Shadow Work

I met my shadow when I was 7. Along with nearly 40 fellow catholic school classmates, I was preparing to receive my First Communion in a few weeks. But before that could happen we needed to make our First Confession. Being the hyper-responsible eldest of five children, I took the preparation for these sacraments very seriously. I knew that everything I did, and more importantly, how I did it was being looked at as an example for how things might go for my younger siblings. My example could be good or bad, and I really wanted it to be good. So when we were instructed to think about what sins we might have committed, I did a fearless moral inventory. Did I disobey my parents? Nope. Did I tell lies? No again. Had I stolen anything? Bullied anyone? Not acted nicely? No, no and no.

OK, so now I was in a bit of a quandary. How was I supposed to participate if I didn’t have anything to confess? I agonized over this for quite some time, even as I made my way into the confessional. When the priest opened his little window and invited me to begin, I blurted out, “Bless me father, for I have sinned. I disobeyed my mother three times, took a toy from my brother, and talked back to my friend”. The priest voiced his rote response and gave me my penance: one “Our Father” and three “Hail Mary’s”. I breathed a sigh of relief that it was over, and made my way out of the confessional, up to the area in front of the pews where a few other children were kneeling to do their penance. I knelt down and before I could stop it, my bowels let out the loudest and longest fart I had ever witnessed. As the sound reverberated through the church, I could hear a few giggles from behind me. I didn’t move a muscle; I stayed planted in my spot, head bowed, offering up a prayer along with my penance that maybe not everyone had actually heard it. The embarrassment passed, and once all the children had completed their process, we walked back to the school, a block away from the church.

I’d been walking by myself, and a friend hurried to catch up to me. “Did you hear that fart that Susan made? It was so loud!” Susan had been kneeling about 4 feet from me, and with the way sound echoed in that church, it was sometimes difficult to tell where it was coming from. I offered up a silent prayer to God, thanking Him for covering for me this time. But almost immediately I was filled with a feeling of guilt, and then remorse that I was letting someone else take the blame for something that was my fault.

It was at that moment that I became a liar. I did not realize this consciously, of course, but I had solved my “what do I confess?” problem with telling lies, and then was immediately presented with an opportunity to tell the truth again. Yet I chose to betray an innocent person rather that own up to a socially embarrassing situation. One might argue that these are problems too big for a 7 year old to deal with, and that my choices then were understandable and that anyone else would have done the same. But this did not happen to “anyone else”…it happened to me. Thus began my foray into the world of ethical responsibility as it pertains to the Truth.

The Dark Night of the Soul

Many of us are going through a time in our lives where we are being confronted with situations and experiences that force us to examine the darker parts of ourselves. This is the nature of Shadow Work. My own “dark night” has been going on since about 2010, so I’ve had plenty of time to ponder the reasons why my life has not really gone the way I expected. In fact, 2010 was the last year that I officially worked in my chosen career. My “work” since then has been to come to terms with why my life included so many painful experiences: divorce, pregnancy loss, financial hardship, estrangement from loved ones, health challenges and loss of career, among others. And although on the surface none of these events had much to do directly with telling lies vs. the truth, Shadow Work forces one to get to the root of things. I found myself reliving many different choice points that had presented themselves during my most difficult circumstances and realized that indeed, lying to myself or others was a central theme in some of them.

Despite becoming a liar early on, I never embraced the role. When opportunities to lie came up, choosing to lie always brought up very difficult emotions, so I avoided it whenever possible. That did not mean that I wasn’t good at it though. My skill was honed as I got older and entered the field of Medicine. During my training, the lies I told myself were rampant; “My kids will be fine, even though I’m required to spend 80–100 hours a week away from home”, “I can get by on 4–5 hours of sleep at night (on average)”, “This diet of hospital and fast food won’t last forever, so I will just eat better when I’m able”. Thankfully, lying to others had not been a necessity then.

That changed when I started practicing, when the distinction of lying vs being truthful was not so clear cut. I found myself cutting corners when it came to explaining all of the risks and possible complications associated with a procedure or pharmaceutical intervention. Each type of surgery and medication carries its own set of risks and benefits, and although I felt it was important for patients to understand these before deciding to proceed, I found that reciting the entire list of possible complications (which always include Death) ate into the already limited time I had to spend with people. In addition, I didn’t want to scare them so much that they would decline to proceed with treatment. I got around this by only briefly going over the highlights of the Informed Consent form that patients sign when agreeing to undergo a treatment such as surgery, or to receive certain medications or vaccines. I rationalized that it was their responsibility to read the entire document and ask questions if they didn’t understand something.

Over the years, this sat less and less well with me. I began to realize that I was shortchanging patients by not giving them critical information in the interest of playing along with the medical system. This became so uncomfortable for me that I ultimately decided to leave the practice of medicine, just as I had left the Catholic Church years before. I’d grown tired of allowing a system to push me into not doing what I felt was right. At the age of seven, I didn’t have the understanding or wherewithal to remove myself from a situation that did not honor the truth, but as an adult, separating myself from such experiences became the essence of my own personal shadow work. I knew that my decision to not play along might cost me dearly, and was not surprised when I subsequently lost colleagues, friends, family, reputation and ultimately my career.

Informed Consent for Vaccines

This is a time when the subject of Informed Consent should be at the front of everyone’s mind. Before accepting any treatment or vaccine, one should be fully informed and then give their consent. The person administering the vaccine is the one who should be having this discussion with patients and their loved ones while carefully detailing the risks, benefits, alternatives, possible side effects and complications. Due to the very fast rollout of the COVID vaccines and mass vaccination effort, there has simply not been enough time to fully study or understand the risks, possible side effects and complications that are only just now becoming known. So by definition, any consent given cannot be “informed”.

This, too does not sit well with me. Yes, one can argue that the severity of the virus warrants a strategy such as this. I’m not here to refute any arguments, however. My aim is to use my understanding of the human body and the medical system to help people see the shadows inherent in using a one-size-fits-all approach to address this world changing event.

Going against the grain to honor one’s own truth often leads to challenges and even the loss of things we hold dear. But such shadow work can and does ultimately lead to rich rewards, not the least of which includes self-respect, autonomy, freedom, and confidence. For me, re-gaining my integrity has been worth everything I’ve had to give up while in search of it, and I will never let it go again.

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Retired MD employing joyful and loving practices to enhance life. Buy me coffee at ko-fi.com/drjoylove.

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Dr Joy Love

Dr Joy Love

Retired MD employing joyful and loving practices to enhance life. Buy me coffee at ko-fi.com/drjoylove.

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