I read the following post on SassonMag.com, by writer Varda Branfman, and it blew me away. I asked her permission to re-post it here on Spiritual Self-Help, and she kindly agreed. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Everyone called him “The Biggest Gastroenterologist in Colorado.” I come to him on a referral because I am suffering from intestinal pain, chronic digestive problems, and a persistent low fever.
After looking at my X-ray, Biggest Gastro feels I need to undergo a series of tests to figure out exactly what I have going on in there. He says it is urgent and I must check into the hospital immediately, even though it is the eve of Rosh Hoshanah. My baby is 11 months old and still nursing. She will have to go cold turkey and get weaned overnight onto a bottle.
It all happens so fast as we stand together in front of an x-ray of my colon. Squarely facing us is the problem and the doctor’s firm conviction that something must be done immediately to fight it. He knows exactly how to confront it, and suddenly, we, the very object of his emotional conviction, know absolutely nothing.
He is willing to save me, but it is clear that I must put myself entirely in his hands.Later, I learn that such confidence as he displays is a sure sign that I am straying in the wrong direction.
But his confidence is mesmerizing, and we’ve been numbed out by a feeling of helplessness that something bigger than ourselves is now in progress.
We live several miles from the hospital, and my husband explains to me that he will not be able to walk over to see me for the next three days, two days of Rosh Hashanah and then Shabbos. There is hardly time to say goodbye. We are both in shock. The doctor has intimated that I may be seriously ill. Rosh Hashanah begins in about two hours.
There’s no one to watch our baby if my husband stays with me. The doctor’s words have suddenly plunged us into a drama of life and death, and no one to say, “Wait, don’t put your life in the hands of Biggest Gastro. Don’t leave yourself here. Go find your healing.”
We’ve been led to believe that there is simply no alternative. There are tears in the corners of my eyes. I try to be strong for my husband. And then I find myself alone, dressed in the hospital white gown.
From my symptoms and their examination of my colon, they seem to think that I have one of those big diseases. They are determined to get to the bottom of it and have reeled off the names of a series of tests that will cover all the bases.
I am my body
My body is not working properly, and like any car engine that is making funny noises, we have taken it into the shop. The only difference is: I am my body. I can’t leave it off for a few days, and then come back and get it.
What is done to it, is done to me. Perhaps I have an unusually strong identification with my body. I haven’t quite been able to separate from it.
When it stretches, I stretch. When it feels a wave of well-being, so do I.
On my first visit from the nurse, she announces that I will be eating nothing but cubes of instant broth for at least two days. I look at the ingredients on the silver wrapping. There are written a series of chemicals designed to taste like chicken soup. Sometimes they gave me a bogus vegetable broth with just about all the same chemicals.
I surrender and watch my body get weaker and weaker. I’m being starved so that their tests on my colon don’t have to be so messy. Then, they start drawing blood every few hours and ordering me to take stool samples twice a day. I barely have the strength to walk to the bathroom.
Test after test
Left with my own thoughts for 72 hours, I die slowly from every single possible disease of the digestive system. The nurses are very solicitous, but they don’t have time to chat. They do notice my weakness and order a wheelchair to transport me to the daily X-rays, the Cat Scan, Bone Marrow Test, Colonoscopy, and Gynecological Work-Up. I overhear one of them saying to the other, “She’s so young. I think she’s a young mother.”
Perhaps they are not aware that I am an orthodox Jew and for 72 hours there will be no phone calls or visits because it’s a three day Yom Tov. The second bed in the room is empty, and I am totally alone for most of the time, almost as if I’ve been put on isolation ward.
I enter the hospital with a low-grade fever and stomach pains, the clear result of an inflamed colon. I am being moved and manipulated and rolled over all day long. No one has asked me how I’m feeling and truly waited for the answer.
I am being killed by formalities. The extra blood tests, stool tests, and all the comprehensive tests are ignoring the state of the patient. She is slowly going under.
“There is no pain”
On the second day, they perform the colonoscopy. They give me a local anesthetic which they assert is just a precaution in case it’s painful, and when I scream from the pain, they assure me that there is none. As my screams get louder, their polite assurances turn into a fierce insistence.
What a relief when the Biggest Gastro announces that he’s found what he is looking for—the ulcers in my colon. He is plainly enjoying his expedition into my interior, and he launches a description of the terrain. The cramping I feel is unbearable, and I’m flailing with my arms when the nurse pins me down.
Apologetically, she asks the doctor if it’s possible to remove the probe because the patient is not behaving. And, after a disdainful look in my direction, he complies.
The findings seem conclusive, but they are determined to rule out all the other possibilities. And so the tests go on and on. Each morning for my nine day incarceration, the nurse enters the room, looks on my chart, and cheerfully announces the day’s events.
No strength left to care
I am only a shadow of myself. On Sunday, my husband makes his long-awaited visit with my baby. I am too weak to hold her. I want to respond to her joy at seeing me, but I can only squeeze out a faint smile.
Then I burst into tears as I realize that I don’t even have the strength to care for her.
I should have known. I had already had some experience with this award-winning hospital. It was in this very same hospital that my sweet baby was born.
Together with my husband and our little overnight suitcase, we made our way down to an underground floor of the hospital complex. Our steps echoed in the giant windowless hallway until we came to the massive door with a small sign to the left announcing we were at the right place. We were then buzzed in. It reminded me of the entrance to a nuclear power plant. It all seemed very dangerous and secretive.
Once inside, it continued to be soundless. The nurse led us to the first room on a long corridor with another massive door to open. Inside, there were again no windows in a large room with a hospital bed smack in the middle. Off to the side in the shadows, a few chairs.
And then again, the door closed.
I climbed up on the bed, and for the next nine hours I labored to have my baby. When I looked up at the clock that said 3, it could have been 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning. With no natural light, I had lost track of the time.
I was alone with the faithful contractions at regular intervals. Fortunately, I had hired a labor coach who kept reminding me that those contractions were getting me closer and closer to the birth.
From prison to hotel
Once the baby was born, we were taken to the maternity ward up on a higher floor. There were windows and pitchers of ice water on the table. Someone sent me flowers. The hospital became a non-intrusive backdrop to another of life’s major events. It was more of a hotel with meals at the side of the bed and triple occupancy in the rooms.
Thank G-d, I was not there to be healed. All the tests came out normal, and they sent us home after three days. I was a healthy, normal new mother, and the nurses were full of congratulations.
Now they are cold and efficient, as if they are simply there to monitor the mal-functioning machinery.
The fight-back begins
At the bone marrow test, my will to live begins to stir within me. In horror, I watch them drill a little hole into the bone of my hip and extract a bone sample. This time, the anesthetic works, and there is only a numb feeling from my waist down.
It is too late to stop the procedure by the time I find my fighting spirit. As they remove the syringe, I demand to know why they are doing this to me. They don’t have the answer. Without even looking up, they tell me to ask my doctor, as they proceed to clean up the site of the invasion.
I began to see myself as a war zone, being ferreted back and forth from room to room, from test to test, with my body being chipped away bit by bit. They are using the state of the art weaponry— miniature television cameras, chemicals, radiation, and the knife.
And an age-old tactic—slow starvation.
Arousing the sleeping warrior
When I am finally allowed to eat again, I feel some strength returning. It’s very possible that there is some real food content on the tray before me, between the wonder bread and the rubber chicken, between the instant mash potatoes and the red jello. But at least there are some calories here which translate into energy to arouse the sleeping warrior within me.
My doctor is impossible to find, apart from his star appearances every afternoon on the ward rounds as he instructs the student doctors about each case. All the student doctors are wearing white coats, but he has on an impeccable tan suit and tie. He moves with the assurance of an elevated being who has conquered the entire human digestive system.
He explains to me that there is a tendency to developing leukemia in my family since my father succumbed to that disease, and he just wants to make sure with the bone marrow test that I don’t have it.
I don’t want to argue with him that my father’s symptoms were totally different from mine, and that I’ve already endured the colonoscopy which defined my condition as ulcerative colitis.
I have been fighting a losing battle ever since I gave my consent to this hospital stay and signed over full rights to my body and my life. I know that it is useless to argue with the prince of this malevolent kingdom, but still, I dare to say the words, “I want to go home.”
With an explosion of feeling just under the surface, I calmly try to stare him down.
“Oh no, no, we’ve got to rule out the possibility of parasites in the stool tests, and that will take another few days,” is his benevolent reply.
Illness is big business
I am beginning to understand the story. The hospital is getting good money from my insurance policy for each day that I stay on. I am now quite sure that the hospital is not a place of healing, and now I discover that it is really big business. A multi-million dollar business. And this Biggest Gastro is one of the top executives.
He gives me a charming smile. “I’ll try to get you back home before Yom Kippur, but I can’t promise.”
At least, he knows what Yom Kippur is, but does he know what he is doing? All along, he has been acting as if he is doing me the biggest favor in the world, acting as if he is saving my life. He carries himself with a giant helping of self-justification and conviction, as if his chosen work is to save lives. But he is far from saving lives. Even far from healing them.
In his role as doctor, he makes a good living for his family, but does he know how much destruction he leaves in his path?
He prescribes a daily dose of cortisone to control the ulcerative colitis which he claims to be a chronic condition and incurable. When I ask him for some dietary suggestions, he is happy to assure me that I can eat anything with impunity. I just have to keep taking the cortisone.
I don’t have any medical training, but it seems obvious to me that a digestive problem might be exacerbated by eating the wrong foods, that the sensitive lining of my colon might respond well to some foods and be irritated by others.
My other big question has to do with the drug of choice. I once worked in a drug company for about six months. If hospitals are big business, then drugs are even bigger.
Without even reading the little white paper wrapped around the bottle, I know there are side effects to cortisone. With a small amount of research, I learn that the side effects include teeth loss, depression, weight gain, and after 20 years of use, a much higher likelihood of cancer.
When my husband calls the doctor to ask him about the likelihood of cancer, he laughs it off by saying something about twenty years being a long time. Apparently, he’s not very concerned about knocking a few years off my life and saddling me with a host of unsolicited ailments besides the one I have.
Grateful to be alive
It’s Erev Yom Kippur, and I finally leave the hospital about 15 pounds thinner and with big, black circles under my eyes. Our Rabbi forbids me to make the fast. I’ve been de-humanized, but I’m grateful to be alive. And I’ve learned my lesson never to give my body and my life into the safekeeping of “well-meaning” health professionals in big city hospitals.
I leave the bottle of cortisone unopened. I become an avid reader of books on digestion. I learn about the connection between stress and colitis, and between stress and problems with health in general. I discover that colitis and diet are intimately related. The lining of the colon is dramatically affected by the food that passes through there.
Biggest Gastro seems convinced that my illness is something like a wild bronco wrecking havoc in my digestive system. That we must bring in the big guns—a powerful medicine called cortisone—which will tame that bronco.
Let’s try another paradigm. The spastic colon with its internal sores is my friend. It’s me. It’s suffering. It’s trying to tell me something about my lifestyle. I’m under too much stress, and the pint of carob Hagan Daz that I consume just about every other day is too rich for anyone to handle.
I’ve developed a hyper-sensitivity to dairy products. Perhaps I’ve been internalizing certain emotions that I should have been letting out. Maybe it’s the pressure cooker principle. Just so much pressure that’s swallowed, and the top flies off. The colon is my sensitive place. It’s out of commission. Maybe I can nurse it back to health.
Illness is the body’s way of sending us a message about what needs to change
From now on, I’ll be listening to the messages it’s sending me. Maybe this bout with illness is the best thing that’s happened to me. I’ve been alerted that I need to change, even though the doctor assures me that nothing needs to be changed. “Just take this handy little pill, keep eating what you’ve always eaten, keep living like you’ve always lived, you don’t have to change an iota.”
The hospital experience has alienated me from my body. My first mistake was putting my body in their hands. They didn’t realize what a delicate, whole entity I am, how my soul is intertwined with that colon, how sensitive I am to the energy in the room, in the food, in the words that come my way. How I am a sponge, a delicate plant swaying underwater, alive to the currents.
The fact that they would submit their own bodies to the same treatment if some doctor thought it was the preferred course of action, that fact helps them to justify what they did to me.
They are caught in the system, much more deeply ensconced than I am. Their livelihood seems to depend on it.
The experience in the hospital doesn’t teach me how to heal. But it does teach me where healing is not found.Now I begin the process of healing. I allow myself permission to breathe deeply and feel what I need to feel. I won’t tell anyone. I can do it quietly without anyone knowing. I imagine a glacial lake of crystal clear water. I once swam in such a lake, and it is easy for me to return there in my thoughts.
The glacial lake feeds into a stream, and I harness that stream, coax it over in my direction, and guide its flow into my colon. I feel the cool water lapping against the sides of my colon. I even imagine little rainbow fish swimming through the colon in the flow of the healing waters.
I discover that brown rice, sweet potatoes, green vegetables, apple sauce, lemon juice, sesame butter, and rice cakes are friendly food. I drink mineral water, and prepare myself cups of peppermint tea. I lie on the couch with a book even when there are dishes in the sink, or I lie on the floor and let the baby crawl all over me.
I begin to be grateful for my ailing colon, for the message it sent me has begun to transform my life. I am more peaceful, more centered in myself, more alive again to my own dreams and visions.
And, with great amazement and gratitude, my colon responds beautifully to this gentle handling, to the listening ear, to the responsive relationship I’ve put into place. I recover my health and vitality, and begin to feel better than I did even before my “illness” began.
In light of my discoveries about how healing works, I begin to question some other paradigms that I took for granted – and I learn an amazing secret: How to honor my own intuition, listen to internal signals, and awaken to my own inner guidance.
A nice man from a woodworking company got in touch to see if I’d be interested in hearing about how woodworking has been helping people mitigate their C-PTSD symptoms. (I wrote a whole bunch of stuff about C-PTSD a little while ago, including this: C-PTSD 101: I've got c-ptsd! Now what do I do to get rid of it?)
While I don’t usually do guest posts on spiritualselfhelp.org, I’m very happy to share more real information about what might be helping people to get happier and healthier, so I told the nice man, ‘sure, send me some stuff about how woodworking is helping people deal with their C-PTSD and I’ll post it up’.
So he did – and it makes some pretty interesting reading. I have a friend who swears by her crafting and knitting, for helping her get calmer, and more grounded and centred. I myself love my painting, when I get a chance to do it.
So, I can see that woodworking could also fit the bill – and if you read on, you’ll find a few different stories of people who believe that working with wood is really helping them to heal.
HEALING & VALIDATION
Mierop Mann considers his woodworking journey as a part of his healing process. I asked him what woodworking changed in his life. “It is wonderful to bring calm and balance into once chaotic existence. Inner turmoil with creative expression is a very good emotional feeling,” he answered.
Mierop’s C-PTSD was a result of an abusive family. “I am a 52 year old guy that chose to walk alone through life, as the memories of my childhood abuse became more recurring through triggers and abuse from my family up to the age of 40.”
When he finally walked away from that situation and struggled with C-PTSD, he found a liberating passion: woodworking. Woodworking helped Mierop to properly deal with a life filled with confusion and anger. It also gave him the joy of feeling validated because of his works.
“When people ask me about what I do, the only way I can explain to them is that I am an artist without a brush but with tools. I believe in my work, and even if only one person is fascinated by it, I feel validated and I feel alive,” he proudly told me.
FOCUS & SATISFACTION
For a 50-yr old woman with medical and mental health conditions like Laura B Paskavitz, woodworking can help with self-esteem issues. At least, that was what she experienced from it.
Laura shared her story—“I don't work and have been living with disability for 25 years due to medical & mental health reasons. I have CPTSD as well as a dissociative disorder from being raised in a cult and around not-well people.”
She started woodworking when she was around 20 yrs old. Her friend introduced woodworking to her to help her refocus her anxiety. It became her main distraction from stress and later on experience its therapeutic benefits.
Keeping oneself busy can be a great way to overcome C-PTSD symptoms. Laura herself mentioned, “By doing something hands-on and creative, I've noticed my focus & sense of satisfaction increase.”
And not just that. As I’ve mentioned, woodworking helped with her self-esteem issues, too.
“My self-confidence has improved and I'm inspired to live more in the moment and enjoy the process,” Laura told me.
SHARING & SELF-EXPRESSION
For Rolando Corral Sr., an Army Veteran who has tried all types of therapy to cope with C-PTSD, woodworking offered something else other than the “traditional therapy sessions”.
He said, “Woodworking helped me open up to the idea of allowing some people to come into my personal space and share it with them just for a brief moment.”
Such opportunity to share oneself to others is a huge step towards healing, especially for veterans who have been scarred by the battles they’ve seen and been in. For Rolando, that trauma started to show its symptoms after he was medically retired from the military.
“Around 2008 I was diagnosed with PTSD. I was already attending college and something just didn’t feel right,” he said.
Naturally, Rolando started seeking professional help through therapies. “I tried out VA counseling and tried talking to a person behind the desk with a fancy degree on their walls. But I still was having dreams and nightmares and I felt the guilt for not being able to deploy the second time with my Army unit to Iraq,” he recalled.
Just by chance, Rolando met a Korean War veteran who was into woodworking. That started his own woodworking journey, which started from simple projects for his kids and bloomed into a mission-driven business of handcrafted wooden flags. But on woodworking’s effect on a personal level, he said,
“You see, it helped me open up… and encouraged me to not allow my military career define me for the rest of my life. I want woodworking to define who I am for the rest of my life.”
Welcome to the first JEMI Guest Post, in what will hopefully become a regular feature. First up:
Batya Yaniger, PsyD, Logotherapist
Logotherapy is a healing modality created by Dr. Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, holocaust survivor and author of the best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning.
It is based on the assumption that life is intrinsically meaningful, that we want our lives to be meaningful and that we have the ability to make our lives meaningful. From these principles alone we can already sense its affinity with a religious mindset. But it is not only ‘compatible.’ Logotherapy upholds Jewish principles, making it the therapy of choice from a G-d-fearing perspective.
1) Logotherapy acknowledges a personal relationship with G-d
Every person has unique strengths, unique life circumstances and unique commission to match. ‘How is life guiding you?’ the logotherapist asks. ‘What does this situation require of you?’ Logotherapy is universal, and it speaks a universal language. One need not be religious to recognize that problems demand thoughtful responses.
Yet there is a ‘personal’ component. We sense a connection to an ultimate ‘other’ before whom we will someday have to give an account: What did we do with our lives? Consciously or unconsciously we have a ‘personal’ relationship with the one who created, entrusted and commissioned us.
The logotherapist will not mention G-d unless the client is interested in doing so. But religious clients are conscious of the human-Divine relationship and will ask, ‘What does G-d want from me right now? What kind of hint is G-d sending? Where do I stand in my relationship to G-d in this crossroads of my life?’
2) Problems are opportunities
Life is a dialogue, with questions and answers. The task of the client is to look for the meaningful kernels of events, and use them as opportunities to grow. The task of the logotherapist is to sharpen the client’s vision to see from a broader perspective, and to look beneath the surface in order to turn meaning-inspired goals into reality.
It is as if we are given a puzzle to solve. Only it turns out that the goal was not really to solve ‘the problem’ at all. The goal was to become the person you have become as a result of the strengths you have mobilized and the exemplary qualities you realized in the process of answering the question. Problems are opportunities for becoming who you were created to be.
It is easy to hear from this formulation the echo of divine Providence. Everything happens for a reason. I look to my Creator as the source of infinite loving-kindness, who created me with love and for a purpose, and who orchestrates everything for my ultimate good.
It follows that the world is not run chaotically but with order and integrity. The questions that follow are, ‘What am I here for? How can I contribute? What am I meant to learn from this?
3) Logotherapy acknowledges the G-dliness within us.
An amputee was suicidal after losing her leg. Frankl saved her life by challenging her attitude. If a bug loses a leg, it is useless to the bug community. But for human beings, Frankl said, ‘it must be different.’
Furthermore, Logotherapy appeals to the spirit, which is the essence of our humanity. Despite our struggles and limitations, we have freedom of choice. The religious person will tell you that human beings were created in G-d’s image. But has he internalized this belief about himself and everyone he meets? Human worth should always be assumed in the therapeutic encounter. In Logotherapy it is unquestionable.
4) Logotherapy encourages thinking and self-determination
Frankl compares a person to the sailor of a boat. The winds may blow us off-course, but the sailor can decide to sail against the wind. Similarly, Judaism values taking charge of our emotions, honoring them and learning from them but not allowing them to rule us.
We have wisdom. We have the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and to discern what is valuable and meaningful.
5) The focus is on what matters
Much of western psychology is based on the western view that sees a dichotomy between the material and the spiritual. Problems are not solved, but exacerbated by this split, as empathizing with the person’s negative emotions tends to reinforce the victim mentality of unfairness and helplessness.
If we stay only on the physical and psychological levels, we are missing a vast reservoir of strengths that allow us to rise above and overcome our physical and psychological barriers. If I am depressed, I will see from a depressed perspective. In response to a low grade on a test I might say ‘I will never succeed.’ In response to financial struggles I might say ‘I am powerless. There is nothing I can do to change this.’
Is the goal of therapy to change reality or is it to change the way we relate to reality? Can therapy not perhaps become part of the problem, where the goal becomes 'what I expect of life'?
Logotherapy turns the person's gaze outward and asks "What does life expect of you?" Instead of complaint – responsibility. In place of fate – a commission. ’ It takes the focus of attention away from self-absorption and puts attention onto the things that matter.
6) It creates a solid, whole foundation
Religion and therapy have divergent goals. The goal of religion is to serve G-d; the goal of therapy is to heal. But there is a common foundation that lies beneath both religion and therapy: to be a mensch, an exemplary human being.
If I am interested in knowing what G-d wants from me, I have to learn to pay attention to my environment and I have to understand the implications of what is happening. I have to access what the rabbis call ‘understanding of the heart.’
Divine wisdom refines our character. But we need to refine our character in order to be capable of receiving divine wisdom. Otherwise it will mean nothing to us. It will not penetrate the hard defensive shell that is blocking us from our own inner wisdom.
Just as religion starts with being a mensch, similarly healing starts with being a mensch. We can’t gain confidence until we learn to trust our intuition, and for this we need to learn to access it. We cannot feel good about our interactions until we learn to pay attention to the cues. Logotherapy helps people access their knowing core. It is not as if we will never make mistakes. But through logotherapy we learn to learn from our mistakes, and we learn to make the right choices, by developing our greatest G-d-given assets, the powers of the human spirit.
Batya Yaniger, PsyD is a Clinical Diplomate Logotherapist and licensed social worker in Israel. She is co-trainer of the English language Logotherapy training program at the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in Israel and teaches Logotherapy at the Cadem Psikoloji center in Istanbul, both under the auspices of the Institute of Logotherapy in the U.S.
Batya presents workshops and provides group and individual supervision to Logotherapy students. Her private practice specializes in helping individuals discover their sense of purpose in life in the face of depression, anxiety and illness. Batya’s extensive background as an educator in Jewish studies provides an additional source of spiritual nourishment to her clients and students.
You can reach her at: email@example.com, or visit the website: http://www.themeaningseeker.com/