Changing Our Contract with Life

A Therapist's Story of Battling Chronic Pain

Changing Our Contract with Life

When I finished graduate school in counseling psychology, my life was at least as unfinished as my father’s boat that hung in the rafters of his shed. As I began making my living as a psychotherapist, like many others in this field, I was seeking to become a wise person. I remember being struck by an article on wisdom in American Psychologist, in which a wise person was defined as “someone who has expert knowledge about the meaning of life (what really matters) and how to plan and manage a meaningful life.” That’s what I want to do, I thought, plan and manage a meaningful life and help my clients do the same. As I entered the adult world of marriage, family, and a psychotherapy career, I harbored the fear that I was sailing in a vessel that wasn’t entirely seaworthy. I couldn’t so easily get rid of my perfectionism and sense of unworthiness, waiting to be triggered by a violent storm in my adult life.

Personal Shipwreck

In the two decades after my graduation, my marriage, family, and career cruised along in relatively calm waters. With 50 or so physicians and clergy in my community referring to me, I had more cases than I could handle. My wife and I lived with the usual array of unresolved conflicts and ongoing issues, but our marriage seemed sturdily constructed and on course. Our five children, then aged 3 to 14, were healthy and well-adjusted. We had no marine radar to show us that our ship was sailing into a perfect storm.

After what I thought would be a routine surgery in late 2000, I developed chronic pain so intense that I couldn’t focus my energy on anything else. Weeks of sleep deprivation and trials of pain medications that offered little relief left me barely able to function at work. It took falling asleep mid-session with a client to help me decide to take a break from my practice. After reading a medical article describing my pain syndrome as a known surgical risk and learning that it could be chronic and debilitating, I went into full-panic mode. What kind of Bermuda Triangle vortex had sucked in the ship of my life, I wondered.

The mental, emotional, and spiritual state of my being wasn’t described adequately by any list of symptoms in the DSM-IV. Sure, there was depression and anxiety, but the angst I felt, moment to moment, day to day, month to month had me feeling like I was marooned on an island that I couldn’t find on any map of the human experience.

After my father became ill and we buried him during an ice storm, I began to feel a sense of shame and humiliation for falling apart so completely in front of my wife, children, extended family, and community. For years, I’d kept the confidences of so many patients who sought my help. So it was strange to hear people I didn’t know well say things like, “I heard you’ve been really depressed lately; anything I can do to help?” I felt I’d lost the credibility needed to be able to practice psychotherapy in our community—or anywhere else—ever again.

A Tale of Two Stories

I can tell two stories about my plunge into darkness 12 years ago. One is about a seemingly functional husband, father, and mental health professional humiliated by his own inability to cope with chronic pain. I could continue that he had difficulty seeing that what began as physical pain persisted far longer than it needed to because of intense fear and shame. I could say he thought he knew what a conversion disorder was, but really didn’t until he’d lived through one.

But there’s another story I can tell, one that’s been more helpful to my healing. That’s the monomyth described by mythologist Joseph Campbell as “the hero’s journey.” In my version of this ancient, archetypal narrative, a person entering a comfortable middle age—who believes that his years trying to help troubled people have thoroughly acquainted him with the full range of human experience—suddenly finds himself confronting a level of suffering more personal and intense than he imagined possible. My journey is to be with and learn from my suffering. According to Campbell, those who can manage the full journey and return to their lives discover a boon, the gifts of wisdom and deep knowledge that come from surviving existential hardships that take us beyond our comfort zone.

In entertaining this second story of my time of darkness, the question becomes: what’s the boon I brought back? Phrased more pragmatically, how am I different now, wiser perhaps, as a person and a therapist, for having been through my own dark night?

The Boon

The mere act of getting through a tough time doesn’t automatically turn us into master therapists, but if we pay attention to our own experiences, we may become clearer about what’s truly healing—at least for us—and what isn’t. Perhaps the main reason that our field produces so few prodigies who reach the highest level of their skill early in their careers is that there are no shortcuts to this sort of knowledge. You simply have to give life time to teach you what you need to learn from your own battles, as you move through the journey of being human.

My experience of my own darkness hasn’t transformed me into an exalted wisdom figure with answers for all forms of human suffering, but it’s changed how I sit with clients today. I no longer approach them as the expert with the Ph.D., but as a fellow human being, more fully aware of my own vulnerability. I know the territory of mental illness differently from how I once did because life took me on a tour of it.

Recently, I was talking with my adult daughter about her falling in love with a guy she admitted to having on a pedestal. “He must remind you a lot of your good ol’ dad then,” I teased.

“No, my friend,” she said, “You came off the pedestal a long time ago.”

I responded, “That’s okay, I’ll take the ‘my friend’ part over being on the pedestal any day.”



Photo © Scott Stulberg/Corbis

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson, PhD, is a psychologist and author who lives near Toledo, Ohio. His books include Divinity in Disguise and The 7 Spiritual Practices of Marriage. His latest book, The Inconceivable Surprise of Living, is a creative interaction with ancient and modern wisdom about the human experience.