This is another story--related to love and literature--from the hospital for the insane where I'm currently working.
A friend recently gave me good language for describing a lot of the mental illness at this hospital: Most of the patients here never developed the "ego functioning" of grown people. Ego functioning is basically the higher-order brain skills which separate adults from children, including our ability to imagine another person's perspective, to anticipate someone's reactions to our behaviors, to resist impulses, and to plan behavior that "works" for both us and people around us. Ego functioning is an ability to imagine that people--with whom we all have to deal to figure out some road to happiness--have had different experiences and thoughts than we have.
Ego plays a big role in making romance possible. On that note, this week one of my coworkers received a romantic, deeply felt love note from a patient. I'm changing some of the details here to protect identities, but the note said something like, "When you smile and I look in your eyes, I know you are just like me. I see passion in your eyes--and it's the same passion I live with every day. When you leave work at night, I hold you inside me. I'm being discharged soon, and if you agree with anything I'm saying, let me know with a wink or some other sign. Then I'll know you think the same. Forever, I will love you."
I actually didn't think that note was so insane. In fact, it came frighteningly close to a note I wrote to a teacher whom I fantasized about in the seventh grade. I remember afternoons spent staring at Mr. K, who had a sign--"Screw Authority!"--on his door, while he rubbed the knee of his corduroys, propped there on the ledge of his desk, lecturing to us about Liberalism in US History.
When I thought about him, I thought "this man thinks just like me." Not so different from the patient here at the hospital, I also drew quick conclusions about small, physical clues--thinking the twinkle in his eye represented the same feelings I had inside, at home. A bit like the patient, too, I imagined that two minds could agree without having to talk much about it: "Just give me some sign," I asked the teacher in my own note to him, written on the yellow legal pad paper my own dad often used for charting his thoughts. "Then I'll know you feel just like I do."
That's what young love often feels like, I think. The "ego functions" haven't yet been able to make Reality seem like a distinct, craggy thing unto itself. A young girl or boy comes into selfhood in a powerful way when she starts to form images of her fantasies: I wanted a teacher in jeans at the ledge of his desk. A kid comes to take charge of her future by building these distinct fantasies--but the problem is that they are still projections of the inside, not yet tempered enough, like a paper dried out in the rain and sun, by other people.
Maybe more-adult love has a lot more to do with getting input from the world so the first, fresh fantasy toggles and adjusts. The teacher, you learn, can't date you, because he doesn't think about things in the way you assumed he did. Childhood love is like the first projection--as if your inside found its perfect match in the world. More-adult love is tempered by higher ego functioning: If you can't be with the one you love (idealize and form from scratch), love the one you're with. Our child selves build great narratives of love. As adults we edit them.
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