“She Saw Someone Who She Felt Was Angry And Someone She Felt Was Very Mad”

single candle

At times, events wholly beyond our control abruptly and profoundly interrupt our lives.  As they are unfolding, they challenge us to our emotional core and present seemingly insurmountable obstacles to our ability to move forward.  We become stuck, paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. Our faith is shaken. Invariably, there are more questions than answers.  The unspeakably tragic events at Sandy Hook late last week and the loss of so many innocent lives certainly fit that description – and then some.  However, I believe that if, when the time is right, we are willing to take a step back from the horror of it all and reflect on the matters of the heart that surround such events, they can lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves, of those we love and of the human condition.  They also can serve as a catalyst for change not only in the lives of those at the epicenter of the trauma, but for those of us who, on some level, relate to and, therefore, can’t help but be deeply touched by their unimaginable suffering.  I’m prayerful that, in time, Sandy Hook will prove to be such a catalyst – at least I hope it will.  I also hope that, unlike the heinous act that precipitated them, the changes it inspires will be life-affirming, filled with compassion and directed at minimizing the risk of something like this happening again.

And so, with the words of a 6 year-old Sandy Hook survivor and the guttural plea for help offered by a blogging mom reverberating in my mind, I thought I would “re-publish” a post that first appeared in my own blog on July 28, 2012.  I do so not, for a moment, as a means of excusing the inexcusable, but rather in the hope that, as the grief and shock subside and the gun control debate rages on, as it most certainly will in the wake of this terrible tragedy, an equally critical and, in my estimation, long overdue national dialogue on mental illness will not be overlooked or, worse yet, drowned out – yet again:

July 28, 2012

I Keep Pulling And Pulling But Those Darn Bootstraps Aren’t Working!

I don’t fully understand why we, as a society, tend to view (and treat) those who suffer from emotional and psychological illnesses so much differently than we do those who have purely “physical” injuries and diseases.

I suppose part of it is grounded in the old adage “seeing is believing” – a uniquely, but no less disturbing, human character trait that likely can trace its roots all the way back to the New Testament story of “Doubting Thomas,” who, despite being assured by his 11 fellow disciples that they had seen “the risen Lord,” was reported to have said: ““Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  And so it is with us and our divergent views of physical and emotional illness – a broken bone is readily “confirmable” on x-ray, a tumor on a CT scan, but mental illness, bipolar disorders, depression, anxiety, addictions, not so much – and, therefore, the former is simply much more “real” to us than the latter.

If we’re to be honest with each other, part of our skepticism about emotional and psychological illnesses also is attributable to ignorance, an inability (or an unwillingness) on our part to distinguish between those who are simply “having a bad day” and those for whom every day, left untreated, is (or has the real potential to be) bad.  That ignorance, in turn, causes us to respond to both groups with the same mindset – a misguided belief that “they should just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and move on the way everyone else does,” which, while arguably true for the ”bad day” group is (or can be) profoundly hurtful to those who require a considerable amount of professional help and compassion to have even a fighting chance of achieving that universally desired goal.

Finally, but no less importantly, I think we tend to view and treat those with emotional and psychological illnesses differently from those who suffer from physical injuries out of fear, fear of the unknown, fear of uncertainty and fear of the sometimes unpredictable nature of such disorders.  Obviously, there is much to fear where many physical ailments are concerned, but at least in the case of physical diseases: their causes are readily identifiable; most run a fairly predictable course; there are concrete steps that can facilitate the healing process; and, more often than not, they result in a full (and equally discernible) recovery.  Consequently, it “easy” for us to feel compassion towards and a compelling desire to care for those who suffer from objectively verifiable physical injuries and ailments.

Emotional and psychological illnesses, on the other hand, can be far less predictable, their causes can remain a mystery, their treatment is often subject to medical and pharmaceutical trial and error and “recovery” is seldom a clearly identifiable event so much as it is a lifetime commitment to a healthier state of mind built on “choices” made repeatedly every day and consistent professional support. Moreover, unlike physical ailments, there are no visible wounds that require cleaning or bandages that need changing, when it comes to mental illness. Instead, when confronted with emotional or psychological ailments, the best (and often all) that even the most caring and concerned of loved ones can do, aside from seeking the best available professional help, is provide unconditional support, love and patience.

I know because, once upon a time, I was one of those “uneducated” bootstrap advocates. You can trust me on this one: We all need to be more compassionate towards and understanding of one another, particularly those who are committed to courageously confronting and addressing emotional and psychological issues that are just as “real” and potentially life-threatening as a heart attack. Only by doing so will we break down the barriers and erase the stigmas that enable insurance companies to deny or unreasonably limit coverage for the medications and treatments required to effectively address those illnesses and too often form the basis for sufferers’ reluctance and/or refusal to embrace that same care out of fear that they will be perceived as weak, incompetent or somehow “defective.”

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