Diagnosing Scrooge Syndrome: What A Christmas Carol Can Teach Us About Treating Chronic Embitterment

Did Scrooge suffer from Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder?

Posted Dec 20, 2011

A Christmas Carol may be my favorite holiday film. There have been numerous versions based on the 1843 Charles Dickens novel, including a 2009 adaptation starring Jim Carrey as Mr. Scrooge which I still haven't seen. Just the other night I caught one with George C. Scott doing a fine acting job as Scrooge, but the earlier films I first saw as a kid are truly classic. Mr. Scrooge's ill-tempered, pessimistic, misanthropy is reminiscent of something I've written about here in the past: Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder. Could the contemptuous Scrooge be a poster boy for PTED? Did he suffer from an underlying anger disorder? (See my prior posts.) Chronic depressive disorder? Or perhaps a deep-seated personality disorder? How might the disdainful and selfish Scrooge be diagnosed and treated today by a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist?

Bitterness, which I define as a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment, is one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions. Bitterness is a kind of morbid characterological hostility toward someone, something or toward life itself, resulting from the consistent repression of anger, rage or resentment regarding how one really has or perceives to have been treated. Bitterness is a prolonged, resentful feeling of disempowered and devalued victimization. Embitterment, like resentment and hostility, results from the long-term mismanagement of annoyance, irritation, frustration, anger or rage. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that "nothing consumes a man more quickly than the emotion of resentment." Mr. Scrooge is completely consumed by bitterness, hostility and resentment, yet doesn't even know it. He is blissfully unaware of his shadow, though it is plain for all else to see. He seems to have lost his soul. His heart is frozen by bitterness. Were Scrooge, for some reason, to come into contact with a modern-day psychiatrist for evaluation and treatment, I suspect he would most likely be diagnosed with a personality disorder and, quite possibly, a chronic mood disorder such as dysthymia or major depression, and started on some type of antidepressant medication. We do know that Major Depressive Disorder tends to be recurrent, can co-exist with Dysthymic Disorder, and often includes persistent feelings of irritability, frustration and anger, diminished interest or pleasure in most  activities, and a profoundly pessimistic outlook on life. A clinical psychologist might also offer some cognitive-behavioral therapy to examine and restructure Scrooge's negative thought patterns and core schemata. Or perhaps some psychodynamic psychotherapy. (Of course, most people manifesting "Scrooge syndrome" feel no need for treatment and seldom seek it out.)  In either case, this patient's prognosis would likely be considered poor, given the chronicity, characterological nature, and severity of his asocial symptoms. But, for Scrooge, who was created by Dickens a century before psychotherapy and psychopharmacology were developed, all that is about to change. In one night, he will be totally transformed. Cured. Born again. Healed. Made whole. How does this happen? What can Scrooge's journey teach us about treating and rehabilitating chronic embitterment?

So pay particularly close attention to your dreams, especially this time of year. They may be trying to tell you something that could potentially alter your destiny. And restore your faith. For this is the miraculous season of death and renewal, of endings and beginnings, of darkness and light. It is a truly transitional, spiritual time of year. Chanukkah, the festival of lights, the "miracle of the oil," starts this week. Christmas, with its miraculous conception and resurrection is nigh. And, New Year's Eve, marking the passing of, what, for many of us, has been a trying twelve months and beginning of what we perennially hope will be a better, more fruitful and happier year yet to come.