Dirk de Wachter is the star-psychiater of Belgium. He recently took a seat in the Advisory Board of Your Lab. Robin went to his house in Antwerp to interview him.

"When I use the word “life-artist” I see a light sparkle in his eyes that he quickly waves away like it’s too big of an honor to him. He’s a life-artist who uses the advice of his drawing teacher in his psychiatrist profession."

About the art of life

Walking into Dirk de Wachter’s home I catch myself expecting an austere interior and impersonal space. I somehow imagined psychiatrists as the ones being able to get into our inner world but keeping their own carefully shielded. Nothing could be further from the truth as I was welcomed in a wunderkammer of a creative spirit.

 

De Wachter leads me down the stairs to the basement where his consultation room resides. I am making myself comfortable in a leopard print armchair with a cup of coffee served in a golden cup.

I’m surrounded by framed painted, drawn or casted pondering faces that seem to be staring at me, almost like silent witnesses of all the conversations that take place in these square meters.

 

The famous Flemish psychiatrist is a star in Belgium and gained a lot of publicity in The Netherlands too – much to the “little psychiatrists’ “surprise (his own words). He is however critical to the Dutch. More than in Flanders he observes a culture of everything having to be fun and nice. “Like every day should be celebrated as if we’re winning a soccer game surrounded by orange garlands and balloons.” He says jokingly but I hear a serious undertone.

When I use the word “life-artist” I see a light sparkle in his eyes that he quickly waves away like it’s too big of an honor to him.

Despite his criticism, he thanks part of his life’s journey to the Dutch culture. He read in one evening, at age fifteen, the book “The Evenings” from the Dutch writer Gerard Reve. The idea that other people were also experiencing weird thoughts and that those thoughts also could be written down sparked his fascination.

 

The human thoughts would govern his life path.

 

Also because all other things didn’t seem to work out for him. He wanted to become a football player but he wasn’t good in playing football. As a musician he had no talent. His dream to become an artist was scattered by one comment of his drawing teacher saying “You have to stop drawing so nice. Art and beautiful drawing are two different things.” He was lucky to have a loving mother that said to him “It’s okay my boy, if you can’t do anything than just go studying.” He chose a study that he could time-wise stretch as much as possible; psychiatry. “I’ve actually just graduated.”

 

When I use the word “life-artist” I see a light sparkle in his eyes that he quickly waves away like it’s too big of an honor to him. He’s a life-artist who uses the advice of his drawing teacher in his psychiatrist profession.

 

De Wachter advocates in his practice and his books to allow space for a bit more unhappiness. Life and the desire for moments of happiness are two different things according to him. “We also have to face our own awfulness if we crave to experience life to the fullest.”

That nice picture may look very appealing but according to him it can never be compared with the richness and depth of real life.

De Wachter’s worldview and therapy method is centered on the idea of everything being connected to one another.

De Wachter’s maternal family tree has a rich Catholic priest history. There was however no way in the world that he would continue this tradition. Even though religion had slowly disappeared out of his life in childhood, a few of his priest uncles’ values did pass on. The care and love for fellow humans for example that even though from another perspective, he does carry on.

 

De Wachter’s worldview and therapy method is centered on the idea of everything being connected to one another. The interaction between humans is according to him the building block of our humanity.

Contrary to popular belief that we can find ourselves by thoroughly searching ourselves, he is convinced that’s not where we have to search.

De Wachter places the problems of the individual always in the bigger scope of things and the bigger world. “In dialogues we always search for connection and through that connection we try – with inevitable shortcomings and never conclusive – to find ways to live.”

 

He is one one of few psychiatrists with an academic background that still does individual consultations on a regular basis. He tries to see his clients with an unbiased and non-judgmental state of mind, regardless of the dossier with diagnoses that he often receives prior to seeing them. “When someone enters I ask “Who are you?” Some people are very self-stigmatizing and equal themselves to their diagnosis. That frame or context in which they see themselves has become their identity. If someone is stuck in that story I try to immediately let that story go by showing him or her that there is always a bigger story we are part of.”

Oftentimes his patients have a feeling something is not functioning as it should do, that something needs fixing.

“I wish for this open worldview also to help me in my everyday life. An unbiased, open-minded way of looking at things doesn’t mean I’m not critically observing. I try to analyze the reality, carefully, attentively, deeply and consciously. From this perspective you can’t deny that there is a lot going wrong in the world but there is also a lot of beauty that I see. The way I look at my patients I also look at the world.”

 

People take a seat in De Wachter’s leopard print armchair for a variety of reasons. Oftentimes there is a feeling that something is not functioning as it should normally do, that something needs fixing. (Being normal also only exists in the context of the world we find ourselves in).

I ask him how healing takes place in his treatment process to which he answers “Healing… What a beautiful word. We call that recovery in psychiatry. Healing is from the perspective of the other, never from our own. It happens within the person and between people. Individuality and interaction are always circularly connected to one another. So are the mind and the body, contrary to what the man with huge success says in the Netherlands (RvdM: Dick Swaab).

 

We’re of course a big part of our brain, but that brain is just an instrument of this interaction. We are also bodily. We experience interactions also bodily. The sometimes misery resulting from these interactions often also gets expressed in the body, in the form of contractions or even paralysis. I recently saw a woman that had been left by her loved one and wasn’t able to sit straight in a chair anymore. They say it’s all in your head but I disagree, it definitely was in her body.”

 

On my question what he finds most fascinating in his field of psychiatry he answers that to him it’s the intangible and elusive area, between body and mind, between individual and interaction. “Psychiatry stands in between. That makes it for some elusive. Is it the brain or the relating? Is it objective or subjective? It’s everything. That is what makes it so complex. It’s about not knowing. People often want to know why something is the way it is to which I have to answer “I don’t know”. Not in a cynical way and I don’t find that they’re rambling but I’m genuinely interested “You tell me!”.

Through conversations we might be able to come closer to the reason why and without perhaps fully comprehending we might be able to turn the suffering around by the use of language. But that suffering is surely also stored somewhere in the body.”

The question “Who am I?” is of all times, but lately we try to answer this question as consumers according to De Wachter.

In his books he encourages the allowance of the plethora of emotions we have labeled as negative, like loneliness and sadness, as we live in a society that seems to be solely focused on the counterparts of these emotions: happiness and euphoria. Of course that sounds easier than it is. I place myself in the place of the patient and tell De Wachter that there has been a period in my life I’ve experienced a pressing sadness myself. I felt it lingering somewhere under the surface unable to be reached by myself. Not the feeling of sadness as such but the feeling of it being suppressed somewhere and unable to be touched by me – thát is what led to a feeling of depression. I ask De Wachter about his view on this. “Metaphorically you can see a depression as swallowed sadness, as a blockage of emotions. Not being able to grief let’s say. The definition of depression is not so important to me. I would ask you “What are your thoughts? What have you experienced? How is that for you? The only person that can answer and truly know that is you, so please tell me about your suffering. Every person expresses it differently but often it’s a very big sadness hidden behind a wall of numbness.”

 

The question “Who am I?” is of all times, but lately we try to answer this question as consumers according to De Wachter. “ We have become the material stuff that we have accumulated, and our success. We cling to those things like expensive jewelry that can any time be stolen. This way we give our right of existence to something outside of ourselves and live in a continuous fear of losing our self-“worth”. We don’t dare to critically think any longer and to connect with one-another in a deeper and more meaningful way. We prefer to keep things easy and fun as this way that nice picture we have created doesn’t get threatened. The danger in the lack of critical reflection upon our lives and ourselves is the decisions we make in choosing therapists, leaders, coaches, that say, “I know it all, you don’t have to think, I’ll think for you. That’s very condescending.”

 

De Wachter stands up from his chair and leans forward making a hand gesture as if he pats a mini-person on the head saying “We do something like this: Oh dear boy, you can’t do it yourself, can you? Give me your hand and I’ll show you the way.” He calls that infantilization of the other, what at first looks like helping. That is literally what we have done with colonies. The colonies have been made powerless by our patronizing approach. And that’s exactly what leaders are doing in societies and therapists with their patients. I understand the need for guidance but I would rather search for that within people that don’t tell you what to do but that say: think for yourself. How can someone else know how you should live? You only know that yourself.”

 

He advocates for a humble position of a psychiatrist. Someone that says, “I don’t know, I would like to help you search but you’ll find it. A good therapist tries to stay out of the position of a Guru.”

According to De Wachter it’s not paradise that awaits us at the end of our search but simple earthly living instead. And that will always be a little challenging.

 

We live in times where we place people on a pedal stool based on their looks, wealth or success and not because of their intrinsic motivation to be of value in the lives of others. We are in need of new heroes according to De Wachter. “The true heroes are people that don’t place themselves in the spotlight and aren’t publicly admired. – Now I’m starting to preach as you’re inviting me too – It’s these people that are as imperceptible as possible.  If these small good deeds start becoming advertised at the side of the road they become dangerous and worthless. That is also my plight this very moment I’m pontificating with you. The small things I can achieve with my patients are much more important. I often get presented by the media as the man that knows it all and subsequently says “I don’t know.” I’m vain enough to take pride in the fact that what I say is not perceived as ridiculous but what I say shall not be taken as Holy Grail. That remains an area of tension.”

Authenticity is about true living, even if it’s a little unhappy.

We return to the fifteen-year-old De Wachter. The age that somehow things shifted for him and the fascination arose for the thoughts of the other, but also for his interest in the anti-hero. “I was very naïve, lived in a small village and saw the movie Mccabe and Mrs Muller on TV. The movie is about a cowboy that solo-travels through the winter landscapes on his horse. For the first time in my life I heard music that until this day is very close to my heart, the music of Leonard Cohen. That movie starts with the Stranger-song.

De Wachter recites:

 

I told you when I came I was a stranger.

 

He travels through the wintery landscape on his horse. Nothing except snow and his horse can be seen.

 

But now another stranger seems

To want you to ignore his dreams

As though they were the burden of some other

O you’ve seen that man before

His golden arm dispatching cards, etc.

 

I just couldn’t believe my ears and eyes. This small struggling human being was trying to exist, in truthfulness and authenticity. That is not the same as being original or cool, that’s not the same at all. Authenticity is about true living, also when that’s a bit unhappy. The substance is in the smallness, the sadness, the less pretty sides we’re allowed to see too. It’s stumbling, not knowing and nevertheless not giving up. It’s about keep trying, sometimes year after year. It’s about trying to do something and that’s already something on itself. It’s all just in those small things.

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