A patient I have seen in my office off and on for a number of years told me of a disturbing experience he had had on Christmas. I diagnosed his problem. He had a love problem. I see a lot of people with love problems. And I am not talking about relationships, at least not for the most part. I am talking about the love problems that we all have every day, problems that turn into anxiety, depression, anger, addictions, and avoidances. Let me explain.
Jim (not his real name of course) told me about what began as a wonderful experience around Christmas as his adult children and their families joined together for the first time. Because of in-law obligations and other duties his extended family had not actually shared a Christmas together since his children had left home and got married. Jim described the gathering as wonderful. He felt overwhelmed with gratitude, being grateful that his daughters had married good men and had found good lives together. This Christmastime seemed to be a time of simply basking in this gratitude and enjoying his family, now together for the first time. His sons-in-law seemed like sons, and they evidently had similar feelings about him as a new father. Nothing was wrong, and more importantly, everything was right. But then an odd episode occurred.
Jim took one of his daughter’s dogs out for a walk in the woods, a woods that he walks frequently, usually daily summer and winter. He knows all the trees and often spends hours there walking and doing yoga in his woods. But while he was out on the walk, he noticed that his daughter’s dog was not around him. Now dogs tend to wander and come back to their masters pretty routinely. (Interestingly, Deb and I were very likely walking about the same time, we with our friend and his dogs while visiting him in his Colorado mountain home.) When he couldn’t see or find his daughter’s dog, Jim became quite worried, so worried that he felt “something” in his chest, a feeling probably akin to panic. Now I know Jim quite well and he is not inclined to fear, anxiety or panic. But this situation of possibly losing his daughter’s dog somehow hit him like a thousand of brick. He looked around for the dog, called for the dog, and began furiously looking in all portions of the woods for the dog, all to no avail. Then he thought he would simply go back home hoping that the dog had somehow found her way home. But at one point on the way back home, he had become so overcome by this…feeling…that he actually felt feint and fell to his knees. After he stumbled home, he was relieved to see that the dog had found his way home, but still somehow overcome with this feeling. In fact, he was so overcome, that he continued to feel “weak” and fatigued. After a few minutes, the Christmastime meal began, something that all had been looking forward to, and he had not yet recovered. He told me that as the meal started, he actually fell asleep, or seemed to fall asleep for a minute seemingly out of some kind of exhaustion. Then understandably, his family became quite concerned, and because one of his daughters is a nurse, they made a quick decision that Jim needed to be attended to professionally. They called an ambulance and soon he was at the ER and then overnight in the hospital. Of course the hospital staff did all sorts of tests but nothing could be found that made any real sense, and he was released the next day.
After hearing this story, I told Jim that he had a “love problem.” What in the world does that mean? This is the way I understand Jim’s “problem.” Certainly, he was very distressed. Certainly, he was in need of some external care. Certainly, there was something “wrong” as evidenced by his physical reactions as noted. But was there something “wrong” with him? Or was there something “right” with him. This is the idea of having a “love problem.” As I saw it, even from the very beginning of his story, Jim was having a “love crisis” of sorts. He was a man seeing the five people he really loved and feeling overjoyed. But Jim is also an internal person by nature, this internality despite his gregarious nature and obvious intelligence. So Jim is inclined to keep most of his deep feelings inside and doing so feel quite satisfied with life. What evidently happened in this circumstance is that Jim was quite overwhelmed by these positive feelings of love for his adult children and their spouses. But he was disinclined to say much about these deep feelings, probably largely due to his internal nature as well as his intellectual and cognitive nature. People we call “introverted thinkers” are very often people of deep feelings but they do not necessarily have a vocabulary for these feelings and are content to just feel them, and perhaps make some intellectual comment, or flippant comment rather than blubbering all over the place with feelings of love. In this case evidently, Jim was not able to adequately express these deep feelings of love, and then when the dog was lost, and possibly lost forever, this potential loss seem unduly tragic. His love for his children had evidently spilled out on the dog, and now, so it seemed to him, he might have lost the dog…and possibly his children. He was just overwhelmed…with love…and potential loss…and he didn’t have words for these deep feelings.
I use the term “love problem” with patients frequently as I see people who have loved, do love, or hope to love something or someone with these feelings causing all sorts of so-called mental health problems, e.g.:
Anxiety. Anxiety is the fear of losing something I love…in the future.
Depression. Depression is the loss of something that I have lost…in the past.
Anger. Anger is the defense against something that I am losing…in the present
Bipolar disorder-like symptoms. (By the way, this diagnosis is way over used as there are very few people who truly have the disorder.). Bipolar symptoms are a mixture of feelings that are hard to manage, like
o Loving someone but not liking that person
o Wanting something but not wanting what comes with it
o Feeling happy one moment because of loving something, but then unhappy the next moment because you might lose it
Addictions. Addictions are clearly a love problem in that the individual loves the thing, person, or behavior to a fault, like:
o Loving food
o Loving excitement
o Loving freedom (that alcohol might bring)
o Loving social life (that alcohol might bring)
o Loving the high of drugs (because one’s life is without natural highs)
o Loving things (and hence hoarding)
o Loving frugality (and hence not buying anything)
o Loving intimacy (and hence getting too quickly into intimacy)
o Loving cigarettes. (I tell my smoker patients that smoking is the best thing in their lives. Why? Because it gives them so much joy that they can overlook the health problems. They must really love it that much.)
o Loving sex (and then getting lost in it)
So think about what you love, or who you love, or what experience you love. You might also see some history of loving “to a fault”. But isn’t it nice to have a “love problem” instead of an illness?