Since Freud, the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and psycho--analysis have grappled with trauma and its role in psychopathology. In modern times, these fields remain uncertain about the relative influence that biology, character, and environment play in disordering the lives of traumatized patients. Modern theories try to make sense of early attachment and its impact on development and resiliency. Most bluntly put, why do some soldiers go to war and return seemingly well adapted, while others cannot reenter civilian life because the psychic scars are too constricting?
In the psychiatric emergency room, psychiatrists quickly take in multiple, complex facets of a patient's life in an attempt to assess and judge the patient's ability to withstand their predicament in the community Our raw purpose is to assess safety and decide whether the patient needs be committed to a psychiatric inpatient facility. In that assessment, the doctor quickly tries to take in the history, biology, character, and the social milieu of the patient, and judge the degree of risk that patients pose to themselves, their families, and their communities.
The task of the psychiatrist in this job is immense. It is profoundly complicated. It is not seen so by many in our field, and not by our patients. To patients and the public, we are at worst jailers. To our field, we are at worst crude physicians in a souped-up triage , unit. But think about what we really do. We are surveyors and judges of trauma and character.
Freud knew that sexual abuse and death on the battlefield occurred in his time. He was profoundly struck by both. He created theories to explain these dark experiences. Freud also knew that our deep human psyches contain capacities beyond immediate experience and that one could project and layer fantasy into lived experience. He grappled with the role that fantasy plays in our interpretations of experience. He angered feminists and others because his theoretical changes undermined the role of real trauma and highlighted the role the individual mind plays in repeating trauma.
In the psychiatric ER, we witness the real traumas that weave through patient lives. We often experience these traumas, even to the extent of avoiding certain patients whose realities strike too close to home. This is especially potent for psychiatrists with young children working with patients whose stories and affects stir our worst fears for our own children and families.
We also deal with patients and personalities who seem to seek repeated suffering in the form of both micro-and macrotrauma. We sympathize with the involuntary, victim-bound suffering, and we cringe at and speculate about the conscious and unconscious degrees of self-sabotage on display.
There are several forms of social, political, and historical trauma that are close to home for me and my contemporary American peers that repeatedly come up in patient narratives in the emergency room: racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. In my 41 years of life, I have encountered or experienced all of these forms of oppression, trauma, and microaggressions. I know that they are "real." Many ER psychiatrists know that they are real. But in the psych ER, what is real and what that means becomes relative.
It may be obvious upon arrival that a patient has just suffered a serious physical injury, sexual assault, or severe and obvious abandonment. But when patients report histories of such events and a seeming pattern of repeated abuse, we naturally wonder about their perception and their own role in creating self-destructive experiences.
Because we have experience and understanding of the human compulsion to repeat even painful life experiences, we are cautiously skeptical when a narrative is full of catastrophe, especially when presented as accidental or without agency. …