Saturday morning Ellie and I went for a long walk along the Hudson River. We used to enjoy these morning excursions as a regular part of our weekends. The operative phrase here is ‘used to’, which I’ll explain in a bit.
Later in the day we went into Manhattan and walked from 83rd St. and Madison Avenue all the way down to 64th Street and, after a heathy and delicious Nicoise salad at a delightful French bistro, walked all the way back to 83rd Street. This included some uphill stretches. Our day of walking made both of us quite happy!!
So, what’s the big deal about Ellie and me enjoying long walks? Until this past Saturday, our walks had become a thing of the past. How did that happen considering the pleasure it brought us? I’ll tell you now:
Some time ago, I began to suffer occasional angina – chest pain — during physical exertion. Over time it became chronic and had me avoiding a variety of physical activities that had been a source of pleasure. A few months ago, the pain in my heart and the impact it was having on my life became intolerable!
How did I let it get that far? There were distractions and rationalizations that made it possible to put off dealing with what was obviously a serious health issue. For a while I put it off because I had elderly, ill parents who required a great deal of my time, attention and care. Even after the deaths of both my parents, there was always another event, circumstance or responsibility for me to focus on.
Once we humans – even trained psychotherapists — begin to avoid something, we create a “comfort zone” around the problem, comfortable because it is familiar – a known – something we have learned to tolerate even when it causes pain and suffering! Easier to deal with emotionally, than the “unknown” with all its perceived risks.
Yes, I allowed distractions and denial to get in the way of taking proper care of my physical wellbeing. But at last, the physical pain, limitations and restrictions on my life, and the fear it caused Ellie, demanded proper attention!
I realized I could no longer postpone getting a thorough evaluation of my cardiac condition and recognized the scary truth that I might very well need bypass surgery. I finally accepted the undeniable fact that treatment was required and whatever that meant, it had to be done now!!!
Once I took control of the situation, I was careful to select a hospital that specializes in heart and lung surgery. However, once that choice was made, I also had to accept the risks involved and trust my life to the character and skill of those who would treat me.
As it turned out, my condition did require open heart surgery. I was most fortunate that my surgeon was highly trained and experienced and is the hospital’s Chief of Surgery. On September 28th, he performed a quintuple bypass and an aortic valve replacement!!!
The reality of that procedure was that my surgeon cut my breast bone, spread it apart and literally had my heart in his hands. As accepting as I was of my choice to undergo the procedure and as trusting as I was of my medical professionals, it is by its nature a traumatic intervention.
As my breastbone and my body have healed and strengthened over the past couple of months, I have been reflecting deeply on the experience. I’ve concluded that there is an unmistakable metaphor between the underlying physical pain and suffering that had restricted my life and led to surgery, and the emotional pain that restricts the lives of those I treat through psychotherapy.
While I don’t literally take the hearts of those who seek my help into my hands, I most certainly do figuratively. I understand – even more viscerally now – the avoidance of seeking help that continues until a marriage is breaking up, or a child is acting out dangerously, or someone has turned to substance abuse to quell their pain – or a decades long acceptance of misery has finally become too much.
Just as a heart patient like me must face the pain and risk of a surgical procedure, those people suffering from emotional pain and dysfunction have to reach a place on their path where the known pain and suffering gets to a point where the unknown pain and risk of correcting the problem becomes preferable.
Then it’s a question of making some new choices. Finding a skilled therapist to help you change your journey to a more life-enhancing direction and then staying the course and doing whatever it takes to maintain health.
I’m in the process of doing so with my physical health. I’ve changed my diet, shed more than 20 pounds so far with another 12 or so to go to reach my goal. I’ve already resumed physical exercise as you know. These must be life-long choices if I and my restored heart are to remain healthy.
Same is true for psychotherapy. As we make changes that will ensure happier lives and better relationships, we must find ways to make them permanent.
Sure, there will be pain as part of the process. I’ll never forget the horrific few seconds when one of the surgeons removed the chest tubes that had been placed during surgery to assure that fluids didn’t build up around my heart. Would I trade my choice to undergo surgery to avoid that excruciating moment? No way!
If you who are reading this – or anyone you care about – are avoiding getting help for your emotional wounds, please consider the consequences of not pursuing help. Going back to my metaphor, if I had not sought help, the alternative would have likely been death from a massive heart attack and probably in the not-too-distant future. Failing to address emotional dysfunction may not be tantamount to physical death, but in reality, it is a failure to live life to its fullest.
This includes the opportunity to experience unconditional love and to become your authentic, lovable self. You just must be ready to change whatever needs changing and willing to accept the help you need. Then your life, like mine, can have “A New Beginning!” It’s worth it.