Wounded Hearts, Toxic Behavior: Reflections on Health and Healing

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Years ago I read a story in one of the personals columns of a Chicago newspaper about a young woman’s experience at a singles dance. The woman, who described herself as overweight, had gone to the dance with a positive attitude, hoping to meet some new people.

Unfortunately, she was only there a short time when she overheard one man whisper to another, “That fat thing doesn’t belong here.” Later, she approached another man and asked him to dance. He turned her down. As she walked away, he muttered to a friend, “Get a load of what just asked me to dance.”

What was she to make of such hurtful treatment? The columnist expressed sympathy, remarking that the letter writer in her positive efforts had far more going for her than these men with their false sense of superiority. She advised her to rise above the mean-spiritedness of others, and not to give up on her efforts on the dating front.

Memories From the Playground

Stories such as this tend to put me in a pensive mood. There’s a vivid memory I have of the afternoon recess in the first grade in Los Angeles when I came upon a small circle of classmates teasing a new boy to our school. The boy had only one arm and wore a prosthesis and a few older children were mocking him with taunts of “Captain Hook, Captain Hook.” I remember the look of distress on the boy’s face, the emotions welling up. I stood staring at this scene for a moment, frozen, before bolting off to the other side of the playground where two teachers stood talking. As tears ran down my cheeks, I frantically begged the teachers to help our classmate.

In my child’s mind, the teachers did not seem to share my distress. I expected a dramatic rescue, but instead got what appeared to be only muted concern. One of the teachers told me not to worry and then they resumed their conversation. An eternity seemed to pass before one of them finally walked over to this boy, who by now was sitting by himself on a ledge at the far end of the playground. His tormentors had scattered and the teacher quickly surmised that the boy was all right. The memory ends with myself sitting on the ledge with the boy, offering him one of the two cookies I had stuffed in my coat pocket.

The memory of this incident has always been with me, clear, sharply drawn, and unsatisfying. But it is unsatisfying not only because of its inherent cruelty or my perceived sense of the teachers’ indifference. I also remember my own fear to intervene directly on the boy’s behalf. I suspect metaphorically I’ve been trying to save that boy ever since, identifying as I always have with those who are somehow “different” or outside society’s mainstream, living on the margins of our world without voice or justice.

Of course, children are by nature immature, but I don’t believe they are inherently unkind. To the extent they act in cruel or insensitive ways, they are often carriers for the shadowy, toxic dramas of the unconscious that play out routinely in the lives of the influential adults in their world. As Carl Jung once observed, all neurosis is a form of “legitimate suffering,” meaning a psychological strategy to avoid the pain of early, unresolved trauma. It’s simple, really: when our needs growing up are neglected, our humanity—our human potential—is diminished in some way. Has anyone noticed how much violence, neglect, and animosity dominates the world’s stage? Where do you think it begins?

In his book, Why Normal Isn’t Healthy, Bowen White, MD, describes what he calls the “psychology of scarcity” in contemporary culture. This is the psychology that teaches children early on the elusive nature of love, that there is only so much to go around and that being its beneficiary depends on what you do, not who you are. It’s a message taught to children in a thousand do’s and don’ts about what it means to be “good,” and in punishing consequences of misbehavior that include being shamed, belittled, hit, and neglected.
As a medical doctor, White is a kind of Patch Adams of the plains (Kansas City, Missouri, to be exact, and a collaborator of the progressive physician Adams), a witty agent provocateur for healthful misbehavior as I described in an earlier review for Conscious Choice magazine. To the casual observer, he touches on everything from platelet coupling and codependency to high blood pressure, evolutionary theory, and the poetry of Rumi and Emerson. Yet the viewpoint is all of a whole, offering an integrated perspective on health and healing, and especially the critical importance of breaking through limits of negative mental conditioning.

Transcending Limits of a Diagnosis

Healing from early psychological damage is a complicated, often difficult challenge. In its subtler contours restrictive psychological patterns established as defense mechanisms early in life can lead to emotional blindness, with stultifying consequences in a person’s life. But sometimes an acute life crisis, such as diagnosis of serious illness, can throw open a door to a new way of living. In his book White shares an interesting story about a woman named Evy McDonald, an intensive care nurse who as a young adult ended up in intensive care herself.

In 1980, following months of troubling but unexplainable symptoms, McDonald was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). With the diagnosis came not only an explanation, but a death sentence. McDonald was told she had only months to live.

Shaken, this dedicated young nurse found herself plunged into a soul-searching maelstrom, her thoughts roaming over a lifetime of experiences. As a child battling polio, she had once been told by her third-grade teacher to forget about studying much since she was only destined for the special school for the disabled anyway. She had rebelled against that teacher, winning the spelling bee and the oratory contest and becoming the very best student in her class. She went on to become high school valedictorian, eventually earning a master’s degree in nursing and embarking on a successful career.

With death lurking nearby, McDonald reflected on how deeply she had defined her life through service to others. But this was actually not a comforting thought. So much of her service had been driven by desires for reward or recognition, or out of a sense of obligation or duty. Accordingly, this nurse who had given so much of herself had also suffered from a history of depression. Once in high school, she even drove her car off the road, hoping to hit a tree and die. McDonald had proved uncharacteristically incompetent at killing herself, missing the tree. Wanting to die, she instead had lived.

New York Yankees star Lou Gehrig, who died in 1941 of ALS at the age of 37.

Now, confined to a wheelchair, dying, she would choose to live.

If nothing else, she determined, her last months would be lived on her own terms. Forget reward or recognition or sense of duty. Yes, she would continue to serve others—but only from a place of first loving and accepting herself. Yet this was a problematic undertaking. McDonald did not know how to accept herself as she was, how to truly love herself, in all the raw, resplendent, and wounded beauty her soul was capable of wrenching into expression.

In her essay, “Another Perspective of ALS,” McDonald describes how at initial news of the diagnosis she had been consumed with anger, confusion, and despair. Yet on the surface she remained the epitome of self-control. “I was so entrenched in my professionalism that there was only one way I could be with my illness—professionally, with detachment,” she writes. “I simply observed how much of my bodily function I was losing day by day while showing little emotion. As a professional I had counseled patients and families and had spoken about ‘holistic’ principles of illness—principles such as illness being a metaphor for how you feel about yourself, a way out of an unpleasant or intolerable situation, a means of exacting revenge, or an acceptable form of suicide—and yet I had difficulty seeing how any of this applied to me and my life.”

Facing a terminal diagnosis, every fiber of her being now told her this was a moment for radical honesty. The polio had left her with some physical deformity in her limbs. Thinking about it, she acknowledged she had always hated her body. “I chose to learn to love my body (which, thanks to the ALS, was now like a bowl of jello in a wheelchair!),” she writes. “Every day I would focus on some part of my body, praise it and love it. I also began to look at myself in a mirror and speak words of love and affection to my reflection. This was not an easy task.”

Such exercises at first felt contrived and false, but McDonald persisted. As she has written elsewhere she would at times even sit naked before the mirror as she confronted her negative thoughts. Along the way she also gave up the need for recognition for the service work she did. She worked at letting go of various resentments she held, too, some going back years including even her third-grade teacher. Most important, she began to express and share her emotions.

Basically, McDonald just wanted to have some happiness in her final months. Striving as she did, gradually her way of thinking began to change. As time went on her health not only did not deteriorate further, but to everyone’s surprise actually began to improve. Remarkably, it kept improving until she was no longer ill. Now, more than 30 years later, McDonald is still alive.

Where Will Healing Lead? 

Of course, it is possible Evy McDonald was misdiagnosed with ALS, as some have suggested, and was suffering from post-polio syndrome. McDonald doesn’t think so. Her initial diagnosis had been unequivocal, she says. But perhaps it doesn’t really matter. 

At some energetic level, McDonald’s inner psychological awakening found expression in a transformed physiology and renewed health. Tellingly, she wasn’t trying to fight her illness as much as make peace with it. But this was not the peace of the passive or defeated. McDonald didn’t reject medical treatment, only those parts of herself she felt had always held her back or made her unhappy. It was only then, paradoxically, that her life and health begin to shift and improve.

Her story of personal change under adversity would be important even if the disease had eventually won out. After all, healing can include a spiritual and psychological dimension that encompasses more than curing a specific disease. In a way, McDonald engaged in a radical reorientation of her core psychology, rooting out hurtful, long-standing thoughts and feelings that impeded her well-being. This for most people is not an easy task under any circumstances.

Yet, as other writers in psychology such as Alice Miller and Arthur Janov have noted, vitality is within the grasp of any one of us when we confront deep-seated emotional wounds. Such radical thinkers also educate us about the many ways the modern culture of families can hurt children. Certainly spanking or hitting children is an obvious form of abuse. When children are treated not with respect and recognition, but as objects to correct and control, they also suffer emotionally. These emotional consequences can impact our physical health, at times even decades later.

Thinking back to those men at the dance, I suspect underlying their smug, hurtful behavior were not only unfeeling hearts, but wounded hearts. Lack of empathy is a toxic weed that has to be watered somewhere. Could it be otherwise? A child who grows up in an essentially loving environment, who feels safe, acknowledged, and encouraged, is one who will likely mature into an adult whose presence and energy in life engenders respect, empathy, and love for others. Not only for others, but for themselves. It doesn’t mean that the person will be perfect. But it does mean he or she will be able to approach life’s challenges in a more constructive and emotionally honest way.

All in all, it would be hard to ask for more than that.

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