Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Adult Separation Anxiety

In the psychiatric lexicon, a child experiences separation anxiety when he first goes off to school. He cries because he misses his mother. He cries because he finds himself in  unfamiliar circumstances, with strange new people in a strange new place.

Most children get over their separation anxiety with little difficulty.

So, one is surprised to read about a 51 year old man who nearly had a nervous breakdown when his wife went off on a two week cruise with her best friend.

Elizabeth Bernstein describes his emotional meltdown:

Last week, when his wife left home for a two-week cruise with her best friend, Robert Sollars stocked up on hamburger meat and peanut butter, then settled into a weekend of football on cable TV. And he cried.

Mr. Sollars, 51 years old, who owns a workplace-security consulting firm in Mesa, Ariz., hates being away from his wife—even when she is just going to work, as an intensive-care nurse on the night shift at a local hospital. When she is away for a longer stretch, Mr. Sollars feels nauseated and finds it hard to concentrate.

As his wife packed for vacation, he hovered anxiously. She eventually snapped, and they argued for hours, he says. That night, after she'd gone to the airport, Mr. Sollars couldn't sleep. Among his thoughts: She will have a car accident. She will get sick or hurt. She will find someone else. "I firmly believe that my worry is based in fantasy land," Mr. Sollars says. "But I am still deathly afraid of losing the woman I love."

One is tempted to tell him to stop acting like a child. One is tempted to tell him to suck it up. One has trouble understanding why he would share his emotional vulnerability with the world entire.

If he wants to make a complete fool of himself over his wife’s two week absence, at least he should have enough self-respect to keep it to himself.

What happened to his manly pride?

Psychologists explain it by referring to the man’s experience of separation anxiety in his childhood.

I am not convinced. Most people learn to put away the toys of childhood when they become adults. This man is 51….

Bernstein offers another explanation. Thanks to modern communications we are all so hyperconnected that we have forgotten how to deal with disconnection.

Perhaps there is some truth to the point, though I find it difficult to blame the iPhone for everything that is wrong in the culture.

What really needs explaining is this man’s willingness to expose his weakness and vulnerability to the world. He did not even ask to hide behind the veil of anonymity.

If he chose to display it all in public that must mean that he was, in some way, proud of his reaction. He has apparently embraced  the therapy culture, and has learned that it’s good mental hygiene to get in touch with your feelings and to display them, shamelessly, in public.

We should be asking whether his pride in his emotional incontinence is one of the reasons why he does not even try to maintain a stiff upper lip.

Like it or not, Sollars is in touch with his feelings and is giving them full expression. Isn’t that what the therapy culture prescribes?

So far, so good.

But then, Bernstein observes the following about Mr. Sollars:

His separation anxiety worsened a few years ago. He has diabetes and lost his eyesight; his wife had knee surgery and a procedure to correct a throat stricture. Now, Mr. Sollars is troubled by thoughts of becoming a burden to her. To distract himself while she is away, he plans to work on a book he is writing about preventing workplace violence.

I am puzzled by the fact that a man who has lost his eyesight was planning, in Bernstein’s first paragraph, on spending the weekend watching football on cable TV. I accept that he might be dictating, instead of literally writing his book, but still, his health issues surely have something to do with his not wanting to be left home alone.

Then again, if he is blind or if his vision is impaired, then he should hire a live-in caretaker. The man owns a consulting firm; he can probably afford it.

Somehow he has learned to avoid practical solutions in favor of childish emotional outbursts.


Anonymous said...

This is not vulnerability, which, when used judiciously, is an attractive trait. This goes beyond the normal emotional exhibitionism we see in social media and on therapy talk shows. This condition is best described as lugubriousness. It's over the top. This dismal man is willing to sacrifice his dignity while gaining nothing, save pity... which isn't much of a consolation. Absent any boundaries, I suppose there's no self to respect. Big egos can be annoying, but no ego is equally troubling.

The Bernstein piece is also indicative of what the media covers. It is an exaggeration. We take great interest in the odd among us. If such a condition were normal, it would not appear in the columns of a national newspaper like the WSJ. Thank God for small wins.

It is ironic that his wife is an intensive care nurse. Gives new meaning to the term "intensive care," and a whole new meaning to full-time work. I cannot begin to imagine why this woman wants to go out to sea for two weeks.

I imagine his solution to workplace violence is for everyone to share their feelings. Wow... there's a new idea.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, as always, Tip.

I was trying to use the word "vulnerability" ironically... apparently unsuccessfully.

Good point about the "intensive care" nurse... and wouldn't that mean that she would have good contacts in the field to care for her husband who may or may not be blind?

Anonymous said...

I don't know, Stuart, but I'm pretty clear on why this woman is going on vacation at sea with her best friend and not her husband. She's looking for a vacation, for goodness sake!

And I got the irony with vulnerability. I just thought lugubriousness represented an accurate upgrade, literally, for this man's self-imposed circumstances.


David W. Rankin Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David W. Rankin Jr. said...

My grandmother was legally and functionally blind outside of her home(side-effects of strokes), but still could see enough to live in her house alone. Perhaps Mr. Sollars is like this, legally blind but still functional.

That said, the separation anxiety that both people in Ms. Bernstein's article are showing clearly show underlying problems needing fixing. It's interesting that both people in the article at least know they have a problem, but Ms. Bernstein only gives space to describe Ms. Alvarez's coping mechanisms.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, KP, for clarifying the point. I assumed that there was some explanation for the confusion. I do wonder whether someone who is legally blind would be spending the weekend watching football on cable?

Also, if someone is legally blind and has established a number of routines that involve another person, he might feel especially anxious if that person goes on vacation.

I certainly agree with Tip that his wife does need a vacation.

I still don't know why they didn't hire a caretaker for him???

adult psychology said...

mostly adults now a days have a different attitudes that we barely cannot understand..they have some tantrums that its so hard to understand and we cannot easily get what they really want, they easily get mad which made us mad also.but we need to adjust for we know that its hard to dealt with them.

JP said...

When I do things like this guy did, I'm generally trying to humiliate myself on purpose.

JP said...

Oh, and with respect to the "legally blind" issue, I have to deal with this all the time.

Legally blind isn't really blind. If you want to see blind, look at the Social Security definition of blindness.

He's got retinopathy and can probably see just fine to watch TV.

That's blind.