An Ode to St. Valentine (and Seeing it Another Way)
February. The month of roses, red and pink hearts, boxed chocolates, Hallmark greeting cards with curly-cue writing professing love and longing to one’s sweetheart. The month of Saint Valentine— patron saint of love, marriage, and… epilepsy? Yes. Really!
I considered many blog topics for this month, which I’ve included at the bottom of this entry. However, the topic that seemed to get my rambling mind thinking most deeply this time was started by the impulsive and irrelevant internet search: “Origins of Valentine’s Day.” An hour or so later, I had learned a great deal about the many men who may have been Saint Valentine. In every depiction, he was known to be a healer, specifically of epilepsy.
Epilepsy has been acknowledged for thousands of years, but the determined cause has shifted numerous times from a “curse of the gods” to demonic possession to insanity, a witches affliction, and to what Western medicine now knows is a neurological disorder causing abnormal brain wave activity and, consequently, seizures. A Christian perspective suggests that Saint Valentine was a conduit of God for driving away the illness (or demons) from those it affected. Other religious perspectives see it another way. In the non-fiction book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman (1998) Westernized medicine clashes with the spiritual beliefs of Lia Lee’s Hmong family, who believe that Lia Lee’s epilepsy is both a sign that her spirit has been carried away and that she possesses spiritual giftedness. They fear that medicating her epilepsy would drive away this gift.
There are two sides to every coin. Many conditions are associated with oft neglected positive attributes. Take Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) for example. Though many would argue that ADHD is disadvantageous, in their book, Delivered from Distraction, Hallowell and Ratey (2005) also write about the many advantageous characteristics that many people with ADHD exhibit— “original, out-of-the box thinking;” “many creative talents;” “liveliness;” and “remarkable persistence and resilience” are among a few they list. And how about depression? Research says that people with depression are slightly more likely to view the world more accurately than those without depression. Their appraisals of their performance tends to be a bit more realistic and they may have more insight than others. My experience with more than a handful of my clients experiencing symptoms of depression has been that they do not wish to completely alleviate their depression as it leads to an appealing cynical sense of humor, fuels their creative pursuits and leads to deep existential thought. Certainly history supports the common theme of highly regarded comedians, actors and artists as harnessing their depression in some prosocial ways.
I don’t write about the positive sides of these conditions because I take them lightly or because I am suggesting that there is also not suffering associated with mental and physical illness. Indeed, I would have chosen a life path altogether different if I did not believe that help and intervention was important. Sometimes, however, our society has a tendency to over pathologize and stigmatize and fails to fully acknowledge the quirky wonderfulness of one’s unique constitution and perspective. With my approach to healing, I assume very little about my clients. I take my client’s lead by asking questions like “How does this serve you?” and “What is it that you would like to get from therapy?”
Two Side Notes:
1. No offense to Saint Valentine as I’ve unfairly used a defenseless historical figure to make my point simply because his holiday conveniently landed in my assigned month.
2. When preparing myself for this month’s blog entry, I started with something of a wild goose chase made worse by tangential Google searches. My journey to a blog topic visited many of the national holidays, weeks, and days of February and also several current topics— all far from unimportant and certainly very deserving of blogs on their own. Instead, I offer a few resources:
My colleagues and I all take a collaborative approach at Intuition Wellness Center. We specialize in counseling children, teens, and families. If you believe you or someone you love could benefit from our services and want to try a strength-based approach, we are here to help. Call 520-419-6636 for a free phone consultation.
Written by Brandy Baker, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist