Problem or Solution? Lessons from Fainting

During the second semester of studying Marriage & Family Therapy in my Master’s program I started to experience an interesting pattern.  I would randomly faint about once a month, each time early in the morning on the first Monday of the month.  The first time this happened I assumed that it was because I had gotten up several hours earlier than usual and hadn’t eaten breakfast yet.

However, when it happened the following month I was in another state, it was a little bit later in the morning, I was engaged in a different activity, and I had eaten breakfast.  But I assumed that my cold cereal breakfast simply hadn’t been substantial enough or that my body was adjusting to a much colder climate.

But the next month, when it happened again, I knew that my body had acclimated to winter and I had taken to eating especially hearty breakfast meals in response to the previous incidents.  That told me that something wasn’t right within me.  And so I finally decided to go and see a doctor.  I went to the university’s student health clinic and was able to see a doctor that day.

When I met with the doctor she asked some questions, checked my weight, and ran a few tests but ultimately said that there wasn’t anything discernible causing the issue.  She said I fit the profile of a “benign fainter”, saying that some people with a slight build can be more prone to fainting.  I was disappointed to not have a more concrete answer.  I wanted a problem that had a solution so that I could fix it!

I voiced my disappointment commenting. “Well shucks!  I was hoping to find out what was causing this problem.”  And the doctor’s response was, to me, very profound and impactful.  She responded, “Your fainting isn’t the problem.  Fainting is your body’s solution!  The problem lies in not enough blood getting to your brain and your body is solving the problem by getting you horizontal so that your bloodflow to the brain is least obstructed.”

When I heard her say that, a lightbulb went on for me.  What I had been learning in graduate school about systems theory took on a whole new meaning.  The “presenting problems” that often bring clients to seek therapy generally aren’t the core problems.  Usually they are symptoms.  And they have a purpose!  They are their bodies’ or their families’ ways of trying to manage underlying and unresolved problems.  I thought about how families often come in with one child designated as the problem, or what family therapists refer to as “the identified patient”.  But often, the child isn’t the really the problem.  Don’t get me wrong; their behaviors are problematic.  But often, that child is a “symptom bearer”.  The behaviors are evidence that something in their world, be it in their family world, or social environment, isn’t healthy.  Just as my fainting was ultimately a solution rather than a problem, often times a child’s acting out isn’t a root problem as much as it is their attempts to manage the distress in their lives and/or family.

That experience profoundly influenced the way I conceptualize problems, change and healing as a therapist when working with families, couples and individuals.  It has been over seven years since I met with that doctor, and I have not fainted since that day.  I like to think that a higher power orchestrated my string of faintings so that I would learn an important lesson that would help me to better understand, assess and provide healing to those who cross my path.

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