Life-Saving at the Empathic Therapy Conference

Before the “Treating the Psychiatrically Maltreated” workshop at the Empathic Therapy Conference, a young man approached me, hand outstretched.  He was slender, had long dark hair, and was wearing a black shirt and dark pants.  He thanked me for saving his life.  His name is Lorenzo and he heard the radio interview Dr. Peter Breggin did with me.  And then, in the swirl and mix of people, he was gone and I don’t know any more of his story.

What did I say that opened a door that he could walk through?  What kind of hell was he in and how did my words help him out of it?  I’ll probably never know but I wish I did.  The interview from January 23, 2012, is archived at

The same day that Lorenzo shook my hand a man named Paul told me that Dr. Bert Karon saved his life.  Paul had been taking psych meds for nine years when he met Dr. Karon and became free of drugs.  So what is going on here that men call “life-saving?”  My guess is that they are not talking about the life of the body, but of the mind.

Here’s a little bio of Dr. Karon, snitched from some place on the Internet:  “Bertram P. Karon, Ph.D., is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Michigan State University. Dr. Karon received his A.B. from Harvard, his M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton. He is a former President of the Division of Psychoanalysis of the American Psychological Association, and has over 150 publications.”  He also, about three years ago, was in a car crash that left him a quadriplegic. He’s working hard at getting better and can walk a little now, but he can’t lift a coffee cup to his lips or get himself out of his wheelchair.  What Dr. Karon can do is think and talk, which means he can teach and do therapy. Large audiences lean forward and listen intently to what he has to say.

What is man that thou art mindful of him?  Are we our bodies, our flesh?  Is biopsychiatry right that what matters about us are our bodies, our physicality?  There was an original Star Trek episode in which the aliens were pure mind incased in globes; they had somehow moved beyond bodies (which, by the way, didn’t work out well for them).  Empathic therapy declares that mental illness is caused by people hurting people, and healthy people—without drugs—can heal people.  I offer you Dr. Karon, whose body is totally crapped out, but who guides people in healing.

I don’t think we are saving physical lives; I think we are saving the psyche—the mind, the spirit, the soul.  It is true that many people have committed suicide as a result of taking psych meds, so maybe we are saving physical lives, but I don’t think that’s the major thing.  It’s about getting your soul back after it’s disappeared into a pill bottle.

At the conference, Dr. Karon told a story about himself and healing a catatonic person.  Catatonia is a state in which a person appears absolutely frozen.  Other than breathing, the patient is completely immobile for long periods of time.  In fact, the patient Dr. Karon took on had been frozen for two years.  Dr. Karon reported that when he was young (a mild nod to the fact that young men will take on great challenges, even if they appear foolish) he and a colleague decided to see if empathic therapy would work with a catatonic person.

I remember the first catatonic person I ever saw.  I was working as a mental health therapy aide on inpatient psychiatry and it was in the morning therapy group.  She was a petite woman with a cloud of dark hair, sitting in a chair with her hands in front of her.  Her neck was arched and her head tilted back to such an extreme degree that from across the room I could see the roof of her mouth.  She did not move.  I was horrified and terrified.  How could she be like that?

According to Dr. Karon, animals—both lower and higher—when perceiving life-threatening danger, will freeze like this, that is, they will play dead.  A person who is catatonic is in such life-terror from what is inside their head that they will remain frozen until it is safe to return to life.  Dr. Karon’s patient had been so frozen for two years.  He and his colleague engaged the patient every day for ten hours a day.  At the end of two weeks, the patient started talking to them.  At the end of his therapy, the patient returned to a full and normal life.  Under traditional therapy, the patient would have been kept drugged and hospitalized for the rest of his life.

So what was going on at this “empathic therapy” conference?  What was going on that people called “life-saving?” 

People were listening to each other.  They were celebrating the life within us instead of damping out all human response with psychiatric medication.  The Bhagavad Gita says “The cause of your body is nature, but the cause of your aliveness—your experience of being an individual, feeling joy and sorrow in a particular body—is Spirit.”  Empathic therapy addresses the cause of your aliveness, and is life-saving.

Referral of the Day:

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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2 Responses to Life-Saving at the Empathic Therapy Conference

  1. Pingback: Surviving Psychiatry « Cathi Carol

  2. Susan_Ks says:

    Awesome post Anne. Thank you for sharing it with me. Yes. When fight and flight don’t work…freeze is the only safety left.

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