Bipolar as a mental health issue is not well understood, but it is apparently caused by a neurological chemical imbalance which can often be managed by treatment with lithium or other medication. In a workshop on bipolar or manic depression, as it is sometimes called, a psychiatrist reported that one question often asked by people who experience it is, “Why me?” He proceeded to give what he thought was the correct answer, which involved a scientific explanation regarding the nervous system, genetic predisposition, and the chemical deficiency which may trigger the symptoms of bipolar.
The psychiatrist, however, had not understood the question. “Why me?” does not look for scientific explanations. Rather, it is a search for some meaning and purpose to any hardship or suffering that people with bipolar may experience. Furthermore, it assumes that there is something unfair about having to suffer, especially when so many others escape suffering. These are philosophical or perhaps even religious questions, not scientific questions. And they are not nearly so easy to answer. Indeed, they have no answer if the only source of knowledge is science.
People ask, “Is my marriage hopeless?” “Why did my child get killed?” “Will my life ever get better?” “Should I get a divorce? Have a child? Take another job? Go back to school?” In spite of the respect, even near-reverence, which many people have for their therapists, none of us can answer such questions. Our answers are no better than their own, and in most cases are worse. We cannot know a person better than he or she knows himself/herself.
Psychotherapy may help a person achieve a sense of autonomy and control over his or her life. It does not, however, provide easy answers for the most difficult questions of human existence. The person who comes to therapy hoping that the therapist will take over his or her life and provide neat solutions to all problems needs to understand that life is difficult, that there are many unanswered questions, and that ultimately one must take responsibility for himself/herself. Learning these lessons while drawing on self-compassion should always be an important goal of therapy.
We do not learn and grow from quick fixes or easy answers, no matter how much we think we want them. And the therapist who offers such solutions is not doing the person in therapy any favor. People instinctively know that another person cannot run their lives. They resist in very creative ways the imposition of such solutions by overly helpful, not-so-helpful professionals.
There are a lot of questions I can’t answer—not for the people I work with in therapy and, in some cases, not even for myself. Life and death are great mysteries. And the best scientific research has not given, and cannot give, answers to these most important questions of human life.
On the other hand, the inability to answer such questions for the person in therapy is not the same as failure to grapple with them. And it does not mean that human wisdom is exhausted by the scientific enterprise. This leads to one final point about the nature of psychotherapy. Therapy of the psyche, the “healing of the soul,” is ultimately a spiritual or even a religious process. At some point, a competent therapist must feel comfortable dealing with these kinds of questions, questions about good and evil, what is the good life, and the meaning of life and death.
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