Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Andrew Sullivan Overdoses on Therapy

A year or so ago Andrew Sullivan shut down his blog. One of the first and surely one of the most successful bloggers was hanging it up. He had had enough.

Many people speculated about the reasons. Sullivan had been diagnosed with HIV, so the easiest explanation was that he was ill. It was true and false. It turns out that Sullivan had become an addict. He was not addicted to some banned substance. He was addicted to the internet, to the online world of bits and bytes, to the gadgets that streamed data into his mind all of the time. He was suffering from distraction and the distraction had been making him physically ill. It had alienated him from friends and family. He had become enslaved by the internet.
It was so bad, he tells us in New York Magazine, that he went on a meditation retreat in Massachusetts, the better to go cold turkey from his digital masters. All of this makes some sense. Perhaps it makes too much sense.

He writes:

A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

And his addiction was wrecking his health:

In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

What’s wrong with this picture?

Simply put, in terms that everyone will understand, if an alcoholic tells you that the fault for his addiction lies in Demon Rum you will quickly see that he is denying any responsibility for his own behavior. It’s easier to blame Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs than it is to blame Andrew Sullivan. Better yet, it is easier to blame technogadgets than it is to blame the therapist Sullivan was seeing for some twenty years.

With merely his own information to guide us we learn that during the entirety of the time that Sullivan was becoming addicted, he was in treatment, in psychotherapy, with someone who has mercifully not been named. I note, with no special pleasure, that I have occasionally commented on Sullivan’s views on various topics and have found them disconcerting. I wondered how it could happen that so fine a writer and so astute an intelligence could have gotten caught up in the other birther conspiracy tale—the one in which Sarah Palin’s Down syndrome son had really been the child of Palin’s daughter, Bristol. It was a crackpot idea, unworthy of Andrew Sullivan. In time, I concluded that Sullivan had probably overdosed on therapy. He did not know when he had had enough therapy. I recognized the signs and the symptoms. Now, it turns out that I was right.

More right than I imagined. Not only did Sullivan overdose on therapy, but he learned the fundamental dodge that lies at the basis of any and all therapy that has any of its roots in the arid soil of Freudian thought. In blaming the internet and the gadgets for his addiction, he not only evades all personal responsibility for his behavior, but he says nary a word about the possible responsibility of the person who had been caring for his mental well-being for two decades. If psychoanalysis, as Peter Medawar noted, is one of the greatest confidence tricks of our time, one of therapists' greatest achievements is to evade all responsibility for the outcomes of their work. Happily Sullivan did not, as many long term patients have, end up in rehab, but he was certainly a wreck of a man. And he will continue to be so until he overcomes the tendency to blame it all on forces outside of his and his therapist’s control.

For the case of one man who did end up in a psychiatric clinic, see this post.

Sullivan was addicted to therapy. He allowed it to take over his mind, to push him back into his childhood, to mire him in the past, but to compensate by providing him with Wordsworthian epiphanies. If anything will get you out of your life and away from your friends, it is the enjoyment you gain from these mental spasms.

While hiking through the woods, he recalled his childhood:

I was a lonely boy who spent many hours outside in the copses and woodlands of my native Sussex, in England. I had explored this landscape with friends, but also alone — playing imaginary scenarios in my head, creating little nooks where I could hang and sometimes read, learning every little pathway through the woods and marking each flower or weed or fungus that I stumbled on. But I was also escaping a home where my mother had collapsed with bipolar disorder after the birth of my younger brother and had never really recovered. She was in and out of hospitals for much of my youth and adolescence, and her condition made it hard for her to hide her pain and suffering from her sensitive oldest son.

To him, this explained everything. It did not, dare I say, repair any of his relationships, but it made all of those years of therapy appear to be worthwhile. In therapy, that is the point:

I absorbed a lot of her agony, I came to realize later, hearing her screams of frustration and misery in constant, terrifying fights with my father, and never knowing how to stop it or to help. I remember watching her dissolve in tears in the car picking me up from elementary school at the thought of returning to a home she clearly dreaded, or holding her as she poured her heart out to me, through sobs and whispers, about her dead-end life in a small town where she was utterly dependent on a spouse. She was taken away from me several times in my childhood, starting when I was 4, and even now I can recall the corridors and rooms of the institutions she was treated in when we went to visit.

For all the time he had spent in therapy, for all of the pseudo-understanding of what had made him as he was, the result was that he was alienated from other human beings, to the point where he no longer recognized his own humanity.

Another triumph for therapy:

I knew the scar tissue from this formative trauma was still in my soul. I had spent two decades in therapy, untangling and exploring it, learning how it had made intimacy with others so frightening, how it had made my own spasms of adolescent depression even more acute, how living with that kind of pain from the most powerful source of love in my life had made me the profoundly broken vessel I am. But I had never felt it so vividly since the very years it had first engulfed and defined me. It was as if, having slowly and progressively removed every distraction from my life, I was suddenly faced with what I had been distracting myself from. Resting for a moment against the trunk of a tree, I stopped, and suddenly found myself bent over, convulsed with the newly present pain, sobbing.

In therapy, this is called a breakthrough. One suspects that it is not the only one that Sullivan had experienced in his two decades on the couch. One cannot but emphasize that it left him hollowed out, a shell of a man.

One might imagine that therapy, with its relentless pursuit of the past, would alienate you from the present. One would be right to think so. But, since therapy taught Sullivan to focus relentlessly on the past, it produced a habit of thought whereby he, in his effort to relieve both him and his therapist of responsibility, blames technology, blames the Protestant Reformation, blames the scientific revolution, and blames the Industrial Revolution.

He is not the first modern Luddite, but he takes up the reactionary cause valiantly:

Since the invention of the printing press, every new revolution in information technology has prompted apocalyptic fears. From the panic that easy access to the vernacular English Bible would destroy Christian orthodoxy all the way to the revulsion, in the 1950s, at the barbaric young medium of television, cultural critics have moaned and wailed at every turn. Each shift represented a further fracturing of attention — continuing up to the previously unimaginable kaleidoscope of cable TV in the late-20th century and the now infinite, infinitely multiplying spaces of the web. And yet society has always managed to adapt and adjust, without obvious damage, and with some more-than-obvious progress. So it’s perhaps too easy to view this new era of mass distraction as something newly dystopian.

Don’t you also wallow in nostalgia for the old days when people made things by hand? The days when people could make a chair or a table or their clothing by themselves. The days when they grew their own food and lived in a quiet pastoral community, the kind that Wordsworth longed for, but only found in a field of daffodils.

And, don’t you miss the days when children often died in infancy, when life expectancy was around 50, when people commonly died of famine and plagues? I am sure that you do. I am even more sure that you can see through the ruse. True enough, industrialization and modern technology has exacted a price—because life is about trade-offs—but it has also provided benefits. People who are depressed only see what we have lost. Apparently, Sullivan did not learn balanced thinking in his therapy.

He continues:

GPS, for example, is a godsend for finding our way around places we don’t know. But, as Nicholas Carr has noted, it has led to our not even seeing, let alone remembering, the details of our environment, to our not developing the accumulated memories that give us a sense of place and control over what we once called ordinary life. The writer Matthew Crawford has examined how automation and online living have sharply eroded the number of people physically making things, using their own hands and eyes and bodies to craft, say, a wooden chair or a piece of clothing or, in one of Crawford’s more engrossing case studies, a pipe organ. We became who we are as a species by mastering tools, making them a living, evolving extension of our whole bodies and minds. What first seems tedious and repetitive develops into a skill — and a skill is what gives us humans self-esteem and mutual respect.

Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.

So, naturally he launches a riff on the badness of capitalism:

Indeed, the modest mastery of our practical lives is what fulfilled us for tens of thousands of years — until technology and capitalism decided it was entirely dispensable. If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.

Sullivan does understand that the advent of industrialism and capitalism has damaged faith, has torn people away from their spiritual roots and has alienated them from their religions. Perhaps this was inevitable. Perhaps it was not. Keep in mind that the marketplace of ideas has been flooded with atheist tracts, the kinds that have called religion an opiate for the masses and that have assaulted it at every turn. For what it’s worth, Sullivan quotes prominent atheist Sam Harris as one of his friends-in-meditation. He might have seen that Harris is, intellectually speaking, a hack.

Sullivan does not blame the modern atheists. He does not blame Marx and Co. He blames modernity and capitalism:

And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

The English Reformation began, one recalls, with an assault on the monasteries, and what silence the Protestants didn’t banish the philosophers of the Enlightenment mocked. Gibbon and Voltaire defined the Enlightenment’s posture toward the monkish: from condescension to outright contempt. The roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution violated what quiet still remained until modern capitalism made business central to our culture and the ever-more efficient meeting of needs and wants our primary collective goal. We became a civilization of getting things done — with the development of America, in some ways, as its crowning achievement. Silence in modernity became, over the centuries, an anachronism, even a symbol of the useless superstitions we had left behind. The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.

He will recover his senses and his humanity when he accepts his own responsibility for his addiction and understands how his therapy contributed to it.


Trigger Warning said...

Interesting conjunction of posts - i.e., Sullivan in therapy and intellectual idiots.

The Greek root of the word "idiot" is idiṓtēs, properly defined as "of one's own self".

An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs. [Wiki]

Could there be any greater correspondence than the one between the compulsive navel-gazing of psychotherapy and the self-referential mewlings of Andrew Sullivan? Idiṓtēs on parade. I recall, from an undergraduate galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, watching three films illustrating the differential methods of Albert Ellis, Carl Rogers, and Fritz Perls. I know what I was supposed to take away from those films, but what I actually took away was a realization that professional psychotherapists, at least in the 70's, could not have survived without professional patients. Gloria, the objet trouvé for the manful strivings of Ellis, Rogers and Perls, was a professional patient.

There is a basic principle of signal processing: information, once filtered, cannot be restored. And when one's filter is focused on the personal, every nook and cranny of life becomes another opportunity for personalizing everything. So we go from the "phrase "the personal is political" to a demand for an apology from a black Dallas county commissioner for another's use of the phrase "black hole" describing the process of traffic ticket payments. And there are no greater exemplars of this than the Clintons. See "For Clinton, the Personal Is Political at Summit" (NYT, 2000) or gaze upon the Clinton's Ozymandias "foundation".

Give it up, folks. The die has been cast. The only way out of this idiocy is renewal following collapse. Don't believe me? Read this...

Sam L. said...

I see little hope for him. Maybe some day, but certainly not soon, and especially if Trump is elected. If that occurs, I see RELAPSE, RELAPSE, RELAPSE.

Anonymous said...

I've admired AS since he arrived here. A 20-ish Brit wunderkind who started at the top. Editor of venerable "The New Republic".

He changed radically since affliction w/AIDS. Myriad meds saved his life. I'm sure they, and his incurable infirmity, affected his psyche.

As I never tire of intoning, Homo Sapiens is a fractured species. Part animal, part human. The dichotomy is sempiternally torturous.

We've needed Shamans and their successors forever. I've had several since my teens.

I empathize with his current Distemper. As a Speechwriter for 20 years, I studied & wrote 7 days a week.

I eventually Burned Out. I'll NEVER write another Speech. So help me God (if there IS a Supreme Being).

Introspection is Feckless Self Torture. None of my Therapists recommended it.

Thus, I depart. Chastened. -- Rich Lara

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: He will recover his senses and his humanity when he accepts his own responsibility for his addiction and understands how his therapy contributed to it.

We don't have to wish to go back to the good old days of 20% childhood mortality, in order to recognize there are upsides and downsides of modernity. It doesn't have to be one or the other, but the clear answer is that experience with power teaches us about the excesses of power, and the need to set limits on our own appetites for it. This is hard, and there's good reason to "blame the world" for a while for its downsides before finding a middle ground.

And as civilization has advanced over the centuries, things have largely changed slowly, and individually and collectively we find the way things fail or overwhelm our good sense, and we can develop ideals and good habits to benefit from the upsides of the new, while avoiding the downsides.

But now to the internet, and the 24-hour mental stimulation world, as a society we don't have 100 years of experience to this new world. In fact we have the opposite of experience. We have ever-expanding novelty that is sufficient that it could be possible to distract yourself completely from anything that is bothering you for your entire life. And its not clear how we should compare these modern addictions to older ones like drugs or alcohol.

The American writer Wendell Berry once wrote an essay called "Why I'm not going to buy a computer", and he attempted a set of criteria to consider for new technology:
Oh, here it is:
To make myself as plain as I can, I should give my standards for technological innovation in my own work. They are as follows:-
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

So that caution risks quite a bit of Stuart's attempt to divided the world between an inferior past, and a superior present or future to be claimed. And its easy enough to call such attempts as being a luddite and if we all did that suddenly all knowledge of basic sanitation and germ theory would be forgotten and we'd go back to dying at age 48 without any teeth.

And anyone who tried to set limits on the technical world, justifying those limits based on addictions that arose from that world, we could say he's not taking personal responsibility, and just blaming the world. And I suppose a person who wants to take away other people's technology would be doing that.

Anyway, I imagine if civilization makes it another 50 years, and new technology somehow levels out, so we stop craving something new every year, that all the ways technology can "overwhelm our good sense" will be recognized and social structures will arise to help children and young adults manage all the vast knowledge and power available, without becoming a slave to it.

But for now we're all over our heads, however much we take responsibility for that. Power corrupts, and we live above kings, and its no wonder we don't know our own limits until its too late, and we might accidentally overstep our case against the world at times as we step back to a saner place.

Webutante said...

What a great post, Stuart.

Since I and so many of my peers are children of a therapy generation, I look back on most of it, long, long ago, also as sheer nonsense. Anytime we enter a modality that takes us back ad naseaum to the past and also into our lower limbic (reptilian) brains of feelings, there simply is little way out and back up into clear and creative thinking.

Long-term therapy is like eating sugar and just as devastating. It breeds even greater dysfunction in the present, including not taking responsibility for our actions---how can lizards in fight, flight mode take any responsibility, confront their own silliness or respond to conflict creatively?

I do think occasional work can be helpful---like Byron Katie's The Work---which is designed to bust up some of those destructive thought-forms driving unhappiness and keeping us enslaved.

It was never what Sullivan experienced as a child. It is always and forever the painful thought-forms he and his therapist constructed to help him 'cope.' I've watched my own adult daughter get mired down in too much therapy and believe me, it's not pretty and also the world's biggest bore.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

I've never understood what was compelling about Andrew Sullivan. He's more of the same. And I certainly have never understood why he was/is considered "conservative." I guess he is if you believe David Brooks is "conservative."

Sullivan's "awakening" sounds like more dreaming. Enjoy, Andrew. I wish you the best.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"He will recover his senses and his humanity when he accepts his own responsibility for his addiction and understands how his therapy contributed to it."

Nothing truer said. He's bought into the therapy culture completely. The problem is "out there." It's someone else's fault.

As for societies adjusting to change, I assert we have not adjusted to the impact of the Glowing Box. We have not separated ourselves from pixelated fantasy. In fact, it seems to be getting worse as luminous devices proliferate.