Monday, February 10, 2014

What Happens to the Mind and Body When You Can't Let Go of Grief and Negative Emotions?

Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared. Proverbs 22:24-25 NIV


            The month of April had rolled in with the joyous anticipation of Easter, and the first anniversary of Victoria’s death. Three days after my euphoric worship solo in church, I was still floating on high spirits, anticipating the anniversary date to pass with melancholy memories and gentle reminiscing with Chris.  The dawning of April 13, 1994 didn’t publicize an omen of the path that day would take. If it had, I would have decided to forego the day.
            Parker headed off to preschool, and Chris went to work, leaving me home alone to do what housewives normally do during the day. At midmorning, however, my quiet routine was interrupted by a call from a former instructor at the technical school where I had taught. He was being confronted with charges of sexual impropriety in the classroom, and the intention of his call was to learn my address and acquire directions to my home, so he could officially serve me with legal papers for his retaliatory lawsuit against the school. He droned on about the ridiculousness of the students’ charges, how he didn’t have a problem with me personally—just the school—and how he simply needed to print my name and the legal jargon in the newspaper to prove that I’d been served. I silently berated myself for answering the phone.
            As the conversation escalated to controlled fury on his end—since I refused to accommodate him with the information he requested—I gathered enough emotional strength to calmly relay to him that I didn’t think I should be speaking with him about the matter.  I patiently listened to more of his diatribe and his reiteration about how he was attending law school in San Diego and was an expert on all legal matters.
            My patience abruptly disintegrated; I couldn’t take any more. Through gritted teeth, I told him that it was the first anniversary of my daughter’s death, and that I was really not in the mood to discuss the matter further. The conversation quickly ended, but the stress of knowing that I’d be named in a lawsuit eroded my emotional armor. Suddenly reduced to a state of fear and anger, I stood helpless and shaken in my suddenly horribly quiet kitchen.
            My coping skills also dissolved as I emptied the dishwasher with only mildly controlled vengeance, banging dishes into stacks, tossing silverware into designated slots, and slamming cabinets and drawers for an impromptu, melodramatic finale. After the performance, I rushed/raced/sprinted to another project to avoid collapsing into mollifying hysteria.
            When will it end? I wondered.
            Well, it wouldn’t end that day. There was more.
            An hour later, I received a phone call from a florist wishing to verify my address and asking if I’d be home all day. So much for surprises, I mused.
            Then I thought, How sensitive, as I imagined Chris sending me flowers on the anniversary of our loss. I was certain he’d also call from work to see how I was doing.
            But I waited…and waited…and waited, and his phone call didn’t come. And the flowers that might have brightened the sorry afternoon didn’t arrive until after 5:00 PM.
            The flowers sent not from my tender, loving husband but from my thoughtful parents.
            Reeling with fury, I hotly confronted Christ at the door upon his arrival home. Being consumed in and blinded by self pity, I ignored the conspicuous signs of pronounced weariness and pain etched on his face and immediately launched into a barrage of accusations concerning his glaring deficiency in failing to recognize the significance of the day for me.
            Before I could describe the incidence with the suing doctor, Chris unleashed/vented/discharged his own fury and counterattacked with slurs/insults about my insensitivity to his feelings, screaming, “ All I wanted to do was to forget about Victoria that day?”
            I was stunned. How could he be so callous, so dismissive, so selfish? Yet the frightening, threatening expression chiseled on his face warned me that there would be no further discussion about it.
            My body shook. How could this have happened to us? This wasn’t the man I knew and loved; this was someone twisted by anger and a broken heart. He chose to escape the pain by working, deliberately obliterating unpleasant memories from his conscience, while I played the masochistic martyr, venturing headfirst into the emotional floodwaters and fully immersing myself in the sucking turbulence.
            It takes strength, discipline and abolition of pride and ego to work out your problems and disagreements, to stop hanging onto your “right” point of view, your “right” feelings, your “right” needs and humble yourself before your spouse.
            It takes real, sacrificial love. And we weren’t there yet. We were still too tied up in our sorrow, wrapped up in ourselves, nursing our own hurts, cleaning up the ugly debris and collateral damage remaining after the original assault.
            Actually, we really weren’t trying to clean it up; we just swept it into a corner, bound it up with dirty rags and let it sit there to rot and stink.
            So, unwisely, we let the sun set on our anger. We were selfish human islands, still battered and bruised, agonizing self-destructively in solitude.

           When you’re tied up in your own sorrow, it’s difficult to see beyond it, to even want to look beyond it to see someone else’s needs. But sometimes that’s exactly what you must do to pry yourself out of your self-focus and move past it.
            But you must also unravel that suffocating binding tied you around your heart and soul and begin working on the infected, festering wound. You must expose it, be vigilant about cutting into and extracting the putrid remnants you’ve allowed to breed there.

            Digging deeply to dredge up and analyze the pain isn’t comfortable. But for complete healing to occur, that’s exactly what needs to happen. Since I’m a medical person at heart and by training, let me give you an illustration I think you’ll understand. At the least, it’ll give you a vivid word picture of what can happen to the heart and soul when emotional pain is disregarded or allowed to evaporate into a fog through ignoring.
            When I attended Indiana University, the athletic training staff and students worked with the cyclists who raced in the Little 500 bike race, a strenuous, immensely entertaining race run as a cycling counterpart to the Indy 500. This April rite of passage event was a big deal in Bloomington, Indiana. (If you’d like to learn just how big of deal it was, rent the movie Breaking Away, somewhat of a cult classic with the Little 500 and racing group.)

            And this is no ordinary bike race. Dorms and fraternities have well-toned, passionate cyclists who train seriously for this race, which is set up so teams of four relay-race for 200 laps (50 miles) around a quarter-mile (440 yards) cinder track. Thirty-three teams are selected to compete after going through qualification rounds.
            Did you catch that? They ride around a cinder track.
            Cycling races are notorious for collisions and nasty pile-ups. Ever see what happens to the skin when it’s been ground into a cinder track? It’s not pretty, and it requires immediate attention.
            The skin has usually been ground down several layers and is imbedded with those little cinder chips. Unfortunately, those chips don’t just flush out with a nice blast of water, and, if left in, can cause nasty infections, healing difficulties and scarring.
            First, the athlete needs the area cleaned and disinfected. Then the “fun” begins! A stiff brush, usually soaked in antiseptic liquid, is applied to the wound in a circular scrubbing motion. Beginning in the center of the wound, you work your way out to the perimeter. If you’re thinking ahead, you realize this is done so the debris and bacteria is pushed from the inside to the outside of the wound for complete cleaning.
            To say this process is painful is a gross understatement! This treatment continues until you get some bleeding of the tissue, which further cleanses the area and gets healing juices going. But the blood itself is also an irritant, so this increases the pain level. And these aren’t usually small wounds; they can sometimes spread nearly the length of a thigh and be four inches or more wide.
            Antibiotic ointment is then applied to the wound, followed by a sterile gauze wrapping, and an ace bandage. Often, the cyclist returns to the race for another go ‘round.
            Can you imagine what could happen to this wound if it weren’t cleaned properly? It would continue to fester, weep fluids and probably never heal properly. Like a laceration that’s been stitched shut without cleansing, the wound remains angry, red and tender. You don’t want to touch it. Or it may look as though it’s healed nicely, and only later do you learn that the infection has buried itself deep in your tissues or spread through the blood or lymph system to other parts of the body. In the worst-case scenario, the patient may be overrun by the bacteria and die.  
            And you don’t want me to go into a discussion about autolytic, surgical, or maggot therapy debridement when a wound develops dead (necrotic) tissue or a compounded infection.

            The same type of “wound” can occur in the human heart, mind and body. It needs to be recognized, addressed, cleaned, wrapped in a protective “bandage” and allowed to heal. Just like a physical wound, you need to “start in the center” and push or “lift” everything out to the perimeter and then flush it away. If it’s ignored or “closed over” prematurely, it will fester, ooze, and compromise your mind and body.
            Remember, the mind-body connection I’ve been preaching for the last three months. When the body is affected, the mind is affected; when the mind is affected, the body follows suit.
            Please don’t understatement it or regard it skeptically. It’s real, and it’s just as injurious as a flesh wound, cancer or a wasting disease. It wreaks havoc, which can progress until the body becomes overwhelmed and has no choice but to succumb and stop functioning.  
            Make no mistake about it: Stress kills! And, with the death of a loved one ranked at the top of the stressors list, you can only imagine what it does to the body.
            And what it does to those around you. Like a dangerous, communicable disease, your words and behavior affect those with whom you come in contact. You can lift them up or tear them apart with your words and your actions. Words and actions usually driven by volatile emotions. Sometimes selfish, irrational emotions.
            Most people don’t deliberately set out to hurt their loved ones or others. Sometimes quarantine or isolation is mandatory to keep that from happening. But always, attending promptly, thoroughly to the injury, illness or wound is necessary for hope and healing.

            Please, don’t wait! Start working on your wounds today.
            Let this be the day your true healing begins!


NEXT WEEK: Malpractice, and the ugly side of medicine…

Until next week,

Thanks for joining me!