Death of a Healer
by Steven Heller, D.C.
by Steven Heller
September 7, 2017
I came to chiropractic from yoga. As a practitioner of Hatha Yoga and a follower of the teachings of an enlightened master, I saw chiropractic health care as perfectly aligned with my spiritual path. I embraced the chiropractic “Big Idea” that the body was a perfectly created, self-healing mechanism that needed neither drugs nor surgery to manifest its perfection. My role as “doctor” was primarily to identify the obstacles to my patients’ expression of health, whether wrong lifestyle, wrong diet, etc. and offer possible solutions towards eliminating the obstacles and allowing the body to heal itself. Thirty five years later, this remains my mantra.
I’ve long abandoned the concept of being a “healer”. For a provider to think of himself or herself as a healer is, in my opinion, both false thinking and an act of hubris. When one of my patients experiences a positive health outcome, I now recognize that my part in that process was one of facilitator, and a minor one at that. Healing happens in the only way possible: from within that person as dictated by that individual’s innate wisdom. I understand that the responsibility for a person’s condition resides solely with that person and not with his/her doctor, therapist or guru. Coming to own this understanding, however, was a sometimes painful process that spanned my first several years in practice.
When I began seeing patients in 1983, I did see myself in the role of “healer”. At least that was my aspiration. People were entrusting me with their bodies and allowing me to intervene to affect some sort of physiological change, hopefully for the good. I viewed this then…as I do now…as a sacred trust. My personal journey had instilled in me a belief system that yoked body, mind and spirit. Changes made to any one leg of that triangle would cause change to the other two. That knowledge created, in me, a sense of responsibility that would define the “intention” that powered my patient interactions.
I entered every treatment room feeling the weight of this responsibility. Before laying my hands on someone, I prayed for guidance, telling myself that I was being allowed to treat this child of god and my “intention” needed to reflect that privilege.
What I failed to grasp at the time was the role my ego and attachment played in my work. I made the mistake of equating caring about my patients’ suffering with needing to take “responsibility” for their outcomes. I allowed…even encouraged…my patients to bring me their “stuff” and hand it to me to fix. My willingness to take on my patients’ shit as my own…as my responsibility… created a disastrous first couple of years in practice. If I saw a person with a persistent migraine, I’d go home with a headache. A couple of hot low backs, my sciatic would flare up. I developed pneumonia twice in my first three years of being in practice! I was a mess.
I began to realize that continuing on this path was unsustainable. The problem was not with my intention or my actual work. The problem was with my attachment to the results. When patients didn’t respond as hoped or, god-forbid, got worse…I was devastated. Conversely, when someone told me I “fixed” a problem that they had struggled with for years, I went home thinking I was indeed an amazing healer. This results-oriented roller coaster was making me sicker and sicker. Eventually I realized that I needed to find a way to detach from the results while still bringing my highest intention to the work.
I’d like to say I developed some sort of technique for accomplishing the detachment, but the truth is, I just started paying attention, noticing when my own peace was being affected by my patients’ results. I will say it was easier letting go of the negative ones. Their condition is their condition, not mine. I did my best with good intention. They chose to continue their suffering. The “wins” proved the most seductive to my ego. But only when I could accept that neither the “successes” nor the “failures” were my doing, that I was able to go home at the end of a day feeling peaceful, knowing that I brought my skillset to my patients with loving compassion and sacred intention and had done my job.
Dr. Steven Heller has been clinical director of the Alameda Chiropractic Center since 1983. In addition to taking care of patients, he enjoys juggling, woodworking, smoking meats, cracking wise and muckraking and hopes one day to start receiving checks from his successful children.