Thursday, December 8, 2016

On Humility, Humiliation, and Pain

In my life, seeking after the virtue of humility has usually meant that humiliation would come along as an intertwined and uninvited guest. I've seldom been able to grow in the former without experiencing the latter. My most recent lessons occurred after being an inpatient in the hospital for the removal of a brain tumor, and then subsequently having to endure a second surgery because of complications. 

There are several types of pain we all collectively endure-mental, spiritual, emotional, physical...and each of us tend to be better at handling one type over another. In my case, I can handle emotional pain (both my own and others) like a champ-an Olympic multi gold medalist really. Writing that might knock off some of those humility points for me...but it's the truth. Throw the worst human suffering at me and I will be present with strength and calm in the middle of it. 


Physical pain, on the other hand, has been the type of pain I have gone to great lengths to avoid in my life. I am an absolute wimp in the face of physical pain and tolerate it very poorly. Thus, it seems to come my way fairly often. Despite the opportunities to try improve going through it, I have yet to do so. 


The thing about physical pain is that it can turn into a beast- destroying the capacity of our intellect, manners, discipline, and logic to hold back the very primal part of us that wants to be out of that pain. After the surgeries, there was no stiff upper lip or quiet virtuous suffering when the searing pain really hit and the pain medication had worn off. I remember vividly thinking, "I had this procedure to fight for more time, and now all I want is for time to speed up." Hearing a nurse tell you that your medication isn't due for two more hours is almost the worst thing to fall upon the ears of someone in ghastly physical pain. There is no relief. There is no clear thinking. No prayer comes easily other than, "dear God, please make this stop." The directives from the surgeons included one that I wasn't allowed to cry because it would mess up my stitches and packing.  So I moaned, and clenched my sheets, and yelled into my pillow. 


Physical pain doesn't follow an allocated medication dosing schedule. And, when medication is due, it doesn't necessarily mean you are getting it right then...because the nurse has 17 other patients who also need her/his help. When the nurse does come in, and they give you the medication, and stroke your cheek, and give a word of encouragement, a huge wave of gratitude hits- because there is a slight reprieve for an hour or two. The cloudy thinking from opiates is still more lucid than the primal thinking at the height of physical pain. 


In moments of lucid thought, I tried to think about people in the world who had no help for their pain. I offered my pain for them, I prayed for them, I felt sane. But in the heat of the unmedicated overwhelming pain- my prayer (and capacity for articulate verbal skills) wasn't capable of being "other focused", it was a desperate continual, primal, mental, emotional, and spiritual cry for it to all end quickly. In much suffering I was able to laugh, smile, and be joyful...but it was a struggle to find any kind of authentic smile when the beastly grasp of physical pain took hold.



Enter Humiliation... 

When a 20 year old young male nurse aide came into my room and asked me if I wanted him to give me a bath, my jaw just about dropped to the floor. I realize in modernity that both men and women are aides and nurses, but it shocked my sensibilities and sense of modesty to the core. I declined...and I waited for two days until there was a female aide on duty who could do it. Any semblance of modesty, I possessed, however, was something that quickly went by the wayside. Every day teams of doctors and nurses were pulling off my gown throughout the day to check wounds, to chain drains, to look at stitches, move and adjust sensors, give me shots in my stomach, take blood, pull catheters etc. They all had a job to do and they needed to move expediently through the patients. While it didn't phase any of them, the lack of privacy over my body bothered me a lot at first.  After a couple of days, I was too tired and too weak to care about the lack of modesty any longer. No one reties the back of your gown after they get done working on you. When I had to go to the bathroom, it was with help, and I didn't even have the strength to reach my arm behind me to try to tie the gown or even to try to hold it closed. The mental hierarchy becomes just walking across the room and back. It's strange you know (when we are in states of health and wellness) to imagine that walking ten steps will feel like running five miles (while on fire). The exhaustion that sets in after major surgeries feels so incompatible to any other experience.  



Many pain medications can cause severe constipation and impaction. When the pain of that reached its crescendo for me, it was the middle of the night. I was not calm, not polite, not casually ringing my bell and asking the nurse to pop in. No, I was crying and doubled over in my bed yelling, "Oh my God, please help me! Please help me right now!" Physical pain is trickster full of surprises. Just when you think you've experienced it in its entirety...it will turn at you with its beastly laugh and say, "I bet you've never felt this before!" Then it will deliver on its promise and hurt you in an exquisite manner never before imagined.

My male nurse came running in and he ran his hands through my hair and very calmly whispered, "Don't worry dear, I'm here. I'll help you through this. Everything will be okay." Despite his compassion and care, I strongly desired to turn down his offer of help (because I knew what was coming and what it would entail).  Any sense of propriety I had left went by the wayside, and I had to enter into a deeply uncomfortable intimacy- a male nurse watching me in a state of raw agony as I sobbed from the crippling physical pain, and from the deep humiliating embarrassment that he was going to have to give me an enema. I realize that's a very gross and deeply personal thing to share. Here's my rationale-that experience was the pinnacle of post surgical humiliation for me...one of the greatest humiliations I have experienced in my adult life actually. It made me realize the rawness and littleness of my humanity. Of my vulnerability. Of my desperate neediness. Of my weakness. Of my total dependence on this other person for any kind of immediate help and relief. My nurse was professional and kind beyond belief, but I was so mortified I couldn't meet his gaze for the next 24 hours. 


Wisdom was growing in that suffering, and I entered into a new level of understanding myself, of recognizing another layer of the interconnectedness of each of us in our humanity at the most basic level. Pain is quite an equalizer for all of us across the board. My nurse could sit with the physical sufferings of others as I could with the emotional. He helped to heal me from debilitating pain. Pain that had turned me into a version of myself I didn't recognize. He worked with me so I could finally raise my head at that beast and say, "you don't get to win anymore today." The lesson here is how quickly the pendulum can swing for any of us to go from being put together, high functioning healthy people, to experiencing a desperate embarrassed neediness on the very basic level of physical care and dependence on others. 


On The Roommate


My third day in the hospital I had a roommate assigned to my room. She came in yelling at someone on her cell phone, turned on the TV and blasted the volume (the TV hadn't been on once since my stay) and proceeded to behave like a character off of the Jerry Springer show.


My initial reaction was not a Christian response. It was comprised of anger, disdain, and negative judgment. I desperately needed to sleep and could not because she would not turn off the television nor use headphones. The nurses told me there was no policy in place for TV shut off during sleeping hours (like 10pm-6am). This roommate kept yelling at people on her cell phone and I couldn't block any of the noise out. I paged the nurse and asked her to move me anywhere else on the floor or to do anything, and she told me she couldn't.  I started to weep and whimpered, "I just had brain surgery, I NEED to sleep and rest." She apologized but told me she was helpless to change anything. 

A few hours later, a woman (the roommate's mother) came into the room yelling profanity at her and began to kick the roommate in her bed and berate her in a horrible manner, telling her to "get up out of that effing bed right now." The nurse came in and the roommate's mother physically attacked her. She hit the nurse! Security was called and the mother was dealt with and the roommate was moved.    


It was only as I reflected on the events that had just transpired that an authentic Christian response formed in my soul. Mercy, humility, and charity, came rushing in like a tidal wave. I imagined what it must have been like for my roommate to grow up with that kind of parent, the behaviors that would have been learned and passed on. I mourned for her and for the lack of decent and authentic love and care she had not received. I contrasted that against the gift of my own very supportive and loving family. Any trace of disdain melted away and my heart ached for her, especially for her to be attacked in the midst of her own physical pain, by her mother-someone who should be a tender and nurturing presence to and for her. 


The experience made me realize I didn't have the worst of it when it came to pain, even though it sure felt like it in the heat of the moment. My physical pain might last for a few weeks or months. But I was surrounded by loving support and caring people to help me through it.


But my roommate...what she went through, not knowing the experience of unconditional love and acceptance by her own mother, feeling unloved and uncared for...that was a far greater and longer lasting pain that needed remedy.