Finding myself, finding health.
As a psychologist, I often work with people who on the one hand, are frustrated with the mental health system, and on the other, feel incredibly lonely, isolated, misunderstood, and are fearful of being crazy. I wish I could say unilaterally that the voids could be filled such that the two didn’t have to exist. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and it’s easy to understand why. Our society has created such a fearful attitude around mental health crises that there is little room for an appreciation of their complexities and intricacies and even less room for approaching them with creativity and curiosity.
I know, because I’ve had my own dealings with mental health issues, and I struggled for a while to get the help I needed, living in confusion and isolation and not really knowing I could or needed to seek help. I was fortunate enough to find my way to a good therapist, and I eventually dedicated my life’s work to helping others find their way through these challenging experiences. I was especially curious about the process of healing in others that I decided to dedicate my dissertation research project to understanding the healing process in people. To this day, I am still learning from that research and the multidimensional nature of my findings, including its effects on my own healing.
The fearful attitude around mental health crises has been accompanied with—and perhaps even promoted by—a growing desire for effectiveness and accuracy in diagnosis and treatment. This comes from many sides of our market-driven society; industry growth and the bottom line affect our every move. As such, everyone seems to have a persuasive hand in the treatment of our most delicate mental structures: private insurance companies or public insurance systems, pharmaceutical companies, and providers alike. Patients are also often at a crossroads, not knowing who to trust and where to go for help, not to mention wanting immediate attention for our challenging or disturbing experiences.
By stating these facts, I am not trying to create some kind of evil out of the current system. Instead, I wish to point out the complexity of the situation. Most importantly, in relying on effectiveness, the individualized and careful approach everyone deserves can fall by the wayside. The patient can easily become an automaton, procured with prescribed treatments and a standardized protocol of care.
The word “patient” is in itself fascinating. Unfortunately, the fundamental nature of patience can be usurped by the impatience of the patient as well as, sometimes, the impatience of the patient’s provider(s). Patience is a virtue that has lost its place in the healthcare system, and it might actually be the key to a sincere therapeutic endeavor. My dissertation research led me to explore the healing process as it manifested in my study participants. One of my main findings was the encouragement of healthy self-investigation and self-disclosure.
I called this process “rumination” in my study. But as most of us know, rumination comes with a unfortunate reputation, which may again point to the cultural bias toward effectiveness. Rumination comes from the root word for chewing the cud or turning over in the mind. It points to a healthy self-investigation and self-disclosure, a healthy, intentional process that is often guided and held by another.
This rumination holds several important qualities: It is investigative in that it allows for a multidimensional view of the process at hand; it is meditative in that it creates spaciousness for whatever to occur; it is creative in that it relies on several different channels of human experience; it is sympathetic to most forms of expression—as many as is feasible within the container in which it takes place; it is generative in that it feeds into itself in an eventually positive and constructive way; and it is grounded in the intrinsic healing potential within all crises.
This latter point is an important one: Though it’s hard to predict the actual outcome, nature has always provided with a strong bent toward a generative and healing potential within all of life. Just watch the healing process when one lightly cuts the skin: Within seconds and under most conditions, the wound will naturally start healing over itself. If that quality were not possible, the whole of medicine would be a failure. It is a fundamental quality of life that life itself be continued. Healing, whether we speak of the physical healing of a wound or the psychological healing of a complex, wants to occur.
So what keeps psychological healing from happening? Psychological wounds can involve very complex processes that are often difficult to pinpoint. What makes it even more challenging is that consciousness itself is trying to heal itself. Often, the confusion and disorientation that is part of the crisis exacerbates the symptoms instead of reducing them. In the example I gave above, it’s as if the body were to send more blood to the wound to heal itself when in effect the flow of blood needs to stop.
This is why it can be important to have a trustworthy guide in the healing process. Psychotherapy is intuitively one the first courses of action in some parts of our modern world where therapy is readily accessible and routinely accessed. Psychotherapy invites the patient through the repetitive exploration of the meanings, values, and attitudes toward one’s internal process. Though some therapists focus on the educational and pragmatic elements of psychotherapy—which is the primary goal of cognitive-behavioral therapy—research points to the healing capacity and necessity of being held in a gestational space by and with another. The actual method used in therapy is secondary to the therapeutic alliance and the goodness of fit of therapist and patient.
Not all people will resonate with psychotherapy, and not all psychotherapists value the healing qualities of the patient-therapist alliance. My research did not exclude other non-psychotherapeutic types of relationships. Some found that an ongoing, steady relationship with a very supportive sibling, peer, caregiver, or teacher was useful. Any of these can also be a good adjunct to therapy. Most importantly, the crucible of the therapist-patient alliance, if it can manifest itself, provides the most promising environment for a true healing container. One must approach the process with great patience and determination… and a willingness to go there with another. That first step could be both the hardest and the most important in the process of healing.
Though it can be very hard to remember when you’re in the grips of a crisis, you can never lose that spark of light that was first given to you when you were born. May you find a way to connect with it just enough that it will help you take that first giant step toward your journey to well-being.
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Guy Albert, Ph.D., is a Licensed Psychologist with a private practice working with children, adolescents, and adults in Berkeley, California. He’s a former adjunct faculty for Sofia University and a former clinical director for Pacific Institute, a nonprofit organization working with elder care and dementia. Dr. Albert is an advanced candidate in analytic training at the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, the California Psychological Association, the Spiritual Emergence Network, and Gaylesta: the LGBTQ Psychotherapy Association. He specializes in working with difficult to manage depression and anxiety, transformational processes and spiritual emergencies, dissociation and drug-induced psychosis, and marginalization and stigma. He is also very active in the fight against conversion therapy for LGBTQ people in order to help stop the stigma associated with these practices.
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