Friday, August 9, 2013

Don Draper loses it - Can he be saved?

Don Draper, the main character in AMC's MadMen is without a doubt the most complicated character I have ever seen on television.  I have often thought about whether or not I have seen him over the years. What would be the most likely way that he would come to the attention of a psychiatrist?  I can remember several years ago he went in to see his primary care physician and was told that he had hypertension (150/100).   The prescribed course of action was a combination of a barbiturate and reserpine.  Being seen as a complication of that therapy might be one way.  He also has demonstrated that he has a progressive problem with alcohol.  Everyone on MadMen drinks at work, and it is typically hard liquor.  At one level it seems to be part of the Madison Avenue culture, but Don has taken it many steps beyond that to overt intoxication and vomiting in the office.  Even in the 1960s, this behavior could result in a period of detoxification and residential treatment.  If he really was mixing alcohol with barbiturates that is a setup for an accidental overdose or a withdrawal seizure.

Another avenue to consultation might have to do with his philandering behavior.  Over the course of the show he has had two wives and he has had extramarital affairs in both marriages.  During his second marriage, he befriends a cardiothoracic surgeon in his building.  He admires this man and he seems like the only real friendship that Draper has been interested in over the course of the series.  That does not deter him from sleeping with the surgeon's wife.  During his previous marriage, he had affairs with numerous women resulting in his wife finding out and on one occasion he was punched in the face by an irate husband.  None of that has had much of an impact on his lifestyle that consists of drinking a lot at work and frequently using work as an excuse to neglect his wife and family and continue extramarital sex.

Whenever I think of philandering, I think of Frank Pittman's work that I read fresh out of residency training.  In outpatient practice, anxious and depressed persons have two major sources of stress - their job and their significant relationship.  It is fairly common to see significant others and spouses during the treatment of an individual.  The usual requests are for a basic explanation of the diagnosis and treatment plan, but in more complicated circumstances an analysis of the spouses behavior.  I think that Pittman may have seen Don Draper as a subtype of philanderer that he refers to as a "hostile philanderer" who is not empathic toward women.  A more psychodynamic approach might suggest that Draper is narcissistic and that might be the driving force behind his lack of empathy.  In either case, the therapy focused on this problem is complicated and requires skills that focus on neutrality and a focus on the goals of therapy rather than an endless description of the problem.

A more recent approach might employ a model of sexual addiction rather than looking at the problem as repetitive marital infidelity.  One of the conceptualizations of the problem is that it can be a behavioral addiction like food and gambling and that it involves and activates the same neurobiological substrates that addictive drugs and alcohol do.  Some authors have developed criteria sets for sexual addiction based on the characteristics of substance use disorders, but this disorder is not listed in the main DSM or the section on "Conditions for Further Study."  Some people will come in for assessment based on someone telling them that they have a sex addiction or their participation in 12-step recovery groups with that focus.  Experts in the field have produced reviews of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy that might be useful for this problem, but at this point most psychiatrists would see this as an issue for psychotherapy and would have reservations about the medical treatment of a model that has not been widely accepted.

There is also a more biological approach to infidelity.  Some people may present with requests for a medication that has decreased libido as a side effect or a medication that produces that result by its physiological effect.

In the season 6 finale, Don Draper is trying to seal an advertising deal with Hershey.  The staff knows they are swimming up stream, because Hershey has outstanding brand recognition and packaging.  Don has to sell them on a campaign that takes their advertising to a new level.  He tells a poignant story about mowing the lawn as a kid and his father taking him to the store later so that he could buy a Hershey bar.  That candy symbolizing the bond between a father and son and a bridge to those memories in the past.  His associates in the room are beaming.  They think he has hit it out of the park.  A few minutes later, he tells everyone in the room that the story he has just told never happened.  He says he was raised in a "whorehouse" and one of the prostitutes would ask him to go through the trousers of her clients, looking for extra money.  He would get some of that change and buy a Hershey bar.  When he ate it he was living vicariously like the kid in his original story.

Can Don Draper be saved?  In a way he already has.  He was at a clear disadvantage in terms of childhood trauma and adapted to that by becoming somebody who he was not and trying to consciously block out that previous existence.  We get a glimpse of one of his strategies from an earlier scene.  I think that from an artistic point of view the writers are saying that he cannot.  He could no longer suppress the truth about himself at a critical juncture in his career.  That is true not only with his clients and coworkers but also with his children.  In the final scene of the season, he is standing with his children in front of the whorehouse where he was raised.  His daughter looks at him for some kind of reaction.

From a psychiatric standpoint the answer is a qualified yes.  Certainly any psychiatrist could come up with a plan that might address some of the areas highlighted above.  It would take a comprehensive formulation of his problems.  Framing the problem as simple anxiety or depression or some other DSM-5 diagnosis is an obvious mistake.  In many practice settings that pressure is there.  There is also the chance that he might walk into an AA meeting for any number of reasons and make some changes to get his life back on track.  He might even get some advice from a friend or coworker about a particular aspect of his problems that he might decide to pursue and that could lead to some changes.  The main drawback to advice from a peer is that he has no peers and no close friends.   Human consciousness is complex and there are many roads to change.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Frank Pittman.  Private Lies - Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy.  WW Norton and Company, New York, 1989.

Shoptaw SJ.  Sexual addiction in Ries R, Fiellin DA, Miller SC, Saitz R. Principles of Addiction Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2009:  pp 519-530.

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