I don’t intend for these blog entries to be merely “personal,” but I thought I might begin with a couple of personal anecdotes that demonstrate my own experience of feeling respected. The first is an example of what I will call “intentional” respect.
As I mentioned in the introductory post, I retired a year ago. The precipitating reason for my retirement was chronic pain that had been growing gradually worse over a three-year period. I’d undergone a number of diagnostic tests. No cause could be identified, and my primary care physicians were stymied. I was frustrated with the medical system and anxious about possible reasons for the pain. Often when I attempted to talk about “my pain” to friends and professionals alike, eyes would glaze over and the subject would be changed. Most people were not uncaring; they just didn’t have any idea how I felt or how to help me.
After months of painstakingly working the healthcare system, I was referred to a pain clinic near Boston, MA where I was given a choice of two clinicians, a woman and a man. I chose the woman, imagining that she would better understand me. She did not, unfortunately, have an opening for over a month, so I reluctantly agreed to see the man, a pain psychologist, who had an opening the following week.
I imagined I would be invited to join a therapy group where, with other chronic pain sufferers, I would describe my struggles with pain, and we would support one another with understanding, sympathy and suggestions for various pain management strategies. Instead, I entered a one-on-one therapy relationship. At our first meeting, my doctor asked me to describe what had brought me to the clinic. I gave a succinct description of the pain, the various tests I had undergone, the various specialists I’d seen, and how I had been referred to him. He took a deep breath and said, “That’s an impressive description.” Strange, but I felt immediately recognized and validated. He briefly described the theory of pain management that he and his colleagues embraced and what we would cover in our sessions, and gave me the names of two books, asking me to choose one and read it in between our meetings. I immediately bought both books and started reading them simultaneously. I was going to get this right! I desperately wanted this therapy to work.
He had seen my desperation but wasn’t thrown off balance by it and didn’t judge me. He accepted my desperation, and gradually taught me to accept it too – it, my pain and much more. I quickly learned that he was less interested in what went on in the days between sessions and more interested in what happened during the sessions themselves. My “reporting in” behavior was kindly humored and accepted, but somewhere in the midst of a session, he would ask me to stop, breathe, and identify what I was feeling at that moment. That’s where the windows into healing occurred – in those “present moments” when I simply told him about my feelings and he listened – listened to me, as I had never been listened to before in my life – with intensity, concentration, acceptance, and respect. I was allowed to be who I actually was in that moment without any judgement or commentary. At the end of each session he would remind me that I should sit quietly in my car before driving away and continue the noticing.
Over the six months of therapy I read both books and took copious notes. I took baby steps into the practice of mindfulness and began to understand how my life experiences had resulted in the repetitive stress that had produced my pain. I began to treat my body more gently and to listen to it and my mind/heart more carefully. Yes, this story has a happy ending. I am not pain free, but I now recognize the pain that I struggled against as a “gift”; the pain that was once the center of my life is now on the periphery. I am feeling healthier, more alive, and more aware of myself, others, and the world around me.
And one of the keys to my healing was the experience of being truly respected.