Heroes and Heroines: Patients that Make the Work Worthwhile

Sometimes, people ask me whether being a psychiatrist is a depressing job. On a tough day, I would say that it is. On those days, I would envy the baggers in the grocery store–how nice to have the task of putting groceries in a bag for someone! I’m sure that bagging groceries would also have its frustrations, but sometimes when I look at the baggers, I would yearn for the sheer simplicity of their work.

Consider for a moment what is required of a psychiatrist on a routine day: to fix minds and heal broken emotions, to save lives and salvage joy. Now that I am practicing as a holistic psychiatrist, I add to my list of patients those whose medications don’t work for them, or who want to get better using orthomolecular approaches–work that brings me fulfillment and joy, but also additional demands. Yes, on a tough day, it’s easy to see why all I want to do after work is curl up in a chair and read People Magazine. It’s a nice distraction.

However, just as a mother wouldn’t quit after years of struggling with crying, tantrums, vomit, or sleepless nights, a psychiatrist doesn’t just quit because the going gets tough. Patients are like children. As we serve, guide, and nurture them, we find ourselves learning, growing, and benefiting twice as much in return.

One of the most wonderful aspects of my work with patients is that I get to learn from them and admire them. Like crocuses raising their blossoms through snow, I see my patients bearing great challenges with a beautiful spirit of courage, faith, and humility. It’s one thing to be the doctor and tell the patient what to do, it’s quite another to be the one to do it and have to live with the consequences. Especially during the long journey of lowering psychiatric medications, the amount of faith and courage it takes for a patient to do so is beyond what most people can comprehend. For, consider this: what can be more devastating than losing one’s mind or emotions, and what kind of courage does it require for someone to voluntarily put his or her mental health at risk for the sake of freedom? The stakes are extremely high and the level of trust and faith a patient demonstrates must be equal to the task.

Many years ago, I had a six-year-old boy with bipolar disorder whose mother brought him in faithfully to see me once a week and sometimes twice a week. She was a single mother who had to struggle against the negativity of an unsupportive ex-husband. Through much of her son’s life, his illness caused him to treat her with disdain. In addition, the cost of treatment must have been a very heavy burden for her, for she worked in a grocery store. Despite times when she felt inadequate at facing the task of raising her son, her love and perseverance resulted in her son doing very well on nutritional supplements. Her perseverance through the treatment process allowed him to have a life free from psychotropic medications.

More recently, a man in his late fifties who worked part-time bagging groceries began his journey in coming off an antipsychotic medication. During his medication withdrawal, he would sometimes say, “I just need to work harder. I am doing all that I can.” His attitude touched me. There was something about his humility that was truly remarkable and admirable. Not once during his treatment did he complain about the over three hours of travel from his home to my office, nor the cost for the nutritional supplements that he was required to take. He was a go-getter, finding ways to facilitate his own healing process through reading, exercise, service, and prayer.

Another woman began her journey with a chronic history of severe depression, anxiety, and mood swings. Even a breeze during a walk could put her in bed for days due to her severe allergies. Over a period of years, we worked together to help her reduce her medications and stabilize her mood. Finally she was able to come off all medications completely and feel well. However, one day she encountered a problem that necessitated an earlier appointment date. By the time the date of her appointment arrived, however, she said that she was “feeling better by the minute” and had stabilized. This was a pattern that I had noticed about her: when faced with a challenge, her response was to do all that she could to help herself overcome the problem, using the tools that she had learned over the years. In this situation, she identified repressed childhood trauma as a root cause, understood its effects on her perspective on life, and used her energy medicine techniques to eliminate the problem. What amazing resourcefulness.

Life is not easy for my patients. They hobble into treatment on mental crutches, scarred by stigma and barred from abundance. As I begin to work with them, they become the heroes and heroines of my world. For these individuals, and many more that I can name, the power that moves me to help them is not from duty, pity, guilt, or fear. It is simply love that they deserve and have earned for who they are. They look to me to guide them out of their hell, and I look to them to lift me with the fire of their spirit. Then, when I am able to share in their triumphs along their journey to freedom, the joy we feel lights up the room–and that makes my work worthwhile.