Anxiety Is Our New Religion
Psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster explains why everyone's on meds and no one's fucking.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
"How to Exist OK" is a column that attempts to figure out how to exist OK. In it, writer, artist, and existential Humpty Dumpty Gideon Jacobs sits down with a sage of some sort—monks, ministers, theologians, psychologists, philosophers, bartenders, centenarians, and more—and asks them how to survive being human, how to navigate the world while lugging around three squishy pounds of consciousness in a rapidly decaying bag of skin.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster in front of an audience at NeueHouse in New York for an event we decided to call “How to Exist OK (LIVE).” Jamieson was fresh off publishing Conversion Disorder, her new book from Columbia University Press that masterfully integrates some pretty heavy psych theory into a surprisingly personal framework. Intellectually dense but definitively accessible, the book illustrates what it is that makes Jamieson unique: She’s a Lacanian scholar who, unlike other Lacanian scholars I’ve met, can hold a totally normal conversation.
It might be worth noting that while we chatted, I was seated in an armchair and Jamieson was lying on a couch. I had texted her the day before, saying it might be funny for me to interview her as if I was her patient, but she quickly responded, “I WANT TO BE THE ONE ON THE COUCH!” I relented. Doctor’s orders.
This is an edited and condensed transcript of our chat:
VICE: Do you think the premise of this column is, well, good? Is OK-ness a decent bar for us to be setting, or is it too high or low?
Jamieson Webster: Freud in Civilization and its Discontents attacks the question of happiness, which is really apt today because I think people expect to be happy. And they expect that all of the trappings of modern life were created in order to make them happy, and when they don't make them happy, they blame themselves.
This is part of my book—we don’t just feel sick in our bodies, but we also feel guilty for feeling sick in our bodies, especially in a world that says our bodies are supposed to work really well, and that we're supposed to get up and be productive and look great and be fit and have great orgasms. Who can do all of that? I think "OK," then, is really nice.
Well, then my question is, in a country where one out of six people is on psychotropic meds, are we less OK than ever?
I have to imagine that everyone's always been sick. I think that it would be sick to imagine that people were doing a lot better a long time ago, in a kind of “Make America Great Again” nostalgia.
But I do think that something about our expectations might be changing. I can't know that for sure, but I do see the way in which contemporary life feeds into the expectations that you're not supposed to feel unwell. Whereas I don't see what in this world provides you anything more than uneasiness. I think it's very uneasy to be a human being.
One of the things that I often say to patients is that if you read the great literature of the world, if you go back to like, the ancient Greek tragedies, people were having a really hard time. And life then was always beset by war and poverty and illness. Women died in childbirth all the time.
A lot of these more material aspects of life have been solved, and yet the uneasiness is still there. I think that's interesting: With modern medicine, we can expect to live much longer, but we can’t expect a whole lot more than that.
What are some of the main obstacles you encounter with your patients? What stands between them and existing OK?
There is this amazing letter by Freud to Princess Marie Bonaparte. He was talking to her about depression and he said, “I think the problem with the depressed is that they simply have too high of an expectation for life. They think life is supposed to have more meaning than it does.”
For Freud, to ask about the meaning of life, essentially, is to already be neurotic. One of the things that I find with patients is this need to find meaning, and a lot of what a psychoanalyst can do is to work at stopping this machine that is constantly processing information and thinking that there's something you need to get, to solve, to make sense of in order to feel better.
I also think this is why meditation apps are making a million, billion, million dollars. It's because you have to stop your brain.
In your book, you call our “collective anxiety” our “new religion.” A key word in your title, “conversion," is, after all, a religious word. Conversion implies a before and after. The patient is pre-analysis and then post-analysis; the Buddhist is the unenlightened and then the enlightened; the Christian is lost and then found. In a way, therapy, like religion, sometimes promises salvation, right?
I don't want to promise salvation. I was really interested in the fact that conversion in psychiatry meant a radical energetic change. If you read someone like William James, who got really interested in religious conversion experiences, he says that something has to turn so radically that where you were before and where you are after are markedly different.
And psychoanalysis was saying the same thing, that some kind of change has to take place that makes a structural difference for a person. Psychoanalysis means this literally. It's not just like, “Oh, now I understand.” It means, literally, something changes in your body.
William James was saying the same thing about the religious experience, that something material happened for these people. Sometimes it happens slowly. Sometimes it happens like a bolt of lightning. And he was interested in the difference between these phenomena.
Well, one difference between the gradual change and the lightning bolt is that the lightning bolt is way more fun. And easy. In a world that constantly feeds our desire for instant gratification, do you think we still have patience for gradual change?
It depends on the patient. I mean, there are patients for whom it's like lightning bolt after lightning bolt. And there are patients that you spend three years waiting for it to happen, and eventually it finally does, but you've been slogging through the mud for a long time.
I'd also say that it depends on anxiety. The patients who are the most frustrated are those whose anxiety is high. It’s very difficult to analyze anxiety. I mean, what are you analyzing?
You have to push the person to do something in their life that forces this anxiety to become something else, which is some of the hardest work that one has to do as an analyst, because it's not talking, it’s not analyzing, it’s not playing around with dreams. It's literally trying to push the person to do something other than be anxious.
When I think about that, the anxiety on the rise in the world, I get very, very nervous.
You mean… anxious?
Yes. That works.
This might be approaching Zen koan territory, but isn’t wanting the lightning bolt the main impediment to experiencing the lightning bolt?
Isn’t the most neurotic thing to desire desire? How far outside of desire are you at the moment that you desire to have it?
In your book, you say we must re-examine psychoanalysis in a world where “symptoms have gone viral, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” This makes me curious about how WebMD has affected your practice?
Sometimes patients come in with all these ideas about what they think is wrong with them, and it's not coming from inside of them. It's coming from the internet. Sometimes they get really angry at me when I say, "Where'd you get that idea?" Sometimes they are coming to have an idea reaffirmed.
You also say in the book that we must re-examine psychoanalysis in a world “where the contradiction of hankering for instantaneous fame takes place in a generation that stays at home longer than ever hooked into a virtual life.” How has the internet, in general, changed our ability to exist OK?
In Japan, 40 percent of people say they are disgusted by sex. In the United States, there's supposedly a 15 percent decline in sexual activity. People don’t want to fuck anymore. Kids in high school are sexting. I worry about the fact that people don't want to get near each other's bodies.
There is something about wrestling with the body, your body, other people's bodies, and how horrifying other people's bodies are that helps you deal with sexuality in life. And if we're not doing that, I don't know what's going to happen.
To me, it’s not that intimacy is no longer happening, but rather, it's just happening in the digital realm. This might seem silly, but I think it’s a serious postmodern question of our times: Is there really that big of a difference between having sex in the real world and having sex on your phone?
There's a difference. You're not in control of the other person when they're in front of you. You're also not in control of your body when it's in contact with another body. So I think that the virtual gives you a false sense of control and omnipotence that helps you screen out anxiety. But maybe I'm, like, really old-fashioned. I don't want to be old-fashioned.
How does one exist OK?
I'm not sure there is an answer.
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