Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Choose Your Life

I just finished reading a great and very thought provoking book called "When Nietzche Wept," by Irvin Yalom. It was a very profound story to me, and I'd like to share the story with you.

This book is a fictional tale of an imagined encounter between a prominent Vienna doctor, Dr. Breuer and the now famous philosopher, Nietzche, back in the 1800s.

It takes place before the invention of psychotherapy. A woman persuades Breuer to try to help her friend Nietzche, who is suffering, she says, from despair. "Despair?" says Breuer. "What do I know about treating despair?" He decides to try anyway.

Because Nietzche is not willing to consent to treatment, Breuer makes a ploy where he claims despair himself and asks Nietzche, , a philosopher with many ideas about the human condition, to treat him while Breuer looks over Nietzche's physical condition.

At first Breuer tries to pry information out of Nietzche, but Nietzche refuses to share anything personal, believing it a form of weakness.

After several sessions, Breuer forgets about trying to manipulate Nietzche, and genuinely becomes the patient. He is depressed and suffers with an obsession over a former patient.

The long and short of the book is this, which brought up several meaningful themes for me:

Breuer is depressed because, although he has a good life as a prominent, respected doctor, a loving wife and family, money and so on, he feels restricted. He longs for freedom. He feels that he was forced into this life because of his culture and expectations of his family and the culture around him. He doesn't realize this for a long time, of course, but in the end this is what it amounts to.

Nietzche says that the most important thing in life is to "Choose your life." He says that Breuer has not chosen his life, and that is the reason for his despair, and also the reason for his obsession with his patient Bertha. Bertha represents living dangerously, passion, magic and escape to Breuer. Breuer resists this theory at first, but at the end of the book he comes to agree. He is hypnotized and imagines leaving his wife, kids and life to be free in Italy. He discovers he does not like it very much. When he becomes conscious again, he is invigorated because he realizes he actually does like the life he has, and he "chooses" it. "I choose to be married to you today," he tells his wife.

After Breuer has his epiphany, Nietzche finally reveals his story. Due to Nietzche 's loneliness and wandering lifestyle, Breuer offers to let Nietzche stay at his house, so that he will not be so isolated. Nietzche refuses, though, and Breuer is dissapointed, thinking after all this time, he has done nothing to help Nietzche.

Nietzche reassures Breuer that he has indeed given him something very powerful: the freedom of choice. Having been offered an alternative and refused it, he is now free to "choose his life,"
and be happy about it; before he felt bound by it.

"Isolation only exists in isolation," he says. "When it is shared, it evaporates."

"The moment I talked of not being able to touch another was the very moment I was able to be touched by you."

The above remarks are Nietzche commenting on his situation relevant to the therapy experience.

I have read lots of psychology related books, and a good number of books on psychotherapy, but this is the first one that really brought home what the process of psychotherapy was really about.

Another theme was discovering the origin and meaning of each symptom. To do this, Breuer "chimneyswept" (did free thinking/association) about whatever thoughts came to mind regarding the symptoms, which eventually lead to relevations about their meaning.


Personal application

There is a personal application to this that I was thinking about when I was reading. I started thinking about different ways that you can "choose your life." Choose your way of thinking and your reactions to things - that's something I work hard on and am getting better at. I try to reframe things that happen as best I can so I can not get so angry or scared of things.

Choose your decisions - I put a lot of thought into my decisions and I always make damn sure that I am making a decision that I can stand by and be proud of for years into the future. Even if things don't go as planned, and the decision turns out to be not the best one in retrospect, I know I made the best decision I could with the information I had at the time.

Choosing your will - and standing up to people who would try to change your will and your decisions because they think they know what is best for you - has been another important one for me. I especially think of those crucial few days in Bend, when the decisions I made for myself, and the pressure I resisted in making them, changed the entire course of my life for the better. I am eternally grateful for having, dare I say it, the strength of character and courage to make those decisions, as well as, of course, being lucky enough to have certain other factors fall into place when they did so I that I was lucky enough to have decisions to make.

My roommate, wanting me out on short notice, was hell bent on me going back to my mom's in Missoula (Montana). I was hell bent on not going, provided I could somehow find a way to avoid it. She made the plane tickets. I told her there was a good chance I wouldn't use them. She said fine. And for the next four days or so, I spent almost every waking moment researching other options, some way to escape the fate that she was trying so desperately to force on me. No offense to my mom, but I knew it wasn't the right place for me. I knew I wouldn't flourish there. I had too much of life left to live, and damn it, I wanted to find a way to live it. I felt that it wouldn't happen there.

I was stuck in the middle of Oregon, on the other side of the country from my family, with no ability to drive myself anywhere and knowing almost no one in the area. That, and I had severe chemical sensitivities that prevented me from being able to live just about anywhere, which is why I was in the middle of nowhere Oregon in the first place. Some might have said it was impossible. Clearly, my roommate thought it was. But I didn't (think, at the time, about possible or impossible. I just knew I had to put every ounce of myself into the task of trying, in every avenue I could, or else I would regret it forever. I would not go easily.

I am forever indebted to both Julie and Joe. Julie was the one who found me the eco-friendly apartment to live in in a hippie commune in Eugene, and Joe is the one who agreed - at 5 p.m. the day before I was supposed to fly to Missoula, no less, talk about a last minute reprieve! - to drive me the 2 hours there. My friend Leslie was gracious enough to let me stay in her house the last night I was there.

I had never met Joe before. I had only talked to him once. I knew him through an online friend in Australia - she was his stepson. He had no obligation towards me, no reason to say yes, but he did. He said yes. Against all odds. He was my last hope, and he said yes. I tell you, that was the sweetest "yes" I have ever heard in my life.

It was a big risk - going to some hippie commune in a city I'd never been to, not even knowing how I'd get my groceries, with someone I'd never met (but trusted, as I wouldn't have gone with someone I felt was going to put me in danger). I am not a risk taker by nature. But to me, not doing it was a far, far bigger risk. I wanted to live my life. I wanted independence. I wanted chemical free living arrangements. And if this is the way I had to to do it, so be it.

I chose my life.

I chose my life.

What a statement. I didn't think that much about it at the time, but others have told me they feel I have courage, bravery, all kinds of words I never would have applied to myself before. They reminded me of how many people languish in situations that are toxic for them - physically or emotionally - not making any effort to get themselves out. I did.

And here I am at what I hope is the end, or at least a good long stopping point, of my long and winding journey. Back home in Maine. Living with a woman who brings a smile to my face every day, in a town I love. In really the best possible situation I could imagine for myself, although of course nothing is perfect.

I'd say my long and winding road worked out all right.

Many nights, I get frustrated and hopeless and so fed up with the problems I still have. But then I get a glimpse of memory of how much worse it could be, would be, and I feel a flash of gratefulness that temporarily eclipses those feelings.


My roommate from Bend, who I hadn't spoken to in several months, emailed me a few nights ago out of the blue. In her well-intentioned email, she mentioned the equivalent of an "I told you so," saying something along the lines of "See, I told you you'd be better off living near family." The comment and a seperate one she made angered me so much that I had trouble containing my anger. I followed my own path, and I ended up okay. Had I followed the path she so direly wanted me to follow, I would have been living a very dependent and unhappy life that I would have had a lot of trouble getting out of. The fact that I ended up near family is wonderful but incidental. (I did have family help in moving here, which I appreciate and want to acknowledge, but it is besides the point that I am trying to make.) The fact that I had a lot more journey to follow before I could end up in a place that was right for me is the important part and the part that she apparently doesn't get. My life was meant to be lived in Maine, living independently, not in Montana.

And so when I read "When Nietzche Wept," and his ideas about choice, I was once again grateful for the choices I made. While those few days in Bend were not pleasant to endure, they were in some ways my proudest moment. I think people should live for themselves, and do what they think is right, to the best of their abilities, instead of falling prey to other people's will. Sometimes, you don't have any choice, but if you do, you should follow your heart. Whether the choices eventually turn out to be right or wrong, you will never own yourself, you will never be satisfied with your life or yourself, if you do not follow your own will.

I have a lot of living left to do and I hope I can continue to put these ideas into use. I am not saying that I do not value advice and support from others. I do very much, and I do not deny that the support and advice of my nearby family has been invaluable. But you have to have the final say. I would like to be able to change my thinking and my life circumstances even further, but if there is one thing I have learned, you can't rush things, or push yourself into situations you're just not ready for. They won't work. I hope time will eventually have in store for me a life that is more in lines with the one I'd like to live, but I suppose I have to be patient and wait.

This principle is perhaps particularly applicable to people with disabilities, who have to learn how to live with, and how to accept, a whole new set of challenges they didn't ask for or want. But those who undertake the extremely difficult task of embracing their challenges and accepting them as part of them are perhaps the most inspirational of all.

In the meantime, I have to figure out how to apply the principle of "Choose your life" into not getting frustrated and angered at at the health challenges I am facing that so much restrict my life. It helps to have a routine, and to remember what I am capable of. I am always on guard with my mind, trying to train it not to linger in areas that will be unproductive for me. Time will tell. Until then, veni vedi vici.


  1. Choose your life - wise words. I have something similar printed on a card that I have on my refridgerator - "If there is something you wish to experience in your life, do not want it - choose it." Great post!

  2. I saw a quote recently that said, 'whatever you don't change you choose'. I love the concept. Where we might feel trapped by life at certain points, we ALWAYS have the ability to accept or reject where we are. I find that very empowering.

  3. Kate, I am so glad I met you before you got back to Maine. I see the difference. I love the writing you are doing. Thanks for sharing your journey. HUGS

  4. Awesome post, Kate! (Awesome blog in general!) --Laura

  5. beautiful, inspiring and thought-provoking.

  6. that's a fantastic post - I just finished reading it and my brain is already spinning on the idea of choice. Something so absolutely crucial, this feeling of being in control of your destiny. Which can sound negative and like I'm a control freak (nothing wrong with that, though...), but when you have so many things in your life that you don't choose because of the disability/medical conditions, you realize how precious is to be able to make a choice.