How Do You Feel?
Yesterday was my three-month check-up with the doctor in charge of the medicinal portion of my mental health plan. As someone with Chronic Severe Depression and a Severe Anxiety Disorder, the psychology group I go to has doctors who specialize in medical therapy and others who specialize in talk therapy. Together with the patient a plan is developed and intended to help them as much as possible.
Yesterday’s appointment was; “Meh, okay.” The therapist asked standard questions; “Are you taking your meds? How do you feel? Have you noticed any changes in mood or behavior? Any major life changes?” I answered all of them and told her I was following my plan except for one suggestion she’s made many times. We don’t agree and I don’t think it’s a big deal. She, the professional, thinks otherwise. I told her; “Yes, I am still…” she simply replied; “You know how I feel about that!” and we kept going with the conversation. I found it humorous that’s all she has to say and it’s enough. I either have to trust her and do it or not. She’s told me the benefits and even though I don’t see them I choose to fully follow the mental health plan or not. Sigh.
We’ve all been there with people we love and care for. We give them advice about life and after a point, we decide not to tell them again and again. We let them choose and deal with the results. I’ve done this with many of the people I work with but it’s interesting, and a little uncomfortable, to be on the other side.
I heard a story today about a chaplain who worked in a veteran’s hospital in the 1950’s. There was an African-American soldier in the hospital who had lost a leg in the Korean War. The physical therapists had worked with him trying to get him used to wear a prosthetic leg. Both the soldier and medical personnel tried everything they could think of but nothing worked and the soldier was ready to give up and live life with one leg and crutches for the rest of his life.
The chaplain was made aware of the situation and stopped by soldier’s bed one night to see if he could be of any help. “I can still feel my leg, my real leg!” the soldier cried. “It’s a phantom pain.” replied the chaplain, “It will go away in time.” “That leg!” retorted the soldier gesturing toward the prosthetic one, “will never be ‘my’ leg.” After visiting with the young man the chaplain prayed with him and asked if he could take the prosthetic one with him. The soldier responded with a shrug.
The next day the chaplain returned with the same leg except it was painted a shade of brown to more closely match the soldier’s own skin tone. “What did you do?” asked the perplexed soldier. The chaplain, hoping he hadn’t offended the young man said he took it home with him and thought painting it might make it seem more palatable. “That’s all you did?” asked the soldier admiring the leg. “That’s it.” smiled the chaplain. The chaplain helped the young man to the side of the bed, attached the leg, helped him take his first few steps and from that day forward the soldier made remarkable progress.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The chaplain helped the soldier not by insisting he use resources given to him by the hospital but by listening and understanding what the soldier was going through and then adapting his help to the soldier’s personal, unique need.
Too often we see people who need assistance and we automatically assume there are places and resources that are available. We surmise that if someone wants help enough they’ll figure out how to get it. The truth is everyone’s story is unique and unless we listen, understand and are willing to personally get involved many will go on suffering and being blamed for doing so.