Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Dark Side of Love 2: De Clerambault’s Syndrome and other disorders

Afflicted by love's madness all are blind. Sextus Propertius

Psychotic or delusional disorders
These can manifest in two basic ways:

Morbid jealousy (also known as Othello Syndrome) is when a person holds a strong delusional belief that that their spouse or sexual partner is being unfaithful in the absence of any actual evidence.

Jealousy is a very common emotion, but when jealousy is entirely baseless then it can become pathological in nature. This can range along a spectrum between essentially normal feelings of jealousy, perhaps arising from an individual’s basic sense of insecurity or personal inadequacy, through to full blown psychotic illness.

Morbid jealousy is likely to take the form of constantly checking what the person’s partner is doing at any time of the day. The person may look on their partner’s mobile phone to see who they’ve been ringing or texting. They may interrogate them during the evening about what they’ve been doing, who they’ve been talking to.

This can be obsessional, but essentially non-psychotic in nature and therefore amenable to treatment, in which case, a talking therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, can be effective in tackling and addressing the individual’s personal insecurities and anxieties. However, if it is truly delusional in nature, then it can be much more difficult to treat. It can also extend into stalking behaviour.

De Clerambault’s Syndrome (also known as erotomania) is a delusional belief that the person is in love with another, and that that love is reciprocated. This seems to occur most commonly in women. Usually, the subject of the person’s attention is only a casual acquaintance, and the affection is entirely unreciprocated. This belief can also lead to stalking behaviour.

(Isn’t it curious how so many syndromes and disorders are named after people with unusual or glamorous names? Gaetan Gatian De Clerambaut was a French psychiatrist practising in the early years of the 20th century who specialised in hallucinations and delusions and first described the syndrome in the 1920’s. “De Clerambaut’s Syndrome” almost onomatopoeically seems to describe the symptoms. What if Stanley Boggis had discovered it? Or John Woodcock?)

I’ve known Sian for nearly 10 years now. She provides an interesting illustration of both these disorders. Sian was in her late 20’s when she first came to the attention of psychiatric services. She has first assessed in the court cells about 12 years ago, having been arrested for harassment of her ex-husband and his partner. Although this assessment was inconclusive, there were approaching a dozen further incidents of harassment over the next 6 months.

Things finally came to a head when she was arrested after being found hiding in the wardrobe of her ex-husband’s bedroom, having broken into his house. She was arrested on suspicion of burglary, and assessed by a psychiatrist in police cells, who recommended an assessment under Sec.35 MHA. Following this assessment, she was detained in hospital from the Magistrates Court under Sec.37.

I first became involved with Sian when she appealed to the Hospital Managers against her detention. It is a comparatively little known aspect of the Mental Health Act that, although a patient cannot appeal to a Tribunal against Sec.37 in the first 6 months of detention, they do have the right to appeal to the Managers of the hospital, who can, if they wish, discharge the patient.

I had to provide a social circumstances report and appear at the Hearing. This is when I discovered her story.

Sian had led a completely normal life until her late 20’s. She was married and they had one daughter. After a few years of marriage she became more and more suspicious of her husband, coming to believe that he was having an affair. She began to check his whereabouts, ringing him up constantly to find out what he was doing and where he was, and searching through his clothes and belongings. This behaviour began to put increasing strain on their marriage. In an effort to make him jealous and win back his affection, Sian had a brief affair with a friend of her husband. This only succeeded in finally ending the marriage.

On an impulse, Sian left the matrimonial home, leaving her daughter in the care of her husband. Her husband applied for residence, which was granted. After a year or so, her husband obtained a divorce and his new partner moved in. This provoked the increasingly abusive and violent attacks by sian which eventually resulted in her being arrested, and spending a week or so on remand in prison until she was admitted to hospital.

When I interviewed Sian, she was still wearing her wedding ring, even though they had been divorced for a year and her ex-husband was now engaged to his new partner. She denied that it was possible that their relationship was over, and could not believe that her ex-husband could be having an intimate relationship. They were just friends, and Sian was certain that if she could cause a rift between him and his fiancée, then he would return to her. These beliefs were completely unshakeable.

Sian was not discharged by the Managers, and remained in hospital for about 4 months, during which time she was treated with antipsychotic medication and appeared to make a reasonable recovery, gradually realising that it was futile to believe that she and her ex-husband could ever get back together again. She was discharged from hospital with the rather vague diagnosis of “delusional disorder”.

Over the next few years Sian seemed to manage fairly well, getting a flat, and a job as a shop assistant, although she had a tendency to avoid contact with her care coordinator, and at times stopped taking her medication. At such times, she would become delusional again, invariably believing that someone she had served once or twice in the shop was in fact in love with her. She would then start stalking him, finding out where he lived and staking out his house. It was usually possible to persuade her to restart her medication, and these beliefs would then evaporate.

Sian’s most recent admission to hospital came out of the blue. She had been engaging well with the CMHT, was clearly taking her medication, and I had begun to explore with her some of the issues from her past. She had enduring guilt about abandoning her daughter, as she saw it, and I began to analyse her history and the breakdown of her relationship with her husband, in the context of the insidious onset of a psychotic illness over which she had no control. She seemed to have good insight into this, and it appeared to be reassuring her.

Then suddenly, over the course of two weeks, Sian began to behave increasingly bizarrely. She threw out all her clothes, resigned from her job, destroyed all her identity documents, and declared to her daughter, who was now an adult, that a man she had met in a pub a few days previously was her sole mate and one true love. She presented as highly distressed, agitated and tearful, with pressure of speech. Her daughter called out the Crisis Team, as it was at the weekend, and they assessed her and admitted her informally.

It took several months for her to return to normality. It took many weeks before she was able to recognise that this wonderful, perfect relationship was entirely delusional (I had checked it out and knew for a fact that she had only met this man twice, and only in the company of others, and that he had no romantic interest in her). However, antipsychotic medication, combined with an antidepressant, eventually restored her mental health, and to date, over a year on from that relapse, Sian remains stable and content. And has no irrational beliefs about any of her male acquaintances.

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