It was an oft repeated scene: the 2:00am attacks; rousing me from restless sleep; following their ruthless pattern: unable to breathe while lying on my back, I’d toss from side to side, trying to relax my tensing chest and shoulder muscles, willing the wheezing to stop, clinging for comfort to the prevailing mind-over-matter mind-set that never brought relief to my mind or my matter.
When I propped my thin frame against plumped pillows, the wheezing would ease a bit, allowing me to fall into a fitful doze. Waking again, woozy from hypoxia, I’d roll into a fetal position, somehow creating space for a little more oxygen to seep into my swollen lungs.
Finally, I’d abandon my miserable bed for the dining room table, laying my head on its cool, hard surface; gasping and wheezing until the faint rays of dawn brought relief. Then I’d wearily trail back to bed, thinking dully,
Asthma, I hate you.
These miserable memories of my childhood were all the more painful because I endured them alone. While my family slept in ignorant bliss, I slumped over the table in the breathless dark, feeling as if I were free-floating through space, searching for a friendly planet to take me in.
It had been better before the divorce. Then, my father would gently rub my back to relax my rigid muscles, or drive me around the city while the damp night air cooled my inflamed lungs. But my now-single mother had no patience for an inconveniently ill child, so I knew better than to wake her. Born before the advent of effective asthma treatments, I had no way to help myself.
So with my mother’s oft-repeated line “It’s all in your head” ringing in my ears, I learned to suffer in stoic solitude.
Purposeless and unredeemed, chronic suffering in isolation can lead to black despair. With the psalmist we cry to a distant and inscrutable God: “I have been sick and close to death since my youth. I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors” (Ps. 88:15).
Like Job, we cry out for a full and fair hearing against our seemingly senseless victimization: “If only I knew where to find God, I would go to his court. I would lay out my case and present my arguments” (Job 23:3, 4).
In my case, chronic illness led to the formation of an identity that pendulated between victim and martyr, the shame of being a “burden,” and the perception that my lot in life was to suffer as stoically and inconspicuously as possible.
What, then, to do with the intractable mystery of suffering on a personal, experiential level? Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has proposed that suffering can only be redeemed through the attribution of meaning. Frankl lost his wife, health, and most of his family to the concentration camps of the Holocaust. He wrote:“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning. . . . It is by giving meaning to our suffering that it becomes bearable.”
I wholeheartedly agree and embrace its implied corollary: When someone outside our sphere of suffering cares enough to
voluntarily identify with us in our pain, it becomes truly bearable, even transcendent. For me, even more precious than the comfort of meaning is the consolation of solidarity.
This conviction compelled me toward a late-life career in counseling. One painstaking class at a time, I inched toward a B.S. in addiction counseling while homeschooling our two daughters. After a stint working in community mental health and a state prison, I was off to grad school to complete a full-time master’s program in clinical mental health counseling. By the time the nest was empty the objective had been achieved: graduation, employment as an inpatient addiction counselor, and enough anxiety and self-doubt to qualify me for a DSM-5
3 diagnosis commensurate with that of my patients.
Textbooks and didactic instruction have their place, but they cannot adequately prepare an entry-level counselor for working with a young heroin addict who is sweating, shaking, and vomiting his way through early withdrawal, half-crazed by cravings and the horrifying realization of the wreckage he has left in his drug-induced wake.
They cannot prepare you for the vicarious trauma you experience as you listen to a female patient, through racking sobs, relive the systematic physical and sexual torment she has suffered at the hands of a father who should have protected her from such atrocities. I think I could be forgiven for wondering, at times, if I’d wandered into the wrong profession.
Gradually the miracle occurred. As I slogged through the fog of competing theories and fears of professional incompetence, I remembered to focus on what mattered most: the hurting human being before me, drenched in shame and craving empathy, just as I had when I’d suffered through those long, lonely nights.
Then, the realization and the swelling gratitude: my suffering found meaning and redemption as I identified with the pain of “fellow travelers”
4 who had also been wounded along the way. I was no longer a victim or a martyr. God enabled me to flip the equation and engage with my patients as a “wounded healer,”5 bound to them by the bonds of solidarity in suffering.
As psychotherapist Irvin Yalom notes: “Many individuals enter therapy with the disquieting thought that they are unique in their wretchedness, that they alone have certain frightening or unacceptable problems, thoughts, impulses, and fantasies.”
6 How grateful I was to be part of a therapeutic community that worked together to assure our patients that they were not alone, that there were compassionate, kindred spirits who did not judge them but identified with them in their frailty.
I could convey to patients the import of Donna Jean Nakazawa’s words: “It’s important to know that you are not alone in your feelings of loss, shame, guilt, anxiety, or grief. When you reach out to others who understand” “you see that your own story is one of many stories that make up the larger hurt of humanity.”
Caught between the dependent status of adolescence and the autonomy of young adulthood, the “feeling in between” demographic of my current university setting wrestles with many significant developmental challenges in an ever-changing personal and professional landscape: personal identity, gender identity, relationships, student loan debt, life’s calling and career choices.
The psychological toll of these concerns, along with previous environmental stressors and adverse childhood experiences, can include anxiety; panic disorder; depression; mood, body image, and eating disorders; substance use; suicidal thoughts; and self-harm.
May we be grateful not only for the blessings that we have, but for the blessing we may be.
What does this enumeration of issues and disorders look like with skin on?
It looks like the stricken freshman who sobs out her fears that her parents and her God will disown her if she admits, even to herself, that she is experiencing same-sex attraction.
It looks like the chagrin of the theology major who prayed throughout Sabbath for deliverance from his porn addiction, only to restart the cycle of shame after vespers.
It looks like the emaciated frame of the film major who has been cutting and starving herself because she is only acting out the inward pain inflicted by her parents’ cutting and wasting words.
The litany is long, and the burden of shared suffering can sometimes feel unbearable. Yet I pray that I never lose sight of the
privilege of being entrusted with this precious freight by fellow humans whose load is lightened in consequence.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer found it impossible to remain safe on American soil while his countrymen were being oppressed and while millions of European Jews were being slaughtered by Hitler’s death squads. So he sailed back to Germany to do what he believed Christ would do. He shared in the fate of his people while he worked toward alleviating their suffering. As one scholar has summed up Bonhoeffer’s theology of solidarity: “God does not offer Christians a rational, logically ordered answer to the why of their afflictions. God suffers with them. . . . God in Christ will not offer glib, evasive explanations for the agonizing problems faced by those whose lives have been menaced by the murderous forces of . . . evil. God chooses to suffer with those who suffer, all the while raising up prophets of hope who are spiritually empowered to free God’s people from their captivity.”
During this season of gratitude, may we be grateful not only for the blessings that we
have, but for the blessing we may be. May we voluntarily take up burdens, lighten loads, find meaning in shared suffering, and acquit ourselves as humble prophets of human solidarity.
Leslie Kay is a mental health counselor at Southern Adventist University. She enjoys hiking, kayaking, gardening, and a good cup of tea.