“What is to give light must endure burning.”
―Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Mr. Thomas stared blankly through a thin crack in the blinds of his hospital window. He continued to stare as I came in the room.
“Hi, I’m Stanzy, how are you today?”
His eyes drifted over briefly, heavy with the fog of disassociation that lies on the far side of unanswered grief, “Not good.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I know it sucks being here in the hospital. I’m a cancer survivor too and I come to the hospital to sing for patients. I was told you like music.”
“What? Oh. Yeah. I used to,” he muttered as he drifted back out the window.
“Would you like me to sing for you?”
“Sure. I guess.”
I sensed so much despair. I sang one of my favorite songs for discouragement, His Eye is on the Sparrow. The opening lines of the second verse read:
“Let not your heart be troubled,”
His tender words I hear.
And, resting on his goodness,
I lose my doubts and fears.
As I sang, he slowly turned toward me. When I finished he said, “That was nice. You said you had cancer too?”
“Yes, I was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2000 and have been in remission since 2002.”
“How did you do it?”
“What do you mean?”
“How did you make it through? It’s so hard. My wife died last year and now I have cancer. I don’t know how to keep going. Sometimes I think how easy it would be to take too many pain killers. Then it would all be over. How did you do it?”
I saw a small Gideon Bible clutched in his right hand.
“I see you have a Bible there.”
“Yes, I never read it before. I don’t know why I’m trying to read it now. But, I felt like asking the nurse for one. She gave me this. It’s so boring in here and I don’t know what else to do.”
“You asked me how I got through it.” I pointed at the Bible underneath his white knuckles, “That’s how.”
“Here. Can you read to me?”
I sat down by his bed as he eagerly pushed the small book into my hands. I thought of the many passages that sustained me through my trial with cancer and turned to Isaiah 43:2-3.
Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters,
I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
you will not be burned up;
the flames will not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
He stared at the ceiling as I read, the fog in his eyes clearing if only briefly. “Please keep reading. Can you please read more?”
Psalms 27 came to mind. I turned to find the page.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
so why should I be afraid?
The Lord is my fortress, protecting me from danger,
so why should I tremble?
When evil people come to devour me,
when my enemies and foes attack me,
they will stumble and fall.
Though a mighty army surrounds me,
my heart will not be afraid.
Even if I am attacked,
I will remain confident.
The one thing I ask of the Lord—
the thing I seek most—
is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
delighting in the Lord’s perfections
and meditating in his Temple.
For he will conceal me there when troubles come;
he will hide me in his sanctuary.
He will place me out of reach on a high rock.
Then I will hold my head high
above my enemies who surround me.
At his sanctuary I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
singing and praising the Lord with music.
“Thank you. That helps a lot. Knowing you got through it helps a lot too. I want to keep reading now. What should I read?”
“John is a good place to start.” I turned to the page and handed the Bible back to him. “Can I pray for you before I leave?”
“Father, I am so grateful that you are not a King who is removed from our suffering but, you entered into our world and experienced our pain so that you could shine the hope of new life into this dark world. You know how much Mr. Thomas is hurting and you promise that you will be with us always. Thank you for Mr. Thomas. Thank you for his openness to share with me today. Bring peace and comfort to his aching heart. Help him to know your nearness when he cries out when he feels alone. Sustain him and help him walk through this pain. We ask these things by the power of the blood of Jesus. Amen.”
Tears rolled down both our cheeks.
He said a quiet, “Thank you,” as I handed him a tissue.
“Thank you for sharing your sadness with me. It was a privilege to sing and read to you.”
As I left, he drifted back into his disassociated world bringing a little book with him—searching for hope in its pages.
The question haunts me—“how did you do it?” Many have asked me the same question over the years, often to satisfy curiosity. But, when desperate hurting patients ask the question they search for an answer that will bring hope, that will bring life.
I represent a generation of survivors of physical trauma that, thanks to modern medicine, survive longer than ever before. My 13th anniversary of remission from Leukemia was November 27th the day after Thanksgiving. The anniversary marked a milestone: I’ve lived as many years after cancer as I did before cancer. The number of people living beyond a cancer diagnosis reached nearly 14.5 million in 2014 and is expected to rise to almost 19 million by 2024.[note] National Cancer Institute. [/note] Survival rates for childhood cancers such as Leukemia have improved dramatically in the last few decades. Improved treatments raised the 5-year survival rate from 10% in 1970 to 90% in 2003-2009, soon after I was diagnosed. [note] National Cancer Institute. [/note] Diseases that meant a death sentence to the previous generation are now curable. Combat vets suffering horrendous trauma can be patched up with expectations of a potentially normal life span. But, can all the king’s horses and all the king’s men put us back together again? We may survive but, we bear scars that threaten to kill, and yearn for hope that we cannot find in this world.
What no one tells you about trauma is that the hardest part often comes after we think it is all over. My brother, Warren, a combat vet from the war in Afghanistan, is losing more friends to suicide than he lost in combat. Too frequently he receives phone calls about another friend who killed himself or desperate requests from the wives of fellow combat vets begging him to counsel their despairing, suicidal husbands. When I speak with him about the alarming incidence of suicide among his band of brothers, hopelessness and a sense of the futility of their sacrifice top the list of reasons they would rather die than live. “The shit we saw over there was unspeakable, but the worst of it is coming home to a nation that says they are grateful for our sacrifice and then fears us and pushes us away and a media that constantly reminds us that our sacrifice was meaningless.” Their hope was in the glory of battle, protecting their brothers and sisters in arms, and sacrificing for the sake of their country. When the glory turned to gore, protection failed at the hands of the enemy, and sacrifice seemed meaningless they feel there is nothing else to live for. The despair is worse than death.
Most of us are aware of the high incidence of PTSD in combat vets. One of five combat vets will experience PTSD but, what is less well known is that one in three cancer survivors will also struggle with PTSD. Cancer survivors also commit suicide at twice the rate of the general public.[note]High Suicide Rate Among Cancer Patients Fuels Prevention Discussions, Journal of the National Cancer Institute.[/note] Cancer survivors experience a high level of depression and anxiety. But, what is surprising is that suicide among survivors is often unrelated to mental illness and remains elevated up to 15 years past diagnosis. What is going on? Dr. Sharan Prakash Sharma writes in his article on suicide among cancer survivors in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that “depression is not the only explanation…Hopelessness plays a larger role along with a myriad of other factors, like anxiety, social support systems, [and] demoralization characterized by hopelessness, distress, aloneness, and yearning.” What is the point of physically surviving trauma only to enter a living death? Suicide victims cry out from their graves decrying the lies that hope should be placed in external circumstance and faith placed in rugged individualism. We need a hope that can survive burning and we need connection and companionship through the flames.
Viktor Frankl’s quote teaches us that our ultimate hope must be able to survive external circumstance or, in the end, we will find there is nothing left to light the darkness. I plan to explore the answer to the question “How did you do it?” in the coming series of posts.
Where is your hope? Please share your thoughts and stories of how you cope (or coped) with trauma in the comments below and subscribe to my blog to follow my journey as I struggle to answer this desperate question that searches for light in the darkness.