I’m home, out of the hospital, and ready to get better. I have to get better. If I don’t all of the plans for my life and our marriage will go out the window.
I’m supposed to get used to the drugs and start feeling less sleepy. Things are supposed to get better. But I remember having cancer, how nothing was ever the same again. I had stared death in the face, lost my hair and a third of my body weight. Then I’d prepared to die bravely.
But now I had no idea of how to coexist with the drugs that suppressed not only my epilepsy, but also my awareness and my emotional affect. I had no idea of how to live with impairment.
The green couch, though splattered with stains from feeding babies, served as a good place to rest while I stared out into space. My two-year-old son and infant daughter hovered in the background, probably making a mess. I’d just called my friend to switch on-call shifts for the last requirement of my CPE, chaplain-training class. In a little while my wife would be home and I would go down for a four or five hour afternoon nap. In one day I’d gone from being a highly autonomous individual with serious responsibilities to being a man who couldn’t drive, couldn’t think straight and couldn’t be trusted to watch his children for more than an hour or two.
My circumstances changed in an instant, but my plans, my identity and my values changed at glacial speed. Throughout CPE training I’d seen myself as one of the smartest and best educated of the students. I’d been selected from over more than twenty people for the single spot in the residency program. My strengths were an ability to listen and “put the dots together.” My classmates described my ability to “put the dots together” as my propensity to hear about an experience ten or fifteen years ago and connect it to something one of my classmates or patients was doing or saying in the present day. I could also write very detailed, in-depth papers about my conversations with patients. My weakness lay in being emotive; even before the drugs I had trouble sharing the emotions of grief or pain with my patients, their families or my fellow students.
It was very important to me to be perceived as being one of the smartest and best educated. I did not want to re-experience the childhood taunts I had suffered as I struggled to overcome dyslexia. In adulthood I wanted to find a profession where my skills and intellect were valued. I’d already been a construction worker, a mailman, a warehouse worker and a teacher. I’d gone to seminary and finished with good grades and good recommendations because I was sure that God loved me and would find a place for me to love Him, serve Him, and maybe even let me take home a paycheck. The chaplaincy seemed like a good fit.
Now, sitting on the green couch in my living room, feeling numb and dumb and tired, I had no idea of how I could continue.
I still struggle to believe it, even now, but much of my suffering came from illusions and deceptions that I’d constructed about myself. I’d struggled with learning how to read and get through school, so it became very important for me to think of myself as smart and have others perceive me as smart. I’d struggled to find a place in the adult world, so it became very important to think of myself as very qualified as a chaplain or minister, and to provide valuable help to others.
I’d suffered pain, disappointment and frustration. I had to believe that God would use me to alleviate those conditions in others. We always try to give away to others what we want the most for ourselves; it is to us our most precious gift.
What I didn’t know then, and continue to learn now, is that my picture of myself as a smart, super-qualified, valuable helper was going to have to die so that God could rebuild me into His humble servant.