The Denial of Pain and Mortality: Or, the Art of Self-Prescribing and the Philosopher’s Stone


“Don’t look at me! Save yourself!”

Andrew* was a 25 year old with an imposing build that was mollified only by his despair and terror. Andrew was losing his mind. I didn’t have to see Andrew and I somewhat wish I never did. I had received a call late at night from Andrew’s nurse. “You gotta give him something man, I mean, he’s freaking out and I feel really bad.”

I knew nothing about Andrew, and as the patient was not on the psychiatric service, it was bizarre that the nurse should be calling me, as I was not responsible for his care. Something bothered Andrew’s nurse enough that he called me and so I went to see Andrew. When I arrived, he was pacing in his room, chattering to his tormentors, his mind racing, his body unable to stop moving. He was, he told me, the worst person in the world, he would contaminate me with his evil if I dared to enter his room. He covered his eyes so that he would not destroy me with his gaze. I told him I would take my chances, convinced him to sit down, and to let me sit next to him. It was not possible to be with Andrew without wanting to cry. In his despair he believed he was dead and soon to be tortured, he was a Promethean figure being punished for his grandiosity, castigated by nameless voices that had hounded him for days. To know Andrew was to know despair. It was also to discover why the nurse had wanted me to knock Andrew out. As he said, “I feel really bad.” He didn’t say Andrew felt really bad, which of course he did. Whether aware of it or not, the nurse was not asking for an elixir for Andrew’s pain, he was asking me to treat his own.

The art of prescribing

The defining act of the physician is the ability to prescribe. This has shifted in recent years as prescribing privileges have shifted to other providers, but prescribing remains a central practice of a physician’s identity. We prescribe because it’s expected, sometimes because it’s necessary, always because it’s what we do. Prescribing goes beyond drugs and to any intervention used to cure or control symptoms.  Sometimes the act of prescribing includes ordering investigations for the aim of assuaging the anxiety of a patient, fending off the threat of litigation, or even palliating our own anxiety that we have missed something. Whether a prescription is necessary or not, it is more often also a self-prescription. The maxim that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all has become anathema. We intervene because to not confronts us with the pain of living, the experience of suffering, the reality of death, and most of all our own helplessness. The hidden curriculum of medical school that death (and by extension suffering) is failure means that the physician who has a patient who dies, or who suffers means that we have failed. Failure is unacceptable. Intervention, and prescription as the fundamental medical intervention suppresses feelings of failure.

Prescribing as Identity

I always half-joke with my medical students that they were far more empathic before they ever started medical school. Some nod their heads knowingly, others pretend to agree with me, a few openly scoff at me. All usually tell me by the end of their time with me they didn’t realize just how right I was, they are far less empathic now and they never even realized it. Two years of endless lectures of every aspect of the body in health and disease had changed the way they saw the world, but incrementally so they didn’t quite realize it was happening. The systematic gutting of humanity that occurs is implicit, deliberate, and unspoken. It occurs because it makes the practice of medicine more tolerable. It is but one more defense against the pain of living that we are confronted with on a daily basis.

In the same way, prescribing is not implicitly taught as a defensive maneuver that can be employed as a way of avoiding engaging with the patient or to assuage one’s own feelings of helplessness. Prescribing is instead the therapeutic act that defines the identity of the physician. This is how my students are introduced to it.

I remember one of my students was assigned a patient who had attempted suicide and was doing therapeutic work with him. I told him that as it was his patient he could use whatever treatment he wanted. My student was keen to treat his ‘depression’ with both interpersonal therapy and an antidepressant. He had discussed with the patient at great length different medications and they had agreed on an SSRI. My own understanding for the patient was that he was lonely and I did not think that an antidepressant would be beneficial. I asked my keen student whether he still wanted to use a medication. He told me “Well I’ve never prescribed anything before, so I would [like to]!” The act of prescribing was not to treat the patient’s loneliness, it was part of the student’s transition to becoming a doctor.

Unfortunately, he had not mastered the basic concepts of pharmacology and when I reminded him that these agents are not benign and rattled off the long list of side effects as well the possible psychological complications of antidepressants, he seemed a lot less confident in his identity as a manqué-physician.


The denial of death

5 years ago, when I was still a medical student I remember being constantly confronted with the institutional denial of death in clinical medicine. It was during my emergency medicine rotation, which I enjoyed immensely, but also began to think about quitting medical school altogether. I remember the mute patients with advance dementia who we referred for surgical evaluation, but more than that I remember the patients who were already dead that we wouldn’t let go. There is something brutally demoralizing about resuscitation. Most people don’t know how many times we frantically stab patients with needles trying to get a line in. Or the way the body writhes when it is defibrillated. Most people don’t know what osteoporotic ribs sound or feel like when they crack under the pressure of chest compressions. In physiology, death is the endpoint of life. In clinical practice, it is the failure to prolong life. Once, it was only the physician who felt this sense of failure or humiliation, an alien feeling to someone who is used to succeeding. Today, intervention, and successful intervention is expected.


The Expectation to Intervene

We have a religious faith in the capacity of modern medicine to cure and to regenerate. Medicine is the Philosopher’s Stone of our age. We are asked to imagine a world without pain, without suffering, without sickness, and without death. In the US, where medicine is a multibillion dollar profit-driven complex, we have cultivated an image of the promise of cure. For those conditions where no cure exists, it is on the horizon. America no longer only promises the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of immortality. With this pursuit comes the expectation from the public for the physician to intervene. A clinic or ER visit that does not result in a prescription is a disappointment, and leads to a disgruntled “the doctor didn’t do anything.” Even at the very end of life, I am troubled by just how many patients and their families insist on futile interventions including resuscitation, and the institutional reluctance to discuss the inevitability of death.

The Archetypal Overreacher

As I sat with Andrew, he told me how he had believed he could be better than God, and push the limits of human capability. It was this belief that was his downfall. Now he was tormented, and there was no escape because he was already dead and this was his hell. I couldn’t help but feel that as a physician I had been trained to be an archetypal overreacher like Andrew, to fly too close to the sun, to steal fire from the Gods to help my patient’s cheat death, to fight the realities of existence. The price was an intolerable enduring sense of failure. My training was supposed to have deadened the visceral human response to Andrew’s suffering. It was supposed to have taught me to intervene with a prescription to deftly avoid engaging with Andrew on an emotional level and contemporaneously retain feelings of mastery and omnipotence over his suffering. My training had failed me. I knew he needed a prescription to sleep. But he also needed something that was not available on prescription. He needed a hug. This simple act of human connection and kindness is one of the few things proscribed in medical institutions. Instead I put my arm on his shoulder. I realized why we often prescribe without listening, we often engaging in doing to the patient rather than being with. It is because to do so is to be confronted with failure.


*For confidentiality reasons, Andrew is not a single patient but represents a composite of a number of patients


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. ” It was also to discover why the nurse had wanted me to knock Andrew out. As he said, “I feel really bad.” He didn’t say Andrew felt really bad, which of course he did. Whether aware of it or not, the nurse was not asking for an elixir for Andrew’s pain, he was asking me to treat his own.”

    Excellent, and precisely true.

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  2. This is a very welcome explanation of what happens in medical school regarding empathy. That you are helping your students see it will no doubt make them much better doctors.

    I would imagine the system also tends to draw a fair amount of people who are not so empathically inclined (in addition of course to those who are); I’m recalling the intense competition of pre-med in my college days, sort of a fury to get into med school. I know med school is also just awfully gruelling, so perhaps it tends to draw the more hard-nosed among us?

    But your comments on death and how it is seen in medicine are also especially helpful. Perhaps one major exception is hospice. My mother died recently and it was a hard but remarkable experience for me being present; one of the things that stood out the most was the extraordinary care provided by hospice, as well as some private care we were fortunate to be able to afford. There was an exceptance and an appreciation of death and a remarkable level of caring. I am not religious per se, but it drove home for me what Christ said to Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness.” How someone who, by modern calculus, is approaching the point of zero value (or perhaps already negative value, in some sense; not productive, etc.) can inspire such extraordinary devotion and love. Which seems to me almost the opposite of the will to power so often seen in our medical system.


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    • There are certainly problems with selection into medical school, especially in the US where the system is designed to privilege those in higher socioeconomic classes and whose own parents are physicians, and exclude minorities. There is a big push to change entry requirements into medical school and soon ethics and social/behavioral sciences will be required in addition to the usual fare. However, the process of becoming a doctor is one in which the former self disappears. We use metonyms (“the appendix”) and even locations (“room 8”) to forget about the person and we use humor to forget that gravity of what we do.

      I am no sure how long one can last in clinical medicine without losing a bit of empathy.

      Yes, palliative care is different a wonderful model of care. Unfortunately the social, geographic, cultural and psychological barriers that exist limit the availability of end of life care.

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  3. As a chaplain I did my clinical pastoral education in the university medical center in the state where I live. We chaplain residents constantly rubbed shoulders with the med students and the interns and residents. I saw the evolution in what happens to medical students/doctors that you describe so well here. Some of them made sure that they had no contact with we chaplain residents because to them we represented that great nemesis known as “Death.” We were called to the beside of those who could no longer be helped by medicine and doctors. It was also interesting to see the entitlement/privilege thing working in many of them since almost all of them came from rather wealthy backgrounds.

    You captured the essence of what is happening to people who enter medicine. The one really good thing that’s happened in medicine since I was a child is the number of women entering med school. Women usually bring a more relational attitude to the bedside of their patients, which I feel is a good thing.

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  4. Dr. Datta,

    Thanks for the well-written portrayal of medical training. It gave me flash backs.

    There were not so many drugs being marketed when I was in training. Equating “doctor” with “prescriber” is a transformation that has occured gradually over the past 25 years. Especially in the field of psychiatry, this has meant the loss of many skill sets and the devaluing of the therapeutic relationship.

    Thanks for the eloquent post.

    Alice Keys MD

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    • Your point about lost skill sets and the devaluing of the therapeutic relationship is very important. In the hospital where I work there are about fifteen psychiatrists and about the same number of clinical psychologists. Out of the fifteen psychiatrists only two know how to do therapy and they use this skill rarely. The psychologists are more apt to be found doing actual therapy but the attitude in the hospital is that the social workers are the ones who’re supposed to do the therapy. Most of them do discharge planning and only the ones in the two adolescent units actually do therapy. The unit that I was a patient on actually had a real therapist while I was there and she was quite valuable to the residents. However, she left the hospital for a better job and they’ve never replaced her and that was three years ago. As far as I know, she was the only certified therapist in the entire hospital.

      I speak about the need for therapy for people so that they can actually deal with the issues that cause their problems in the first place. I am totally ignored. The accepted and only treatment at our hospital is the toxic drugs. Even if we quit using the drugs tomorrow we’d be in a real pinch because almost no one knows how to do therapy. Or they’d be unwilling to do it because it’s such hard and intensive work and takes time. Once again, it’s no wonder that we have a revolving door in Admissions and see the same people over and over and over………

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      • Stephen,
        Thanks for validating my perception that psychotherapy has been lost to psychiatric hospitals.

        You’re right. Sometimes psychotherapay is long and difficult work. But not always. It depends on the person and the situation and the therapist. Research on outcomes of psychotherapy show that the most important aspect that effects outcome is the realtionship formed.

        So we’ve traded treatments that work well and give lasting benefits (a variety of therapies including “talk” therapy) for pill treatment that is medically dangerous, expensive and don’t work so well. I wish a bean counter in charge of treatment dollars would calulate all the costs. They would come up with very different sums.

        Hospitals are now used for short term “stabilization” ie fast behavior control. This is not therapy or treatment. Therapies take a bit longer but have more lasting results (and less medical side-effects).

        Thanks for your viewpoint.


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      • hi stephen,

        When I am on the inpatient psychiatry services I spend 8-10 hours a week doing intensive psychotherapy with select patients. The system is not geared for this and I feel that people (the non-psychiatrists) feel upset or threatened that I should spend my time like this. I feel like I am expected to provide a medical opinion and pharmacological management and nothing else. I also require my students to gain some experience in supportive psychotherapy and they also find this difficult because of the systemic barriers in place. It is a sad state of affairs.


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        • Yes, it is a sad state of affairs. But at least you are doing something about it and are trying to really walk with people in their crisis and dis-ease. That is a great plus. Thank you for doing what you do. I often think of the sayingd: “Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” You are lighting your candle and holding it up to shine in that vast darkness!

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