Even Madness Is No Stranger To Us

"If we feel our way into the human secrets of the sick person, the madness also reveals its system, and we recognize in the mental illness merely an exceptional reaction to emotional problems which are not strange to us."
C.G. Jung

I keep reminding myself that Jung is right. The line distinguishing mental health from mental illness is thin. We are all up against the edge in more ways than we care to admit. We comfort ourselves in moments of inspiration that the line separating genius and madness often blurs; we keep silent the desperation that haunts in more mundane moments.

My law practice keeps me close to misery. Most of the folks I represent are terrified about what the future holds. Some of them are so angry about what has befallen them that they can no longer see straight. A few find themselves in the law's cross hairs because they themselves seem permanently out of focus. Each challenges me to translate the expectations of a legal system hobbled together by visions of what is rational into terms that resonate once reason flees. Nothing in my training as a lawyer prepared me for this task, and I am sometimes depleted and filled with a harrowing sense of inadequacy.

I've been asking for years now for the bar or bench to sponsor training in dealing with mental health issues. There has not been any meaningful response to the request. Yet everyone in the system knows there are serious mental health issues driving both the civil and criminal justice systems. We just prefer not to talk about it, and to pretend that reason governs. We prefer our own fictions to reality.

Instead or serving reality, the powers that be have set in motions imperatives that poorly serve clients and the profession. The Rules of Professional Conduct have been amended to require lawyers to play greater roles as counselors: it is no longer enough to identify a client's strategic objectives and to provide choices. Now, lawyers and clients are to work together to discuss and conceive appropriate tactical means of advancing the litigation.

This transformation from a paternalistic to a client-centered model of the attorney-client relationship sounded great in theory. Hadn't medicine made a similar transformation in the latter portion of the twenty-first century, adopting a more patient-centered informed consent requirement? Wouldn't it work well with clients and lawyers?

What no one paused to consider when the law adopted informed consent is that, unlike doctors, lawyers have no training in mental health issues. A part of every doctor's training involves the recognition of mental health problems. A physician whose patient is undone by the choices before him can be prescribed medication to help them cope; most insurance plans also cover psychiatric referrals. There are no such avenues for lawyers.

This is most jarring in the law's civil system. On the criminal side, a lawyer who believes his client cannot comprehend the nature of the proceedings or who cannot provide assistance in his or her own defense can ask for a competency hearing. In such instances, the proceedings halt while the court satisfies itself that the defendant is fit to participate. There is not such mechanism in the civil courts. A lawyer with questions about a client's competence must bring a separate claim to the Probate Court, where a determination about whether the party needs a conservator can be made. But what lawyer will risk such an action in all but the most extraordinary circumstances?

Lawyers are permitted to withdraw if a client's demands become unreasonably difficult to satisfy, or if the client's objectives become repugnant. But that hardly seems a satisfactory solution. The client still remains in need. I would be interested to see whether there are any statistics on motions to withdraw in those jurisdictions requiring more expanded roles for lawyers as counselors. I'll bet more motions are being filed by lawyers ill-equipped to deal with avalanches of sorrow.

The fact remains that character disorders, the netherworld of diagnosis ranging from borderline personalities, to explosive rage disorder, to narcissism and other related so-called "soft" diagnoses go unrecognized and untreated in both the civil and criminal courts. And lawyers are left alone with these intractable conditions to make the best of every bad situation that comes their way.

Jung's observation about the relationship of pscyhosis to normal psychic process reminds me that what distinguishes health from pathology is largely a matter of degree. In this regard, Aristotle was really right when he discussed the concept of the mean in his Ethics. As regards anger, for example, it is a sign of good judgment, or health, to be angry in just the right way, to the right degree, in the right manner and at the right things. Rage obliterates these distinctions and becomes the soul of the person consumed by anger.

Oddly enough, the Seven Deadly Sins have become a starting point for me in understanding the human agony that I see day by day. A resilient soul knows passion, can experience anger, enjoys his appetites and is capable of detachment: when possessed by sin, a person becomes lustful, is a glutton, revels in sloth, loses his perspective and yields to unreasoning anger. We are all, it seems to me, so much tinder for the passions: A well ordered soul keeps a flame flickering at the center of the soul's mansion, warming himself by considering best how to marshal that flame for the purpose of harmony. But each of us can pushed to the point of violent combustion given the right circumstances. Each of us can be consumed and made a caricature by unmeasured desire.

I remind myself of this on the eve of a week filled with challenge. I remind myself not to become the anger and fear I see, but to remain a counselor capable of lending a firm hand amid a storm. I can recognize the danger signs by keeping a close eye on my internal compass. How easy to let anger become a lodestar. How easy to lose one's way. How hard, often, to remain calm in the center of so many storms.


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© Norm Pattis is represented by Elite Lawyer Management, managing agents for Exceptional American Lawyers
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