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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.4 (2003) 369-372
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Unity of Agency and Volition:
Some Personal Reflections
The issues of unity of agency, self-as-narrative, and more generally, volition are highly personal to me. Indeed, I would say I have frequently been obsessed with them. I am 52 years old, and date the onset of my psychiatric symptoms—my long-term misery—very specifically: 11:00 pm Pacific Standard Time, August 28, 1965. At almost precisely that time, I started obsessing that I was homosexual and, in fact, turning into a girl. Within days, derealization followed: for instance, the houses in my neighborhood seemed one-dimensional—they seemed as though they were painted, as though I could stick my hand or an object through them. Colors seemed less bright as well—but I hardly had words for all this at the time: it was an overwhelmingly preverbal feeling, but I found some words for it.
I was also depressed, and knew I was depressed—that is, I was worried, had trouble sleeping, and had suicidal thoughts and feelings. Within weeks, I asked my parents if I could see a psychiatrist, and I did. I remember asking my psychiatrist if he ever thought about the possibility that everything might be an illusion, and he quoted the refrain from "Row, Row, Row Your Boat": "merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream." But just asking him produced a chilling feeling that he did not exist and, largely for this reason, I did not mention unreality feelings again to therapists for another 20 years.
So, like Dr. Wells' patient Edward, described by James Phillips (2003), I was in trouble; like Edward, I was starting to construct a narrative. I started feeling that I had "to tell my story" at about this time—before then, I had not felt a need to do that. That may be partly because young children take life for granted (at least, I did), and it may be partly because suffering, by its very nature, demands explanation; both reasons were probably operating—certainly, both my parents told me years later that I had seemed emotionally distressed as a child, and my mother told they would have given me Ritalin if it had been available. So, to other people (my parents and my teachers) I was mentally ill in some sense, and I have some pretty clear memories of what I now recognize as depression, especially in the second and third grades; but I did not think of myself as sick and I did not think of myself as suffering—and I did not experience the duality (at least) of selves that I started to experience almost immediately in August 1965.
Phillips further points out that the "future Edward" could look back in his narrative, at a later age, and reconstruct his history either as someone with a continuing mental illness, or as someone who had attained a secure, healthy adulthood and saw his experience as adolescent pain in the service of ultimate adult health and integration. I see my story, I am sorry to report, as [End Page 369] one of unremitting basic pain but with the positive dimension that I was able to go on, obtain a good education, work a good deal in my adult life, and father a child. But my narrative—and am I not, as a highly verbal person, almost constrained to think of my life as a narrative?—has been one, as Phillips (following Kleinman) realizes, of suffering. It is, above all else, an illness narrative. I find the approach of J. Melvin Woody (2003)—of privileging performing and performing arts and spatial metaphors over story—less relevant and true to myself, although I see no reason to argue with Mary's preference for such forms. It may be that the temporal discontinuities she has experienced predispose her to see herself in such terms—may, in fact, necessitate doing so. I am not exactly sure why, but it probably has to do with acting, with trying on and performing one role...