“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
During my first group therapy session in the hospital, I was asked to introduce myself and “share whatever you are comfortable with.” When I said that I was going on 15 years of treatment, the psychiatrist actually said “What the hell? When are you going to get your shit together?”
A good question.
More and more, I believe that the years I have spent in therapy have only really been about trying to teach me about mimicking “healthy” emotional behaviour, which, in reality was about being guided through a set series of formulaic “self realizations” towards guidance in how to behave in a “helpful” rather than “unhelpful” manner.
I had suspected this for some time, but group therapy really brought it home to me. No matter what the person was talking about, the line of questioning goes usually in this order:
“I really screwed up today”, says patient.
“When you say you really screwed up, what’s that all about?”
“I threw someone down a flight of stairs”, replies patient.
“Can you think of anyone, perhaps from your past who told you that you screwed up?”
This leading question results in the patient saying “my (insert Mother or Father).”
“And how did that make you feel?” A not as obvious, but still leading line of questioning.
“I felt (insert hurt, shame, guilt, etc.).”
“So, when you say you screwed up because you threw someone down a flight of stairs today, who is really talking (or, “whose tapes are playing in your head”)?”
(Your honour, the prosecution is leading the witness!)
“It’s my (insert mother or father)”
Cutting to the chase, the point was to identify past messages that cloud our perceptions of current events and lead to distress, and/or to identify the source of destructive patterns with the overall object of becoming aware of unconscious thoughts that drive bad behaviours so that one can overcome these messages, perceptions, and behaviours, and, thereby, break the cycle.
At the same time as I was taking this therapy, I had a prescribing psychiatrist who, even though he referred me to this therapy, rolled his eyes and scoffed at it.
To him, biology was destiny, and the only valid treatment was pharmaceutical. Drugs in ever increasing doses.
To confuse matters even more, I was also referenced to a third psychiatrist by the second one who, in turn, rejected both of the above approaches. Cause didn’t matter, according to him, what you thought or how you perceived things was the key.
This third approach was much more pragmatic, and focused on a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy exercises.
Ultimately, I think they were all right and wrong at the same time.
I know I need medication, to be aware of underlying causes and unhelpful patterns of behaviour, and that how I think is essential to my happiness.
I also believe that mindfulness, meditation, what you focus on focuses your life (i.e. if you focus on fear, fear will organize your life), and putting as much energy into being happy as you do on being not unhappy, are critical too.
At the end of the day, it’s what works that counts.
I have an uncle who, ironically, teaches psychiatry at a university hospital. He rather openly questions whether psychiatry has any solid, scientific basis, or is really a process of conjecture, assumptions, unprovable theories, and a lot of “throwing darts at a dartboard in the dark.” Yet, he goes in day after day and tries to help given the tools and their limitations on hand.
I would be surprised to hear anyone claim that they truly understand what a thought is, how it comes about, and, physiologically, how it occurs. Can anyone explain love without retreating to metaphor. What is it? Where is it? Why does it occur relative to some things and not others? Can anyone point to it? Scoop up a bucket of it? Reproduce it it bio mechanically in a lab?
Same with sadness, rage, indifference, confusion, depression, anxiety.
Every night there are billions of dreams. What are they? What purpose do they serve?
If we cannot explain these second-by-second occurrences, how do you explain a hallucination? Can anyone irrefutably prove that anything is “real” as opposed to “not real/ just in your head”?
The bottom line is, everyone has a theory based on metaphor and assumption, but no one really knows.
The existence of a subconscious is an unprovable theory, just as having a soul is an article of faith not provable fact.
Schizophrenia is such a vague, amorphous construction that many argue it could be a conglomeration of several diseases or simply not be a validly defined disease at all. It is a metaphor for a metaphor.
So, where am I going with this?
Although one of the stated purposes of my therapies over the years has been essentially to deconstruct my beliefs and behaviours, understand and recognize them, and, therefore be in a position to make better choices and then to reconstruct my identity and reconcile or integrate the good and the bad, the dark and the light, it was really about trying to help me help myself.
I remember being told that I just needed to learn to cope. Boy, that pissed me off. This was after the “this is like diabetes, and you don’t blame someone for having diabetes, now do you?” speech, and seemed somewhat contradictory.
But, as much as I hated hearing that, in my case, it was right.
I live what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “the original fear.” This fear is experienced at the first moment of life. It says “I cannot survive on my own; I need someone to help me, or I will die.” While literally true for a new born, this belief, if deeply internalized and carried forward as an organizing principle in life, can drive all forms of anxiety, depression, and the resultant behaviours people use to escape these feelings.
In a literary sense, it is man versus nature translated into man versus himself as perceived as man versus nature and man versus man.
So, if true, how do you overcome these feelings?
I believe the answers lie in the Buddhist concept of acceptance.
I will die at some point, so yes, I will not survive this (que the Doors’ “The End”). Everything I have now, will all be gone at some point. There is nothing I, nor anyone can do about this. It is fact and inevitable.
Boy, those Buddhists are real rib ticklers!
Instead of being fatalistic, it is freeing. Acceptance of impermanence is the first step to freedom. To fight the world, to grasp after things that are meaningless in the end, to drown out the world in a sea of booze and pills, to try and control, to try and escape your shadow is futile and only creates suffering.
However, when you learn to accept, you learn to receive peace and undertake a journey towards grace.
But what is not meaningless is that we all need someone to survive. Whether only to share this brief moment, this, I think, is what is meaningful.
Definitions you can use:
Acceptance: consenting to receive or undertake something that is offered.