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Healing any serious illness is never about going back to the way things used to be. It always occurs at a point of crisis, a "trial," in which the patient is both plaintiff AND defendant, and some kind of transformation is required for "winning the case," for which the illness, in its danger, provides an authentic opportunity. In true healing, the "plaintiff" and "defendant" have to find a "settlement" and come together again on new redemptive ground as one. There is no healing if one is simply victorious at the "other's" expense. There is no healing if one is invested in maintaining the complaint. There is no healing if one is defended against doing anything about it.
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In a lawsuit, there is a procedure in which each party obtains evidence from the other party by means of "discovery," such as by interrogation, production of documents, physical/mental exams, etc. This process can go on for months as the discovery evolves. While the term "discovery" is not typically used in medicine, I want to show here that there are important benefits to be gained from consciously integrating it into a treatment approach, with the doctor playing much the part of both lawyers, and the developing higher "I" of the patient being the final judge.
Most of us don't make major life changes unless we have to, and some of us would even like to pay doctors to heal us with a pill or a knife so that we, as the plaintiff, don't have to make the needed changes we are invested in defending. If doctors can't do that, we might ask, what CAN they do?
The gift of disease is that it potentially alters our relationship with everyone, including ourselves. To paraphrase Hafiz, we don't necessarily want to give up our illnesses too quickly, but rather let them cut deep, because they can open our souls to new portals of being. In this trial of change, we may suddenly find ourselves in new situations that empower us and give us new insights about ourselves, not visible initially. This has to evolve, and as we make decisions and choices, we evolve with it, and more discoveries come. Many of us may not think of sharing this with our physicians, or anyone. There can be important trust issues around sharing ourselves, which can be part of the disease and also just good common sense in being careful to whom we give our trust. We ourselves may not even be fully conscious of the depths buried within us, of the shifts that are occurring, that we could reinforce if we were aware of their significance. In this sense, an important opportunity can be lost for lack of having recognized space for developing the "I."
The problem with diagnosis is that it is static, perpetuating the mindset of disease. It can give clarity of focus and impress upon us the importance of acting. At the same time, it also "names" the wound of being human, making it a now detached and alienable burden from which professionals might relieve us. Yet it can also often become an identity in itself, detaching us from ourselves in a "pre-judicial sentence," not negotiated with the higher I. Once it is made, it can weigh heavily upon the present, and determine the future; yet immediately upon its inception, it is an element of the past. I struggle regularly to release my patients from the paralyzing grip of diagnostic fear that can continually raise its head. In the present, even if labs and imaging today are exactly the same as a year ago, nevertheless the disease you had then is NOT the disease you have now, because YOU are not the same. For better or worse, you have evolved and changed, your relationships have evolved and changed, some may even have "died," with perhaps now new ones. It is the ongoing deeper interactions with the faces and voices of the important people in our lives, evolving over time, that can ultimately shape our future in relationship to the diagnosis.
Consider a patient who comes to me with a diagnosis of lung cancer. Based upon this, we develop a treatment plan. But her underlying issue, to be more deeply plumbed, is that now at 64 she can no longer easily provide the round-the-clock care needed by her mentally/physically disabled 36-year-old son to whom she's devoted her life and who is totally dependent upon her. She feels she will die if she has to put what is still an innocent child in a care facility, where his decline, in the absence of her loving care and connection, will be quick. She also feels she will die if she does NOT, leaving him essentially then in the same position. In this case, as in so many patients (from the Latin "patiens" – "to suffer, or bear"), the evolving narrative itself is the diagnosis.
Consider a 45-year-old ovarian cancer patient who early in life rebuffs the love of her life because of his immaturity, unhappily marries a man she discovers is an alcoholic, goes through a painful divorce, and after just becoming intimately involved in another relationship, unexpectedly is contacted by her earlier lover again, also divorced and wanting her, whom she painfully rebuffs yet again, and now must wrestle with his related suicide.
Consider a 35-year-old kidney cancer patient, abused by an aunt as a child, struggling with gender, sexually unhappy in marriage, who begins platonically writing poetry to a younger, enamored, co-worker, realizes his mistake, tells her he has to stop, and confesses to his wife, only to have his wife divorce him, and the younger woman smear his reputation and have him removed from his position for sexual harassment.
Consider a 52-year-old breast cancer patient whose husband tells her he is taking a live-in mistress, and when she balks, divorces her, and convinces their two adult children that SHE has been unfaithful to him. Consider a 47-year-old malignant hypertensive patient, repeatedly sexually abused by an uncle as a child for many years, who now uses her morbid obesity as a protective shield from both any further potential abuse and the confusion of her own conflicting emotions. These are all lives needing deeper structures of healing than a "treatment plan." Countless stories like these are really more the norm than the exception, and a testament to the pain of human existence that today's materialist-based medicine has little to offer. Every one of us has a karmic knot like one of these, lurking under the surface of our lives, waiting for the disease that will launch us into discovery.
Without support and education in the importance of such discovery, any one of these patients could easily believe their "journey" with a doctor is to receive a treatment plan, meds/remedies, perhaps some suggested lifestyle changes ("exercise," "eat better"), check in with questions/problems as needed, from time to time have labs/imaging done, periodically have a session to make sure they're on track, and reassess if things need to be changed ("Do I really need to go back there again?"). While all of this has an important place, with this alone, the underlying structures of their illnesses remain invisible – in part by their own hesitancy/complicity. But, also, there is no ICD-10 code for "husband takes live-in mistress." "Devastated by lover's suicide" is not covered by insurance; "guilt over being sexually abused" has little recognized institutional presence in an electronic chart, whether allopathic or naturopathic. Such patients may be on conventional medications to treat symptoms, engaged in detox programs, taking various supplements/herbs/remedies to address deficiencies and imbalances, receiving acupuncture, body work, IV infusions, etc. All of this is helpful and important. But none of it is enough to begin healing these deeper karmic knots. None of it reflects the deeper patient in the room. By engaging in such lesser truths alone, such approaches in fact can even keep the patient from the important work needed.
A doctor's role is not simply to dispense medicines to extend the patient's life or help them cope. If a patient is experiencing distress because of an irreconcilable conflict that is the underlying basis of their disease, a doctor does no service by facilitating their unchangingly living through it longer, particularly if it means their quality of life suffers. But a person's life situation may not provide them with the needed resources, or even motivation, to find a way out, because it's never just about one person – healing always involves a constellation of relationships, and typically a person's disease is a functional phenomenon that actually serves them and others in their social constellation, and which now with the manifestation of life-threatening disease threatens everyone, and calls for a change in the entire constellation, for real healing for ALL involved to occur.
But there are unknowns here: life habits that don't change easily, and dictates of culture and historical time that often press upon us, for survival, to wear a different outer shell than that of our inner being. ("Coming out" is a condition of healing for ALL of us.) "Testing" by loved ones and oneself, can occur repeatedly to assess if the resultant disease is really that dangerous, if changes/revelations really do need to occur. Often the test "result" is based upon no more than the complicity of the person manifesting disease. If they are the rock for everyone that never breaks down, for example, they may well try to be that rock for as long as they can; their identity is bound up in it, their loved ones rely upon them for it, and so they not only remain complicit, but those who love them most may also have an unconscious investment in keeping them in their disease. In a parallel way, sometimes the disease itself becomes an empowerment. Suddenly a life-threatening condition can motivate loved ones to make behavioral changes or start listening in ways they didn't before, and the ill person can become invested in their disease because it is helping to bring about healing changes in their social constellation that otherwise would not occur.
In a different vein, being stigmatized in our culture is but another type of prison restraining people's lives. If your heart is saddled with the burden of feeling you've caused someone's suicide, of being defined as sexually immoral, or of enjoying and thus feeling complicit in your own past sexual abuse, etc., in each case you are cast into the darkness of a double bind, for which the struggle to rise out can but dig you into deeper hell. Each case is different. But it is only when the patient, armed with the "evidence" of disease, is in a position to send a message LOUD ENOUGH, by way of their actions, or inactions, that they can no longer continue in a way of life, that their social constellation may then begin to shift, and they may be authentically able to make somatic connections, and feel the illness as truly theirs, as a great and long unfathomed burden of heroic effort to be lifted, opening a path to act IN THE WAYS TRULY NEEDED. Even as this often can be at a late stage, when the challenge is more demanding, when the momentum of change needed to occur is more overwhelming, with everything else the doctor has to offer, s/he can also help in "crafting" this message. In many situations, the doctor may be the patient's only support for doing this.
Doctors usually can't change a person's life situation, and if we could see the path for ourselves there likely wouldn't be disease, and no need for a doctor. But as a disease progresses, while the restraining/sustaining life condition within which it exists may not change initially, the people, under pain around it, can and do. It is the pain and suffering that carves out a deeper soul space of interiority in which new ways of being can be conceived and carried. Consider the 47-year-old accountant with colon cancer who hates who he is in his job but has been tied to its golden chain for the past 25 years. Now under pressure of his disease, he is let go by his firm and for the first time in his life finds the courage to express that he doesn't want to go back, that he would like to find a way to make music the center of his life instead. Or consider the liver cancer patient who for her entire life has felt devalued and unappreciated by her high school sweetheart husband, who now begins to realize just what she means to him as he faces losing her. She lives considerably longer than expected but also finds herself going through a very painful estrangement, dredging up deep wounds of its own.
Clearly there are times when we all may have to assess if the healing is better or worse than the disease – not always an easy decision. Yet beyond the suppressive actions and divisive emotions to which we all succumb, the suffering of our illness can also better open a portal for us to a higher unified identity, through which our interactions and intentions have the potential to change – opening transcendent possibilities we might not even have considered if left to algorithms determined from existing "facts" alone. We can't do this rationally because it isn't a rational computation. It is a discovery process yet unknown. We would be something much less if we were limited to just our rationality in making life decisions. The only straight path in life's evolution is the one we see when looking backward.
With the evolution of a disease, people can be seen in new ways. Loved ones can step up and take more responsibility, people can learn to give up control and trust more, power shifts occur. Life events may also present important metaphors that can provide empowering social theaters. A 47-year-old medical secretary who witnesses the psychiatrist she worked with for 24 years now dying of cancer, yet still having undying faith in conventional medicine, pulls herself out of a debilitating EBV/chronic fatigue condition by diving into a more spiritual career in craniosacral therapy that begins to heal the wound of her mother being taken from her when she was five years old, based upon a psychiatrist's diagnosis of schizophrenia (for talking with angels). Life's ongoing theater provides paths. The imperfectness of the parallel psychiatrists is exposed, and a new career path now helps her to listen to the voices of her interior dialogue with new ears, voices that are healing for her mother as much as for her. Capacities to deal with situations for which we had no facility in the past can develop, out of struggle, out of inner cultivation, with the arousal of greater will forces and awareness, more resilience, and greater harmony with the spiritual world.
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