When someone we love gets sick, we usually have the feeling of wanting to help them get well. We may try to play an active role in their treatment: we will investigate all the different possible modes of treatment; we will make decisions about which treatment seems to have the most potential benefits for their illness; we will encourage them to follow a specified plan of action to rid themselves of the disease; we may even accompany them to the place where the treatment is administered.
Helping a sick person, however, is complicated business. Having the feeling of wanting to help is not always helpful. Even putting the feeling into what one would normally think to be constructive aid is not always helpful. For some people, the only way they can be helped is to not help them at all.
One cancer patient whom I treat in psychotherapy comes to mind. Her family is convinced of the merits of nutritional and non-toxic treatments of cancer. One member of the family has already been cured of a usually deadly cancer through nutrition. This patient, however, is firmly rooted in her unique eating habits. She loves fried foods, and even though those foods often give her digestive system a run for the money, she copes with this problem by making sure she is near a bathroom when she eats fried foods. She would rather see it that way than see the fact that her system is not tolerating these foods.
Her family wants her to live. They used to talk to her to try to convince her to get on a better diet. These conversations were highly upsetting to my patient. She had the feeling that they were asking her to do something she didn’t want to do, and possibly felt she couldn’t do. When we see rigidity of this kind in psychotherapy, we suspect that there are deep underlying reasons for holding on steadfastly to a particular pattern. This patient has not yet verbalized what her resistance is to changing her eating patterns, so I can only speculate. What she has made clear, though, is that what had seemingly been smooth interaction with her family was now turned into traumatic and angry conversations. They wanted her to do what they wanted her to do; she wanted to do what she wanted to do; never the twain shall meet.
The stress of the disrupted relationships between her and her family was becoming more toxic to her than all the bad food she was putting into her body.
If her family was to be successful in persuading her to change her diet, it was clearly not going to be through battering rams’ heads. I advised the family to forget the diet and concentrate on repairing the relationship. It was difficult for me to offer this advice, because I, like the family, believe that the diet can cure my patient.
But as a psychologist, I know that cure comes from relationships. A healthy body is a body that allows itself to be influenced; a healthy mind, too, is responsive. The psychotherapist effects cure by developing a relationship with his or her patient so that he or she is in a position to influence the patient to cure. Healing medicines similarly effect a relationship with the body and influence the body to operate in ways different from its typical “sick” way.
The relationship that is the most potent may be the one that determines the course of events for a patient. My patient’s negative response to food may be far more powerful than her positive response to a family who treats her curatively. Her family knew this, and this was why it was so difficult for them to stop talking to her about diet. They figured that if they didn’t talk to her, there would be no chance for change; if they kept talking, then maybe even a slight chance she might change. Actually that reasoning was faulty. Talking to her was increasing her resistance to change.
So even after they decided not to try to get her to change her dietary habits, they knew that she still might not get well. My patient appreciated the change her family manifested, and how difficult it was for them to give to her in this way that is, to give to her in her way, not their way. Still, the toxicity of the fet-,,d may prove to be stronger than the health-giving properties of love.
Hope lies in the fact that sometimes when you develop a tension-free relationship, the relationship helps to create the proper environment for change to take place. This is why I advised the family to focus on improving the relationship. One learns to use the relationship as the tool through which one effects change. This means being sensitive to the emotional needs of the other person, not just doing what you think is best. You may, at times, have to do what the other person wants, even if you think it’s not best.
Another cancer patient had the same problem in reverse. She was committed to a detoxification program, but her family thought that she should be in orthodox medical treatment. She would go through a healing crisis and her family would get terrified and plead with her to go to a hospital and stop her program. She had to expend vital energy that should have gone to body repair on soothing her distressed family. Her woes were doubled: she had her body to repair, her own fears about her program failing, and in addition her family’s stress to assuage.
Psychotherapy students are taught that resistance to change is not resolved by meeting it headlong, jumping over it, or smashing it. It is to be gently explored and understood. The patient is allowed to keep a defense pattern as long as he feels he needs it. When we attempt to repair the body through non-toxic means, we have the same attitude. It is the chemotherapists and radiologists who are in the hurry. Real cure takes time.
So does change. So when we want someone to follow a treatment plan that we believe in, but the patient doesn’t want to follow, we must remember that the treatment plan will only be effective if the emotional needs of the patient are taken care of as well.