Degree of Writhing

She was impaled by a person. Along with the act, she was informed that she would remain there and that the means to remove her would be withheld. She was informed that should she appeal to others who would contact the impaler for collateral information, that she would be described as malign, foul and unwanted. A few others who knew what was in store for her promised their support and help.

She was impaled for all to see.

She writhed and contorted and struggled to reach something that could be used to wrench herself loose. Those who promised help disappeared and did not answer her calls for support. They did not help, and they did not call on others to help.

She found herself alone.

The pain, the agony and suffering were unbearable, just as the impaler intended.

But the place of impalement was strategically designed to cause the slowest dying possible, and was designed not to make death come earlier. It was executed to cause the maximum degree of suffering with full realization of the fate and future of the impaled writher.

One by one, and sometimes concurrently, the impaled person used up her means of escape. She learned that to struggle was futile. To writhe more actively only increased pain and fatigue. She couldn’t get to sleep, couldn’t stay asleep, and she awoke very early. Sleep soon became no escape and provided no rest.

Years passed, and on she writhed and agonized.

At this point, she realized that she was out of all resources, and she called out for help from learned helpers.

The highly credentialed, learned helpers poked and prodded and caused even more agonizing pain as they slowly and methodically assessed her symptoms. Although she repeatedly told them that she was impaled – Look! I need people who are qualified to remove what’s holding me fast to free me – they ignored her begging and pleas.

The learned helpers decided that her writhing and grimaces and pleas for help could all be treated as symptoms of depression. She was told that she was going to be treated for her pessimism and refusal to believe in hope. She was forcibly medicated and restrained so that the writhing was contained. She was told that treatment was to keep her safe.

As she adjusted to the medication, she saw her body react to the derangements done it by the sedating, restraining chemicals. She struggled to writhe and react to the agony of the raw and festering wound. But she learned to be silent and to deny that suffering to the learned helpers lest they inflict more restraint, punishment, containment and contribute to her agony.

Some helpers came only to stare. Some to ridicule. Others to condemn. A few saw opportunities for sadism, and they kicked her, made open fun of her and reported to the treating learned helpers falsities designed to induce the learned helpers to inflict more treatment and up the induced agony.

Some of her treatment involved being instructed on how her thoughts were negative and to employ strategies to replace negative thoughts with hopeful ones. Another treatment involved instruction on maintaining distress tolerance. Both of these considered writhing as something to be abolished. Neither strategy dealt with removing the wounding weapon and treating the gaping, festering, infected wound.

It was apparent that this situation was permanently incompatible with life. She decided that instead of struggling any longer to free herself, that she would instead, simply try to find a means to achieve a painless and peaceful death.

But the learned helpers decreed that this was evidence that she was psychotic. Therefore, she would be contained until she was deemed “safe”. But the definition of safe was solely that she would not try to end her life.

Safe did not apply to all of the others who were content to have her suffer or to contribute to her agony and suffering. Safe did not mean a secure home, safe did not equate with a means by which to support herself, safe did not mean acceptance and welcome by others she deemed potential neighbors, coworkers, friends, physicians.

She was told that there are many treatments for her symptoms. She learned that they conflated treatment with efficacious, benign, therapeutic and beneficial. She learned that treatments were risky, dangerous, caused temporary and permanent harm, and did not address the causes of the symptoms.

She was told that the learned helpers decided on treatments based on their professional judgment. She learned that treatments are determined largely on the whims and beliefs of the learned helpers, and often they are chosen to punish the person for their audacity to exhibit distress and to admit that their underlying problems are not being helped.

And so she remains impaled, actively looking for the means by which to give herself a painless and peaceful death while all around her, the means to remove her from being impaled are withheld.

She remains a freak, a pariah, and an untouchable. Indeed, when she was contained and forcibly medicated, no one touched her except to wield a needle and crowd her into a locked cell sans furniture – no window, a security camera, a cage. Just herself impaled.

No one spoke to her except to poke, prod and exacerbate her awareness of her suffering by ongoing clinical assessments, each designed only to elicit symptoms and to ignore root causes.

So as the means to achieve a quick and painless death are not within reach, she has decided to passively bring about her death by no longer eating.

She remains out of sight knowing that no one will look for her. No one wants to see because when they do catch a glimpse, it angers and disgusts them to see her writhing in their midst. It is not pretty, being associated with her could cause a risk of social or work harm (guilt by association), and she has been deemed worthless.

She can’t wait until it’s over, and she looks forward to being too weak to writhe, too weak to comprehend the agony and too weak to care. Those signposts mean that the total and permanent end of her hell at the end of the learned helpers’ road of good intentions is finally within reach.

What Protects?

I’m working a bit sideways and backwards since I haven’t developed a more comprehensive explanation of suicidality prompts.  But there have been several studies in the news which address compensatory mechanisms and adaptation, so the time’s right to get them out there for people to consider.

To experience external physical warmth which approximates human or possibly mammalian warmth is a basic human need. It turns out that when lonely college students were queried on bathing behaviors, those reporting higher degrees of loneliness had significantly different habits.  They bathed/showered more frequently, for longer periods of time and they used warmer water temperatures.  The authors postulate that this is a self-soothing strategy which serves as a rough proxy for human warmth.

The Ohio State University published a study demonstrating an association between particulate pollution and clinical depression.  Given the inflammatory involvement in depression, these finding serve as more fuel for this fire.  It might be worth trying room-based air filters to see if people get any anti-inflammatory effects. More research needs to be done in essential quality of life factors.

The website, Ostracism Aware, has a resource listing which seems to be fairly comprehensive.

What do you find helps to relieve the feelings of isolation, loneliness, not belonging, depression or being a burden? What doesn’t help?  What do other people do that helps?  And what do other people do that makes things worse?

When People Aren’t De-Stressed

There was an extraordinary commenting discussion about suicide as reader responses to a NYTimes column by the physician and writer, Danielle Ofri. In her essay, she laments the death by suicide of a patient and expresses frustration about the seeming non-suicidality of him making the death an unexpected shock.

Two weeks ago, I called one of my patients to reschedule an appointment. A family member answered and told me that my patient had been found dead in his apartment, most likely a suicide. This robust and healthy 54-year-old had screened “negative” for depression at every visit, despite having risk factors: being unemployed, living alone, caring for an ill relative.

Here she makes a clinical error: screening for depression and suicidality are two distinct entities.  Once does not necessarily presage the other. In terms of perceived burdensomeness, thwarted belongingness, isolation, hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness, this gentleman was existing in a stew of toxic risk factors.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is old, but useful, in my view.  This person exhibited unmet basic needs – financial burdens, caregiver burdens, physical burdens, social isolation burdens.  The question becomes, where art thy neighbor?  Who is thy neighbor?

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Resized, renamed,...

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One of the risk factors for suicidality is that physicians increasingly treat rather than care for patients.  Because the care is missing, patients aren’t supported around anything other than medications, surgery and medical procedures.  One thing Dr. Ofri could have addressed is linking the patient to a home health nursing agency or to a social worker who could help him access caregiver support, perhaps home delivered meals and financial and job search supports.

The bottom line is that it appears that no one was this man’s neighbor, or brother, or fellow citizen.

Now to the commentary:

Readers addressed a wide variety of insightful and thoughtful aspects around suicide and suicidality.  The right to end terminal suffering – psych ache – is addressed quite compellingly.

Treatment As Usual: Case Report

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Image by Michael 1203 via Flickr

 

Submitted without comment:

Outpatient psychiatrist: Patient came to her routine psychopharm visit expressing profound hopelessness and a desire for her life to end. She described recent incidents at the shelter where she is staying, including one where another guest took an overdose of medication and she (the patient) was distraught that she hadn’t recognized this (clinically) sooner.  She repeatedly said, “I can’t survive this…I want it to end.”  In addition to feeling overwhelmed and anxious about her state of homelessness, she expressed concern that she “would never feel safe anywhere.”  She denied suicidal intent but was unable to find any reason to continue her life and made numerous self-disparaging remarks.  She became increasingly distraught, crying and almost moaning in her chair.

Impression:

Since stopping her antipsychotic medication (intolerable EPS per patient) and decreasing her antidepressant medication on discharge from the hospital (to the street), the patient is faced with the reality of limited housing options and may likely face daily uncertainty about where she will sleep once she completes her time at current shelter – and is overwhelmed, panicked, despairing and hopeless about her life.  Her paranoid ideation has increased.  She sees no meaning in anything and wishes to die.  She denies immediate suicidal intent, but mostly due to lack of energy rather than lack of desire.

Plan:

With much persuasion, patient walked with me to the A(cute)P(sychiatry)S(ervice) where she will be evaluated for inpatient hospital admission.

APS psychology fellow note 4 hours after arrival:

Patient was tearful, depressed with poor eye contact.  Patient refused to talk to writer stating “I can’t talk, go away.” Writer was unable to complete full exam due to patient refusing to be evaluated at this time.  Patient is intermittently sobbing uncontrollably, saying nothing more than “I can’t” and “you have to let me go”, refusing medication and refusing to participate in interview. Perseverating on “you have to let me go” “nothing will help”  TP – perseverative -Insight poor Judgment poor Patient requires ILOC to establish safety, containment, and aftercare planning.

36 hrs later – Psychiatry fellow and attending consultation note:

Fellow: This patient was admitted for altered mental state with bradycardia and a serum diphenhydramine level of 489 mcg/l (toxic range).  Psychiatric consultation was requested for ? suicide attempt. The patient reports that she left the hospital yesterday, returned to the shelter at which she was staying to discover that her belongings (aside from medications) had been removed.  Pt reports having felt more hopeless and ingested unspecified number of her prescribed medications.  She reports that she did not want to hurt herself but hoped that this ingestion would kill her.  She denies having anything to live for at this point, denies intent to harm herself but feels “regret” for the outcome of this medication ingestion and reportedly “want(s) to die.”   Pt does report that much of her feeling hopeless is related to lack of shelter and job.  She attributes her “life situation” to being ostracized “for being a whistleblower” (related to prior living and job situation per medical record review).

Attending: I have reviewed the events/notes of earlier this week.  At present, she explains to me that yesterday, when she left here, she wanted to die and took pills in order to bring about her death and thought the pills she took would effect that outcome.  When she realized she did not die, she felt regret.  She still feels regret because she still wants to die and kill herself. Asked why she did not acknowledge this yesterday before she left here, she said that she knew she would be hospitalized psychiatrically if she had and she didn’t want to be.  I explained to her that caretakers are able to help her only to the extent that she is honest with them.  She is pessimistic that pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy can help her deal better with her problems even if they cannot take them away.  I explained further that both can help her to be more optimistic.  She denies any thought of wanting to hurt anyone else.  She denies that anyone here is trying to hurt her.  She feels her thinking is clear and in its usual state.

Impression: Delusional and depressive disorders.  She is pessimistic, despondent, and suicidal at present and meets criteria for involuntary psychiatric admission.  Continue suicide precautions.  Continue 1:1 observation.

 

 

Comforting As A Treatment For Thwarted Belongingness

Comforting isn’t mentioned very much.  But it has powerful effects on people.

There is even a theory of comfort which has been used with people at the end of life.  Interestingly, people contemplating suicide are at a self defined end of life, so I wonder if the theory would work here?

What I’m not sure about is how people determine what is comforting when they perceive that they don’t, won’t, or can’t belong where they wish.

For me, it is about someone else’s deliberate and voluntary – as opposed to accidental and incidental- presence. It includes touching – a pat on the arm or shoulder or reaching out and holding my hand. It is sustained touch – not an air kiss and a phony hug.  It is action and not words.  It is especially not a phony, “is there anything I can do?” question which puts all of the support responsibility on me.  Of course, I always declined because that is the intended and correct response to that question.

But that comfort is totally out of reach for me.  I only imagine what is comforting, because I’ve never received it in my lifetime.  No one voluntarily interacts with me on any basis – except a slumlord who is harassing me in an to force me to move so he doesn’t have to make repairs to this falling apart attic oven.  No phone calls except robo appointment reminders.  No personal mail or email.  No face to face meetings.

What happens when a person presents at an emergency room for help with suicidality?  First, he is placed in a locked environment no different than a prison. Usually an untrained worker is assigned to continually observe, but not interact with, the distressed person. A variety of people – a social worker, a nurse, a physician or physician’s assistant, and students all may ask a battery of questions and become annoyed, angry and retaliatory when the distressed person can’t answer to their satisfaction.  At no point does the person receive comforting, reassurance or care.  Confinement, intense and intrusive scrutiny and the probability of being forcibly medicated, restrained and contained while being denied civil rights, basic humanity, respect and worth are what the distressed person faces. That’s the state of the art treatment for suicidal people.

Not only does this not help to de-escalate suicidality, it reinforces isolation, of being deemed the defective and unwanted “other”, and it intensifies despair.  It is cruel punishment, and it is not right.

What’s comforting when one is experiencing thwarted belongingness?  I can only imagine.