Suffering: Who Needs It?

Kelly Brogan, MD, ABIHM
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Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls;
The most massive characters are seared with scars.

— Khalil Gibran

The American Way: Productivity. Certainty. Predictability. Consistency.

These words feel like a cozy blanket to our minds. And, at least since the industrial revolution it has been a shared agreement that these values amplify and support the economy while also offering the average citizen an opportunity to opt into an illusion of safety. It is an illusion because there is no room for true individuality in a society that prizes a sense of safety over all else. There is no room for growth, there is no room for transformation, and there is no room for suffering. Graham Hancock calls this the War on Consciousness, exacted through narrow definitions of permissible states of consciousness (and support of chemicals that suppress consciousness) in support of corporate and governmental control.

Perhaps this is the prison cell that we willingly walk into, sighing with relief as the door locks shut.

In this model, we are meant to be distracted from big picture questions by our day to day responsibilities and frivolous recreation. Physical symptoms are problems that need to go away and psychoemotional symptoms are a sign of inborn disease at worst and feebleness at best. The entire pharmaceutical model of care is predicated on the belief that it is us against our vulnerable, dangerous, broken, annoying body. A body that needs to be chemically managed and put into its proper place of subservience relative to our prized functionality. We are prescribed to suppress and eliminate signs that are actually meaningful messages about our state of dis-ease. We don’t ask “why,” we don’t look to the roots of these symptoms. We just want to get back to work. To feel “normal.”

The Body: Machine or Mystery?

The thing is, our bodies don’t make mistakes. They adapt. Adapt. And adapt some more. They work hard to establish equilibrium in an environment that is unpredictable at best. Genes change their expression, receptors increase or decrease, hormones feedback on themselves, circulation gets rerouted. The complexity of these interconnected processes deserves awe and nothing less. We are just beginning to peek through the keyhole of our physiology and it’s incredible.

So, to suggest that the body just randomly messes up is old-school rhetoric. The body reacts to what it perceives and symptoms are the signal from the body that it is imbalanced, in distress, or in need of support.

Sometimes a symptom is even a sign that the body is taking care of a stressor for you and you don’t need to do a damn thing about it but wait and watch. A fever is like this. Labor pains are like this. Diarrhea from that spoiled Mexican food you ate is like this. It is important to listen, watch, and permit these signs and symptoms to play out in many situations because suppressing them only complexifies the issue. Looking to the root of the insult is always helpful in guiding the type of support you offer the body.

In this way, depression and anxiety can be symptoms that are like a throbbing toe. Did you just drop a hammer on it? Is there a string wrapped tightly around it? Is the toenail infected? There’s pain, but what from? What might it mean?

The Science of Psychiatry

If you deign to ask why, psychiatry has a well-rehearsed answer for you: it’s your broken brain and your misfiring chemistry! Notably, the guild of psychiatry has reveled in the opportunity to pathologize the human experience, with even grief over the death of a loved one – if lasting more than two weeks – now a diagnosable disorder.

Despite efforts to focus on the danger of our emotional experiences, the finger is now being pointed back at psychiatry to explain why violence and self-harm are documented effects of treatment. Nonetheless, the reflexive, alarmist, even liability-driven urgency to medicate has helped to perpetuate the illusion of treatment necessity and efficacy. We know, since Robert Whitaker’s game-changing expose, that we have bought into a convenient truth. This belief, that psychiatric medications are safe and effective, is reinforced by unregulated direct to consumer advertisingpharmaceutical control of the published literature, and by messaging around the action of psychiatric medications. We are told that these medications are “fixing a chemical imbalance” when they are doing anything but. They are suppressing consciousness and creating imbalance.

According to Whitaker, when we look at the escalating rates of psychiatric medication treatment, we have to ask some important questions about its role in the escalating rates of mental health disability in this country (1 in 70 adults) and globally.

He helps us to see:

  • There is no validated science that supports any neurochemical explanation for any of the diagnosable mental illnesses, and such, medications acting on these chemical systems force the body to adapt.
  • This adaptation are likely responsible for the data supporting poorer long-term outcomes in those who have been medicated than those who never were (but presented with the same symptoms) or who were tapered. In this way, a chronic state of symptoms even while medicated, and withdrawal when tapered leads to a psychic holding pen for many patients, potentially for the rest of their lives.

“As investigators confront these dismal long-term outcomes, they are focusing on the possibility that the drugs fail over time because they induce compensatory adaptations ‘the opposite of what the medication originally produced.’ This, El-Mallakh wrote, may “cause a worsening of the illness, continue for a period of time after the discontinuation of the medicine, and may not be reversible” (El-Mallakh et al., 2011).

So it turns out that medicating your symptoms away may make you sicker in the long term, may engender new diagnoses that beget new treatment, and may rob you of the opportunity to understand why you were symptomatic in the first place.

Like taking a Tylenol for a piece of glass stuck in your foot. 

But what I believe to be most insidious about psychiatric medication treatment is the implicit message transmitted to patients – there is no room for what you are dealing with. Hurry up and get it together and get back to your routine. Manage the machine of your brain and be a good patient.

It is the externalization of agency, when the true power for healing and transformation requires the activation of an inner force of awareness.

What’s The Point of It All Anyway?

We are here to touch our life’s purpose, to manifest our personal truth, and to use our human experience to sit in awe and wonder at this journey. These things don’t come easy for most. We are broken open, many of us by tragedy, we see glimpses of our falsely held beliefs, and we come to know fear as a taunting distraction, not as a guide.

Sometimes challenges are exactly what the doctor ordered. Sometimes even tragedy is part of our path. Other times, amazing things turn out to be colossal burdens. We can’t pretend to know what’s best for us.

In speaking to a patient, formerly on antidepressants, now acutely struggling with a potential divorce, I tried to help her to see that she has been delivered exactly what she can handle, if she chooses to accept it and not to resist it. Resisting is so much more excruciating than just sitting in the suffering and letting it swirl, move, and evolve.

Most of the time, when you sit and watch. When you try to look with curiosity, decisions are made for you and crises morph into new normals.

This process of rebirth is often compared to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. The stark contrast between before and after, the dark dissolving transition, and the struggle into a grand new existence.

One of my teachers, Joseph Aldo, shared this tale with us in a group this week. He used it to help us appreciate the power of a natural process when witnessed rather than interfered with.

A man found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could, and it could go no further. So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.

The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.

The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

What the man, in his kindness and haste, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were Nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

A profound reminder, quite literally, of the necessity of natural birth for proper incarnation, both for the infant, and for the mother moving through this gateway to expanded consciousness. Because birth is not just about moving from inside to outside. It is about existential transformation. When we accept the mores of a society steeped in intellectualized, masculine energy, this type of transformation seems scary rather than mystical.

Sit with these ideas, let them plant a seed:

  • When you are struggling, when you feel pain, or even when you feel overly excited or activated, simply note it.
  • Take responsibility for your experience. Don’t blame your boss, your genes, or the city you live in. Own it and your reaction to your experience – your perception of what seem like the facts. When you take back control, you become your own best friend, counselor, and doctor, and it is hugely liberating.
  • Commit time to quiet. In this quiet, even 3 minutes a day, begin to simply watch your mind. Breathe in and say silently, “Sat.” Breathe out and say silently “Nam.”  Meaning “Truth is my name” this mantra will help ground you in this new landscape.
  • Say “yes” to the experience. Accept that this is your experience, knowing that when you accept it, it has the room to change and evolve.

This is your journey, and it’s yours for a reason. Take the invitation to walk through the fire of your challenges. We are so much more powerful than we are permitted to believe.

* * * * *

This blog is adapted from
a post on Dr. Kelly Brogan’s website

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11 COMMENTS

  1. A beautiful article! I love your emphasis on going through the long arduous process (as the butterfly does) rather than just pushing away the struggle and getting back into one’s routine. I do believe, from my own experience, that this is the path to a much deeper freedom. If we don’t deal with the source, the “symptoms” will just keep recurring in one form or another…..

    Best wishes.

  2. So much wisdom and useful information in this article. I LOVE it and wish all the doctors who prescribed my son 10+ meds for his severe OCD would read it. He only got better when he was off all meds and engaging in exposure and response prevention therapy. I recount my family’s story in my book, Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery. Thank you again for this insightful article, Kelly.

  3. Hi Dr Kelly,
    I have fantastic identification with this article – all the way through.

    I have experienced psychotropic drug withdrawal syndrome and I think that a large proportion of the “mentally ill” are prisoners to it. The way I coped with the ‘high anxiety’ was to sit with the feelings until they dampened down, and my outlook became normal.

    • I do, too. It’s not so bad, never really was. I never understood why anyone would drug bad feelings. I’d rather feel them. When I first learned about psych drugs in 1981, first learned that one could take a pill and not be “anxious,” I asked myself, “Why would anyone do that?” Some of us didn’t grow up with the “go medicate it” mentality. Those that grew up with it don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to “feel better” since taking a pill is so easy.

      Not to say that feeling stuff is easy. I am out of the meds and therapy routine now and find that having real feelings and owning them is a joy. I’m much happier. It gets better, too, lots better but you have to wait a while until the dust of Walking Out of Tx settles. Folks get over it, but I needed to let them process, too. It was unfair to ask for others to rush to understand me and in the same breath demand that they quit rushing me to “get over” the trauma. I’m realizing that much of my struggle was realizing just that. Leave the body alone and allow it to heal itself. Trust.

      • Hi Julie,

        I like your writings as well. You’re very tolerant and insightful.

        Sitting with the ‘high anxiety’ was extremely difficult for me. But when it died down the outside world seemed okay.

        I think the main problem is that the public trusts doctors to know what they’re doing in “mental health”.

  4. I like a lot of what you have to say, but I think you would have a stronger perspective if you included a bit more nuance.

    For example, you wrote that “The thing is, our bodies don’t make mistakes.” I’m not sure that’s true. For example, what about auto-immune disorders? Also reactions like fear and anxiety often very much involve the body, yet they can definitely be mistaken, people can react with lots of dread to things which really aren’t dangerous.

    I would agree with you though that our bodies are amazing, and that simply classifying reactions as “wrong” often ignores what may be right with them. And drugs are a very poor way of trying to correct things – they are more like a sledgehammer, when we do better to engage with our emotional reactions, to listen to them and process through both what may be right and mistaken about them.

    • my experience with auto-immune disorders is that it’s the body screaming to get attention because of all the toxic assaults (physical, environmental, social and psychological, pharmaceutical etc etc…all really) it’s had to put up with for decades…as I listen to it’s deep wisdom I not only heal the iatrogenic damage, but the auto-immune issues, too are diminishing. I agree with Kelly. The body doesn’t make mistakes…we just don’t listen to it far too often and it will get sick when we don’t.

      To be clear: we don’t learn to listen because we are actually taught to IGNORE the body. When we learn to listen to the body once again we find that we can come into alignment with all of life in ways I sure as hell had no idea even existed until I was forced to start paying attention (once I was bedridden so sick I couldn’t move or speak)

      Once we listen we learn that the body has wisdom that far exceeds anything we learn intellectually. Incredible healing wisdom….learning to listen is key. And yes, Kelly, suggests some ways to start doing that.

  5. Ron, if you really want a stronger perspective and more nuance on these subjects do a deep study of Traditional Naturopathy , Homeopathy , http://www.YuenMethod.com an effective energy healing system . Study Russell Blaylock MD (retired neurosurgeon) and Chris Shade Phd. Also read “Sick and Tired” by Robert Young and check out Paracelsus Klinic online .
    Dr. Brogan has written another great article .
    Fred

  6. This is beautiful. I like the idea of radical self-responsibility as the way to heal the root of issues.

    What I discovered as I healed from years of family, social, and medical abuse–until I woke up to how this all works–is that every physical symptom and imbalance I had was due exclusively to toxic relationships, by my not realizing how my energy was getting drained over and over by extreme narcissists.

    This is a recent revelation to me, narcissistic abuse. It’s insidious and horrendous, and it lingers ambiguously in our energy systems, and to my mind, in virtually every cell of our bodies. From experience, I know this to be an extremely irritating and chronically triggering internal dynamic, to have been on the receiving end of disenfranchisement, second class citizenship, and all that this social disadvantage entails. It made me good and sick on all levels, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

    It was impossible to combat effectively without awakening to the social dynamics as they really were–which was waking up to hard truths–because it creates an internal loop of doubt, fear, and self-sabotage. So any healing advancements are quickly reduced to illusions, because our neurons take us to defeatism, from habit. I imagine this would wreak havoc on our cells, and even cause them to develop abnormally.

    Ever since I recognized this internal vibration I’d been carrying around, from being raised by and then having tried to argue with very narcissistic, un-empathic, and even rather sociopathic people, I was able to connect this with a flurry of physical symptoms I’d experienced for a while. As I rewrote all of that as healing, and since I’ve learned to better discern about the situations I’m walking into, I have felt this internal stress lifting, and along with it, my body has healed from all that had been ailing it.

    In fact, I’m 54, take no medications for anything, and I haven’t needed to see a doctor in almost a decade. I discovered that we self-heal when we heal our spirits from chronic wounding. As long as I self-care emotionally and spiritually, my body reacts by self-healing. I learned just how influential our emotions, attitude, and outlook are to our physical cells. That gives me a lot of power in my own healing and control over my life, in general, to know this.

  7. Dear Kelly, you write:
    “According to Whitaker, when we look at the escalating rates of psychiatric medication treatment, we have to ask some important questions about its role in the escalating rates of mental health disability in this country (1 in 70 adults) and globally.

    He helps us to see:

    There is no validated science that supports any neurochemical explanation for any of the diagnosable mental illnesses, and such, medications acting on these chemical systems force the body to adapt.

    This adaptation are likely responsible for the data supporting poorer long-term outcomes in those who have been medicated than those who never were (but presented with the same symptoms) or who were tapered. In this way, a chronic state of symptoms even while medicated, and withdrawal when tapered leads to a psychic holding pen for many patients, potentially for the rest of their lives.”

    But are these statements the whole truth or half truths? For example, exactly how do we validate scientifically, the reality of human experience? And is it true to say that there is no science that supports the body’s adaptation processes? Developmental science which is increasingly uncovering the internal nature of adaptive function and showing why the research on brain processes, is quiet bizarrely myopic, as-if brain process is not energized by the body.

    When I made my first comments here on MIA, I suggested that Robert’s focus on medications was equally myopic and failed to ask the question of brings any individual to a doctor of the brain, for very first time, as I tried to argue for the autonomic nervous systems role in mental health, with its constant feedback from the body, especially the other major organs, heart, lung & stomach.

    What saddens me deeply about the ongoing “socio-political” focus of this webzine, is the failure to provide practical advice about HOW to self-regulate episodes of disrupting behaviour, which a treatment oriented view, reflexively perceives through the lens of symptoms. Rather than “bio-energetic” states of being, as you indicate at the end of your post.

    While, in my own need to understand episodes of what academic psychiatrists call affective psychosis, most commonly understood as mania. Self-education about the nervous organization of my lived experience, not only confirmed John Weir Perry’s comment: I really do feel “chronic schizophrenia” is
    created by society’s negative response to what is actually a perfectly natural and healthy process. Read more here: http://www.global-vision.org/papers/JWP.pdf

    A natural and healthy process, long described by Peter Levine and given much credence by The Polyvagal Theory, which did so much the confirm Bessel van der Kolk’s notions of how: The Body Keeps the Score, in the so-called symptoms of PTSD. A process of adaptation, long denied in socio-political history of our Western world.

    Interestingly, you write: Most of the time, when you sit and watch. When you try to look with curiosity, decisions are made for you and crises morph into new normals.

    This process of rebirth is often compared to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. The stark contrast between before and after, the dark dissolving transition, and the struggle into a grand new existence.”

    And ask you and others here on MIA to consider the current epidemic of mental illness diagnosis, as the process by which humanity as a whole, is undergoing a transition into a species self-realization, beyond the traumatic birth of modernity, which has led to the current paradox of unprecedented material wealth, with rising physical and mental ill health. Which, in many Eastern societies, is viewed as an historical loss of internal self-awareness, due to the rise of an intellectual sense of self, which cannot “feel” the vicarious sense of reality, created by an unquestioning use of language and image labelling words.

    As I wrote on the facebook page for: Esalen Institute- Compassionately Responding to People in Extreme States Weekend Workshop. November 20-22

    Its certainly been a mighty struggle to make the words of neuroscience discovery flesh & give up the everyday illusion of words & the sense that I knew myself, simply because I can speak, read and write words. A struggle to “cleanse the doors of perception,” as William Blake and William James advise, by feeling within, just how: the delusion is extraordinary by which we exalt language above nature. -Alexander Johnson. Our own, internal nature and our unique, yet often self-defeating capacity for adaptation.