A Tale of Two StoriesIn the final scenes of Life of Pi,two insurance adjusters take Pi’s account of his harrowing adventure. According to Pi, he’d found himself on a lifeboat after a shipwreck with a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena from the ship’s cargo. After the hyena killed the zebra and the orangutan, a tiger appeared from below the lifeboat’s tarp and killed the hyena. Pi and the tiger floated together across the ocean to shore. The two incredulous insurance adjusters challenge Pi’s remarkable story. He responds, “There’s another story I can tell you,” and proceeds to relate an even more traumatic tale of surviving the shipwreck and finding himself on the lifeboat with his mother, a friend, and the ship’s cook. After the cook killed his friend and his mother for bait and food, Pi killed the cook and was able to survive on the boat alone until he reached shore. “But which story is true?” an adjuster asks Pi. “I don’t know. Which one do you want to believe?” replies Pi. It seems clear that Pi’s tiger story was invented to help him cope with the horror of what really happened.
I, too, can tell two stories about my plunge into darkness 12 years ago. One is about a seemingly functional husband, father, and mental health professional humiliated by his own inability to cope with chronic pain. I could continue that he had difficulty seeing that what began as physical pain persisted far longer than it needed to because of intense fear and shame. I could say he thought he knew what a conversion disorder was, but really didn’t until he’d lived through one.
But there’s another story I can tell, one that’s been more helpful to my healing. That’s the monomyth described by mythologist Joseph Campbell as “the hero’s journey.” In my version of this ancient, archetypal narrative, a person entering a comfortable middle age—who believes that his years trying to help troubled people have thoroughly acquainted him with the full range of human experience—suddenly finds himself confronting a level of suffering more personal and intense than he imagined possible. My journey is to be with and learn from my suffering. According to Campbell, those who can manage the full journey and return to their lives discover a boon, the gifts of wisdom and deep knowledge that come from surviving existential hardships that take us beyond our comfort zone.
In entertaining this second story of my time of darkness, the question becomes: what’s the boon I brought back? Phrased more pragmatically, how am I different now, wiser perhaps, as a person and a therapist, for having been through my own dark night?
The wisdom that therapists get from working through personal suffering differs from any formal training we receive as part of our professional education. Although it’s tempting to try to extract universal lessons from what we’ve been through, the most reliable insights are those about what mattered to us in emerging from our struggles. The mere act of getting through a tough time doesn’t automatically turn us into master therapists, but if we pay attention to our own experiences, we may become clearer about what’s truly healing—at least for us—and what isn’t. Perhaps the main reason that our field produces so few prodigies who reach the highest level of their skill early in their careers is that there are no short cuts to this sort of knowledge. You simply have to give life time to teach you what you need to learn from your own battles, as you move through the journey of being human.
My experience of my own darkness hasn’t transformed me into an exalted wisdom figure with answers for all forms of human suffering, but it’s changed how I sit with clients today. I no longer approach them as the expert with the Ph.D., but as a fellow human being, more fully aware of my own vulnerability. I know the territory of mental illness differently from how I once did because life took me on a tour of it. I discovered what it means to be “polymorphously pathological, with a touch of just about everything in the DSM,” as one distinguished psychologist with whom I spent a week of training once said of himself.
There are even gifts that have arisen from the most unbearable moments of my breakdown, like the humiliation I felt about letting my wife and children down during my dark night. I’ve always felt humbled by the gap between my ability to listen deeply to clients and my difficulty with offering the same gift to my wife and family consistently. When humbled became humiliated, I began taking a more serious look at the daily practice required to show up in personal relationships with compassion instead of reactive judgment. Recently, I was talking with my adult daughter about her falling in love with a guy she admitted to having on a pedestal. “He must remind you a lot of your good ol’ dad then,” I teased.
“No, my friend,” she said, “You came off the pedestal a long time ago.”
I responded, “That’s OK, I’ll take the ‘my friend’ part over being on the pedestal any day.”
I’m more self-disclosing with clients than I was before the storm, more open about both my past suffering and the kind of daily practice required for me to address the difficulties of being human. When clients say, “You have no idea how dark this place I’m in is,” I’m more willing to share that I’ve been through a dark passage myself. The part of my life that once seemed to make me unfit to serve as a therapist now allows me to offer myself to others as something truer to my inner experience of myself—a wounded healer.
I remember reading an article as I prepared for my general exams in graduate school about the three levels of relationship in therapy: the therapeutic alliance, the real relationship, and the unreal relationship (transference and countertransference). Now, more than ever, I return to the mantra I first learned from psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy: “It is the relationship that heals.” The therapeutic alliance is important, and working through the unreal relationship can be interesting, but it’s the real relationship between one vulnerable human and another that’s at the core of healing. Of course, this isn’t a piece of wisdom that I alone came to fathom during my time in the deep: it’s a truth we know from thousands of studies of psychotherapy, but one we can easily forget in our focus on diagnosis, treatment technique, psychopharmacology, and other important aspects of competent care.
I brought back from the dark night an awareness of how hard it is to find a real relationship as a client in therapy. I worked with several therapists during that time, only to discover that none seemed interested or able to go into the deep with me. There was plenty of Rogerian reflection, advice about managing pain, and even attempts to interpret or explore old issues of shame and perfectionism, but no one seemed able to accompany me into the abyss and help me begin telling myself a different story about being there.
The physicians who attempted to address my physical pain seemed to have no clue that pain as real and debilitating as mine could be caused by a psychospiritual crisis. They offered pills and pain-block injections, but had little else to give. Mine wasn’t some bizarre, exceptional case. People are showing up in physicians’ offices all over the world every day with physical complaints caused or exacerbated by stress or traumatic life events. Most physicians haven’t discovered, and can’t offer, a deep appreciation for the healing power of mind-body awareness.
During my crisis, it was as if someone had turned up the mind-body connection to “high.” At its worst, my fearful anticipation of suffering translated into jolts of pain almost instantly. This wasn’t fake, all-in-your-head pain; this was real pain, which showed me how connected the mind and the body become in times of stress. I’d given lip service to the mind-body connection before the storm, but my lived experience taught me the healing power of establishing a language that connects the mind and the body.
A man who came to me after months of vertigo that didn’t abate despite several trials of medicine obtained relief overnight when I simply asked him, “What in your life is making you spin?” Our discussion about his feeling torn between his life in the United States and his children living on another continent led to a call the next day that the vertigo was gone. Another client was deeply distressed by ringing in her ears that had gone on for months. We explored the story that the ringing was calling her to reach for a higher note in her life. I asked her to take some time each day to hum along with the ringing to symbolize her willingness to align with whatever this experience was trying to teach her. After several weeks, the ringing dissipated. Sudden transformations like these certainly aren’t everyday occurrences in my practice, but they do point to the possibilities for remarkable healing that come with a fuller awareness of the totality of a client’s being.
Recovery model research indicates that the top predictor of people’s ability to find their way back from prolonged mental illness to a meaningful life is a relationship with at least one person who’s never lost sight of the human being beneath the illness. Three of the people who did that for me, who helped bring me back from the deep demoralization that comes with breaking down, weren’t therapists: they were people who’d been through their own dark nights and were willing to be in the belly of the whale with me. By their willingness to stay in touch with me several times per week, they communicated that they weren’t afraid of my darkness and didn’t think it was contagious. They didn’t have answers, but their abiding presence and gentle insistence that I’d heal were invaluable.