A new journey

It’s 10am on the 9th June and I can’t quite believe I’m sitting in Lewis Mehl-Madrona’s living room petting his 12 year old Labrador...

It’s now just over a year since I first came across Lewis’s name and work online. Absorbed back into GP life following my year out researching the relationship between community and mental health, I’d spent the morning exploring cultural influences on well being when I stumbled upon a paper detailing the successful use of talking circles, a Native American community-based practice, as an alternative management technique for mental health and psychosocial issues. My interest was peaked and what followed was the beginning of a journey that has led me to this quiet pocket of Maine, New England in the US.

Lewis Mehl-Madrona is a Family Medicine physician of Cherokee and Lakota heritage. He has dedicated much of his life to educating people on the benefits of native healing and now intertwines both traditional and western methods into his daily practice. My e-mail to him at that time detailing findings from my own work, namely the marked correlation between cohesive communities and good mental health, and my frustrations regarding our current perceptions of ‘mental illness’ and ‘healing’ was met with absolute understanding and encouragement and an acknowledgement that I ‘sounded just as wacky as him’.

On being awarded the Churchill Fellowship to further explore indigenous traditional practices that have potential for community empowerment and mental health enhancement, Lewis very kindly agreed to be my first stop in the US, a prospect which has evoked both excitement and nerves in me over the past few weeks.

Lewis is a man of wise but few words over e-mail and therefore on pulling up to their drive in an UBER yesterday I really had very little idea of what to expect. Tumbling out of the car up to my eyeballs in rucksacks and afraid of appearing like a half-dazed backpacker, I was relieved to be met by Lewis’s wife Barbara with ‘fantastic, you’ve brought your ukulele!’. Clearly this was going to be ok.

There is a calmness to Lewis and Barbara’s house, complemented by the surrounding dense forest, that is present in them as people also. My own slight nervousness in meeting new people and wanting to say ‘the right thing’ and ‘not be in the way’ was brought to my attention sharply in the first few hours as Barbara, quite unperturbed by my presence, happily planted out tomatoes and kale around me whilst talking me through her role as a Narrative therapist.

Lewis returned home a few hours later after an on call day covering internal medicine and obstetrics (an impressive feat in itself!). Two hours into dinner with them I was wonderfully overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and secretly wished I’d had a dictaphone out or anything that would have aided me in capturing their stories. Their combined vast experiences in healing and their obvious deep level of reflection on what this term means and should mean is evident in the richness of their language and anecdotes. To listen to them is to feel simultaneously excited at finding people who make so much sense and panicked at the thought of not being able to take it all in.

Luckily I found myself with most of the evening to reflect on what had been said as, owing to the household rising at 4am, bedtime comes early!

It’s tempting to try and get it all down on paper this second; their thoughts on how trauma informs all of our behaviours and should be the primary focus of our treatments, their description of the Native American belief system that we are all spirits walking through life in a human body who will one day report back and their statement that in many cultures ideas on what healing really is differs so widely from the medical system designed and delivered. It’s tempting and yet I feel in order to really get a sense of what I’m seeing and hearing here I’ll need to relax and take it in slowly day by day. Like the principle of story-telling, on which so much of the Native American culture is built on, my journey over the next week will be made up of lots of different threads coming together over time and it’s both exciting and strange to not quite know what that might look like yet.

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