Recently, a woman entered taxi driver Marc Preven’s cab just outside of FAO Schwartz on Madison and East 60th with her “son,” a Jack Russell terrier. “She tells me, ‘It’s his birthday,’” Mr. Preven recalled. “Then she says that every year on his birthday she takes him to FAO Schwarz to pick out a toy. This year the dog picked out a Paul Frank plush monkey. But you know, that’s not even weird to me anymore—it’s like, don’t all dogs get to go to FAO Schwarz on their birthday and pick out a birthday toy?”
In 1936, Karen Horney, a Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst who once had an ill-fated affair with pioneering social psychologist Erich Fromm, published what was then the definitive work on neurosis, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. Naturally, she was a New York City resident at the time. (Brooklyn, actually.)
As long as the terms “neurotic,” or “high strung,” or “nervous breakdown” have been around, they have been inextricably linked with this city. As Evelyn Waugh put it, “There is [a] neurosis in the air which inhabitants mistake for energy.”
For a while, when Woody Allen was really nailing it and Seinfeld topped the ratings, it was all to the good—part of our charm.
Then, in 2008, a Cambridge University study showed that New York was home to “the most neurotic and unfriendly people” in the United States. The study went on to say that people living in eastern states along the “Stress Belt”—especially New Yorkers—are likely to be anxious, stressed, impulsive and prone to heart disease and cancer. Ah, something else to be neurotic about.
Mr. Preven, who described himself as “chronologically 53, but mentally 12 or 19,” was so fascinated by New Yorkers’ nuttiness that he started an alterna-tour for out-of-towners called NEWrotic New York City Tours. “It’s an anti-tour of the city,” he explained.
But what makes us so neurotic? One answer seems to be space. Or the lack thereof. “New York is mental illness, drug addiction and eating disorders served on a silver platter,” Mr. Preven said. “A lot of us are cognitively challenged. There are so many different worlds here and we all overlap and bump up against each other. I call Grand Central a human particle accelerator.”
There do seem to be a lot of neuroses that are particular to our city, some of which might be better described as micro-neuroses. For instance, “Air-conditioning drip,” a condition that was pointed out to us by two separate friends (both of whom, oddly, are employed by Conde Nast), which is a fear of being struck by drips and drops of water from air-conditioners in the apartment windows overhead.
And there’s a common meta–micro-neurosis, of which almost everyone contacted about this article displayed symptoms. One by one, they detailed their personal peccadilloes—followed by the panicked, paranoid cry: “Don’t quote me!,” or “Don’t make me sound crazy!,” or “No, you can not use my full name, people will make fun of me,” or “Shit—I sound nuts right? Can I get quote-approval?”
For our purposes, we will stick to the bigger neuroses, and look at how they’ve changed in the 75 years since Horney published her original list.
1. The Neurotic Need for Affection and Approval
Ever wonder why there are so many small, yappy dogs on the streets of New York? Ever wonder why they have human names and are dressed in human-esque clothes? The fact is, you’ll never get more approval than you will from your small dachshund—I mean, dog.
Alas, dogs aren’t always enough. We hunger for human approval as well. And for a little help, many turn to specialists like Dr. Jon Turk.
“When the economy tanked, people gave up their Birkins but they didn’t give up their Botox,” noted Dr. Turk, a handsome cosmetic surgeon who practices on the Upper East Side. “I’ll give them some Botox and some will come in two weeks later and point to a single, 2-millimeter crease and say, ‘It’s moving!’ I try to point out that faces are supposed to move a little.”
For men and women, at least in New York, this neurosis manifests differently. Women tend to worry about settling down, whereas men, who are outnumbered and can produce children late into life (sometimes ridiculously so), tend to always be looking for another partner. That’s why he just snuck a peek at the coat-check girl’s ass, the bastard.
According to Matt Titus, a matchmaker and love coach, “In New York City, when a guy is out on a date with a girl he knows in the back of his mind that there is a hotter, better model either around the corner. If the lighting isn’t right or the conversation interesting enough, he, at any moment, will divert his time and energy to extricating himself and finding the next best thing.”
Sure, women often hope to trade up as well, but the guys have an easier time of it. “In New York men become repercussionless daters because of the sheer numbers,” Mr. Titus added. “With 237,000 more single women than single men on the island of man-hattan [emphasis his], men are kings. Women become accustomed to men’s dating habits and become even more desperate to find Mr. Right.”
3. The Neurotic Need to Restrict Life Within Narrow Borders
Holly Phillips is a doctor who lives with her husband and two daughters on the Upper East Side. She has many friends all over the city, but they all know the rules: if they want to see her, they will have to go to Holly.
“It takes too much mental preparedness to leave a 15-block radius,” Dr. Phillips explained. “If I had driver maybe it would be different. As it stands now, if I leave my area, I literally have to prepare myself, physically and mentally. It’s like a voyage—I have to make sure I have all the essentials in my purse, think how I’m going to get there and how I’m going to get back, what the traffic situation is going to be if I can’t walk… I just get stressed out.”
Downtown, Craig Walker agrees. Mr. Walker, an actor who lives on Thompson Street, is also the owner of Local, a coffee shop on Sullivan. “I get a little nervous if I’m outside my hood too long,” he admits of his 26-block neighborhood. “I’m just more comfortable in Soho.”
4. The Neurotic Need for Power
This is an easy one—so commonplace a neurosis that it’s barely considered a personality disorder at all. The drive to dominate others and to value strength practically defines life in the city, where the buildings are bigger, the bonuses fatter and the mayor richer by a factor of hundreds of millions than almost anywhere else. And don’t even think about messing with your co-op board.
But isn’t it interesting how that desire for control so often falters when it comes to controlling our own impulses? We drink too much, smoke too much—even when we’re taxed to a fare-the-well and exiled down the block to do it—go home with the wrong people, and Tweet photos of our private parts indiscriminately. It’s all come to be expected. Even Eliot Spitzer, our former governor, clawed his way back from “client 9” ignominy, with a show on CNN. It didn’t survive, but you can be sure he’s plotting his next assault on the gates of power. He’s a New Yorker, after all.
Many of the one percenters that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are railing against live in our fair city. (Some of us may even be among them!) And let’s face it, a bit of that lucre may indeed have come—inadvertently, through no fault of our own, nor as the result of any illegal acts—at the expense of our fellow citizens. Things happen.
Remember how Wall Street reaped unheard of gains by exploiting the loose regulation of derivatives after the Glass Steagall act fell in the 1990’s? Then there were all those zero-percent-down mortgages bundled, via derivatives, into products that were sold to pension funds and other investment groups that were only supposed to be sinking the people’s hard earned money into triple-A assets?
Seemed like good business, right? Especially when the government stepped in and bailed out the banks. (Muwahaha…) Turns out it was also a symptom of a mental disorder.
6. The Neurotic Need for Social Recognition or Prestige
Paris Hilton started it. The girl had money, she had looks (hey, quit that). But she wanted something more. And she got it, big time.
Then came the stampede. Before long, we even had actual, albeit mid-level socialites—like Tinsley Mortimer, married to oil heir Topper Mortimer, Olivia Palermo and (ahem) Devorah Rose—people for whom the endless cage match for social prominence was already a way of life, doubling down for a shot at a larger audience. It’s not like they needed the money either. They needed the attention.
Lately, the fight for the spotlight has become fierce. Kelly Killoren Bensimmon, Jill Zarin, Alex McCord and Cindy Barshop were unceremoniously dumped from the “Real Housewives of New York” cast for fresher, more interesting housewives: zany Carol Radziwill, Heather Thompson, and Aviva Dresher, all of whom were hired, sources tell The Observer, long before the “regulars” were fired. Worse, the switcheroo was leaked to the press just days after Bravo head Andy Cohen, a study of narcissism in his own right, had told the lades they were “safe.” Ouch.
So what are you waiting for? If you haven’t yet dropped off your dry cleaning while a knot of dudes in cargo shorts walks backwards with a camera in front of you, you may not be an authentic New Yorker at all.
7. The Neurotic Need for Personal Admiration
Several months ago The Observer was at a dinner with our friend, a TV producer, her husband, and a “TV personality”—you know, a talking-head type from cable news. The TV personality was trying to impress the producer into giving him a show and, after one particularly long, somewhat masturbatory speech, added, “I mean, I know my 30,000 twitter followers want to know what I have to say!”
“I try to stay far away from those people,” laughed Caroline Waxler, a new media specialist. “Or the ‘humble braggers’—where people allegedly are self-deprecating but really want you to know how awesome they are. Like, ‘I’m going to be on the Today show this morning. Clearly they got me confused with someone else—hahah.’ So annoying.”
Staying away from those people is getting harder every day. We are those people!
The sad fact of the matter is, Twitter, instead of satiating our need for personal admiration, has actually multiplied it beyond comprehension. Remember when you first heard about Twitter? “Why would anyone care if someone got a latte or a frappe? It’s ridiculous!” A few months later, you’re tweeting like a retarded plover.
By the way, if you want to follow me, it’s @pfro.
8. The Neurotic Ambition for Personal Achievement (and by “Personal” We Mean Our Children)
In New York, the battles to get into private—and even some public—schools are as Machiavellian as Bobby Fischer’s Poison Pawn Variation. And no one takes it more personally than the parents when little Victoria and Declan don’t get in to the school of choice.
“I felt like such a…social outcast,” said one Upper East Side parent when his four-year-old daughter failed to land a spot in the primo nursery schools he had his eye on (annual tuition: around $30,000). “I was devastated—it was just so humiliating. She’ll never make it into Harvard now.”
He might actually be lucky.
One society matron sent her daughter to boarding school out of state this year rather than have her continue on at her well-regarded Upper East Side high school because “she was turning into a monster.” The last straw was when the girl demanded a chauffeur as a birthday present (“All my friends have drivers!” she explained) and proceeded to flip out when her parents told her she couldn’t go out to the clubs with her friends after her birthday party. She had just turned fourteen.
9. The Neurotic Need for Self-Sufficiency
There’s no greater expression of one’s independence than a home of one’s own. Just ask the many thirtysomethings still living with mom and dad. But even for those of us who are gainfully employed, the right apartment can be hard to come by.
Even if you do find that perfect pad, you then often have to get past a condo board, which—surprise—is often worse than dealing with your parents ever was. Madonna, Courtney Love, Mariah Carey, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Calvin Klein have all been turned down by snooty members of coop buildings.
Reasons for denial can include: a scandal in your past, too much press—whether favorable or unfavorable—the wrong friends or the wrong kind of money (the older, the better). “It’s all about who you know, what you’ve accomplished, what charity boards you’re on, et cetera,” noted Kirk Henkels, director of private brokerage for Stribling. “You have to have a clever broker—one who makes sure that recommendation letters come from people the board members know and like, on business proper stationery, not social stationery. It’s like joining a private club.”
Our need for independence also finds expression in our favored modes of transportation. The subways have improved tremendously since the ’70s, but a highly neurotic subset of New Yorkers are eagerly keeping the cabbies in business (no wonder the price of a medallion just topped $1 million). Nicole Young, a “30-something” fashion designer who was born and bred in New York, hasn’t stepped through a turnstile since 2001.
“I used to take the subway everywhere,” Ms. Young said. “But after 9/11 I could never go back. It’s crazy—but I figure if I’m above ground, it’s one less way the terrorists can get me!”
Ms. Young admits it’s a phobia, but that doesn’t make her any less determined to remain far from any tunnels. “I tried once to get back on the subway and I nearly passed out,” she said. “Sometimes a tiny part of me wishes I could go back to it, because it’s quicker and cheaper, but I just can’t!”
Nobody’s perfect. We know that. Maybe back in Horney’s day, people had a decent shot at it. Nowadays, if we can sleep through the night and not awaken with those telltale lines of little red bites on our calves, we’re good.
Bedbugs are haunting our nightmares. Ever since those minuscule bloodsuckers exploded onto our consciousness a few years back, they have wreaked havoc with New Yorkers’ linens, their finances, and their mental health.
“The last time I went to the movies in NYC was…honestly, I don’t know when,” a vivacious former assistant district attorney told The Observer. “I did go to a movie theater in January—but that was in a D.C. suburb. It’s cleaner. I wasn’t as worried.”
Meanwhile, Ariel (first name only, she insisted) obsessively tosses her clothes and other personal items into PakTite—“the Rolls Royce of bedbug protection,” she said—every time she returns from a trip. It’s a portable heating unit in in a bag. “You put everything in there and cook it—books, shoes, bags and papers. Sometimes leather gets a little warped but I don’t even care. I know some people who use it every time they come in the house!”
Given our many issues, perhaps it’s no wonder so many New Yorkers are downing Paxil, Cymbalta and Lexipro. It’s either that, or move. And where the hell else are you gonna live, Chicago?