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May Benatar, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

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Mental Health Notes: Personal Transformation and Wrestling With the Dark Side

Posted: 08/31/2012 5:55 pm

After writing my last post and reviewing the comments I received, it occurred to me that I hadn't told Stuart Smiley's entire story. Stuart's dark side is an important part of his story, indeed an important part of all of our stories. I did mention that he was a mess.

I'm going to switch characters here. The story of Jacob's struggle with an angel (in Genesis 32:24-30) provides a more sober and profound metaphor for the following exploration. Personal transformation is not just about affirming the positive, it's about investigating the negative as well; it's about struggle. The task of psychotherapy, at its most profound and meaningful level, is all about transformation, inhabiting more fully who we are. And that is Jacob's story as well.

In Genesis (32:24-30), the first book of the Bible, the first book of the Jewish Torah, Jacob leaves home to meet his nemesis and twin brother Esau. Esau wanted to kill him. Esau was angry with Jacob for having stolen his birthright, his father's blessing, many years before.

While on this journey to meet Esau, Jacob had the famous encounter with a mysterious entity. It was an encounter marked by struggle and suffering. They wrestled throughout the night. They wrestled to a draw, and Jacob was released by the angel, who insisted Jacob take a new name: Israel.

Interpreters of the Bible story have various ways of interpreting this narrative. Who is the angel? Is it G-d? Is it Jacob's own fear of the coming encounter with Esau? Or is it Jacob's own dark side? And it appears he had a very prominent dark side. He manipulated his father and stole from his brother, for one thing. The latter explanation, the most psychological one, of course, appeals to me. This interpretation has Jacob struggling with his own flawed character. In the process he is both wounded and reborn. He gets a new name, he becomes more of who he really is. And this is the nature of transformation.

What a wonderful paradigm for the best outcomes of psychotherapy. And I emphasize best, over common. While the power of positive thinking is an important and real possibility for us all in recasting our fates, the need to embrace the shadow -- those elements of our personality, our souls, of which we are least proud -- is a necessary element of transformation.

Trudy wanted to retire and to begin working seriously at her bucket list: to travel to Nepal, to write more poems, to read and garden to her heart's delight. She knew it was time. She felt really burned out by her 40 years of work as an emergency room physician. Nothing called to her anymore about her profession. The adrenaline generated by the high-intensity work had in the end depleted her. It was definitely time to move on.

Strangely, she found that she couldn't. She was dogged by guilt, haunted by bad dreams. And that was when she could fall asleep. Insomnia and an exacerbation of her long dormant ulcer had her prescribing medications for herself. Finally, feeling it was a last resort, she went into therapy.

It took about six months of pretty intensive work with her therapist to uncover the source of the guilt.

Trudy came from a high-achieving, well-to-do but essentially emotionally disconnected family. The three children had had to fend for themselves as their parents pursued their own interests, their travel, and their careers. Despite this, the two oldest children adapted well. They performed well in school, had many friends, and took care of each other.

The youngest did less well. He struggled in school, seemed to be the odd man out socially, frequently got into trouble with the authorities, and was finally expelled from school. As the oldest child, Trudy knew what was expected of her to help: She needed to take care of her little brother. But she didn't want to. For one thing, she didn't know what to do about him -- although five years older, she was a kid herself. For another, she was successful both socially and academically, and had no real interest in parenting.

She had made half-hearted tries, but she resented anything she was asked to do for him. And plenty was asked. The parents were preoccupied and clueless themselves as to how to help their son.

The baby brother never did pull himself out of his troubles. As an adolescent he got into harder and harder drugs and very tragically died of an overdose at age 20.

What Trudy discovered in psychotherapy was that she had never forgiven herself for abandoning her brother. And she really had to acknowledge that it was an abandonment. True, she was a child herself and did not have the knowledge or skills to help her brother, but on a deeper level she just didn't want to. She didn't much like him or sympathize with him -- he was always a troublemaker and a drain on the very slim emotional resources of the family. The stain on her soul was not what she did or didn't do, it was what she felt.

What she had to wrestle with was her own nature, or what she thought was her nature. She had not wanted to help her brother, and he had died.

It took another 18 months at least for Trudy to come to terms with all of this. Actually, it probably will take many years beyond these months. Trudy had to seriously consider that she had become an ER doctor because it was an arena in which she could save people. And that she did. And now she couldn't leave it, because to do so would expose the wound: her own self-loathing.

The struggle (in this case, her work in therapy) left its mark on her -- the wound that had been there but invisible became visible. For a short time she needed antidepressant medication, later something to help her with her anxiety. But in the end, she knew her own name. She became more of who she was. And eventually she retired.

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