didn’t want to drink very much, and I would no longer speak mythically all the time. When he died I went into a depression that occasioned all the soul-searching: How do we live a long and creative life without succumbing to our own flaws–becoming the victims of our own eccentricities? Just last week, I think I finally understood his death at a new level, because another friend my age came down with the disease: “Hemochromatosis” it is called: the Celtic disease; yes really! And it is hereditary.

The Celtic disease is frequently accompanied by alcoholism; but that is one of its syptoms, really, not a cause. Its victims feel better when they are a little intoxicated and their blood sugar is up. The real problem is that the genetic defect causes organs, especially the liver, to store iron. The liver turns into massive scar tissue and succumbs to cirrhosis–the blood is often turned back under great pressure–and developes a hernia, which may rupture. It could rupture as you sit in an apartment in Queens, just you and the Great Mystery.

“We bear our deaths within us!” the old “brujo” told Castaneda. Was Kenny’s death the result of his lifestyle–or both his death and his lifestyle the result of a genetic flaw? Alan Ginsberg lamented that he had seen the best minds of his generation destroyed, deranged. How do we avoid becoming victims of our flaws–of our ancestors’ flaws, of the race’s flaws? One person is pathologically shy–the next deliriously extraverted–to the point that she can’t stand to be alone.

In relationships and couples counseling, the flaws always come to the fore: “I can’t stand the way she talks and talks,” says the husband. “He never says anything,” says the wife. In couples too, one has overcompensated the flaws of the other: “I talk so much only because she never does.” One flirts dangerously; her partner has an explosive jealousy–yikes! There they go again, watch out! One is compulsively neat; another leaves a trail of dirt and disorder behind like “Pigpen” in the Al Capp cartoon: He’s a very nice guy, but people have an almost moral thing about dirt. In Jungian terms, each projects the “shadow” onto the other–the flaws are real, but because we haven’t fully integrated our own, the other’s loom so much larger.

In therapy, when I see that a person is grappling with a constitutional problem that probably won’t go away with conventional talk-therapy, I inquire into the family history: Who else was like this? Does it span the generations? First we have to understand it, then think about alternative treatments:

Madeline, a highly successful professional woman was “driving her family crazy” with her nervous energy. She ran a successful business, and was really quite a kind person, but she was “on edge all the time.” Her employees felt, it, her family felt it, and she knew it was true. Madeline dreamt of a race-horse one night. She tried to gentle it, but it was too nervous.

You’re like that race horse, I said: Now, be the race horse! (She had an acting background and understood I was inviting her to role-play.) “Uh, I’m fine-boned, kind of inbred, uh,” (she’s getting into it, arching her neck) “I like competition, I’m kind of bored with running around the track–I don’t like routines, I like novelty. I just vibrate with energy,” (she is visibly vibrating). What do you need? –Speaking as a horse that is– I ask.

“Uh, I need to be petted and well-fed.” Yes? “Uh, kind of taken care of.” Alright, now you’re Madeline again. How does any of that fit? “Well, my parents were Polish Jewish aristocrats, that just escaped the death camps.” That must have been terrible. How do they deal with it? “They don’t. It doesn’t exist.” Oh. Where do they carry it, then? “In their bodies, they shake with nervous energy all the time, I think it’s really fear underneath.” Right, that’s what you do too. “Did I really get it from them?” “You tell me.” “Yes. It’s true, I’ve always known it! Just never looked at it. Now what do I do?”

Let’s go back to the horse, I say, What did you say it needs? “Regular feed, petting and grooming.” Where is that in your life? “My mealtimes are totally irregular. My husband isn’t very affectionate, and no one else seems to touch me.” Well, do you really let them in? “No, I keep them at bay with my nervous energy.” Well…

In this case Madeline was able to see her reflection in the psychodrama so well that she could make some changes. She began to feed herself more nutritiously and regularly, as she would a horse that she cared about, and invite herself to be petted as often as the chance presented itself.

I do not in any way want make the hard work of mid-life metamorphosis seem facile. Many sessions were conducted on the familial holocost memories (there were aunts and grandparents not so fortunate as her parents). How could wounds so vast “not” be carried by generations? Nor can we make such realities go away by waving any magic wands, any more than anyone could banish Kenny’s Celtic Disease. Madeline is still a little hyper–I’m helping her channel the anxiety into excitement. She’s a performer, a race horse, not a draft horse. She has to understand her own personal mythology, not ignore it. Her real strength in this situation is that she has chosen to face her neurosis squarely. She has invited the feedback, and was able to make use of it when she got it.

One friend, a talented stage performer, recently had a life-threatening accident. While he convalesced a number of his “friends” converged at his bedside and told him in no uncertain terms what was wrong with his lifestyle, and how he had brought this on himself. (There is even a New Age fundamentalism which says: You invite and attract everything that happens to you, so if something horrible happens, you must have asked for it!) This is a kind of distortion of something that may be true at a higher spiritual level, but usually delivered in this way it is not very helpful; and often simply adds guilt to the afflicted person’s pain and depression. The key here is the judgementalism. We may profit by a self-aware openness to the universe and our relationship to it. We may even find concepts such as “karma” useful; but while it can be very germane to ask in psychotherapy how we become our own victims, it is probably not so useful to utter pronouncements on the other guy’s karmic problems. (My karma wouldn’t have run over your dogma if your dogma wasn’t chasing my karma!)

Adults require more sophisticated forms of self-knowledge than children, so psychotherapy often must accompany biofeedback, as it did for Madeline. The biofeedback provides the most value-free, non-judgemental type of feedback imaginable: this is where you are right now! (With one form of EEG therapy, the interactive lights, the feedback is all on the unconscious level, the brain simply finds a new level of dynamics on its own.) After about two months of interactive light training, Madeline was still herself — I could hear her boisterous laughter, across the therapy center, as she was leaving — but she was visibly more mellow. (Her husband, resurrecting his petting skills, commented on it.)

There is a great boon in store, if you have managed to construct a healing partnership with your clients; you both share the responsibility of getting better, and share an intense joy when it happens. The advantage of these approaches over psychotropic drugs is very apparent here. Resourcefulness and self-esteem are built by solving the problems instead of masking or tranquillizing them. People need feedback, if they are to self-rectify their flaws. This is what Jung called “the self-liberating power of the introverted mind”. The hallmark of the Eastern contemplative traditions, the same principle is at work in biofeedback and in psychotherapy. The feedback is best if it is non-judgemental, like an EEG machine, or a temperature trainer, like a good therapist. Diseases are curable, especially in the early stages, as is Hemochromatosis. A little practical knowledge for Kenny would have been worth all the cosmic consciousness he aspired to.

We do the greatest service for people when we give them our honesty. Hold back your judgement, but never your compassion, nor your relatedness. Clear and compassionate, like a living mirror, the children need you, your friends need you, the world needs you.

by Stephen Larsen, Ph.D.