Why Patients Deserve Special Respect

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The stigma of mental illness lingers despite the carloads of Xanax-filled vials in the pockets and purses of America. The notion of life as an easily mastered enterprise persists. When the going gets tough, the tough get going — so we are told. Those who cannot, by force of will, get through difficult events unaided are thought to lack the right stuff.

I disagree. There is a quiet heroism in admitting you need help. Opening yourself to a stranger requires courage.  Awareness of your limitations is humbling. If all this were easy, therapists would observe lines leading to our turnstiled offices. Traffic pile-ups would slow the route.

Don’t get the wrong idea. The people who seek treatment are indistinguishable from everyone else. They range from rich, famous, and gorgeous to a more unremarkable lot. They are your neighbor and your friend. They might have been you and they may yet be you.

The best of them are willing to do anything to change their lives. They risk, cry, and expose their naked psyche. They meditate, think, try new behaviors and revisit old ones. They confront themselves in the darkness.

They look in the mirror for reasons beyond hair arrangement and shaving.

You may say you’ve been through worse than they and came out better, all without the crutch of psychotherapy or medication. Can you be certain? There is no calculus to compute your pain and measure your suffering against others. When you invent one call me, for then you can say you did it all alone, by the superior force of your will against the greatest odds.

Those faced with severe anxiety or mood disorders know things too terrible for words: endless sleep disturbance, perpetual unease, and (in the case of depression) minute-by-minute misery fraying the cord binding them to life.

You would not want to feel as they do if you could, and if you could the experience would not be as you imagined. You’d live inside of a monster who lives inside of you, consuming joy until your former self is gnawed away. Living the experience would lead you to repent any prior judgment, but shame might mute your apology. When patients choose to live and fight in spite of their calamity, the rest of us can only bow before them. To heap scorn on those souls who display courage even they themselves doubted adds to their misery. The crowd owes them encouragement instead. We diminish ourselves by withholding it.

Judgement, however, is hard to escape. A young married man who was a therapy-virgin told me he thought unfaithful males are weak in their lack of resistance to temptation. Yet he had never been severely tempted by a woman to whom he was drawn since his wedding; never had to turn from the scent, sensuality, and softness of another with seduction in her eyes. His thoughts on the subject were largely abstract and observational. What value might one give his opinion? No more, I suspect, than the rest of us when we say, “I would have done that” or “He shouldn’t do this” as we witness the battlefield of life from a safe distance, like the chest-beating bravado of old men who send young men and women to war.

The same gentleman, by the way, was a brilliant extemporaneous public speaker, but struggled to make a phone call. We are frail creatures, no? A lack of experience in counseling, like other opportunities one hasn’t had, puts negative judgment on a slippery slope to irrelevance.

Among those who think therapy deserves its stigma are at least a few who choose another way of living, less heroic than they think. There you will note plenty of avoidance, alcohol use, nightly marijuana trances. Some of their marriages are endured rather than enjoyed. You will discover those with few friends and jobs they wish were better. Anger and depression reside among them disguised. In other words, their lives are not so different than those of the pilgrims to the counselor’s office, except …

People who search for a therapeutic remedy face the imperfection not only in themselves, but in life. They tend not to live with the illusion that faith, by itself, will transform this mortal coil and their place in it, even if they await a more distant reward.

Perhaps most admirable of all, the most dedicated clients wish to learn: to do new things, explore the psyche, reexamine their past, and travel to the unnamed, undiscovered country. They are discontented with their present life and the majority wish to move beyond blame — though blame they may — and take responsibility for change.

Winston Churchill said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Maybe therapy is like that: the worst remedy for unhappiness, except for doing nothing; a painful attempt to face the truth and reorder your existence, modify relationships, and pour yourself into a vessel on which you’ve written: “This has value. This is worth my best effort.”

If you find a better way, let me know. Until that time, hats off to those who take Socrates to heart: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The top photo is called A Life of Theater Photo: Sadness –Final Chapter. It is the work of Gabriel S. Delgado C. and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

21 thoughts on “Why Patients Deserve Special Respect

  1. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I’m not so sure the “examined life” is any more worth living than the “unexamined” one.

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    • Much depends on the nature of the examination and what you do with it. I don’t mean to suggest that, for example, obsessional and repetitively reexamined thoughts will be at all helpful. The material that is examined must be processed so the emotions are transformed and one, in effect, experiments with how to live by taking new actions. The examination is usually only the starting point, to which one returns when the needed emotional and behavioral changes are hard to achieve. Socrates, in the dialogues he had that Plato reported, hoped to get people to think differently and live differently. Thanks for your comment.

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  2. Hi Gerald, this is an encouraging post as mental health stigma is as strong as ever. Once you have a label on you it seems to the become the full excuse as to why you are reacting to certain situations and an excuse not to listen and have your feelings taken into account. Its also a very easy reason why others refuse to see their own contribution to a situation and blame the ‘patient with the illness’. Unfortunately this can come from the very services that are supposed to help you with mental health issues, when that happens its very damaging.

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    • Thanks, Claire. Agreed, absolutely. It is their problem, but they too often treat the identified patient as contaminating and the cause of their own concerns.

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  3. Reblogged this on Understanding Me and Her and commented:
    Love this. Positive and insightful for those of us dragging ourselves to therapy each week, only for it to hurt like hell… and then we go again next week. Brilliant read. Very reassuring. x

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Completely agree with Understanding me and Her – absolutely loved it too and I thought the point about understanding life’s imperfections as well as our own, is so vital….so validating, thank you, and a perfect description of depression…

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  5. I’m sure this post will help a lot of people enormously: Certainly, it has me. Thank you!!!

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  6. You are welcome, Andrea. I’m happy that it’s been helpful. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. For sure the stigma surrounding mental illness is alive and well such that the walking wounded don’t get the help they need. It’s sad, for men and people of color especially, who suffer in kind but don’t have the social permission to acknowledge their emotions and seek support that can ultimately improve well being and quality of life. For me personally I’m lately finding the scrutiny to be totally exhausting, so thanks for the pat on the back, though I think I’m still going to keep nice wide spaces in between appointments 😉

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  8. You are welcome. At least you are open to those appointments, however widely spaced.

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  9. Dr. Stein, your article is a passionate call to accepting the frailty of our human condition. Such an admission takes courage. I agree: those who seek and find help in psychotherapy should not be stigmatized.

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  10. Reblogged this on Life in a Bind – BPD and me and commented:
    I love this article because it is immensely validating of those who decide to take the difficult – and often tortuous – path of therapy. I have a friend who used to complain that people often thought of therapy as ‘tea and sympathy’ – this couldn’t be further from the truth, and Dr Stein’s post makes that plain.
    I have another friend who is keen to point out that there is no such thing as ‘the hardship Olympics’ – and that though it may be the case that there is always someone else ‘worse off’ than you, that in no no way diminishes your own pain and your own experiences, and just because someone else may have ‘got through’ without therapy, does not mean that it is ‘weak’ to seek help. Dr Stein’s post also highlights this aspect of therapy.
    Personally, I would love to ‘proclaim the benefits of therapy from the rooftops’ -I genuinely believe that at one point or another in our lives, almost everyone could benefit from taking a closer look at themselves, and the ways in which they interact with the world. However, as Dr Stein points out, going to therapy carries with it its own stigma, and it is hard to ‘own up to’.
    For me, one of the key points of this post is that in therapy we learn to deal not just with our own imperfections, but with those of ‘life’ in general. We learn to accept not just ourselves, but others; to start to relinquish the need for control over every aspect of our lives and the actions of others; and we learn to spot our unconscious expectations of ourselves, of others ‘should’ be treating us, and of what we have a ‘right to expect’ from our lives.
    These are hard lessons – therapy is hard. It is exhausting, breathtaking and yes, I think patients (and therapists!) are to be respected for doing the messy, painful but ultimately rewarding work of helping to create a freer and more fulfilling way of living. Therapy is worth it – and I think that this wonderful post helps to show why.

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  11. Beautiful post, and as always, well written. Thank you. 🙂

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  12. […] Source: Why Patients Deserve Special Respect […]

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