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A State of High Anxiety

Argentines are psyched out by a slew of national crises. That means busy days for Buenos Aires' many analysts, on whose couches residents sort out indignities and setbacks.


BUENOS AIRES — Wounded in mind and spirit, they come to the offices of Mirta Goldstein, a psychoanalyst of the old-fashioned stripe, the kind with a couch in one corner of her office and the collected works of Sigmund Freud in another.

Her clients are well-educated Argentines suffering from the estres (stress) brought on by the unraveling of their lives. "I'm afraid I'm going to fall apart," a female patient tells her one afternoon.

That morning, the client had been waiting in a seemingly endless line of people at the bank, all trying to get their money out before the country collapses. Four people cut in. A shouting match ensued. "They called me a crazy woman," she tells Goldstein. Hours later, the insult still leaves her unhinged--"una loca."

The client wonders: Am I really losing my mind? It is a question people ask again and again in a city that, even before its current economic and social decline, was already one of the most psychoanalyzed places on Earth.

Now, as Argentines watch their political system degenerate into a game of musical chairs for the presidency, with the peso almost certain to be devalued soon, every day brings a new indignity and a new personal setback to sort out on the couches and chairs of the 40,000 psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists who work here.

Buenos Aires is said to have the highest proportion of analysts of any city in the world. Many, like Goldstein, work in the elegant Palermo district of tall apartment buildings and pleasant parks, a neighborhood that is known locally and in travel guides as Villa Freud.

"We Argentines have a certain vocation for personal reflection," says Orlando D'Adamo, a psychology professor at the University of Belgrano here and author of "The Ugly Argentine," a treatise on the Argentine national identity.

"Our national identity has been based on the idea that we are a rich country, a country with opportunity," D'Adamo says. "Now, people have stopped believing in the future."

Listen to Argentines of any social class reflect on the crisis and you will hear voices of anger, confusion and despair.

"I don't know what's going to happen next, that's the worst thing," says Gaston Diaz, 33. University-educated in sociology, he now drives a taxi for a living. "The sense of insecurity kills you. My wife wants us to move to Uruguay. She has a sister there. The truth is that things are very difficult for us here."

In years past, Villa Freud sessions centered on the more routine concerns of middle-class life: distant spouses, unresolved childhood traumas, the anxieties of businesspeople driven by relentless ambition.

Today, many of those same clients are stumbling in, shaken by frozen bank accounts, their businesses teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. They also live under a persistent fear of becoming victims of an unrelenting crime wave of carjackings and home-invasion robberies.

Their adult children might be leaving for Miami, Madrid or some other distant locale.

"People feel completely impotent in the face of their reality," Goldstein says. "This provokes a sense of humiliation and guilt. People begin to feel an inner violence. They have more car accidents. They use more prescription drugs. They have more psychosomatic illnesses."

Signs of the country's slow psychic collapse are everywhere in Buenos Aires. They invade even the most placid corners of this city, known as the Paris of Latin America.

Beggars drift into the cafes and trendy shops of the Recoleta district--an unknown phenomenon until recently. Senior citizens launch into tales of woe on the commuter trains to the suburbs--"Forgive me, passengers, for interrupting your day. But my husband is at home, suffering from cancer, and of course we can't afford the treatments."

During his first week in Buenos Aires, an American journalist came upon a body on the street in Villa Freud, an older woman in a nightdress surrounded by a team of police officers and emergency workers. She had just jumped from her fourth-floor balcony, a suicide.

"She had tried once before, the poor woman," said one onlooker. "She was sick."

"No, no, it's because of the pensions," said another bystander. "How can you expect people to live on what they give you? And then they cut it. What an outrage!"

The Argentine crisis has hit so swiftly and so thoroughly that it has changed the way psychoanalysts work in Buenos Aires, which is one of a handful of places outside Vienna where the ideas of Freud--considered passe in some psychological circles--are still dominant.

"You don't really have time to work on the more serious issues people have, the underlying root cause of their problems, because all they can do is talk about how everything is falling apart around them," says Fernando Weissmann, another Villa Freud analyst.

Freud placed heavy emphasis on childhood traumas and parental relationships as the bases of most neurosis.

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