A couple of months ago, I was given the honor of speaking at a hospital for people in crisis. There was a man there whose face and eyes were drained of all emotion, mask-like from the constant numbing pain he was living in. A face that I know so well, because I had to shave one just like it for over ten years. A face I almost forgot, because I couldn’t look in a mirror for over four years. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced that kind of pain how when you hurt so bad for so long, you reach an even more terrible place where you don’t feel anything at all.
This man surprised me by being the first one to volunteer something. He told me that he had so much pain and fear he couldn’t see any future, that he had lost all hope, that he couldn’t even feel or cry, he hurt so terribly. I told him that sometimes, when I was in such a hellish place, when people tried to do “therapy” with me, tried to reason or talk me out of my pain, tried to fix me or “make me better,” sometimes it was even worse. It was like I was on fire, and the therapist was describing the flames to me. I told him that sometimes thinking about the future, about ever getting “well,” about having a “normal,” life was too painful, and only dragged me deeper into despair and fear.
Fear is one of the most useful tools “hardwired”into our genetic code. The “fight or flight” response is one of the key reasons that our species still walks on this planet and why saber-toothed tigers don’t. But fear can also be the key reason that so many of us constantly armor our hearts against any kind of contact, even when there is nothing to fear.
If grief is our response to pain in the past, then fear must be a response to pain in the future. At least that’s where my fear has come from. I always seemed to be able to handle what I was given at any immediate time, but when I looked into the future, tomorrow, next week, next year, “when I grow up,” that’s when I believed that I wouldn’t be able to handle what I’d be given then.
I sat in the chair next to him and took his hand and told him to just sit with me. Not to think about the future, or his wife, or tomorrow, or next week just to sit with me right now and feel my hand in his. I told him that, right now, at this instance, he wasn’t alone, that there wasn’t anything wrong with him, that he was perfectly fine the way he was. I told him what my beloved old group leader George always used to say: “I’m not OK, you’re not OK, but that’s OK!”
I asked if he could feel my hand and see my eyes and sense that he was not alone, and he said that he could, but “What about this evening when you’ll be gone?” And I told him that right now all we have is right now. Worry about this evening when it’s this evening. Worry about next week when it’s next week. But right now, just feel that we’re together. Not asking for anything, not expecting anything. Not keeping score. Just being together.
One of the other patients came over and, without a word, knelt beside his chair and took his other hand. Then another one came and joined us, then another, then another. The group leader came, and the head nurse came, and all of the rest of the staff. Maybe even the janitor, I don’t know, there were so many of us, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
And a single tear appeared in this man’s eye. It rolled down his cheek. And then another joined it, and another, and another, until he was weeping. And his mask melted. No one spoke or tried to make him “better.” No one offered him a Kleenex to wipe away his tears, because those tears were not waste, not dirty, not shameful in any way. His tears were more precious than diamonds. We who’ve lived there know that tears are good. We’ll take tears. We just stayed in the moment, healing each other, warming our hands in the glow of our collective presence.
One of the most terrible things about mental illness is how it tries to make us scale our dreams, hopes, commitment, and faith down to the level of our immediate experience, which is the suffering and hell of our pain. Sometimes all we have is right now, this instant, to not go into the future, to not dwell on the past. To simply experience what we have been given at this exact second, and be with whomever we are with at the time, be it a crowd at the Metrodome, our best friend, or even just our own company maybe that’s one of the definitions of “life.” Staying in the moment, staying alive for the next five seconds, and then the next, and then the next. Living with the “six inches in front of our face,” as the soldiers in Vietnam used to say, is sometimes all we can do. Maybe helping each other our best friend, a total stranger to get through the next five seconds, to make those five seconds heaven instead of hell, maybe that’s why we’re here.
Sometimes the next five seconds is all we’ve got. And sometimes it’s enough.