What's Your Syndrome? 

These days, everyone suffers or benefits from a syndrome

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Just before the housing bubble burst, a Gen-X couple I know re-negotiated the terms of their mortgage. The wife told me that they got an “awesome deal” because the loan officer took a shine to them. “He said we were a cool couple,” she confided.

I stifled a smile. How could anyone be so conceited—or so gullible—to believe a cold-hearted banker would grant concessions on a loan because the applicant was just so damned cool? But she did!

From then on, I took note of the couple’s interaction with the world at large. For her, life was a mirror in which she appraised herself and her husband in frequent, sidelong glances. I wouldn’t say she preened, but like Narcissus gazing into the pool, she liked what she saw. They were Patagonia cool—organic, Apple green and outdoorsy. They were ordinary folk who cultivated a certain image so assiduously that it became self-fulfilling. The cool couple was accommodated when others weren’t. I noticed they seemed to get a better table sooner in a crowded restaurant. But the pathology of what I came to call the Cool Couple Syndrome included the inability to see themselves as others saw them.

My observations then took an unexpected turn. I had to admit to myself that I, too, had experienced bouts of Cool Couple Syndrome over the years. A flush of embarrassment rose alongside the memory of occasions when I swaggered when I ought to have walked, traipsed or trudged. My wife will be surprised to read this because I don’t think she has ever thought of us as a cool couple. My wardrobe alone would be a disqualifier, she would say.

I grew up in an age relatively free of syndromes—or so it seemed. There were H-bombs, polio and communists to worry about, but no one I knew had a syndrome. Since then, I find they have proliferated at a faster rate than have smartphone apps. Like bed bugs and mutating viruses, syndromes lurk close by, threatening me in an indistinct way. My first encounter with syndrome coincided with the birth of a son. I had to make sure that he slept right side up as a precaution against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. A few years later, Toxic Shock Syndrome came out of nowhere to threaten women using super absorbent tampons. Next, the specter of AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, was stalking the country.

Then, in fairly rapid succession: Carpal Tunnel, Chinese Restaurant, Chronic Fatigue, Sigh and Restless Leg—syndromes all. There are now literally hundreds. Many are arcane; none has a redeeming feature. Still, I can’t help but think a stand-up comic like George Carlin could mine the long list (where he would find Shrinking Penis Syndrome) for a sidesplitting monologue. If an ordinary guy like me is able to coin Cool Couple Syndrome, consider the possibilities when a wag like Carlin puts his mind to it! How about “Utah Republican Legislator Syndrome”?

Speaking of Republican legislators, Orrin Hatch’s interest in a seventh term may well indicate the onset of Retirement Syndrome (RS). According to professor Manfred Kets de Vries, RS afflicts those in power who cling to their jobs even after admitting to themselves they have accomplished all that is possible and “feel isolated, empty or unfulfilled.” Hatch, 78, may shrink from the good life of senator emeritus because he “craves an endless supply of narcissistic stimuli,” according to Kets de Vries’ clinical theory. If Hatch has succumbed to RS, I think he has lots of company. I know plenty of people who define themselves by their jobs. Retirement for them is an existential crisis to be put off as long as possible. Moreover, those who have been lifelong workaholics “face the prospect of spending time at home with a partner who has become a virtual stranger,” Kets de Vries writes.

It doesn’t matter if a couple is cool or not, one of the partners is going to pay an outsized price if syndromes like RS take hold. Even the Internal Revenue Service acknowledges that by granting Innocent Spouse Relief to those whose husbands or wives have played fast and loose with income-tax returns. In my experience, the innocent spouse is usually female, which partly explains why women have their own catalog of syndromes: Estranged Spouse, Battered Spouse, Surrogate Spouse and Retired Husband. First identified in Japan in 1991, Retired Husband Syndrome causes physical illness and depression in women whose salaryman husband nears retirement. These are men who have worked long hours for years, leaving their wives to attend to home and hearth single-handedly. The prospect of having the men in close proximity, till death do us part, is more than some women can bear.

Women are also susceptible to Broken Heart Syndrome (BHS). In fact, women are eight times more likely to suffer from BHS than men. With symptoms that mimic a heart attack, BHS is brought on by episodes of high stress or emotion. The cause is yet unknown, but studies at the Mayo Clinic suggest a tsunami of stress hormones, triggered by a seismic event like the death of a loved one, may be a contributing factor. BHS is sometimes fatal. Cool Couple Syndrome (CCS) never is. BHS affects the heart; CCS, the eyes. I can attest to the distorted view of reality that is symptomatic of CCS. A sufferer may wear the accoutrements of cool, listen to jazz and devote time to all the right stuff; but until someone—preferably some cool hand—inducts him into the state of coolness, it is vanity that sets him apart from the rest of us.Â

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