Up until June 14th 2004 Joe was a consultant anaesthetist at a London teaching hospital. That day at work, during an operation he had a panic attack. He froze and as if in a trance, walked out of the operating theatre. The patient suffered serious harm and Joe was suspended from work and struck off the medical register. He hasn’t worked since. After he was struck off, he was referred to a psychiatrist for assessment who diagnosed Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and started him on the first of what was to be, over the next few years, many different psychotropic medications. He was referred for CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and psychotherapy, which uncovered the extent of his anxiety, but did nothing to relieve his symptoms. On the day he walked out of the operating theatre, his life changed, from being outgoing and popular, he became reclusive and paranoid. His wife, a consultant surgeon continued to support the family, but they had to move to a smaller house and take their children out of private school.
I have been Joe’s GP since he left work and we meet about 3-4 times a year. Usually our meetings are quite brief. He always begins by gesturing to the waiting room and apologising for wasting my time, because there are people ‘out there’ who are much sicker than him, and I reciprocate by doing my best to assure him that I’m very glad to see him, and he is in no way wasting my time. Gradually we have established trust and a good rapport. I’ve not delved too deeply into his past before, partly because I’ve assumed that it’s something he’s been going over in therapy, and partly because our consultations are usually preoccupied with his present circumstances and working out issues with his latest drug treatment. At present he is taking two antipsychotics, two sleeping tablets, and an antidepressant. This makes me anxious and appears to have done little for his anxiety.
Unlike the transient anxiousness that naturally follows a traumatic event, when the symptoms are severe and enduring there is always a back story, but discovering it can take a very long time. The acute symptoms need to be tolerable and trust needs to be established. In writer/ editor Scott Stossell’s account of anxiety, My Age of Anxiety he asks ‘where has my anxiety come from?’ and explores, in detail, the complex aetiology which includes family history, early life experiences, human biology, social, environmental and political factors. All play a part. Psychiatrist Linda Gask asks the same question about her depression in her book, The Other Side of Silence and comes to the same conclusion. I have a strong family history of PTSD, so I have a personal interest.
I recently asked Joe where he thought his anxiety came from. “You know”, he said, referring to the panic attack in 2004. “That’s when my life changed, I was fine up until then”.
“Yes, I mean, is anxiety a family trait, were your parents, grandparents, siblings and so on anxious? Could there be an anxious gene?” Joe’s posture shifted, he folded his arms, his shoulders became more tense, his hands clenched. “No, not really, my sister perhaps, but we’re not really close”. I knew that Joe grew up in Leeds, he was the first doctor in his family and the first to go to university. I knew his sister had suffered with depression and had tried to commit suicide, but little else.
“What about your parents?”
“Not really. My dad was a bastard though. He would slap my mum about and smash the house up. My sister and I hated him”. Joe’s posture became more tense, he gritted his teeth and crossed his legs. “I remember this holiday when I was fourteen – we were going to Blackpool and I refused to go, I locked myself in my room and refused to leave. My dad tried to batter the door down, but couldn’t so he just said, ‘Fuck it, we’re going without you’. And they went without me for a week.”
Joe and I sat in silence for a while. He was curled up on the chair, trembling. Just as we imagined him as a 14 year old boy, this 50 year old anaesthetist besides me.
More came out. He has always been anxious, but was able to hide it, he threw himself into his studies and spent time his evenings in the library to avoid confronting his dad, and got into medical school where he did very well. After he qualified the anxiety became more of a problem with the pressure of work, especially when he met with emotionally distressed and traumatised patients. Anaesthetics seemed to be suited for him, but as he got older, especially, once his children began to grow up, his anxiety became harder to contain. Rather than risk being labelled he avoided going to a doctor and started using drugs from work. Soon this escalated and he was using Fentanyl (a strong opiate) until he realised he was addicted. He was trying to wean himself off and had almost succeeded, when he had the panic attack, probably due to the withdrawal effects.
“Nothing the psychiatrist has prescribed worked as well as the Fentanyl”, he said. “I was fine on that, never missed a day at work, never made a mistake. You won’t write this down, will you? I’ve never told anyone about it before.” “Didn’t they test you?” I asked. “No, and I would probably have been OK, because I was basically already doing cold turkey that day. If you could prescribe me Fentanyl now I’d stop all this other stuff, because it was the only thing that ever worked. But I know you can’t do that”.
Fentanyl like a lot of other drugs, especially opiates, psychotropics, neuroleptics and anti-depressants, for example heroin, naltrexone, Quetiapine, Pregabalin, Amitriptyline and so on, as well as alcohol – all help patients to dissociate. Dissociation is like the outer-body experience that a frightened child can achieve naturally and spontaneously as a defense. As we grow older our brains become less flexible and it becomes harder and harder to dissociate and so we use exercise, or work to cope. It is one reason why there is often a gap of decades between trauma and its aftermath. With time, it becomes harder still and strategies become addictions. For Joe, Fentanyl kept the frightened child separate from the competent anaesthetist. Nothing he has been prescribed since has been as effective.
The child that was terrified of their dad is despised for being afraid and is shameful. The high achieving child that went to university and became a successful anaesthetist is the self that is socially and personally acceptable. We all have different selves, doctor and dad, cyclist and mother and so on, but the traumatised self is despised and a source of shame and so the split is extreme and has to be maintained by any possible means of dissociation to fend off the intense anxiety that it brings.
Too much of the time I think we are content to continue to prescribe drugs to patients under the illusion that they are treating a disease rather than helping them dissociate. In some instances what we prescribe can help keep the symptoms at bay, but most of the time the anxiety persists, no matter what we prescribe.
Drugs probably do have a place in treatment, but so do top down (psychotherapeutic) and bottom up (physical) therapies that enable patients to reconnect with the traumatised self through their body and mind. We could both see how Joe’s traumatised self was inhabiting his tense and hunched body, it wasn’t just in his head. For him to recover he needs to identify the traumatised child and accept him as a part of himself. After a lifetime of shame and dissociation this is no easy task.
I’m not sure why this kind of understanding is missing from so much of medicine. Perhaps because it means shining a light on ourselves as well as our patients, and recognising that we’re not so different after all. Perhaps it’s a post-Freudian backlash and an obsession with biology and objectivity that is blind to subjectivity and experiences. Perhaps it is because financial incentives are constraining clinical curiosity – demanding that every patient narrative is recorded as a clinical code. Perhaps it is a fear of judging parents or others who are not around. Probably it is all of this and more.
One thing I am sure, is that some of the kindness and compassion that is so often missing in healthcare, in the ways we treat ourselves, our colleagues and our patients, could be recovered if we were more attentive to what makes us who we are.