Choose Your Path: Symptom Suppression or Health Transformation?

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The Case for Holistic Medicine

Ali says it all:

“We have the ability not only to heal ourselves, but with the generation coming up, we have the ability to tell them that there’s a different way you can do this.”

What is she talking about?

A life-long psychiatric patient who, like so many, accumulated labels throughout her ineffective, and at many times, life-threatening treatment – Eating Disorder, PMDD, MDD, GAD, Bipolar – Ali is living proof that patients are redefining what illness means.

She states that today, she wakes up with “miraculous disbelief” at the wonder of her day to day experience.

Not unlike another patient, Rose, who talks about feeling the beauty of simple moments in life, after 25 years of chronic suicidality. Rose was treated with multiple psych meds that landed her in bed for the better part of two years after discontinuing them.

These women have been to hell.

But they have not only survived it, they have risen like the proverbial Phoenix from the smoldering ash. They have been reborn, washed over with deep gratitude for every bit and piece of their process – the process that led them to where they are today. Vital. Open. In rapture with life.

A New/Old Path Emerges

We are at an auspicious time in the history of humanity. A meaningful parallel to Rose and Ali’s stories, We, as a people, are drowning in the errors of our ways. We have operated from an energy of the unbalanced masculine, leading us to decimate the natural world and the web of nature. We have promised ourselves more ease and freedom through science and technology and are left indentured servants to the Machine. We are disconnected and lost, suffering, and for good reason.

Amidst this, there are lights surfacing. There is mass awakening underway. There are paths to a kind of human experience that we know, in our hearts, is our birthright. We are finding each other, touching our own souls, and healing inside and out.

There is, perhaps, a compelling cross-roads emerging for anyone who finds themselves confronting their own deepest questions about health, body, mind, and life itself.

The Tale of Two Stories: The Machine vs the Web

It’s time to decide what you believe. And make no mistake, it’s about belief, not about facts, not about science as the final objective. That is a part of the dominant story, but it is only one story.

Journalist Marc Ian Barasch has written one of the most beautiful handbooks in support of the role for belief called The Healing Path. What is beautiful about this text is that his own healing journey, which involved surgical removal of an ultimately non-cancerous thyroid gland, began with one belief system, with the other emerging through crisis and personal transformation.

The Machine

Do you believe that we are born with our destiny set by our genes? That our bodies are finely calibrated machines that are prone to break-down, requiring repair, servicing, and maintenance? Do you believe that “the science is settled” about anything? That doctors are beyond reproach?

Do you believe that you would be irresponsible, selfish, or negligent to eschew the recommended pharmaceutical or surgical interventions? Do you believe that there’s good reason to worry, to be afraid, and that the most important parameter of health is functionality?

About this system, Barasch writes.

In our usual schema, sickness can be seen only as implacably evil; we, the heroes, must be unswervingly good. We fear that to enter into any relationship with disease carries the danger of appeasement, of capitulation to a vicious enemy. To listen to illness, to ask if it might have something to say to us – if it might even be a part of us – risks sapping our will to fight for our lives.

Or…

The Web

Do you believe that the body has an innate wisdom, a vitalism that guides its natively harmonious performance? That illness is evidence of imbalance somewhere – physically, mentally, spiritually, interpersonally, nutritionally – and that it is an invitation to engage change in the service of this balance.

Do you believe that your health and wellness are important for the health and wellness of all on the planet, and the planet itself? Do you believe that the path your illness follows is beyond your ability to envision – that truly anything is possible?

Barasch writes,

In traditional cultures, by contrast, illness is thought to burst forth from a constellation of disturbed relationships – between body and soul, and between the individual and his family, his ancestors, his community, and the invisible realms – all of which must come into a fresh, dynamic balance to effect a cure.

Choose Your Ritual

So in choosing truth we are choosing an interpretation of our world; that interpretation, in turn, generates new experiences consistent with it. Our choice of truths we live by has world-creating power. – Charles Eisenstein, Ascent of Humanity

The diagnosis. We think of this as being a meaningful label that essentially elucidates the most effective treatment intervention. An intervention that will then result in a predictable outcome a known percentage of the time.

The trouble is that, “Diagnosticians rarely include in their calculus the measure of the whole human being – psychospiritual outlook, health of relationship and family life, willingness to undertake special regimens, perhaps differing immune system competence, all of which may alter an illness’s course.”

This may be why spontaneous remissions and snake-oil miracle cures abound, and why the prognosis associated with having the “breast cancer gene” has changed over time unrelated to interventions. We think we have cracked the code of illness as a process distinct from the human who is experiencing it. Like it’s some kind of template that is applied at the time of insurance coding.

Take, for example, the significance of the diagnosis itself: there is even research to support the hexing involved in a cancer diagnosis resulting, otherwise inexplicably, in increased cardiovascular events and suicide in the week following diagnosis.

Many, such as Ali, talk about diagnosis and the seeming permanence of this narrative notch on life’s belt, as being a confirmation of “felt wrongness”. In other words, deep wounds or lack of self-love are fed by a system that labels you as broken, for good, and dependent on life-suppressing chemicals to merely survive.

The ritual of presenting to the white-coated, credentialed doctor for his slips of prescription paper, or even his sacrament of surgery, is a message to ourselves, and an affirmation of our belief system.

This is why I don’t practice “integrative medicine”. To me, the beliefs that subtend medication are antithetical to those that drive self-healing through lifestyle change. My style of healing can be described as holistic medicine, as I encompass all aspects of a person’s life, their whole self, in their subsequent treatment.

We have lost perspective on just how many assumptions underpin the Western medical approach. Grossly unexamined and arrogantly dismissed assumptions. Barasch writes:

Shaped by three centuries of Western thought, from Descarte’s mind-body separation to Newton’s world of discrete, caroming objects, a modern diagnostic label treats key questions as foregone conclusions: Is disease a thing or a process? Is its ‘natural history’ inexorable, or have there been instances of reversal? Does it reside only in a particular organ, or is it merely the most visible evidence of a wider systemic disorder? Is it purely physical, or is it affected by interactions with the mind? Each of these usually unasked queries has enormous implications, not only for diagnosis but for the treatment what will inevitably follow from it.

The Healing Path – a Manifesto on What is Possible

What if there’s another way to engage symptoms, illness, or even diagnosis? What if, “Rather than simply try to ‘get back to normal,’ patients embarked, at the most inauspicious time, on a voyage of self-discovery. They managed to cling instinctively to the circumnavigator’s faith that the only way home was forward, into the round, unknown world of the self.”

The journey as a necessity to healing.

It is a movement from the random universe where illness is a bad luck nuisance to a reunion with the greater web of meaning and purpose.

You will know if it is time for this journey. You may never feel ready, but you will feel a pressure building up so intensely, that the only way to begin to relieve it is to take those first steps on this new and unchartered path. Just begin.

There are elements of this journey that Barasch references in his interviews with journeyers – those recruited to this radical experience of transformation – that seem to represent common experiences:

1. Acceptance and surrender

Your journey really begins when you submit to the reality of your circumstances. Look at them and say, ok, ok, o.k.  Raise the white flag, and stop fighting. Remember that healing is a process of reunion with your body, your soul, and your environment. Fighting, anywhere in that equation, will just perpetuate the experience of sickness.

Barasch states that the patients he spoke to often stated that “…acknowledging the limitations imposed by illness, rather than struggling incessantly against them, felt strangely healing.”

A chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome patient that he interviewed stated:

I made no progress as long as I wished for my life to return to its prior ‘normal’ state. Only when I realized that my previous life was devastated, and that i had to accept a life as a full-time sick person for an indeterminate length of time, did the progression of my illness begin to slow. When I surrendered the kind of control I was accustomed to having, I could begin to consider the possibility of living differently when I recovered. As I did that, helpful information and intuitions about better ways to feel, think, and relate began to flow toward me.

Relent, release, and receive.

2. Loss of identity

Almost every single one of my patients, at some point, looks at me and says “I don’t even know who I am any more.”

I get it. I’ve been there. In fact, I’m still there. My spiritual commitment is only to examining, over and over, the places where I am still asleep. To do this, we have to cease needing to be right. We have to choose healing over ego and control. It’s a funny thing to realize, perhaps, that we would rather be right than heal.

The healing journey is surrender to the process of change. Sometimes the things that go wrong in our lives, including physical illness, may happen when we have refused change at the point it was most called for: when we continue to perform a killing job, ignore the pain of a toxic relationship, perpetuate a self-harming habit; when we refuse to stop what we’re doing even when we do not feel well doing it; when we neglect to ask ourselves, ‘What’s the matter?’ or turn a sympathetic ear to the reply.

3. Finding the helper

The doctor says, “Your machine is broken.”

The shaman says, “You have fallen out of relationship with the whole.”

The surgeon says, “I can resolve your crisis with biomechanical repairs.”

The Helper says, “Your illness is an existential question that ultimately you must answer.”

I no longer think of myself as a doctor. Instead, I have come to see my role as that of the Helper…as Barasch says, “…an encourager of the patient’s uniqueness; an ombudsman for long-deferred and often unsuspected needs; a facilitator of self-discovery; a change agent helping to pry the patient loose from pathological life patterns; a helper urging him away from mere normalcy toward authentic being.”

This process is not for the faint of heart. It’s also not for those who are in it to fix everything and pack it away into tidy diagnostic categories and discrete outcomes. While I have had suicidal patients tell me that I have saved their lives, I suspect that the way in which they mean it is figurative, and is too minimally acknowledging of their own readiness to change.

In fact, with the humbling success of our online healing program, Vital Mind Reset, I have been convinced that, right now, people need minimal structure and support in order to catalyze the emergence of their latent gifts and self-expansion.

Many of my patients, as they emerge from the birth canal of psychiatric medication taper, feel called to heal others, spread the word of their truth, volunteer, and otherwise channel their now abundant energy into service. The desire to pay it forward is testament to the life ignition that is possible through this kind of ritualized experience of guided suffering.

Because “the ugliest creature we can imagine may carry in its mouth a golden key. The crop that falls to the ground may yet fertilize a more abundant harvest.”

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More