As a crisis call counselor, I get phone calls every day from individuals who are going about their lives, acting as if everything is fine, while at the same time (even sometimes while we are talking on the phone!) are admitting serious intent and a plan to end their life. One of the most recent conversations was with an individual on their way to work who was running errands and decided to stop and get cash by using the bank drive through window. I remember praying silently that the bank teller would be gentle with this person who was suffering. The individual was feeling so trapped that they didn’t know if they could get through the week without ending their life. Thankfully I could hear the bank teller reassure my caller that they understood (even though they didn’t) and did not take offense at what could have been seen as a rude customer talking on the phone while seeking services.
I am reminded of the care the transformed hero/victor (Coach) must continue to take remembering that even the movement of a butterfly’s wings can cause chaos or connection.
It is an honor to be offered brief moments with these individuals as they try to find new answers to oftentimes very heavy and complex problems. Mostly, no matter how long I work in this position, I hope I will always be reminded to speak more softly, react with kindness, and practice gratitude in every connection, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they may be, because even if it feels like “nothing” to me, it could be the tipping point in someone’s day or even life.
As a mental healthcare professional, I work with a variety of interdisciplinary teams collaborating on best treatment for complex patient co-morbidity which often include mental health and medical concerns. Every so often I get pulled aside for a personal or family-related consult from attending healthcare providers. The conversation often starts with, “I just have a quick question…”
The home-life stories I have frequently listened too, which healthcare providers (including physicians) encounter after their full days of dealing with their patients’ crises, are both heartbreaking and inspiring. I join them in the uncertainty on how to make it better and feel sadness in the often expressed fear of being judged by those around them as unprofessional due to this significant life problem. However, I also feel awakened by their courage to reach out and trust someone right now to share their pain and not be alone for at least one moment in their workday. In the fast paced healthcare system, where the paperwork on complicated patients often takes longer than the allotted 5 minutes between patients and at times piles up to the point where we have to bring our work home with us, it makes sense to me that our home life also sometimes comes with us to work. These personal struggles and stories I have heard from healthcare providers might offer a glimpse behind the white coated veil separating patients and doctors for the sake of objectivity. In short, often what’s happening at home for our providers has the same themes as the personal stories patients share. We all seem to be seeking skills and new ways to creatively respond to the relationships that grow and infuriate us in the best and worst ways.
Recently, instead of being pulled aside privately after our interdisciplinary team meeting, a physician brought up in front of the team that a friend and fellow physician was in trouble. She told us that this colleague she had known for years was being accused of a crime. At its heart, the story is one of human relationship, describing explicitly and between the lines many years of coping through misery, survival, and suffering. As people (in healthcare and the public) rally to support this doctor (and/or judge her), I am reminded of what we all have in common here. Forgive the simplicity, but it is our humanness.
As healthcare professionals we are placed on a pedestal as experts and given privileges that come with risks. Our judgements have more long-lasting impact than other professions (e.g., the clerk at the checkout counter) on the lives and well-being of those we care for, and so we are held to a different standard of self-awareness and ethical behavior. Our professional analysis is expected to be informed by years of training and discipline and the labels and recommendations we give (or prescriptions in her case) often cause a cascade of decisions and reactions on what to do next to alleviate suffering. Ideally, these decisions result in better health and well-being, but sometimes it seems no matter what we decide, they do not. However, in healthcare the white-coated veil we have been trained to place between our personal and professional lives, with the goal of objective knowing, is not so black and white (legally or in real life).
While issues raised in this story are profound and complex—including substance abuse, domestic violence, prescribing rights, and personal and professional ethics—the connecting piece between all of these is that as healthcare providers we are first human beings and need support from community to make the personal and professional decisions that hold risk. Noticing my responses as someone who relates to her story from multiple roles, I feel waves of sadness, anger, confusion, and I know that I am likely to turn to judgement and tell myself I could have done it differently. I want to protect myself from having this be my story too.
Did she have access and exposure to mental healthcare without her personal struggles being judged in her professional world as reflecting incompetency and weakness? Looking at humanness beneath the objectivity we so often dress up and embody as professionals of healthcare, I wonder: How do I seek support from my colleagues when I feel myself lost in these grey areas and need help? From being a student of social psychology, I know that our culture has a hunger for heroes and villains and we look for and label those around us often with just such extremes. While hero worship of our physicians and healthcare providers can help us feel safe and confident that we are being taken care of by and working with extraordinary healers, I have also seen how easily we can villainize the same individuals when we are faced with what we judge as their mistakes. This reactive pattern in society increases dichotomies between physicians and everyone else (also known as defensive medicine) and can isolate our providers from their humanness by non-verbally cuing them into believing that feelings like fear, confusion, and sadness are unacceptable for their level of intelligence or expertise. This could understandably lead to the hushed and rushed sharing and advice-seeking I see all too often. There is a pervasive belief in healthcare that consulting with colleagues at work or seeking counseling separately will somehow be seen reflecting weakness and incompetency.
How did her community, now rallying behind her, not feel that something was amiss when connecting with her on a daily basis? How have I participated in the culture of shaming and silencing healthcare providers in their humanness both as a patient and healthcare provider? How many of us have looked away from healthcare providers like the one soon to be on trial and hoped they get their life together soon? Did we ever realize that we as a community contributed to this story? How were we so blind to the human pain and helplessness that this physician was struggling with for all these years? I am reminded that our non-verbal communication largely outweighs anything we say, and this painful story reinforces the importance of feeling curiosity as I greet my colleagues on a daily basis. I recommit to consciously pausing in my work, making eye contact, and listening for an answer when I ask the customary question at the beginning of the workday, “how are you?” An even more uncomfortable question I must ask myself is how am I modeling that this is a safe environment to give a genuine answer by revealing my own struggles on occasion and seeking support with those I hope will reach out to me?
Did she have a work-life that had enough balance and support where she had the time to leave and seek support professionally? What I admire about the physician who named this heartbreaking personal and professional story in our treatment team is that she is doing what we all need to do more of—breaking the silence in our professional culture of compartmentalizing feelings and denying that we are human. Instead she was naming the distress and questioning we all feel somewhere inside of us when we see someone we relate too and care about make decisions that hold pain and risk. The physician accused of a crime was coping with someone struggling with substance abuse at home. Our knee jerk response as practitioners of professional boundaries and quick-thinking problem solving could be the same as we often speak to our patients, “stop drinking,” “Stop risking,” “stop caring,” and yet the cumulative research on addiction is showing that instead of the cure being abstinence (as many laws and treatments require and promote), the opposite of addiction is human connection. Maybe as healthcare practitioners we are addicted to our objectivity at the expense of our relationships with our humanness in ourselves and each other.
This brings me to using this medium of public discourse to reflect on the best of what I’ve learned in the process of practicing healthcare which, as many providers know, never really gets put away completely when I leave work. In my personal life I am sometimes approached with complicated problems from friends and family that ideally belong in a counselor’s office, and yet on a moment to moment basis, I know that going to counseling is not always the first step or support needed. Meanwhile, I get to offer my best humanness and practice empathy with listening and responses that convey caring such as, “I feel sad and can only imagine how hard this is!” I can practice curiosity, “What do you need? How can we find you more support?” Finally, I can remember that as humans (healthcare providers and patients alike) we all have moments of confusion where the darkness of our lives envelopes us and we can’t see any other choices. I can choose to be one who holds light (through care and curiosity) for others, and also model asking for support when I am struggling with my own heartbreak and sadness. Even though the reactions and advice we sometimes give (as professionals and human beings) might not be enough to change what is going to happen, it is how we react, reach out, offer, and ask for support before the crises (which inevitably strike us all at some point in our lives) that allow for building connection and community during and afterwards.
My final reflection is that as a provider I often feel the expectation requiring me to do something with/for/to my patients repeatedly whether they agree with me or not: fix them, help them, and rescue them (often from themselves). When we are practicing this fear-based reaction pattern in the workplace, how can we not come home and attempt to do the same? In the mirror of this physician’s tragic story, and her friend’s courage in naming the pain of what is often left unsaid, I challenge myself and all of us to carry this conversation in healthcare forward on how we are embracing and acknowledging human in each of us. While the struggle with the greyness and uncertainty in our relationships will likely never go away, maybe our curiosity could turn towards the colleague sitting next to us typing away at those never ending patient notes and help us all begin looking at how we can return to compassion in our healthcare community and recreate a humane working environment where it is not only welcomed but also considered normal to say “I need support, and I’m afraid…”
“The intensity of anger I felt at my infant son… shocked me awake. I had to do something about my anger.”
“Compassion allows us to be moved by suffering… and experiencing a desire to alleviate that suffering.”
“When I stopped blaming other people for my anger, or beating myself up for having it, I could use anger management tools and help others do the same… Over time all those terrifying emotions stopped being so terrifying and start being normal human feelings that we can work with.”
This human works with groups of individuals embodying black and white thinking through the labels of “us/them” – GANGS. He reports on this experience and what he has learned about compassion working with these street-hardened and big-hearted individuals.
“The problem in the world is that we have just forgotten that we belong to each other.” -Mother Teresa
“How do we imagine a circle of compassion and then imagine that nobody is standing outside of that circle?”
“The Measure of our compassion lies not only in our service of other but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”
To introduce myself to you as I enter into the cultivating and growing of this model, I want to tell you my story.
In human terms, I am going to be 40 years old in June. I’m married to a 47 year old man, Zane. We have two children, a 15 year old son, Aiden, and an 11 year old daughter, Elise. I am Hispanic, and my husband is Caucasian. More precisely, my heritage comes from a combination of Spanish Conquistadors and Mayan natives. My husband’s heritage hails from Czechoslovakia and Germany. My children are simply a marvelous combination of such rich heritage and stories. I am currently in school, my last few years, finishing a doctorate degree in clinical psychology. My dream is to eventually have my own practice, and it doesn’t matter how old I am when it finally happens. I suffer from severe depression. My husband takes care of our children. He’s a stay at home dad, an amazing mechanic, bicycle repairer, and overall handyman. The man’s a genius. He also struggles with bipolar disorder. When he was younger, in his manic phases, he was brutally violent, and generally heinous. He’s had a fascinating and colorful life. My son is a freshman in high school. He attends a school that is partially online, with a center for support. He is a genius that has been diagnosed with Autism. He has learned how to code and create games using programs on his own. He says he dreams about programming, literally, when he goes to sleep, his dreams look like code. My daughter is a 6th grader in middle school. She skipped kindergarten because at age 4 she was reading and writing at a 2nd grade level. She’s a genius with anxiety. If she wanted to she could attend a talented and gifted program. She’s more interested in art, and stories, than she is in academics. I’ve never had to punish her for acting out. She’s self-correcting to a fault.
I’ve been a practicing pagan for 11 years. My direction in life has always been to seek out the answers in nature. As I learn the science of psychology, I often spend my days and nights connecting it to how these theories work in the pattern of nature and the universe. The longer I practiced paganism, the more I started to recognize the patterns of balance in my family. For instance, when I was younger, we had a vacation where we drove from New Mexico, to California, to Seattle, to Wyoming, then back home. It was a 2 week, 10 state drive. The one thing I remember from this amazing journey, is every time we stopped and I was able to swim. Every hotel had a pool, or a nearby river. Every time there was a lake, I had to swim in it. I remember every swimming moment – every body of water I met. I’ve been connected to water my whole life. I finally realized that my entire personality could be explained by how water behaves. I am water.
As I embraced this realization, I became curious about Zane, Aiden and Elise. Zane was easy – almost instantly, I recognized the fire in him. The most connecting moments I had with him were when we would sit in silence, in our living room lit up with several candles. We would sit and watch the flames dance. He was more alive in those moments of fire. We began having candle nights, and eventually obtained a fire bowl to sit by the fire. Zane’s personality has always been flammable. He can go from being warm and supportive. People are drawn to him like moths to a flame. Yet he also recognizes that his flames can get out of control if he’s not paying attention – and he can burn. Zane is fire.
Although my children often behave very similar to me, they have such amazing individual personalities. I started to notice that Elise was very drawn to birds, flying, and the sky in general. Her personality is often compared to a whirlwind or a tornado. When she dances, she feels like a breeze passing by. When she was younger she would dress up like a butterfly, a fairy, or a bird. She spent her own money just to buy a specially colored towel so that she could cut it up to make it look like wings. If she could fly – she would. When she’s around me I feel like I can breathe. Elise is Air.
Which leaves Aiden. Aiden is my mountain – he’s my rock. His body is actually a mountain. At 15 he’s already 6’ 1”. He moves slow and steady, but is very deliberate. He often gets stuck in literal concrete thinking. It takes me flowing across him several times before the though erodes into his being. He’s connected to the ground, and is in love with the trees. He gets excited when we talk about planting our garden. Aiden is Earth.
As I embraced this understanding in myself and my family, suddenly, all of our personalities, all of our struggles, made sense. They were simply a part of being the elements that we are. It suddenly became our responsibility to recognize how we can be destructive, or how we can facilitate growth. The four of us are in constant flux – and at our finest moments of balance – can move our whole world. When we are out of balance, we cause each other, and those around us, great suffering.
Then we met Ruth. This amazingly brilliant and beautiful light bringer. She is the moon in our darkness, creating tides in me, and dancing in and through our family of balance. She was able to see us in a way that no human had ever recognized. When she went off to internship she carried us with her. In her darkest moments, in curiosity, she was able to pull out of us, what helped us survive in scarcity, helped us stay intact. She recognized that not only were we balancing with each other, we were balancing within ourselves. Ruth brilliantly put these perfect pieces of a puzzle that belongs to all of humanity, combining it with her own understanding, wisdom and growth, and put it into an organic model that is meant to help us flow and connect, open up, and grow.
Ruth is the gardener planting the seeds of human connection into the ground. As water, my goal is to help those seeds grow by supporting, encouraging, challenging, and holding. As I take this into the world of psychology and science, I am holding the beauty of our fragile and resilient humanity.
As this model has grown in reputation, I have started getting the question: did you create this? My answer, after feeling my belly freeze and a sense of helplessness in never yet being able to find the words to explain that this is not “my Model,” is usually something as if I tucked my tail between my legs, “It came through me.” Does a mother create her child? Is it a co-creation? What about a surrogate mother? Would we say that she created the child who’s genetic makeup completely originates from two others? These are the visuals and questions I have struggled with ever since I started teaching the first few layers in last fall.
One of my dearest friends and colleagues recently pointed out that Newton did not create gravity, he discovered it and explained it in a way that others were able to grasp and build upon (literally!). I wholeheartedly embrace this parallel as one human being that has been supported and helped by this polarity model. If the model serves a similar purpose for others so that we as humans can get a sense of common ground on why we are held in certain patterns with each other, I will be celebrating and humbled for each new person it serves. I am honored to welcome this friend, (Ren Shimek) as a a website editor and co-discoverer of how this model can best serve those who want to change their sense of internal and environmental connection. She is doing the preliminary inquiries on challenging this model to a more classical research project, and I am thrilled to have her professional and personal wisdom, expertise (she is much more of a technology savant than me!), and oversight as we continue this experiment called human relationship.
The model is finally connecting relationships in new ways, which was always its design and purpose. Welcome Ren!
A colleague of mine published a blog today on “Surviving Depression” and encouraged his readers to keep looking for the light. He summarized depression as “… just one more broken opportunity to watch for the light around you and the light within you.” It’s hard to read the words “broken opportunity” because to me it reinforces the disconnect. With my therapeutic orientation being Gestalt, depression is explained as a hopelessness and collapse around getting our needs met from our environment – it is the absence of feeling connected in a meaningful or fulfilling way. Maybe I would say that depression is a way to feel the ground and search for the light from within and without you. One of my favorite quotes is, “Don’t bandage the wound too tightly, that is where the light gets out.” The darkness helps us open our eyes differently and see the world in a new way. Just like nighttime and winter, it is a necessary rhythm of fallowness or mystery that allows us to appreciate the light and colors when they return to our awareness.
My friend also published a blog today on choosing discomfort. As a therapist I support my clients in going to the edge of uncomfortable, and coming back to comfortable–repeatedly.
I recently stumbled across a TED talk on “How to make stress your friend”
that I had listened to several years ago. It is on the power and healthiness of stress and how believing that stress is an opportunity to grow (versus feeling like a victim to it) has a predictive value in mortality rates and overall health. Interestingly, the researcher found that stress on the heart physiologically leads to the longing for social connection and physical touch, and when this need is met, the heart becomes even stronger. This time, my colleague’s posts challenged me and I became aware of stress in our connection. Instead of turning away and being less interested to read them next time, I noticed the discomfort (and how much of that might be that I’m stressed and isolated more than usual while being in the thick of dissertation writing!) and decided to reach him and share my thoughts as a fellow human. Finding my own words and truth in the mirror of his posts and sending him my reflections brought me back to a sense of trust and gratitude for his courage in starting a few fires (in me) along the way. As Ram Das says, “we are all just walking each other home.”
“When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. and when you choose to connect with others under stress, you create resilience…. Stress gives us access to our heart…. the compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others….
“….when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you are saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges, and you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone. “
Favorite Quote: “When we get curious we step out of our old fear based reactive patterns and we step into being.”