Working at the community mental health center, I looked for ways of helping those with mental problems, who were homeless or lacked other resources. Often, I succeeded in linking them with the appropriate resource or agency. Usually, clients were appreciative of my efforts, and I felt satisfied that I was able to help. That wasn’t always the case. One day, I came upon a scene that stays in my memory, and changed by assumptions about people.
Having been picked up at the library, a man was bought in by the police. Disheveled and carrying a knapsack, the elderly client smelled of cigarettes and beer. With a grim expression, he sat down reluctantly. I said, “What brings you to the social work office?” After a cold silence, he said, “I was evicted from the library for loitering.” Gazing down at his tattered jeans and stained T-shirt, I asked, “How can I help you?” With a fixed stare, he said, “Take me back to the library.” With raised eyebrows, I peered at him. “What do you want to do?” With an angry, furrowed brow, he said, “Read!”
At this point, I realized I had made assumptions that were not true. I assumed that he wanted a place to stay, and financial help. He didn’t. He was telling me, “Here I am. Leave me alone. I have my right to read.”
In today’s world, anxiety increases with instant media, and personal anonymity. People text, twitter, and phone, but do not see each other face-to face. Trust in one another breaks down, with news headlines of bombings, mass shootings, and threats of war. How can you find God in such a media-savvy culture?
Today’s news headline reads, “The World is on New Year’s Eve Alert.” Those headlines penetrate my mind. Fear and anxiety steal my peace. I tell myself I won’t allow my mood to be deflated by the headlines. From a music stand beside my treadmill, I read Scripture, as I walk at a steady pace. As my tension eases in the drone of the treadmill, I find peace reading the Word of God. Meditating on Scripture, I stand in one place, but my spirit moves forward. My fear in reading the headlines changes to relief, as I focus on faith.
Previously, the major mental health problem in America was depression. Today, it is anxiety. Looking for personal peace is a matter of faith. Scripture says, “Be anxious about nothing.” Receiving and believing that command requires a shift in personal priorities. I find the search for peace through the Word is well worth the daily effort.
Something happens when a motorist slides behind the wheel of a car. The primal instinct takes over. The law comes to a new low, with survival of the fittest. It peaks during certain times of day.
Rush-hour traffic is a jungle. Road rage flares with traffic jams, congestion, and bottlenecks. Drivers get dangerous. As I ease my RAV4 down the freeway, an 18-wheeler rides my bumper. Drivers get risky. A jeep honks, cuts in front of me, and slows down. Drivers get wild. Peering out my window, I see one motorist screaming at another for stealing his parking space. As I approach my office building, I step out of the car. I take a deep breath, centering myself. At last, I’m back in civilization.
How to survive this daily jungle is a matter of preference, depending on the motorist. I can’t totally avoid the advances of aggressive motorists, except to be on the defense, slow down, and be aware of my surroundings. Otherwise, consequences can be deadly. I avoid getting tangled up in the maze of cars in the primeval forest of the city. With practice, I become at home in the jungle.
Swimming a mile at the pool every morning at 5:00 has come to be such a part of my work day, that I rarely alter my routine. Although getting up at 4:00, gathering up my swim gear, and work clothes, and driving to the gym is a discipline, the energy I derive from the workout is worth the preparation.
As enter the Y pool area, I notice the bright lights, and the smell of chlorine. I walk to my swim lane, putting on my swim gloves, swim fins, swim cap, goggles, and ear plugs. Making the plunge, I glide weightless through my first lap, as I slice a trail through the placid water. With a freestyle stroke, I kick with my swim fins, like a rudder. My thoughts are rushing, like waves on a windy day. By the second lap, the restless activity of my mind slows down. As I steady my pace, I count, breathe, and meditate. My mind wanders. I bring it back to counting laps. I release tension with each arm stroke. Within an hour, I paddle my way to peace in the pool.
As I come out of the pool, I take off my swim gear, gazing at others who have come to the pool, and walk to the shower. After a hot shower, I chat with my Y buddies briefly as I dress, and head out to my car, with damp hair, and a renewed body and mind.
A World War II prison-of war hero, Sam returns home. Never discussing his war experiences, he marries, raises a family, and becomes an affluent farmer.
Now, almost ninety years old, and suffering from hearing and memory loss, his wife refers him to counseling, for irritability and withdrawal at home. Slight of build and ambling along with a cane, he comes to my VA office. He shares his war memories, which have begun to haunt him. His eyes well with tears, as he tells of his prison-of-war trauma. When his plane was shot down, he survived, but was captured by Germans and put in a concentration camp. He was forced to work in the fields, and survived on 3 potatoes each day. He said he saw other prisoners give up and die, but he was determined to survive. Eventually, when the war ended, he was released but not without residual effects of the starvation. The US Army had him examined by a doctor, who told him he would never be able to gain weight, but would recover. He said he was 99 pounds at the end of the war, but later gained up to 130 pounds. Glad to be alive and home, he decided to forget about his imprisonment, not realizing the psychological effects of his trauma.
As he shares his trauma in therapy, he gets in touch with repressed memories. His words free him from the bondage of silence. Soon, he begins to share his story in classroom settings in the local schools. His mood improves, he smiles, as he retells his story again and again.
War and Peace
Entering therapy at the VA Clinic for depression, Tom gets in touch with his anger toward his wife. He recalls her taunting him and calling the police, reporting he was beating her. Refusing to come in for therapy with him, Tom faces his conflicting emotions alone. He tries to sort out what went wrong in his loveless marriage. Tom leaves the session with a heavy heart.
Tom has moved from the battlefield of Vietnam to the battlefield of marriage. His mind is still reeling from his wife’s recent rage, and violence. Tom had a sense of dread as he pulls his truck into the driveway, and notices her car is not there. He strolls warily up to the front door. The house is eerily quiet. He goes to their bedroom. He looks in the closet. Her clothes are not there. He goes to the kitchen, and looks on the table, where he sees a note, saying she has gone to live with her son.
With a whirlwind of emotions ranging from anger to fear to relief, Tom works through his feelings in therapy, until he is able to say, “ I’m at peace.”
Beth relives her military trauma. Clutching her purse nervously, gazing at the floor, she walks with me to my office. After suffering an assault while on base while serving overseas, she admits she is reluctant to tell her story. Pressured by her husband to seek help, she now comes in for therapy, She describes her anxiety, like scrambling up and down a ladder.
Working as a teller at a bank, she says she stays tense, scanning the lobby area, and looking out the window constantly. She becomes more edgy at 5:00 pm, when she leaves work. She relates her most recent episode. “After making a bank deposit, approaching my car, I heard footsteps behind me. My heart pounded, as I quickened my pace. My shoulders tensed, and my hands trembled; I gasped for breath and began to sweat. I thought, ‘Someone is following me!’ I felt myself slipping into panic. I spun around and saw Jake, the bank security guard. Relieved, I breathed deeply. I relaxed, as I regained my footing. I knew I was on the ground.”
After building rapport with Beth, we begin to examine the frequency, intensity, and duration of her panic episodes. I hand her a form, to track her anxiety for a week, with dates, times, and situations, when she becomes anxious. She agrees to complete this out of session assignment before our next visit. We begin the road to recovery.
He comes in, still feeling the mental wounds of combat. Referred by his Primary doctor at the VA clinic, for a positive PTSD screen, he scans the room, and then sits with his eyes on the door. Reluctantly, he has brought his wife in, and she glances at him, with her hands fidgeting. I ask him, “What brings you to the mental health clinic? What problems have you been having?”
“I feel like the Tasmanian Devil,” Kevin, a returning Iraqi combat veteran, says in therapy session. Nodding her head in agreement, his wife says, “His rage boils over for no reason, at me and the kids. He needs help.” While watching cartoons with his two young sons, one had said, “Dad, you blow up just like Taz,” pointing to the puffed-up, violent cartoon character on the TV screen. That comment had hit home with Kevin. From desert combat to mundane family life, Kevin’s emotions whirl like a dust devil.
He agrees to group therapy, where he shares his most troubling combat story. Kept inside for so long, the story begins to lose its power when expressed in words. As other combat soldiers share their stories, Kevin knows he is not alone. After six weekly group therapy sessions, looking me straight in the eye, Kevin says, “Group therapy got me out of the wilderness. I’m home again.”
“I’m here because my wife sent me. She says I’m irritable.” Slumped in his chair, and dejected, Bill admits, “She’s sick, and demanding. I’m exhausted.” Recounting details of his wife going to the hospital with heart problems, and his picking up the responsibilities of the household chores, he admits he has become grumpy and withdrawn. He says he rarely leave the house, except to run errands for his wife. We discuss the goal of improving his mood, by increasing his activity level. He says he is willing to do out-of-session work. We review the rationale for his homework assignments. I pull an activity monitoring form from my office drawer. I hand him the therapy form to complete. While at home, Bill records his activities and rates his enjoyment from each activity. Next session, Bill smiles as he hands me his completed form: “I shared this form with my wife. She planned a train trip, a picnic, and family vacation for us.” Affectionately encouraged by his wife, he begins to plan to get out of house on his own. Four sessions later, I was pleased to hear Bill say, “I no longer need to see you. I have my life back.”
Is God Punishing Me?
“What’s on your mind today, Jack?” I say, as the therapy session begins. His sullen, weather-worn face frowns beneath his Vietnam cap.. Having limped down the hall, cane in hand, Jack slumps in his chair.. “I’m nervous. I can’t sleep. I’m afraid I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.” Burdened with an ill wife, and his recent heart attack, his eyes well with tears. “I believe God is punishing me for the way I’ve treated her for 51 years.” Jack believes his bitterness and resentment toward his wife, for her youthful affairs, caused her current hospitalization and his heart failure. As a minister, he suffers with sin and guilt. We talk about forgiveness. We talk about his faith. I say, “God isn’t punishing you. You’re punishing yourself with negative, destructive thinking.” He listens. He ponders. He shares. He gets up, stands straighter, with his head erect, and smiles, as he leaves the room. He readies himself for a new day.