Interview by Sarah Clark, LAc
Dr. Sara Hopkins is an ND, LAc at Kwan Yin Healing Arts West. Recently I had the opportunity to talk with her about her background in social work and how it informs her practice. Here is what she had to say.
Sarah: Tell me about your background in social work and how it led you to a career in medicine?
Sara: So I was working at a treatment center for teenage girls that had mental health and behavioral conditions, and one of the things that struck me was how they had these terrible diets. They were confined in this building where they weren’t able to get fresh air or have freedom of movement. They were on really heavy duty medications (and there’s a place for heavy duty medications), but all of those things in those kids’ lives that could have facilitated their healing were completely missing. I felt a deep desire to help them. So, I thought about getting a master’s in counseling or a master’s in psychology but realized there were so many other facets that contributed to healing that I would want to be able to recommend or talk to my patients about, and I felt I would be limited with those degrees. Because I really noticed how much these kids’ bodies were storing the traumas that they were experiencing. Storing their anger. Storing their sadness. So, I realized I really wanted to work through the body, to explore how the body manifests disharmony. So, I went to physical therapy school, thinking that would give me the tools to access the body. But I got to physical therapy school and thought, yeah, but I’m going to want to talk to them about diet. I’m going to want to talk to them about what self care looks like. I’m going to want to talk to them about how herbal medicines can help them. And I’m going to want to be able to talk to them about pharmaceuticals–if they’re appropriate or not and what role they might play. So that led me to naturopathic medicine. Through naturopathic medicine I have this ability to work with the mind, work with the body, work with the spirit and have this very holistic approach to treatment. In a way, all of the principles of social work that I fell in love with in the first place, which were how to look at somebody’s complex system and how it’s working or not working and how to make it work better, were the principles I found in naturopathic medicine. Let’s look at the complex systems that impact our lives and see where we can make change.
Sarah: How do the skills you learned as a social worker help you with the patients you treat now?
Sara: I love interfacing with people who are new to naturopathic medicine and who have reached this point in their lives where they know they need to make a change. They know that something’s not quite right in their lives anymore. Maybe they’re depressed. Maybe they’re anxious. Maybe they’re not sleeping as well as they used to. Maybe they have low energy. Maybe their libido’s in the tank. Something’s not quite right. And they’ve been going to their conventional provider and just not quite getting the solutions that they’re looking for. I love seeing those patients. Where the social work really informs that is that they come in and I’m able to say, “Okay, let’s look at your budget. Let’s look at your lifestyle. Are you a mama with two kids? If so, you likely have this tiny amount of time to make these changes, and they need to be hugely impacting. Let’s look at the different facets of your life that are going to contribute to your overall success, and let’s structure a treatment plan that’s going to promote that. Not everyone has a budget or a lifestyle that’s conducive to a ton of supplements and a massive dramatic change. And I think that’s the other aspect of social work that really informs how I practice. Education is really important. I never want my patients to walk away and not understand why they’re going home with a certain supplement or why they’re implementing a particular dietary change. I want them to have some understanding for how acupuncture works. It’s really important to me that the patient feels empowered in the process, so that they’re just as much a part of the construction and implementation of the treatment plan as I am.
Sarah: How lovely that your patients can know that you pay attention to every aspect of who they are instead of just throwing a remedy at them or just throwing a needle in.
Sara: Yes, that’s my goal. I really want people to understand what’s going on so that it’s their process. It’s not me sort of waving a finger and saying this is the way it is.
Sarah: So earlier you mentioned that the girls who lived in the home where you worked were really storing emotional distress in their bodies. Can you say more about that phenomenon and how that informs your practice?
Sara: Absolutely. Just to lay some framework: in Classical Chinese Medicine each of the different organs is associated with a season and an emotion, or an emotional process, and when it gets down to it most of us can understand that. So, for example, the element of wood we associate with springtime and that rising up energy, and we also associate wood with anger and frustration, with the experience of things not being able to be expressed. When that happens, we feel frustrated. I saw this come up a lot with the kids. We can all relate to it, right? You’re so frustrated or angry that you get that headache, that raging headache, or you feel like you’re just going to explode, because there wasn’t a place for your expression. It’s so common. And another experience I saw a lot with the kiddos was depression, and I see a lot of patients with depression. For some people it’s that deep dark winter of the soul. In Chinese Medicine we think about winter being associated with with sadness or that really deep dark place of “Am I going to be able to get through this? Am I going to make it into the light again?” And people collapse, and they stagnate, and they feel like they can’t make any movement. And yet the beauty of that place is reflection and humility, taking yourself to that very lowest place so that you can rise back up again and feel that beauty again. At the girls’ home, I would see kids who were collapsing in every part of their bodies. They were in the winter of their soul in a lot of ways. And a lot of the drugs that we were giving them were cutting them off that much farther from actually feeling what was happening. Very occasionally you’d see the psychiatrist come in and get a glimpse of that and make the decision to let the kiddo feel, to give them the tools to let them feel, and when they were able to do that–and really just release into it–then they could rise back up. And what do we rise to? We rise into springtime. We rise into that creativity, which is so beautiful. And I see that now again with my adult patients. I get a lot of patients who come in and they’ve got depression, and they’re in that dark night of the soul, and then something happens where they let themselves release into the flow, surrender into what’s going on. And we’re able to identify the spark, the wisdom, the place in their healing journey that’s going to allow them to emerge into springtime and into their creativity and their higher self again. I love doing that exploration with people.
Sarah: So, how do you explore this idea of emotion being stored in the body through specific symptoms–back pain, for instance? What might back pain signify?
Sara: So one of the things that I think about with back pain–and issues on the back side of the body– is are there places where we aren’t showing up in our integrity and authenticity in relationships and, therefore, is something behind the back? We might, for instance, be talking about people behind their backs. If we’re talking about someone behind their back, there’s usually something about what we have to say that we don’t feel comfortable expressing to them. We’re not ready to show up yet. There’s something incongruent going on in that relationship. So back pain, or pain on the back side of the body, makes me think “Okay what’s going on in my relationships? Where am I not showing up in relationship? Am I turning my back on something? And why am I not able to bring it forward into the light?”
Sarah: It could be a need that we’re not allowing ourselves to come forward with. So, we’re feeling this resentment because we’re not voicing that need.
Sara: Exactly. That’s a really beautiful way of saying that. And we can talk about the Bladder channel. The Bladder channel runs all the way down the backside of the body, and it’s one of our organs that’s associated with boundaries. It’s an organ that says “No”. And we can interpret that in lots of different ways. It’s an organ that we associate with winter. So, again, the dark night of the soul. So in looking at the bladder channel we can ask, “Where are those places where we’re willing to surrender a little bit? And through that surrender then come into really deep wisdom and really deep knowing about our path—realizing what we’re called to do, remembering that spark of light that makes us who we are.” So those are two of the big things that I look at with something like back pain, which is so common. Many of us suffer from that. So, again, what a wonderful thing–to have this tool! We can say, “Great, I’m so glad we have massage. We’re going to do that. I’m so glad we have acupuncture needles. We’re going to use them. I’m so glad we have anti-spasmodic herbs. We’re going to use those too. And, here is some perspective. You can go home and think about how it applies to your life.” Because, that’s a tool that you carry with you in the absence of herbs and needles and pharmaceuticals. You always have that ability to reflect within you.
Sarah: So symptoms can actually become helpers for us.
Sara: Exactly. The symptoms are our number one helper. Why else would we be given these amazing bodies with this information via our symptoms? And that’s such an exciting thing too, when we can get to that place where symptoms are no longer something to be feared but are empowering in some way. And then we can empower ourselves to see what we can do. Where we can make change. What we can learn about ourselves so that we can live more fully and more richly and be more connected people in this world. It makes me think about one of my teachers in school, Dr. Taylor, he was a homeopathy teacher. He talked about how his goal was always to help people be able to walk into as many parts of the room as they possibly could. Sometimes in illness we get stuck in a corner and we can only circulate in that corner. And we start to highly identify with that part of the room. We forget that if we turn around there are all the other parts of the room that we can be in. And that’s a big part of the guiding principle of the work that I do–asking, “Is this treatment helping my patient walk into all aspects of their life? Is it helping them to be a more engaged mother? A more engaged sister? A more engaged friend? A more engaged husband? A more engaged co-worker? Am I helping them to walk into all parts of the room? Or am I restricting that in some way?” I want to be working as much as possible toward the opening up of the whole person.