Where did you come from, where did you go…?
All medical students in the United States are required to complete a rotation in psychiatry during their third year of training. I’m forever grateful for that requirement, because my 4 weeks on the consult service for our hospital drew me onto the path to ultimately becoming a psychiatrist and therapist.
Like so many people, my emotions were not something that really got much attention or nurturing as I was growing up. My family had an ultra-religious perspective on life, and our entire life was given a religious frame, including our emotions. We were to “consider it joy” when we were facing “trials”, since any suffering we faced was thought to be for God’s glory, somehow. None of that prepared me for a real world with complicated feelings that need to be felt, and worked through, to truly be healthy and in touch with myself. I was lauded by my parents as being an “easygoing” child who was “always happy”, and in fact, I believed this about myself as well, for a long time.
So, I had a rocky introduction as a third year medical student to a universe of human beings who were so desperate that they tried to end their lives; filled with delusions or trapped in a manic state. As confusing as this world was, I found myself resonating with their raw emotions, as they touched feelings inside of me that I had stuffed out of awareness. Ever since, I’ve dedicated my life to understanding our emotional existence, and, in particular, how to use this knowledge for the healing and growth of myself and those around me. I want to share in this article a theory of emotional life that I’ve found tremendously helpful, both personally and professionally.
After residency, I embarked on a 2 year program in psychoanalysis, and I was introduced to the writings of Wilfred Bion, a British psychoanalyst who mostly wrote in the mid-1900s. His “alpha function” theory of mental existence helps me make so much sense of my own emotions, as well of so many problems that my patients experience.