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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.3 (2003) 225-226

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Travelers in the Land of Sickness

Eric J. Cassell

THE PROBLEM OF knowing another person and the world in which that person lives, particularly someone with major mental illness, is addressed in this interesting and rich essay. The number of different metaphors and concepts Potter employs to describe the task of crossing into and then understanding the thoughts, emotions, symptoms, constraints, context, and perspectives of another testifies to the difficulties involved.

Yet, as I read the essay, it was not clear what the clinician world traveler, moral tourist, empathizer (and other categories) is supposed to do on the journey to another person. Why do we reach out to the sick person? What is it that we want to know or do that makes this trip necessary? Potter is primarily concerned with mental illness—the examples she cites are patients with schizophrenia—while my experience has in the main been with persons with physical illness, but for the moment, the differences are less important than the central lesson. The illness that the patient presents—the experience of the symptoms, the impairments, disability, and disruptions of the emotional and social existence that happen because of the disease result from an amalgam of the disease process with the specific nature of the sick person. There is no disease in pure form; there is no disease in abstract for clinicians. There is only this sick person. She correctly quotes me, because of all this, as pointing out the importance of integrating knowledge of this particular patient with the abstract knowledge of disease to understand the illness as it is expressed in this person. All to form a basis for the treatment of the patient and especially to help relieve suffering because suffering is always personal, particular, and individual. (It is important in thinking about this topic to remember that most serious diseases, psychiatric and otherwise, are chronic and take place over significant lived time. The acute schizophrenic symptoms or the acute infectious diseases, as dramatic as they are, distract attention from the importance of the place of the sick person.)

In physical disease, our long (and continuing) history of separating human beings from nature and the body, and the importance medicine places on objectivity and the objective, have made the inevitable personalization of the disease and symptoms virtually invisible. After ages of explaining psychiatric diseases as the alienation of the person, and a long psychoanalytic period of finding their origins in the person, in the last 30 years these diseases have become increasingly objectified. The place of the person has been diminished as psychiatry has entered the DSM, neurotransmitter, and effective psychotropic drug era. For both physical and mental disease, however, and whatever the current ideology, the nature of person is crucial in determining the onset, diagnosis, course, treatment, and outcome of each illness. It is in order to have an impact on these crucial aspects of sickness that clinicians must come to know their patients to the degree possible. [End Page 225]

But there is something more. Nancy Potter quotes a woman with schizophrenia as saying, "All that was my former self has crumbled and fallen together and a creature has emerged of whom I know nothing. She is a stranger to me . . . She is not real—she is not I . . . She is I—and because I still have myself on my hands, even if I am a maniac, I must deal with me somehow." (Potter, 2003, p. 215)Must she deal with this crazy self alone? Is that not what her doctors and caregivers are for? But how can they take care of her, protect her, keep what is left intact, and sustain her until she is (hopefully) better without knowing who she is? She makes clear in those few phrases that inside her there is a person with a past, a family, a world, a culture, a role(s) in life, relationships, a body, dreams for the future, things she does, and all the other things that make up a person. It is in...