Creating Health: Interview with Christiane Northrup, M.D.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: One benefit of this website is that it allows for some more interesting older essays, interviews, and other projects I have worked on to be occasionally resurrected for a current audience. This interview with best-selling author Christiane Northrup, M.D., is from Chicago’s Conscious Choice magazine (September 1998). Here she explores some of her ideas about the intersection between mainstream medicine, “mind-body medicine,” and the role of psychological healing in human health. 

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a pioneer in the field of women’s health. She is the author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, which since its original publication by Bantam Press in 1994 has become a national best-seller. Dr. Northrup’s years of clinical and medical teaching experience find expression in a uniquely integrated approach to health care. Her work combines the best of conventional and complementary, or alternative, medicine. It is rooted in a model for care that emphasizes creating health versus attacking disease. As she says, “I have come to see that medical science, when combined with the wisdom of our hearts and our minds, is powerful medicine indeed.”northrup book

Dr. Northrup, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, is also a past president of the American Holistic Medical Association, and the founder of Women to Women, a women’s health center in Yarmouth, Maine.

Mark Harris: In Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, you speak very honestly about your own evolution both as a physician and as an individual. Describing your personal growth over the years, one of the things you say is that “women’s health will never change substantially unless large groups of women begin to reclaim the wisdom of their bodies collectively. For me to do this meant letting go of being ‘the doctor’ to the hundreds of women I’d enjoyed working with so much over the years.” What did you mean by that?

Christiane Northrup: I was really speaking of the traditional doctor-as-god role, which in a way is so much easier. To say, “Okay, this is what you should do. You don’t know anything, I know everything.” Ultimately, the end result of that approach bypasses the rich wisdom available to us from any symptom or illness. We can learn from illness just as we learn in day-to-day living in our bodies, or in a woman’s connection with her menstrual cycle or her sexuality.

We are so ready in this culture to pathologize everything having to do with our bodies. It’s always the worst case scenario. We’re taught to think in terms of problems. That’s why health care isn’t health care, it’s disease care, period.

Harris: Holistic health care is often defined in terms of “mind-body” medicine. Yet the term itself may be inadequate. According to Candace Pert, the former chief brain biochemist with the National Institute of Mental Health, “Consciousness isn’t just in the head. Nor is it a question of mind over body. If one takes into account the DNA directing the dance of the peptides, [the] body is the outward manifestation of the mind.” In other words, the entire body is alive with intelligence and memory, with our personal story. So it’s kind of a misnomer to talk about “mind-body” medicine, isn’t it?

Dr. Northrup: It’s a misnomer because it makes you think that the mind and body are two different things. But I also believe this. If e=mc2 — the Einstein equation — is right, and we know it is, then the flesh is a somewhat slower vibration. It is related to thought, but to relatively old thoughts, in the same way that when you see a flash of lightning you will see it a lot sooner than you will hear the thunder. So the thought is the lightning and the body is the thunder.

Harris: You’ve said that health promotion and education won’t do a thing to reduce health care expenses until we as a society acknowledge the enormity of our own addictive behaviors and the personal pain behind them. Your overweight patients, as you’ve observed, almost invariably already know a lot about the right nutrition, the right foods to eat. What they really need is to first feel the pain that the symptom of overeating is chronically pushing down. That begins with asserting control of their own health, giving voice to that cellular story, so to speak, and allowing their inner trust and guidance to prevail. In other words, healing begins with “naming your experience.”

Dr. Northrup: Yes. One of my physician friends runs a group for morbidly obese people at a Kaiser Permanente medical center. She herself was very obese as a teenager, and it wasn’t until she left home that she lost the weight. Her mother was schizophrenic and she needed food to tap down her feelings in childhood.

Well, when she was in medical school, her fear of becoming like her mother rose to the surface. She recounted for me the day she sat in her therapist’s office and realized how truly terrified she was of that possibility. She understood at a deeper level than ever before why she had used food as she did. She now believes that almost everyone she’s worked with who has suffered from weight problems as bad as hers has known that degree of terror. I’m talking about a terror you wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Also, we need to remember that the food we currently eat is absolutely tailor-made to be addictive. Devitalized food makes you want to overeat it. That’s why we have 40 percent of the population overweight by the newest standards of body mass index.

Harris: It would seem that “naming your experience” can be especially challenging when you’re dealing with long-repressed, early emotional trauma. There’s a story in psychologist Arthur Janov’s latest book, Why You Get Sick, How You Get Well, about a patient who had trouble relating to people, couldn’t look people in the eye, always describing what he saw as “angry eyes” everywhere. In the course of therapy, deep regression or primal therapy, this individual was able to get into his repressed memory of actually being an infant. There he encountered himself lying in the crib, crying for his mother, but instead of the mother answering his cries he found only a scolding father, angry at being interrupted. This early experience, which was really about his basic needs not being met, became imprinted in his system at some deep unconscious level.

Consequently, the emotions associated with that imprint continued to interfere with this person’s life, until the therapeutic confrontation brought it to the surface and he was able to re-experience long-buried, nonverbal feelings. But he did so as an adult — with adult skills — and in a personally empowering and therapeutic context. The energy of that imprint was thus discharged, perhaps for good.

Alt.-therapies1Dr. Northrup: Right. Actually, I have found that you usually don’t have to go looking for that kind of thing. Because as you take steps forward in your life to change in a positive way, then the past is what will come up and hit you in the face. In fact, you always know when you’re growing and expanding because often that is when all hell breaks loose.

I did enough work with Anne Wilson Schaef, who wrote When Society Becomes an Addict, back in the ’80s and early ’90s to see the miracle of that, to see how the body knew how to heal the old stuff, how it knew how to bring up the memory and process it. That is all we would do for ten days, just re-experience these traumas from the past. Of course, I also saw that some people would actually become addicted to the process of triggering those memories. It could get to the point where I didn’t always know what was really from a person’s past.

So, sometimes you do have to ask, what’s really going on? The way you answer that is simple. You look at someone’s life. How is it going? If they’ve done this deep kind of regression therapy, like Janov talks about, and their life is good, then terrific. But if they keep going over and over the past, you know they’re dangerously close to being addicted to that process. 

Harris: Perhaps Janov makes a similar point when he says that the goal is not to make therapy a religion….

Dr. Northrup: Well, let me be clear. There is a therapeutic window where you need to sit around and explore what happened to you. No question. This may last a year or two. Some of the people I’ve seen with the worst abuse histories, I mean the ones where you don’t even want to talk about it, have actually done best with a type of therapy called Dialectic Behavioral Therapy, which focuses on teaching certain life skills, how to skillfully live your life.

Basically, I have come to have tremendous respect for people’s ability to heal. If they want to heal, they’re going to create a space to go all the way into one of those primal processes and all the way out because the body knows exactly how to do it. If you have just one friend or one person who can sit there with you to do it, you can do it. You can do it on your own. I mean, the body just does it. It’s so great.

Harris: You have described how many of your patients “systematically stuff” or deny their needs for self-expression, for self-actualization, and the enormous emotional pain this causes. As you write, “Being abused or abusing ourselves, we become ill.” Then seeking treatment, women often find themselves treated by a patriarchal medical system that further denigrates who they are as women.

Dr. Northrup: Especially when you’re dealing with conditions where the actual vibration of the disease is a conflict between a woman’s innermost needs and what she believes the world is asking of her. If you look at endomitriosis, for example, Caroline Myss has called it the disease of competition. But it is not about external competition. It is a perception within yourself that you cannot get your innermost, deepest needs met because your life is set up in competition with those needs.

This is where you’ll hear the argument, “Oh, so you’re blaming women for having caused that disease.” No. You are not to blame for the pattern that first resulted in the disease. But, you are responsible for keeping that pattern going in your daily life. Because if consciousness creates the body, when you change consciousness, you change the body. And you are responsible for changing your consciousness.

If there is one thing I’d love to get across to the world, it is that when you take 100 percent responsibility for your life, the whole terrain changes. If you take responsibility for being at cause in some way that perhaps you’re not even aware of yet, then the solution can come to you. But as long as you’ve got it that they’re doing it to you, no real solution will ever come, except for the knight on the white horse, something or someone outside of yourself. That’s a paradigm we would do well to allow to leave. 

Harris: It does seem that in the face of illness there’s a tendency for people to turn the idea of “belief becomes biology” into another form of self-victimization. As in the person who says, “I did everything right, how could I have become ill?” Or, “I have laryngitis and that must mean I’m holding this particular pattern of negative thought.” Getting well comes to mean always doing the right mental affirmations, always being the “model” patient. Then if things still aren’t working, if they’re not getting better, they will blame themselves even more.

Dr. Northrup: That’s right. Let me tell you where people need to go whenever they feel to blame. They need to actually create a neurologic pathway in their brain that goes right to their heart, so they can shift from blame to compassion. When I was diagnosed with my breast abscess, I didn’t feel compassion for myself until two and a half years later, when I had my second child and couldn’t get any milk out of the right side.

By then I had learned to avoid the self-blame. I could have said, “Look, I caused this to happen,” because in a very real way I did. I didn’t take care of myself. I knew better. Instead, the place I went to was, “How could I have known any different? I had no female role models. I had no colleagues who were supporting me. I just didn’t know any better, and I did the best I could.”

In almost every case, at least the first time around with a situation, we all do the absolute best we can do. We need to have compassion in that moment. But then we need to say, “Okay, I did the best I could do, and now I am in the present. To change this pattern so that I don’t re-injure myself or get sick again, there is a response I can now make to change things.”

When Bernie Siegel’s book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, first came out, he was lambasted for blaming people for their illness. There isn’t one bit of blame in the entire book, but that’s what some people heard. They heard it in the same way that the guy in Janov’s book kept seeing angry eyes, because at some level they really felt like they weren’t good enough, they’re bad somehow. That’s the pattern in their life they need to recover from. 

Harris: Women to Women, the center you co-founded in Yarmouth, Maine, was designed to offer an alternative to the conventional ways of treating women’s health problems. Your mission, as you describe, was to do more than just treat symptoms but to help women change the basic conditions of their lives that have led to their health problems. It’s not enough, you say, to “privatize” and isolate each woman’s situation, but to teach women that their physical, psychological and spiritual wounds are part of a larger cultural wound.

I think you could carry that argument further. The clinical model that you critique is one based on patriarchal authority and attacking disease. But it is also part of a larger economic model in which health care has become a commodity, with “hot” markets and managed care and investors reaping huge profits. Meanwhile, over 40 million people are without health insurance, a large number of whom are women and children. It would seem it’s all cut from the same tattered cloth.

Dr. Northrup: Yes, it’s completely part of a belief system. Yet if you shift into a creating health model, you realize that you can’t actually buy health in the health care system. Health is something your body already knows how to do. What I’m trying to teach is how to go way upstream and learn the skills of staying healthy, long before you become sick. But I do agree with you. There’s something inherently off about making disease care a for-profit business. It just feels off. As one of my emergency room doctor friends says, “Gee, when you’re paid not to give care, guess what happens? Nobody gets cared for.” 

Harris: Is there anything you’d like to leave our readers with in terms of your message as a physician and healer?

Dr. Northrup: My basic message is that we have more power to create health in our lives by virtue of our choices and thoughts than we have ever been taught possible. If you begin to use this power now, then track yourself and in a year from now look back at the things you’ve been suffering from, you’ll see that they are likely to improve or go away.

Personally, I think we’ve had enough time in the women’s movement exploring what is wrong. Saying that, let me be totally honest. We needed to do that. I needed to do that. I mean, I do know about women being abused, that’s basic gynecology. What I’m interested in now is how we can change the patterns within us that leave us in a kind of deadly Bermuda Triangle of limitation, always being the victim, persecutor, or rescuer.

I also believe that as the light gets lighter, the dark gets darker. Right now, I do not see a large group of people standing still. I see a large group of people doing better than they’ve ever done before. And, I see a large group of people doing worse than they’ve ever done before. There’s a sense of time speeding up, and it’s as if we need to choose: Are we going to go deeper into victimization, or are we going to grab the reins of power in our lives?

The choice is ours, if we can just have the courage — and the humor, actually — to change those patterns within us, step out of that Bermuda Triangle and into a place where each of us can tap our potential to be healthy in the broadest sense of the word.

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