Amy: Sometimes in the course of my work with family doctors, we find ourselves engrossed in conversation that feels unexpectedly meaningful. Such a moment occurred the other night. I thought it might be useful to share, since it informs part of my underlying psychotherapy philosophy.
Last Thursday, Dr. Jerry Clements and I were in the precepting room where young family doctors in training present their patient cases for discussion/supervision. As the evening session drew to a close, we began to talk about aging, our own included. Jerry and I, both middle-aged folks, added our own take on the aging process. I rather embarrassingly admitted that I don’t yet feel old; in fact, I said, “I feel like I haven’t peaked yet.” This gave Jerry a clear shot about how, yes indeed, I’m still pretty immature.
One of our beautiful, especially thoughtful young doctors, not more than thirty years old, lamented that she “felt old”. I said I thought that was part of the grueling nature of residency training. I looked at her and, referring to life in general, said, “You know, it gets better and better.” She looked surprised and–I think, a bit relieved. And I realized as soon as I said it, that it’s true. Life does–or can–get better and better. I felt compelled to add a caveat; “Just don’t take too many shortcuts. It’s important to get the juice out of all of our experiences, even the painful ones.”
I don’t mean to sound too blithe. Despite my largely incurable optimism, I know living can be painful. Sometimes exquisitely so, with unexpected, challenging curve balls thrown at us, testing our equilibrium. No one is immune, though some people clearly suffer greater adversity than others.
But when I talked to our young doctor about “not taking too many shortcut”, I was expressing my deeply-held conviction that if we try to avoid our pain, or go around it, or deny it, we’re missing a huge opportunity. I recall listening to the radio several years ago and hearing a wise rabbi reflecting on personal growth; He said, “There’s a long, short way and a short, long way.”
I think that’s part of my concern about the proliferation of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs. It’s not so much the drug itself, although I do worry about the physiological impact on young kids. But mostly, I’m concerned that it’s the” short, long way”. Many of the vignettes in Most Human will reveal stories from the office where people grapple with their their suffering, and how it relates to their life and relationship patterns. For the most part, especially when other family members are part of the therapeutic process, these symptoms recede relatively easily, often without addressing them directly.
The other thing about quickly taking steps to alleviate emotional distress is that people can learn to become afraid of their pain. I’ve seen many folks who worry a lot about being depressed or anxious, worry that it’s a sign of something more profound or immutable. They’ve lost sight of their inner resilience and health. Their symptoms feel like something alien, a powerful enemy to be stomped out, rather than a painful reminder of a life that may have gotten off course. Medications can be a way of out-sourcing personal and interpersonal healing.
There’s another weird aspect to all this: Many problems that seem to interfere with living are actually designed to help us live more fully. Kids acting crazy, symptoms like depression and anxiety often contain unexpected opportunities for healing. These distress signals may point to imbalances in our personal relationship systems that we may have ignored. Or suppressed. We will show how this counter-intuitive idea works in real world cases from our offices.