21 Apr Remarks for my 50th Amherst College Reunion: Rebuilding a Life After Loss and Despair
Posted at 3:42 pm in Individual Therapy by jlbworks
(Prepared for a panel discussion entitled “No Easy Life: Stories of Adversity and Resilience)
Philip Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP
Board Certified Clinical Psychologist
Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
“I think it’s a given that, one way or another, virtually all of us have suffered trauma and loss. As men, most of us have been socialized to keep those experiences to ourselves. But it is nothing short of transformational to own our vulnerability and our dependency and share those feelings. My experience is that doing so grounds our authenticity and connects us deeply.”
(personal email from Amherst College classmate Doug Clark, 11/3/2019)
In his seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the steps in what he calls “The Hero’s Journey.” He writes that these steps are evident in the myths of cultures all over the world, going back thousands of years. A chapter in his book is titled “The Belly of the Whale,” recalling the biblical story of Jonah’s being swallowed by a whale, with no idea if he will ever survive. Campbell writes, “The hero…is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died.” (p. 74)
My own personal “belly of the whale” period began with the deterioration of my first marriage. I was living on the grounds of the Northfield Mt. Herman School in western Massachusetts, where I was married to the Head of the school. I was working as a psychologist in private practice in Keene, New Hampshire. As I could feel my marriage crumbling, I became profoundly depressed. I made a plan to end my life. I would park my car in our garage, get a hose, and die by carbon monoxide. But the morning when I planned to carry this out, I realized that my 14-year-old step-daughter, asleep in the house, might be the person who would find my body, and I could not bring myself to do this to her and, potentially, emotionally destroy her life.
Many of you are familiar with the story of Carol Kearns, our classmate Bob Bingham’s wife, who lost her 7-year-old daughter to a freak wave on the Oregon Coast. Carol became a psychologist so that she could help other parents who had lost a child. In her book Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare, Carol writes, “This idea of the essential vessel—the ‘core self,’ the ‘essential you,’ the person you really are’—is the one part of us that remains after tragedy empties us out. But if there is any benefit to grief (and for years I would have sworn there was none), it lies in the possibility of building a new and even fulfilling life from the ruins. We learn that when we’re young, we may not give much thought to the decisions we make, because if we’ve made a mistake, we live with it and go on. But later, something happens—a death, a loss, a tragedy—that leads us to ‘unpack’ or reexamine our choices and see if we’re on the journey we’ve always wanted. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (with whom Carol worked in therapy for many years) used to say it was unfortunate that human beings don’t learn when they’re happy. Most of the time it takes a huge, life-altering event to teach us life’s hard lessons. But once we discover what truly matters, life can start anew.” (pp. 122-123)
In a recent article in the New York Times (4/12/2020), entitled “I’m Grieving Now. You May Be, Too.,” novelist R.O. Kwon describes her own plunge into deep despair: “The last time I suddenly found myself in a state of deep grief, utterly unable to go on as usual…the world I’d known shifted, cracked open and fell apart…for some time I felt as if I might be the loneliest person alive.”
Like Kwon, I felt in my own grief as if the world I’d known had “cracked open and fallen apart.” While I’d struggled to fully utilize personal psychotherapy in the past, I was now much more able to benefit from it. I contacted a psychiatrist I knew in Keene, who prescribed an antidepressant for me. I changed therapists, to someone who helped me to extricate myself from the marriage. I moved out of our marital home, stayed briefly with a dear friend, and then found a one-bedroom apartment in Keene. I relied on old friends for support. I worked diligently with my therapist to decide where could I go, in 1991, at the age of 43, to start a new private practice in a larger city. The cities I knew best were Boston and Philadelphia. Eventually, I decided to move back to Nashville, Tennessee, where I had gone to high school and still had family.
Four years later, in the letter I submitted for our 25th Amherst College reunion, in 1995, I wrote, “Amherst College changed my life. In fact, for 25 years, I thought I had changed so much that I could never again be happy living in the South, and so I did not seriously consider returning home to Tennessee. I could not imagine that I wouldn’t find the intellectual environment stultifying, and the religious climate oppressive. Moreover, as I entered my forties, I did not think I’d be able to develop the quality and depth of close friendships, particularly with men, that had sustained me through 25 years in New England and Philadelphia.”
“Then a series of circumstances forced me to reconsider. My marriage ended, managed care tightened its grip on the southern New Hampshire town where I was in private practice, and I could see that the hospital where I consulted half-time might soon go under (within a year it did close, laying off all 100+ employees). I sought escape from the loneliness of single life in small-town New England, to a city where I might build a new practice and a new community.”
This coming October will be the 17th anniversary of my second marriage. My wife and I live in the beautifully renovated home that my parents bought in 1967 when we were all at Amherst College. I have seen good therapists for my own personal psychotherapy and I have made deep friendships. I have built a thriving private practice, 5 minutes from my home. I enjoy my involvement on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where I work with the psychiatric residents. I mentor many young Nashville psychotherapists and assist them in building their own private practices. I particularly enjoy my work as a group therapist. Each week I lead a women’s group, a men’s group, and a group for the Vanderbilt psychiatric residents.
In 1975, in the summer after finishing my doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, I enrolled in an intensive five-week Buddhist meditation course at Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado, in which we meditated 3-4 hours a day and all day on Sundays. This was a transformative experience, and ever since, Buddhism has informed my life and my psychotherapy practice. One of my teachers at Naropa, Jack Kornfield, in his book A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, writes, “In a spiritually informed life, the inevitable difficulties can be the source of our awakening, of deepening wisdom, patience, balance, and compassion. Without this spiritual perspective, we simply bear our sufferings, like an ox or a foot soldier, under a heavy load.”