I have been thinking recently about the pressure we put on people to get better from conditions that aren’t going to get better.
The first situation that brought this to mind is an individual I have been counseling. I have been seeing him off and on over the past year, and he has the worst case of depression I have ever encountered. Unable to get out of bed. No motivation to do anything. Numb to any pleasure or feelings of any kind. Angry at the whole world. Hopeless. Certain life will never change. Certain he will never climb out of this pit of despair.
And the reality is…he’s probably right. I don’t believe his depression is going away. Not only has he experienced severe and unrelenting depression his entire adult life, but his depression started after a physical trauma to his head. Unlike some of my clients whose depression appears more situational – coming and going with the ups and downs of life – his depression is clearly grounded in damage to his brain.
This is a man who doesn’t have depressive episodes that relent and then return. His whole life, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year is one long depressive episode. Medication doesn’t touch his symptoms. Counseling is not helpful. Nothing. helps.
Honestly, I feel hopeless trying to help him. And if I’m feeling that way, I can’t even imagine what he must be feeling.
After our last session, I found myself thinking, I’m not sure I can help you. I don’t think I can help you get better.
And then I realized. Maybe in this case, getting better isn’t the point. Maybe in this case, he needs to hear someone say, it’s OK if you don’t get better. I’m here for you anyway. You don’t have to get better for me.
It sounds kind of hopeless to make a statement like that. Almost like I am giving up on him. But, I don’t think it is giving up. I think it is facing reality that unless God does a miracle in his life, he will have this depression until he dies. Med changes probably won’t touch it. He could go see a counselor more experienced than me, but I honestly don’t think that would make a difference.
I think his depression is simply intractable. I think his depression is not going anywhere outside of God’s miraculous intervention.
And so I ask myself. What does it look like to counsel someone who is in a situation that is never going to get better? A situation where he will never find relief.
How do I counsel him well?
Yesterday I was chatting with a friend, and she was telling me about her frustration with people who know about her chronic pain and continually cheer her on to get better. Each time they meet they will ask her about the progress that she is making, failing to understand that her condition is severe and incurable.
I’m sure they think it is a kind thing. It seems like the type of thing you should do for a friend. Sending “get well” cards is a nice practice. Asking about progress shows care and concern. But what about those times when someone isn’t actually going to “get well.” We need to cheer people on, but maybe, sometimes, we are cheering for the wrong thing…A thing that will never happen.
I can hear the voices of people who came up to me in the midst of year long flares with hopeful expectation, longing to hear good news. I can hear the longing behind their questions. What progress have you made? What steps have you taken towards getting better? I hope to hear good news! And oh how disappointed they look when yet again I explain that no, things are the same. Almost as if I have disappointed them!
I think of my client and all the people in his life who are probably pushing him to get better. His wife could certainly use an extra hand around the house. His children need their father. Day after day they ask him to do something that he is physically incapable of doing. Get better for us, they say.
I think of my friend and the people in her life who don’t understand when she doesn’t have good news to report. I see the words behind their hopeful eyes. What is wrong? Are you not trying hard enough? You must be doing something wrong if you have been in pain for this long and not made any progress.
We are so invested in helping people get better that we forget the simple fact that sometimes our expectations are more hurtful than helpful. Sometimes our expectations for healing aren’t reality. Sometimes people don’t heal from their physical pain. Sometimes the depression doesn’t go away. Sometimes the grief weaves in and out for a lifetime. Sometimes that loss will never be forgotten. Sometimes the trauma will never be undone. Sometimes, we don’t get better. At least not in the ways other people want us to.
I want to get better at identifying those moments when it’s not about helping people get better, but about being with people while they remain sick.
I want to get better at saying…
I hope you get better, but if you don’t, I won’t be disappointed. I wish and I hope with you that this pain and suffering will somehow miraculously go away. I pray with you that all the steps you are taking and ways you are caring for yourself will add up to some form of healing. But if that’s not the case, I’ll still be here. I’m not going anywhere. I won’t be upset or think it’s your fault. You don’t have to get better for me.
Perhaps, getting better doesn’t always mean reaching a destination. Perhaps it means having the right people with us as we walk the road ahead. Perhaps it means making the best of our lives, even as the pain stays the same. Perhaps it means trusting and holding on to faith, even when we aren’t healed. Perhaps it means still talking to God, even when he doesn’t work in our lives in the ways we desire.
I wonder how things would change if we all stuck with each other, even as we didn’t get better from whatever ailment has filled our lives. Perhaps we would find ourselves in a place where the pain or the depression or the trauma or the grief or the illness hasn’t gone away, but somehow we are still all OK, even as it remains.
Check out the first booklet in the Chronic Pain and the Christian Life series, But God Wouldn’t I Be More Useful to You If I Were Healthy, on Amazon.com.