Healing My Broken Story: The Power of Compassionate Relationship

12
2924

“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

My suicide attempt in November of 2013 occurred several weeks before the coldest winter in recent memory hit Minnesota. The winter of my greatest discontent was harsh, dreary, and brutally cold, staying in sub-zero temperatures for days. Even with extra layers of clothing, I could not get warm. The weather reflected what I felt from my wife when she abandoned me in the midst of my suicidal crisis. The winter was unforgiving. Adversity had taken hold, hitting like a cold, bitter wind in a raging snowstorm. It cared not for what I was experiencing and was relentless in its indifference to my plight. There was no escape from torturous memories and no end to unremitting pain and despair. I felt ashamed and guilty for surviving my suicide attempt. The psychiatrist’s words, “I don’t like you, you’re making my job difficult,” remained with me, followed by my ex-wife’s words, “I can’t believe Michael ‘messed up’ his suicide attempt — I would have been able to keep the house.”

By the spring of 2014, the chill in the air left as the air was warmed by gentle breezes. As the world around me transformed itself, I felt something mysterious but powerful stirring within. The darkness that had engulfed my mood began to wane a bit. Glimmers of light made their way through the cracks and crevices of the pitch-black darkness. It was as if the light was racing towards me wanting to be embraced. I now believe the light was offering me an escape from the dark nights of my soul.

With the coming of spring, the sun was higher in the sky and the days were growing warmer. When the time was ripe, the sun shined bright as the blooming flowers illuminated the landscape. With the snow line receding, and the darkness lifting, I started to hear robins announcing their annual arrival. I associate the spring arrival of the robin as the time Michael Robin came back to life. As an archetypal symbol, the robin represents the coming of spring, a brighter and lighter time. With each passing day, their music became clear and expressive. I can’t know for sure if I was actually hearing robins or if I was imagining their sweet sounds, but I don’t think it matters. The presence of the robin allowed me to move forward on my journey toward a nesting place with a rapidly evolving change in perspective. Nesting places are metaphoric symbols of kindness, order, safety and stability. As Richard Heckler, author of Waking Up Alive wrote, “Grieving and letting go of the single-minded fixation on suicide is like a spring rain. It marks the end of winter — the barrenness of suicide — and prepares the soil for planting.”

The shame of my failed suicide attempt and the dissolution of my marriage made me intensely focused on what others might think of me. The kind of darkness I experienced carried with it a stigma, that my failures marked me as a defective and deficient human being. The voices in my head, my inner narrator, warned me to be wary of those I encountered, as I struggled to find a way of speaking that would not induce others to “turn away.” There was no one available who was capable of offering the kind of deep compassion I needed — no one, until I met a remarkable narrative therapist four months after my suicide attempt. The coming of spring, when my frozen and broken heart slowly began to thaw, coincided with the time I met Richard, my beloved therapist, on March 24, 2014.

When I first spoke to Richard, I was terrified by the thought of exposing my traumatized self to another professional therapist. I had already seen two psychiatrists and two therapists; none of whom had any idea how to form a therapeutic relationship with me. Prior to meeting Richard, I had been told by Dr. W. that he did not like me, and my admitting psychiatrist (after my attempt) told me he didn’t think I would ever find a therapist with whom I would be satisfied. I was worried, nay terrified, that Richard would not be willing or able to hear my story.

From the beginning, Richard had no need to dislike me as, unlike Dr. W., he has never felt threatened by my intelligence or sensitivity, much less my agitation or impatience. His respect for me broke down the rigidity of the power relationship of my previous therapeutic encounters. Richard’s first words were, “Michael, I am not here to teach you anything. I want to learn from you and be by your side as you go forward in your healing journey.” The moment I heard his words, I burst into tears; simultaneously feeling the pain of the past and the possibility of transformation and transcendence.

In an instance of grace, Richard’s words acknowledged the legitimacy of my pain. The kind look in his eyes underlined the soothing words he uttered, capturing the spiritual bond that would bind us together. It was as if he was saying: “Michael, please let me share your burden, so you don’t have to do it alone.” From the beginning, he knew that he would need to join me in a process of therapeutic mutuality. The kindness in his eyes and compassion in his heart is always unmistakable, providing me a secure base to further explore the depths of my soul.

Richard thankfully was willing and able to enter into my world without judgment while acknowledging the legitimacy of my pain. He has had a prophetic sensibility, in that he could foresee in me a redeemed life, before I could see it for myself. Richard is the first and only therapist I’ve had who does not try to steer me away from my troubled thoughts and feelings. Nor has he ever been frightened away by me or my story. His compassion is not performative or formulaic. Above all else, he is concerned and attentive.

Going to Richard’s office for the first time raised existential questions. What would happen if he discounted my story, or didn’t like me? Another horrific “therapeutic” encounter might have been more than I could handle, but there was little hope for recovery without the help of a competent therapist. In Richard, I found the interested and concerned listener I yearned for. His posture and manner expressed grace and acceptance, which was calming and reassuring. For four months, I had been flailing about, trying to stay afloat, barely hanging on. It was as if Richard threw me a lifeline and said, “Hold on, I will not let go of you.” Richard offered me what Buddhists call “loving kindness,” what Jewish people call Hesed, and what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.” He gave me the respect I had lost for myself so that I could make it my own.

While Richard is an extremely intelligent psychologist, his greatest expertise is knowing how to be a good companion, especially when I was in life-threatening distress. For him, being compassionate is not a “therapeutic technique”; it is his way of being. As a wounded healer himself, he gives me his attentive and compassionate presence. With Richard, I experienced a quality of empathy and compassion I had never experienced. His presence was the gift he offered me. Accepting his gift was the smartest thing I’ve ever done. He has always appreciated my willingness to accept his gift.

In Richard’s presence, I stood at the threshold of what would become my new life. Richard encouraged me to change, and by doing so, he gave me the courage to change. Thankfully, he has never tried to “fix” me. He knew what I most needed was the full sense of being cared for and understood. The sanctuary of his presence was what allowed me to heal. When I was profoundly depressed and anxious, he elicited a relaxation response with his kind words and calm demeanor. He clearly was not intimidated by me, nor did he dislike me. That in itself was amazing, especially after my experience with Dr. W. four months earlier.

I wanted, but didn’t expect, Richard to understand me — viscerally — as he did. Feeling Richard’s understanding and compassion was the touchstone of my recovery. One way he did this was by not judging my character based on my disturbed emotions. What I learned from Richard was that my life could not be defined within the DSM-V system of psychiatric nomenclature. Nor did I need to feel bad about feeling bad. I learned that being anxious and insecure are not necessarily symptoms of psychopathology. Nor are feelings of trauma, grief, loss, and betrayal. Unlike Dr. W., Richard never experienced me as “uncooperative,” “agitated,” or “grandiose.”

After meeting Richard, I began to reimagine my future. The safety of his calm and soothing presence allowed me to take a “leap of faith” into the unknown. Mired in despair, a comforting grace came over me. His compassion, his ability to feel with me has been the healing balm for my deep wounds. A great deal of what I learned “in therapy” was how to embrace, accept, and bear my painful feelings. Richard assured me that I did not need to “get over” what I was feeling. He was able to tolerate my painful emotions, which in turn, helped me develop what psychologists call affect tolerance. Richard was more than a therapist; he was a faithful witness to my spiritual transformation. As time passed, I realized I was not as detached from the world as I assumed. Richard’s faith in me is the sturdy banister I hold on to as I move forward.

Our relationship has been the alchemical vessel that has transformed my state of being from despair to hopefulness. I have learned to befriend my heartbreak (or process my emotions), for without doing so, I would not be who I am today. For sure, I am much more forgiving of myself than I once was. My life is an ongoing process of befriending myself so I can be a better friend to others. As I see myself with more compassion, I have less regret for what I had done, and more acceptance of who I’ve been, and who I am becoming.

Richard’s belief in me facilitated a sense of hopefulness which countered my deep sense of futility. The word despair is derived from the Latin word sperare, which means to hope. The prefix de negates the verb, leaving the literal meaning of the word despair as hopeless. To Richard’s credit, he has never told me I should have hope, but he noticed when I become more hopeful. He has never implied that I should “get over” what I was “going through.” From the beginning, he has made clear that he was not afraid to be by my side in my arduous quest for healing. His words, always respectful, never trivialized or minimized my suffering. Richard has been able to imaginatively enter into my world without fear of being engulfed by it.

The yearning for witnessed significance refers to the need to be heard, appreciated, cared for, and recognized as a significant human being. Few motives in human experience are so powerful. As the eminent Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “There is no greater need than the need to be needed.” When I am with Richard, there never is doubt that I have a valued place in his heart. He doesn’t need to tell me it is a privilege to be my therapist. I simply feel it. Our relationship satisfies a mutuality of need.

Without using these words explicitly, Richard might as well have said, “Michael, I am throwing you a lifeline, you don’t need to question why I do it, just that I have to. If you hang on tight, I will not let you slip away from me.” As my therapist, he embraces my grief, pain, and sorrow without trying to fix it or somehow make it disappear. My relationship with Richard allows me to re-experience, in the present moment, what was once so traumatic. His ability to “hold on to me” allows me to tolerate traumatic memories so I can move forward with more anticipation than dread. With Richard, I feel accepted and appreciated which is the foundation of any therapeutic relationship, and the balm that heals a wounded soul.

Psychoanalytic anthropologist Howard Stein, my old friend, suggests that caring for a patient is facilitated when therapists are willing and able to see themselves in their patients — that is, when projective identification is used in an empathic rather than a rejecting or judgmental manner. Empathy involves projecting oneself into the phenomenological world of the other person, imagining, “I could be you.” Unfortunately, much of the language of therapy emphasizes what therapists do for patients rather than how they are with them, which can create an emotional and spiritual void between the therapist and the patient.

Richard has mastered the art of using his self as a healing presence. The more he calmly listens, the more I experience his persistent interest and concern for what I say and who I am. He helps me heal less by what he does and more by who he is; by his compassion more than his expertise. Stein writes, “Attentive listening is itself an act of intimacy and reciprocity. One tells or discloses much about oneself by what one cannot afford to allow the patient to say or to permit oneself to hear and respond to.” Richard’s understanding presence has had a visceral power that continues to transform my life towards a brighter future.

With Richard’s attentive guidance, I have discovered that I don’t have to relive my trauma as if it was all happening in the present moment. Doing so is all too painful and leaves me isolated and alone. I now know that it is possible to re-examine my trauma without feeling its immediacy. Telling myself “that was then and this is now” allows me to speak and write of my experience from a third-person perspective. Gaining this perspective has allowed me to re-experience my loss of innocence with less despair and more grace, and as I do so, I notice that my sense of loss is more manageable. I have not lost everything as I assumed 10 years ago. With Richard’s guidance, I am learning to discern who I should trust and with whom I should be wary. I am also learning to ask for help in ways that increase the likelihood it will be forthcoming.

Richard has been patient with me as I, his patient, have taken in his words. He does not expect me to be patient without expecting the same for himself. The deep listening of my therapist intensifies my awakening by letting me know that I have many worthwhile things to say. His healing attentiveness is the balm for my wounded soul. Through the power of compassionate relationship, we steadily traversed the dark terrain to arrive at a destination that was welcomed, but not initially anticipated. As we continue our “work,” I live in awe that I could be so blessed to find such a caring therapist.

Any story, whether it is written or spoken, raises the question: What kind of story is being told? Daniel Taylor, author of The Healing Power of Stories says, “We live in stories the way fish live in water, breathing them in and out, buoyed by them, taking from them our sustenance, but rarely conscious of this element in which we exist.” I would add that a good story probes the depths of experience just as a deep-sea diver explores the bottom of the sea. To be successful, a deep-sea diver must periodically come up for air or if his oxygen equipment fails him, he will drown. Being in despair for me was like drowning in the ocean with no one willing or able to throw me a lifeline.

In the story others had of me, I am cast as the person who thinks he knows everything, expects too much from others, holds on to grudges, and does not forgive others their weaknesses. Before I met Richard, I did not have the power or permission to edit or correct what he called, The Legend of Michael Robin. The story in its essence is that I “expect too much” from others when I wish for them to be loyal and respectful to me. I am finally breaking free from this confining and suffocating story. Richard has reassuringly told me that he has no idea what it means for me to “expect too much” from others. He has been my steady companion as I’ve crossed many thresholds of change.

As my therapist, Richard gives me permission to edit my story and not settle for what has previously been said to me and about me. The gift that Richard offers me is that he advises me to not rush as I tell my story. In so many words, he says, “Take your time; I am not going to turn away from you and I don’t want you to get out of breath as you tell your story.” He understands at the core of his being that bad things do happen to good people and that the world is not necessarily just, in that people often do not get what they deserve or deserve what they get.

As my therapist, Richard listens to me, stays with me, joins me, and, in the process, we have become compatible. His willingness to bear faithful witness and be present in my suffering facilitates the restorative and healing function of connection. The etymological origin of the word compatible means to “suffer together.” I have learned there can be no compatibility without compassion and no compassion without compatibility. Richard’s compassion is not merely sentimental; it takes the form of action. I never doubt that Richard cares about me, and for that I am forever grateful.

***

Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

***

Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I’m happy MR found a human that made a positive difference in MRs life.

    I’ve had the impression that too many personal stories go worse because the final individual that could have made a positive difference was not there. Just for one night, one meal, one glass of water, one last refuge, one last kind word. Even an act of transigence, not tolerance nor acceptance.

    I’ve also had for decades the idea that most of us never know and therefore expect that sometimes, somehow we are and will be that person, either.

    It always amazed me how easy is for most folks to ignore such extreme, even rare, when seeing it every day in someone else, the homeless kid, the rascal pickpocketer, the woman exploited, the homeless, the migrant, the incarcerated, the psychiatrized, etc. Even after seeing oneself in such circumstances as the one that needs that not last kind word, not last kind gesture.

    I never considerered that absence a failure, society has been evolved to reach such state. Progress and growth depends on at least some degree of callousness. In the old days it was because of lack resources, the old needs and means inequality.

    The way of thinking about loss, grief, failure, disapointment speaks to me such. Those are shunned precisely because shunning them serves some common purpouse, a common goal. It benefits someone if not many. Since the 19th century wrongly intrepreted as Darwinian, there God being dead a little latter.

    Me way ignorant of ethology can find difficult to admit that within group other animals see themselves behaving as humans do to each other. I imagine they find progress somewhat an alien concept, even if they sometimes embrace innovation. Just growth serves evolution, no addons needed. Another failure to understand evolution.

    Hence I imagine the Rawlsian proposal of an original position. Too much cultural baggage to engage the compasionate rational brain. Too many bad counterproductive and harmfull ideas between the here and the there, in some posterity.

    And success is just the carrot, the few that made it in Broadway, in Holliwoood, the Nobel prize, the Presidency, the Supreme Court, the cover magazine…

    Even the myth of the phoenix serves the goal of normalizing putting people trough, in the case of the phoenix, hell for latter somehow rebirth. To be saved, to be reborn, reemerged from the harm of societies creeds…

    And many people find healing in art, work, religion, philosophy or just trying to be alone. Some find it by becoming President or Supreme Court Justice, evangelists of other creeds. Proponets of other ways…

    Like there are many paths to “healing”, no shoe fits all. To understand, to be reborn even if we are somehow the same and share the same beliefs. Maybe just reinterpretations even of our own memories.

    So without trying to be nor sound callous, this narrative speaks to me not of healing but of secular salvation, for which there are many paths.

    And I am happy MR found a way to heal from what on top appears some omissions in the narrative that speak to me of a callous society.

    What helped me? Skepticism, sympathy not compassion, and epistemics. I did enjoy from the apparent privilege of having very warm, caring, smart and insightfull fellow travelers along the way, big and small, young and old, male and female, and apparently otherwise not specified.

    I was very lucky on that, even if it was sometimes implied that I just happened to have my eyes wide open to that reality.

    We parted ways some time ago, but among my awefull experiences, they were always there in some form.

    And I do thank MR for reminding me that.

    Report comment

  2. Michael, how truly wonderful you found someone like Richard to support you on your journey to healing. I wish it was possible to clone Richard as too many mental health professionals, and in particular psychiatrists, seem to be missing the capacity for compassion and empathy. Best of wishes to you.

    Report comment

  3. Hi Michael
    it sounds like you simply needed a caring, compassionate friend willing and able to walk with you while you processed stuff. It’s too bad so many feel only the ‘experts’ can do this.

    I’m glad you have found healing. i wish you the best!
    Sam

    Report comment

LEAVE A REPLY