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Hell To Heaven

Hell to Heaven I have never worked on rail road, much less driven a six foot long steel drill into the earth. But there are folktales of men who had years ago when rail roads were being constructed. I bet you know who I am talking about: John Henry.Before we get to John Henry, I wish to share an interesting discussion I had with a person I admire. She was in for her yearly blood work examination. What was different about her results this year from past years was that her cortisol was over-the-top high. Her fasting blood sugar had risen ten points. She had gained about twelve pounds in three weeks. She had stopped eating a clean diet. And she was not hesitant to tell me that she had fallen of the wagon. When I looked at her and said, "What kind of stress are you in? It's started to disturb your hormones." She looked at me with tears in her eyes, "My son is going through a divorce. It's killing me. Killing me."My first thought was relief. She was not diagnosed with some terminal illness by some uncompassionate physician or nurse practitioner. My second thought was sadness. She was torn up over a relatively common social disturbance that more than half of us face at some point in our lives. My third thought was that she was not the one getting the divorce, her son was. So why all the anxiety and fear?She continued, "I got a divorce when my children were small. My ex-husband was abusive. My family was angry at me because I couldn't live in it anymore. They said it was a sin. When my son revealed he was getting a divorce, my eighty-five year-old mother said that my sin was transferred to my son. I've felt horrible ever since. It's my fault. Everyone thinks it's my fault. Did I cause this to happen?" I sat there, a bit surprised I replied, "Who's everyone?" She loudly proclaimed, "My family! My brother and sister. My mother and Father. Everyone." I looked at her, "How's your son doing?" She started crying, "Bad. He's an alcoholic. But I love him. His wife filed for the divorce. He's devastated. He's never gotten through rehab."There is an old saying; the truth will free you. Not so much in this case, the truth is extremely complicated and tortuous. It has imprisoned his mother. To make matters worse, she has taken on the guilt of causing the entire ordeal, dismissing her son as the potential center of this social catastrophe. I wondered if her son's wife drove him to become an alcoholic. But no matter what, following that rabbit trail would not serve us well as I tried to patch her back together.This woman's stress was starting to make her ill. Chronic episodic unrelenting stress can bring a wildebeest down much less a small human female. People ask me all the time about how to handle stress. The simplest answer is to get more control in your life, more predictability. Research shows that getting more predictive information about impending stressors can be stress reducing. However there are limits. It does little good to get predictive information about common events because these events are inevitable. It also does little good to get predictive information about rare events because most people are unaware of the rare event in the first place. It does little good to get predictive information a few seconds before something terrible happens because there is not enough time to derive the psychological advantages of being able to relax when it happens. It does little good to get predictive information far in advance that something bad will happen because who is going to worry about something so far away anyway? Sometimes predictive information can make life worse. How many times have we been told that there is an Orange alert released from the Department of Homeland Security and we are told "Go about your normal daily activities, just be on high alert for something devastating." And overabundance of information will in most cases add to the stress of a situation. Sometimes too much information leaves us feeling ignorant, out of touch, or overwhelmed. I witness this all the time when patients surf the internet looking up their symptoms, only to find twenty or more different devastating illness that all share the same signs and symptoms they are manifesting.Probably the worse situation is the manipulation of the sense of control that someone has over a particularly disturbing event. Too much of a sense of control can be crippling. That is what is happening to the woman described above. Her family has repeatedly told her that she had the control of her son's situation and she failed to exercise restraint years ago by getting a divorce. The sins of the father are passed down to the sins of the children. That idea is balderdash. But because her father and mother, two ancient authority figures in her life have spoken their truth, she has lost her mind over her son's divorce. It is clearly a travesty for her parents and family to lead her to believe that she has more control over her son's situation than actually exists. Parents beware, the moment you release the hand of your child when they reach the age where they can walk across the street without you guidance, you have lost control over them forever. She had little to do with the choices her son made and she needed to hear that her parents were wrong. They were trying to control their own daughter even though she was long past the age of majority. Shame on them!Back to John Henry, the American folk hero who tried to beat a steam drill while tunneling through a mountain. He fell dead after a super human effort. And he lost the competition. Do you know anyone in your life who lives by the following rule: "When things don't go the way I want them to go, I just buckle down and work harder?" Or perhaps, "Once my mind is made up to do something, I am with it to the end." These folks have an internal locus of control. They believe that with enough effort and determination, they can regulate all outcomes. I have many John Henryesque people in my practice. And they are all ill to some degree or another. The truth of the matter is that this belief construct is okay for those who are born into a privileged life where everything they need to control their life is provided to them by their parents or family in some way or another. However, it's a devastating strategy for those who are born into an impoverished environment, one with limited educational or occupational opportunities, not to mention racism and prejudice. To those who truly believe that they could have overcome those insurmountable odds if they had just put out more effort are fooling themselves and placing themselves at greater risk for heart disease and hypertension. If you happen to be a child born to one of those successful Henryesque fathers or mothers, you are doomed to be thought of as a slouch if you do not show a work ethic in your parent's image. Most of us cannot control the aversively uncontrollable.My Uncle Peter once told me that marriage was a complicated matter. He said, "You'll regret it if you don't get married, and you will regret it if you do." I suspect to a certain extent, our perceptions and interpretations of marriage and any other situation can determine whether the same external forces or circumstances constitute joy or despair. I have a saying that self discipline without joy is mere suffering.Most times anyone's hell cannot be easily converted to heaven. So think twice before the next time you get up from your couch and tell someone that they are the victim of some horrible circumstance because they themselves are unhappy or its God's will. It will only make them feel worse, more out-of-control and more desperate. Take the high road instead and let them know that sometimes bad things happen to good people and no one is at fault, least not them.Doc
Posted by Amanda Sanders at 8:45 AM
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