(If you like to avoid religious commentary, you may want to skip this one…)
I’ve had a friend tell me lately that she felt like she was trapped in Hell, and before you say you’re sure I’m referring to you, I’ve heard it more than once. It amazes me how many different forms of hell-on-earth we can find ourselves trapped in. My heart breaks for all of the stories: a vibrant young man injured, fighting constant pain and wondering if he will ever be able to support his precious wife; standing death-watch for a parent, counting each breath; a woman with two autistic children whose husband is suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive cancer; dealing with a parent with Alzheimer’s and wondering if today your mother will know your name; a young mother is watching her home business crumble and then told to watch her infant for the onset of a life-threatening illness; single parents being told their job is in jeopardy; a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. I could go on and on and on. I have heard people say that one type of misery is more dire than another, but from a lifetime spent talking to people, I can only say that there is never any way to compare one hell to another. Hell is unique. Hell is solitary. In Hell, you are alone.
I’ve heard that one of the worst aspects of Hell — the eternal one — is isolation, and I think these private hells that we live in on a daily basis are little glimpses of eternity in the same way love is a glimpse of Heaven.
In the book Lies Women Believe: And the Truth that Sets Them Free one of the lies is that circumstances will never change. I know trapped in the middle of any of these situations, the hours stretch into days, weeks, years. The agony and isolation distort time, but these mini-hells do not last forever. The last breath will come. A sudden unanticipated cure will be discovered. The economy will change. Events outside of our control will intervene.
I sat beside my mother’s death-bed and tried to wrap my head around the concept that the nightmare of her long battle with cancer was over. She had been freed into eternity, and I was freed back into my life. That instant of change was stunning. Abrupt. Overwhelming. The day my husband told me I was free to stay home, the emotions were almost the same. Freedom? What is that? The joy that came rushing over me as I saw the end of this private hell defied all description. It was as if the universe shifted around me and I could not put words to the emotions. The end of those small hells will come, in one fashion or another.
But how do we live in them day-by-day? There are so many stories in the news of people who have given in to the lie that this is eternal! Whole families are committing suicide. A woman shoots her son in the head before killing herself. Parents killing their children? How is this possible? Hell is winning, defeating them.
My friend cried out for help. I think that is probably the most important step — realizing that there is help from outside, not allowing the walls of your private hell to close in on you. I am reading "The Message" (it’s a Bible translation that uses contemporary language). In Matthew 6, Jesus says, "Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes." I found that interesting, because when thinking about writing this blog for my friend, the first thing I thought of was my mantra for many years: one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time.
So, for the friends who have asked me, "What do I do? How do I survive this?" I can only share my own rough experiences and my own deeply held beliefs, offensive to some, perhaps, but intended as encouragement.
You will survive this. We are eternal beings and so survival may come in many different forms. If you see only this world, then it may be overwhelming. Try to remember that our life span is tiny in relation to eternity. Beyond that, these private hells will also end. My experience is that they tend to end in unanticipated ways — with little warning. I know that is not always the case, but perhaps it has been perceptual for me. My mother’s death, for example, had been predicted for many years. She was in the hospital to die and yet doctors told me hours before that she could have months left. (To put this into perspective, had she lived for months the medical bills would have left my family homeless.) I went home and took a sleeping pill because I could not face the future. When the call came that I had to get to the hospital NOW, half of my challenge was getting my body functional.
You may not see where the solution will come from. I started to write this blog, thinking of my private hell of not being able to be home with my daughter — and all of that changed abruptly before I could finish the blog! I have survived another nightmare. It is over. I did not see it coming. There will be an after. What will it be like? Some day you will laugh again. Anticipate it. Believe that it will come. Do not give up hope.
Take time in as small of increments as you need to in order to stay sane. Don’t worry about next week or tomorrow or an hour from now. Don’t miss the beauty that can hide in between nightmare moments. In the years it took my mother to die, we had horrific nightmare times, but we also had beautiful moments. Even at the instant of her death there was an amazing sunrise as I sat singing to her and holding her hand. There was peace there for both of us. Her lucid moments in the months prior were unpredictable, and yet I will never forget the delight we shared as she demanded that I remove the elephant from her room. Even though she knew it was impossible for the elephant to be there, the medication had convinced her it was. Her laughter and our play around that moment of insanity will always be a bright memory. I could have missed it by focusing on her obvious insanity at that time, worrying about her pain levels, stressing about the things I could not change. Instead, I sat and talked with her about the elephant before leading it from the room. Who knew that mime class taken years ago would come in handy? One moment of a hellacious day…but one worth savoring.
Do not be alone. If you believe in God, then in some ways you have this easier, however I feel it is important to have human contact as well. The arms of God are in other people and there is nothing more comforting than a hug. During Mom’s illness I had a friend who worked at Starbucks a few blocks from my house, inside the local grocery store. Since I HAD to buy food, I had an easy excuse. Now the truth is, I hate Starbucks coffee, but I drank a lot of coffee during those days simply for the chance to chat with the barrista. She’d try to slip around the counter and give me a quick hug. Believe me that was more restorative than the coffee. Touch another human being whenever you can. Remind yourself that this private hell is not all encompassing. There is a world outside. I have an on-line writer’s group where I go to cry that I refer to as my "safe haven". Just knowing that someone else knows and can see your pain can lighten that load. Also, I have found that my thinking is often impaired in these stressful moments. (My naturopath explained it as a stress-related depletion of serotonin in the brain.) Having someone else to offer ideas, comfort, assistance can be a blessing. They can help you see the beautiful moments — the flower growing through the concrete — that you might otherwise miss.
If someone you know is in hell, you don’t have to know what to say, but you do have to be there. You may say the wrong thing and give your friend a chance to vent pent-up frustration. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes, being silent and holding a hand is a tremendous gift. If you see a physical need you can meet — prepare a meal, babysit a child, send a flower or an email — then do! But even if you don’t see something you can do, reach out. Just say: "I don’t know what to say, but I’m here." You probably can’t fix what is going on. You probably can’t even help, but your presence and your prayers may still be the critical link for that precious one. A group of friends recently each sent $5 to a woman in her own private hell. We could never rescue her, though many of us would if it were possible. She told us that the notes of friendship and support on the cards helped more than the money. A near-stranger once brought me a pot of soup. That nourished my soul.
Don’t trivialize what you’re going through. "Other people have it worse than I do." You can’t compare one person’s hell to another. What seems trivial to someone outside a situation is a crisis to someone living through it. I know a beautiful woman who will be plunged into a nightmare if she runs out of milk. Now, if you knew the source of her nightmare — years of lack, of struggle — you would understand. But from the outside, how can being out of milk be a crisis? Don’t judge your own or anyone else’s hell. So for the precious friend who felt bad because of her tears and said, "Oh, some people have it so much worse…" be kind to yourself. Don’t fault your tears. Cry them out. They are yours, they are genuine and they are healing. I suspect that others would see your situation as even more horrific than their own and none would trade places with you. I think that denying your emotions and what you are going through also denies who you are and makes you more vulnerable to despair.
Open the curtains. This last one was given to me by a dear friend who has fought depression her entire life. I had not noticed my tendency to seek darkness during moments of stress until she pointed it out to me in herself. She said the kindest thing a friend ever did for her was to walk into her room and open the curtains. If you find someone trapped in their own private hell, get them in the sunlight. For Christians — also get them in the Son-light. A friend sent me a CD of peaceful music during a nightmare period of my life. Another sent me an MP3 link in email. Turn on music, walk around the block, or if you can not move from where you are consider singing. I sang lullabies to my mother as she died. My daughter still clings to the blanky I bought her while she was hospitalized as an infant. Bring light and beauty into those moments of sorrow and pain.
There is a country song that I love by Rodney Atkins, If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows). The lyrics are both hilarious and true.
I don’t claim to have answers. This is written for a series of friends who have asked me how I have survived some of the things in my life. I think I have learned a few things through them.