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.
Out of Chaos, Brilliant Stars are Born
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.
PS – Related Posts
10 Under-Utilized Tools for Treating Chronic Illness: Building on lessons from brain plasticity, epigenetics, and trauma
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|↑1||I drew the images in this post during the process of leaving medicine and starting a new career, between about 1997 and 2004|
|↑2||see a fellow blogger’s post that conveys a similar experience, Intuition at No One Gets Flowers for Chronic Pain|
Johanne Wayne says
i love your testimony! Thank you for sharing your vulnerability! It is inspiring to me. I made the decision of accepting my last Cancer client as a clinical nutritionist this weekend until I enter the world of accure care as a nursing student at the end of April. I can relate to you on a few levels! You are precious. I love your heart! You transmit so much love and acceptance which is your story lived out for others.
Hi Johanne, Thanks for your loving words. Changing your path sounds like it’s been a pretty big deal and how great you can support yourself while also staying able to be as fully present as you can be for the clients you are working with until you shift gears. Best of luck with these last few months!
How wonderful to read your story and see the art that goes along with it! You really made such an impression and impact on my healing journey. I look forward to reading more of this. Thanks so much!
Hi Penelope, How sweet to see you here and so glad I was able to be a support on your healing journey. May it and the learning and growing and recovery continue!! xoxo
This is an interesting recapitulation of that process that we tried to follow with you from a distance, physically and emotionally. I’d make one comment.
My clear recollection is that you in fact were reticent about going into medicine from the beginning. Perhaps what made it possible was the humane approach of the McMaster program that was finally the only one you wanted to go into. And through it all, we were saying, in our attempt to accompany you, that if you did the medicine, you’d be able to look afterwards at other options with more freedom that if you went into alternative medicine (we didn’t know what that meant) right away.
You seem to have forgotten, but you had serious doubts about medicine even as you were getting into it, even as you were thinking about getting into it. We probably encouraged you in the medical option, and it might have been better to have let you try the alternative right away, instead of waiting a decade for you to find Naropa!
Hi Dad, You are absolutely right! I remember all the doubts I had when considering medicine, beginning in childhood when I first wanted to be a vet but couldn’t due to my allergies to animals. It’s a part of the story that didn’t make it into the post.
Your comment reminds me just how early the intuition started with my concerns about the limitations of medicine, which I’d forgotten in this writing. And while your encouragement for a particular direction may have influenced me more than I know, I notice that becoming a medical doctor with traditional training doesn’t feel like it was a mistake. While the training was certainly more traumatizing than I ever anticipated, it really does feel as though it gave me more options. I feel appreciative for what I learned and what it has enabled me to do in my research and work with chronic illness. Including getting to experience important and different ways of thinking about, treating, and even relating to chronic illness, which feels invaluable. It feels like part of a path that was important for me to explore. Ultimately, I feel grateful to have a much clearer understanding and view now of the aspects of the healing profession that are important to me. From where I am today, let me say thank you. Thank you for believing in me enough to urge me to reach for the stars, even if it wasn’t clear which stars those were, and even if it required some of that pushing that is often so difficult for parents to know whether – and how much – to do.
Tony Madrid says
Thank you for telling the story of your getting into medicine and getting out of being a physician. Thank you for inspiring me to pay attention to my intuition. I will do that more consciously, day by day. To follow my intuition without fear–that’s my goal.
Tony Madrid, PhD
Dear Tony, Maybe just following our intuition despite fear is good enough? I know I’m still learning to trust it and therefore still have all kinds of fear on a regular basis.
Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story. I was particularly moved to read your father’s comment. Coming from a large family with a medical background myself, I was encouraged to pursue a degree in “healthcare” and nursing seemed like the natural choice. The program itself was intensive (though perhaps not quite as intensive as medicine), but it was a constant challenge to remain committed, particularly since I often felt my true desires lay elsewhere — in a more “creative” profession, such as art or teaching.
Motivated by practicality, my parents persuaded me to finish what I had started, assuring me that once I had the degree in hand, I would then be able to use it in whatever capacity I wished. Over ten years and multiple chronic illnesses later, I feel like I am finally shifting gears and getting onto the road I am meant to be on for a much longer journey — that of health coaching and working with women who have similarly been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Interestingly, I am now able to combine all my passions — caregiving, art, and teaching, along with writing and speaking. I must give credit to my nursing experience since it was one of the stops along the way that helped me get to where I am today.
Thanks again for sharing your insight. I look forward to reading more!
Veronique Mead says
Thank you so much for sharing your story. It seems like so many of us have had this challenge of going for something that seemed perhaps more “secure” or was encouraged – and then eventually following our hearts through lesser known waters. How wonderful that following your passions has lead to a career path you could probably have never planned!! My father’s comment was unexpected and moving for me too :-).