How did failure affect your life

Interview with Wolfgang Schmidbauer, psychoanalyst and author: "I was ashamed of my own failure"

Wolfgang Schmidbauer about his personal experiences with the psychotic illness of his first wife Silke, which he relentlessly describes in his new book "The Soul of the Psychologist".

The 75-year-old psychoanalyst, couples therapist and author Wolfgang Schmidbauer has published many books. The best known is "The helpless helpers" from 1977, with which he coined the term "helper syndrome". He is currently honorary chairman of the Society for Analytical Group Dynamics and training analyst of the Munich Working Group for Psychoanalysis. Photo: orell füssli Verlag

Mr. Schmidbauer, at the beginning of the book you describe the fascination of art with you. Is there a correlation between art and psychotherapy?

Wolfgang Schmidbauer: I think that psychotherapy in particular has a lot to do with art. Ultimately, science keeps researching, collecting data and numbers, and never ending. People are exposed to this progress. In contrast, art is about completing a work, because at some point even the most elaborate work of art can no longer be improved. Developing the sensitivity for when something is finished connects the psychotherapist with the visual artist or with the writer.

You write: “I wanted to be a poet and studied psychology.” Haven't you thought about studying art or German studies?

Schmidbauer: I think I just studied psychology because I was insecure and thought that I now have to complete a degree that will turn into a profession. With psychology, I had various options to find out in which area I would like to move. Then during my studies I didn't become a poet - that's a jobless art - but a journalist. It was then that I found a student job with a medical magazine. It turned out that I was pretty good at writing articles. When I was around 21, journalism caught me a lot more than psychology. But I had learned that you finish what you start, and that's how I got my diploma and doctorate. I vaguely had in mind to become a psychoanalyst at the time, but I felt too young for it. Then I met Silke, went to Italy and initially made a living from writing.

You lost your father in the war, you hardly knew him. How has that affected your life?

Schmidbauer: This fact had a special quality for me, because Silke didn't know her father either. We were both widow children. It was also characteristic of that time that our mothers no longer connected with another man. You closed this chapter as a relatively young woman and concentrated on children and work. At that time it was a matter of course for me, because there were a lot of incomplete families without fathers. The positive thing about it was a lack of authorities, for which I then hardly had any respect. That is why it was very close to me to have the courage to use my own understanding freely according to Kant. That also inspired me as an author.

You write about the relationship with your wife Silke: "I didn't fit in with her or your dreams any more than she did with me, but the pull was stronger."
What was this pull?

Schmidbauer: Like me, my wife wanted to get out of this dreary post-war mood in Germany. In my imagination, I lived in a tower by the sea and wrote poetry. With the common house in Tuscany we fulfilled this dream, that was our common project. We wanted to live in a beautiful landscape and not have to go to an office. It would not have been possible without my wife and vice versa. We also wanted to be free, not have an adapted career. We were very closely connected.

You write about the mentally ill Silke: "I did not suspect that there is such a thing as an all too speaking opposite of symptoms". . .

Schmidbauer: I think there is a big difference between someone who is at risk of psychosis and is currently not in an acute crisis and someone who is normally neurotic, so to speak. It was very noticeable with Silke: she was open, loving, lively, not very anxious and socially competent when she was healthy - a very lovable person. I admired it very much and ignored the fact that it split off negatives. In her good phases she fascinated me and we did very well. Silke referred to me very intensely.

"She got lost in a world that I couldn't follow." That is a painful statement. . .

Schmidbauer: It is an abysmal experience when you get on well with someone for years and perceive and master reality side by side, when it suddenly becomes increasingly clear that this shared view of reality no longer applies and that my partner becomes one other world crosses. It will then be a long, tormenting process because this loss of shared reality does not happen in one fell swoop. Silke also tried not to lose me, but she didn't succeed.

Wolfgang Schmidbauer: The soul of the psychologist - an autobiographical fragment. Orell Füssli Verlag, Zurich 2016

Didn't the drug treatment help?

Schmidbauer: That was a relief at times. It was clear that the drugs only suppress the psychosis, at the expense of liveliness, I would say. So that more normal life becomes possible again. In my naivety I thought at the time that if we discuss and understand everything together, then Silke will be healed. I only had theoretical knowledge, no therapy experience of my own, and of course no supervision. I improvised, read a lot, fought and imagined that I had healed her. After the birth of our first daughter, Silke's condition stabilized. We then had four wonderful years.

Is it possible to reconcile love with illness?

Schmidbauer: It is very clear that it is an unbelievable burden for a love relationship when the partner first becomes a stranger and then also becomes hostile. In the good times, my wife said: "I've never had it as good as with you, with us and our life." When the psychosis occurred, she complained: "You destroyed me, you took everything away from me", so it was extremely offensive. The first time I was able to absorb this tipping and process it to some extent. Later it became more and more difficult for me. At some point I was on a path that led me away from this intimate symbiosis.

Can it be said that you were looking for the distance then?

Schmidbauer: Yes, I have. I wanted to work as a lecturer and do this psychoanalytic training. At the same time, I wanted Silke to become self-employed, to emancipate herself, to pursue a profession and, for example, to learn to drive. She shouldn't be a dependent housewife.

Did you expect your wife to develop insight into your illness?

Schmidbauer: Of course not in their psychotic states. But afterwards Silke always talked about the fact that the illness was over, that things are going better now and that she also understands why it had to happen. When my wife slipped away from me back then, I tried to stop her. I didn't succeed in doing that later. This failure hurt me very much. I had to realize that it is too much of a claim to be able to heal one's partner through love. That was painful. I think that my sudden separation from Silke had something to do with it. Ashamed of my own failure, I fled.

You write of feelings of guilt about this. . .

Schmidbauer: Today I think that I pushed aside all internal objections back then. I just pretended that the breakup was the only thing possible. I actually only became aware of this culpability after Silke died in 2005 and I began to understand this early chapter of my own story. During the last phase of this marriage, I tried to be able to act. I also realized how much I personally learned from this failure and how much reason there is to be grateful to Silke. One reason to write about it was this existential dimension. It became clear to me how much my first marriage and life as a dropout had to do with our history and the zeitgeist from 1960 to 1970.

The interview was conducted by Jürgen Spath.