Friday, April 24, 2009

The Other Side of Madness

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

You don’t often hear people talk about madness. Not the real, out there, delusional kind. It’s a word you’ll more often than not hear in its sanitized form. It was a mad night out on the town, or such and such a character is ‘mad’ because of his daring behaviour or a gig or event was mad, meaning it was fun to the point of wild or unruly. We toy with the word in order to make ourselves feel a little less bound by society’s rules and regulations.
And that in itself is no bad thing. We need to let our hair down once in a while. We need to get out from under the yoke of convention every now and then.
But when we do use the word for real we think of a place that is, if you like, beyond the normal boundaries of thought or behaviour. Madness is a realm that we shut off, that we treat almost as if it were not there. And very certainly we tend to consider it as a place that once you wander in, there is no getting out of it again.
That’s why it was so refreshing to hear from one man who wandered in and made his way out again. London Irish poet John O’Donoghue was in town this week giving a reading at University College Dublin as part of the John Hume Institute’s lunchtime ‘Writing Home’ series. He was born in the late 1950s to native Irish speaking parents who had emigrated to London. So he described growing up speaking with an Irish accent at home and an Eastender’s accent when he was out with his mates.
The reality of his life, however, was that he was ‘sectioned’ at the age of 16. Sectioned is a word, for those who don’t know it, that means being detained under the Mental Health Act because you have been diagnosed with, usually, a moderate to serious mental disorder. In John O’Donoghue’s case he said he was mad, psychotic, delusional. And in short, when you present in society with those symptoms you get ‘sectioned’ and your freedom is taken away.
He read a piece of prose about being prepared for electric shock treatment, which he received on numerous occasions, and spoke freely of his stays in psychiatric institutions, of his dealings with zany psychiatrists, and of his battle with the see-saw life of madness and sanity.
It began to end for him, even though it has not quite ended, through, of all things, education. He puts his acceptance to East Anglia university down as the turning point in his life. He studied English and American literature, began writing poetry and saw writing as a cathartic way of understanding and dealing with the world as he saw it. The university was also the place where he met his wife of 20 years.
As he said himself, he is not fully out of the grip of madness. Sometimes he feels it coming on but he quoted something that actor Stephen Fry said about depression. Describing it as an unwelcome visitor, Fry’s words, John O’Donoghue said that when he feels this unwelcome visitor approaching he feels much more ‘friendly’ to the visitor now.
It’s a simple thing but it points up one man’s remarkable ability to come to terms with, even have a relationship with, the symptom that threatened to destroy his life and that, in many other instances, has actually destroyed the lives of others.
It is a fascinating insight into something that psychoanalysis has been championing, if that’s the right word, for over a century and a half. You’ll notice that John O’Donoghue didn’t talk about the word ‘cure’. There was no ‘cure’ for him in the strict sense of the word. But there was an accommodation and acceptance and learning to live with what it was he was suffering from. His madness, according to him, hasn’t gone away but his understanding of it and his relationship to it has changed in such a way as to allow him live and love and work. And that, given the particular mountain he had to climb, must seem close enough to a cure.
The 'fix me' attitude that is so prevalent in society today stems from a belief that all ailments have a cause and a cure and that the cure must involve the taking away of all suffering. All ailments have a cause. But taking away all suffering? Lessening the suffering is the aim, making it understandable and manageable is the goal, and releasing the capacity for happiness that is tightly sealed up within it is the aspiration.
If you are interested in reading John O'Donoghue's work then his current memoir is called ‘Sectioned, A Life Interrupted’ (John Murray 2009) and his full length collection of poetry is called ‘Brunch Poems’ (Waterloo Press 2009).
• The next blog will appear on Friday May 8th, 2009.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Depression, A Symptom of the Age - 3

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

I wrote last week and the week before about depression being linked to a sense of loss. You could say that the classical psychoanalytical position posits an ego (the conscious part of our mind mediating between our internal and external world) that is so weak and so depressed, it has almost disappeared. It is the ego, the part of us that gives us the sense of ourselves, of who we are, that has become lost. The basic condition for depression, therefore, is this loss of ego with all the symptoms that are so similar to the state of mourning.
More modern psychoanalytic thinking moves this on somewhat. While the notion of loss, and the mourning for some intangible thing that is lost, remains part of the theory of depression it has more recently come to be understood as a tumbling out of a fundamental fantasy in which we situate ourselves in relation to significant others in our lives. This fundamental fantasy is an elaborate and necessary fiction by which we construct our identity in accordance with the desire or desires of others.
In depression we fall out of this desire of the other. We become un-desired, unable to cause desire, unable to re-ignite desire and our view of ourselves suffers detrimentally as a result. In short, we lose that vital sense of meaning, of who we are, the inner thing that supports us and allows us face the ups and downs of life with, not immunity to pain, but a sense of being securely anchored within ourselves in terms of facing it.
As I said last week, if depression is a sign of the times then we have to look closely at the times we are in. Yes, depression results in sadness, inability to function, unwillingness to engage with others, poor self esteem, a sense of isolation, lack of sleep, negative thoughts, irritability/aggression, and so on, but with changing times new depressive symptoms have been steadily emerging. Most if not all therapists working in clinical practice will be familiar with this phenomenon.

By new depressive symptoms I mean things like borderline personality disorder – this includes intense bouts of anger and anxiety that may last only hours, or at most a day and can be associated with episodes of impulsive aggression, self-injury, drug, or alcohol abuse. We also see symptoms like self harm, eating disorders, aggressive and sexual acting out.
This new evolution of depressive symptoms is driven by the need to sustain the weakening self in the face of an aching, unnameable loss. And, unlike the more classical symptoms that centre around the psychical concept of ‘feeling’ bad, the new symptoms are centered as actual and real events on the body. Self inflicted pain, bodily discomfort, as well as physically and often impulsive actings out are physical, bodily solutions to the underlying emptiness of depression. They are a forced way of feeling alive, a shock that brings us back from the void, a physical and destructive response to the emptiness of depression and the fear that this sense of emptiness engenders.
A further characteristic of these symptoms is that they avoid language, or symbolization through speech, or communicative sharing with others, or any attempt to put into words what is going on for the sufferer. They are pure action; immediate and direct administrations of negatively charged pleasures.
Professor Paul Verhaeghe of Ghent University sees depression as a possibility for every person because it is rooted in the process of identification, which is essentially dependant on our ability to inter-relate with others. This process of identification is central to everyone’s formation as a person. If this process of identifying with significant others – allowing us form our own identity – is hampered or weakened in any way, we risk tumbling out of the fantasy I spoke of earlier.
Dublin psychoanalyst Rik Loose, on the other hand, believes depression is due to anxiety and the latter’s prevalence in modern times. As an expert on addiction, he refers to drugs as externally situated products of negative pleasure with which users administer their own compensatory internal pleasures in order to avoid depression.
But he makes an interesting point. Anxiety comes first since it is part of the human condition and is laid down very early in all our lives, to a greater or lesser extent. But anxiety is not something that is acceptable in ‘modernist’, progressive society. This unacceptability leads us to deny it and repress it and this is where the problem of depression comes in, he says.
While it is a new take on depression, it also harks back to an idea of Freud (1926) that anxiety is the thing that drives us to bury and repress and deny certain wishes and desires and thoughts. So, in this light, depression arises from a denial of anxiety. This then leads us to seek out artificial means to deal with depression itself, in effect a second denial.
Other writers have agreed with this idea and have further suggested that depression is a giving up of one’s place in the world of ideas, words and satisfying relationships and retreating instead to a more silent, secretive, personally isolated world where artificial ‘comforts’ are sought by way of compensation. However, these ‘comforts’ – alcohol, drugs, sex, masturbation, aggression, food, self-harm, etc., – only add to the depressive experience in the long term.

I mentioned the notion of falling out of the desire of the other and it can have one other consequence. It can lead a person to feeling as if they are a mere puppet at the mercy of an omnipresent significant other or others. In this case depression acts as a defence – albeit not a very effective one - against being crushed under the weight of this oppressive other or others by effectively putting oneself out of the service. The job of therapy in this instance becomes that of carefully rebuilding the person’s ability to trust, love and enter into relationships without fear of being overwhelmed.

In summary, psychoanalysis stands against the vague generality of the term ‘depression’, a stance that today has greater urgency when you consider the attempts to transform sufferers into consumers of ‘happy pills’. The term is, as one writer put it, a ‘non-differentiating cloak’ that seeks to describe the ‘symptoms of the discontent’ in our modern age.
It has become an overused concept as a result of two main forces. One is pharmacology, which is at times indispensable but which leads us to believe that there is a pill that can ‘cure’ it. It can certainly alleviate but it cannot cure.
And, secondly, the human condition means we are complicit too because, in our own way, we like to believe that there are artificial means of administering pleasure that will offer a form of cure.
Psychoanalysis, in contrast, is always looking for a cause, and this is to be found in the particularity of each individual’s real and human situation. It is to be found in the totality of their lived experience. That’s where we look to find the answers.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How Does Depression Work? - 2

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Picking up where I left off last week, depression is a particularly prevalent psychological disorder that affects between 8% and 12% of the populations of most countries worldwide. Not only is prevalent it also has a long history. The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (who gave us the Hippocratic Oath in medicine) described a syndrome of melancholia as a distinct disease with particular mental and physical symptoms including sadness, dejection, and despondency, along with fear, anger, delusions and obsessions. The term ‘depression’ is derived from the Latin verb deprimere, "to press down" and from the 14th century it meant to subjugate or to bring down in spirits.
There are a number of factors which have to be borne in mind when discussing the issue of depression. One is that, if you accept that depression is centered around a sense of loss within the person – an emptiness, a void, an inexplicable and debilitating lack – you also usually find that the person is not aware of what has been lost.
The nature of the loss is not conscious, and may just as well involve a disappointment or slight as a large traumatic event. Freud said in 1915 that if the depressed person has an idea about 'whom' he has lost, he does not know 'what' he has lost in them. This remark is interesting because it implies that there is a difference between a 'who' and a 'what' when it comes to what has been lost.
French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who re-invented Freud and took his thinking to new heights, believed there was a link to human aggressivity. In his earliest seminar, he said that if we cannot imagine that we are something special for others, then the only other way to relate would be through intolerance for each other.* It is, like so much of the man's thinking, a fascinating idea.
In essence, if we lose that often times imaginary but nonetheless essential belief in what we represent for others, then it can allow a primordial aggressivity to overtake us. That is to say, a potential for aggression that is directed outwards and, in turn, can also be directed inwards.
When you consider depression, aggression is a favoured reaction of the wounded ego to protect itself from further harm, whether real or imagined. It is much the same if we become aggressive to protect a broken arm or a cut finger. But aggression can equally direct itself against oneself as punishment for becoming a wounded person in the first place.
The same Jacques Lacan, however, also believed the term ‘depression’ was too frequently used and too vague a term, a tendency that has continued to grow rather than reduce. Whenever the term is chosen to describe ordinary sadness, he said, is akin to a 'moral failing'.
Many theories have looked at why people become depressed. Some point to the earliest experiences of the infant who might have endured an absence of adequate care. At a very early formative stage, the progressive flow of the infant’s development becomes obstructed and so its identification of its own self as a safe, secure, worthy being is put at risk. This is what is called a narcissistic wound.
Narcissism, as a degree of self love, is necessary for the infant to convince itself of its wholeness and so cope with both its internal demands and the demands of the external environment that threaten to pull it in all directions. If the right level of narcissism is not there, problems in dealing with these forces can emerge.
Linked to this narcissistic notion is, and we come back to it again, the notion of aggression. The infant’s ego is continually trying to integrate itself in such a way as to overcome the unpleasure caused by the separation operative from birth, combined with those same internal and external psycho-physical demands on its system. When this integration of the ego is threatened because of inadequate resources a primitive aggressivity is released.
That is why the fragmentation of self-image that so many depression sufferers describe is accompanied by so much aggression, a lot of it self-directed. The aggressive threat of fragmentation, of being broken up, pulled in all directions, made to feel ‘in bits’, is the polar opposite of the unified, harmonious ego that is relatively comfortable with itself and its place in the world.
The perceived attainment of this unified ego is essential for anyone to remain beyond the reach of depression. But where do we get this image of a unified ego? We get it reflected back to us from the significant others around us at the formative stages of our lives. And so by tuning ourselves into the thing that most successfully fits with these others, we enhance this process. In short, from an early age we set out to realise the desire of others, to become the thing which others desire, to cause their desire for us, ignite their passion for us.
Out of this process of learning to deal with the external world of others and their complicated matrix of desires, our ego is formed. And I mean ego in the sense of that part of us that tells us who we are, that gives us our conscious identity.
But there is one further step involved. In order to achieve the objective of becoming the thing that causes an other to desire us, we have to perfect ourselves and this leads to the concept of ideals. We are powerfully attuned to notions of ideals, possibly as young as two or three years of age, ideals to which significant others in our environment respond favourably. From an early age we strive to use what we can of these ideals in order to perfect ourselves in the eyes of others. While it is not our subject now, this in turn takes us down the road of body image, ideals of perfection and so on.
But what we can draw from the link between ideals, our ego formation and depression is that it is within this process that the onset of the collection of symptoms we broadly term 'depression' is laid down. It is not uncommon nowadays for these symptoms to emerge in early childhood. But mostly they lie dormant until triggered in adolescence or adulthood.
Operating at the core of depression is not just the sense of loss but also a sense of impossibility at making good the loss. The lack of hope experienced by the depressed person is a response not only to loss but also the perceived impossibility at finding the tools to get out from under its burden.
This impossibility originates along the axis of ideals and ego formation. Either the person feels it is impossible to 'become' the ideal thing that others will desire, or that it is impossible to 'find' the ideal thing that others will desire, or that it is impossible to 'sustain' being the ideal thing that causes others to desire.
Hand in hand with this, the wider cultural context has ensured that sustainable examples of ideals on which to model ourselves are increasingly harder to find. What are quaintly referred to as 'the old certainties' are gone and the role of authority (in the form of State, church, community, family, parenthood and so on) has been eroded. So now we have fewer places to look for ideal figures. If, as we are often told, depression is a sign of the times, then we must consider the times we are in.

I will conclude this topic next week with a look at the various ways in which depression manifests in contemporary culture.

* Lacan, J., 'Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-1954', Book I, Norton, 1991, p.177