Wednesday, January 28, 2009


What are you changing?
What do you think you're changing?
You can't change things, we're all stuck in our ways
It's like trying to clean the ocean
What do you think you can drain it?
Well it was poison and dry long before you came

But you can wake up younger under the knife
And you can wake up sounder if you get analyzed
And I better wake up
There but for the grace of God, go I

Jenny Lewis

Okay, let's try this again. I'm reminded of the performing violinist who, puzzled but pleased by repeated calls of "Encore!" from the audience, obligingly played his piece several times over. Finally he heard a hectoring voice cry, "Encore! You're going to sit there and play it until you get it right!" (I've decided to institute an annual joke here at the blog; that was it for 2009).

So my musings yesterday about the blog title brought to mind one of several oddities about being a psychiatrist (and by psychiatrist I always mean a therapist of any kind). (Sometimes people ask if I mind the designation "shrink." I really don't, and it isn't offensive, but as a word I've always found it to be somehow stale and antiquated, very 1970's, sort of like groovy, although I'm not in fact sure when the word arose.)

Many are fascinated by what drives a person to pursue psychiatry, or by implication, what sorts of people are drawn to field, but fewer reflect on how the active practice of psychiatry, or the sustained adoption of the role, could change a person (for better or worse). I will defer that deeper issue, but merely observe that, compared to other professions, that of psychiatrist has the potential, in terms of social perception at least, to hijack the identity.

Perhaps this is because the presence of a psychiatrist tends to make the layperson self-conscious. I would imagine that apart from celebrities of any sort, this is true of only a small number of occupations: priests or ministers mainly, but also perhaps police officers, judges, and teachers also (and tellingly, psychiatry could be said to comprise elements of all those roles).

I can think of plenty of other occupations that would provoke greater admiration or even interest, but not necessarily more self-consciousness. Not long ago I read a blog post by an English professor who complained that everyone she met suddenly seemed apologetic about their grammar or knowledge of books. But I don't think that if I were a plumber (talk about a road not taken!), people I met would feel self-conscious about their pipes. Psychiatrists, preachers, law enforcement types, and teachers foster transferences (of the psychological, religious, legal, and academic kinds, respectively) wherever they go.

After I got married some years ago I was surprised by how many women asked my wife what it was like to be married to a psychiatrist. Can you imagine asking anyone what it is like to be wed to a teacher or an engineer? No, because they're assumed to be regular folks. No, this was like asking what it was like to be mated with a giant millipede, or perhaps a demented taxidermist. The answer is presumed to be titillating, but likely not pretty. No, my wife always answers (with, I never fail to note, something less than delectation in her voice) that it's pretty much like being married to any other man (as if that weren't the lily that couldn't be gilded in the first place).


Anonymous said...

I don't like telling people what I do unless I expect to have ongoing dealings with them.Years ago, this led to a funny situation on an airplane.

I was flying back from a vacation in Central America and made a connecting flight in Mexico City. There was some sort of problem with seat assignments and, at some point, a beautiful young American woman jumped into the empty middle seat beside me. I was single and pleased that she immediately began to chatter enthusiastically with me. Very quickly, though, she asked what I do for a living. I hesitated, much longer in my mind than in reality. When I told her I was a psychologist, she responded happily that she too is a psychologist. Relief. Then she began to ask more questions and as I felt us approaching the question of background and training, I began again to get tense about her inevitable negative reaction to the word psychoanalysis. But, as it turned out, she was a candidate in a training program on the East Coast. Relief, again.

We actually ended up in a long-distance relationship and I enjoyed telling her later about my little internal roller coaster ride during our first meeting over Mexico.

Novalis said...

That's great. So if you had made up something like "herpetologist," things may not have gone as smoothly?

So I don't suppose you can avoid disclosing the psychologist part at least? It would be awkward springing on the average airplane acqaintance something like: "I don't feel comfortable discussing that" or "I wonder why you would ask that question."

One time at a small comedy club, during the week when the crowd was scant, but the spirits were flowing, my wife had the great idea of volunteering to the stand-up guy that I did ECT. "Honey, can we go home now?"

Anonymous said...

Mrs. S. was drinking, wasn't she.

I met Mrs. X at a gym. We spoke for the first time after a month or so of flirtation at a distance. She was fine with me being a psychologist, but she had previously been involved with a CSW. What really gave me a laugh is that, prior to the first time we spoke, she thought I might be an iron worker or a plumber.

Mrs. X is an actress and, generally, people in her world are pretty comfortable with what I do. Nonetheless, she knows that I prefer that she not gratuitously mention my occupation to strangers at cocktail parties.

I can't even imagine what it would be like to have someone announce, in a comedy club, that you do ECT! Enough material there for the rest of the show.

Anonymous said...

Your post title reminded me of an Incident long ago when I started working with my first analyst. I thought I was being clever calling therapy Shrinkage. That was the only time I ever saw her get truly angry ...

Retriever said...

Back when I was a chaplain, and first engaged to my spouse (then an investment banker) I would do anything to avoid people at parties finding out what I did. My fiance and I had been fixed up by relatives who had known each other 60 years. He had fallen for me despite my asking him, Savanarola-ish, why he wanted to work in such a scummy den of thieves. At the parties, everyone would start making excuses to me for why they didn't go to church or temple any more, but avowing how they really were very spiritual, etc. I am convinced that my profession seriously hurt my husband's career eventually as it was something of an interesting and odd tidbit that people tended to remember. Not one calculated to make the other pirates pick one for the next raid....

Anonymous said...

You know those types of unashamedly imposing people that at the first whiff of being acquainted with a professional of some sort (doctors, dentists & lawyers in particular) at a dinner party or whatever, will feel the uncontrollable urge to give vent to every vexing personal issue they may be currently in a dither about regarding the field in question - and then expect an impromptu free consultation there and then? I don't suppose divulging psychiatry as your profession attracts the same enthusiasm... 'I was just wondering--if it's not too much trouble--could you have a look at these bizarre thought processes I've been having of late, and these really odd fixations!...oh, please tell me I'm normal!..' No, I don't think so...

I would suspect that when people discover what you do they become instantly anxious about tucking in all those frilly unsightly frayed bits protruding from their psyches...a bit like the awkward self-consciousness, and maybe a little embarrassment, that excessively tidy & over-groomed people elicit when in juxtaposition to the more unkempt ferrel breed of personages that dare go about untucked/unmasked...ha! the horror!

Novalis said...

Shhh, put that id back were it belongs...

Anonymous said...

My ID stays hidden...along with my secret Billy Joel obsession - oh f#@!, it's out now (SSHHh, don't tell anyone..)

Pam M.S. MD said...

Clarification of comment about being married to a psychiatrist...
What's it like being married to a psychiatrist?
It's like being married to any other clueless man (with regard to the delicate understanding of a woman's feelings).
Another common question, "Doesn't he try to psychoanalyze you?"
Answer: No, well, let me rephrase that, "Hell, no".
You know I love you dear.
At the end of a long day, a psychiatrist is brain dead of psychoanalyzing...
At the comedy club Mrs. Dr. S was drinking, but this is not a prerequisite to making humor of Novalis, which is great fun to Mrs. S., which I'm sure no one will find shocking (get it, ECT, shocking).
Novalis continues with his intellectual banter as his wife watches reality t.v. and reads tabloids, and ponders all the blood and gore that I experience and think what a shame Novalis is a psychiatrist and he misses out on these gems of experiences.