Sometime ago (probably pre-2010), I posted that one of my goals was to have an outline for a book that I had wanted to write. If I’m honest, I don’t really understand why I’d even want to write a book in the first place, and for a time I thought “What in the world do I even have to say?”
Well, it’s nearly 2012 and I still don’t really have an solid outline, but I think I finally have a message and a clear(er) picture of what I’d like this book to be…
And I think I have a rough draft of a rough draft of chapter x.
Here it is for your reading enjoyment/critical thoughts/some combination:
My heart had been palpitating off and on, by this time, for days. More consistent was the anxiety that, if I’m honest, had been rolling around in the pit of my stomach for months. Laying on my bed, the senseless chatter coming from the television a few feet away and the sound of my wife brushing her teeth in the next room provided the soundtrack for my prayer of distress to God.
“Dear God. I don’t want to die. I don’t know what’s going on here. I don’t know what I’m doing here. But, I need your help. Please, God. Just help me.”
There had been several months of this at this point. The interesting thing about anxiety is that it’s self-reinforcing. For me, it usually started with some physical symptoms – heart palpitations, for example. From there, I would often be so convinced that I was going to die any minute that when I would walk my dog (Brody, the wonder Shih-Tzu), I would literally tie his leash around my wrist. This way, when I my heart stopped in the parking lot of our apartment building, my wife would at least still have Brody to keep her company.
“You can’t keep going on like this.” Kristy, my wife, said. “Can I do anything to help? Something has to change.” She had come back into the room and her wifey-sense was tingling, set off by my latest bout of irrationality. She knew something was wrong. Though experiencing these physical symptoms had become somewhat commonplace by this point, it still amazed me just how deeply in tune she was with me.
Nervously, I resolved, “I’m going to go to the doctor tomorrow. I need to figure this out.”
It may not seem like that drastic of a step to make a declaration that I was going to have a doctor look into why my heart was beating 160 times a minute. The truth is that I was nowhere near dying (I apologize for not prepending this with SPOILER ALERT, but I assumed that since you were reading this you probably under stood that I lived long enough to at least write about it). Granted, I had no idea what was happening or why it was happening. In fact, I wouldn’t begin to understand what was happening for several more months.
You have to understand, though, that this was a break through.
The Kind of Kid You Love to Hate
As a child, I had a sense that I was the pride of at least three families. In addition to being an only child until my sister was born nearly eight years later, I was the first born grandson on both sides as well. There were loads of love and attention and it was all for me. Later, when dozens of cousins burst onto the scene, I never got the sense that there was an less love. This is true even today, thirty years later.
My family’s home is in a quaint, quiet fishing village with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and millions of acres of forest on the other. I spent hours with my friends playing games, building tree houses, running wild and free in wide-open and safe spaces. It’s the kind of idealistic scene that you would expect to find in a movie about the unspoiled life until some plot twist revealed a dark and seedy under-belly.
During my school years, anything and everything was more fun that doing homework. I suppose this is true for every kid, in every city, around the world. The difference for me was that despite my lack of interest in doing the work my grades never suffered. At the end of every school year, it was pretty safe to assume that I would place near the top of my class.
I was the kid that didn’t have to try because things just worked out. I was the one that didn’t have to study for tests because I knew it all anyway. I was the guy that sat on the math team and the english team and the public speaking team and somehow still managed to have friends. I was the goodie-goodie who wasn’t tempted by the things that even other kids in my church groups were doing.
I was the kind of kid that people love to hate.
Most people would say that I was blessed. I can’t disagree. Up through my college years, something about my personality stood out and, whether or not by divine intervention, good things just fell into my lap. Grades, scholarships, recognition, things, jobs, opportunities all came my way without me ever having to put forth much effort. In essence, my life more resembled a Pavlovian experiment – my rewards had nothing to do with my own behavior. Instead, my portion was completely at the whim of the great scientist in the sky.
Whether or not all of these things were blessings, the way that they were delivered was damaging. I salivated at the thought of being highly favored in God’s eyes but when the dog food was gone, or if it never came, all I knew to do was to sit back, wipe the drool from my chin, and wait for the next blessing from the hand of God.
“Everything checks out, Mr. Smith. You seem to be completely healthy.” The doctor said.
Given the racing heart, sweaty palms, and somersaulting bowels the night before, I had a hard time trusting that the chart the doctor was reading wasn’t for the guy in the next room. The Sisters of Mercy Urgent Care didn’t seem to be either Catholic, merciful, or urgent. But it at least seemed credible, so I engaged him.
“Well, what do you think it is then?”
The doctor was probably about 50 years old, balding on the top, and bearded in the front down to about the middle of his chest. He wore those narrow reading glasses that look like the bottom half of a pair of bifocals.
He took them off and closed my chart.
“What’s going on in your life right now? Do you have any financial issues?
“No.” I replied, “Everything is good, my wife and I are both working.”
“Anyone in your family sick?” He opened my chart again as he said this, I’m assuming to double-check, making sure that he didn’t miss anything.
“No, everyone is fine.”
“How about work? Tell me about that.”
At this point, it felt as though my heart had been held back long enough and it wanted to escape the confines of my chest. It was going to do so by fracturing through my sternum.
“Work is…. work could be better. My wife and I work together for our church and we really don’t seem to have a lot of support right now. There’s a lot of confusion – not a lot of direction.”
The doctor began to nod that I-should-have-started-with-that-question nod. He also smirked that either-way-we’re-going-to-bill-your-insurance-for-the-EKG smile.
Then he said, “I’m going to give you this prescription for a mild anti-anxiety drug and I want you to make an appointment to see your family doctor who will likely refer you to a counselor. Take the pills at least until you can get in to talk to someone about what’s going on. You’ll be fine.”
He was right.
Even though I had studied Psychology in college, I had very little opportunity to get involved with the counseling side of things, other than what was described in the text. My school was very science heavy and had I thought about it before, I probably would have attended somewhere else. I just happened to find myself at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
The waiting room was pretty sterile, with just a few chairs and magazines that featured local food and mountain getaways. It was quiet. Eventually the large door, painted the same color as the walls opened and I was called inside.
Bette (as she insisted I call her) had an office that was decorated simply and without the traditional couch that is the hallmark of counselors the world over. It was in an old part of the city that made everything feel more quaint and genuine. She always sat in the corner chair, but let me know that I could sit anywhere I wanted. She also would make me some lovely herbal tea from a vast collection prior to our sessions.
I assumed she wasn’t a particularly religious woman, based on her obvious comfort level with curse words. Coming from a rich, religious tradition I wondered how this would work.
My life at this time was shrouded in a cloud. It was not a dark, gloomy cloud of sadness. Instead, it was just a thick, pale cloud. It was one of uncertainly, unknowing, confusion. Honestly, I don’t remember much of what Bette told me over those several sessions. I just know that the cloud began to lift. In the sentiments of Johnny Nash, I could see clearly, the rain was gone.
There was one concept, however, that Bette shared with me that will forever be a mile marker in my journey. Her insights on this will be one of those things that I teach my kids and grandkids, a cause that I will take up, a lesson that I want others to learn.
“I have another client that comes to see me. He’s a college professor, about 45-50 years old, who has never been married.” She said. As a 27 year-old with a mostly useless Bachelor’s degree and who had been married for three years, obviously I could relate.
“He spends most every night at a local bar. Ladies will come by and will often pick him up. They’ll go home. They’ll have a fling for a few days. Culture says that this is every man’s dream: beer and beautiful women. But this man is depressed.” She said. “Why do you think this is?”
In order to fully gauge my thoughts at this point, you have to understand that I was raised in a teetotaling family and was taught that alcohol in all it’s forms was evil and that sex outside of the bonds of marriage was even worse. To me, this man was bound for the fires of hell and nothing more.
Since Bette wasn’t a Christian counselor, I thought, “Because he’s lost in sin” wasn’t probably the best response. As an aside, it turns out that things that you have to check yourself from saying to a non-christian are probably things that you shouldn’t be saying at all.
“Uh, because he’s not finding what he’s looking for?” I sheepishly suggested, not fully understanding the point of this.
“He’s not even looking for what he’s looking for.”
Of course, I thought. That makes perfect sense.
She continued, “Every night he goes and he sits and he waits on someone to come chat him up. Maybe that person doesn’t come some evenings. But, more often than not, somebody comes by, sits on the stool next to him and starts a conversation. She may ask what he does and he probably response half-heartedly that he’s a college professor. She might ask what he likes to do and he probably mumbles some things related to work but never really answers the questions. Eventually, after they’re drunk and horny, they’ll go back to her place or his, they’ll have sex, break up, and the cycle will start all over again. He never says what he wants. He never gets to be the one pursuing the girl of his dreams. He sits and passively waits for someone to come by and check him out. He never pursues for himself what he wants.”
I don’t remember if either my eyes were welling with tears, my jaw was gaping to the floor, or perhaps both. Clearly, I remember that my mind had just been blown.
Almost the entirety of my existence was marked by my passively wandering through life. Grades, and jobs, and friends, and blessings, and life had come to my end of the bar, chatted me up, and asked if I wanted to take them home. Usually I did. I meandered through college because that’s what everyone else did. I moved what still seems like halfway around the world because someone simple offered me a job. I stayed in that job even when I was miserable simply because nothing had come along.
What’s more the things that I was happiest with in my life were the things that I actively pursued and engaged. For instance, my wife and I are together because I somehow summoned the courage to tell her that I liked her for a long time and that I just thought she should know. In the months following that January declaration, I continued to pursue her even though she had started dating a couple of other guys off and on that Spring.
My experience with counseling has been that often it takes one mind-blowing moment to change at least some vector of your trajectory. This moment – this reveleation – of pursuing life actively is a mile marker on my journey that I will never forget.
My appointments with Bette started in March and by September I had successfully negotiated another job in a city I loved, getting paid for something that I had enjoyed doing since ninth grade, and finding great personal success in various accomplishments. Even though I still had no idea who I really was, I suddenly became the expedition leader. In one afternoon, I started to understand the idea that I needed to take ownership for my journey. My physical symptoms had vanished. I rarely darkened the door to my medicine cabinet.
Something had changed.