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Walking on Stilts – The Fate of High Fliers

Cindy was an irresistible referral, on paper, perhaps the most exotic and cosmopolitan backstory I had ever seen. 23 years old, an only child of an Asian mother and South American father, she had been brought up in Taiwan until the age of 11, with batches of time spent in family apartments in New York, London and Paris. Her father had left when she was a toddler and she had been reared by a matriarchy of aunts, a religious grandmother, and a “fierce and relentlessly demanding” tiger mother, who runs a successful global semiconductor business. Like a Mercedes and a Mulberry bag, her mother had bought her the best brands for her education. She came to two renowned English boarding schools (a second one for Sixth form), then to the United States for undergraduate at Stanford, where she studied Russian literature. She is Confucian, and speaks Mandarin, English, French and Russian. Of course she can also play the piano, ride a horse, ski and is an elegant beauty. So what’s the problem? Is she not the most well qualified candidate for the 21st centuries global economy?

A leading global investment bank thought so, and she came to me from their prestigious Summer intern program, where she was failing, at risk of being ejected. She had found herself a psychiatrist who referred her to me for psychotherapy. She was practicing what seemed to be self-sabotaging behaviour – not showing up to the office and staying alone in her London flat, with what had become her main attachment figure – a black Labrador that she travelled the world with. Her psychiatrist felt she had no diagnosable condition and prescribed no medication, she was a binge drinker, suffered from some mild bulimia and self-harm, but he recognized her for what she is – a lost member of a global elite who struggle with connecting to the reality of living a life. It was as if she strode around the planet on stilts, the most qualified, and yet the least equipped to participate. As Einstein said “the only things that interferes with my learning is my education.” On paper she had had the best education money can buy, but along with her upbringing, she had been left rootless and unable to connect colleagues or a working routine. Was this global citizen a case of someone becoming less than the sum of their parts?

I wondered if her self-sabotage was her unexpressed anger towards her emotionally detached, but demanding mother – she was the driving force behind Cindy’s spectacular CV. And her drinking, self-harm and eating problems all attempts at regulating and suppressing her feelings in a context where regular attachment patterns had been replaced by layer upon layer of detachment. Perhaps Freud would recognize these behaviours as a modern version of hysteria? An attempt at taking control of what feels like an out of control psychic situation, by seeking to control her physical pain and food intake. Cindy seemed to lack a model or script for normal regulated patterns around eating, sleeping, exercise or human attachment. All of which are prerequisites for good mental health and well-being. I encouraged her to connect with friends, but none of them were in London – they were equally diverse and now spread across the planet from Jakarta to Sao Paolo.

I found myself looking back to my own experience on the Goldman Sachs Summer Program in London in 1993. I grew up in rural Norfolk and was driven by a desire to leave a place that felt too small and lacking excitement and stimulation – at my school everyone was white and the most diverse person was a Roman Catholic. Perhaps I am the opposite of Cindy, I know where I am from, but wanted to escape, and have more recently found myself drawn back to the familiar comfort of a place that is at the essence of who you are. But at her age, all I wanted to do was leave, and at Goldman Sachs I found what were considered to be global citizens of that time. But they were not like Cindy, they were Europeans who had been to Harvard and Americans graduating from Insead. They were exotic by my standards but could all articulate where they came from and where they wanted to work and live their lives. They didn’t have quite the cosmopolitan cocktail that is Cindy, this is the global elite on a new global scale – but those I meet clinically are suffering from a very modern condition – a lack of attachment to place, and are often psychically lost, and unable to function in any way close to what was expected of them.

To be a truly high functioning global citizen perhaps you need something much more basic, which costs nothing – a loving family and a place you know is home.

Nell Montgomery
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