Healing The Wound To My Soul
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all.
Readers of this blog will recall our fundamental belief: the soul is dwelling within each of us, as the place and spirit where we find purpose and meaning in our lives. And it follows, at the heart of Natalie’s Light, is the belief the soul has been gravely wounded when a person considers ending their life. How do we heal this wound to the soul?
The process, which enables healing of the wounded soul, is embodied in the word Hope. Writing in their outstanding book, “Motivational Interviewing,” Miller and Rollnick describe hope “as the belief that change is possible….Finding hope is a matter of calling forth that which is already there.”
And nothing to look backward to with pride.
And nothing to look forward to with hope.
---Robert Frost “The Death of the Hired Man” (1914)
For some reason I recalled these words of Robert Frost when I first encountered James while working in Boston. James refused to talk about his past and he said to me, “I have no hope there will be any change in the future.” He was homeless, only occasionally taking refuge in the Pine Street Inn for homeless men. A Social Worker had referred him to the West End House of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) where Addiction Services are located. He had scared the hell out of the staff at the Inn as he went through his most recent episode of withdrawal from alcohol. He admitted he simply did not have any money to buy some cheap wine to keep “the monkey off my back.” They delivered him to MGH in the van the Inn used to gather homeless people off the streets of Boston in the winter. He told me, that first day, “they did not trust me to come on my own.”
James was emaciated (looked like he was just liberated from a concentration camp), unkempt to say the least and foul smelling. While he did not want to be there with me, or anyone else, he made good eye contact and was engagingly forthcoming about his current situation. He initially described himself as “just a good ole Irish boy.” Actually, he was 38 years old and was not from Ireland or Boston. He came from Nebraska in hopes of getting a gig playing bass guitar. He laughed as he denied being Catholic, but agreed his last name would be heard frequently on the streets of Dublin. He told me there was no hope he would ever stop drinking: “It is my soul juice.” Despite this, James agreed to see me again the next day. Perhaps he could tell I liked him.
There is no such thing as false hope.
For brevity purposes I will skip my long and arduous efforts to learn how James’ soul was so deeply wounded. It all started to come out about 3 months into our alliance when I joked with him about his last name: “Are you related to the famous guy with your last name?” Anyone reading this who is older than 50 years would instantly make the connection with the name. I was truly surprised when he told me the famous man was his father. However, It is fair to say his father had disowned him about 10 years before we met. James had dropped out of college after his sister committed suicide by overdose. James did not demonize his father, for he truly believed his father’s words to him, “You are hopeless and worthless.” But James did describe the longtime pattern of verbal abuse he experienced throughout his childhood. James did continue to have sporadic contact with his mother, but his father told James he was ashamed of him and did not want to ever have contact with him. James was an “embarrassment” according to his father.
Ultimately, James told me he had a 9 year-old son from his then dissolved marriage and his ex-wife made the vow he would never see his son again. Paraphrasing the words of Dr. Stephen Rollnick, James had no hope and was filling the hole in his soul, with alcohol. The official diagnosis in his clinic record was Alcohol Dependence and Major Depression. I ventured in my notes to mention chronic PTSD. But it was useless to document he was suffering from a wounded soul; the MGH coders would have sent the chart back with the statement, “No such diagnosis.”
We have always held to the hope, the belief,
the conviction, that there is a better life,
a better world, beyond the horizon.
---Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Evoking or summoning Hope from a wounded and damaged soul is a formidable task demanding some essential prerequisites. The first and most important requirement for awakening Hope is self-acceptance. Miller and Rollnick describe self-acceptance in the following way: “Ironically, it is when people experience acceptance of themselves as they are that change becomes possible. Causing people to feel bad and unacceptable usually entrenches the status quo.” It is wrong to expect them to be anyone or anything other than who they are. This does not require approval or concurrence of their actions, but demands an honest and committed acceptance of what they bring to this alliance, so healing may begin.
You are never too old to set another goal or to dream
a new dream.
In the Spirit of Motivational Interviewing (MI) there are things you and I can do to evoke HOPE and healing. Not only must the person with the wounded soul accept who they are, we must be a model of acceptance for them. The noted psychologist, Carl Rodgers, described four aspects of acceptance for us to help others find hope: Absolute worth, Autonomy, Accurate Empathy and Affirmation. I borrow liberally from Rodgers, Miller, and Rollnick in detailing these aspects.
Absolute Worth is the first step in healing the wounded soul. Miller and Rollnick describe this aspect of acceptance: “First, acceptance involves prizing the inherent worth and potential of every human being.” Rogers emphasized “an acceptance of this other individual person, a respect for the other as having worth in his or her own right.” It is essential we do not place or project our own expectations on them. We must respect and accept who they are and where they are; not where we are or where we expect and want them to be. Rogers dealt with the seeming paradox: “When people experience themselves as unacceptable they are immobilized. Their ability to change is diminished or blocked. When, on the other hand, people experience being accepted as they are, they are freed to change.” I would paraphrase this statement with the words: acceptance allows the soul to heal.
Autonomy means “honoring and respecting each person’s irrevocable right and capacity of self-direction.” I am very pleased to repeat the quote of Miller and Rollnick used to describe the importance of autonomy. It is from Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning 2006):
We who lived in concentration camps remember the
men who walked through the huts comforting others,
giving away their last piece of bread. They may have
been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof
that everything can be taken from a man but one thing:
the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s
attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose
one’s own way.
The opposite of autonomy support “is the attempt to make people do things, to coerce and control,” according to Miller and Rollnick. “Directly acknowledging a person’s freedom of choice typically diminishes defensiveness and can facilitate change. This involves letting go of the idea and burden that you have to (or can) make people change. It is, in essence, relinquishing a power that you never had in the first place.”
Accurate Empathy is described by Miller and Rollnick as an active interest in and effort to understand the other’s internal perspective, to see the world through her or his eyes…An ability to understand another’s frame of reference and the conviction that it is worthwhile to do so. Rogers described empathy as the ability “to sense the client’s inner world of private personal meanings, as if they were your own.” The opposite of empathy is the imposition of one’s own perspective, perhaps with the assumption that the other’s views are irrelevant and misguided.
Affirmation is the final necessary element of Acceptance and the way to evoke hope and healing of the soul. Affirming overlaps the other elements of acceptance as it supports and encourages the efforts of the wounded person. Miller and Rollnick state, “To affirm is to recognize and acknowledge that which is good including the individuals inherent worth as a fellow human being.” The opposite of affirmation is searching for what is wrong, rather than searching for positive values, strengths and efforts. One of my ways to offer affirmation is to ask the wounded soul to HELP me. Most often they are astounded that I am asking for and need their help. They sit up taller as they understand I respect what they have to say. I need their help to understand how we can work together.
For hope to flourish and begin to heal the wounded soul, there must be some measure of confidence in their ability to change and appreciate the real possibility it can happen. In the language of Motivational Interviewing (MI), it is harmful for a person to believe and imagine a future when it is not possible or beyond their reach. For example James could not ever have confidence his father and ex-wife would find value in him and seek reconciliation. But we did focus on the real possibility he could have a fulfilling relationship with this son sometime in the future. He did find hope in his goal to return to his music career. These were important goals for him; realistic hopes and a strong incentive for him to remain sober and healthy.
It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become
soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem
irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when
one is heard. I have deeply appreciated the times that I have
experienced this sensitive, empathic, concentrated listening.
---Carl R. Rogers
In summary, accepting the premise that an individual who is contemplating ending their life has an injury to the soul; and thus, healing that wound involves instilling a sense of hope. Indeed, we have a way to use our skills and compassion to help heal the wounded soul. This endeavor is not rocket science and does not require a PhD. It requires committed acceptance of the individual as manifested by our building a sense of worth, autonomy, empathy and affirmation. Edward Tick, PhD, in his book “War and the Soul” describes the importance of our doing “Soul Work.”
The soul is the great cry of I AM awakened in the
individual. It is the seat of joy, the great affirmation,
the inner breath that shouts “Yes” to life, no matter
what. From the soul comes the baby’s first cry of
life, the athlete’s victory shout, the singer’s house-
shaking performance, the scientist’s “eureka!”
Every great spiritual teacher and religious leader
has taught first not from doctrine but from this
primal affirmation of existence.
James tried to fill his wounded soul with hope. He tried to maintain contact with his son. He sent cards and letters. He called many times. His son’s mother was able to get a no contact court order. He tried to get his bass guitar from his home but his mother told him his father had thrown it into the garbage. For two years I saw him weekly and he stayed sober, and was able to get temp work episodically. But he began to miss appointments as I was preparing to leave Boston. There was an open door policy for James. He could come in any time and he would be seen. He was a “Free Care” patient and there was never a charge. He did not show in the last month of my time at the West End House.
I maintained contact with the Staff in Boston and during the Winter, January 1981 James was found by the Pine Street Inn van as it searched for the homeless on the streets of Boston during a snow storm. He died on the way to the Emergency Department of MGH. We believed in the worth of this man, but he did not value himself and he died without hope due to fatal wounds to his soul.