Healing the Sick Person: an Existential Approach to the Art and Science of Psychiatry: Psychopathology and Our Existential Plight

Mental disorders are conditions that may be brought on by innumerable precipitants which reflect the complexity of the structure which we are. As we know when we attempt to formulate a case, an interplay of biological, familial, social and psychological factors is described to help understand the picture with which we are presented.

Our early experiences have a profound influence on us. At no time, except in our last moments are we usually weakest and most dependent on others. As young children, we develop our first impressions of how the world is. We are dependent on our caretakers for physical and emotional nurturance. Disruptions in these bonds, as Bowlby and others have described, have powerful repercussions within the person. Because of our limited physical abilities and understanding of the world, we may become overwhelmed by anxiety and despair by situations that in adult life might otherwise be tolerated. We may be faced with unremitting confrontations with our own weakness. As a solution, patterns of behaviour, a “character armour” develop as a means of handling the challenges, of protecting oneself from the emerging threats.

These patterns of perceiving, understanding, and acting, because they tend to be fixed, become maladaptive at times within the vagaries of life. When they begin to interfere with relationships and other aspects of the person’s life, these characterological traits are seen as psychopathological and can be classified as such under diagnostic systems like DSM III which lists them as Axis II diagnoses. Though these categories help us in conveying to one another a sense of the person we are treating, they, unfortunately also, by focussing only on certain aspects of the person, can deflect our attention away from her totality. They act as stereotypes in this way; but this too reflects the rigidity of the character that the person has become. In spite of this rigidity, the person remains unique and the behaviour patterns to which she clings so ardently and limit the fulness of her life are essentially attempts at avoiding the despair that comes with the reality of individuality.

Reviewing the different types of personality disorder we can posit some explanations of the relationships between the various presentations and the individuals’ existential positions.

Persons within this first group of Paranoid, Schizoid, and Schizotypal Personality Disorders are generally perceived as odd and eccentric. There may feel to be little connection between oneself and a person who presents in such a way.

The schizoid person seems to shun relationships. He turns to fantasy as a solution; human contact might awaken a sense of empty aloneness. In being with the other he finds himself desparately alone. So he avoids people; in order to escape from his existential position of aloneness he runs to aloneness.

Ther are other conditions of self-imposed aloneness where a bridge is maintained with the other but is constructed with hate. Perhaps this might be the case with a particular paranoid individual. Love for him is pain and humiliation; it is felt as a weakness. Unable to bear the experience of losing the other, the loss of love, and unable to stand alone, he keeps the other alive in fantasy as an object of derision and hate, alternating with fear.

Whether a person with a schizotypal personality disorder has a brain dysfunction like scihizophrenia or has developed his character in response to a particularly painful or otherwise inadequate environment, the result is someone living in a magical universe inhabited by spirits and peculiar coincidences, where others may seem deadened at times and so present at others that they appear to be within one’s head. Occult techniques are used to discern what the real world will bring. How is one to jump out of one’s private world to know the reality beyond? Clearly one cannot go beyond one’s own experience as it defines in part who one is; the horror of isolation drives the person further into his own private experience, away from others and hence into deeper isolation.

Then there is the emotional, dramatic, erratic group of personality disorders.

Here are worlds of extremes: good and bad, greatness or insignificance, elation or despair, total freedom or total restriction.

The sociopath cannot bear the burden of responsibility; it is his life but he cannot or will not see anything but how he has been treated. He relinquishes his free choice, opting for non-reflective action. He desires freedom from condemnation but frequently is left with a life of confinement and pain to others and himself.

The weakness and insignificance that is felt by the person with a narcissistic personality disorder is countered by flights into fantasy which must be mirrored by others. An inner sense of lack and smallness makes him feel entitled and causes him to disregard the rights of others. Unable to face himself as he is, he creates himself through others; he creates himself in fantasy. He doesn’t grow emotionally and spiritually as long as he fails to accept and begin from the point of who he actually is.

Likewise the pattern in the histrionic personality disorders; the person, his life feels empty so he fills it with excitement and activity. One skirts the surface in dread of nothingness. Avoiding the experience of there being nothing to life, to oneself, one dramatizes and over-reacts. In the end the shallowness that is created is the nothingness one wished to avoid.

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the borderline personality is the attept to escape from oneself into the other. To be oneself is intolerable. The neediness is so intense that it drives others away. One is ever brought back to oneself.

Turning to the last group of scared, introverted, anxious personality disorders, we see a failure of heroic action which reinforces guilt and anxiety, thereby making the hurdle ever larger until it is mountainous.

The avoidant person cannot attempt an attack; he runs in response to his lack of strength. But life becomes increasingly impoverished thereby increasing the anxiety. He wants to live, to make real his desires but, this involves a risk. To avoid the risk, to avoid the possibility of failure, he runs to failure. In relational terms, out of fear of being unloved, one runs from the possibility of love.

The dependent person seeks the protection of others who, in turn, are all too ready to project their own weakness onto the individual presenting himself as a poor unfortunate. He may be take the form of a masochist who projects onto a complementary sadist, the terror of death and guilt. He hates his weakness as he ultimately hates the sadist, but he remains in the relationship hoping to eventually manipulate a victory from these forces of evil. The sadist too despises weakness; he overcomes his own powerlessness by subjugating his victim. Though the masochist would vanquish the sadist, he can never allow himself to succeed; to do so would entail his losing his source of borrowed power. Thus the battle continues, both seeking to escape despair into whose pit they find themselves slowly sinking as life grows ever more miserable.

The compulsive too hates weakness, especially moral weakness; there is a proper way to act. His lack of self-acceptance permeates his being in the world. He is indecisive, fearing condemnation in either direction he turns. He insists that others submit to his will in fear of giving in, surrendering , and hence seeing himself as a coward. If only life can be controlled, he reasons, he will be able to avoid death guilt and insignificance. Here again, as the individual attempts to save his life, he finds it slipping away. He becomes what he most feared.

Healing the Sick Person: an Existential Approach to the Art and Science of Psychiatry: The Person and Healing

While it is difficult to tease out the degree to which psychological, social, familial, constitutional, and organic factors influence the picture we see when dealing with many personality disordered persons, in this as in other psychiatric conditions, both the physical and the mental aspects of the person are affected.”Mental”, like other illness, is both physical and psychological, and ultimately spiritual in that it shakes the person to his depths and forces him to confront himself.We as healers, attempt to effect a change in the person that comes to us for help. A complete state of health is not brought about by the alleviation of the symptom alone, nor in bringing the patient to a position where she conforms to society’s or our image of what she should be. Overcoming illness would rather seem to involve a return of the capacity to creatively affirm oneself. Health might be described as a state of wholeness of the individual in the world.There will be struggles but the patient will be able to continue and not flee from life. In health tthe person is able to be and hence express herself creatively, thereby gaining fulfillment. As Freud said, “One is able to love, work, and play.”

The healer helps by dealing with the three aspects of the person’s nature: her body, her psyche, and her spirit. The interventions range from doig something to the patient like providing medication to being a catalyst whereby she is better able to heal herself.

The importance of biological factors is quite clear in the organic brain syndromes and reasonably certain in psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and major affective disorders. In panic disorder as well there is some evidence of perhaps a neurochemical imbalance resulting in spontaneous anxiety states which are not precipitated by symbolic phenomena. In such cases it is clear that physical therapy in the form of medication has a role to play in the healing of the individual.

Anxiety has been thus far described as being a manifestation of our existential estrangement from ourselves and the world. In coming to know ourselves in the world we break the unconscious identification with the totality. The result is a profound sense of separation in which our dependent position is all too evident. In an attempt to avoid conditions of anxiety and despair we join one another as a society which provides us with the support to affirm ourselves. We may not have been blessed with the biological, familial, cultural, and other factors which help in the creation of these supports. In such a situation, the person faces his creatureliness, his worthlessness alone and sets about, in his own way, to evade the problem, to shield himself from the anguish inherent in existence. Torment arises out of conflict; in a no-win situation, the person is led to despair. The person becomes his own worst enemy, precipitating in the end what he most feared.

The person comes to understand himself in the psychotherapeutic situation. As the transference unfolds, the patient is able to develop a relationship with nature and its transcendent powers. In the safety of the therapeutic setting, he can begin to explore himself and the world. Though he may initially gain strenghth by using the therapist as a source of power or someone to be manipulated in a self-expansive way, as the therapy progresses his conflicts come to life within the relationship and brought to his attention.

Clearly the intervention can go only so far as to provide the patient with the therapist’s impressions. Ultimately it is the patient who changes, who becomes himself as he chooses how to react within the relationship. He attains a cohesion of self not in understanding the interpretation and not solely by his sense of being understood; rather he becomes himself by his his acts.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy is but one in a number of techniques used in our field. What may be a common thread, what may be involved in the bringing about of change is the identification of the problem which is then set in a theoretical framewok and, perhaps with the help of the therapist’s suggestions, the patient’s acting on it. The key element of all therapies: behavioural, cognitive, psychodynamic, short and long-term, what ulimately effects change is what the patient does (including introspection).   

In chronic illnesses as in other cases where we see the patient through aspects of his existential condition, there is a part of healing which involves ministering to the patient. One helps him to accept himself with the illness and adopt an attitude of thankful dependence. This would sound quite condescending if our human condition were any different; but it isn’t. We have no less trouble accepting ourselves, letting down our guard and admitting our lack of self-sufficiency. We may be even more dependent on the social structure into which we have been fortunate to forge for ourselves an enviable position. We are brothers and sisters in the human condition.

As the patient comes to the recognition of both his and the therapist’s inability to lift him above this human condition, we may see a transfer to the real source of power. He doesn’t have to please his parents, hisboss, his society, or his therapist, but rather has to find acceptance and strength in his depths, in the very power that creates and maintains him.

Abelief system won’t do; the answer has to be as real as the anxiety and despair that he is.

A lot has been said in the last forty-five minutes. What is left to say in closing? One thought that might come to mind is that mid-life crises make for unusual Grand Rounds. Perhaps we can review briefly what has been discussed.

We looked at the idea of the person and saw how she might be described as multidimensional. The person firstly exists. She does so as an individual participant within the larger universe. The fact of her existence makes her a concrete, living truth which is a creative and dynamic unity. Ultimately she becomes who she is through the free expression of her will. Through her actions she makes the potential a reality. The person participates in her creation from a universal basis which can be understood in terms of the psyche and the physical universe. The person is a psychophysiological unity which presents a paradox to our finite reason. The person is separate making her an individual participant in the world. Separateness is felt as aloneness and in the experiences of anxiety and despair. We are anxious of the possibility of, and despair of the realities of death, condemnation, and meaninglessness.

Our ills have physical, psychological, and ultimately spiritual dimensions. They are ultimately spiritual because suffering involves the totality of the person and brings him to a recognition of his existential aloneness

Healing’s aim is to re-establish the wholeness of the person in her world. Physically this means an intervention involving matter: surgery, pharmacotherapy, prosthetic devices and so on. Psychologically, it means bringing her to a recognition of her conflicts. Spiritually speaking, healing involves the development of an attiaude of acceptance and thankful dependence. In psychiatry these three separate healing roles are adopted through the administration of medication and the “talking cure” both of which are carried out in an atmosphere of understanding as two persons share their solitude.