Post-traumatic embitterment disorder?

My first response is to roll my eyes and mutter, “Puh-leese.” Some psychiatrists are saying that the bitterness of people when their relationships fall apart is a traumatic event that causes permanent brain changes. And so it probably is. But that doesn’t make it a mental disorder. When the ground opens beneath your feet, you learn to tread carefully. It’s not a disorder, it’s just a scar. We accumulate damage, which we resist with greater or lesser resilience. And one day we die.

In fact, life is hard, love wears out, you can’t trust everybody all the time and, yes, relationships fail. The person who leaves often goes through the disillusionment and pain first, then the one who is left behind. Their expectations may have been realistic or un-. Their relationship skills may have been good or bad. Their relationship may have been doomed or thrown away. But to expect that experience won’t leave its mark is like demanding your own reality, one without loss or pain.

Should we also expect that work won’t leave calluses and old age won’t leave wrinkles?

On the other hand, if people are stuck with brooding over how mean the world has been to them, they are probably better off getting counselling than brooding over their ills. I suppose it’s just as unbalanced as megalomania or sex addiction. In a sense, it is megalomania—how dare the world not be what I thought it was? Of course, it’s in the financial interest of psychiatrists to increase the number of people who need to consult them and whose insurance companies will pay—not that they’re short of custom.

Bitterness should be classified an official brain illness, according to psychiatrists who say people who experience prolonged bitterness over a breakup or conflict at work are “ill” and need treatment.

They are proposing that “post traumatic embitterment disorder” be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s official catalogue of mental dysfunction.

Now in its fourth edition, DSM is undergoing its first major revision since 1994. DSM-V is due to be published in 2012, and other possible new contenders for inclusion include Internet addiction disorder, apathy disorder, compulsive buying disorder, compulsive pathological overeating, hoarding, “premenstrual dysphoric disorder” and “partner relational problem” — “a pattern of interaction between spouses or partners characterized by negative communication (criticisms, for example), distorted communications (such as unrealistic expectations) or non-communication (withdrawal).”

I hope they include bitterness at being fired; maybe it will stop someone from “going postal.” But why stop there? Maybe we can include the bitterness of being scammed out of one’s life savings, being crippled by a drunk driver, having one’s son gunned down, being forced to flee one’s country, watching one’s neighbours get murdered in a genocide, being expected to starve to death politely because of red tape in the foreign aid, having one’s country’s economy crippled by restrictive trade practices of the rich countries, being allowed to immigrate but not to practice one’s profession, and all the other less than salubrious experience of modern life.

Notice that the old character-builders, watching one’s wife die in childbirth or illegal abortion or one’s husband succumb to lockjaw or an industrial accident or losing one’s children to the usual childhood diseases, have pretty much been eliminated in the rich countries, leaving us with only these pale substitutes.

3 Responses to “Post-traumatic embitterment disorder?”

  1. CriticalOfModernMedicine Says:

    It’s strange that after reading that it makes me immediately think of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and that soon everyone will be taking soma.

  2. Rev. Barky Says:

    The mind is a weird organ – it gets bored easily – that is it adapts so well that what is “normal” can shift dramatically from person to person and time to time. Since the brain is so malleable and prone to hallucinations and misconception it always amazes me that people accept the absurd over the probable. For example people swear that there are ghosts, but there can’t be because, as Piggy in Lord of the Flies said, nothing would work. Often it is the mind that is in error.

  3. Lynna Says:

    “Post-traumatic embitterment disorder” is a good read. I sometimes wonder if the human brain is vulnerable to OCD. Feeling bitter or betrayed is one thing, but hanging onto that feeling and obsessing over it for years is another thing entirely. People who obsess over having been wronged often perform some sort of ritual as part of the obsession. (At least that’s my experience, purely personal — no data, no stats.)

    For example, the guy who rereads all the letters from the girlfriend who dumped him ten years ago. Maybe he also “celebrates” the anniversary of the dumping — black moods, stay home from work. Listen to the Smiths.

    off topic: Back in March you left a comment on the 9/11 entry of my blog. I never could get that damned post to display properly, so I finally rebuilt the page today. I reposted your comment, but now the date of your post is wrong (all else preserved as you wrote it).

    Back on topic: I had a brief discussion with someone on Pharyngula about OCD and religion. All those prescriptions for washing hands, eating, praying; all those rituals and rules. I’d like to see Sam Harris compare MRIs of OCD-afflicted persons with highly religious persons.


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