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Acute Empathic Disorder

It speaks, perhaps, to a deeper sickness (a rot that we have yet to name) that we have medicalised the existence of a condition which causes us to feel boundless empathy.


Sometimes known, colloquially, as Broken-Heart Syndrome, Acute Empathic Disorder is a severe and transient condition that affects the brain and, consequently, the endocrine system. In its initial stages it can present similarly to the abrupt onset of a major depressive episode, but this is a mischaracterisation of the cause and effect of its respective physiological and psychological effects. The disorder causes hyperstimulation and hyperactivity in the areas of the brain responsible for intellectual and emotional compassion; causing even the hardest-hearted of those affected to experience and understand the world, and more specifically all of the other people they share it with, with a profound sense of - and sensitivity to - their pains, their troubles and their woes.

A pronounced symptom that hits without warning, it is the cruelly and uncommonly sharp sense of empathy which the disorder imparts that can precipitate the distinctive and misleading depression: It is almost impossible for the sufferer not to be affected by the cacophony of sadness and grief that they cannot help but see on (or project onto) the faces of everyone that they pass in the street. As a result, most people suffering from Acute Empathic Disorder will retreat into a hermetic existence at this point - inasmuch as their lives and circumstances will allow them to - and although the condition is not fatal (at least not in and of itself), it is most existentially dangerous and life-threatening at this stage.

Acute Empathic Disorder is, being somewhat self-defeating, apparently also at its most communicable during the period when its sufferers seek to isolate themselves. Despite the pattern of its spread being similar to those of better-understood airborne contagions, no particular pathogen (neither bacterial, viral nor parasitical) or method of transmission has yet been conclusively identified as the root cause of the disorder. Part of this difficulty comes, perhaps, from the abridged timeline from its presentation to its remission and, frankly, from the relative scarcity of terminal suffers (those usually being suicides) whose remains can be properly studied and autopsied. Even in those cases the rapid post-mortem deterioration of the brain and neurological tissues likely obscures and obfuscates much of the useful information.

For most sufferers, the bleak and precarious nadir lasts only two or three weeks, though there have reportedly been instances of the disorder leading to life-long problems with depression and agoraphobia in those with similar pre-existing conditions (or the predispositions to them). Typically, though, it breaks like a fever; a sudden shock that decreases in severity over another week before waning altogether. Relapse is not unheard of - even though only a few such cases occur - but is thought to be unconnected to the original presence and presentation of the disorder. Instead it is a new infection, with some of the tell-tale signs of an immune response primed by a previous incident, being both less acute and less likely to be transmitted to others in such rare occurrences.

The degree of trauma evidenced in in the aftermath appears to depend heavily on an affected person’s previous capacity for compassion. Those to whom the feelings are most alien tend to recover most completely - the pain of their recent memories being clouded and dampened-down by their sheer incomprehensibility and dismissed as the fevered products of temporary madness - but others experience the disorder as the trigger for a quasi-religious metanoia. Arguably the best outcome for the world at large, they rededicate their efforts and their resources towards increasing the wellbeing of their immediate circle and then their wider community. Still, as sincere as their initial efforts might be, such epiphanies are - by their very nature - fragile and often fleeting; most people fall back into old patterns of behaviour before too long.

Whilst neither the efforts of the medical nor occult communities in tracing and confirming historical epidemics of Acute Empathic Disorder had met with much success, records and understanding improve dramatically after a series of outbreaks in Norway in the autumn of 1784. A small team of doctors from Kristiansand spent months visiting the smaller towns and villages of Vest-Agder, a coastal county, visiting communities that appeared all but abandoned. Doors locked and windows barred, those suffering from the disorder had taken to grim solitude and those who had been spared were isolating themselves rather than taking the risk of contracting the miserable disorder. Unable to provide any effective treatments, the doctors mainly observed - cataloguing and categorising their findings - and offered sedation to the most distraught of their patients.

Their reassurances that the symptoms of the disorder would pass were, initially, largely speculative (hopes rather than observations) but as they accrued information on what would prove to be the largest number of confirmed or suspected cases during an outbreak - either before or since - they were able to speak to the likelihood of its respite with more authority. By late that winter, and despite the lack of meaningful medical interventions, there were only a few people still suffering from the direct symptoms of Acute Empathic Disorder. Grateful even for the unexplained relief of the crisis having passed, the doctors returned to Kristiansand to compare and compile their notes on a condition that (as they would come to find) few would even countenance as having existed.

Attempts to recognise and understand the underlying pathology behind the condition - part of which includes the surprisingly difficult work of accurately identifying when and where outbreaks of the disorder have taken place - are ongoing. Unlike the apparently isolated historical instances of other unusual or as-yet inexplicable sicknesses (The Dancing Plague or The City of The Living Death for instance), Acute Empathic Disorder appears to have affected several, quite distantly separated countries in the last few hundred years alone. A tentative investigation has suggested that there have recently been several localised epidemics in Canada’s Northwest Territories (though the remote nature of most of the region’s settlements have kept them small), and there remain those concerned as to the effect a poorly understood and uncontainable outbreak could have in a modern major metropolis.


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