Story of a famous nutcase
Even though Freud never met her, the case of Anna O. was among the most important to the development of his theories. The patient of his friend Joseph Breuer, Anna O. was a young woman suffering from "hysteria". Through discussing her strange disease, Freud came up with many new theories regarding symbolism and the subconscious. Her treatment also marks the foundation of the entire concept of psychotherapy, the idea that talking can heal.
Anna O. was twenty one when she lost her father who she loved very much, and had nursed during his final illness. Her problems had already started prior to his death, manifesting themselves in speech difficulties and a nervous cough. Afterwards, however, they turned bizarre. Anna refused to eat, lost her feeling in hands and feet, experienced paralysis and involuntary spasms, tunnel vision and hallucinations. She became mute for longer periods of time, and when she did open her mouth she spoke French or English, rather than her native German. She suffered from mood swings and several times tried to kill herself.
No physical cause could be found for any of the symptoms; so her doctor (these were pre-therapist times) decided they must come from her mind. As he tried to diagnose and help her, Breuer discovered that his patient in the evenings sunk into a spontaneous hypnosis which she herself referred to as clouds. If he talked to her during these periods, she found herself able to explain her experiences and actually feel better afterwards.
During this talking cure, Anna O. was able to explain several of her ailments. The first was her aversion to drinking water. Apparently, she had once been highly disgusted at seeing a dog drink from a glass, and immediately after had a drink of water herself. As soon as she had explained this to Breuer and herself, she was able to drink water again. Her nervous cough was explained by a feeling of guilt when she wanted to leave her father's bedside for a party; to hide her desire, she gave a cough which would revisit her until she had found its reason.
Other explanations were based on Anna's vivid imagination. She once thought she saw a black serpent about to attack her father. Her arm paralysed, she watched as it turned itself into a snake. After she had remembered this, her spasms left her. In such a way she explained every symptom away, in a process she humouristically called chimney sweeping and Dr. Breuer named catharsis.
Breuer's treatment of Anna O. lasted from 1880 to 1882. By then their relationship had become so intimate that the doctor found it best to end it: Not only did he feel a growing love for her, Anna also imagined she was pregnant with his child. Anna O. was then sent to a sanatorium and emerged, free of hysteria, to become the first social worker of Germany. She became known and respected under her real name, Bertha Pappenheim. Anna O. died in 1936.