A Refutation

It’s a belief both common and expected. In many circles, and in many surprising ones. That the very presence of psychiatrists in our society is an indictment of it, that they stand as representatives on behalf of our flaws. This is a deception that is not born of hate or malice, but simply of fear and indecision. It is not to be blamed, just addressed.

I have been in a similar situation. This should be the first phrase of all of our understanding of each other. We have all been in similar situations. The strength it takes to do something good, something truly good, is known to all of us; those who make that strength their lives deserve at least the benefit of our empathy and attention.

I was a teacher. My motives were not nobler than yours in whatever job you do. Perhaps they were different, perhaps they were the same. (You are in a similar situation.) I did the best version of the best job I could, and even that almost tipped me over the edge. Of course it’s hard-it’s real life.

My father is a psychiatrist. You ought to know that. It’s hard to know where to start in explaining what that’s like. You never know how much difference it makes what job a person has. When you’re a kid, people’s identities are more stable, their parts more basic and aligned. That my father was a psychiatrist-his job-symbolized much of what I needed to understand him. So naturally I associated some of his personal characteristics with it in my early understanding of the idea of psychiatry (and my father).

Just now, when I was sitting in the window, I was thinking about the idea of therapy, of people needing therapy. Of thinking-if nothing else-that it might be nice to talk to somebody else, somebody primarily unbiased, but willing to be seriously interested in whatever you wanted to talk about. Not everybody has this already. Of course, my train of thought didn’t start out that way. I was thinking back to my own experience of going to therapy. Not the content of it, but its relation to my own childhood, and trying to form a picture of my own life story. It went like this. I went to school-families have kids that do well-I went to therapy-oh yeah, I went to therapy-was I a bad kid?-maybe I’m still a bad kid…–maybe I’m a good kid…–maybe I’m loony-I was just a kid-oh yeah, my parents sent me.

Sent me? Allowed me. It was my idea. I wanted what I described above. Somebody different to talk to who would be willing to listen seriously to what I wanted to say. Why does that have to be ridiculous?

And then I realized, in the face of all the stigma-the very personal stigma that my father faced not only on the front pages of newspapers, but on the lips of people all around him-in the face of that, they both allowed me to go. Which was my wish.

I raise this only to point out that what he and my mother did was not about psychiatry-it was about trying to help me do what I wanted. It was about believing that what I said meant something, and taking me seriously. That I went to therapy meant less ultimately than that my parents supported me in the face of social history and in the service of their convictions.

If those are the traits that I identify with them, and with psychiatry as a subset of that, no wonder I hold it in high esteem. 

As a teacher, I faced attack from both sides. The perception of war in all directions is the same as a perception of being at war with oneself. But my basic sense of what to do came from them. There are good lessons to be learned. My brother, for example, studies how non-scientists learn about autism. This is good for science, and it is good for education, but primarily it is good for ordinary people. The basic concept behind the search applies to all things-what we think, and why we think it-and this is philosophy in its most positive light: learning how to understand ourselves.

Rather than painting an elaborate portrait of what psychiatrists do, I wanted to elucidate the life and influence of a man who, on purpose and by luck-and by endless training and work-became a psychiatrist, and has done good. It’s easy to transfer your fears of what life will bring, onto the people who make you face it. But despite our cynicism and bitter regard, they will continue to do it. Every day.

 There is always more to say.

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