Monthly Archives: August 2017

Our Privilege Is Showing

I have a client who has been dealing with chronic pain and spinal issues ever since I started working with her over two years ago. Approximately 7 months ago, she went in for an injection to reduce inflammation and pain in her cervical spine (the medical description of what they did is beyond most of us, so I’m going to skip that.)

To make a long story short, things didn’t go well. Somehow, they injured a nerve during the injection, and my client noticed immediately that she was unable to use her right hand; by that evening my client was in the ICU receiving huge amounts of medications to elevate her blood pressure so that they could maintain blood flow in her spinal column.  She lived through the ordeal, but was left with excruciating pain in her left arm and very little function in her left hand.  The muscles in her hand are wasting, she can’t move her fingers very much and cannot use the hand for anything more than a paperweight. She can’t tie her own shoes, pull up and button her own pants, or pick up anything that requires two hands. She struggles with simple things like showering and getting dressed, and it’s almost impossible to do the things that would allow her to take care of her family.  Worst of all is the constant searing pain in her left arm that increases any time she puts any pressure on her left hand. Physical therapy is so agonizingly painful that she cannot eat before she goes to therapy or she vomits.

Sounds awful doesn’t it? Aren’t you glad it isn’t you? Me too.  Sadly instead of giving her a place to share her emotions and honestly talk about her agony and suffering, friends, family, and even her doctors all say the same thing to her:

“Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?”

Well…yes, she is grateful that she is still able to sign a check, or write a note to another person. She is grateful that her dominant arm wasn’t impacted.

But how is that statement supposed to be comforting to her?  Imagine what it would be like if I lit your left arm on fire and it had to stay on fire for the remainder of today, just today…not 7 months of agony, like my client.  Would you welcome people saying “Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?”

I’ll bet not. I’ll bet you’d want to scream “Make it stop! Make the pain stop!  I can’t take anymore!”

But no one is going to make it stop for my client. Barrows Neurological can’t make it stop. The malpractice suit isn’t going to make it stop. Pain medication barely touches it because it’s nerve pain. Nothing…nothing…NOTHING is going to make it stop.

Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?

People say things like that for a number of reasons. First, they cannot feel just how much pain she’s in. Second, they don’t understand that this may be permanent and even progressive. Third, they don’t realize how much they use both hands when they need to get things done.

But the biggest reason that people say this is because they don’t want to have to acknowledge my client’s immense suffering. The idea that life can randomly, arbitrarily deal out such horrific suffering is more than most people can bear, and so they push the idea away with bland platitudes and stupid statements that demand the suffering person “see the bright side of things”. You know, because, happy and all that!

You see it in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in some of the statements on social media.

People asking why Joel Osteen didn’t open up his church to provide refuge. “If he had just opened his church…”

People stating that the people in Houston should have evacuated. “If they had just gotten out of Houston…”

People criticizing the unwise actions of those who tried to drive out of Houston after the flooding was severe. “If they had just listened to the news they would have known…”

Isn’t it easy to armchair quarterback someone else’s tragedy?  Isn’t it so clear what they should have done, how they failed to respond correctly?  Don’t you feel righteous and correct and so much more…informed and wise…than those people who should have just ….

Yeah. Once again, we’d rather turn a blind eye to the random, arbitrary suffering of others than to face the truth: no matter how hard you try to do life correctly, horrible things will happen that will almost destroy you and there will be no good reason for the destruction.

And that’s what I mean when I say Our Privilege Is Showing.

When we sit in our dry, climate controlled homes, relaxing in our comfy chair, criticizing the failures of those who are suffering because of natural disasters, we are exercising the privilege of safety to erase the suffering of the endangered and the refugees.

When we demand that sick, suffering individuals look at the bright side of their illness (Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?) we are exercising the privilege of wellness to erase the suffering of the sick and disabled.

When we refuse to acknowledge the hidden disabilities of those whose chronic illnesses are not immediately visible we are exercising the privilege of wellness to punish those who refuse to be openly and visibly disabled and refusing to believe their claims of disability because they don’t meet our ‘criteria’…even though even though the government and the medical field has established clear criteria for disability.

Anytime you ease your own discomfort with someone else’s situation by dismissing their suffering or their struggle you use your privilege to make that person invisible.

Well…I’ve got news for you.

God’s children are never invisible to God. God sees all of His children: the well, the sick, the wealthy, the poor, the adequately housed, the homeless…all of them. And He sees you when you decide not to see suffering, sorrow, loss, disaster, disability, homelessness, poverty, discrimination, and inequality.

Never forget, God is watching. What will He see you doing?

Our privilege is showing.  Aren’t you glad it’s not your right arm??

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Epic Fail Birthday

This has been one of those weeks when I feel like an epic failure.

Not that everything has gone wrong this week. Far from it; in fact, many good things have happened this week. What has me feeling like an epic failure is that something went wrong with one of my clients—like wrong—and she quit therapy abruptly, which usually causes me to seriously question if I am burnt out, if I am in need of a tune-up of my skills, or if I am just slowly losing my mojo as a therapeutic person.

Obviously, I cannot share any specifics of what happened, since I want to (and legally need to) respect my client’s privacy. Let it suffice to say that we had a major parting of the ways over a religious issue; my client is very conservative and is an activist in this area, and I am a committed progressive that does not believe that my morals should ever dictate what other people are allowed to do. We have laws to dictate behavior; after that, my morals should stop with me.

I have to admit that I view this person as an extremist. I say that because she holds an ethical viewpoint that labels anyone who disagrees with this viewpoint as immoral and of lower personal character.  I also view her as an extremist because she spouts “statistics” and “facts” without really examining if those statistics and facts meet the test of simple logic, which means her belief is unexamined and also unchallengeable.  After all, how do you challenge someone’s viewpoint once they have chosen to simply accept whatever data they are fed by their ‘leader’ without any critical thinking?

This is where I got into trouble with her.  She was sharing her views and statistics, and I lost my ability to smile and remain silent.  And of course, that loss is why I feel like an epic failure right now. I’m not okay with losing my patience with someone and arguing against their opinion. I’m not supposed to speak sternly to a client, ever. I’m not okay when I act like this whether it happens with clients or just with people in general. Sadly, I find myself behaving like this often enough for me to be embarrassed to admit to it.

It’s my birthday today, and I keep hoping that my increasing age will grant me greater amounts of patience, compassion, silence (oh how I could use some ability to remain silent!), and wisdom.  While I often get really nice presents for my birthday, God has not yet chosen to shower me with the gifts of patience, silence, and wisdom.  I don’t know that I actually need to be more compassionate that I am, but I often think that I would be better at tolerating extremist viewpoints or just generally stupid behaviors and viewpoints if I was more compassionate.

Then again, maybe if I didn’t give a damn that would help too.

But I digress.

I keep waiting to grow up, to become more of all the things I thought I would become with age. It isn’t happening, at least not the way I want it to.  I won’t deny that age has granted me a number of characteristics that I didn’t possess at 22. I told my oldest daughter not long ago that the greatest gift of aging is that you calm the hell down. Actually, I think I said it more colorfully than that. Nonetheless, I have calmed down a great deal since my 20s. I have also become a bit more comfortable with having others tell me that I have screwed up. Sometime in my 30s I decided that being wrong isn’t as horrible as we like to make it out to be.  Discovering you are wrong is embarrassing and it hurts your pride a little, but only just a little, as long as you don’t act like you’re being accused of a capital crime and start defending yourself as if your life was on the line. The truth is that being wrong represents an opportunity to learn from someone, to thank them for their honest feedback, and to prove yourself to be a responsible and accountable adult. Oh yeah…and you get to be certain, at least for a moment, that you are now just a little ‘righter’ than you were a minute ago. Nice, huh?

Growing older has also granted me the wisdom of realizing that things are never as great or as bad as they seem, and that I need to step back and let things unfold, instead of going straight into freak-out mode. I used to freak-out over the slightest little thing that didn’t go well…now I moan a little and grump a bit, and then get on with dealing with whatever it was that just happened. I suppose that this could come under the heading of ‘Calm the hell down’ but it also contains a great big piece of ‘Look for the good to show up, because God always sneaks in a little good into everything’. God has a funny habit of blessing me even in the midst of the ickier parts of life, which has led me to start looking for the hidden blessings in just about everything.

You know, considering just how much aging has blessed me with already, I guess that it’s reasonable to hope that sometime in the next 30 years, God will sneak a little patience, silence, and wisdom into this hard head of mine. Maybe He’ll drop a little more compassion into my heart just for fun as well.  In fact, perhaps this particular epic failure will contain the seeds of great things…a few more hidden blessings from God.

So for my birthday, it appears that God has gifted me with hope that I’m still growing up and growing wise, and that is a very nice present indeed. Well played, God.  Well played.

The Sharpest Sword and the Uncontrollable Arm

This week I met with a female client whose husband is incredibly self-focused and verbally abusive to her and their two sons.

I have been listening to her struggle with her anger and frustration with her husband for months now. At first, she wanted to know what she was doing wrong, thinking that she was the problem. Then she began to wonder if she was perceiving him and his behavior incorrectly, or if she was judging him too harshly. She repeatedly blamed herself for her inability to stop her husband’s behavior from impacting her sons, swearing that if she didn’t become upset when her husband was being verbally abusive she would somehow be able to stop him from verbally abusing their boys.  Then she started asking if there were techniques to help her ‘deal’ with his constant anger and demeaning words.

Lately, though, she has been asking me if he is doing this on purpose or if this is simply how God made him.  She calls her husband a narcissist (and I agree with her) and she wants to know if his narcissism is a choice that he is making or if he can’t live any other way—in other words, was he born like this and if so, does this mean that it’s not his fault that he behaves poorly?

That is a difficult question to answer.

You might wonder how we even know for sure that he is a narcissist. Well, his behavior speaks volumes, but it always helps to rely on greater knowledge.  The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (version 5) helps me in my practice quite a bit, and it provides a list of diagnostic criteria.  Mayo Clinic provides a simplified version for the public here.

While all that is very useful knowledge, diagnosing my client’s husband won’t change anything for my client.  Also, because he’s not the one seeking counseling, any conjecturing we might do about what causes his behavior is only that: conjecture. It neither gives us a path to helping the situation nor does it give my client any real tactics for dealing with her abusive, self-focused husband.

So back to the question at hand:  what if he can’t help it? What if this is just how God made him? Isn’t it wrong to be angry at him for things he has no control over?

I have a couple of thoughts on that.

First, I don’t know that I believe that God created a narcissist. I can, however, accept that the perfect spirit that God created happens to exist inside a fleshy body that developed incorrectly, growing a brain that lacks empathy and expects total obedience to every demand and whim. Lots of us live with bodies that don’t quite function correctly.  Lots of us suffer with brain injuries after strokes or with dementia or with mental illness…and I don’t believe that God enjoys watching us struggle with our broken flesh.  I also don’t believe that God creates broken flesh.  I do, however, believe that God created a perfect spirit to reside in that flesh, and that God forgives us for the failings that our broken flesh causes.  And yes…that means that God forgives this man for being abusive, even though God didn’t create him to an abusive husband and father.

Having said all that, I offered my client an allegory:

What if her husband was born with a right arm that suddenly would strike out and punch? What if her husband had no control over the violence that his right arm would suddenly commit?  Imagine him, sitting there in a movie theater, enjoying the show when he suddenly his right arm threw a punch, striking the man next to him in the face.  “Oh, I’m so sorry sir! I didn’t mean to punch you like that. It’s just that my arm…I can’t control it. It just does that. I’ve been like that since birth. I’m so sorry.”  A few moments later, his right arm strikes out again, punching the gentleman next to him a second time.  And then a third punch. And a fourth.

How long do you think this could go on before my client’s husband would be forced to leave the movie theater? How long before someone said “If you can’t control your arm, then at least be responsible enough to sit where you can’t punch anyone!”

In other words, if you are an adult** you are responsible for the impact of your behaviors on others even when you “can’t control yourself.” Just because you “can’t control yourself” doesn’t mean that you are unaware of the impact of your behavior on others. You do not have the right to expect others to ignore the impact of your behavior on them simply because you can’t help yourself. You do not have the right to expect accommodation at the expense of the well-being of others.  You do not have the right to expect a consequence free life because of your twisted flesh.

Not sure about that?  Ask yourself…do you think that God leaned in to his sons when they were born and said “I made your Daddy in such a way that he’ll always be abusive and hateful. Too bad for you! He can’t help it so you just have to deal with it! It’s not his fault, so it’s your burden FOREVER!”

I don’t believe God is like that. I believe that God forgives us for the failures of our flesh, but I also believe that God desires for us to realize our responsibility to protect and respect others.

The saddest part?

My client looked at me and said “I know this is sick and wrong, but I wish that he’d hit me. Then I’d have no excuse to stay. I could leave him.”

My heart breaks.

All I can do is pray that she hears God whispering “Leave him. Don’t worry…I’ll take care of him. Please…for your sake, for the sake of your boys…leave him before he destroys you.”

Pray with me, please. There are way too many women and men staying in abusive relationships, worried that God will somehow judge them for leaving a relationship where the bruises aren’t physical and obvious.

As a woman who believes in a Christ who suffered a great deal before he died, trust me…words bruise and inflict wounds far greater than you can imagine. That’s why the Romans, who had already beaten Jesus bloody and were about to execute him, hung the words “King of the Jews” above his cross. They knew that whips and torture weren’t enough…they needed words to finish the destruction.

Through God’s grace alone, those who sought to kill Jesus won the battle but lost the war. Let us pray that all those who seek to destroy with words lose in the long run…and please God, sooner rather than later.

From my words to God’s ears!

** Adult in terms of mental development as well as chronological age. One of my colleagues has a son who is in his 30s and has the mental development of a 4 year-old child. In my opinion, his disability makes it so that he should never have to be fully responsible for the impact of his behaviors on others.