Tuesday, April 27, 2010

We're All Going To Die


I heard Irvin Yalom speak today. He's a psychiatrist/writer/ very famous shrink at Stanford, and he was at Johns Hopkins today to give the Jerome Frank lecture. The title of his talk was "Staring at The Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death." It's also the title of his latest book. The auditorium was packed---no surprise here. When I heard Dr. Yalom was coming, maybe a month ago, I made a point to block off the time to be there-- I've never heard him speak and I was looking forward to this. Please let me share the experience with you.

Dr. Yalom is a gifted writer. He writes about his work in colorful and accessible ways, and he speaks about it this way as well. He lectures an audience of hundreds as though he is talking to a single friend. No notes, no hesitation, and he seems so at ease as he talks openly about work that is quite intimate. His specialties are group psychotherapy and existential psychotherapy, and he classifies the existential issues as death, isolation, freedom (as in freedom to make decisions and to steer the course of one's life, not political freedom), and meaning. "We are unfortunately meaning-seeking creatures heralded into a universe that has no meaning." Now he tells me!

Dr. Yalom started by talking about Dr. Jerome Frank (for whom the lecture is titled)--one of his mentors --and talked about a poignant visit with him near the end of Dr. Frank's life. Dr. Frank was also one of my psychotherapy supervisors, perhaps at a time in my training when I took such things for granted and had no true appreciation of what an amazing gift it was to be his student. Dr. Yalom talked about his memories, and I revisited my own.

Dr. Yalom talked about his own psychotherapy experiences: his three years in psychoanalysis in Baltimore "There was so much attention to the distant past and so little to the future and our death." Later in life, in California, he spent two years in therapy with Rollo May.

Death anxiety, Yalom contends, is an issue for many people--one patients won't necessarily bring up on their own, one they avoid if they sense the therapist is uncomfortable, one that, indeed, makes therapists uneasy as they, too, have their own death anxiety to face. Perhaps it's easier to avoid the topic; after all, there's nothing to do about it. We're all going to die. The therapist, he says, has a role in discussing death, and therapy can diminish the anxiety.

He talked a little about his work with cancer patients and how facing death can have a transforming effect; people get a better sense of priorities. "What a pity I had to wait until now to learn how to live," one dying patient told Dr. Yalom.

By far, the most interesting parts of the talk were when Yalom talked about specific examples of his own work with patients and the interactions that transpired. He talked about a patient--a psychotherapist--- who asked him about his own death anxiety (he responded) and who talked about his concerns about how Dr. Yalom might judge him. One nice thing about being Irvin Yalom is that you can get up in front of an audience of hundreds and talk openly about your work, boundary violations and all. He ended with the statement, "To become wise, you must listen to the wild dogs barking in your cellar." --a version of a quote by Nietzsche. I'm still thinking about that one.

It's been a while since I've heard a lecture like this. We've become so focused on psychiatry as the treatment of illnesses, of which drug at what dose, for how long, or which type of psychotherapy, and certainly we assume that what goes on in therapy includes talking about issues that having meaning to patients--including things that evoke anxiety, and the nuances of life that include meaning. We know we talk about these things behind closed doors--but we don't often talk about the process of such transactions.