Sometimes in Our Lives We All Have Pain

We All Have Sorrow

My very first panic attack barged in five minutes before I was to take the microphone for the presentation that I hoped would boost my career.  A room full of healthcare system leaders were wrapping up a Power Point report just before I was to give them a chance to experience my resilience training that I wanted to provide for the employees of their hospitals, clinics, and offices scattered throughout the Midwest. 

There are many different ways to experience a panic attack.  Mine began in the upper belly, right around my diaphragm.  Like red magma, it swiftly surged upward, and found a home in my pounding chest.  The cotton t-shirt under my coat and tie soaked up the rivulets of panic sweat streaming from my armpits, and coursing down my back.  Fortunately, I had practiced counseling long enough to know that this wasn’t a heart attack.  Unfortunately, I discovered, that no amount of mental health training could inoculation me from the cascading thoughts that accompanied the painful physiological experience.  “How long will this last?”  “How bad is this going to get?”  “Can anyone see how distressed I am?”  “Will I even be able to present today?”  I wasn’t feeling particularly resilient for my Resilience Presentation!  By the grace of God, a bagel snatched from the buffet table interrupted the self-reinforcing pattern.  Somehow, I made it through my presentation. 

That attack capped off a week of fitful sleep, and no sleeping at all the previous night.  It was the catalyst that finally moved me to address what I had been resisting.  A year after depression took my dad’s life, I was depressed, anxious, and in need of treatment.  After a psychiatric assessment, I began my prescription of Citalopram (a form of Lexapro), an SSRI anti-depressant.  While I waited the requisite three weeks for the benefits of this medicine to kick in, I utilized a strong enough sleep aid to break up the pattern of sleeplessness feeding depression, and depression causing sleeplessness.    An able colleague provided a once-a-week course of counseling for the counselor.  It wasn’t long before the depression went into full remission.   

Shortly after this event, my therapist asked why I had waited so long to address my depressed and anxious mood?  The answer to that question can probably be applied to the next one.  After the hundreds of autobiographical stories I have shared with my readers over the years, why am I only now getting around to telling the story of my own depression and the treatment of it?  I suspect, that like other healthcare providers, it is a matter of professional ego-ism.  “I provide mental health care, I don’t need it for myself!”  Besides the embarrassing hubris in this realization, such a position leads to some real problems for individuals like me who cling to this destructive machismo, as well as problems for our society at large.

Like mold or fungus, mental health distress kept in the dark, has a way of getting bigger.  Without the benefit of normalizing conversations, those who of us who are struggling on the inside, begin to compare our troubled insides with the apparently shiny, happy outsides of others.  All the while, those seemingly “happy” others may be doing the same procedure with us.  When people like me keep their struggles under wraps, the stage is set for untreated, stigmatized mental health issues to continue going untreated and to flourish in our local communities, and society at large.   Indeed, even before the pandemic one in five us was suffering with mental health difficulties (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association, 2019).  In the last year, it is estimated that those numbers have climbed to one in four.  Given the stigma in reporting personal suffering, it is believed that these statistics may not accurately express the even larger number of us who suffer from mental/emotional health challenges.

In a famous passage from Matthew’s Gospel in the Christian Scriptures, Jesus described the pre-requisites for entering into the kingdom of God.  When I was hungry, you gave me to eat.  When I was thirsty, you gave me drink.  When I was a stranger, you made me welcome, lacking clothes, and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me” (Matthew 25: 35-36).  Notice the dual messages in this quote.  The first, and more obvious admonition is to feed, clothe, welcome, and visit those in need of it…to the point of even doing something on a systemic level to reduce these needs.

The second, and subtler message, and more difficult admonition for people like me was buried between the lines:  God is revealed when we make manifest our vulnerability and need.  The R & B genius Bill Withers, who died this year, captured the essence of this in his 1970’s hit, “Lean on Me.”  In it, he is saying that when we have the courage to manifest our emotional or mental problems, it “won’t be long” before the one who was providing us an open ear will feel a permission to “lean on me,” as well.  The simple wisdom contained in this song is to get past the fear that my suffering will be a burden or an embarrassment to someone.  On the contrary, according to Withers, and the scriptures he was raised on, shared vulnerability is the guts of intimacy, and the foundation of community. 

So here goes, “Hi.  I’m doctor Tom, and I’m challenged with a mood issue that I have to work on through the course of my life.”  How about you?

One Reply to “Sometimes in Our Lives We All Have Pain”

  1. Hey Tom…thank you…I appreciate your work… i appreciate your dedication to helping not only ppl alone but yourself as well…

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