The toe of my boot caught the door jam. SLAM. And, that was all it took to turn my immediate future upside down, in so many ways.
Quickly—though it never could have been quickly enough given the pain—I was in the emergency room hearing about the broken bones in my face. Morphine, as it turns out, can cause great distress for some people, while doing nothing to relieve discomfort; and I'm one of those people. So, there was little they could do to ease my pain until after an operation. Skipping to the punch line; I expect to heal fully with minimal negative long-term effects. But through it all, I have been reminded of, and have learned, some important lessons:
Appreciate what you have. You may be wishing for it again in the next moment. We all know this; of course, the trick is to remember it... thus, the importance of counting your blessings on a regular basis.
It's the attitude, as well as the technical skills, of caregivers that matter. As I lay in the ER at Ocean Medical Center, I was undoubtedly getting the physical treatment I needed. But it was the caring of the medical and other staff that helped comfort me. And, it was the kind eyes and gentle bearing of Dr. Michael Nagy, the plastic surgeon that assured me I would be okay if I let him operate. This is important for all of us to remember as we tend to others in need; it's not just what you do that's important, but how you do it.
It feels good to be kind, even when you feel miserable. The give-and-take of human interaction is somehow comforting as it assures us of our connection to others. This is equally true, maybe even more true, during times of crisis. So, when I thanked and complimented those who were attending to me—and saw them take in my appreciation of them—I was rewarded with a warm feeling that helped counter the pain. It's amazing how focusing on others in your time of need can help both of you.
Fighting "what is" can be painful. As I lay there in the ER, and later in my hospital bed, I realized that the pain seemed to intensify as I replayed the fateful moment when I tripped... I was pulled deeper into my agony with each, "How could I have done that?" But then I remembered what I so often try to teach my patients; the importance of acknowledging and accepting what is. Condemning myself for an accident would not undo the event. It would only increase my anger toward myself; causing yet another layer of pain. And with this thought, I became aware of how my physical pain was also intensifying.
Accepting pain can reduce it. Once I stopped fighting the pain, I focused on my breath, grounding myself in the moment. Denying my pain would not make it go away. So, I accepted it. And, I decided to respond gently; "It happened. These things happen. Now I need to do what I can to lessen my pain." Hokey as it may sound, this was like a railroad switch changing tracks; and I could immediately feel the pain lessen. At times when a surge of pain overpowered all my senses, I made an extra effort to be compassionate toward myself; thinking, "Wow, that hurts! But you'll be okay. It will pass." Believe me, this was not easy to do, but somehow it eased my distress.
Feel the pain, but remember it could always be worse. It's important to be compassionate toward your own pain (mental or physical), just as you would be toward the pain of others. But, it's reassuring and grounding to remember the ways you are fortunate; even in the middle of such problems.
People often step up at times of need. I cannot thank enough all the family, friends, patients, colleagues, and acquaintances who have offered their caring thoughts, prayers, and physical help, such as cooking meals and watching my children. To be supported in these ways by a greater community is invaluable; for the specific help, but also for the sense of being part of something larger than myself. This is an important thing to remember when we see others in crisis, and choose to help them.
It's best not to focus on those who disappoint you. Of course, in these situations, there are often people who are preoccupied with their own lives, or whose responses seem curiously unsympathetic. But these are the exceptions to the rule. If you experience this, remind yourself that putting thought and energy into these disappointing or even hurtful responses would only hurt you. At times when we are in crisis, it's important to remain focused on what can help us heal.
While I would not have wished for the accident, I feel blessed by so much. I have a career that prepared me to meet it in a positive way. I have felt the caring of so many. I have spent more time with the people I love. And on and on. These are the things that I hope I remain most aware of when I look back on this time.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.
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