Internal (neurotic? psychotic?) insecurities and the appeal of maths

One week gone of 2018’s 52.  One of my new year resolutions was to try to keep this blog going a bit less erratically than I have been doing. Shouldn’t be difficult: set the bar really low and I should be able to jump it!

Something that’s been swimming around in my mind this week has been how much I yearn to use maths, typically statistics, accurately and well in my research work. That’s not the whole of my approach to research. For years now I have been sure that most of the really important questions about psychotherapy and mental health will be most usefully explored by qualitative methods. I can see, with an almost mathematical logic and clarity that it’s only a small subset of issues and questions in this, my chosen research area, that are really usefully explored quantitatively.  As I’ve recognised this I’ve been slowly expanding my familiarity with qualitative methods and using them more and I’m loving that.  However, there remains this comfort, an almost tangible warmth, sometimes a huge buzz of excitement, that comes when I feel I’m using quantitative tools well, or even, all too rarely, extending our quantitative toolkit, honing its edges or tweaking some of its tools to give them new uses, wider application or sounder foundations.

I know this yearning and those feelings go very deep.  Too often my longing to be sure I’m getting things really right slows me up and sometimes it really paralyses me. That’s one cause of the backlog of work I’m hoping to shift as this year goes forward.  Having said that, I know that many of the things I will no longer do, things I will no longer accept, really are methodologically, logically, plain wrong. That means I can’t simply dismiss my getting stuck as obsessional or perfectionist.  However, I know there are roots here in insecurities.  Enter Frances Tustin.

One nice spin off of my obsessionality is that I have, erratically, accumulated my own “bibliographic database”. That’s transferred from one computer and software system to another over more than 30 years now and it tells me that it was nearly 27 years ago that I first encountered Frances Tustin.  From my notes it seems that was at a presentation she gave to the St. George’s Psychotherapy Department on or around the 15th of June 1990. That’s nearly half my life ago!

She was talking about her ideas about autism and some psychosomatic problems.  In my usual way, easier then when I was less overloaded than it is now, I went from her talk to read her books voraciously.  Thinking back I remember that she altered her ideas as she worked with more clients/patients.  She worked both with children with clearly very severe autistic problems but also with adults who on the face of it didn’t have autism and many of whom I suspect wouldn’t now get this increasingly widely applied label of “on the spectrum” (the autistic spectrum).  She picked out the need some people have to rock climb and though I think she was the last person to be found on a difficult pitch on K2, she clearly had a deep sympathy and understanding for the need despite losing a good friend who had died mountaineering.

She argued that some of this need is so deep the whole “neurotic” label, i.e. that there’s a vulnerability, a painful twist in the psyche that nevertheless doesn’t put someone seemingly outside most peoples’ understanding of perception and logic (the “psychotic” level), doesn’t cover what’s going on.  She argued that the need is a life-or-death one deep inside the psyche, embedded in the unconscious.  She believed that this was similar in the apparently not sick mountaineer the life-or-death need the autistic young boy felt who clutched a particular hard toy (a model steam engine or train as I remember it) so hard into the hand that it reshaped his hand so the bones were moulded to the corner of the toy.

She felt that the need to hold the rock of a cliff face, and to reduce life and death to one’s own skill and strength; to the solidity of the rock; and to the luck of not being knocked off by rock falls, was vital to some.  To resist that yearning, to be deprived of that opportunity, might leave them shells of themselves.  I think she made the link with numbers and maths. I’m not sure she was familiar enough with computers but it’s there too.  I have known ever since reading her that to me this makes sense of some of my yearning.  I’m 60 now, pushing 61 up soon and it’s still there, perhaps it’s even stronger than it once was, now I no longer have clinical work or teaching salving some of this insecurity.

So, this year I think the challenge is to enjoy the pleasure of it.  There’s a real parallel here with rock climbing.  I spent much of my childhood and early adolescence up trees when home in Warwickshire, or up cliffs when on holiday in Llantwit in South Wales, and I loved that.  I had a real shock as a clinical medical student, I would have been about 21, when a friend took me first rock wall climbing in London and then on a mountaineering club trip to the Peak District and I suddenly realised I was a truly third rate climber and had no stomach for being any better at it, nor for the risks and insecurities of the whole enterprise.  This must have come a year or so after a similar experience as a pre-clinical medical student when I realised that my double A “A-level” maths may have meant I was decently competent at maths by general population standards but that by university maths standards I was mediocre and would never discover anything mathematically new nor even follow what the top students could understand that comes down from the work of the truly gifted mathematicians.

Those were blows but I’ve continued to bumble along in the quantitative methodology realm and I churn out some good stuff from time to time.  Similarly, at 40ish my wife got me skiing and oh boy are mountains wonderful, even if you’ll never be a natural skier nor mountaineer.  Just enjoy what you can do eh?

Spanish hills/mountains in the early morning sun 7/9/16!

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