This is a 1600 word article submitted to The Bellevue Literary Review. A bit long for a “blog” post; but definitely about one of the most important means of “Healing,” on all levels.
Christopher Knippers, Ph.D.
Healing of the body and the mind can come in diverse, and sometimes mysterious ways. It is often a factor that you would not expect that brings a healing process to life. I experienced this as a young Clinical Psychology intern who had just learned all of the quantifiable methods of helping to bring about healing in a wounded patient. But there was a process of healing that I had not learned in my very rigorous training. I learned it when a man entered my office presenting the most challenging case I had heard since my internship in a high security prison.
He was a handsome 40 year old man who had been a successful executive in one of Southern California’s most respected and important corporations. He had the upper-middle-class ideal of life: A job he loved; a beautiful intelligent wife; a healthy happy 2-year-old daughter; and a custom home on the west side of Los Angeles. Yet he slowly walked into my office looking somewhat disheveled, slightly stooped over, and his eyes looking at the floor as he introduced himself. He was hardly the man that the person who referred him had described to me.
Sean confirmed the facts of his background to me and then began unemotionally relating the reason for his current state of crippling depression, overwhelming sense of loss, unemployment, and being on the brink of bankruptcy. He spoke softly in a monotone, like someone who was barely conscious.
Seven months earlier, Sean, his wife and 2 year-old daughter were returning from their favorite restaurant where Sean and his wife each had a single glass of wine with dinner. He felt perfectly good when he got behind the wheel of their Mercedes and headed home on the 405 freeway. Suddenly, the next thing he knew a car swerved into the passenger side of his car where his wife was sitting with their 2-year-old daughter strapped into the child safety seat directly behind. Sean was unharmed but he heard absolutely no sound coming from his profusely bleeding wife and his badly mangled little girl.
Sean spent the next 2 months in complete shock and was unable to leave his house. People from his church brought him food, sat with him, gave him advice on how to move on with his life, urged him to get out of the house; but Sean could not move from his emotional dungeon. After 2 months of self-imposed incarceration in his own home, he occasionally accepted invitations to meals at friends’ houses; but these outings only exacerbated his depression.
Though very understanding and supportive, his company had no choice but to replace him after six months of absence from his highly responsible position in the company. Sean was not suicidal, but he was unable to function in any meaningful way due to the ongoing state of severe depression which had not only left him emotionally unable to function, but he was now physically unable to sustain activity of any kind before experiencing complete exhaustion. Sean spent his days closed in his house with the drapes drawn, leaving only every couple of days to get food.
Eventually, his home foreclosed, and he moved to low-income housing in a high-crime neighborhood of Los Angeles. He barely noticed the change. His surroundings actually were a better match for his feelings about himself and his life. Appropriate punishment for the death of his wife and daughter.
Sean had been blaming himself all along for their deaths, even though the police officers had immediately determined that the accident was 100% the fault of the other driver whose blood alcohol level was beyond the legal limit. “I’m sure that I could have done something to prevent the accident if only I had been more alert! If only I had not had that one glass of wine!”
I desperately wanted to hug him and assure him that he was not responsible for the accident or the deaths of his beloved wife and daughter. I wanted to convince him that he would be able to get beyond this tragedy and live a life that would honor the memory of his wife and child. But, I too felt frozen. Frozen in despair, a devastating inconsolable sense of loss, overwhelming guilt and shame. After almost an hour of listening intently to his gut-wrenching story my mind struggled for just the right words to give him an educated healing response. I desperately wanted to be objective, but it was too late. The analytical function of my brain was drowned out by my emotions. My mind was blank, but my emotions were raw and overflowing. I had become completely caught up in my patient’s experience. Not just empathizing with him or feeling sympathy for him; but experiencing the experience of loss and trauma with him simultaneously.
Tears streamed down my face; and while chocking back sobs, I said, “I am so sorry. There is nothing I can say.” For the first time Sean looked me in the eyes. With some strength and feeling in his voice, he said, “That’s okay. I’ll see you in 2 weeks.” With that, he left my office and drove away.
I felt embarrassed, and deeply disappointed in myself. Here I was supposed to be the objective professional providing comfort and actual solutions for an emotionally broken grieving man, but instead I had broken down emotionally myself. I was sure he had said he would be back in two weeks instead of the more typical one week, because he did not plan on coming back at all. I kept his time-slot open in the unlikely event that he would return.
Two weeks later just before 8:00 P.M., in walked a truly handsome, well-dressed and groomed 40 year-old man with a strong gate looking me in the eye and confidently saying, “Thank you for what you did for me 2 weeks ago. My life changed immediately after our session. I went hime, cried uncontrollably for the first time since the accident, slept through the night for the first time in 7 months, got up, called a recruiter, and was hired for a great executive position the next week. I’m still sad, but I let go of the guilt, and I am capable of thinking more clearly now. I have more energy every day.”
“Sean, what was it about our last session that made such a difference for you?” I was truly puzzled.
“For the first time since the accident someone actually listened and felt what I was feeling. Not giving me advice, or telling me that everything was going to be alright. That it was not my fault. That God had a plan. That my wife and daughter were in a better place. You did none of that. You did not tell me how I should be thinking or feeling. You felt what I had been unable to feel for 7 months. Your genuine emotion and tears freed me from my paralysis. I’m a new man, thanks to you.”
I was as dumbfounded at hearing this as I was at experiencing his devastation 2 weeks earlier. I was in awe of what had happened to him, as well as what had happened to me in that whole experience.
It took weeks of reflection on that experience to begin to understand the dynamics of how that became such an unexpected healing event. With the help of a colleague, Dr. William Heard author of The Healing Between (Jossey Bass, 1993), I learned what had happened: A broken man came to me sharing his deepest experience while being completely open, authentic, and vulnerable; and I responded with my full and complete focus on him while also being fully present cognitively and emotionally. I was also being open, authentic, and vulnerable in my receiving of his communication. Healing occurred between his open sharing and my open listening.
I never again actually cried openly during a therapy session, but I did always allow myself to have a truly authentic response to people who were being truly authentic with me. I allow myself to express my true emotion both verbally and nonverbally in response to what i am hearing and perceiving from a patient. My practice of psychotherapy changed and has been much more fulfilling, effective, and often amazing.
Transpersonal Psychology studies this phenomenon taking into account processes that are experienced in psychotherapy which go beyond the five senses, and include the dynamic forces that take place when humans make an emotional and cognitive connection with each other simultaneously. This type of deep connection allows people to enter into each other’s experiences on a deep emotional as well as cognitive level rather than simply understand each other’s experiences on a cognitive level. Many people believe that there is actually a connection on a spiritual level in these deep human interactions. Other scientists believe that it is a neurological phenomenon in which a yet-unidentified set of neurons in the brain signal neural receptors in the other person’s brain as two people interact with each other and feel a deep connection with each other.
In whatever way you want to conceptualize it, I learned that there is a healing phenomenon that takes place when a person goes beyond an initial cognitive understanding of another person and listens deeply with feeling, rather than with a mere intellectual understanding. A healing takes place between the intellectual and the emotional, and perhaps the spiritual as well, which might not be quantified but is nevertheless real. It is listening with your entire being that can set in motion a healing process in both the giver and receiver of communication. When one person openly authentically shares their true self, and another person receives their sharing openly and authentically, then healing occurs between them.
May you have healing relationships. Christopher Knippers July 13, 2019