Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

“I Feel Like A Corpse”

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 29, 2010


      Tim, a 44-year-old, long-term patient (identity disguised), said “I feel like a corpse”. I was speechless. I wanted time to ponder what he meant, but at the same time, I know that  it can be painful if I allow for a long silence after that disclosure.  Is this depression? I wonder. Do I have to call it anything? Should I start thinking about medication? Should I wait to see what he says next? I am flooded with unsettling feelings. I want to help, but I am not sure what to do. 

   On the surface of things, Tim has a good life. He is healthy, his family is healthy, and he does not have financial woes. The most difficult part of Tim’s life is his marriage. He feels demeaned and dismissed by his wife. For the past five years that I have known him, he has had overwhelming fatigue. Numerous physicians have ruled out cancer, autoimmune diseases and organ failure. I understand this lethargy to be a result of the verbal abuse that he experiences from his wife. The constant criticisms seem to literally suck the life out of him. As I think about this, I understand that a feeling of fatigue would progress to feeling like a corpse. His life has gotten worse, but the nature of his distress is the same. He is living in a verbally abusive environment, such that he no longer feels any sense of vitality. 

    How can I help? I want to remind him that he does not deserve to be treated this way, yet I know that saying this, might help for a few moments, but  his involvement in this relationship runs deep and as such, my words will be superficial. I want to make him feel powerful. He does not have to stay with his wife. This is tough though because they have little children. How can I advocate for him to break up his family? I do not want to do that. At the same time, I want him to feel better . I also know that, his feeling like a corpse is not good for his kids. Ultimately, he needs to make big decisions for himself and his children.  My job is to help him untangle  these issues, but if he feels like a corpse, he does not have the capacity to untangle them now. So, my first task is to help him feel more energetic. How do I do that? Medication might help, but is that a good tool? I am not sure yet. 

    I continue to listen, and reflect. I begin to feel as helpless and powerless as my patient. There does not seem to be a way out of this dreadful feeling. I begin to think about practical solutions. I wonder if he had some time to himself , then maybe he could regain a sense of energy and enthusiasm for life. He says he has thought of that, but that his wife will be very angry if he does that. Maybe he has to cope with her anger, I say, but he responds that no, this will only make him feel worse. We are both back to feeling lost. 

    The session ends. He says thank you. I am not sure if he was being polite, or if he felt grateful for my understanding. I felt worried. I am not sure what I was worrying about, but the word corpse stuck with me. He had never said that before. No, I was not thinking that he would hurt himself, but I was thinking that he was trying to tell me just how bad things feel to him. He did not cry when he said it, but rather, he was flat, like a corpse, when he uttered those words. He did not just say he felt like a corpse, he acted like a corpse. I think of my cardiologist colleagues who put paddles on patient’s chests’ when their heart stops beating. Where are my paddles? How do I bring Tim back to life? I do not know, but I wonder.

5 Responses to ““I Feel Like A Corpse””

  1. Shelly said

    This must be very painful for your patient, and for you, the witness. Sometimes, all we want is to know that someone is there and cares for us. Perhaps that is why he was thanking you: for caring there, and listening. What can you do for this patient? How can you help him if he cannot leave his abusive wife?

  2. I agree that when all else fails, just being there (or “showing up” in the new lingo) is helpful. I am not sure how I can help, but I am thinking about it. Thanks!

  3. Madeleine said

    Laughed too. Kind of heartwarming, these moments of levity in an often serious therapist/patient interchange.

    Talking with our own kids, we find we use some of their language.

    But we have to be careful when we use it with them or their friends too much….they might feel weirded out by our self presumed awesomeness if we ancients are too wicked cool and sick,.. kwim?
    Ok, so that was a so totally random comment.

  4. Madeleine said

    oops, that comment is supposed to be in the “Farty” article.

  5. No problem. I just copied and pasted it there….

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