Dark Passage

Suffering and the Quest for Wisdom

Magazine Issue
March/April 2013
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When I was 15, my father gave me a sailboat-making kit. This wasn’t a snap-together-in-a-day project. It involved many months of meticulous work: cutting and sanding imported marine plywood, applying multiple coats of epoxy, and creating watertight joints with fiberglass mesh. When I began, I had no idea what I was doing, and I continued to feel that I was just on the edge of incompetence as I progressed through each new phase of the project. Slowly the boat began to take shape, but when I hit a step that was beyond my abilities, my progress stalled. Tired of the thick sawdust that covered everything in the basement, my father decided to hang the unfinished boat in the rafters of a shed belonging to the company he co-owned. Thirty-five years later, a decade after my father’s death, I received a call from the company’s manager: “There’s a boat hanging in the rafters of our shed. Someone says it might belong to you. Do you want it? If you don’t, we’d like your permission to burn it.”

“Burn it,” I said.

From the hundreds of hours I put into that unfinished boat, I’ve salvaged a metaphor for my personal and professional life that also describes the lives of lots of people, both inside and outside my practice. Most of us have some secret suffering or shame hanging in the rafters of our lives—something stalled, unfinished, untended, or even forgotten—that needs to be completed or burned.

When I finished graduate school in counseling psychology, my life was at least as unfinished as that boat. 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. Though I could deal with the sailboat in the rafters by giving someone permission to torch it, I couldn’t so easily get rid of the perfectionism and sense of unworthiness that had made me afraid to try to complete that boat. An unholy duo lay dormant in me, 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.

One night, I had a dream about a plane crash, my wife and children watching from a distance as a plume of smoke appeared on the horizon. “Was Daddy on that plane?” one of the children asked. “Yes,” my wife said as the dream ended. But my dark night of the soul, my time in the belly of the whale, my exile from any sense of physical or emotional comfort—I’ve never really known what language to use for it—had just begun.

While I was taking a break from my practice, my father was dying of a reaction to a medication prescribed to treat a case of scabies he’d contracted from his dog. The medicine—a pesticide now banned for use in agriculture, but still used to kill scabies mites—poisoned his liver and led to a yearlong ordeal of multiple organ failure. Now it wasn’t just my own life that seemed to be sinking; life itself no longer made sense. How could a good man die from hugging his beloved dog?

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 we buried my father 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.

I remember the day when I opened my mind to the possibility of never returning to practice. Being a therapist had become a mainstay of my identity, but I felt so unsuited to the role. I found a line in Wayne Dyer’s Your Sacred Self helpful: “If you are what you do, then when you don’t, you aren’t.” I decided to stop pressuring myself to return to clinical work as soon as possible and focus on healing.

A Tale of Two Stories

In the final scenes of Life of Pi,two insurance adjusters take Pi’s account of his harrowing adventure. According to Pi, he’d found himself on a lifeboat after a shipwreck with a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena from the ship’s cargo. After the hyena killed the zebra and the orangutan, a tiger appeared from below the lifeboat’s tarp and killed the hyena. Pi and the tiger floated together across the ocean to shore. The two incredulous insurance adjusters challenge Pi’s remarkable story. He responds, “There’s another story I can tell you,” and proceeds to relate an even more traumatic tale of surviving the shipwreck and finding himself on the lifeboat with his mother, a friend, and the ship’s cook. After the cook killed his friend and his mother for bait and food, Pi killed the cook and was able to survive on the boat alone until he reached shore. “But which story is true?” an adjuster asks Pi. “I don’t know. Which one do you want to believe?” replies Pi. It seems clear that Pi’s tiger story was invented to help him cope with the horror of what really happened.

I, too, 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 wisdom that therapists get from working through personal suffering differs from any formal training we receive as part of our professional education. Although it’s tempting to try to extract universal lessons from what we’ve been through, the most reliable insights are those about what mattered to us in emerging from our struggles. 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 short cuts 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. I discovered what it means to be “polymorphously pathological, with a touch of just about everything in the DSM,” as one distinguished psychologist with whom I spent a week of training once said of himself.

There are even gifts that have arisen from the most unbearable moments of my breakdown, like the humiliation I felt about letting my wife and children down during my dark night. I’ve always felt humbled by the gap between my ability to listen deeply to clients and my difficulty with offering the same gift to my wife and family consistently. When humbled became humiliated, I began taking a more serious look at the daily practice required to show up in personal relationships with compassion instead of reactive judgment. 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 OK, I’ll take the ‘my friend’ part over being on the pedestal any day.”

I’m more self-disclosing with clients than I was before the storm, more open about both my past suffering and the kind of daily practice required for me to address the difficulties of being human. When clients say, “You have no idea how dark this place I’m in is,” I’m more willing to share that I’ve been through a dark passage myself. The part of my life that once seemed to make me unfit to serve as a therapist now allows me to offer myself to others as something truer to my inner experience of myself—a wounded healer.

I remember reading an article as I prepared for my general exams in graduate school about the three levels of relationship in therapy: the therapeutic alliance, the real relationship, and the unreal relationship (transference and countertransference). Now, more than ever, I return to the mantra I first learned from psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy: “It is the relationship that heals.” The therapeutic alliance is important, and working through the unreal relationship can be interesting, but it’s the real relationship between one vulnerable human and another that’s at the core of healing. Of course, this isn’t a piece of wisdom that I alone came to fathom during my time in the deep: it’s a truth we know from thousands of studies of psychotherapy, but one we can easily forget in our focus on diagnosis, treatment technique, psychopharmacology, and other important aspects of competent care.

I brought back from the dark night an awareness of how hard it is to find a real relationship as a client in therapy. I worked with several therapists during that time, only to discover that none seemed interested or able to go into the deep with me. There was plenty of Rogerian reflection, advice about managing pain, and even attempts to interpret or explore old issues of shame and perfectionism, but no one seemed able to accompany me into the abyss and help me begin telling myself a different story about being there.

The physicians who attempted to address my physical pain seemed to have no clue that pain as real and debilitating as mine could be caused by a psychospiritual crisis. They offered pills and pain-block injections, but had little else to give. Mine wasn’t some bizarre, exceptional case. People are showing up in physicians’ offices all over the world every day with physical complaints caused or exacerbated by stress or traumatic life events. Most physicians haven’t discovered, and can’t offer, a deep appreciation for the healing power of mind-body awareness.

During my crisis, it was as if someone had turned up the mind-body connection to “high.” At its worst, my fearful anticipation of suffering translated into jolts of pain almost instantly. This wasn’t fake, all-in-your-head pain; this was real pain, which showed me how connected the mind and the body become in times of stress. I’d given lip service to the mind-body connection before the storm, but my lived experience taught me the healing power of establishing a language that connects the mind and the body.

A man who came to me after months of vertigo that didn’t abate despite several trials of medicine obtained relief overnight when I simply asked him, “What in your life is making you spin?” Our discussion about his feeling torn between his life in the United States and his children living on another continent led to a call the next day that the vertigo was gone. Another client was deeply distressed by ringing in her ears that had gone on for months. We explored the story that the ringing was calling her to reach for a higher note in her life. I asked her to take some time each day to hum along with the ringing to symbolize her willingness to align with whatever this experience was trying to teach her. After several weeks, the ringing dissipated. Sudden transformations like these certainly aren’t everyday occurrences in my practice, but they do point to the possibilities for remarkable healing that come with a fuller awareness of the totality of a client’s being.

Recovery model research indicates that the top predictor of people’s ability to find their way back from prolonged mental illness to a meaningful life is a relationship with at least one person who’s never lost sight of the human being beneath the illness. Three of the people who did that for me, who helped bring me back from the deep demoralization that comes with breaking down, weren’t therapists: they were people who’d been through their own dark nights and were willing to be in the belly of the whale with me. By their willingness to stay in touch with me several times per week, they communicated that they weren’t afraid of my darkness and didn’t think it was contagious. They didn’t have answers, but their abiding presence and gentle insistence that I’d heal were invaluable.

Looking back on their presence with me during that time calls to mind another ancient myth, the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. My father used to read it to us at bedtime when I was a child, ending with “and that’s the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and To-bed-we-go!” These three unfortunate souls were thrown into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to worship his golden statue. They weren’t consumed by the fire, however, because an angel came and stood beside them and cooled the flames. This captures a crucial ingredient of my slow healing: the willingness of others to stand in the fire with me, even as it seemed that most of the people in my life, including therapists, were letting Garth Brooks’s hit “Standing Outside the Fire” shape their response.

Those who didn’t stand in the fire with me perhaps didn’t know how, or may have been enduring a fire of their own at the time. It’s difficult work to stand in the fire with someone in deep pain, and there’s a huge difference between those standing in the fire and those offering suggestions from the outside. The three could stay present with me in the fire because they’d withstood the flames of their own crises. Their fire-tested resilience kept communicating to me, “You can endure this; it won’t consume you.”

Though I’ve been using client in this article to refer to the people we serve because it’s the commonest term across nonmedical helping disciplines, I now prefer the term patient. Client carries with it a certain bloodless connotation of commercial exchange, while patient literally means “one who suffers.” For me, it’s important to keep bearing in mind that people who seek our help are suffering and need us to accompany them with compassion (a term that means “to suffer with”).

If there was one turning point in my struggles, it was the moment I stopped pressuring myself to return to work as a psychotherapist. It was only when I began to accept my life situation as it was—and no longer flogged myself for what it wasn’t—that I started to heal. Another Campbell insight gleaned from his study of the myths of humankind comes to mind here: “You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.” As long as I was clinging to the shreds of my precrisis life, I couldn’t move toward what was next any more than a caterpillar can fulfill its destiny by refusing to spin a chrysalis. There’s something about healing from deep darkness that feels like death and rebirth—not the quick kind that some claim to receive in a religious conversion, but the kind that asks us to be open to changing our contract with life in the most fundamental ways. No psychoactive drug (and I tried a few) or therapeutic technique can help patients reimagine a dark, tangled mess of their own creation as a place of transformation. I learned, though, that another human being familiar with the transformation process can encourage the letting go that suffering requires of us. More than anything else, it’s this kind of presence that I strive to bring to my patients now.

Using the Authentic Self

Fast-forwarding 12 years after the storm, I’m sitting with a woman with whom I’ve worked for several weeks. Today she’s telling me she wants to find a way off the planet. After assessing for imminent danger, I tell her, “Something needs to die, but I don’t think it’s you.” I pick up a pinecone from a sequoia tree, a souvenir from a camping trip out West. “This is the seedpod for the largest living tree on Earth,” I say, “but it won’t release its seeds until a forest fire comes through the grove and opens it.” We talk about the fire blazing in her life, made all the more painful by how she’s managed to keep it secret even from those who know her best. I tell her about my own storm and how rich life has been since I found a way through it. I’m trying to offer her what others gave me in the darkness—a sense that it doesn’t mean you’re crazy to find yourself there; it can even be thought of as a necessary part of the journey to an authentic life.

“But I feel so worthless!” she says, not cooperating with any ideas I might have of a Joseph Campbell–informed version of brief therapy.

“Imagine holding one of your children as an infant,” I suggest, and her face glimmers a bit with a latent memory of this good part of life. “Can you see that child as unconditionally sacred?” I ask.

“Of course!” she replies.

“The same is true of you and always has been: you were born with it and you’re stuck with it.”

Later, when she tries to tell me that no one would really care if she committed suicide, I say, “I’ve had that happen once in my career, and it devastated me. If you do that, it might knock me out of this kind of work for good. Even if you believe you matter to no one else, you matter to me, and I want you to know I’d be deeply wounded if you carry through with suicide.”

She later told me that this moment in our session was the first time anyone had told her she mattered that much. I’d spoken similar words with suicidal clients before my storm, but I used them as part of suicide assessment and prevention. What felt different in the way I handled this recent session is that I remembered feeling the way my patient did: how suicidal thinking rendered me nearly blind to any intrinsic worth. I knew that a discussion of her worth and developing a “no-harm contract” wouldn’t impact her meaningfully. I needed to communicate as deeply and fully as I could, as one human being to another, and not as a clinician standing outside the fire.

I think my work is better since the storm, but when one of my patients terminates therapy early, it’s clear to me that any boon I brought back from the deep is no guarantee of being able to help everyone. The craft of my life and my work as a therapist remains unfinished. I see far fewer patients than before, respecting the limits of my capacity to offer compassionate presence. Money is a less important part of the equation. I keep the last wallet Dad used on an end table in my office, a reminder that the value of what I’m doing on this planet probably has little to do with how many bills flow through my own wallet.

Am I becoming wiser, better at planning and living a meaningful life? Perhaps, but while wisdom may be my destination, it’s pretty clear I’m taking the slow boat.


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.