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Listening to the Soul

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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

As a novelist and psychiatrist, I listened to Eleanor Longden's lyrical presentation with a mixture of awe, admiration and humility.

She hauntingly described the "toxic, tormenting sense of helplessness" accompanying severe mental disturbance. "My voices were a meaningful response to traumatic life events. Each voice was related to aspects of myself... that I'd never had an opportunity to process or resolve, memories of sexual trauma and abuse, of anger, shame, guilt, low self-worth." I found these statements deeply insightful.

I was particularly impressed when she said the voices "represented the parts of me that had been hurt most profoundly."

Certain parts of Eleanor's presentation were striking:

First, she reminds us of the fine line between sanity and psychosis, one that can be crossed when there's a confluence of early trauma and present difficulty. Eleanor described an initial auditorization (hearing) of her thoughts, progressing to command hallucinations. But we all think our thoughts in a virtually silent voice. Nonetheless, it's an inner voice. It's one we can control. We all have hallucinations -- auditory and visual -- when we dream while asleep. There are some auditory hallucinations considered normal -- when either falling asleep or first awakening; they occur while we are conscious. Yet, they are not hallmarks of insanity. That fine line from sanity to psychosis is crossed when these voices or visions are no longer under our control and cause one to act in ways that can be harmful to self or others.

Second, Eleanor makes us aware, for the person so afflicted, these events -- voices or visions -- are experiences, and should not be viewed solely as pathologic symptoms. They can be seen as "a meaningful response to traumatic life events, particularly childhood events..." and therefore, need to be understood as something that "took the place of this pain and gave words to it." Only by understanding the meaning and purpose of these inner words, can the person integrate them; no longer be frightened and tormented by them; and become empowered to control them and lead a productive life.

Eleanor also makes clear that the past remains alive for each of us. The experiences of childhood and their effects simmer within us at the deepest levels, never to be lost. They can resurface, and retain the capacity to influence us even though we may not recall them.

In my view, all of life before any given moment is but a memory, and is not lost. Ever. To quote William Faulkner, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Psychiatry was once considered the most humane of all medical specialties. But today, the field is under enormous pressure to "medicalize" itself -- to adopt a brain chemistry view of mental and emotional problems as it tries to remain "relevant" in our increasingly technologic age. While there is probably a biologic substrate to some problems (which may be helped by medication), psychiatry has become distanced from the fundamentally human nature of people and their conditions. It has become symptom-based and medication-oriented to the near-exclusion of having a dynamic understanding of human beings. One need only see the emphasis placed on the latest edition of the profession's "bible" -- DSM-V.

To take a strictly biological view of a human being and her difficulties -- as some did who treated or related to Eleanor -- is to deny the spiritual and emotional parts of human nature. It robs the person of an intrinsic component of existence -- the soul.

Thankfully, some people listened to Eleanor's soul.

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