Newcomers to power in Washington, even the most laid-back folks from Plains, can expect a period of psychic "bends" as they adjust, according to people who know about this city's brand of stress.
There is no certifiable connection between the siren-call of power and the wrecked marriages, heavy drinking and other stress-related difficulties that make headlines here, caution professionals.
But those who come here to play the power game had best be wary of the city's effects on the vulnerabilities they bring with them.
"The pressures here probably don't cause people's problems, but they can certainly inflate the ones you already had," said one psychiatrist.
The sense of complexity and high stakes of the decisions made here, the relatively high cost of living, the pace, governmental red tape, the "flatteries" of power, the intensity of office relationships, the ubiquitous cocktail and what Carter aide Jack Watson recently described with a wince as the "relentless scrutiny of the press" are among the sources of stress affecting power seekers, power holders, and their families in post-Watergate Washington.
"Sometimes you do have the feeling of walking through a mine field of your personal life, your finances, your past, and some very demanding work, wondering if there's anything that's going to explode," said a recently arrived lawyer on the Carter team.
At the same time, experts point out, both the city and the individuals who come here tend to be rather well equipped for stress.
"There are more ways of getting into trouble here, and they are likely to be more sensational," said Dr. William Thompson, a psychiatrist. "On the other hand, there's a real chance here for a more mature approach to such problems."
There are more psychiatrists per capita here than any other city in the country, according to the Washington Psychiatric Society, partly because government health plans cover psychiatric costs.
Washington has a rate of alcohol consumption that is more than double the national per capita average (6.54 gallons compared to 2.63 gallons), a rate that is caused partly by suburban residents buying their liquor in the city where it's cheaper. Washington, however, offers plenty of help for problem drinkers.
"People who want help will be surprised; they will be amazed to find they are surrounded by a large community of recovered alcoholics setting a fine example, people of their own class, whether they are a secretary, or a Secretary with a capital S. I guarantee it," said Mary J. Kidd, executive director of the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Inc.
And for those who like to release their tensions through physical exertion, according to one Civil Service occupational health expert, Washington is "the joggingest city I've seen anywhere."
In any case, according to Dr. George J. McMahon, president of the Washington Psychiatric Society, "What may be unique here is that many of the people who come to Washington are liable to seek out the stress, on account of their goals and ambitions. They see this as a growth experience."
He said newcomers to positions of responsibility will probably encounter a period of "internal flux, a recordering of themselves. The technical word for this is 'regression,' but I don's mean to suggest that they'll be liabilities in their jobs during this period. Maybe their old working attitudes and values and reference points will suddently feel less reliable . . . you might say fluid, rather than stable and operational."
The effect of stress on those who govern is apparently one of the few subjects about which the government cannot provide a handy study, complete with statistics.
Despite the popular conception that a big city like Washington is inherently more "stressful" than a rural environment in, say, Georgia, there are no cause-effect studies that bear this out, according to the experts. Stress appears to depend on the individual.
"There was some thought" of doing a study on alcoholism among top government officials and politicians, according to a spokesman for the National Clearing House for Alcohol Information. "But apparently it was decided that it was extremely sensitive, getting into congressmen and so forth. And it is the government who funds us."
In any case, as Georgetown social psychologist Dr. Daniel Geller put it, "No one knows how to quantify the stress of power and ambition."
Former Congressman Wilbur Mills, in an interview from his Kensett, Ark, home, recommended that anyone coming to Washington in any position get a hobby, "anything that will give you relief from the pressure of work, the pressure to do, to accomplish . . . " He feels it was workaholism that aggravated his alcoholism, he said.
Mills' long career was devastated after the midnight plunge into the Tidal Basin of his companion, dancer Fanne Foxe in 1974, during what he describes as "an alcoholic blackout."
"I drank because it was the only form of relaxation I had, or knew about," Mills said "That's all right for those who can handle alcohol, but you never know whether you can until you drink, and people often don't realize when they cross over, when they stop handling it and it starts handling them."
The idea that drinking is a social necessity here is a mistaken one, he said. "I think anyone who goes to a social function in Washington will find that one-half or more are not taking a drink, thought they may be holding a drink. Someone who wants to justify his own drinking can tell himself that they're all drinking."
Citing the "seductive sense of exhilaration and excitement here," and the prevalence of alcohol as a social vehicle, Dr. Ernrst P. Noble, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol, advises newcomers to avoid the "when in Rome" impulse.
"Try as much as possible to maintain your old habits, whether in family relationships, church attendance, exercise routine or anything else," he said. "Keep your integrity."
For married couples, "forewarned shoud be forearned," said Lori H. Eisenberg, a family counseling specialist and divorced mother of four who is, she says, both personally and professionally acquainted with the hazards of Capitol Hill life.
"The pitfalls for a marriage are in fact greater here because of the long hours, the intensity of professional effort and the excitement of sharing this experience - often with fellow staff members rather than with your spouse - which can become part of a magnitic attraction."
She suggested that couples make sure they commit themselves from the beginning to make some time for each other, for intimacy and talk; to acknowledge the hazards and to work to preserve the marriage.
"Even given the best of intentions," she said, "that's often not enough to compete with the powerful pull of the excitement offered in the upper echelons of government."
Where the husband and wife agree on their priorities and can collaborate in their respective roles, the professionals noted, they can be quite successful in their marriage.
Dr. Jerry M. Wiener has a multiple perspective on the subject of stress in Washington: as a psychiatrist, as the husband of a Carter transition team member, and as a father of four sons, who moved here a year ago from Atlanta.
"The cost of living here is a frustration, a kind of injury, really, which must be coped with. I know people who come here with real power, and yet they accept living conditions much less spacious and comfortable than they're used to. That creates stress on the families, too," Wiener said. He is chairman of the department of psychiatry at Children's Hospital and acting chairman of the George Washington University psychiatric department.
He sees another kind of stress occuring in individuals who "go out and decide world and national affairs at the office, who are actually 'idols' there," then must come home and function as spouse and parent. "That requires a daily adjustment."
In his own family, Wiener said, there have been tremendous adjustments and stress, especially for the children, as a result of the move - "But it's been great fun, too."
Another psychiatrist said people generally are "marinated" in stress, and they pay differing prices for it, from ulcers and tension headaches, to irritability, and in some cases more serious "disturbances of mood," which they may or may not be able to camouflage.
According to several former top-level presidential appointees, who asked not to be named, the frustrations of trying to get anything done in the face of bureaucratic red tape and governmental checks and balances can cause major problems of physical or mental health, "especially," said one, "if you have integrity."
They cautioned against "too high expectations and fragile egos" in dealing with hostile congressional committees, one's own bosses, the press, employee unions, pressure groups and others. "One cannot get done everything he wants," said one.
They emphasized also the importance of "dealing face to face, rather than by memo or by phone," with the people who can help you, as one former Defense Department official put it, "even in a huge bureaucracy."
Federal agencies recently have increased their commitment to providing a range of health care for employees, according to Tom Campagna, chief of the occupational health division of the Civil Service Commission, "and much of it is related to this whole area of stress, including such programs as hypertension screening, physical fitness programs, and programs to identify and treat employees who have alcohol, drug abuse and other problems."
There is stress associated with any move, of course - new town, new job, new house, new schools for the children, new people, and so on, noted Georgetown's Geller. "At least in Washington, you know you're not going through it alone. You're one of the crowd."