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Ask Dr. Frank

Answers real questions from real people on psychological topics.
Whether therapy would help dysthmia, a feeling of not being happy;
Depression and spouses; Relationship with children after a divorce;
Staying married for the children's sake.

With this issue, one of America's best-known psychiatrists becomes aregular contributor to PSYCHOLOGY TODAY. Frank Pittman, M.D., a practicing family therapist in Atlanta, is the widely quoted author of Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity (Putnam), and Private Lies (Norton). In this space, Dr. Frank will answer real questions from real people with his unusual mix of subversive wit and heart-stopping widsdom. Send your questions to Dr. Frank by mail to PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, 24 E. 23 St., New York, NY 10010, or by fax to 212-260-7445.


Dear Not Happy: You are suffering from "dysthymia," which just means you're not happy. It may be that happiness was not a skill taught in your family or that your childhood was unstable. People whose parents neglect them, abuse them, or get divorced don't dare trust happiness. Unhappiness becomes a habit, a way of life. Your brain chemistry is not making it possible for you to anticipate pleasure.

Dysthymia leads to infidelity, divorce, and job instability-- desperate efforts to shake life up enough to make us feel things. Dysthymic people blame their lives for not being juicy enough when they are just suffering from dry brains.

Happiness comes from pumping the right juices into your brain. The juices flow when you experience exercise, sex, joy, and triumph. But they flow most juicily when the exercise is free of anger, the sex free of guilt, the joy free of shame, and the triumph free of fear.

Happiness requires freedom to play and playmates to play with, people who like you and value your joy. Children are ideal playmates, so hang out with them. Happiness also requires setting achievable goals so you can have moments of triumph when you experience life's little victories. Think small. Rather than staking your happiness on becoming master of the universe, clean out your sock drawer instead.

And above all, even if you can't arrange the other things easily, you can get exercise. An hour of exercise every day would work a lot better for most dysthymic people than an hour of psychotherapy.

A good therapist can coach you into a life of active happiness and can train you in the skill of happiness. But be sure to hire a happy therapist. Dysthymic therapists look for someone to blame for people's unhappiness, for ways to escape pain rather than helping dysthymic people find things to make them emotionally alive.

A therapist should not wring your hankie while you whine, but should be your trainer and coach, inspiring you into life. Whining about your inability to achieve a constant state of ecstatic wonder not only runs off your prospective playmates, it makes you even more unhappy.

Of course, if you do your little projects while dancing around the house to your favorite music, if you exercise and screw yourself into exhaustion, and you still feel dysthymic, try Prozac. A squirt of serotonin into your dry synapses may prime the driest of pumps.

Dear Dr. Frank: I used to be subject to depression. My wife was wonderful in helping me through it. Probably as a result of therapy, I'm happier than I've ever been before. But I realize that my wife is not much fun, and she isn't comfortable with my new spirit. I don't want to go back to my old unhappiness. Should I give up my wife instead?

Dear Happier: You have trained your wife to center her life around your unhappiness. Depressed people may or may not be enjoying their misery, but they're not much fun to the people around them. The hovering caretakers get drained, tired, and angry. When we're unhappy, we are motivated by pain avoidance rather than the pursuit of happiness, so our partner gradually gives up on seducing us into pleasure and ends up pushing us through life with an emotional cattle prod. Spouses may have to be retaught how to make the formerly depressed feel good. They may even have to relearn how to play themselves. Your pain and/or pleasure has been the center of the universe for a while; now it's her turn.

Dear Dr. Frank: I've had a lot of therapy and read a lot of self-help books. I've learned to really love myself. I always pamper my inner child. I have overcome any tendency to feel guilt for anything I do. I'm real good at asserting myself and expressing my anger, and I don't let anyone abuse me in any way. I've worked particularly hard on my codependency. I've cut off all my dysfunctional relationships. I'm now ready for a perfect relationship but no one I meet matches my level of mental health. What can I do to get the love I deserve?

Dear Deserving: You have learned, to your sorrow, that we therapists can get so obsessed with protecting people that we may damage their ability to conduct relationships with real people. Do you remember the manners mom taught you? In therapy, good manners can seem like pathological codependency, and the parent who taught you to subordinate your own infantile needs to the requirements of relationships can seem abusive. But the real world is different from therapy.

Once outside the therapist's office, your feelings are not the still point of the turning world. Out among normal people, you will find those manners more helpful to you than all the stuff you got from therapy or from self-help books.

Unless your local mental health center is enlightened enough to offer a nontherapy group for people who have had too much therapy, you'll have to do it in a social setting. Forget about your mental health, forget about your own feelings, spend some time studying other people's feelings and practicing your manners in dealing with them.

See if you can go a whole day talking about everything except your complicated state of mind and the manifold ways in which other people have faded to pamper you sufficiently. You are suffering from a deficiency of appropriate guilt. Recapture enough of your guilt to realize that you owe something to those around you. Practice making other people feel good. Appreciate kindness and try to warrant it.

Dear Dr. Frank: Several years ago I divorced my wife and married Cherie, a woman I'd been having an affair with. She'd come from a broken home and had an unhappy childhood, and I admit, part of the attraction was that she seemed to need me.

Lately, though, I've begun to miss my children, but they won't have anything to do with Cherie. I don't think they understand her or our relationship. Is there anything I can do to patch things up and have a happy family again?

Dear In Love: No. You've already demonstrated that your children's well being is not a high priority for you. As for Cherie, a woman who would steal the man out of a family can certainly not be trusted with the children. Apparently, your children will still talk to you after what you did to them. Consider yourself lucky and don't push your luck.

Dear Dr. Frank: My husband is essentially a good man, a good provider, and a good father. But I am not in love anymore. I believe it's a mistake to stay married for the children's sake. What do you think?

Dear Not-In-Love: I don't think it is sufficient to stay married for the children's sake; parents have a responsibility to stay happily married for the children's sake.

If you are married to a good man and still don't find it easy to be happy or loving, perhaps there is something wrong with you. You could be afflicted with anything from schizophrenia to romanticism.

Most likely, you are one of those romantic women who expects a man to make her happy. Men are useful for many things, but they are not generally kept around for their entertainment value. I've known women in your predicament who brought meaning and stability to their lives through such diverse activities as square dancing, fly fishing, and organic farming.

For your children's sake, if not for your own, find the things that will make you happy without having to run frustratingly through a variety of men, each of whom is sure to let to you down.

If you want variety in your life, try cable television.


PHOTO: Dr. Frank Pittman, M.D.