Archive for the thoughts Category

….to show from where I came

Posted in personal, thoughts with tags , , , on May 31, 2013 by theweirdphilosopher

I´ve been reading a truly fascinating book over the last three weeks. It was a thorough scientific rebuttal of Freud´s theories, and also it managed to be entertaining in a sophisticated way that appears to die off along with a whole generation of (German) intellectuals. I will miss it, because it combines decisive  intellectual integrity with witty self-awareness, without ever being zealous. It is the style of authors who do not yet fear to be called arrogant.

The book, therefore, was not just fascinating in terms of the facts it told me, but also in the way those facts were presented. What it showed to me, unwittingly, was my own self-denial. I used to have a very negative image of the social class I stem from. My hatred was in part directed towards its values (college education, academic career or job that has to do with culture, literature etc.), but even more towards a certain emotional style: The slight trace of irony, of an inner distance, a slightly skeptical stance towards everything, and especially one´s own emotions and convictions. The instinct to suspend judgment until more information is available. It is this precisely what many people seem to perceive as arrogant.

I will not escape this cultural heritage. I tried to replace it with zeal, mania and emotional self-mutilation, but it won´t go away. And ultimately I will find that those things simply aren´t me. I may be an academics´ child who is remarkably close to people from other backgrounds, who has done remarkably many uncharacteristic things and who is remarkably critical of her own background, but I will always be the child of academics. Also, if I am truly honest to myself, I will always be a snob of some kind. I will always, deep at heart, allow myself luxuries like an intellectual taste, and two generations ago this might still have been something worth nourishing. To enjoy writings not because they are in some respect orthodox (as is typical of a zealous age) or even correct, but purely for the author´s wit and personality. To judge books by their style and not the moral value of their content. To be capricious.

The book itself refuted psychoanalysis on two levels: As a theory and as therapy. The rebuttal of its theories are so extensive that it will take me a long time to mentally adapt. I might write about it step by step, or just select the most important things. I am infinitely grateful, though, that this book was written.






To break is to heal – to heal is to come

Posted in health, mental health, personal, thoughts with tags , , , on February 8, 2012 by theweirdphilosopher

Upon trying to find a topic for my thesis, I also had a look at the teachings of Wilhelm Reich. His general idea is that neurosis is the result of pent-up sexual energy, and that you recognize a healthy person by her ability to have a full, complete orgasm through intercourse. Not through any other sexual practice, leave alone homosexuality and other “perversions”.

Reich´s Theories

Reich further distinguishes three kinds of people: The healthy ones, the neurotics, and those who are infested by the Emotional Plague. Healthy people are also good, honest and straightforward people. They are efficient in the workplace, they are loving and supportive in relationships, they have a satisfying sex life without being promiscuous or sleazy, and they do not tolerate violence, abuse, dictatorships and all those other awful things.

Neurotics have about the following personality structure: They have a fake persona which they wear in public, and below that is an ugly mire of aggression, sadism, greed, voluptuousness, perversion. If this “mess” can be sorted out, however, which happens by breaking the patient´s bodily and psychic defense mechanisms (it should be noted that according to Reich, the neurotic´s entire character is a defense mechanism!), there will be a third layer: A good, healthy person. Who will finally be able to orgasm properly, hurray!

Well, those who are infested with the Emotional Plague are incurable. All we can do is prevent them from doing harm. Unfortunately they are hell-bent on damaging, slandering and slaughtering everyone healthy. They can come as criminals, sadists, bigots, racists and just about everything undesirable.

The thing is: Reich believes that human beings are good by nature. It´s just emotionally pestilent societies, families and people that make them sick and twisted (translate: neurotic and pestilent). Therefore, healthy people are also good people, while neurotics are not-so-good-people, and those who suffer from Emotional Plague are very bad people.

So my first question here is: Does being sexually dysfunctional make me a bad person, then? Seriously – if I don´t have happy, fulfilling, satisfying orgasms (let´s be generous and forget about the ignorant misogynist “solely during intercourse” for a moment), then I´m morally reprehensible?

Reichian Sex

Sucks to be me, then. I think I´ve detailed my screwed-up relation towards my body in extenso here.  I mean – you don´t expect that I have Reichian orgasms?

I hate how health and sexual fulfillment is constantly connected in one way or the other. “An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away”, “People with a happy sex life have a lowered risk of *insert terminal illness other than AIDS*”, “People with a happy sex life are less likely to develop this or that mental condition” and on it goes. Oh, and sex also makes you prettier, more charismatic, interesting and mature. And if you´re semi-frigid it makes you feel like shit. I´m so glad at least I´m “perverted”, that way I don´t have to feel like a complete dope. *sarcasm off*

But of course my aversion against the glorification of sex (glorification in the sense that sex is connected to everything otherwise appealing: health, beauty, character, maturity) is sheer envy. That´s Psychology101! (Okay, I admit it, my sarcasm switch is still in “on”-mode.)

I´ll try to be serious now, though. I believe that what is happening is that the not-sexually-fulfilled are being subjected to a more or less conscious, more or less subtle, but definitely constant devaluation and humiliation. Their problem, which technically just concerns a fairly small part of their life and body, is turned into something total: It negatively affects their health, character, looks, work performance and what not. They are not as alive as sexually fulfilled people. They are in many ways lesser beings. Impotence and frigidity are not so much conditions that cause a person suffering – no, they are character defects that devalue the person as a whole.  It hurts.

I find the whole idea of becoming sane and healthy as soon as one finds sexual fulfillment highly degrading. It is such a technical view. Using orgasms in order to keep oneself in line mentally feels to me like sexual self-abuse. There is something dirty and obscene about it. I remember finding out about a conversation between my mother and Irene. They were talking about my depression, and Irene said that if only I´d finally sleep with my boyfriend (I was 15 at the time) I might get better. Not that they ever took my depression seriously. But the way she phrased this (“lack of sexual fulfillment can be a major factor in depressive moods”) just plain disgusted me. I felt so embarrassed at the thought of the two of them envisioning me rolling around groaning and twitching and panting and all that icky stuff. These are things I really don´t wanna see myself doing. And especially not through the eyes of my family.

Reichian Sadism?

Quite another thing I´d like to look at is the question of how good, healthy and humane the Reichian theories and methods themselves are. I find it quite remarkable that a person who is so hell-bent on promoting goodness and peacefulness (unless when faced with the Emotional Plague) should use such brutal expressions as “character armor”; and even more so if that person dedicates an entire book to how this armor can be cracked. The Reichian method focuses on confrontation rather than on empathy. Reich readily acknowledges that his method might cause a patient´s personality to fall apart, with the psychoanalyst being the only thing left to hold on to. Reich readily acknowledges that the patient is going to suffer. And let us not forget just how radical an endeavor Reich´s therapy really is: He views the neurotic´s entire character as “character armor”. Therefore, when he is breaking the armor – he is breaking the character. Uh…welcome to the Ministry of Love?

Character analysis is not the only part of Reichian therapy, though. The other part is more physically oriented. Analogous to “character armor”, there is something called “muscle armor”, that is, chronic muscular tensions which block sexual energy from flowing freely. In order to resolve these tensions along with the repressed feelings that supposedly accompany them, the Reichian therapist pokes, prods and, basically, hurts the patient. This goes along with several other techniques, like making the patient gag repeatedly. I found several accounts by people who experienced this kind of therapy. Two of these people were subjected to this as children, which just plain horrifies me. You can find their accounts here and here.  The third one of them, Orson Bean, actually chose to subject himself to the experience, and from what I´ve heard he is not an opponent of the technique. Still, he uses some very drastic words to describe it. He wrote an entire book about his experiences, but I only have this small excerpt.

So Bean writes:

The doctor was feeling the muscles around my jaw and neck. He found a tight cord in my neck, pressed it hard, and kept on pressing it. It hurt like hell, but Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. “Did that hurt?” asked Dr. Baker. 

“Well, a little,” I said, not wanting to be any trouble.

“Only a little?” he said.

“Well, it hurt a lot,” I said. “It hurt like hell.”

“Why didn’t you cry?”

“I’m a grown-up.”

He began pinching the muscles in the soft part of my shoulders. I wanted to smash him in his sadistic face, put on my clothes, and get the hell out of there. Instead I said “Ow.” Then I said, “That hurts.”

“It doesn’t sound as if it hurts,” he said.

“Well, it does” I said and managed an “Ooo, Ooo.”

 I thought of Franchot Tone in the torture scene form “Lives of Bengal Lancer.” I managed to let out a few pitiful cries which I hoped would break Baker’s heart. He began to jab at my stomach, prodding here and there to find a tight little knotted muscle.

Now isn´t it ironic that a man who raved so fervently against any form of perversion should spawn a method that is perceived as sadistic torture by those who are subjected to it?

But it gets even more ironic: Bean describes how he feels good, high and energetic after the session, even though he has black and blue marks all over. What exactly does this remind me of? Uh, yeah. Accounts by people who are heavily into BDSM.

What tops this off is that Freud once said that neurosis and perversion exclude each other. Both neurotics and perverts were ill in his opinion, but in different ways. Well…in that case the sure-fire cure for neuroses is obviously perversion. So is that how Reichian therapy really works?^^

In that case I´d strongly recommend BDSM. At least you can use a safeword if you want out of the situation. Doesn´t seem to be the case with Orgone Therapy.

The naive philosopher

Posted in college, philosophy, thoughts with tags , on February 6, 2012 by theweirdphilosopher

Okay, the situation is as follows: I need to write my master thesis this year. Which means that I need a topic, and I need two professors to approve of it. Until this time next month, because that´s when I need to enlist for the exam. Which means that I´m starting to panic.

Irene told me one year ago that I should start thinking about topics for my thesis. I complied, very well, but hello, what I found interesting one year ago is not what I find interesting now, right?  That´s the type of attitude that gets you knee-deep into trouble. Because now here I am, waiting to be kissed by the muse. What on earth can I stand to write 100 pages about?

The problem is: If I´m not passionate about a subject, I cannot write about it. I never had the kind of mind Irene has: The cold, rational, scientific perspective. She criticizes my emotional investment in everything I´m interested in (I can feel personally insulted by philosophical theories^^); but if it wasn´t for that investment I wouldn´t be interested in the first place. And if I´m not interested in something and still have to write 100 pages about it, then I get this uncomfortable feeling that I´m wasting my life.

The trouble with emotional investment is that I always fear it might cloud my judgment. What motivates me most, what makes me stay up all night and read, write and ponder, is when something (like a theory or a statement or a text) really, really pisses me off. I thrive on anger. If the anger remains manageable, that is. If I feel like I have good chances to refute the theory. If I know that sooner or later I´ll find out why exactly it pisses me off so much and base my counter-argument on that. But that – personal resentment – is what is frowned upon most. For example by people like Irene. It is why I never felt at home at college. As a student, you´re supposed to think and work scientifically. (Yes, even as a continental philosopher. We may waffle a lot, but we waffle according to scientific standards.) I, however, rely on my gut feelings. If I feel something isn´t right about a theory, even if I can´t pinpoint it, then I´ll take a mental note and come back at it later to find out which of its implications makes me so uncomfortable.  And just how great does it feel when I succeed!

The thing is: My best sensor for uncanny implications is anger. And my best motivation for actually revisiting the theories in question is also anger. So what shall I do? Go to my professors and ask them if I may, please, please write about how something-that-pisses-me-off-real-bad-is-totally-wrong? I was going to ask my professor if I could try to build up a philosophical criticism of psychoanalysis. What would be his next question: “Well, what exactly do you criticize?” He would demand that I give him a synopsis, some structure, just something to work with. But I don´t know yet what the outcome would be if I worked on that subject for six months.

Okay, maybe that´s silly. Nobody can possibly know what he is going to find out before he starts researching. And I can´t do all the research before I even get the official approval of my topic. Hello? I have other things to do as well. So some preliminary research will have to do.

Still, I feel like an idiot. Why can´t I be like Irene? Why can´t I be determined, and rational, and just know what I´m doing, what I´m going to say, and how to convince two professors to accept that work? Why do I have to feel like an eccentric artist who constantly worries that publishers and sponsors will oppress his creativity? I hate having to convince someone of my ideas before I have even fully developed them. I hate having to gain someone´s approval. I just want to pursue my interests and if anybody cares, great, if not, screw you, world! (Yeah, isn´t that everybody´s dream…)

I feel like the typical way philosophy is practiced today looks like this: “I specialize in thinker A. I want to know what he would have said about thesis T §5.6 in the work W part 1 by thinker B in relation to thinker C´s interpretation of the late thinker D´s thoughts on subject E.  So I will ask everybody in the scientific community (and their mom) how they interpret sentence S1, S2 and S3 in thinker A´s opus magnum, insert the results into various interpretations of the expression “amoral subjectivist hermeneutics” and then, finally, arrive at some conclusions OF MY OWN!”

I mean – is there anything left of philosophy other than self-referential musings about other philosophers? One professor of mine quoted a philosopher who claimed that all philosophy after Plato is just footnotes to Plato´s works. Uh, great. So if everything meaningful has been said and done over 2000 years ago, can´t we just launch the armageddon? It´s not like I don´t understand that we are all struggling with our meaninglessness and the general senselessness of everything, but could we please, please FIGHT our nihilism? If we stop believing that somewhere inside some mind a great new idea can be born, we can just as well go kill ourselves. Yeah. That´s me being personally affected by philosophical theories once again.

All I ever searched in studying philosophy was being allowed to develop my own thoughts. It seems to me, though, that nowadays there are no more philosophers. Philosophers are people like Plato, Kant, Hume, Nietzsche. We are just the folks who research them. Wonder what they would have said about this or that subject. Instead of asking what we have to say about it. The only people who still sit down and develop their own world view from scratch are kids and crazies. There is something childish and unscientific about it, isn´t it? Isn´t it hubris to think that you, a single little post-modern person in an age that doesn´t even believe in truths anymore could just sit down and finally find the answers to the great big questions that have plagued humanity ever since? How naive do all those questions seem! How naive it is to ask for the meaning of life! How barbarian! How uneducated! How do you define “meaning” in the first place? Read about how some philosophers defined “meaning” and then come back with your question! We might be able to tell you then what Rousseau, Berkeley or Russell thought about the meaning of life. But we can never give you a manual for how to live!

Still, this naive question, this “how to live, what to do” just doesn´t seem to go away. We can be as scientific as we want, we are still faced with such questions. Maybe we answer it without even realizing it, but the question is there. I think I chose to study philosophy because it was the naive questions that moved me. I never cared much what thinker A thought about late thinker C´s interpretation of thinker D´s opus magnum. I was never really interested in philosophers or even philosophy. The naive questions pop up everywhere. An psychoanalytical essay on narcissism can bring them to your mind. So I can be interested in a great variety of subjects, without being interested the slightest bit in the scientific method which is commonly used to research them.  Which is why I never felt at home in any scientific discipline. Or at college. At school I was a loner, now I feel like an outcast.

Narcissism, faking, and speechlessness

Posted in health, mental health, thoughts with tags , on January 2, 2012 by theweirdphilosopher

Yesterday I decided that it would be cool if I found a blog or two by people who have been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, just to see how they experience things, how they feel…so I googled “Narcissistic Personality Disorder + blog” and…came up pretty much empty-handed.

I managed to check the results on the first six pages before I ran out of patience. I had found several blogs by mental health workers, some stuff on the DSM-V controversy, and an armada of blogs by and about victims of narcissists (some of them very interesting) – but nothing by anybody actually diagnosed with NPD himself. The only thing I came across that at least was somewhat similar to what I had been looking for were the writings of Sam Vaknin. I found them quite intriguing, but they are not what I want to discuss right now. I might come back to them at some point…(or I might not, given how lazy I am^^)

What I want to discuss is the fact that it is so hard to find any blogs by people who talk about how they deal with having NPD. There are plenty of blogs by people with Bipolar, Anxiety or BPD, after all. Why do people not blog about what it is like to have NPD?

Huh. Maybe nobody is ever told of his diagnosis, so they cannot blog about it? But there are forums for people who have the diagnosis, so that cannot be the reason (though the majority of members often consists of non-disordered people who assume their ex or a relative have NPD).

Or maybe narcissists decide that if they sincerely want to recover, they have to stop blogging? It´s not entirely impossible. I struggled with myself over having or not having this blog. I felt like I was going further down a rotten road if I started it; it felt like pure attention-whoring. On the other hand I envied other bloggers (and particularly the successful ones) with all my heart and soul. I found myself making up blog entries in my head (I still do that, I make up more than I could ever write). Eventually I decided that if I was this passionate about doing something, I ought to do it instead of envying others who were good at it.

Others, again, might find it natural that narcissists don´t blog about their disorder – they want to look perfect, after all. But that just reveals a lack of imagination,  really. Which full-blown narcissist can seriously resist the temptation to publicly display himself as the incurable patient, the bad seed, the dead soul? For details, see Sam Vaknin^^

The way I see it, anyway, is that the lack of blogs by folks with NPD might be down to a neat little paradox:

Telling someone you are a narcissist is a bit like saying: “Whatever I do and write, I only do it for the effect it has on other peoples´ perception of me.” By doing so, the effect it would normally have is annihilated. If a person you believe is healthy and normal writes about how sad she is, you will conclude: That person is sad. If a person you believe to be a narcissist writes about how sad she is, you will conclude that she wants you to think she is sad – and that whatever is really behind this, her sadness is definitely fake. It´s like she had posted a disclaimer saying “I always lie.”  People won´t believe that anything she does is genuine and authentic. But what, then, is the point of doing anything?

We tend to see narcissists as fakers, as people who either hide behind a “false self”, or who have no “true self” in the first place. A person who believes herself to be a narcissist might see herself just like that. Now why would she start a blog? She wouldn´t expect herself to be able to deliver a true, authentic account of her experience, after all!

Here is where being labeled as narcissistic turns from being offensive and humiliating towards something even worse. Believing that you are a fake means that you feel unable to communicate with others. You feel unable to do, say, think or feel anything that is not a lie, pretense, a strategy to make an impression on yourself or others. And the worst thing is that you do not even feel like a prisoner behind a wall. You are that wall, and you fear that there is nothing behind you. No true self that was locked away long ago to protect it from damage. Just nothing. It feels like the most authentic thing you could do is do nothing. Say nothing. Think nothing. Feel nothing. Just stop being alive; stop being conscious of yourself. Lie on your bed and slowly turn into a fossil.







What the hell is “the unconscious”?

Posted in health, mental health, philosophy, thoughts with tags , on November 13, 2011 by theweirdphilosopher

If my question sounds rude, well, I can deal with that. It is a fairly legitimate question, I think. I inevitably had to stumble across this problem when I pondered what I wrote in my last post. I had talked about Dr. Crazy´s claim that the anxiety patient dominates all of his relationships. It made me sufficiently angry and I argued that I don´t feel like I´m dominating anything at all. Now, a first possible reply could be that while I might neither feel like I dominate anything, nor even intend to do so, it is nonetheless a fact that I, due to my anxiety issues, have a strong (detrimental) influence on my interpersonal activities and relationships. It is because of these issues, and because of me, that certain choices are made – like going home early – whether I like it or not.

This is a fact, sure. But it is the kind of fact that makes you go “Duh!” Of course a person´s illness affects his relationships. If Dr. Crazy just meant to state this “objective fact”, then why should “looking at the patient´s relationships” play any role in curing the illness, though?  Cure the illness, and the relationship problems will disappear. His statement only makes sense if he thinks that a patient´s relationship might contribute to keeping him ill. And given what else he said – that the patient dominates his relationships – the reason why the relationship keeps the patient ill is that by dominating the relationship the patient gets some secondary gain out of his illness.

Now – after nearly two years of panic attacks in bar restrooms, I´m a little miffed in the face of such an insinuation. But I bet that just proves it is true, doesn´t it? *rolls eyes* My anger aside, though, I think there is a huge gap between Dr. Crazy´s insinuation and the patients´ experience of their illness (and suffering!). What could bridge such a gap? The unconscious, of course. “On a conscious level,” the argument goes, “the patient is suffering from his illness and he wants to restore his health; but subconsciously, he keeps himself ill because that way he can dominate his relationships.”  Of course I could shower this argument with scorn. When all attempts at therapy fail, you can still claim that, without even knowing it, the patient wants to remain ill! How very convenient!

But if we assume that the unconscious is not just a failed therapist´s emergency exit, what, then, is meant by it? What is the unconscious? Let´s stick to the example of subconscious secondary gain for a moment. “Subconscious” seems to imply that the patient is not aware that he gains anything from his illness. How can either therapist or patient ever determine, then, if the patient really derives some secondary gain? And even more importantly, how can a patient ever refute such an insinuation?! Or, to ask in a phenomenological way: What is the experience of subconsciously deriving secondary gain from a mental illness like? As opposed to, for example, subconsciously wanting to murder one´s father?

It seems that if the patient is completely unaware of his subconscious psychological motivations, then both the experience of subconsciously deriving secondary gain from a mental illness and the experience of subconsciously wanting to murder one´s father are alike: They are experiences of not being aware of any hidden motivations. That´s problematic, though, because then there seems to be no way to determine if a patient has subconscious motivation A, subconscious motivation B, or no subconscious motivations at all.

But – isn´t that the precise point of psychotherapy: To make people aware of their subconscious motivations and feelings? It certainly is one of the main points. But how is it possible, if, for the patient himself, all subconscious motivations are equally inaccessible through his subjective experience? Even if we should accept that the psychotherapist, through long years of learning and researching, has the wisdom and legitimate authority to judge what subconscious motivations a patient has – how can he make the patient aware of them? He can tell a patient how he interprets his behavior, the patient might swallow it – but is that the same as awareness? Does the patient ever see, intuitively know, feel a therapist´s interpretation is true? And if so: How is that possible?


Normal and abnormal

Posted in health, mental health, philosophy, thoughts with tags on November 7, 2011 by theweirdphilosopher

I mentioned yesterday how ambivalent I am when it comes to categories like normal/abnormal in terms of mental health. I think this topic is worth exploring. At a first sight, there should be no ambivalence. “Normal” / “abnormal” are supposed to be neutral terms, after all; referring only to what is common and uncommon in a certain society. It is hard to see these terms as neutral expressions, though, given how emotionally charged they can be in everyday life communication:

Somebody might claim, for example, that it is not normal to wear black all the time. As an observation, this is correct. Most people don´t wear black all the time; wearing black all the time is part of certain life styles which are definitely not the norm and often take pride in that. But in many cases I don´t feel like the person is stating an observation. I feel like the person is making a judgment on wearing black all the time. “Not normal” seems to imply “undesirable”, or “wrong and unhealthy in some way”. Therefore, if I reply that it is perfectly normal to wear black all the time, what I mean is that it is a perfectly acceptable life choice, and not unhealthy in any way.

On the other hand, a person might state that “you goths/metalheads feel so different from everyone else, but in fact you are totally normal”. Here, “normal” does not mean “acceptable”, but “average”, “boring”, “meaningless”. In a situation like this, I might want to defend myself against such an insinuation and claim that it is not “normal” at all. Many people refrain from wearing what they want to wear for fear of “what the neighbors will say”.  Emphasizing how “unusual”/”abnormal” certain aesthetic standards are can be a source of pride in certain contexts.

Alright, but that is my problem, isn´t it? I must detach myself from these prejudices; then I will be able to embrace a categorization of people in the mentally healthy and the mentally ill by orienting myself towards what is standard behavior in my culture. No, I don´t think so. What, for example, if a therapist decided that I am mentally ill – based on the fact that I wear black all the time and that this is not the norm in the culture I live in? Most people would agree this is controversial at the very least. And why? “Because it is nobody´s business what color my clothes are, that´s why!”

On a more reflective level, I can additionally argue that said therapist would have to explain why my fashion style should be relevant for evaluating my mental health in the first place. The likely outcome is that he has made certain assumptions regarding the meaning the color or my style in general has for me, and that this meaning is somehow related to behavior more generally acknowledged as “problematic” or “unhealthy”. He could argue that I want to express “anger towards society”, or my “disdain for society”; just like he might argue that somebody who always wears neon green light bulbs on his head “is out for attention”. So, let us assume for a moment that these traits (anger, disdain, attention-seeking) are really “abnormal” in the sense of uncommon. Then, in order to not be labeled mentally ill for wearing black, I have to prove that I don´t wear black in order to express my anger/disdain towards society? Or does the therapist have to prove that I do so? Either way, even “normal” / “abnormal” as neutral terms have the potential to place unusual life styles at a disadvantage in the sense that they are likely to be stigmatized as an expression of a mental illness.

Why is that so? Because mental health professionals are still fairly free in which traits they include in their evaluation of their patients. Wearing only black is uncommon. Naming spinach as your favorite meal is uncommon. It could be a sign of masochism, mind you… Well, fetishes are more or less uncommon, too, and they get stigmatized a lot. What I´m getting at is: There are a lot of potentially uncommon features in every patient. And it is not a coincidence which of these features are included into the evaluation of his mental health and which aren´t. It is down to the professional´s…preconceptions, if not prejudices. And that´s problematic, because now “normal”/”abnormal”, despite their apparent neutrality, can be used to guise “evaluations” which are actually judgments – judgments based on the professional´s personal value system. While the question whether a trait is normal or not may be strictly objectified by determining its statistical prevalence among the population, the question which traits are relevant for a mental health evaluation in the first place appears to be highly subjective – thus opening the door for judgments, moral values, personal opinions and, yes, a potential stigmatization of subcultures and minorities.

Why do I still believe, though, that ideas of “normal”/”abnormal” and “healthy”/”unhealthy” can be useful? I already explained a bit of that yesterday, but now I´ll go into detail. I think it was Freud who said that psychoanalysis could only cure neurotic/hysterical misery, and not ordinary misery, that is, normal unhappiness. Therefore, if you are unhappy, there lies a certain hope in your unhappiness being abnormal: It is potentially curable.  Imagine you are depressive and somebody tells you that “it is normal that life is not all sunshine and unicorns” or something like that. If your depression is labeled as normal unhappiness, it seems to confirm that you will have to suffer like that for the rest of your life – and this idea is cruel enough for you to want to end it fairly quickly. Being told such a thing can be fairly invalidating, actually. It can feel like being told to “stop whining”, “shut up”, because “we don´t care”, or “you don´t deserve to feel better”. In turn, insisting that one´s suffering is not normal is also a way of protesting this suffering, and attitudes that belittle the suffering. I should not have to feel this way. I deserve to feel better.

So what else can psychiatric classifications like “normal”/”abnormal” be used for? For validation! One might expect that it is validating to be told one is normal, but this is not necessarily the case. If a professional validates that your suffering is abnormal, it might be a huge relief. It means that you are not a loser, not a whiner, and not a prisoner of a hellish world everybody else can for some reason cope with or even thrive in.  Being told one is mentally ill can be validating in some contexts. That validation can only work, though, if the patient can rely on the validity of the criteria for what is and isn´t ill. Therefore, in order to feel redeemed by the fact that what you have is an illness and not a character flaw, you need to trust the professionals´ evaluations – but, unfortunately, this also puts you at the mercy of their possible judgments.


Related Posts:

Dr. Psych(o) – the weird psychiatrist

The nutjob among the neurotics – a psychology lecture through the eyes of a former mental health patient, part II 

Neither here nor there – on having mental health issues, but no real diagnosis