Not-So-Sweet Medicine

You would have thought I’d given her poison. The face she made – it was priceless.

Nonetheless she persevered and swallowed it all.

photo-1418834508981-6114b37427b8It said cherry flavour on the box – but apparently this decongestant was not suitable to my youngest daughter’s palate. She alluded to some promise of a spoonful of sugar making it all easier…

I’m sorry Mary Poppins, I hold you in high regard and fondness, but that song you sang about “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way” — it has a dark side to it. Some medicine simply can’t be made palatable.

Maybe I’m being too hard on this most famous nanny, but I think that song reinforces a cultural belief that’s only gotten stronger since the movie was released in 1965. It’s the belief that medicine shouldn’t have to be unpleasant.

We can’t always avoid the painful reality that life is difficult, and solutions to our problems or, “medicines” are often more than unpleasant; they are painful and damn hard work.

I am in awe of the people who come to see me for professional help.

They don’t just work hard in therapy, they do the psychological equivalent of running into a burning building to look for survivors. They don’t know what they’ll find, but they have enough faith and hope that whatever’s left in there is worth running into the flames for.

They look at the charred remains of a life that once was, and through a veil of tears decide that it’s time to rebuild.

Forget all the nonsense you’ve heard about therapy being for crazy or weak people. My patients are often more sane and more strong than any of us could imagine.

Forget all the absurdity about vulnerability being weak. My patients show us that opening up to one’s deepest struggles and pain brings forth a strength only heroes are capable of.

Forget all the messages we’ve been given that suffering and struggle are to be avoided. My patients prove that the human spirit is relentless and able not only to overcome, but also redeem the most difficult aspects of life.

Theodore Roosevelt, the legendary American president (whose wife and mother died on the same day) wrote: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty”.

It’s not that I’m against a spoonful of sugar from time to time. But sometimes we have to take hard medicine. Sometimes we have to summon the courage to face the worst that life has for us and allow it to transform us. I’m deeply grateful for all of the living examples of exactly this kind of courage that I get to see on a regular basis. Whether it’s a 6 year-old taking unpleasant cough syrup, a 35 year-old housewife taking a risk on love again after a betrayal, or a 77 year-old learning to adjust to life after a stroke, a life well live comes with an invitation to experience struggle and hardship, and there’s nothing that can sweeten that.

Yet perhaps these journeys of not-so-sweet medicine will prove to be worthwhile in some strange sense that we can almost never see when we are going through them. Perhaps they will make us better in the end. Perhaps if we persevere and make a face they will not poison us, but heal us.


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