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Interview: Louis Heyse-Moore

17 October 2014

'Time after time, life-threatening illness has caused people to change their attitudes'

Since I work with the psyche now, and can't turn to medicines or surgery to heal people any longer, it's in our relationship that healing occurs. 

Healing is not the same as curing. You can be cured and not healed, and healed but not cured. George Best, the footballer, was an alcoholic, and he was given a liver transplant. It worked well, but he went back to alcohol, and died. He was given a cure, but the healing hadn't taken place. 

I worked for 27 years in palliative medicine; then I felt I'd gone as far as I could along that avenue. Symptom-control is very, very important, but I wanted to go into the depths of what people experience. So I trained as a counsellor and Somatic Experiencing [SE]practitioner.

I'm interested in working with the psychological effects of illness on people, and with traumatic stress. I'm also interested in the split in Western medicine between the biomechanical model and what I might call a soulful approach to medicine. 

Traditional societies have something to teach us in their view of illness as soul loss. When I work with someone with post-traumatic stress disorder who's buried their soul in a hidden place - think Dark Night of the Soul - to protect it from further injury, I see our task as finding a way to bring this soul back. 

I work with the bereaved in the hospice where I used to be a consultant, and also work privately, with the diverse psychological troubles that clients bring. It tends to be people who have experienced some kind of a trauma. And people don't usually come for counselling till after the age of 35. You do get people who have low incomes, as well as people who can afford it quite well. 

I work in different modalities, but often SE seems the right approach, and they can try it and see what it's about.

Somatic Experiencing is a psychological therapy, that works at the level of the body and its sensations. The body reacts to threat by fight-or-flight, but if this doesn't avail, it goes into freeze, shuts down. Trauma happens when a person is stuck in this freeze mode.

SE works by reconnecting sufferers to their sensory self. It can be slow, a gradual, safe titrated process, little by little, rather than an overwhelming re-experiencing of the trauma, which may make things worse.

Some therapies work at the thinking level, top-down; but SE is a bottom-up approach. I ask people what they are experiencing in their bodies when they are remembering what it is that's troubling them, so they can begin to reconnect with their felt sense. People can describe this as energy beginning to flow again. We've all had these somatic experiences: a chill down the spine, tingling, feeling uplifted. This is helping people get back in contact with what they have lost touch with - the life within them - at a pace that does not plunge them back into crisis.

I see body, mind, soul, and spirit as interconnected. Change one, and it affects the others. In practice, I've observed how, time after time, life-threatening physical illness has caused people to change their life, their attitudes, even to say they have never felt so alive.

The world of soul and spirit infuses us. To me this relationship is mysterious. And we're so often unaware of it until some crisis happens. If we listen to our bodies, we may gain insight into our soul journey. 

After his resurrection, Christ walked through doors, appeared as flesh and blood to his followers, changed his appearance, and disappeared. He was in a state of being beyond our understanding, one that was both spiritual and physical. Perhaps the concept of the resurrection of the body could be informed by this. 

There are chaplains who are brilliant in supporting the dying, and others who lack the necessary empathy. The compassion of, say, Mother Teresa or Cicely Saunders for the dying is the best teaching of all, and has had a profound effect on how we care for the dying. 

There are thousands of accounts in Christian literature of people who have had spiritual experiences, near-death experiences, visions of heaven, healing of terminal illnesses. By and large, I would say they are simply telling the truth. In spiritual terms, this is experimental evidence, and, I think, is deeply comforting to many facing death, and others who aren't. 

The body and life are part of the arc of our existence, which does not end with death.

The Case of the Disappearing Cancer is a book of stories, reflecting on patients and clients I've looked after, and stories that have happened in everyday life. One story is about a lady with advanced cancer, including lung metastases. She had had no treatment, but her cancer disappeared: a spontaneous remission. Biopsies confirmed the cancer diagnosis, and its later absence. She was healed, but how? What was happening with her during her close encounter with death? 

I was born in Leeds, and grew up in Exeter. I loved the Devon countryside. My father was an Australian surgeon and met my mother during the war. She came from Belgium. Now I live in north London with Joan, my wife, and we have three adult children.

I like talking to my wife and children, playing with my granddaughter, gardening, bird-watching, travelling, writing, reading, art galleries. I'd love to paint and play the guitar.

Like all babies, whether in the womb or after, I was surrounded by the presence of God. I somehow know it was a blissful experience, though, like most people, I can't remember it, save for familiar, fleeting moments of joy or beauty.

My first conscious memory of experiencing God was of reflecting as a child on the vastness of the universe. I wondered where it ended. Was there perhaps a wall? But then, what was beyond the wall? It was an experience of infinity. 

The more I have experienced life, the more I have found the presence of God appearing in new ways - through people I meet, nature, art, or music, for example. 

As to travel, it's often islands I love to visit, for some reason, but also tropical places, like Hawaii, Trinidad & Tobago, Fiji, California, Australia, India, and Egypt.

My favourite sound? It's a toss- up between heartbeats, humpback whales singing, or Hawaiian slack-key guitar.

A TV documentary made me angry last. It was about the plight of women with illegitimate children in Ireland who were banished to homes run by nuns and whose babies were taken from them. 

I'm happiest when I am in the moment, whatever that brings. 

My parents, my wife, and my children have influenced me most in life. Also, when I worked at St Christopher's Hospice, the remarkable doctors there: Dame Cicely Saunders, Dr Tom West, Dr Mary Baines, and Dr Thérèse Vanier.

Books? The Bible, of course. In childhood, the Dr Dolittle and Narnia stories. Later, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Ecstatic Journey by Sophy Burnham, Balancing Heaven and Earth by Robert Johnson, and Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. 

What do I pray for most? Help whenever I get into trouble, which is often. Also healing in all its forms: the world ails so much. 

Someone to be locked in a church with? My wife. Having said that, I wouldn't mind just sitting quietly, knowing I am in the silent, ineffable presence of God and his angel throng. I think my wife would like that, too. 

Dr Louis Heyse-Moore was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Case of the Disappearing Cancer and other stories of illness and healing, life and death is published on 31 October by Ayni-books.

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