How to Be Happy in Hell
Dr. Christiane Northrup's Special Annotated Version
By Cat Saunders
Note: The following personal story from Dr. Christiane Northrup, in addition
to her annotated version of Dr. Cat's article, "How to Be Happy in Hell,"
are reprinted here with permission from Dr. Northrup's newsletter "Health
Wisdom for Women" (January 2003). Dr. Northrup's words are highlighted
in purple for you here.
I'm personally beginning
the New Year with enormous relief and gratitude. As you may recall,
I told you in the last issue of this newsletter that I had an eye problem
that was getting better. Well, that's what I thought when I wrote to
you last month, but my soul had other plans for me. My cornea problem
turned out to be far more serious than originally thought. In fact,
I came dangerously close to losing most of the vision in my left eye.
I was diagnosed with
a very rare condition called infectious crystalline keratopathy. There
arent more than 60 cases reported in the world literature. What
happens is that some kind of organism, such as a fungus or a bacteria,
gets into the cornea and forms a branching crystalline patternlike
a balsam or pine branchthat causes clouding of the vision.
the time I got to a corneal specialist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear
Infirmary in Boston, the vision in my left eye was so cloudy I couldn't
read the top line of the vision chart. Working at the computer was out
of the question. Not only that, but I also had eye pain, aversion to
light (photophobia), and a bodywide feeling of malaise from the unchecked
I needed an eye biopsy
(not pleasant) and then was on hourly antibiotic eye drops (you heard
that righthourly around the clock) for 72 hours. After that, I
was allowed to sleep for 3 hours at a time at night without getting
up for the eye drops. This turned out to be a very good time to record
lots of dreams in my journal.
My doctor as Massachusetts
Eye and Ear told me that the condition was very serious and that I would
be seeing him a lot. He was right. For the next week, I went in for
a visit nearly every day. Progress was very slow. Despite the hourly
antibiotics, I didn't seem to be getting any better. Since I usually
heal from anything within 24 hours, I couldn't believe it. I was scared.
I got down on my knees and prayed.
And then I saw my
bottle of ascorbic acid1,000 mg capsules. I knew that ascorbic
acid at high doses worked as a reducing agent to combat free radical
damage. I also knew that it was very good for quelling infections. I
started taking those capsules by the handful. (Luckily, I have a cast-iron
GI tract and was able to easily take 50-60 grams a day. You know you've
reached tissue saturation when you get loose stools. The amount this
takes varies widely from person to person.)
I also called Deena
Spear (the vibrational healer I wrote about in my August 2002 newsletter),
and asked her to "tune" my energy field. She started immediately. In
follow-up sessions, she told me that my body was wide open to receiving
the energy. I don't know what did what, but that was the day when my
eye started to feel better. I knew deep inside that I had turned a corner
and that all would be well.
About four days later
the cloudiness started to clear. On a follow-up visit, my vision was
almost back to normal and the doctors confirmed that the lesion in my
eye was much smaller. But they cautioned me that I wasnt out of
the woods yet. Still, my improvement prompted an adjustment in my diagnosis
to "atypical" infectious crystalline keratopathy.
I later learned that
this condition doesnt generally clear up. Hence, the modifier
"atypical" in my case. The infection usually goes away but it leaves
the cornea permanently scarred. Luckily, I didnt know this. I
was willing to do whatever it took to look at everything and anything
in my life that required a new perspective.
It was clear to me
that this illness was my chance to create a new vision for myself, and
that's what I spent the last part of 2002 doing. I cancelled speaking
engagements, dropped out of some new business endeavors, and basically
cleared the decks of everything that no longer served me.
My eye served
me well and I am very grateful for the experience even though it terrified
me. This episode was the perfect catalyst to get me to slow down and
really look at my life in a new waysomething that we often
don't do until life grabs us by the throat and gives us a good shake.
Now that I'm on the
other side of it, I can see that my eye predicament was related to some
unresolved life issues that I'm still working through. I don't have
all of the answers yet, but I do know they have to do with creating
healthier boundaries for myself and reconstructing and deepening my
sense of coming home to myself.
I've been writing in my journal a lot
lately and will be sharing what I learn with you in future issues of
this newsletter, as well as in my mother/daughter book. My eye health
crisis was another chance to use everything I've been learning about
and teaching to others for 25 years. I took a big dose of my own medicine.
And I'm happy to report that it works!
How to Be Happy in Hell:
Turning Yuk into Yuk Yuk
By Cat Saunders
People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think
that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time.
C. S. Lewis
Introductory note by Christiane Northrup:
I have been a
long-time admirer of the work of Dr. Cat Saunders, a counselor, artist,
writer, and healer who also runs a "Rent-A-Monk" prayer service. I was
first introduced to her work when she sent me a copy of her wonderful
book, Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook,
which is a veritable treasure-trove of practical wisdom designed to
help you successfully navigate the times of grief, loss, and stress
that are an inevitable part of life.
Having just come
through a very difficult and frightening health problem in my left eye,
I can vouch for the importance of having some well-honed skills available
in times of stress. "How to be Happy in Hell" is a wonderful and wise
compilation of exactly the kinds of skills that work. It's a stellar
example of Dr. Cat's work. I'm honored to share it with you in this
issue (along with my commentary) as a way to help you begin 2003 with
maximal access to your own healing power, regardless of your present
Dr. Cat's article
Anyone can be happy in heaven. It takes
skill to be happy in hell. While I'm no expert on the subject of being
happy in hell, this isn't due to a lack of hardship. It's just that
the stakes are always raised whenever I make progress, so I remain a
beginner. It's like that mountain climbing allegory: Whenever you make
it to the top of one mountain, you can see that an even higher peak
Since I can't claim mastery of a "happy
in hell" attitude, how come I'm writing about it? Well, if I wait until
I master the subject, I might be waiting for a very long time. Also,
people teach what they need to know. If I offer some tips about being
happy in hell, I'm sure faithful readers will point out my errors or
offer additional tips, both of which will help me grow.
In Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook, there's
a chapter called "How to Love Your Shame," in which I suggest that shame
feels so awful that most people act compulsively in the midst of it,
instead of doing what's truly helpful. Shame is like quicksand: If you
dont know in advance how to deal with it, you might dig yourself
in deeper trying to flail your way out.
The same thing applies to being happy in
hell. If you have some tricks up your sleeve for dealing with shit,
you'll probably do better when it hits the proverbial fan. Also, since
stress can dampen memory, it's good to have additional tricks to help
you remember your tricks!
Acronyms are one of my favorite memory
jogs. Apropos to the subject at hand, I'll use the acronym HAPPY IN
HELL to outline a few techniques for parrying life's onslaughts with
H stands for HONOR WHAT'S HAPPENING.
In a 1989 Sun interview, I asked Ram Dass how he prays. He
said, "When I pray, I never ask for anything, because I dont even
know why things are the way they are. How could I ask for them to be
different? The only thing I ask is, 'Help me understand better what's
happening so my actions will come out of more wisdom.'"
is no better attitude than this one during difficult times, particularly
those that involve our physical health. I had the chance to test this
out directly during my recent bout with the infection in my left eye.
When something this serious comes seemingly "out of the blue," you know
that your soul is tapping you on the shoulder and that there's a message
for you. The dilemma is that you won't know what the message is until
fairly late in the process. Until then you have to simply move forward
A stands for ASK FOR HELP. My favorite
shaman, Michael Harner, says that there is no self-help. I love that!
His statement does a number to the control-addicted part of me that
thinks I canor shoulddo everything myself. The truth is,
I can't even take a breath without the support of the entire universe.
Sometimes I'm willing to ask for help,
but don't know what I need. In that case, I ask someone I trusta
friend, mentor, or consultantto help me figure out what I need.
Then, if what I need requires additional support, I ask the relevant
This brings up the fear of rejection. When
someone says no when I ask for help, I try to remember that it's
my requestnot methat's being rejected. It's never any particular
person's job to help me. Rather, it's my job to ask other people until
I get the help I need.
my eye problem, I had to call the emergency doctor on call at Massachusetts
Eye and Ear very early one morning. As a physician, particularly a very
healthy physician, I'm not at all used to being in this kind of vulnerable
position. But I knew that my recovery depended on taking the risk of
asking for help. I was surprised and humbled by the truly gracious and
skillful help that was offered to me.
P stands for POLISH YOUR PERCEPTIONS.
For years, I used mood-altering substancesprimarily marijuana
and caffeineto deal with emotional pain, anxiety and fear, shame,
fatigue, boredomeven excitement. My "allies" helped me survive.
However, they also hurt me, because drugs enhance certain perceptions
while clouding others, and they enhance certain moods while denying
others. The overall result is decreased clarity and destabilized emotions.
I don't know about you, but in hellish
situations, I like to have all my wits about me: I want my perceptions
polished and my emotions stable, so my actionsand my internal
experiencearise from a centered place in me.
Drugs were a valuable crutch when I didn't
know how to walk, but walking with crutches is nothing like walking free.
live in a culture in which addictions run rampant. The purpose of an
addiction, whether to substances such as alcohol, marijuana, or obsessive
cleaning, is to numb us so that we are out of touch with what we know
and what we feel. There are times, as Dr. Cat notes, when addictive
substances can act as crutches that help us move forward when we can't
yet walk on our own. But continued use of them as a habitual way to
deal with life's stresses is self-defeating.
As Dr. Cat says, you cant
really respond fully and healthfully to a difficult situationwith
full access to your own inner guidanceif you habitually use substances
or processes to numb your perceptions. Note: if you feel the need to
lie about or minimize your use of a substance, then you can be sure
that your use of it is an addiction.
P stands for PRACTICE CRAZY WISDOM.
For me, crazy wisdom means imagining the wildest or weirdest
thing possible, and then doing itor some symbolic representation
of it. For example, I was raised to be extremely polite. Sometimes I
lament this training when I encounter intractable people who treat good
manners as an invitation to attack.
One of my crazy wisdom techniques
for dealing with these people is to imagine myself as a Tyrannosaurus
Rex, an Arnold Schwarzenegger, or an Andrew Vachss. Then I say whatever
I need to say in my own style, but with the extra "kick butt" support
of my alter ego's persona.
own crazy wisdom usually takes the form of doing something silly with
my mind (or with a good friend) during a difficult time. For example,
on one of my multiple visits to Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary,
I was trying to read the eye chart and failing miserably. When the eye
technician asked me what kind of doctor I was, my friend and colleague,
Dr. Mona Lisa Schulz, piped up with "plastic surgeon." We both burst
Y stands for YIELD THE RIGHT OF WAY.
When things don't go my waywhether for moments or yearsI
can either persist in my arrogant assumption that things should
go my way, or I can yield the right of way. Yielding changes my perspective on a situation, whichaccording to quantum physicsinevitably
changes the situation itself. As a bonus, yielding the right of way
helps me focus on changing what I can change, namely, myself
and my own expectations. This is obviously more effective than trying
to change the world.
CN: I couldnt
I stands for INHALE AND EXHALE. In
1974, I fell in love with a tantra teacher who was deep into breath
work (we called it rebirthing back then). Years of training with him
and many others taught me how "circular" (continuous) breathing can
rejuvenate the body, stimulate brain function, balance emotions, increase
creativity, heighten spiritual awareness, and improve sex.
Since hellish situations tend to put a
damper on everything I just mentioned, the single most important thing
to do during stressor anytimeis to keep breathing.
Inhale and exhale!
you probably know, Im a big fan of the power of breathing. Breathing
(and singing) are part of our emotional digestive system. Breathing
fully (especially in through the nose and out through the nose) activates
our parasympathetic system, which restores balance to the "fight or
flight" sympathetic nervous systemwhich, when overactive, inevitably
wears us down physically and emotionally. One of my favorite books about
breathing is Body Mind and Sport by John Douillard. Another is
the book and video called The Art of Breathing by Nancy Zi.
N stands for NURTURE YOURSELF. During
a long period of adversity, I rented space from a much loved, but very
boisterous and boundary-less group of friends. Imagine a solitary, privacy-loving
cat trapped in a pack of barking, bantering, bickering dogs, and you'll
have some idea of my daily (and nightly) experience at what I came to
call "Grand Central Circus."
For the first few years of my tenure in
"the pack," I naively assumed that simple consideration would be granted
if I merely meowed politely enough. When that failed, I meowed louder,
and occasionally, in fits of sleep-deprived exasperation, I growled.
These methods had some effect on the local majority, who mercifully
decided that curbing a few of their behaviors was easier than listening
to some obnoxious cat yowl about them. However, curbing inconsiderate
behavior is much different from eliminating it, and eventually
I realized that it was unfair to keep asking dogshowever humanto
act like cats.
Ultimately, I knew that my stay at Grand
Central Circus was "graduate school," and that my assignment was not
only to survive, but also to thrive. I succeeded in surviving,
but I had a tough time thriving on less than three uninterrupted
hours of sleep every night for years.
Sleepthe mother of all nurturing
activitieswas virtually impossible at Grand Central Circus, and
other unmentionable qualities made that place a nightmare for me. Yet
its lack of external supportand the general adversity of
the timecaused considerable internal growth.
provided harsh lessons in the temptationand futilityof revenge,
the challenge of remaining civil in the face of torment (I didn't always
succeed), and the absolute necessity of nurturing myself (especially
with daily dancing). It was, as C. S. Lewis would say, terrible and
good at the same time.
CN: During my eye dilemma, I had to cancel some speaking engagements that
had been planned for over a year. I also had to curtail all my writing
for several weeks. (This issue is the first thing Ive worked on
in weeks.) I took naps, slept long hours, and made a career out of taking
supplements and putting in eye drops.
I learned that nothing I did was
more important than self-nurturance. The alternative had come dangerously
close to leaving me blind in one eye. Though I thought I had been nurturing
myself enough, my illness left me with a new perspective on what self-nurturing
was really about.
H stands for HANDLE YOUR HANG-UPS. Whenever
I find myself in hell, I notice that the local demons always look mighty
familiar. The local demons, of course, are my own peculiar set of emotional
hang-upsthat strange and mysterious collection of karmic myths,
cultural conditioning, and family patterns that contribute to, and detract
from, my innate personality.
This eclectic mix of gold and garbage sometimes
triggers an unfortunate array of automatic behavior during stressful
situations. Needless to say, automatic behaviorthe garbage part
of that eclectic mixincreases the likelihood that difficult situations
will become downright hellish. Thus, I'm a big advocate of handling
hang-ups through various means: personal observation and reflection,
ongoing behavioral modification, and the help of watchdog friends and
Ram Dass said that after decades of work
on himself, "I havent gotten rid of one neurosis. Not one.
The only thing that has changed is that while before these neuroses
were huge monsters that possessed me, now theyre like little shmoos
that I invite over for tea. I say, Oh, sexual perversity! Havent
seen you in weeks! Theyre sort of my style now. When your
neuroses become your style, then youve got it made."
of the things I learned recently was how conditioned Id become
over the years to sacrificing myself for the good of others who didn't
really respect or honor me fully. This pattern started in childhood.
It was the way I "earned" love. I now "see" this fully. Remnants of
this pattern will no doubt be with me for the remainder of my life.
I have decided to fully accept and love this aspect of my personality.
By befriending it, I find that I'm far less likely to act from it.
E stands for EXPAND PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY.
To me, personal responsibility is the number one issue in life.
If everyone on the planet suddenly took 100% responsibility for themselves
and their actions, heaven on earth would manifest overnight.
I'm not holding my breath waiting for that
to happen. Besides, taking 100% responsibility has nothing to do with
anyone else and everything to do with me. All I can do is work on myself
and my own behavior. Considering the magnitude of this project, it should
keep me busy for, say, the rest of my life.
responsibility for the events of your life and for your health is the
most powerful method I know of to access the enormous power we all have
within us. I completely agree with Dr. Cat that taking responsibility
is, indeed, the number one issue in life. It holds the key to everythingincluding
health, happiness, and serenity.
L stands for LAUGH. When I distill
the essence of my soul into one image, it's always the same: a cosmic
grin. During ghastly experiences of pain, loss, hardship, or fear,
something will suddenly strike me as funny, and I'll crack up laughing.
Humor in the midst of helland perhaps even because of it--is my
Some people think this makes me a masochist
or a bona fide nut case, but I cultivate this quality in myself. For
one thing, it makes me feel goodlaughter stimulates endorphins,
after all. Also, humor helps me remember the big picture, namely, that
the trials and tribulations of material existence are merely different
aspects of the same cosmic dance of lila (Sanskrit for "God's
his classic book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient,
Norman Cousins first documented the healing effects of humor on the
immune system. I'm a huge fan of humor. It's one of qualities that I
share with Dr. Cat. One of my favorite sayings is that "Anything worth
taking seriously is worth making fun of."
I personally love the way
the writers of the NBC sitcom "Scrubs" make fun of medical trainingwith
great accuracy, I might add. Quite frankly, I think that comedians like
Robin Williams and Barry Humphries (who plays the character Dame Edna)
are great healers of our times.
L stands for LET GO. When all else
failsand in generalI remind myself to let go. Let
go of grudges against self or others. Let go of the illusion of control.
Let go of needing to be seen or heard, wanted or appreciated. Let go
of needing to be important at all.
Let go of pride, perfectionism, and preconceived
definitions of happiness. Let go of entitlement-based notions about deserving to be happy. Let go of shame-based fears about not
deserving to be happy.
Let go of needing to feel happy
in order to be happy. Let go of needing to be happy at all! In
short, let go of anything and everything that stands in the way of experiencing
heaven on earth, even when it's hell.
CN: During the course of my recent illness, I realized that there was a
portion of my business that I needed to let go of completelydespite
trying to make it work for over seven years. Though I never would have
dreamed I'd end up withdrawing completely from this aspect of my business,
I realized that letting go was the only choice if I were to maintain
and regain my health.
On the day I made my decision, I went to see the
latest Harry Potter movie. At one point, the character Dumbledore says
to Harry, "Your talent and skills are not what's important in life.
It is the choices that you make." I felt that those words were meant
directly for me.
As you begin this
new year, may all your choices serve your highest possible purpose on
"How to Be Happy in Hell" was
originally published by The New Times (June 2002).
Christiane Northrup, M.D., is
the author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom, The Wisdom
of Menopause, Mother-Daughter Wisdom, and The Secret Pleasures of
Menopause. A graduate of Dartmouth Medical School and a past president
of the American Holistic Medical Association, Dr. Northrup has been
in private practice since 1979. She is much beloved pioneer and authority
in the field of women's health care, and a longtime veteran of many
Dr. Northrup's work has been featured
on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, The View,
the Rachael Ray Show, and Good Morning America. For more information
about Dr. Northrup and her work, please visit her Web site at www.drnorthrup.com.
If you'd like to read Cat's personal tribute
to Dr. Northrup on this Web site, please click
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor and consultant, death doula, and nonsectarian
minister in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Dr.
Cat's Helping Handbook (available at Amazon.com).
Click here to contact Cat or learn more about
her work by returning to the home page. To schedule
in-person or telephone consultations,
please email Cat or call her 24-hour confidential voice mail at (206) 329-0125.