Intuition has helped me learn to trust the wisdom of my body and, ultimately, to begin to better understand and trust myself. By following my intuition through the doubts and fears, hanging out with the lack of clarity when I often see only one step ahead of me, I have found ways of working with and relating to my chronic illness that I never knew existed when I was a physician.
When I was a child, I saw an image one day that has stayed with me. In it, a person is lying on a wet street near where I live, wounded, with an ambulance parked right next to them. There is blood, a broken leg, and the sense of urgency as the lights flash. This image has long tugged at me. Someone is in crisis and needs help. I have always felt as though this is where I was meant to be, right there at their side. Growing up I linked this image with wanting to become a doctor and it felt right.
I became a family doctor and loved the connection I had with my patients. Listening to their stories felt like a privilege few people get to have. Deciding to leave the practice of medicine was not an easy decision and it came from following my intuition. I first went through profound grief – not about leaving, although the idea of abandoning all I had struggled so hard to achieve scared me to death, but from a sense that I was not helping people in ways that I had imagined.
My medical training never taught me to consider the link between the mind, the emotions and the body. I learned to focus on treating physical problems with scientifically based physical solutions and there was never any time, or reason, to consider anything else. But what I wanted from my chosen profession felt as though it was somehow more profound than that. It seemed to be about empowering people while also wanting to help them truly heal. Some years after completing my residency, working this way began to feel as though I was hurting my soul. I did not recognize it at first, but these painful feelings were a form of intuition asking me to listen.
I needed time to hear what my intuition was saying.
The grief gradually became relentless. As it increased, I started to hear the whisperings in my heart. I felt pulled – wanting to stay and figure out a way to make my career work, while desperately wanting to leave even though I had no idea what I’d do instead (1)I drew the images in this post during the process of leaving medicine and starting a new career, between about 1997 and 2004.
I eventually set up a meeting with my boss to talk about leaving the practice. He listened, as he always had, and suggested ways we could work with my needs to enable me to stay. I left feeling buoyed and hopeful. But it wasn’t long before the voice started knocking on the door again. When I set up a second meeting with him 3 months later, I was clear. I knew then that I needed to leave, and this time, so did he.
Following this decision I felt liberated and relieved. And terrified. I had no idea what I would do with my life. I had never really had any other plans. Over a few months the inner turmoil started to sort itself. And then to reveal itself, one little step at a time. I woke up one morning and realized that if I sold my house, I could take time off.
My house sold in 11 days to the first person who contacted me.
I drew this picture on my birthday in 1997 a few months after making the decision to leave medicine.
Throughout the process of changing careers there were periods of chaos and fear, followed by clarity. Once I was clear, it was then about mustering the courage to take the risk.
After leaving my career, I took time off to slow down. I started Tai Chi. After 6 months I added a mindfulness practice in the mornings. A year into my time off, after a period of wondering what I’d do next, I had an impulse to look up psychotherapy training programs – something that had never crossed my mind. But I had started psychotherapy in my last year or two of practicing medicine, in part to understand the grief and despair that I’d been feeling. I had found the experience deeply supportive and illuminating. My sessions with my therapist, who worked with the mind-body connection and paid attention to sensation, movement, and impulses, were an hour and a half long. I had never had such an experience of spacious support and compassion in any health care appointment I’d ever had.
At first when I looked at training programs online, nothing seemed particularly interesting. But I woke up the next morning with a curiosity about one of the schools I’d glimpsed called Naropa. I’d never heard of it before. And when I read the introduction to it on the website on this second day, I felt as though I’d come home. At the welcoming ceremony a few months later, I heard story after story from other entering students who felt the same way.
It turned out that Naropa had a training program that teaches you how to listen and work with the intelligence of the mind-body connection. Somatic psychology was similar to the approach my therapist utilized but that I hadn’t known had a name, let alone existed. It also happened to be similar to the approach used by my role model at the time, Rachel Naomi Remen, a pediatrician who retrained and developed a counseling practice specializing in working with physicians who were burned out and people with cancer.
When I was writing my application for Naropa, the image of the wounded person and the ambulance came up again and my interpretation shifted. What I craved more deeply than I had ever realized was to be present with this person. To be present throughout the chaos and fear and danger right at their side so they could know that they were not alone. I didn’t want to fix or treat anything. I didn’t want to bandage or tape or prescribe. I just wanted to Be. And what I wanted more than anything was to be with someone in dire straights while already seeing them as Whole. Whole and intelligent, knowing that their bodies hold the wisdom needed to guide their process towards healing.
That’s what I ended up learning at Naropa.
Writing this post I see too how that that person lying wounded on the street is also a representation of myself. Someone needing presence to accompany me through scary situations, whether in day-to-day life or in tight spots, and to help me realize that I was not alone.
Becoming a somatic psychotherapist is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. This is the kind of doctor I never knew I wanted to become. Because I got to really listen to people. To hear their stories and hold a space where they could express their pain without having to protect the listener. I got to be with people. To sit in the thicket and stand in the fear with them, accompanying without having to have any answers. I got to help people do the hard work, using only the slow fixes I had to offer. And it changed their lives. Just as it changed mine.
Intuition does not always take us down the path we would have chosen (2)see a fellow blogger’s post that conveys a similar experience, Intuition at No One Gets Flowers for Chronic Pain. Maybe that’s part of how it works. I would never, in a million years, have imagined that I’d end up leaving medicine. Taking a year off. And then, on another impulse, retraining as a psychotherapist.
Before a great vision can become reality there may be difficulty. Before a person begins a great endeavor, they may encounter chaos. As a new plant breaks the ground with great difficulty, foreshadowing the huge tree, so must we sometimes push against difficulty in bringing forth our dreams.
Intuition connects us to the deepest longings in our souls. It connects us to the Universe and the place where all is One. Our longings and cravings are guides that help us find our own unique path in order to support and transform and create what it is that we, and only we, have to contribute to the world. I wanted to be a doctor from early in childhood, but it was intuition and trial and error that finally lead me to working with both body and mind in the form of psychology rather than medicine.
Leaving medicine did not cure the fatigue that had insidiously started in the year or so before I left. But it set me on a path that has become my healing journey.
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