Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Human Fragility

Human beings are so very fragile. We are easily “broken” by external traumas. We are just easily broken by internal imbalances and disorders. As fragile as the body is, so too is the mind. There is a multitude of imbalances and imperfections that can affect our emotions and our thinking processes. For many years I worked with psychiatric patients, and I have seen what a major psychiatric illness can do to a person. It is not just our bodies that are fragile, but our very selves, our sense of identity.

There is a whole other range of disorders that go to the heart of who we are, but which are not, strictly speaking, psychiatric illnesses. Although there may be some chemical processes associated with these disorders, they do not represent the kind of malfunctions that characterise psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. I am referring to the “personality disorders”, which constitute many of the conditions described on Axis II of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV). Personality disorders are not so much illnesses as learned patterns of behaviour that have become very firmly established over time. These disorders may have a genetic component, but owe, I believe, much more to “nurture” than to “nature”: that is, they are learnt over time as coping mechanisms. In a particular historical context, such as childhood situations, these behaviours may have served a useful purpose; but their retention during adult life usually leads to some level of dysfunction.

All of us have elements of some of these disorders embedded in our personality. Sometimes we are aware of them, sometimes we are not. We have all learnt ways of behaving, due to our earlier life experiences, which no longer help but hinder us. They are very difficult to overcome, like so many habits. They are often those frustrating aspects of our personality that make us say, ‘Here I go again!’ We fall into the same traps; we make the same mistakes; we react in the usual way. At least in this situation we recognise our behaviour, although it is frustratingly difficult to change. Many do not even have insight into their own destructive behaviour patterns. Sometimes I think they are the lucky ones, who can leave a trail of wounded behind them, but seem blissfully unaware and uninjured themselves. Seemingly. There is a price to be paid for our awareness of our failings. When we find ourselves there again, we deposit additional guilt and frustration into our already inflated account.

We can be so easily damaged as we grow and develop as people. I do not believe that there is any individual who has ever lived on this planet who has not been damaged in some way. Those who seem most “together” I regard with the greatest suspicion (perhaps that is one of my disorders). I wonder what an unspoiled human being would look like? I suspect that I would develop a strong dislike for such a figure. We are dangerously mistaken if we think that any of our “messiahs” have (or even could have) avoided such damage.

Perhaps if I am aware of my own flawed and damaged personality, if I understand the place from which my own negative and (self- or other-) destructive behaviours emerge, I will be more understanding of the failures of others. Or perhaps I am just too damaged for that.

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