Is Oscar Pistorius anxious or just angry? An analyst's view

May 14, 2014
Coline Covington

This 'prince of the physical world' does not easily fit the description of an anxiety-ridden GAD sufferer

NEARLY at the end of his murder trial, doubt is being cast on Paralympian Oscar Pistorius’s state of mental health. A forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Meryl Vorster, has diagnosed Pistorius with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Today, under pressure from prosecutor Gerrie Nel who wants to establish the truth about Pistorius’s sanity and whether his lawyers are using GAD as a “fall-back defence”, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled that he should be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for independent assessment. Because the testing will take 30 days, and it will need to be scheduled, this could mean a lengthy break in the court case.

Pistorius’s trial has already been going on for two months. Why is his state of mind being questioned now on the brink of a verdict? What is GAD? And does Pistorius in fact display symptoms of GAD?

Vorster’s evidence was requested by Pistorius’s defence, presumably to mitigate a verdict of guilty. GAD is not classed as a mental illness in SA, but Vorster claims it would have made Pistorius paranoid about security and it would have affected his ability to judge the “wrongfulness” of shooting without seeing his target. "People with generalised anxiety probably shouldn't have firearms," she added.

GAD is a relatively new diagnostic category that first appeared on the scene in 2000. As its title implies, it is a catch-all category that classifies people suffering from a range of anxieties. It is no surprise that it is the most common cause of disability in the workplace in the USA because it covers every conceivable symptom of anxiety.

The principal symptoms listed for GAD are:

  • Sense of dread
  • Restlessness
  • Feeling constantly “on edge”
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance.

The GAD sufferer has chronic and exaggerated worry and tension that leads to lack of self-esteem, social withdrawal, and work difficulties. The GAD sufferer also typically anticipates disaster.

Is this Pistorius? And, more importantly, was this Pistorius at the time of Reeva Steenkamp’s murder? Or in the past?

It goes without saying that, guilty or not guilty, being accused of the murder of one’s girlfriend would make even the most innocent and level-headed defendant anxious. Perhaps especially so in the case of Pistorius whose overriding ambition to overcome his disability and his family losses has driven him relentlessly to win a seat among the gods. He has a great deal to lose.

Vorster described Pistorius’s reactions in court – the recurrent retching and tears – as “genuine”. The implication is that Pistorius would not react like this if is he was guilty. But why not? There is just as much reason for him to be anxious if he is guilty – if not more.

It is understandable that, whatever his feelings for his deceased girlfriend, Pistorius would find it hard to stomach this catastrophic blow to his career and reputation. He may well be retching from the realisation of his own self-destructiveness.

While Pistorius would be crazy not to be showing signs of anxiety during his trial, does this mean that he suffered from anxiety on the night that Steenkamp was murdered and prior to that?

Vorster points to a history of trauma and loss as Pistorius grew up, starting with the amputation of his legs when he was 11 months old, to the divorce of his parents when he was aged six, to the death of his mother from a drug reaction following surgery when he was 15. She describes his manic training sessions as a defence against overwhelming anxiety.

It is true that such traumatic losses have repercussions in later life if they are not acknowledged at the time.

But Pistorius does not easily fit into the description of a GAD sufferer. His determination to win and to be better than his fellow sportsmen who are abled is significant.

At the age of 13 months he was fitted with prostheses and at 17 months he was walking. His mother allowed him no slack as a child, expecting him to perform equally with able-bodied children. Pistorius tells a story of his mother getting her two sons off to school, telling her older son to put his shoes on and ordering Oscar to get his legs on – “And that’s the last I want to hear of it.”

Early on in his sporting career, his boxing trainer, Jannie Brooks, admits that it was six months before he realised Pistorius didn’t have legs.

There may have been little comfort available for Pistorius as he was growing up, but he seems to have been given huge confidence in his abilities and his aspirations along with being unusually gifted in sports.

In an extended interview with Pistorius, the New York Times journalist Michael Sokolove was struck by his “uncommon temperament – a fierce, even frenzied need to take on the world at maximum speed with minimum caution. It is an athlete’s disposition, that of a person who believes himself to be royalty of a certain kind – a prince of the physical world.”

This is not the picture of an anxiety ridden man but more of a narcissistic demi-god who will take on the world to achieve his ends – and who might feel he is above the law.

Gods and demi-gods don’t like to be crossed or to lose. A former girlfriend describes Pistorius, after being stopped for speeding by the police, taking the gun by his side and shooting a lamp-post.

In his fiery correspondence with Steenkamp, Pistorius comes across as possessive and controlling. Steenkamp complained that Pistorius “picked” on her and told him, “I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me and how you will react to me.”

Despite Pistorius’s physical triumphs, the ever-present frustration of having to manage his disability would also explain his sudden unleashed anger. Whatever judgment may be made about his sanity, is this Pistorius’s real Achilles heel?

Coline Covington is a Jungian analyst in private practice in London. A collection of past columns for The Week, ‘Shrinking the News’, was recently published by Karnac Books.

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I think all of us in South Africa could be diagnosed with GAD.

What I find so interesting is that the state never has shown any Videos made by OP, when he ran in the Olympics two years ago, 60 minutes here in USA ran a Video of him and his mother and his background showing how well he did on his stumps as a child..he ran and played and even showed him on the beach with mother, he was like 4 at the time..all I can say, my father who also had stumps, rode a bike..he never left his stumps on the other side of a bed. I don't believe him about not being able not to run on his stumps..someone needs to find this video..why was there blood splatter in the bedroom above the bed, on the duvet, on the couch down stairs, and where is the yoga mat! Why are these questions not asked? The pillows in the bed are not slept on 3/17 session 2..In the USA we miss nothing..a handicapped person like Oscar should of been called in as a person to show what someone can do on stumps..and asked to you leave your legs away from you, if fear for your life every night? that is the question?

Hi Debi, compliments to you on your enquiring mind! Couldn't agree with you more. Now going to try and find the video clip to check those pillows out!

Look to session 2 March 17th photo shoot. Blood splatter on couch down stairs, behind bed , on duvet, yoga mat found in picture down stairs.. Very interesting since OP said she was in Bed room.. Now coffee cups and yoga mats both downstairs along with blood splatter on the couch.. Something doesn't fit here! Why two pair of Jean left out, one on bathroom floor one on bedroom floor. Check out her neat and tidy duffel bag in photo shoot! Don't think so!! Beat freak!

Neat Freak..

even a layman can make out that he is a liar and a murderer. when things don't go his way, he simply throws a tantrum or pulls a trigger. even if he shot on the basis he thought there was an intruder, he is equally guilty of murder. to pull the trigger without ascertaining who was in the bathroom and what the situation was, it also equates to killing that person inside, whether it was reeva or not. such a person is a danger to the society and needs a good wake up call by serving some jail time, to know that he is not a god of some sort!

H Debi,
Do you remember which channel was the program on? Should be very useful if the video is located.

I am thinking it was on the USA program "60 Minutes." It was on right before he ran in the Olympics and told his story and struggle to become an Olympian, what his sweet mother had done for him, him playing on the beach running on his stumps, how a friend of his mothers was a surgeon and he actually developed the blades for him at a very early age. Like 8? It showed a close knit family and one that had zero affect of trauma in it! Just lots of love and togetherness! Total opposite of what his story tells.

I'm pretty sure that he didn't win his gold medals while running on his stumps. Besides, even though he could walk on his stumps, his mobility would depend what kind of surface that he walked on. Also, I don't think that he would be able to outrun anyone who actually had feet if he were on his stumps.

Yes, I do know about what he could do without his prosthetic legs but just because a disabled person is able to learn to live with their disability, it does not mean that they're no longer disabled.

P.S. I'm also skeptical about what's being said about his mother now.

Thanks Debi,
I copied your post on CNN comments. I think more people are on that forum.

It is absolutely untrue that GAD first "appeared" in 2000. What a ridiculous notion--as if it were a virus! People have suffered from anxiety since the beginning of humankind; it may have been called different names (hysteria, nervous breakdowns, even the vapors), but general anxiety is and has always been a common condition of life.

That was smart, someone will be able to tell you, as it was widely viewed. I remembered a little something he asked his mommy, "why don't my feet make marks in the sand like my brothers do?" Of course this pulled at me heart, and I was strong supporter for him at the Olympics (never heard of him before) So, if this was an attention getter for supporters in the USA it sure got us! I cried for him and at first, 48 hours believed, then felt he was an abuser. Once a woman has been abused, you can usually spot a man who rages quickly, Reeva's emails said mountains to me.

Jono, My father lost his leg in a shot gun accident at 57, he was left with a 10 inch stump. I would take him to therapy in the beginning, and yes, you are most correct about disability, you adjust. Some of these vets coming back from war can run like heck on stumps..My father could climb a ladder, ride a bike, go to work every day. What was hard for him, was over drink and become drunk..very difficult to wobble! <3

From first hand experience, a very difficult childhood (emotionally or otherwise) usually results in GAD and depression but very rarely into homicidal tendencies (suicide is far more common). Use of steroids does provoke paranoia and violent, impulsive behavior. As so well put in this analysis, Pistorius is a narcissist and as a high-level athlete has access to a plethora of drugs. Add to those the ones his celebrity milieu puffs, snorts, injects and swallows and you have one very modified brain. Pistorius' constant spectacle of retching and crying does not match his record of ambition and effort requiring huge self-control.
All this to say that in my humble opinion, this guy is a murderer, a control freak whose only gut fear is ending up in a SA jail...and what will happen to him in there...

VERY insightful piece! Great to fear another PROFESSIONAL interinterpretation

Heat Greek!

Oscar Pistorius - the worlds first Olympian sissy who we are to believe cries like a girl in order to get away with a murder rap - we believe you Mr Pisstorius - what ever the verdict you have gone from a hero to zero credibility - I hope no big company endorses you ever and give you mega bucks and hope you suffer the same fate as Hansie Cronje - another sportsman who disgraced South Africa