Provided to Edge Life by Phil Bolsta
I never intended to go to medical school. I wanted to be a biology teacher. I was
also interested in music. In fact, I minored in applied music through the Cleveland
Institute of Music harp department. But, through a series of quirks, I ended up at
Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, New Hampshire. My experience has been that spirit
is always leading me, even though my ego doesn’t know in which direction.
Although I was in medical school, I figured I’d just do research and never
actually practice. I had watched my aunt and uncle, who were both medical doctors,
lead a life that I just wasn’t interested in. They were on call constantly, they
had to leave every Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner, and it looked like a lousy
way to live.
Then we had our first ob/gyn rotation. When the other medical students and I gathered
to watch our first delivery, I was so moved I began to cry. I thought I was going
to fall down on the floor sobbing. Luckily, I had been in the culture of medicine
long enough to know that I didn’t want to be seen as a crying woman who loses it,
especially when we were one of the first classes to include a significant number
One of the medical students hadn’t clamped the umbilical cord properly, and it became
a mini fire hose, spurting blood all over the room. The nurse was yelling at the
student, and another nurse was whisking the baby away. And every cell in my body
cried out, Why don’t you people understand that this is a holy moment? How can
you be yelling at this student? We should all be down on our knees in awe and reverence!
Moth to a flame
Watching that birth was one of the holiest moments of my life. And I realized that
being around women giving birth was as easy to me as breathing. I was drawn to that
practice like a moth to a flame. In July 1975, I started my ob/gyn residency at Tufts
New England Medical Center in Boston.
I chose Boston because my husband had been offered a place in the Tufts orthopedic
residency. The previous September, we had decided to get married in May – a month
before I’d get my M.D. – partly because we wanted to do our training in the same
city. And we knew I had a better chance of getting a position myself if we could
tell the chief of the ob/gyn program that we were married and that we wanted to be
in the same area. This was back in the time when if you were going to be taken seriously
in your profession, you couldn’t say to the chief of the department, "Well,
I want to be in this program because my boyfriend is going to be in this city and
I want to be with him." That just wouldn’t cut it. Our chances were better if
we were married. It’s no secret that the culture of medicine was not particularly
supportive of one’s personal life at that time.
I loved my training in ob/gyn. I really took the time to sit with my patients and
listen to what was going on with their health and in their lives. When a woman would
have a miscarriage in the middle of the night and I would be there taking care of
her, I always knew that I needed to deal with her grief. This wasn’t just a blighted
ovum or a mistake of genes, this was the loss of a baby. It was a Catholic hospital
and many of the women were Catholic, so sometimes we’d baptize the "products
of conception," as we called them. These, too, would become holy moments. There
was a constant sense of the sacredness of life running through my practice, but it
was in a setting where this was never acknowledged and where it had to be kept hidden.
Women to women
Fast-forward to 1985. I was completely burned out with my conventional practice.
I had two little kids by then and decided I needed to work in a setting that supported
what it means to be a woman and a mother. So three of my colleagues and I opened
a center called Women to Women in Yarmouth, Maine. It was a model for what has now
become very common: a women’s center run by women. But it was a radical idea at the
time. A male doctor actually said to me, "Oh, my God, you’re going to have a
center that sees women and is going to be run by women? Don’t you think that’s a
little imbalanced?" Like, hello?
But it wasn’t long before we realized that we were as exhausted as we ever were when
the guys had been running the practice. We were working way too many hours and neglecting
our own health. We also suspected that one of my colleagues had an addiction problem.
I realized that we had met the enemy, and she was us. We had been determined to run
our practice differently, but here we were, out of balance, burned out, and sick,
wondering, Why is this so hard?
We couldn’t figure out what to do, so the four of us signed up for a 10-day, co-dependency
intensive led by Anne Wilson Schaef, the author of Women’s Reality. It was called
the "Living in Process" seminar. Participants just sat in a circle and
talked about what was going on in their lives. Frequently, when someone would tell
a particularly poignant story that moved them emotionally, they’d get down on a mattress
and let their feelings arise. I felt like I was watching labor and birth again. These
men and women would cry, wail or pound the wall as long as they needed to. But I
noticed that they would look younger and better when they got up, and that they would
get healthier as time went on. Yet, I was so well trained in Western medicine and
left-brain thinking that I was able to watch all this very objectively. I wasn’t
thinking that any of it applied to me. I just thought, Oh, you poor people. You’ve
got so much pain.
Then we did an intervention with my colleague. Now, the three parts of an intervention
are: first you tell the person how much you love them and what they mean to you;
then you tell them how their behavior is impacting you; and finally, you tell them
what the limits are and what will happen if they continue with their addiction. So
we were sitting in a circle and I’m telling her how much I appreciated her for things
like parking my car once when I was coming into the hospital; in the culture of medicine
at that time, women were not very supportive of other women, and she had been supportive
All of a sudden, I started to cry. In the witness part of my mind, I saw myself starting
to have one of those processes that I’d been watching for eight days and taking pity
on people for.
So Anne said to me, "Do you want to get down and see what comes up?"
I pushed back the tears, pulled myself up by my bootstraps, got it together, and
said, "No, I think I can handle this."
And Anne looked at me and said, "You are so tired." And then the dam broke,
and I was down on that mat sobbing uncontrollably.
I was crying for all the times I never got to rest, and for all the times I never
got to be with my kids. After I got through all my stuff, I found myself crying for
all the times my mother never rested, and for the pain she had felt from losing two
children. Then I was crying for my grandmother’s pain of losing her mother when she
was 3. And then, when all that was done, I dropped into the place in the collective
unconscious that I call "the pain of all women." And when I hit that, I
started to make those sounds you hear in the Middle East at the Wailing Wall – primal
sounds of pain. I didn’t know that I had those sounds in my body. And, as I continued,
the whole room began to sob in the same way. I don’t know how long it went on –
an hour, maybe two – but when it was over, I knew exactly why I had gone into ob/gyn.
I knew why I had been born. I knew why I was doing the work I was doing. It was to
take this collective pain and transform it into joy. And I realized that the first
birth I witnessed, which had moved me to tears, would have led me to this same place
had I allowed myself to go all the way into the process.
There have been many, many moments of joy and laughter along the way, but I feel
that now, after writing three books and going through menopause, the joy part is
just beginning. And that excites me enormously.
Christiane Northrup, M.D., an obstetrician/gynecologist, is an internationally known
visionary in women’s health and wellness. As a practicing physician for more than
20 years and a former assistant clinical professor of ob/gyn at Maine Medical Center,
Dr. Northrup is a leading proponent of medicine and healing that acknowledge the
unity of the mind and body, as well as the powerful role of the human spirit in creating
health. Her books include Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Mother-Daughter Wisdom
and The Wisdom of Menopause. For more information on Dr. Northrup, visit www.drnorthrup.com.