Participatory Medicine Part 2

In the previous article dealing with the theme of participatory medicine and healing, we explored our continuous interconnection and partnership with every aspect of life, with our bodies, with our world, with other human beings and with our selves. We participate in our health and healing, we also participate in our own ill health.

In this article we will focus on the multiple partnerships we have with our internal characters, those aspects of our psyche that make up our personality. They determine the way we live our lives, our health, our growth potential and our healing. Most important, we shall see the power they have in creating our blocks, our self restrictions and our ill health.

We have within us our primary functional role characters – mother, wife, friend, teacher etc. Embedded in our characters are our biographical characters – the child, teenager, adult etc. And constantly weaving through all of these role players are our psychologically active characters – our thinking, sensing, feeling and doing person, who changes rapidly and magically according to the role we play. For instance when we are being the parent, we think, sense, feel and act in a certain characterological way that is so very different to when we are the subordinate employee.

I choose to personify these different aspects or subtypes of the personality as real human characters, since this enables, as we shall see below, concrete and active participation rather than limiting the intervention to a more abstract cognitive activity.

Jenny is the mother of Bruce, an angry teenager who makes her feel guilty for leaving her husband, his father and breaking up the family home. She feels like the child she used to be when her father blamed her for everything that was not right at home. She grew up thinking she was not as good as her sister and constantly judges herself as being inferior. In her feelings she is anxious and lacks confidence, her body feels tense and reserved, and when Bruce tells her he hates her, she cringes and withdraws as if in pain. Her irritable bowel worsens with these encounters as does her joint pains which was recently diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, an auto immune illness.

Jenny came to see me for these symptoms. She has a long history of digestive problems, had her tonsils removed as a young child, developed glandular fever in adolescence and chronic fatigue syndrome in her final year of school. She was not able to write her matric and like many other events keeps blaming herself for her inadequacies. She has had numerous breast cysts and frequent mammograms because of her fear of cancer.

Jenny was aware that her symptoms were always worse when she was anxious and knew she herself had a lot to do with her illness. She wanted to know how she was creating her problems. I explained to her that I needed her active participation in the process, offered her complete respect and non-judgement and took pains to make sure she felt safe and confortable with the process. I asked her then to show me with her hands the tightness and pain in her digestive system. She expressed this tightness with clenched fists and contracted tense muscles, especially around her abdomen. I asked her to step away and observe the after image she had just created with her physical and emotional expression . She looked at the empty space which now was filled with her own deep soul projections and said: ‘I can for the first time see my anxious child.’

This was the breakthrough. Jenny was now in partnership with the part of herself that was controlling her life and costing her so much,- her self esteem, her relationships, her health and her future well being. She could now observe what it was all about.

We observed together the empty chair which became fuller with life content the more we watched it. As she described her early life story, she could see her biography unfolding before her like a real live video: the small child terrified of her father’s rages, feeling guilty and ashamed because she was always being blamed by father, mother and favoured sister ; the older child who learnt to submit, avoid confrontation and always to please; she grew up anxious, shy, lacking confidence and always worrying about something. She was a thin, pale and sickly adolescent with a cowering attitude and tense body. As we observed her adult body now, we focused on the tightness and constriction in her bodily systems and imagined the constriction in blood blow and oxygen to the digestive organs, the overactivity of her fight and flight sympathetic nervous system and the excess secretions of adrenalin and cortisol. Looking at her anxious and depressed nature, we could confirm the scientific evidence that these psycho-emotional states are associated with imbalances in neuro-endocrine chemistry, and immune suppression. It was crystal clear to Jenny how the continuous active presence of her anxious and guilty character was creating physiological dysfunctions which inevitably led to all the illnesses she had developed: her constant sore throats and the resultant tonsillectomy, her liver suppression and glandular fever, her chronic fatigue and irritable bowel condition and her fibrocystic breast disease. She could also see how this anxious person carried thoughts such as ‘something is bound to go wrong’, held on habitually to feelings of ‘being inadequate’, frequently experienced ‘pain and tightness’ in her body and acted out her inner experience with defense mechanisms such as ‘withdrawal or depression’. It was now obvious to her how this character was controlling, obstructing and restricting her life and negatively affecting her health.

Then I asked Jenny to show me what she thought was making her feel so anxious and guilty?’ After some hesitation she began to blame the guilty one in the chair with angry words and gestures: ‘you are the cause for all the problems in your life and mine, things will always go wrong because you are not good enough, yes I hate you because you are so weak and pathetic!’ Now she could see the other character in her life story, the part hidden from view, the internalized angry father that continued to make her feel anxious, guilty and undeserving. It was clear to Jenny that these two characters belong together in an unholy alliance, in a partnership, where the one requires the other to exist: the guilty one has to have someone who blames her, the blamer has to have someone to blame.

Our internalized characters are connected in partnerships that control our lives and they in turn are connected with our bodily systems that control our health. We may have the best diets, lifestyles and medical treatments, but if we continue to carry anxiety and guilt in our body-mind systems, we undermine all the best functional or integrative medical programmes. These are the partnerships that create more than any other single factor the pandemic illnesses of our age – the chronic illnesses, like cancer, degenerative disorders, heart and lung disease, auto immune disorders etc, illnesses for which modern western medicine has no real answers. The solution lies first and foremost in becoming aware of these illness-provoking characters, for only then is it possible to do something about it.

How to do this will be the content of the next issue.