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Life Positive: Insights from a Beloved Psychiatrist

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
June 2019
Life Positive: Insights from a Beloved Psychiatrist

 

 

Dr. Suvrat Bhargave, specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry, is well liked and respected, not only amongst his peers and patients, but also in the Indian community of Atlanta. His recent book, A Moment of Insight, is a healing balm and a potent portal to hope, thanks to a refreshing blending of his professional proficiency with an unabashed acknowledgement to spirit, spirituality, and God.

Here’s a book review of A Moment of Insight, followed by an interview with Dr. Bhargave.

 

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“Hope conquers fear.”

Scriptures have always said so. Our contemporary intellectual minds, though, seem to value logic and science above all else—leaving little room for faith in ancient scriptures or in the wisdom of the ages. That is particularly why when a well-respected, scientifically trained psychiatrist champions the message of hope, derived from his thousands of interactions with patients struggling with all imaginable suffering—it drives home the point.

Dr. Suvrat Bhargave manages to do precisely that with A Moment of Insight. “What I have learned through psychiatry is that the heaviest burden of negativity can be chipped away with even the slightest sliver of hope. In my office, that hope may come through a diagnosis that explains what a patient is going through. It may come in the form of a treatment option that could provide relief. It may come through validation of being heard. It may come through connection and through the reassurance that no one is alone in anything that they have ever felt.”

The book, which reads like a labor of love, culls from a career spanning over a couple of decades in what Bhargave refers to as “The School of Psychiatry,” wherein his patients—having the courage to be vulnerable in sharing their deepest and darkest secrets and fears—have been some of his best teachers.

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He has seen and treated just about all kind of human suffering imaginable: “A panic ridden school boy. A high school cutter. A suicidal divorced mother of two. A conflicted young man with OCD and his grieving father.” Bhargave’s message is that while the magnitude of human suffering is unfathomable, healing and transformation are indeed possible. And often such a transformation comes from a single powerful moment of insight—whether on the psychiatrist’s couch, on a bus ride on the college campus, or in the any number of ways it can come in the “university of life.”

Such a moment of insight, according to him, “is a crack in the window of one’s thinking. It’s a pause in one’s perception. It’s a profound second of rational clarity where emotion is set aside. It is a moment of realization in your mind that a certain way of thinking, feeling, or behaving is no longer working for you.”

“Bingo!” is what I thought as this definition took me back to one such moment of insight that came to me in my early twenties while reading Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. It was the first time in my life that I saw that my self-image was not something permanently encrusted upon me—that it could be fluid and evolve. All my life until then I was operating with the drag of low self-esteem; this was the first time, thanks to this transformational moment of insight, coming from reading a book, that I felt free and self-confident. It was as if a knot in my psyche had been untangled.

This ties up well to Bhargave’s insistence on discovering one’s authentic self—the one beyond names, forms, and identities. Who knew that his grandfather’s persistent prescription of inquiring “Who am I?” lobbed at Bhargave and his brother during their childhood years would become one cornerstone of his psychiatric practice? Moments of insight come, according to him, when one is courageously willing to embrace vulnerability in diving into one’s self. “Through denial, manipulation, or unwillingness, there are some who avoid the truth, but transformation begins with transparency,” he asserts.

A book about personal discovery and growth by a psychiatrist may seem intimidating to some. But far from jargon, the writing is lucid. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, Bhargave manages to keep the book light, lively, and engaging. Interesting, out-of-the box perspectives help, such as when he compares psychiatrists to detectives:
Detectives look for clues and then put a story together. Psychiatrists listen to stories and then pick out the clues.
Detectives rely on tangible evidence. Psychiatrists deal with intangible wounds.
Detectives train to view their surroundings with suspicion. Psychiatrists work best when they put all judgment aside.

Despite the dichotomies, says Bhargave, their end goal is the same—they both ask tough questions to get to the truth: they are seekers.

A big part of why this book resonates with the reader is Bhargave’s own willingness to be completely vulnerable as an author and a professional. When the reader sees that this doctor has indeed worked on healing himself—as is evident from his candidly shared introspections and personal revelations throughout the book—it creates trust and confidence far beyond advice dispensed by a guarded shrink. Whether it is the traumatic incidents of being abused as a child by an uncle, or the more commonplace occasional altercation with the spouse, Bhargave holds back little, displaying the courage that he may well have honed in his “School of Psychiatry.”

What connected with me even more is Bhargave’s repeated championing of spirit, spirituality, and God. It’s a refreshing perspective coming from a scientifically trained professional—and therefore that much the more effective. A book by a left brain shrink could easily devolve into technicalities and dry, belabored elaborations of clinical case studies. Far from that, Bhargave does not shy away from combining psychiatry with spirituality. “Psychiatry has been my greatest spiritual teacher,” he proclaims. And that in turn feeds into his work. So, even when he shares some of his case studies, they are laced with the significance of hope, which Bhargave credits to a deeply held belief that we are all “a spark of the divine.”

Taken to heart, is there any stronger a message of hope than this?

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Our Interview with Dr. Suvrat Bhargave…

…where he talks about his spiritual influences; how psychiatric counseling differs from reaching out to a wise elder or a spiritual guide; when to seek professional help; whether and how the cultural background of the patient is addressed in psychotherapy; parenting amidst two sometimes contrasting cultures; and other topics.

Throughout your book you do a wonderful job of acknowledging spirituality and God. Can you share some of the books, authors, and schools of thought that have shaped your spiritual outlook?
My spiritual journey began with my grandfather who I refer to as Socrates. While he was a deeply religious man, he was a thinker, he was a seeker. He would encourage us to question, and he would always question us. At a young age, I don’t think I understood the value of such inquiries, but at different points of my life, sure enough, the lessons that he taught came to be the things that I held on to.

And along the way, other influences came about. When I was in my twenties, I read a book called Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss. It came into my life when I was going through something really difficult. My cousin, who I grew up with—he was six months younger than me—had passed away unexpectedly. As a twenty-year-old, it really throws off your understanding of what you’re here for, and what it’s all about. In losing someone who was a brother, I needed to understand, now what? I can tell you reading the book made me think about life, but also it helped me challenge my concept of what death really means. And I think it gave me a chance to start asking a little bit more about the bigger issues.

In recent years, say maybe in the last five to ten years, my biggest spiritual influence has been the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship. That also gave me a way of understanding the connectedness which we all share, and to really start understanding the power of going within.

In your book we read with fondness how your grandfather had such a positive influence on you. How does psychiatric counseling differ from a heart-to-heart chat with a wise elder like him or even with a spiritual guide?
I don’t think most people that come to a psychiatrist are seeking spiritual understanding. What they come for is a path to just feeling better. And oftentimes the path to getting better then veers you into the lane of finding out what makes you innately valuable and worthy. I think that’s where you cross over to a spiritual realm.

My grandfather or other influential mentors in my life… I may not even have sought them out, they found me, and [I was] open to having those discussions and being patient enough to sit through them, and then somewhere along the way it seeped into my being.

So I think the main difference is that psychiatry is sought out, spirituality sometimes finds you and falls into your lap. And psychiatry is a pursuit of the outside, trying to figure out life, and spirituality is the pursuit of the internal.

Henry David Thoreau famously said “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That being so, how can someone tell if what they are dealing with is the normal desperation of humans or something more serious that needs professional intervention? And where should they start, considering the options range from clinical social workers and counselors to psychologists and psychiatrists?
Feeling some sort of despair or discouragement is within the realm of human experience, right? We have all felt angry, sad, worried, scared, and so forth. But where it is important to encourage people to seek someone out is when they are finding that the intensity of those feelings is something greater than it ought to be. If they find that their frequency of going through such difficult emotions and times is also more than what they would’ve expected, or if those bouts of feeling discouraged or despair last longer than normal. So the intensity, the frequency, and the duration of your despair I think is your red flag to seek help.

And help can come in many forms. The more important message is start somewhere. I think trying to make the decision of who do I turn to is in itself daunting, and people tend to think there is a right and wrong way of doing that, but there are many ways of doing that—it could be reaching out to a friend and starting a conversation, it could be reaching out to a mentor, it could be reaching out to your primary doctor. But reaching out is the more important message.

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Is it necessary to address the patient’s cultural background during counselling? For example, would the therapy be different for an Indian teen recently moved from India compared to a white Midwesterner?
There is a place for cultural understanding. I think that’s the case with any relationship where you’re trying to connect with someone, right? I found though that it has less to do with your cultural background and more to do with your ability to feel comfortable and vulnerable with the person you are going to work with. And so their personality style, the approaches they take, their own stance on what it’s like to be in a room one-on-one, all of that is much more important to me than the cultural understanding.

Most therapists are very open and want to understand your cultural background because it does play into it. We are who we are because of what we’ve gone through and how we think about things and feel about ourselves. And so much of that is culturally based.

But it is just as true that if you sit with someone who has all of those similarities but doesn’t have an innate personal connection to you, you’re not going to open up. Counseling only works and I believe transformation only happens if you are able to be transparent. So it’s much more important to be personally comfortable with the person you are working with, more so than the cultural background.

Indian-American parents often face a dilemma of not being able to settle on a certain parenting style, considering their references of parenting are from a traditional Indian culture while they have to parent in contemporary Western culture with its often conflicting set of styles and values. What advice would you have for them?
The advice I would give other parents is the advice I received as a child from my own parents, which is we are in a unique position of being able to take two different cultures and meld them into what works for you. For some people, there is an identity crisis that occurs when they feel they don’t belong here or there. That was not the message we were given; the message we were given is that you get to pick the pieces of either one that works for you.

It’s the same with parenting. There are our Eastern ways of raising children that the West could learn from, including the benefits and the advantages of being raised with generations around you, with understanding that wisdom is often passed down simply for having lived a life. That’s something we inherently know having been raised in Eastern culture. On the other hand, I think what is most impressive about the West is to raise children with great independence and opportunity. So we want to raise kids who are independent. We want them at times to fail so they learn from it. A bit hands off, which is a bit of a Western way of doing things.

So it’s an amalgamation of both. But as parents we put pressure on ourselves to do it right; and doing it right, we think, is following a certain philosophy, and we think if we did it right we didn’t make very many mistakes. And I would say doing it right doesn’t involve a particular philosophy, and doing it right means you do make mistakes.

And just when you think you have figured it out for one child, you have another child who needs a different way of parenting.

When we were growing up in India, parental authority was respected. For example, when it came to the best interest of the child, “because I said so,” was good enough for the child to fall in step with the parents’ instructions. Today there is no such regard for parental authority. Each interaction is up for questioning and debate. Parents have to explain and negotiate their way, which can be quite draining when it becomes the norm rather than the exception.
One of the most important things that every young person has to learn is to respect hierarchy. And hierarchy is another word for order. Without hierarchy there is disorder or chaos. And so one of the skills that young people need to learn is that in any situation there is a hierarchy. In school there is a hierarchy—there’s the principal, there’s the teacher, there’s the students. In the home there is a hierarchy.

And I think a lot of times, in the parents’ confusion about how to approach their child, without realizing it, they’re relinquishing their place on the hierarchy. So it flips, so the child becomes the one in control and the parent becomes the one who is trying to walk on eggshells and figure out how to do this. It is in the child’s best interest for you to establish the hierarchy of the household in very clear terms, and that doesn’t require a strong fist; it just requires being very clear what the hierarchy of the household is.

What I say to the children who come see me is that it’s in your best interest for there to be a hierarchy, because the wonderful thing about hierarchy is that it’s not always the desired position to be at the top of the chain. There are a lot of things at the top that you don’t need to deal with as a fourteen-year-old. You get to not have to worry about the bills and the meals. So you can’t have it both ways, you can’t be at the top of the hierarchy and expect to have the advantages of a fourteen-year-old. Also there is a sense of security in the hierarchy. Children need a sense of stability. And they need to know that in the real world they are not always going to be at the top of the hierarchy.

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As a psychiatrist, is there a topic you wish to address pertaining to our community?
My intention [for writing the book] was just to get readers, whether from our community or other communities, comfortable with the idea that psychiatry doesn’t have to be a shameful alternative. It can actually be something that should be enticingly sought after. That’s the first step.

The second step is to deal with the secrecy or isolation that keeps people from getting help. In some cases this again ties back to concerns about judgement, including “What will people think? How will they react? Will I cause them hurt or bring them shame?” And in other cases, the secrecy or isolation comes from situations in our lives which we think are our own to deal with, or within our families to figure out, but certainly not talked about with strangers. There are many examples of this but some of the stressors that keep people from reaching out are marital tensions, parent-child conflict, academic pressures, and (as I discuss in the book) the trauma of abuse.

By not discussing these difficult topics more openly, our community is not only ignoring a very real and unmet need, but it is also perpetuating the false notion that we are alone in what we are going through. I have talked about my own experiences in the book as a way of challenging that idea and reassuring others that there is a way of getting through any dilemma. In having challenged my own fears that I had held on to for so long, I have had enriching and valuable discussions that I never thought I could, and have found strength within me that I would never have known. As it turns out, all the people that I thought I was protecting in keeping my own secrets have also benefited, even if it meant going through some difficult times. When secrets were released and problems were dealt with, I felt my soul expand even more. Similarly, the more discussions we have as a community, we will expand our understanding of what so many people go through. Just the weight of a secret is enough to hold you down. So I think we are going to have to start challenging our secrets as a community.

What inspired you to write this book, and what do you hope it will do for readers?
In the course of being able to sit with people in difficult times, I found such fortitude in knowing that none of us is alone. There is nothing that you have felt that I have not felt. Our struggles and doubts are ultimately the same just as our dreams and hopes are ultimately the same. As a psychiatrist, I have had the privilege of sitting with people to explore those doubts and to ask some of the toughest questions of ourselves. In the course of asking those questions, I also found that the answer to living life purposely and getting through challenges was a shared journey. What inspired me to write this book was the intention of passing that collected wisdom along so that it may help others. I say in the preface of the book, wisdom is more valuable than ever, and yet with all of the ways we have to seemingly connect with one another, we are not sharing wisdom as much as we should.

My hope for the reader is that they have a couple of messages come through very clearly. One is that “I am not alone.” The second is that there is a purpose in everything, including sometimes your most difficult moments. And perhaps the most important message of the book is that there is always hope that is waiting to be tapped into. I used to live my life waiting to be inspired and to be hopeful, and then I realized that my own struggles were keeping me from recognizing what was always right there next to me. Hope to me is the opportunity for something good. There’s always an opportunity for something good to happen, and if we tap into that, we can get through the bad times.


Parthiv N. Parekh is the editor-in-chief of Khabar magazine.



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