The Switched-Off Girl

The Switched-Off Girl.

From her appearance and in conversation with her, Angela, aged 19, appeared to be a normal girl, and you would not be able to tell that she had a socially disabling ‘handicap of switching off,’ as she calls it. She attended our first session with her mother, and the latter answered all my diagnostic questions on behalf of her daughter, at times with tears in her eyes. Angela just looked on quizzically and without any emotions, sometimes looking at her mother with a frown, and possibly wondering what the fuss was all about!

Madam Koh was a divorcee, and Angela was the older of two children in her custody. Her marriage began to fail long before she discovered her husband’s adultery. He was a short-tempered and violent man, and would physically abuse her regularly. When Angela started schooling, she too became a victim of her father’s tantrums. Any minor infractions in her father’s books were met with a heavy hand, a belt, or just being locked in the darkened storeroom, or out of the home for hours. If she cried or was oppositional, she was dragged by her hair into a room and slapped until she was silent. This went on for 5 years or so. Her mother would attempt to intervene when she was at home, but this would make things worse.

In her first term at the university, Angela began to have fainting spells. In the middle of her tutorials, she would loose consciousness suddenly, and fall off her chair, if her friends did not catch her in time. While talking with others, or on the tennis court, or out shopping, she collapsed in a heap at some point. She was unable to premeditate when these spells would occur, but would be perfectly normal at home. Mdm Koh had her investigated by various specialists at the hospital: including blood work, heart and brain scans. All appeared normal. Six months later, she again had Angela re-examined by a different group of specialists as her fainting bouts persisted, and the results did not turn up anything unusual. She was subsequently referred to a psychiatrist who suspected a conversion disorder resembling syncope or fainting. The stigma of a mental illness was too overbearing for them. Mdm Koh consulted her church’s pastoral team next, and Angela was sent for prayer and deliverance. It was 6 months later that they were referred to see me.

To survive her father’s physical, emotional and psychological abuses, Angela had probably repressed her emotions and some of her memories; often talking about them without any emotions. I suspected that her fainting spells were a defensive coping mechanism triggered by memories of some of those abusive incidents, enabling her to shut herself down, and in a strange way to protect herself from those deep painful memories. Stress at school, a competitive event, hearing someone shout or just a sudden loud noise would have produced the similar anxiety-ridden reaction. At our second session, with Mdm Koh’s help, since both of us have not personally encountered Angela’s ‘switching-off’, we tested this out within the safe counselling environment with Angela’s consent. When her mother suddenly raised her voice in a loud reprimanding tone, Angela immediately ‘switched-off.’ Twenty minutes later, she woke up.