“It was impossible to explain to the healthy the logic of the sick, and he didn’t have the energy to try” Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
“There is a complexity to things that people who weren’t fucked as a kid just cannot understand” James Rhodes, Instrumental
For the first 2 years or so Ben (not his real name) behaved like an arsehole. It’s not really how doctors ought to talk about their patients, but, well, they do. Plenty has been written about it, for example. Though Ben behaved like an arsehole, I did not say (or mean to imply) that Ben was an arsehole. Shame is the state of mind that tells the person afflicted that the reason they behave like an arsehole, is because fundamentally they are an arsehole, or as James Rhodes writes in his raging account of music, madness and abuse,
When I was a child, there were things that happened to me, were done to me, that led to me operating my life from the position that I, and only I, am to blame for the things inside me that I despise. Clearly someone could only do those things to me if I were already inherently bad at a cellular level. And all the knowledge and understanding and kindness in the world will never, ever change the fact that this is my truth. Always has been. Always will be.
Rhodes’ account screams from the page. He wants to spare you the details of his abuse, but you are left in no doubt about how narcissistic, vile, obnoxious, immature, selfish and destructive he has been to those around him, and how much he hates himself. In this respect, Jude, the fictional main character of A Little Life – who shares with James the experiences of being repeatedly raped in childhood, a broken spine, self-inflicted harm by cutting and suicide attempts, is just too nice to be believable.
What the fictional Jude and the real James share most memorably is that shame is the stain that abuse leaves on its victims for life. Jude’s rapist, Luke would tell him, “you were born for this”, ‘and as much as Jude hated it he knew he was right’.
Shame is the legacy of all abuse. It is the one thing guaranteed to keep us in the dark, and it is the one thing vital to understand if you want to get why abuse victims are so fucked up.
Caring for adults, who were sexually abused as children, isn’t a job I knowingly went into. I’m an ordinary GP working in Hackney with no special skills or interests to speak of. Everything I’ve learned about the effects of abuse, trauma and shame I’ve learned on the job. I first wrote about shame in 2012 and it remains the most read and commented on blog I’ve ever written. Almost every GP I know is overwhelmed with caring for adults who suffer from shame, many of whom have been abused. They present with chronic pain, medically unexplained symptoms, anxiety and OCD, paranoia, fatigue and drug and alcohol addiction. We label them with medical syndromes, psycho-somatic, psychiatric and personality disorders. We refer them for medical investigations, specialist opinions, psychiatric assessments and psychotherapy. They leave us shattered, demoralised, burned out. They are chaotic, exhausting, and also among our most loved patients.
I’ve recently been doing work with old and young GPs about our favourite patients. For young doctors, favourite patients are friendly, cooperative, honest, and grateful. They present with symptoms that lead to a diagnosis and a cure or failing that, a good death. Gratification is quick. Dreaded patients are the opposite of all these things. I asked four experienced GP trainers in Lambeth each to describe one their favourite patients to a room full of trainees. The patients they described were hard to form relationships with, took time and hard work to get to know, were argumentative, dishonest, chaotic and disruptive, unwilling partners in care. For some it took years, decades even to reach a point of mutual trust and respect, but eventually they were rewarded with the kinds of relationships that can only come with going through and overcoming hardship together. Evidence about resilience of doctors who work in challenging areas concluded that they were sustained by a deep appreciation and respect for the patients they cared for. Gratification with challenging patients comes slowly. Those who frustrate us most will eventually be the ones that sustain us, but only if we preserve the continuity of care that we are in grave danger of losing in an increasingly transactional NHS.
In his memoir, Rhodes’ anger left me feeling assaulted and furious as I so often feel after spending time with my patients. We are taught to reflect on how our patients make us feel as an indication of how they, themselves are feeling, but are not very well equipped to make sense of these emotions. Medicine has pathologised depression to the point that when we asses ‘mood’ as part of a formal ‘mental state assessment’ we tend to focus on a two-dimensional emotional scale, between mania and depression. We tend to be less curious about other emotions like hatred, anger, fury, self-loathing, fear, dread, terror, despair, grief, bewilderment, awe, wonder, love, and hope that don’t fit so neatly into categories. We don’t have drugs to treat self-loathing, though God knows how many have been tried. The aftermath of child rape (Rhodes’ rightly insists on calling this type of abuse what it is) is a profoundly narrowed, massively intensified emotional register. In music Rhodes discovered mentally tortured composers who could express these same feelings with the same intensity as him and were also capable of other emotions with equal intensity. And in this he discovered a reason to think that life might be worth living. His book is so emotionally fraught that reading it is like hearing it on the radio at full volume. A reviewer in the Telegraph hated it for this reason, but didn’t even try to reflect on why it had that effect on him. The way these books made me feel, is a challenge to the myth of the objective, detached clinician. For one thing, I’ve got young sons, and cannot help but imagine what it would be like if what happened to Jude and James, happened to them. Working with the victims of abuse and trauma is emotional labour. Not only as a father, but as doctor looking after the adult survivor/ victims of child abuse – the volume makes perfect sense. Survivors of abuse live in a world where emotions are turned up to full pitch. It is why they are so frequently labeled with ’emotionally unstable personality disorder’, and a range of other ‘personality disorders’. It is why they so frequently turn to anything that turns the volume down; cigarettes, alcohol, comfort eating, self-harm, valium, codeine, heroin, gabapentin, amitriptyline, sertraline, fluoxetine, etc. These clip the top and the bottom off the emotional register, making life bearable, but at the same time diminished. This is not (absolutely not) to diminish their value for some people – if a little less ecstasy is the price to pay for a little less agony, it might also be what gets you to the end of the year alive. I’ve been listening to Rhodes’ playing piano while I write this, and the volume soars up and down, in contrast to pop-music compressed as if on psychiatric medications. It’s why it is so hard to listen to classical music in the car. For James and even more so for Jude, coming off psychiatric drugs allowed both the light and the demons back in. Fortunately for James, music and friends are holding them back.
Art and science
I’ve struggled for 20 years to make sense of (and help) patients who have been abused in childhood and these two books have done more than anything in medical education to help me. I am about the same age as Rhodes and am horrified by people of my parents’ generation – many whose opinions are taken seriously in politics and the media, who fail to recognise the lasting harm that child abuse leaves on its victims. I know some who were on the receiving end who resent others for not coping as well as they have done. Others simply do not understand the consequences because their professional lives and social circles mean they never meet the victims. Many people who have been abused that I look after have never been able to sustain any job for long enough to prevent them falling into and remaining in poverty. Social classes rarely mix they way they do in general practice and few privileged people spend much time understanding the lives of people who are living in poverty. I’ve come to an understanding of the effects of abuse and shame through literature to a large extent, scientific research in part, but patients most of all.
Ben was drunk, often paralytic for about the first dozen or more appointments. Sometimes he would lie on the floor, often he was too incoherent to make any sense at all, sometimes he was sexually provocative and he was always swearing, but never abusive. We spent most of the first two years together (as doctor and patient) trying to do something about his alcoholism and depression. It was then that he was arrested and (in his late 30s) told the arresting officer about the child-rape he endured and who was responsible for making him the drunken arsehole he was. For the next year I tried to support him as best I could while the police investigated and interviewed the men who abused him. Ben fell apart just as James and Jude did, with drink and drugs, self-mutilation, overdoses and other forms of self-directed violence. It was appalling to watch and I felt completely out of my depth. I fully expected him to kill himself. The psychiatrists were as helpless as I was to stop it and we were all in total despair at what we knew would be a failure to bring anyone to justice. The odds are stacked so massively against the victims of abuse – they are so fucked up, and the abuse is usually so far in the past that I have never heard of anyone being prosecuted for abusing my patients. Like Ben, a child who has been raped is very unlikely ever to be considered a reliable witness as an adult. Only a tiny proportion succeed.
If there is any light to come from these books, apart from the redemptive power of music – it is the importance of stable adult relationships. Rhodes says of helping people who suffer with this level of shame,
The only way to get through to them is to love them hard enough and consistently enough, even if from a distance, to begin to shake the foundations of their beliefs. And that is a task that most people simply cannot, do not, will never have the energy and patience to do. Imagine loving someone that unconditionally.
Jude’s friendships in A Little Life represent the type of love known as agape, described by CS Lewis in The Four Loves as the highest level of love known to humanity: “A selfless love, a love that was passionately committed to the wellbeing of the other”. Rhodes finds this in his love for (and from), his son, his partner and his closest friends. As a GP I may not be in the business of love, but I am in a position to provide long-term care, for as long as we are committed to one-another as doctor and patient. As Rhodes says, ‘real compassion comes from understanding that what feels true for someone is, for all intents and purposes true.’
This is why empathy is how we should respond to shame. Perhaps the greatest and most deeply held fear of someone suffering from shame, is being seen as they really are. What I hope they get from a GP, is a stable adult relationship in a world in which these are vanishingly rare. Because I am a GP and not, for example, a shame-focused trauma therapist, sometimes we can just talk about simple stuff like a sore throat, or cancer, or literature. The GP who gets to know them over years gets as close as they can to knowing them as they really are, and in full sight of their flaws, becomes more compassionate and respectful.
Both A Little Life and Instrumental have given me extraordinary insights into shame and the lifelong effects of abuse. They are helping me daily and I would recommend them to all health professionals.
James Rhodes on Soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/jrhodespianist
Thank you for posting this. Shame is what is debilitating, mores than whatever cause gets pinned to it. Our flaws are what allows for compassion, demonstrate the very humanity of our condition here in the world, and ultimately make us loveable. Your patients are as lucky to have you, as you are them. God bless you.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I’m currently training to be a therapist and James’ book was really important for me in helping me understand the magnitude and scale of the damage done by that kind of abuse. I’ve also heard him play live and it’s extraordinary. If you get a chance to go see him perform, I would definitely recommend it.
Thanks very much. I saw James interviewed and playing the piano at Medicine Unboxed the week before writing this – I was so struck, that I bought the book and wrote the review as soon as I finished. I’ve been listening to him play ever since