The transparent sheet that separates us from our patients (and madness)

“Lets make it more than impersonal”

Who controls the content of the ideologically commanded medical consultation? Is it Public Health, The State, Business, or The Law? And what of the agenda and caritas? I’ve a feeling that it has  been getting harder and harder to discern much ‘caritas’ in consultations (those commanded by State Medicine under Capitalism) for the Heroin addict, or for the Patient-of-Screening.

Its hard to imagine anything much further removed from Freud’s consulting couch than the average GP consultation, with its eye contact, stethoscopes and prescription pads. If we, for the moment, take seriously the issue of the words we speak and what they mean, we can turn to Lacan’s mirror stage. We can all feel uncomfortable about the innuendoes, silences and mis-communications that pepper everyday ‘talk’ – but why should it be so hard to understand what the other person means? Why don’t they and their words seem to mean exactly what they say?

For Lacan, during the Oedipal phase, our ‘inauguration into linguistic consciousness’ (Judith Ehrer-Gerwich) is closely related to the trauma of an enforced realisation, in the mirror stage at about eighteen months old, of our superfluousness to our mother-figure, of no longer being the sole object of her desire. Language through words become the means of our demand for recognition, our quest for completeness. But these words we speak are constituted by a unsymbolisable trauma, our Real, a division that is what we are, divided within ourselves by a traumatic separation of our conscious language from our unconscious. Our unconscious is both ‘external’ to us and at the same time most ‘intimate’. Lacan’s describes this as ‘extimate’. The act of speaking itself is always re-dividing the speaker since the I that is spoken of can never be identical and simultaneous with the I that is speaking. I’ve laboured this point a bit, because its important, really interesting and hard to understand, let alone explain.

But why should this interest a medical doctor? And what of Freud’s couch? And how transparent is the sheet between doctor and patient – the wall of mi-recognition that is the truth of medicine?

If language is the ‘wall’ between analyst and analysand, the necessary mediation and mechanism of representation, and speech is both sensed and needs to be made sense of, then what use can the participants in a ‘conversation’ make of it.

Adam Philips, a psychotherapist and writer at a recent seminar, talking about some of his writings, including an essay: “Lets make it impersonal’, opened the debate by suggesting people at the seminar should feel free to a) be silent, c) to be incoherent and c) to free-associate. For, he suggested, it is sometimes the most incoherent free association that is the most striking. It felt like a luxury, possibly even therapeutic, to be invited to be freely incoherent. It is not often a medical doctor suggests the same to his client (always already the ‘patient’, the subject-of-medicine’, but not the ‘analysand’) in the medical consultation.

Through free association, the analyst’s role becomes ambiguous, a background role in a sense, there to prompt the analysand into a productive surprise at his own internal contradictions and e.g. slips of the tongue. There is a necessary distance, it is impersonal. It is argued, I think, that being too personal, communicating in such a way that gives the impression that can interpret, and that you known the hidden meaning of what the client is saying, would inhibit the client’s responses to his own unconscious, encourage the client to persevere with the script he is most comfortable with, his imaginary symbolic world (and avoiding his Real world), and may reinforce a tendency for the client to ‘look up to’ the analyst, or doctor, as the expert, with the ‘ medical gaze’ described by Foucault, he who knows the secret ‘things to be known’. Adam Philips argues, as well, that in the medical consultation, there are benefits in not being too personal, since maintaining a distance will allow the (now) ‘patient’ to bring forth their own script unencumbered by the doctors probable mis-recognitions and misleading stray alleyways. Keep a distance and let the patient tell their own story, start the consultation by keeping your (the doctor’s) mouth shut and the ‘patient’ will reveal all.

However, and here is the turning point in this short essay, at last. I believe there are consultations that are set up as ideologically commanded events, the ideology being Modern Medicine under Capitalism with its injunction: “Be Normal” under which the commanded events are those that are initiated by the State and other Capitalist Corporations. The ideology is hegemonic, it promises that which it presupposes we already desire, whether it is death avoidance, a marque of first class ‘ill health’, or some other ‘consumable’.

So, to be clear, here I am not referring to the consultation where the client decides to go to the doctor because they have a problem. Here, instead I am referring to consultations where the individual has been invited to attend, or has to attend to continue medication. Transformed into a patient by diagnostic ‘naming’ processes in which so called risk factors have been transformed into dis-ease, or where so called normality is forbidden, wherein normality is itself a risk factor as in attempts to ‘catch it early’ in cancer screening programmes. I am also talking about, for example, the consultations in addiction services where addicts tend to be prescribed their oral substitution treatment (OSTs, Methadone or Buprenorphine), and where they sometimes engage in psycho-social-interventions and motivational interviewing.

In my experience the consultations can be dominated by a script that seems to have been learnt by the client, and a script encouraged by the clinic. A script that is centred on some jargon like ‘recovery’ or ‘low threshold prescribing’, etc; dominated by the visible-safety of prescribing, the number of days of the week the client must be physically observed taking their OST, and/or the number of days of the week the client has to collect their prescription from the pharmacy. Decisions on these points are in the gift of the prescriber, and depends upon a professionally normalised, guideline and policy regulated, perception of the client’s (and others) risks of coming to harm through overdose, which in part depends upon their drug taking history and the evidence from urine testing. This is a highly regulatory environment, within which it is difficult to create space for other non-regulatory scripts.

I do wonder how often the addiction consultation remains within an impersonal, regulatory framework, dominated by risk management. How often the client embarks upon a speech intended to reassure the doctor about risk to obtain relaxed prescribing measures. Or how often a wall of silence pervades the air as the client knows to try again is pointless as he has tried and failed so often before. Or how often the doctor dominates with questions about risk.

Whilst it is essential to manage carefully the risks of prescribing highly dangerous medications, medications that have been directly implicated in deaths through overdose, is it possible to be more than this impersonal? Is it possible to stand away from regulation and safety, not to become more personal but to become more than just impersonally interrogative? To encourage some free association and incoherency, to observe for contradictions and ‘slips of the tongue’ – to provoke ambiguously, to suggest the client tries a spell on the couch?

Whilst impersonal communication styles can be informative, in the same way that a YES/NO answer questionnaire can be informative; and whilst that can even provide space for a ‘patient’ (with a problem) to perform the script they had planned all along, if, on the other hand the script is authored primarily by the State or corporate industry, as in much preventive public health medicine and addiction clinics, then the doctor/analyst has a role to subvert the script to provide space for the client, to provide opportunity for the client to challenge the script and themselves, if they wish. Is it worth breaking down the regulatory iron wall of communication and replace it with Freud and Lacan’s leaky wall designed to allow the analysand to speak with him/herself, to explore his relationship with his desire, that nature of the object of his/her desire, and to become the analyst.

What does the client say about his/her relationship with the drugs? What do they say about why they keep coming to the clinic?

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