Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives


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I ALMOST WISHED I HAD DIED

lighthouse in storm

One of the major adjustments I have had to make as a retired Sociology professor is no longer having a captive audience for my carefully considered observations of American society: The problems and the joys. I do love writing this blog, which does not require the same degree of objectivity, but let’s face it. I am no Dan Rather (whose daily contributions to Facebook I look forward to reading). Thanks to social media, I am but one tiny voice buried in the cloud of articles hourly produced by everyone with a computer, cell phone or camcorder and an opinion to share. So, to be perfectly clear, I am writing today not to be read, or “heard,” or even to keep in touch with the world. I write today because I must. For me.

I do my best thinking when I write. This blog is for me, but if you want to read it, challenge it, agree with it, or ignore it…just feel free. But do not think that I am trying to take on the world. I no longer have that kind of energy. I just want to try to get all that I have internalized about our social environment outside of my head and heart. I am in sensory overload from being bombarded with angry, hurting, hating, yelling, profane, lying, manipulative messages from the world outside my apartment.

As I write this, I have received 13 emails already that are unsolicited ads for things I don’t want, don’t need, or don’t agree with. I am a registered Independent, so both Republicans and Democrats feel free to email and/or call me with requests for financial and electoral support. I am so very grateful for those quiet, caring people who are all around me when I turn off the tv, the computer and the radio and get out and share time with them. I don’t answer the phone if I don’t recognize who is calling, and I don’t open any mail not from family or friends (or bills I know I owe). When it all gets to be too much, I listen to my classical piano CDs, or drive down to the river and just sit in the quiet, now cool afternoon and breathe fresh air.

Many of my friends no longer really want to talk about politics. Life is so full and rich, relationships thrive and laughter once again seems normal, when I am with my neighbors and friends. So long as we don’t talk about politics.

Yes, there are pressing issues that must be addressed, must be advocated for. Babies in cages. Chronic pain patients losing their pain medications, physicians and pharmacists being threatened. Members of all three groups committing suicide at ever higher rates. Private prisons being filled with drug users who could become productive citizens again with the right treatment, but whose prison terms will leave them right back where they began and worse. Families, communities and organizations being divided by political differences. More problems than any one person or organization can possibly resolve. More finances needed to be directed toward rebuilding communities devastated by nature. It seems overwhelming. I can’t address all the things I am deeply concerned about, and I feel frustrated and guilty for neglecting the ones I can’t get to.

Yet deep in my soul there is a calm, quiet place in the midst of this storm. A place where I know that all is not lost. That there are wonderful people in my world, and in the greater world in general. People who value honesty, integrity, caring, and excellence, the beauty of the gift of our natural world, and the shared intimacy with a loved one in a monogamous relationship. People who know that we cannot be truly human without being part of a community that works, plays, and worships together. People who accept me as I am, and who are in turn accepted by me as they are.

That is the beauty I see in my world, and it is more important to me and to my well-being than money or status. Because I live in a community where this beauty shines brighter than all the noise of the media and the political world, I regain my will to live on a daily basis. Once again, I can accept that I can only fight these battles on one front at a time, and trust that others will work where they are best suited to deal with other battles.

God did not bring us this far to abandon us. Today, I was tempted to say that I wished I had died five years ago, when undertreated chronic pain had brought me so near to that end. Then, I would not have had to see the devastation being brought about in my country. But I cannot wish that. These five years have been a great gift, and I have gotten to meet and work with people whose willingness to make a difference…no, not just willingness. Determination. Whose determination to make a difference to those who are being marginalized, stigmatized, pushed aside and left to die is greater than any I have seen in this country in my nearly 78 years. Policies we have lost by reversal in the last two years cannot compare to what we are gaining in finding the deepest good within ourselves and our families, friends and neighbors. In our communities and states. Soon, hopefully, in our nation once again.

Yes, it is hard and frustrating. But we come from good stock from all over the world. Our ancestors knew worse times and better times than these, but they persevered. We know that, because we are here. The way ahead is in our DNA: not in specifics, but in inner strength and outer relationships.

I am so glad I lived to see it begin.


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IT WAS AN EPIPHANY

 

Derived from the Greek word epiphaneia, epiphany means “appearance,” or “manifestation.” In literary terms, an epiphany is that moment in the story where a character achieves realization, awareness, or a feeling of knowledge, after which events are seen through the prism of this new light….*

 dreamer

 

If you have read any of these posts in the past, or followed me on social media sites, the topic of this blog undoubtedly presents as a drastic departure from my usual chronic pain patient advocacy, and even more so from my general political observations. In fact, perhaps it seems too esoteric for a sociologist to even think about, much less write a public blog on the topic.   Psychology, chronic pain, and the mind-body connection nevertheless are all familiar territory in pain management literature, and the numbers of really good approaches to these problems are legion.   Yet their true value becomes lost in the fog of the inevitable watered-down versions that we end up producing in our collective need to simplify the complex and package it for quick sale. Epiphany, as a necessary element of both healing and evolving human processes, is a concept that while accepted as part of the break-through of successful science as well as of evolving spirituality, is not often explored for its own sake.  Whether it becomes part of the pain management lexicon, I can only pray that it does not do so at the cost of its complexity and authenticity.

To be clear, I have had little choice in accepting the reality of epiphany as a healing event. What you will read, if you continue here, is the process that I have experienced, and which I now believe vital to the understanding and proper management of chronic pain (both physical and emotional, which seem to be deeply intertwined). That was definitely not the position I would have taken as recently as a year ago. In fact, this is pretty deep stuff for me to think about, much less write about. I am not trying to drown myself or the reader in the depths of this topic, or in the murky waters of my own, very long, life which has been accompanied all the way by pain in various manifestations. My recent personal epiphany has led me to first accept, then to firmly believe, that the mind-body connection cannot be ruled out as an invaluable—even necessary—prerequisite for understanding the role of chronic pain in the lives of many patients. And that it may necessarily include the experience of an epiphany of some kind.

I believe the psychologist’s role in mending the mind-body connection is vital to wholeness for the chronic pain patient whether the pain is barely managed, or has been controlled “enough to cope.” Does that make sense? I inquired of my favorite pain management physician. “Yes it does,” he promptly replied. But even now as I begin to dive into the narrative explanation of my experience, I strongly resist the idea of any psychological protocol that has been watered down into a one-size-fits-all process for pain management. It would be no more useful than a one-pain-medication protocol would be suitable for every patient. Chronic pain patients are unique individuals worth the time and effort spent, working with the cooperation of the patient, to achieve the wholeness and productivity uniquely suited to that individual—spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

So, getting to the point, an epiphany can be all that we commonly accept as a liminal** moment in time when we stand in the dangerous threshold places that are holy, or liminal.  It can also be simply a flash of understanding that may change the way we look at things, or simply allow us to move on in a very this-worldly fashion, without much in the way of miracles to play a part in the proceedings. Or, it may heal a broken spirit and allow normal light to return to a life. This was my recent experience of epiphany.

I would never have called it an epiphany, yet it is due to the wisdom and patience of my psychologist that the spiritual and psychological environment for this very liminal event could ever even have taken place. To clarify, my psychologist is not a pain management therapist, nor is he associated with any pain management  group,  but I was referred to him because of my pain.  Through two years of working together with him on the mind-body connections of my chronic pain, it was becoming more and more clear to me that I often described myself as “who I was” (in survivalist mode) during periods of physical and emotional abuse; and “who I was” after having removed myself from all connections to those times.

During about a decade immediately following the achievement of my freedom, my anger was so deep—almost primal—that I acted on that anger and the cynicism associated with it most of the time. Until I could no longer live like that. From somewhere, I found my survival depended more on having a better understanding of my worth as a human being than to accept that version of the “new me.” The behavior ended, but the anger remained and deepened. And I hated it. And sometimes, myself.

But the anger was also motivating. I went to University in my 40’s, received my PhD, lived in South Africa for seven years, and came back to the States “a different person.” So I described myself, anyway. The anger was still with me, like a two-ton vehicle attached to my back. I thought of it as the vehicle that kept me alive, that got me where I needed to be. But actually, I carried the “vehicle.” And it was heavy, and it caused me a great deal of physical and emotional pain. The pain alone finally nearly destroyed me, and at the age of 72 I finally gave up on life, death seemingly imminent. I had the satisfaction, I thought, of having overcome the person I had been, to achieving something in life that had real meaning to me. I no longer behaved as “that other woman” behaved, but still there was the pain. Still, there was the anger.

Anger at God? Probably, but more like confusion. How could the God I had experienced as a real and positive presence in my life since childhood be the same God that allowed me to be abused and violated, to suffer deep and painful losses right up to that very year I retired—how could that be the same God to Whom I could honestly give the credit for “leading me all the way?”   For that matter, how could the person I am now be the person I was then? I would never discuss her, or even think about her if I could help it. That part of my life was more and more a void. I hated who she had BEEN, and felt relieved that I had “left her behind.” Except, of course, for the pain. Except for the anger.

By now, my therapist had earned my complete trust and with deep respect for my privacy, had still managed to elicit some valuable understanding of who I thought I used to be, and why. Then came the day of The Epiphany. I had been listening to “Jesus led me all the way” in the car on the way to the session, and my newfound road to freedom from deep angers was being threatened. My psychologist must have sensed the time had come, because in our subsequent conversation my confusion about how God could have been leading me in those dark, anger-filled years finally made sense. Don’t get me wrong. I made the decisions, and I alone used the anger from previous helplessness to get me through some situations I probably didn’t need to be in, in the first place. I don’t claim God made me suffer, but at that specific moment I saw that He used my suffering, my bitterness, and my losses to lead me to a better place. That was how He led me “all the way.”

Hard on the heels of that epiphany came the certainty that the new understanding being true, every experience, every “version” of who I was at different times of my life, thus were all about the same, ongoing story about the same, greatly blessed (and yes, greatly misused) human being. Paradoxically, the person that I denied as part of myself has shown me how much I need her cooperation in order to continue to follow a purposeful life; how much I need her forgiveness in order to forgive those who hurt me; how much I need her experience of the worst in human beings in order to try to make some sense of the world we live in today and avoid giving up in despair.

I call that a real epiphany. Both the dangerous, liminal kind, and the blessed, healing kind.

In common usage, it has been my understanding that an epiphany is an “Aha!” moment at the very least; more likely a “Eureka!” moment, in which (to borrow from James Joyce) the radiant object becomes a surreal, even a sacred thing (or idea, or experience). In religious terms we might think of Saul of Tarsus being blinded by the Epiphany (of the manifestation of Jesus), after which he, his life and his purpose were completely changed. We think of him bathed in the magnificent presence of the Christ during that moment too radiant for mere mortal eyes to bear. For some, the idea of epiphany embodies that sacredness and is not expected to happen to ordinary folk like you and me.

For most of us, we may think of an epiphany in the terms of “Aha” or “Eureka,” but still as something contained within the ordinary living of our day to day lives. We are not blinded, our lives may shift a bit one way or another, but we continue to use our same names and, while some changes in our lives or lifestyles may occur, we remain essentially who we were. We struggle for hours, even days, with a problem we just can’t get our minds around. Suddenly something clicks in our minds and everything falls into place. The answer is obvious. We have experienced an epiphany, and it was a good thing. It was a positive occurrence, after which we might say “Why did I not see that before?” The implication being that we discovered it ourselves, it was not given by divine intervention, did not occur at a liminal threshhold. Or did it?

And, finally, do I now need to spend time trying to understand the unexplainable, or would it be more useful to incorporate the results of that experience into a life that has achieved continuity, meaning, and potential as a whole tapestry? A tapestry that reveals both beauty and ugliness, both mystery and clear understanding, both light and dark. A tapestry as yet unfinished, in which the ongoing presence of the Weaver may continue His work.

Looking at that tapestry, I can only believe: The Best is Yet to come.

Thanks for listening.

 

 

NOTES:

*https://literarydevices.net/epiphany

 **Liminal: a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective, conscious state of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a “liminal state”) and in the anthropological theories of ritual. www.askdefine.com

 

DEDICATED WITH LOVE TO THOSE WHO SHARE THE EXPERIENCE OF

 CHRONIC PAIN;

TO THOSE WHO AS FAMILY AND FRIENDS

HAVE WALKED WITH ME IN JOY AND IN PAIN;

AND

ESPECIALLY TO

JAMES PATRICK MURPHY, MD

AND

DENNIS E. WAGNER, Ed.D,

WHO SEE AND TREAT ME AS AN INDIVIDUAL PATIENT,

WITH THE RIGHT TO MY UNIQUE EXPERIENCE OF PAIN.

AND FINALLY AND FOREVER,

TO HE WHO “LED ME, ALL THE WAY.”

 

hands, heart


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AN UPDATE FOR FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND THE MERELY CURIOUS

 

For months, now, I have neglected to write or keep up with you. There have been several reasons for this—ironically, none of them due to continued chronic pain. I no sooner reached the point of finally having my 45-year battle with chronic back, neck, shoulders, hands and feet pain under control, than I developed a cardiac problem serious enough to make normal functioning very difficult. At the same time, I had taken on three adjunct courses a semester in the mistaken belief that my new pain-free status would allow more activity. To make a long story short, my intolerance for many medications complicated everything, cost me a fortune at the pharmacy, and greatly reduced my newfound activity tolerance.   It has been one hellacious year, in other words.

Make no mistake. I still love teaching, and I still found that the time spent in the classroom or in my office with students on any given day was the best antidote to pain, and now also to cardiac problems and their side effects. It was only that the long hours of preparation and grading papers, along with the difficulties of getting around the university with a backpack filled with books, etc., rapidly undid all the good of the time spent in the classroom. Not that time spent in the classroom wasn’t worth it—but over time I developed a roller-coaster life with all the emotional and physical ups and downs.

Additionally, the rapidly increasing cost of living, plus my medical costs, had finally totally depleted my savings. Obviously, my social security and wages from being an adjunct were not going to suffice, and now the summer break without any adjunct income was looming. Should anyone ever question the fuel driving the anxiety and chronic pain cycle, I can document it, and add that the combination doesn’t do much for cardiac problems, either. By the end of the second semester I began having chronic pain from multiple arthritis sites. Thankfully, none of the nerve pain has recurred. But I knew it was time to look for more work for additional income, nevertheless.

I have always loved that verse from the Psalms that says “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” So many times past, deep into the darkness of whatever crisis was facing me, that verse would eventually be brought to my attention. And when it was, the promised joy and relief from the crisis would begin and move steadily toward resolution. Always. And it has happened again.

Strangely—perhaps even ironically—it was not my PhD in Sociology that was the sole credential for my new part time job. Most of you know how I loved working in medicine and finally being a nurse, before going back to school for my Sociology degree. It was that, and probably my experience with chronic pain as both advocate for patients and a patient myself, that resulted in my new job. For the past six weeks, I have been truly blessed to work 4 days a week in a pain management clinic. From day one, I have felt the joy and freedom of doing what I have always loved best, along with the capacity to use the sociological skills and information gained later in life. I do not have the ability to explain how richly this fulfillment has affected my life, including my physical abilities. I truly believe that every day of my life, every experience, has brought me to this time and place. And the joy is not limited to the immediate experience of interacting with the patients I have already begun to love, but it extends around the clock, and through the week. My exercise tolerance has improved; my arthritis pain has subsided; and my blood sugar is manageable again after a long period of ups and downs. My cardiac problems are no longer debilitating, and I rest better at night. Despite the uncertainty of life in our country, especially for pain patients and others who are most vulnerable, I retain the joy of this new situation and all that it means to me.

My gratitude for this blessed gift is pre-ordained, of course. My advocacy for pain patients, and for those pain management physicians who daily manage the tightrope walk between patient need and over-reaching government regulations, will be taking on a new life. Expect new articles on this site about the real history of drug abuse, pain and addiction in the future. Expect new energy to keep up with what is happening in the failed War on Drugs, and the failing efforts to kick-start it again with the scare-mongering about the prescription opioid epidemic (which, I point out frequently, is deliberately worded to look like it is caused by a. doctors, and/or b. pain patients.)

While I have not specifically stated it, I would like to assert at this point that there is an element to pain management that is sometimes ignored, sometimes over-advertised as a panacea for all ills, and sometimes actually realized in the lives of those who believe. I do believe, from vast experience, that God answers prayer—even when the answer is a firm “no.” I also believe that what we experience in life, both positive and negative, are the true elements of living that make us mature and strong, or they break us. Most of the time, that choice is our own. Especially when God says no.   He said no to me a lot, yet I have been privileged to enjoy incredible blessings, including healing from physical and emotional trauma, and experiences that have enriched my life beyond belief. I would not overlook the role of faith in healing, in guidance through life experiences, or in provision for meaningful relationships and work.

Much love and blessings to you all, and may your walk through life provide you with blessings, rich relationships, and purposeful work. And may your relationship with your God always guide you through it.

Peace,

Marylee


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THE PROBLEM OF PAIN

In his 1940 publication The Problem of Pain[i], C. S. Lewis includes the following paragraph:

The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends…..have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

While it is apparent that Lewis was writing primarily about the emotional pain and grief that we experience in life, he was also a chronic pain sufferer. For the majority of today’s chronic pain patients—including myself—the pain waxes and wanes, sometimes giving us a day or more of blessed freedom from pain, at other times causing us to simply curl up in bed and pray for the pain to go away. For those who are able to find the strength to live and be productive despite the pain, many are able to do so because they have been given sufficient moral support, alternative treatments, and pain medications that take the edge off the pain for a time.

It is so much easier to see those bright moments, those “pleasant inns” when everything is working and life is free of pain—whether physical, emotional, or psychological. We are able to enjoy the company of friends; to appreciate the beauty of a flock of geese in flight; to simply breathe in the pleasure of living. The future seems brighter, laughter comes easily, and one feels at home in the world again.

But even as Lewis warns that this happiness is not “home,” our own nature is to begin to fear the return of the pain; to want to do anything possible to ward off having to cope in the loneliness of being that is centered wholly on dealing with that enormous threat to well-being. To long for the freedom from this life-robbing, happiness-destroying monstrous condition that plagues our days and our nights.

We would do anything, give anything, to return to the easier state of merely coping, when all the treatments and medications make life at least possible, and occasionally happy. We begin to fear the return of pain so much that at the slightest threat of pain, we return to the medication that gives us relief and hope; we do this with our physician’s blessings so long as we do not abuse the prescribed rules of when, and how much, to use.

This is actually rational: to relieve the pain before it takes over the mind and body just makes sense, and prevents much worse episodes of pain with devastating effects on the physical and mental condition of the patient. To lengthen the periods of less pain and shorten the periods of intense pain is the goal of pain management for most patients.

However, that goal has been usurped and denied by federal and state governments who want us to believe that the War on Drugs is best served by taking pain relieving medications from the people who need it most, in order to punish the people who sell illegal drugs and those who abuse legal or illegal drugs. We are not impressed with this kind of logic.

A couple of weeks ago, as I entered the waiting area of my pharmacy, the only other occupant spoke up once I was settled in and inquired if I noticed how cold it was in the building. I noted that he appeared to be my age or younger, was very thin, wearing a light jacket on a typical hot day in this region. I replied that I had just come from an air conditioned car, so had not noticed the temperature in the building yet. He went on to tell me that he was a cancer patient, and that two years previously he was told he would probably not live more than two years.

In the past three months he had lost 60 pounds. He was not allowed to have his opioid pain medication anymore because he had two alternative pain medications, which were no longer helping him.  He went on about his wife who was also very ill, and how difficult it was to take care of himself and his wife with no help. Suddenly he bent over, head in his hands, and began to sob. “I just wish that someone would put me out of my misery,” he almost whispered.

I moved over to the seat next to him and began to gently rub his shoulders (with his permission). I didn’t talk, because I was too overwhelmed with anger and pain for this man’s unnecessary suffering.The changes in the opioid regulations are egregious enough when applied to pain patients, but since when were cancer patients no longer exempt from this kind of torture? 

I listened to him, and was sorely tempted to give him my pain medication—but that would not help anyone and could potentially do great harm. So I seethed with frustration at my inability to do anything to ease his pain, and recalled the days in the not so distant past when I suffered those same feelings, when I was unable to take medication for the chronic pain that had finally become unbearable and disabling. (My subsequent encounter with a pain management specialist, resulting in my return to the “real” world, has been written elsewhere on this site).

Eventually his tears ceased, and he was notified that his meds were ready to pick up. He left, and I was alone with my anger, and my guilt for no longer suffering as this stranger suffered. Probably, I had never suffered to the extent that he suffered, because pain is not the same for every patient, nor is it relieved in the same way for every patient. Plus, I only had myself to care for, without the additional pain of needing to care for a loved one.

I swung between the longing to run out of the pharmacy and shout my anger and frustration to the world, and the dark experience of powerlessness in the face of known legislative deafness and blindness.  In such a dark mood, I had no expectation of experiencing the opportunity for a pleasant, albeit brief, stay in one of Lewis’ “pleasant inns.” In truth, I probably would have snarled at anyone who suggested that I look for the brighter side of life.

Of course, the next day I was back at the university, teaching my classes and reveling in the sheer pleasure of the gift of returned productivity that allowed me to enjoy this beloved activity. As time went by, I was reminded that this joy was a mere stop in the road trip of my life; I would not be able to continue doing it for many years, or even months, more.

I thanked God for the reminder that I could not stay in this happy, even joyful state forever. There are still battles over injustices in our world that must be dealt with, and times of personal pain and darkness. They are just as necessary as the joyful times, if we are to be responsible, productive citizens of our world.  May we not forget to appreciate the precious times of joy because of the problem of pain. Nor let us forget the needs of the oppressed and suffering while we rest in “pleasant inns.”

 [i] Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain 1940 Centenary Press, London

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EXPECTATIONS: Helpful and Otherwise

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Overheard in a college hallway: “I am who I am! I cannot be responsible for his expectations of me.”

The tone of voice was stressed, angry. The speaker was obviously struggling in some relationship where she felt the pain of believing she was expected to measure up to some standard with which she did not agree, or believed she could not meet. Her anger at not being accepted for that of which she felt capable seemed fed by her guilt that she had not measured up to the standards of someone important to her.

Or, was I projecting? Was I reading too much into a simple declaration, simply because it resonated so deeply? Who among us has not at some time felt the pangs of inadequacy, having somehow failed to be the person that a parent, teacher, friend or spouse thought us to be? More important, who of us is not guilty of verbally projecting our expectations on another in a judgmental fashion, capable of stripping the other of self-confidence and a sense of belonging.

Strange Family

Strange Family

As the Academic Dean of a small college in an rural area where students received a suboptimal education, as both student and faculty advocate I was often called upon to mediate the issues arising when faculty from more cosmopolitan backgrounds failed to recognize the intelligence and potential of their students, judging them only on their failure to have been adequately prepared for college level work. Faculty would often disparage the students publically, claiming they would not work, could not learn, and should not be in college. Their expectations of the students were as low as their claims, and the relationships between those faculty and their students were broken and painful. Neither group expected anything good to come from the other.unhappy 1

Yet my own experience with these students was that on the whole (of course there were exceptions – there always are) the more I expected from my students and the more I recognized their exceptional qualities, the harder they worked and the more they succeeded. Further, they returned my love and respect for them, and for each other. The same was true for my students in Africa, as well as for my students in a large city-based university.

The principle, I believe, crosses cultures and generations. I first heard it stated from a young OB-GYN physician who had been charged with overseeing residents, interns and patients in a central city hospital clinic. I had the privilege of working for him as he changed the appearance, the attitudes, and the quality of care at that clinic. Where it had been said patients were “herded like cattle” into the clinic area itself, and then into exam rooms where they were prodded, talked about over their heads between the teaching and learning physicians as though the patient was a dumb animal, where the environment itself was dirty and depressing—there was change. In an attractive, welcoming environment where every patient was treated as well as paying patients in a private doctor’s office, we were able to observe the change from surly, quarrelsome and often unwashed patients to patients who were no different from those in any doctor’s office, where they trusted their caregivers and returned the respect they were given.

What that young physician believed and lived by, and helped everyone around him to emulate, was the statement he always made: “People will respect themselves and act accordingly if they are treated with respect and dignity.” Most did just that.

What I told my faculty members was “These students will live up to—or DOWN to—your expectations. Either outcome will be elicited by your treatment of them.”

Expectations make us or break us. Expressed in love as realistic possibilities that honor and dignify the humanity of the other, they can inspire. Expressed as a judgment of the failures of the other, or as a goal absolutely not in accord with the dreams and goals of the other, they are destructive. And that includes the expectations we have of ourselves.

self-confidence


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PONDERINGS ON THE FIRST YEAR OF MY SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE

justinhighrockGlancing over the titles of the posts in this blog site since it began just over a year ago, I am once again amazed at where my journey has taken me. Before it began, when I no longer had the will to keep fighting the illness and pain, I thought my life was (finally) over. Pain/medical management, along with an ever-expanding group of loving friends and the patience of an understanding God, restored not only my will but also my ability to rejoin the human race. I am not the same person I was before, but then who of us can claim to be the same as our younger selves?

First of all, for example, I had to adjust to the “new normal.” It was important to regain my ability to take care of myself, while also accepting that I was still somewhat limited, physically and mentally. I read an article recently about chronic pain resulting in a loss of gray matter in the brain on an annual basis, exceeding by at least 3 times the average for a healthy aging person. Sometimes I am actually aware of my thought processes searching for a new route to the data stored in my brain–data on what I used to know, and on how to accomplish certain activities. Some data seems lost to me for good. Some activities remain beyond the scope of my physical and/or mental ability. I often think in terms of “before the end of my pain and illness” and “after I began my new life.”

Then there is the issue of anger. I don’t remember when it began, but by late adolescence/early adulthood I frequently found myself swallowing what grew from a lot of diffuse anger to a frightening amount of rage. I soon realized that my words that were intended to convey merely a little displeasure were interpreted by others as threateningly angry. I began to be afraid of letting my anger out, fearing the results for both myself and others. Not knowing what to do with the bottled up anger, which only increased at a rate positively correlated to my growing sense of powerlessness, I truly believed myself to be a terrible person.

I divorced, believing that getting out of the world to which my husband had introduced me would allow for room within which I could regain some control of my life. My only response to those with whom I had been raised and who, with me, believed divorce to be a sin, was “God and I have agreed that murder and suicide are not viable alternatives.” However, what I found was that gaining control of my life meant two important things: 1) I could no longer blame my now ex-husband for the problems in my life; and 2) the anger was still there, still threatening to me.

So I still felt like a terrible person. A very angry, terrible person. But, given the chance, the human psyche can be a wonderful thing….

One hot summer night in South Carolina, as I tried to fall asleep after coming home from an adrenaline-filled 2nd shift as the nurse in the county jail, I had a waking dream that remains as real and memorable today as it was that night 33 years ago. I was in a dark, dank underground passageway, listening to the bone-chilling maniacal laughter that seemed to be coming from everywhere. The ghostly faces of demons faded in and out of sight against the walls of the passage. I was already panicked when a strong voice announced “Follow me. I am going to show you who you really are.” My degree of panic accelerated, as I replied “Thanks, but no thanks! I already know who I am, I don’t like it, and I don’t need you to show it to me.” Despite my strong resistance, however, I found myself moving relentlessly toward the end of the passage, accompanied by the mind-bending laughter. The Voice said nothing. I dug in my heels, trying in vain to avoid the forward motion toward what appeared to be a castle-type wooden door (you know, the kind with a rounded peak on top instead of a straight edge). As I came nearer, the door began to swing open inwardly, and at first all I could see was a soft, embracing light. It was quiet and peaceful in that room—powerfully so. Still against my will, however, I crossed the threshold.

There, in the room, sat a lovely and graceful woman on a vanity bench, dressed in a floor-length layered white dress, brushing her long and lustrous hair while looking into the mirror. “Who…..” I began, and she turned to me just as the Voice returned to say “She is you.” “Impossible!” I replied. “That cannot be!”   “It can, and is.” The Voice said.

And I returned to full consciousness, in my own room, stunned. Now I know that Freudians will look one way at this story, and Christians (whether or not schooled in psychology) will have their own interpretation. Just for the record, I personally prefer the latter, with a compelling use of Jungian archetypes.

dreamer

That being said, although it did not all happen overnight, I began to take control of my life and incredibly wonderful things happened to me. Though without funds and resources, I was able to return to college and move on to earn my PhD fully funded by grants and scholarships. I did my research in South Africa, where I returned to teach for a total of seven years. What a privilege all that was, supplied for me almost through no effort of my own but because of my goals, rather than as an enticement to follow the wishes of my donors and mentors. It was incredible—unbelievable. How could I ever repay this huge debt?

I was truly a changed person in many ways. What remained with me was the anger. During the college years I could cover and ignore it because I was so blissfully happy. In South Africa, I recognized the sources of my adult anger: injustice, inequality, abuse of power, violence against the powerless–these all fueled my rage. Only now I had learned how to take the energy from that rage and use it, as an advocate and activist. I could do that whether the victim was me, or entire groups of disenfranchised people. I used the anger, but I could not use it up. It remained with me. Where could I find an antidote?

Nelson Mandela suggested an idea that stays with me. mandelaAfter being released from prison and being in the public eye for some weeks, he was asked how he could possibly not be bitter about his unjust 27 years in prison. His simple reply was “If I bring the bitterness and anger out of the prison with me, then I am still in the prison.” My problem, however, is that acting on that statement must be much more difficult than he made it seem. After living for seven years in the middle of a revolution, death all around me and immanently possible, my anger had fueled a lot of action but was still very much with me. (Along with something like a veteran’s PTSD, later). But Mandela became my first black President (I was a permanent resident of South Africa, because I did not expect to return to the States) and I realized that with the influx of well-educated exiles returning home, my role was no longer necessary. Fourteen months later I returned to my own home.

It was home, but not the home I expected. I have written elsewhere how very much like South Africa during apartheid the attitudes of my country had become. It has become even more so since that post. As I write, I am still grieving over the Charleston massacre, and what it means about my beloved country. I find that the anger I feel is appropriate to the situation, and not overwhelmed by the old, built-up rage.

It is here that I finally come to the point of this article.

I have learned that managing built-up rage as well as new anger is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced. I have my own meditation and calming exercises, others will choose what works for them. But the anger must be met first of all with my decision not to be ruled by it, followed by a plan of appropriate ways to either use it or let it go. I’m not a psychologist so I will not attempt a therapeutic explanation—it is only my need to order my thoughts by sharing them that drives me to write this article.

Letting go of the anger is not enough. The empty place that is left must be filled with something strong enough to help protect against the anger when it wants to return. Again, I had begun to see the answer in South Africa.

One day I was talking to an African lady, in one of the townships which was engaged in an uproar (euphemistically referred to as “unrest” by the S.A. media) and not really a safe place for a strange white woman to be. Our conversation, however, went something like this:

Woman: Why don’t you come in the house and stay with us? You will be safe here.

               Me: Why would you offer me safety, when my presence could endanger you and your family? Why do you even trust me in your home?

Woman: Because first you are a human being, and we only survive if we look out for each other. But mostly it is because I can see that you love us so much that you suffer because we suffer.

The woman’s ability to offer unconditional love, and to accept it unconditionally, was the antidote I sought and one that I had spent many years trying to keep from controlling my life by banishing it. I could love, on condition that it be understood as a feeling and not a commitment. I had long stopped believing I was loveable because I was unable to believe the words of those who said they loved me. Therefore I could not be in control of my life if I depended on love, right? People can hurt you. I thought I did not need love. Yet in the words and actions of the woman described above, I saw what was important both to me as a person, and to me as a social advocate. I had to learn a lot about my emotions.

I have been home from South Africa for 19 years now, 17 of those years having been spent working 60-80 hour weeks and not making much headway with the deliberation and meditation required to learn things about love and anger that would have made my life much easier. About love, I have learned that it, too can be a deliberate decision and commitment, and that it also must be practiced faithfully and responsibly. The really difficult part of love has been learning to accept it, and learning to accept caring help when I need it. A friend once described me as being “rabidly independent,” which is not really so funny, when I think about it.

It took the overwhelming pain of my arthritis and disc disease, along with several other physical problems, to make me retire two years ago. The following year was a nightmare of pain and near helplessness. It was only after the successful efforts of my physicians to restore me to functionality that I realized the gift I had been given in meeting–and surviving–my greatest fear. Thanks to the loving care of special friends, including physicians,  I know it is safe to accept help from people who care. I am slowly accepting that I am loved by people that I love. I still have a long way to go.

It is important to me, however, to acknowledge something else of great importance that I have learned. That is, in working to try to make a difference in my reachable world, I need to try to confine my anger to my own energy needs and use my love to guide my work with others. And to let the anger go afterwards, and to hold to the love unconditionally. Too much of my anger has spilled into my words and actions in advocacy, and not enough of the love that sparked my need to respond.  There is already too much anger in our nation.  I don’t need to add mine.

None of that means that I believe I should not be angry with the world that spawned a young man who would be proud to kill people at prayer. None of that means that I will just forget about it. But I am going to have to love my country an awful lot, unconditionally, to keep my anger from depriving me of seeing all of its citizens as equally deserving of my efforts to respect the spark of humanity I do not see because of my anger, even if I cannot love what they have done. My words must reflect both my anger at the injustice and my concern for all the players.

Charleston Post

It’s hard. I am not very good at it yet. But I have made the commitment to try.


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A VERY BLESSED CHRISTMAS

The first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas, signals the start of the New Year for the Church. Throughout Advent we consciously await the Nativity, which is then joyously proclaimed through triumphant music, beautiful decorations and pageantry, and renewal of the reverence and faith that accompanies the wonder of the manger scene. Sharing this time together as a church community gives strength to our love for each other and for our shared walk in faith. It is both a fitting and necessary beginning to each new year.

Not everyone is always able to be present at the festivities, however. Many are shut-ins, too ill or disabled to attend. Others may be away from home, serving country and faith in other lands while being homesick, and being equally missed at home. Still others have either abandoned the church, or felt abandoned by it, and will not be a part of this renewal. Christmas is not always a time of joy for many reasons.

Today, Christmas Day 2014, although I had planned to participate in all events at my church home, as well as get-togethers in the homes of friends, I am confined to home on this day. Despite having had two flu vaccinations in the past ten months, I was afflicted with the particular strain of flu that this year’s vaccinations won’t protect against. For once, I was grateful for email and the telephone! Friends and family kept up with me, kept me entertained, and projected the warmth of their personalities into my days, even when they were mad a me for refusing to let them anywhere near me. If nothing else, I was going to make sure that the particular bug that infected me would not infect anyone else!

That still meant a lot of time alone, and time to reflect on present days and past blessiings. As I relived this past year, I recalled so clearly the long days and nights of a year ago when in my pain and illness I begged God to deliver me from this life. He did, but not as I expected. For most of this year my pain has subsided to very manageable levels, and my activity has returned to near normal. My various physical conditions have been identified and treated, and in the New Year I will begin teaching again as an adjunct at a local University. The year 2015, unlike its predecessor, is a year filled with hope and purpose for me.

I am reminded of a similar year, half a lifetime ago, when at the end of my resources and without hope I made a decision that took me on a 33-year journey of challenge, adventure, and great satisfaction in life. https://maryleejames.com/2014/06/19/this-is-why-it-matters-to-me/   The satisfaction came from knowing that my purpose was to share with others the gift of education that had been given to me, and I have been allowed to do that on two continents.

Now it appears that I have been blessed with a third chance to rise from the shambles of my life, escape the worst effects of chronic pain and illness, and live again. This time, in order to give back, my time and efforts will be made on behalf of that huge segment of our society that lives in chronic pain and is way too often discriminated against by a range of people within their own families and friends, all the way to departments in our state and local governments. Equally distressing, the very physicians who actually do listen and try to help them are also targeted for discrimination, if not actual harassment.

Some progess has been made, but not nearly enough. At some point, we must stop blaming inanimate objects for our social ills and accept the facts that guns, pills, alcohol, cars, computers, cell phones , money and other material things are not at fault for our misuse of them.

Today, I realized anew that the pageantry, decorations, music and companionship are not the real Christmas. The real Christmas is within me, and has filled me with peace and joy on this blessed day.

I humbly pray for the same for all of you. A very blessed Christmas, and renewed peace and joy for the New Year!

 xmas scene