Carla Carlisle on bitterness

On the psychoanalytical scale of things, I barely register. I may have been born in the century influenced by Freud and Jung, but a simpler psychology seeped into my thinking. For instance, I believe that everything begins in childhood, and that children who are loved and told that they are absolutely marvellous have tremendous confidence. That if your parents give you those two things the sense of self and the love you have them all your life. If not, you’re forever looking for them.

And yet, lots of things can hijack the solid foundation of a happy childhood. I’ve known far too many young people (mostly men) who burned their brains away smoking dope, and many of them had textbook idyllic childhoods.

My university days also took place in the era of the draft, so I knew joyful and confident young men who came back from Vietnam changed, some forever, few for better. Slowly, we began to hear of something called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a response to trauma that left people fearful and anxious. Governments fought this diagnosis, wary of the financial implications, and it took years of psychiatrists writing in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the world’s bible of mental illnesses, before PTSD was recognised as real, debilitating, enduring and treatable.

Now, psychiatrists have come up with a new mental disorder. Called post-traumatic embitterment disorder, it differs from PTSD in that its sufferers are not made helpless by their fears and anxieties. Embittered people want revenge.

Reluctant as I am to speak in psycho-babble, embitterment disorder rings a bell with me. I see signs of it everywhere. Consider the supporters of the BNP, now reckoned to be 3% of the electorate. It’s a constituency borne of bitterness. People are bitter about job losses. Bitter about the absence of coherent immigration policies. Bitter about the gangs on their estates, bitter about the absence of police controlling the gangs. Bitterness breeds bitterness. When the head of the BNP appeared on Question Time, bitterness spread like a riot through the protestors who objected to the bitter Mr Griffin appearing on state-owned television.

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Then, last week, and the astonishing invitation to the Embittered Faithful, members of the Anglican communion eaten up with  bitterness over women and gay priests. Invited by the Pope  to come over to Roman Catholicism en masse, they will be welcomed by a Vatican that has changed its rules so that entire Anglican communities, instead of mere individuals, can convert to Catholicism and take their liturgy with them.

I’m more vulnerable to embitterment disorder call it ED than I’d like. I feel a little bitterness every day. It usually starts with Today, and anything can trigger it. A bomb goes off in Baghdad killing 155, a reminder that George Bush and Tony Blair led us into an illegal war based on trumped-up evidence. The report on the Nimrod crash killing 14 soldiers blames the MoD for sacrificing safety to cut costs. Another soldier dies in Afghanistan, and his parents ask: ‘What is it all for?’

One of the most haunting characters in literature is the mother in David Malouf’s book The Great World. After a patient, uncomplaining life, she begins to crack, and, in a moment of sheer desperation, she runs out of the house and up the hill. Blackberry bushes tear at her ankles and rip her dress, but she races on until she reaches the summit. She gazes out over Broken Bay, alone and silent, ‘chewing over the bitterness of things’.

I feel as if we’re living in the age for chewing over the bitterness of things. Financial insecurity. The collapse of families. A wounded planet. Few of us want to plot revenge, but we’d like to feel there is hope. That, if we sing loud enough ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’ the bitterness will drain away.

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