Saturday, June 25, 2011

little renaissance

I have my eyes on a particular piece of art for my waiting room. Local Arizona artist, all the right colors oozing into one another, layers of mindful matter depicted on canvas. The piece moves me like art is supposed to. Unfortunately, financial responsibilities compel me to wait for more stable times. Massive piece, really. Able to loom large over my little white bookshelf, both in size and creative depth. Somehow, the artist managed to nestle the calm look in a beautiful face while a storm of thoughts swirl around.  
The piece has spawned my own creativity in thinking of ways to acquire it.
No, I haven’t thought of robbing a bank or anything remotely like that. Rather, I’ve imagined calling up the artist and offering a trade.  Hmmm. Homeopathic Mental health services for a piece of creative genius art. Hmmm. Perhaps, a little problematic. Might be insulting to suggest a trade given the services I provide. Sticky. Essentially, I’d be suggesting some sort of mental health diagnosis to someone I’ve never even met. Not necessarily the way to win friends and influence people, as far as I can tell.
But, statistically, chancing such an offer—the odds wouldn’t be all that bad. Artist. Creative type. Clearly and most extraordinarily gifted. Kay Redfield J has published volumes of research demonstrating the more frequent occurrence of mood disorders in the creative population. I could play the odds.  
And I can attest to the connection, anecdotally, with my brother.
Art moved and breathed in him. Spilled out on the page in plays on words, or high, emotive notes on the trumpet, or sexy chess moves spun like silk from turning over Bobby Fischer’s classic moves in a book.  Creativity often turns out to be part of the Bipolar package. At times, I’ve even wondered if my brother’s Bipolar Disorder was the very thing that made him so extraordinarily creative. It was as if the gifts were on Speed. Mr. Renaissance Man. He wasn’t merely a trumpet player. He had to be the high school trumpet player invited to make a guest appearance with the Navy Band. He wasn’t merely an artist, he had to be one to capture that look in the eyes that narrows the gap between art and real world emotions on paper.
All things artistic stung for a while after his death. For a time, it seemed as if the grave froze up his artistic gifts alongside his body. My own creativity somehow wound up buried in the adjacent plot. Too painful to dig up out of the earth.
Recently, as the salve of time soothes my soul, I’m moving back toward all things artistic. My own little Renaissance. I’m angling toward the creative arts in whatever ways I feel like: music, writing, dance, painting furniture, or hanging wall art in a medical office. Sometimes even the practice of medicine itself demands a little creativity when interviewing a patient struggling to open up. In some small way, the world feels righted in these small expressions of who I am as creative being. I guess I shouldn’t register surprise at the healing found in precisely the same spot as much of the pain and the grief. It is rather homeopathic, wouldn’t you say?   

P.S. Check out this local Arizona resource that utilizes artistic expression therapeutically for mental illness:

Friday, June 17, 2011

tilting at giants

A knight stands atop my desk, reminding of days long passed. Rescued from the corner shelf of a thrift store, hidden behind an old tire, missing shield and sword, he gazes through visor slits toward my maroon leather chairs, meant for keeping patients comfortable during long homeopathic intakes. But the knight’s purpose has little to do with entertaining my patients during long intakes.

The knight is there for me. The doctor. The naturopathic physician that would rush headstrong, into charging at windmills or oppressors of my cause, my all-important ever-so-bombastic quest.

Honor, duty, and the dangers of romantic idealism sometimes swirl around on this medical path. Tempted at every turn to fix your own insecurities by embellishing that savior complex, you have to fight not to spin the yarn that all the world needs is for you to show up in your suit of armor, sword in tow and knock that evil disease off its horse. (brilliant, shining knight that you obviously are.)  

Yes, you can heal people.

And yet, not everyone.

Yes, you might even cure some.

And yet, not all. Fighting for your cause, you must remember that those visor slits create blind spots. That visor might be nothing but blind spots. Therefore, occasionally, it might be a good idea to get off your high horse, remove the cardboard head gear and look around. You just might discover, like Quijote, a few of those giants conjured themselves out of the reflection bouncing off your own romantic delusion of yourself.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I grew up in a little, plastic bubble of a culture. A place where judgments sometimes fell from the sky, pounding imperfections and flaws and even illnesses into the dry earth. Life in this bubble was often based upon how things appeared to be and not necessarily how they actually were. People spent a great deal of time hiding behind plastic smiles and falsities, and words were spread around like jam on bread in order to cloak the taste of mold or hint of staleness.
I've interacted with plasticity for a long time.
Sometime in the past few years, perhaps in med school, perhaps influenced by a mentor bent upon transparency in medicine, I began shifting away from plastic-bubble world. Sure, my soul screamed out at the fakeness long before the authenticity lessons—the unnaturalness of the lipstick smiles, even as the eyes seemed to say something else, the pretensions of perfection, the pressure to not talk about flaws or mental illnesses but rather to package it all up in hair-sprayed, feathered wings and blue, eye-shadowed personas.
Bubble world didn’t have all that much space for authenticity; there was barely enough space for breathing oxygen. Rather than speaking honestly, much time was devoted to guessing at the meaning hidden behind words behind mouths lip synching things. No one really said what was actually meant. Generally, real meaning was buried somewhere underneath layers of niceties and hidden agendas. You had to read between the lines. You learned the art of suppression. How to do mental gymnastics in order to hint at what you meant, so that someone might get what you said, so that you could possibly get angry, in an-ever-so-loving sort of way, at their insensitivity. How dare they be so rude?
Perhaps, I shouldn’t be surprised that it was psychosis that squeezed my own brother’s authenticity to the surface in bubble world. Floridly out of his mind, he could freely pick the neurotic neighbor’s flowers or just park on the road in front of neurotic neighbor's house. He could say anything, be anyone, do anything for a time in a culture designed to squelch thinking outside the bubble. Seen from a certain perspective, his psychosis temporarily solved a few problems. Of course it also created a few problems of its own, too.
I think of my brother now as I step more fully into the role of doctor and while attempting once again to sort out authenticity.  I’m not sure how to be real as a doctor. I’m still figuring out the details of being a physician in the first place. I don’t know how to communicate competence and the fact that I’m still learning at the same time. I don’t feel especially doctoral. I feel uncomfortable not knowing exactly where the balance point lies between being present and yet professional. And my feeble attempts to balance atop this surfboard make me feel as if I’m pretending; playing some character in a TV drama, waiting for the moment when Meredith, the narrator’s voice over from the beginning, suddenly cues  back in and the plot ties itself neatly together, while the emotive music carries us through the teary-eyed part to the credits.

People want to feel confident that doctors have answers.
Somehow it cuts into our collective need to feel safe, to feel taken care of, to feel like all is well in the ocean of our lives. As if somehow all our sharking worries can dry up because somebody knows what to do about our cancer or our bipolar disorder or our Lou Gehrig’s.  The universe has been preserved. The beach is safe. The bubble has not popped.

But, if I’m authentic, I might have to say that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes, I might even have to admit that I don’t have any answers. That the Tsunami might still crash on your shoreline carrying you out to sea and I cannot prevent it.
And you, holding your schizoaffective son in your arms, might crumple into a heap in the corner of my office.
All of these things make it difficult to be authentic, to surf the waves of both compassionate ache for your struggles in tension with one's human capacity for emotions, or irritability when appointments cancel themselves at the last minute. Or when compelled to be both real and honest about your prognosis and yet gentle and caring and humane at the same time. And so sometimes we wind up in a doctor bubble world of our own, struggling to find our way out, to connect with you, our patient, in a real human way. We might seem cold, or aloof, or distant, as if we have some sort of superiority god-complex; but in reality, we're often merely struggling epically to hold the complexity of our own humanity in such a way that won’t frighten you that we aren’t, in fact, god-like.