12 March 2004

The days of wine and neuroses

Cybershrink writes about wine, psychotherapy and dining with Freud.

Recently, I had an odd experience of some sort of celebrity, and it seemed to me the questions I was asked deserved a slightly longer treatment. I received a call from a journalist who is starting a new column in a Sunday newspaper magazine, within its wine column section. He explained to me that each time they would interview "a prominent celebrity like yourself" (!), asking three questions with some link to wine, and, fitting all three into 400 words, this would allow 130 words to each celebrity for the answers.

Prominent celebrity? I must have missed the celebrations, but given my weight and figure, perhaps prominence would constitute fair comment. If there was any celebration, I must have missed it.

The challenge of coming up with even halfway sensible answers within such severe space constraints was considerable. Most viewers and browsers will be too young to remember the lost art of writing a telegram, in the days when this was the only possible way to send urgent messages, and you were charged by the word. The terseness this forced on you could lead to misunderstanding.

I rather liked the story of a magazine reporter who was writing a story about the then Hollywood superstar Cary Grant, who suddenly realized she didn't know his age. She dashed off a sudden telegram to his press agent: " How old Cary Grant? " Grant himself happened to receive the telegram, and immediately responded: " Old Cary Grant fine: how you? "

Bizarre questions and misunderstandings
Anyway, let's look at slightly greater length at the three questions I confronted. The second was: "As resident psychiatrist on M-Web's Internet site, which is the most bizarre question you've had?" My answer was: "The most bizarre question yet? Yours. Otherwise I generally deal with normal people with interesting normal problems."

Many people have odd ideas about what psychiatrists and psychologists actually do. Folks sidle up to us at parties and say things like: "I suppose you're just standing there, analyzing me and reading my mind?" And, usually, I hadn't even been aware that they had one. (Mind, that is). Mind-reading is not part of our repertoire. Of course, between our training and experience, we may be more acute than others in listening not only to what someone says, but also to what they are not saying; and more sensitive to understanding non-verbal communication.

Within psychotherapy, such processes of listening at many levels to what is being communicated can be significant and useful. But when we go to the supermarket, often we're only buying a loaf of bread, rather than analyzing why the guy re-filling the shelves chose to start with the frozen cauliflower. As Freud is reputed to have said when someone was hounding him about the symbolic meanings of this and that (probably he didn't, but he should have): Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The weird and the crazy
Another popular misconception is that we deal exclusively with weird, crazy, "mad" people. In fact, most of those I encounter seem to be driving on the M1 in Mercedes, BMW's or Camry's. While we do have the skills to work with people who are deeply disordered, those situations are mainly sad rather than dramatic or exotic, and the great majority of the people we work with are normal folks with one or more of the normal range of normal, common, and troublesome problems in living. Contrary to the cartoonists' fantasies, we rarely encounter people who think they are Napoleon, or Jesus (though I did once treat a lad from Cambridge who sincerely thought he was Christ, and for whom, when we came to understand the situation, Napoleon had come close to being the chosen personation).

There's a fascinating old book, now hard to find, by Milton Rokeach, called "The Three Christs of Ypsilanti", about what happened when in the 50s / 60s he found in the same large mental hospital, three men who were convinced they were Christ, and what happened when they met each other.

Anyhow, it is important to recognize that the wide range of mental disorders are very common sources of alarm and misery in the community, and that most people affected are basically people just like you or I, only sometimes a little more so. We all have a normal level of blood sugar that varies under a system of control, but some people have diabetes, and lose the ability to control that one out of the myriads of aspects of their normalcy. Similarly, we all have moods that include sadness, fear and anxiety, the need to check things and make sure they are all-right, ways of checking whether our current perception of the outside world is reasonably accurate, and so on.

At times, in one or more of these areas of life in which we normally range within certain boundaries of the usual, any of us may lose part of our usual degree of control of these functions, and experience the discomforts of the outer reaches of their potential range. Fear of being thought weird or strange, by friends, family, or even by ourselves, mustn't be allowed to prevent us from seeking competent advice in such situations.

Back to wine
The first question the newspaper asked, was: " Your article on 'The Open Zipper Syndrome' looks at sex in the Oval Office and other high places. Is there a link between libido and vino? " This raises a widely relevant issue we should consider. My brief answer was as follows: " Wine is a pleasant-tasting source of alcohol, which depresses brain functions, starting with its more elegant features, like inhibitions, conscience, and judgement. Initially relaxing these, it can enhance libido, but it's tricky to get the dose right. A little more, and it significantly impairs performance: physically, by reducing your sensitivity to your partner, and by letting you unrealistically over-estimate your irresistability. "

Shakespeare commented wisely on this matter in his Macbeth. MacDuff asks: " What three things does drink especially provoke?" Porter answers : "Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes : it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off ; it persuades him and disheartens him; makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him."

Frankly, a modern pharmacologist couldn't answer much better (though he'd probably use too many graphs to explain himself). Nose-painting ? Yes, devoted alcoholics can develop a nasal bloom to match any Cabernet, although there are other causes of raspberry noses, so don't jump to conclusions! Sleep is provoked by alcohol, but isn't a useful self-treatment for insomnia, as you bounce back awake in the early hours, unpleasantly alert. Urine as a side-effect is surely everyone's experience. And as to lechery, "it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance." As a cause for episodes of impotence, it is most effective. And once one starts anticipating further such episodes, a self-fulfilling prophecy often sets in, making what you fear will happen, more likely to happen.

Lunching with Freud
The third question was: " If Freud were lunching with you today, what wine would you pour? " My short reply was: " Sigmund was hardly a fun person, and didn't say much about wine. He did mention "an exquisite vintage of Moselle", an Orvieto white, and he even recalled "a merry moment" with "the excellent Istrian wine in Aquileia". But these aren't very available at my local wine merchant. To celebrate such a resurrection, I'd open a sublime champagne: Veuve Cliquot, La Grande Dame. " (The Freudian quotes, by the way, are from his Interpretation of Dreams".)

The reporter called back to ask me which year or vintage of Veuve Cliquot I would prefer. I said that at its usual prices, I'd be lucky to acquire any vintage, and in my limited experience, I haven't met a bad one yet. As an alternative, I thought, for a wine resembling one Freud might have met, they have recently recreated an almost legendary early South African Constantia wine that was once popular with international notables, and we could try the Klein Constantia Vin de Constance. Maybe others could suggest a more suitable wine?

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