Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives


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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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WOUNDED SPIRITS

My life journey has taken me to the new world. I have accepted this new world, my new reality.  I am going to do my very best to be a productive and healthy person in this new reality.  BUT – WHO IS THIS NEW PERSON?   And how do I understand the new “normal” for this person?

We have good reason to ask “What is normal?”   We go through our days in the midst of family, community, nation and world having some idea of what to expect from those around us.   That is, until some monumental event shakes up our world and our expectations and we are forced to accommodate a new reality. Even when we are merely the observers, adjustments must be made that vary in the degree of their intensity according to our degree of attachment to the former situation.

We watch a documentary recording the life of a wounded warrior, struggling to make sense of his changed body and mind and find new meaning in his life. We are touched, reminded of our own frailty, and perhaps even determined to engage in some effort to assist the many such members of our society. But what if that warrior is my spouse, parent, or sibling? The change in my own life must accommodate the changes in the life of the warrior in many ways. There is a grieving process that must take second place to the need to care for the wounded loved one, and to learn how to maximize the benefits of our new life together. The changes are emotional, physical, and social. They are economic. They are time consuming, demanding, and often frustrating. The family, individually and as a unit, must “reinvent” itself to achieve a new wholeness. For too many, this is like putting Humpty Dumpty together again. The fractured selves are unable to withstand the challenges, and wholeness becomes elusive.

In all of the outwardly evident necessity for communal adjustment, the psyche of the wounded themselves may require more support than the medical and family community is able to provide. Patients are subject to unwritten rules and expectations that include: 1) A willingness to get well; 2) Compliance with medical treatment and with family expectations of same; 3) A positive attitude about life and their new place in it; and 4) They should not suffer too loudly, or too often. There is more, but of course each wounded person and each family will be both unique and yet have much in common with others in similar situations. Each person within the family unit also brings their own personality to the situation, for better or worse. But what about the wounded warrior him- or herself?

At this point, let us enlarge our wounded warrior status to include, as we have, members of the family and community. These are wounded warriors whose injuries did not occur on the battlefield, and whose wounds may not be visible. Yet individually, they share much in common. There are also others: The stroke survivor. The cancer patient. Those who have lost limbs, or have lost mobility due to accidents or disease processes. Those who have given all that they have in their vocations, or to their families or community, and have simply burned out. Those who struggle with addiction. The point I am getting to is that while we may understand and sympathize with the outwardly evident wounds of these pain warriors, we understand too little of the inward journey they are making. The physical needs, including the social environment, are so great that the patient is often left to figure out on their own how to be a whole person within, having lost so much of the external evidence of wholeness. If we address this at all, we tend to say (as I already have) they are “reinventing” themselves, which may be a problematic term.

Some commonalities exist: With physical loss, there may have been an event where the patient was in one place when it occurred, and returned to consciousness in a completely different and possibly strange place, already both physically and mentally changed. Or, disease processes may over time become too overwhelming for both body and mind, and there is a loss of ability, loss of productivity, loss of independence, loss of financial status, loss of mental acuity—too many losses to support the former persona. Too many losses to grieve, to accept, to overcome easily in the effort to restore a sense of self, of worthiness, of place in a different world.

Some wounded never return to us as independent, self-sufficient persons. Depending on the degree of injury to both body and mind, they may daily suffer a constant state of mental and/or physical pain that precludes outward focus. But many do return to some degree of personhood and productivity, and it is these who may be most painfully subjected to society’s rules for patients as outlined above. As the ability to cope increases, so do the expectations of society, family, and medical caretakers. The huge problem of “Who am I going to be, now that I have lost who I always used to be?” remains unrecognized, and if actually voiced, bulldozed over by the well-meaning advice that boils down to GOIAMO.   Get over it, and move on.

It is not that easy. Yes, I have completed the grieving process. Yes, I have accepted that this is my new world, my new reality. Yes, I am going to do my very best to be a productive and healthy person in this new reality. BUT – WHO IS THIS NEW PERSON?

The emphasis on “new” comes from the phrase “reinventing one’s self.” That can appear as a completely overwhelming task for the recently wounded soul. And it is a task that for the most part begins alone. Later, as the self becomes more certain, relationships with others of varying significance will be vital to the restoration process. First, however, there is that incredibly lonely, often painful, often frighteningly introspective search. And at first, it is likely to be a search backwards “for the self that I used to be.”

That focus in the past is healing, but eventually may be stunting to the growth process. It is healing, in that common, continuous threads of the personality and the life of the patient become evident. I am not completely new, after all. There is much of my personality that is still usable and strong. But retrospection becomes stunting when the focus remains lost in the past, and the wounded one begins once again to grieve for what has been lost.

In the end, if we persevere, we begin to focus on the future, and what we will bring to it. That is all that is really unpredictably new, and in reality, it always has been. It may not be the future we have intended, and for some of us that is truly an entirely new concept and challenge. More of us, though, have had to live and adjust to Plans B, C and even D already in our lives, and have the experience to make this latest adjustment. We just may have bigger hurdles to jump in order to do that.

Whether the life changing wounds are our own, or those of a loved one, the change is both an outward and inward journey. It might help if we adjusted our expectations of how people should react to their woundedness, and how we should react to our own woundedness. In either case we need to make room for potential wholeness in a changed future.