This world we live in is a relentless place. Often it seems that traumas and stresses come at us continuously, wearing us down, only to hit us with even more difficult ones. Sometimes they seem to come all at once—a death of a loved one, loss of a job, a car accident, a serious disease. Other times it is more like water torture—drip, drip, dripping small and continuous stresses that will not let up and have no end in sight. Regardless of which way life brings us traumas, no amount of treatment or therapy will wipe away suffering unless we also build our resilience and recovery capacity. There is no magic cure for suffering, but there is an ability to recover and be happy— if we are willing to walk the labyrinth of healing and use the tools at our disposal to help. Whole systems science and the meaning response teach us that we have a smorgasbord of healing options— proven and unproven— if we adhere to a few basic principles.

Bill showed me, more than any other patient, how to walk that labyrinth. Bill was not a believer in any treatment. Nor was I his favorite physician. He was not antagonistic toward me. Nor was he looking for any particular type of therapy— alternative or conventional. Of course, he wanted the scientifically best treatments for his back pain, if possible, but even more than that, he just wanted to get better. He had tried so many milder treatments that he wanted something “stronger,” as he put it.

One might think that having a family member with strong beliefs—like his wife, with her belief in acupuncture, might strengthen one’s personal beliefs and help with healing. But this is not always the case. Family members, like physicians, are often trying to “fix” a person with chronic illness—getting them to see the doctor, try new treatments, and change behaviors. This pressure can sometimes backfire, however, making the person resistant to those suggestions, or worse, when the treatments fail, reinforcing their despair that their illness is resistant to all healing. Over the years, Bill had been to the best pain centers in the world—Walter Reed, Johns Hopkins, and veterans’ hospitals. He had told his back pain history hundreds of times, and each time someone had tried to help him with one or more treatments. Gradually, as Bill told me when he came in for his pre-op evaluation, he needed something stronger because over the years, he had “become” his back pain. It dominated his life. Others helped reinforce that with all their treatments. He had finally stopped seeing doctors until his wife recommended acupuncture. But, like the other treatments, it had only a mild effect. Surgery was his best hope. He wanted to “cut out the pain,” he said.

And it worked for a while. Bill got rapid relief from the surgery. It lasted nine months. Then it came back.

Why did it work? Why did it come back? Bill believed in surgery. So did his doctors. Modern cultures generally believe in surgery. It helped him to do what was most important and meaningful to him— to be with his grandkids. But back surgery of the type Bill had is actually not effective when tested in rigorous research—sham surgery works just as well. Still, surgery can be an excellent stimulus for self-healing.

Like other treatments, it can work well when the components of healing—meaning, support, and stimulus—are aligned. However, Bill could not repeat the stimulus. Surgery is usually done only once or twice.

It was after his relapse that Bill came back to see me, this time not to find another “fix,” but to do the hard work of navigating the labyrinth of healing processes until he found the combination that helped him sustain self-healing. The journey was not quick, and, for Bill, it involved facing some deep traumas from his childhood that he unveiled during one of our visits after he started to keep a journal. As the meaning of who he was and why he was here began to help him connect his body to deeper parts of himself, a deeper healing began.

Once Bill understood the connection between his childhood traumas and his bodily reactions he found it easier to do the things he needed to do to keep his back pain at bay—such as managing his sleep and alcohol use, doing regular exercise, stretching, and periodic massage.

Gradually he broke free of his addiction to cures and learned how to support and challenge himself to continually heal. True to his word, he documented his path, and spoke with me throughout the process so I could better understand how he found healing. One day during our discussions of his process he came out with it bluntly. “Once I stopped seeking a single fix,” he told me, “I realized that all these good-intentioned people and wonderful treatments were actually making me worse. When I decided to find out what I needed for a better life in general, that is the moment I began to really heal from my pain.” Bill had become his own healing agent.

Reprinted with permission from How Healing Works by Wayne Jonas, MD, copyright ©2018. Published by Lorena Jones, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC