Like many others in late 1980s Manhattan, David Payne underwent psychodynamic psychotherapy. A novelist by trade, Payne describes the experience well:
I first entered individual therapy in the late 1980s, in Manhattan. Once a week for six years I strolled happily northward up Columbus Avenue from my apartment to my therapist’s office in the West 90s. Our sessions were a high point of my week. And why not? I got 50 minutes of undivided attention from a smart, empathetic professional, there to help me find out who I was and to address the old malaise that brought me to her door. “Narcissistic injury,” I learned to call it.
My therapist helped me understand how and where the early breakdown in parental “mirroring” had occurred that led to my condition. I felt I was on an important adventure with her. Like a skilled research librarian, she led me into the stacks of my past and pointed out key scrolls and papyri, helped me translate them from the primitive language of feeling into words and conscious understanding. By the time I left, I felt I’d begun to gain a modest erudition.
If therapy is about gaining understanding and insight, Payne acquired his share of both. If therapy is about learning how to speak the language of therapy, Payne succeeded. Unfortunately, when it came to real results, changes in his behavior, therapy was unsuccessful.
In Payne’s words:
I entered individual therapy as a problem drinker in denial of my problematic drinking; six years later, when I left, that hadn’t changed. I also entered therapy in a fraught long-term romantic relationship, unhappy with my partner; six years later, I had gained few intimacy skills and never seriously asked myself whether my partner and I were capable of healthy intimacy, or even if we wanted it. When I left therapy, we were engaged.
If education is the litmus test of effective therapy, I’d count those years a rich success. It isn’t, though. I now believe the proper litmus test is change, and I can’t point to a single meaningful and measurable change that eventuated from the work I did.
It was not, as I explained in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, an accident that psychoanalysis and its attendant therapies never really promoted themselves as able to treat or to cure mental illness. At best, they offered access to knowledge. They said that insight and understanding would allow the patient to improve his life, but, if it did not, it was not therapy’s problem.
Years later, Payne was living in North Carolina with his wife and two young children. He was still an alcoholic and he was miserably unhappy. Having had his fill of individual therapy, he decided to try group.
Here he recounts how members of the group called him out on his behaviors in ways that his congenial Upper West Side therapist never did:
I’d be telling a story and someone would chime in: What you did with your wife in that instance sounds like what your mother or your father used to do to you. I’d listen, blink, resume my story. Five minutes later, wrapping up, I’d say: “And you know what suddenly strikes me? I think what I did with my wife in this instance is what my mother or my father used to do with me.” And the offended party would say: “I just said that! You erased me!”
It wasn’t that I was pretending not to have heard. I genuinely had no recollection. Only when the group prevailed on me to tape record and listen to the sessions did I realize they were right. There they were, making their points; there I was, slightly later, repeating what they’d said verbatim, with no awareness. Zero. It was mind-boggling: Why did I erase them and their comments, especially the helpful ones?
For my part I do not think that the insight was crucial. The notion that he did to his wife what a parent did to him is frankly a banality. More interesting was the fact that he repeated someone else’s insight as though it was his own. He had, frankly, plagiarized it… without knowing that he was doing so.
Someone will be thinking that the habit might have signaled a neurological deficit—Payne was an alcoholic at the time—but still it signals a shift from introspection to taking what AA calls a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself. (If, perchance, the habit reflected a neurological problem, it might not have existed during the time he was working with his therapist in New York. But then, even if it had, his therapist might have addressed it by seeking out a childhood cause.)
The therapists in the North Carolina group also tried to undermine the narrative that Payne had been taking for his truth:
The group members, in their frank interactions with me, brought me face to face with my worst habits. The therapists would say things to me like: “Of course, it’s easier to tell yourself the story that you want closeness because you’re a good intimacy-wanting person and your wife doesn’t want closeness because she’s a bad intimacy-avoidant person. And as long as you tell yourself that, you can avoid looking at the deeper issues. Is a marriage with no real desire for closeness a marriage you want to stay in? You can always choose that. It’s just better to know the truth and choose instead of lying to yourself and staying passive.”
For whatever reason, the group therapy worked for him. It got him to sober up, which is no small achievement:
After 18 months in group therapy, I once again poured out my vodka in the yard. Since this was the 10th or 15th time I’d done it, I had no confidence I’d succeed. Yet this time it worked. I have been sober ever since. And there it was: a meaningful and measurable change as a result of therapy, the first.
By my calculation, this means that Payne has been sober for around ten years now.
Moreover, group therapy caused him to get out of his mind and back into his life. He did not like what he found, so he took steps to get on a better path:
When I left individual therapy, I was someone who chose to stay in an unhappy relationship rather than leave and risk aloneness. By 2010, six years into group therapy, I was someone else. By then, staying in an unhappy relationship had come to seem a form of self-erasure, and so I left my marriage, passing from a world that seemed full of people like me, in bad marriages and relationships, and entering a different one, a world filled with people who had found happy and sustaining love, which in time I found, too.
Payne is quite correct to compare and contrast therapy that worked and therapy that did not. Obviously, not all individual therapy resembles the psychodynamic treatment that he received in New York. And there are so many variations in the practice of group therapy that it would be foolhardy to say that it works consistently.
Part of it was that having nine different mirrors reflect back my problematic behavior brought into brilliant and incontrovertible light what I had been able to avoid confronting in a one-on-one exchange. Individual therapy also encouraged me to focus on the past, the injuries I’d received in childhood; group therapy forced me to see who I was now, the sometimes injurious adult I had become. For me, that was the bitter pill that led to change.
Apparently, an obsessive interest in the past was counterproductive, but seeing how you look to others produced meaningful change. It should not be too much of a surprise. Psychodynamic therapy focuses on guilt; Payne’s group therapy was controlled shaming.