Monday, March 18, 2024

Q&A with Zak Mucha


Photo by Joe Mazza



Zak Mucha is the author of the new memoir Swimming to the Horizon: Crack, Psychosis, and Street-Corner Social Work. His other books include Emotional Abuse: A Manual for Self-Defense. He is a psychoanalyst and president of the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis.


Q: What inspired you to write Swimming to the Horizon?


A: When I took over this team, which was basically wrap-around mental health services for a client population that no other programs could or would work with, there was no training, supervision, or instruction manual, and I had very little experience.


We were working with people suffering from severe and chronic psychosis, drug addictions, homelessness, multiple incarcerations, hospitalizations, Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity adjudications, and all the socioeconomic factors that go with lives of trauma and poverty.


A lot of it was really difficult and heartbreaking, sometimes violent, but there was real joy in doing this work. I hope that comes across in the book.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title came from something I said to a hyper-diligent, almost pathological, worker who was going above and beyond all job expectations but paying a heavy price personally.


She was in my office, emotionally dysregulated (crying) because there was too much to do, and she’d never get it all done. I told her that was correct. We’re not going to cure or prevent psychosis, homelessness, and drug addiction. There was always going to be more to do, and we were swimming to the horizon.


In Zen Buddhism, there’s the four great vows and the first vow is to “save all sentient beings.” Well, we have to count ourselves in that crowd. Sometimes we have to save others from our own lousy behavior, sometimes we have to save ourselves from our own behavior. Then we can take care of others…  Zen Buddhists like these jokes.


There’s also some Zen in the Hank Williams’ title, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” Just the idea of “swimming to the horizon” – we never get there, but we have to try.


Q: The writer Trey Bundy said of the book, “Swimming to the Horizon is a brave, compassionate, often hilarious book about the true cost of helping others, and all that we get in return.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m proud to say I’ve known Trey Bundy for a long time and before he was a journalist, he was working with children dumped in residential programs. I was really proud that he understood this book and this work and found the humor and love in it.


I often think of a line I heard recently from the psychoanalyst Marilyn Charles who said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The hardest part of this work is being able to tolerate our inability to alleviate our patients’ suffering… We go through it with them, we carry that grief, and we have to carry hope, especially when they can’t find it.”

I also think of Emmanuel Levinas and all his writings about our irreducible responsibilities to the other – to not kill, to not look away from suffering. This was a man who lost his entire family in the Holocaust and learned his mentor was a Brown Shirt, but he acknowledges, we have to acknowledge, compassion hurts. It literally means “to feel with.”


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: Writing this book made me want to go back to poetry, for one. I like writing poetry more, but writing this, seeing this part of my own history condensed, allowed me to see how much I had actually done and how, at times, I was as driven as the clinician I told we were never going to reach the end of our work.


I was probably doing way too much in those years, but I learned a lot. I don’t think I could go back to doing that work, now. Interventions were physical and exhausting, and sometimes violent.


But I didn’t want the book to be a distanced text of case presentations and theory. I wanted it to read like a crime novel, not a “who-done-it” where the detective comes in as an outsider, solves everything and goes back to their life.


Instead, this was to be more like a crime noir where the protagonist or narrator is in it, it’s a part of their life. They are culpable, part of the crime, in many ways. His or her hands aren’t clean, either. We are a part of this system – our policies, our politics allow people to live in this criminal level of poverty and neglect.


I’m hoping young clinicians or students considering the field of social work or psychology will take the book, maybe not as a “how to” but as an example of “what it is.”


There’s not a lot of training for this kind of work, maybe none at all. And it’s always the greenest, least trained, least resourced clinicians who get placed with the most difficult caseloads.


One major problem in the mental health system is that the more experience a clinician has, the further they get from direct service and become a part of administration. New staff coming in get burned out, and there’s this perpetual rotation where the clients and patients suffer.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Just poems right now. As I write this, I’m heading to this artist-in-residency at a castle in France. I guess it belonged to Diderot’s in-laws, which shows if you’re going to be an essayist, you should probably marry money… My wife is an artist, too, working on her stuff. Neither one of us married money, so this feels very decadent.


I started writing poems while I was in my analysis, which is part of the training to become a psychoanalyst. I was always writing, but I wasn’t brave enough to try poetry. Poems got accepted here and there and I kept going with it. Last year a book of poems, The Ambulatorium, was published by Alice Vachss’ press.


The Ambulatorium was the name of the first psychoanalytic clinic for the working-class in Vienna. Of course, the Nazis burned it down, because that’s what they do… Psychoanalysis started out as a radical endeavor and it’s a practice that has to keep changing for the 21st century.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This is a continuation of the previous answer – right now I’m the president of the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis and the entire field is, hopefully, taking part in some amazing work that was done with examining racism and structural racism.


I think there’s a way to connect these things – really deep and meaningful psychoanalytic training for people doing the most difficult work there is in the field. I think it would make a huge difference for both patients and clinicians.


At least that’s my hope for the future, that this structural class and racial bias does not continue to allow those suffering the most to get the least help.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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