How to Avoid a Panic Attack While Leaving the Hospital. A note from the Gospel of John.

It was more just panic than panic attack.  I had faired pretty well and even stayed in the hospital a couple extra days this time after I had my second foot hammered and puttied back together and I am glad I did.  I stuck around where I wouldn’t have to worry about getting my own food and water and where I had access to what you might call, “the good stuff,” to help stave off the pain.   So why I had a sudden sense of panic when the young nurse told me I was  about ready to check out is as much a bit of surprise to me as to anyone else.

I was not  panicking because I would have to go home, not at all.   I was extremely eager to get out of the hospital. Extremely.  It was only a little bit like seeing the

Sheep (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

finish line or the light at the end of the tunnel that makes one run a little faster.  But this panic was a little different still and it took me a few days to even begin to understand it.

The only way I have been able to describe it so far is that it was like the feeling that a Doctor had come to me with the great news that an arm cast was about to be cut off in an hour or so. But it was as if she and said it and left the room only seconds before a cockroach flew into the and all I could imagine was an hour of that little bugger crawling rooting around right against my skin for too short a time to rush things and too long a time to be able to bear it.  That is what it felt like.  I needed to be home.  I needed to be there “now!”

Fortunately friends of mine happen to be in the area and were able to pick me up within minutes of being discharged and get me through the front door of my house.  Otherwise I was very very close to taking the bus, wheelchair and all, just to get away.

It wasn’t some time until I could begin to bend thoughts around this experience.  It was needing to have the sense that, for better or for worse, I was back in control and I was the one person who would be making decisions about my soul and my body rather than a team of,  however competent and well meaning, strangers.

I was certainly being cared for, but I wasn’t necessarily being cared about.

None of the people had any idea what I was bringing to, or even costing, the relationships of those around me.  They were there to see my body. I needed someone there to see my soul.

The experience certainly gave me a new sense of compassion for people with grave illnesses and disabilities who are confined to beds and to rooms too small to hold any soul.

But it also awakened a different fear in me, one that has been hard to shake, one that is deeper just than the inevitable sense of weakness or need for care that lingers on the horizon for all of us.  It was a fear that I somehow did not know how to live in those moments of panic.

And like all of us, there would be many  more of those moments of vulnerability ahead for me.  i wasn’t at all ready to face realities of my own mortality.

So I tried to pray. I tried to meditate and calm myself.  I tried to practice everything I could to be present to the moment from which I so desperately want to get away.

English: Painting of Saint Peter by Peter Paul...
English: Painting of Saint Peter by Peter Paul Rubens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While doing so, a reflection on this little Bible verse came to mind and it at first it only made me angry and didn’t seem to help much.

 I tell you for certain that when you were a young man, you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will hold out your hands. Then others will wrap your belt around you and lead you where you don’t want to go.”

Jesus said this to tell how Peter would die and bring honor to God. Then he said to Peter, “Follow me!”   John 21:17-19 

I didn’t like it because at first it just sounded like cheap Karma.   “Better go feed some sheep ‘cuz one day you will be baaaaa-ing out there with the rest of them.”   “Better take care of old people while you can because one day you will be miserable and you will wish you had someone to take care of you.”

 Would you like to  know one of my greatest fears?  (Should one ever announce such things on a blog?)   My fear is dying alone, forgotten, or at least, not important enough in that only slightly-unpredictable moment for anyone to make the effort to be with me.   

People always assure me that I am not the kind of person to whom this could never happen.   I have too many friends and too much community in my life for that to happen.  

I don’t think that they are wrong about who I am but about they way the world works right now.

People are busy. It is hard enough for us to care for our own children and parents and cousins and neighbors and, and, and etc….    As we speak, some saint, some great soul of our age is dying alone, even as you read this. No one will even to think to visit her or him and the details will be handled by a team of professionals.

But the professionals will only rarely have seen that the beauty of who that person is has been hidden behind, for example, some oddly named syndrome. The extra chromosome of which that leaves you with larger tongue, different levels of mental capacity, angular eyes, and both a metaphorical and literal hole in a heart.

Now I want to you to that there is no guilt trip I am trying to play here.  I think there is hope.

 I think it is a good time in our age to mourn those lonely deaths, in fact to mourn our own, and to begin to allow ourselves to imagine being led by our belts, in wisdom, to place we have not yet imagined.   There is, God help us, more.

In the verses just prior to the one posted above Jesus asks peter, “Do you love me?” Peter say he does.  So Jesus says “feed my sheep”  This goes on three times until Peter is quite cranky about it.  “Lord you know everything.  You know I  love you.” And Jesus answers again, “then feed my sheep.”

Is Jesus testing Peter?  Seemingly yes. Or perhaps this is the moment more than any other that Jesus is beginning to “save” save Peter.  When Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” is he asking, “well prove it?”  I don’t think so.

I think this is the moment in which Jesus is saying in a  very unique and very practical, helpful way, “I love you too.”  Jesus is certainly asking, but perhaps even more giving, something Peter needs.

Christ the Servant statue in Washington D.C. at the Church of the Savior.

It is in the care of others that we discover that we can never die alone.   It is in the feeding the hungry and sitting beside the bedsides of the saints who go unnoticed that we leave behind us a wake a love that, as wakes go, slosh both back and forth asking us to grieve our losses and welcome new peaks.

So I was trying so hard to get away from these wonderful caretakers as fast as I can.   In my heart I know it is because they have no idea who I am.   They don’t know you are my friends.  They don’t know you read these words.

But they don’t need to change.  I do.  I need a better imagination.   I need to be there for others who need me to hold their hand.   I need a bigger imagination.

I have more to do before my heart can believe I could never die alone, that even if I breathe my last behind a neutral patterned curtain and stuck full of tubes with no one but paid staff there to hold my hand, I can still rise and fall on the wake of all the love that has gone before and between us, and is even then leaving a trail behind us at that time.

“Do you love me?, “ you are being asked,  “I love you too.  So drop your nets, ditch your plans, go feed my sheep …so you don’t forget”



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  • Doug Harrison

    Thanks for reading. Hope what stuff I have to learn along the way saves other people the trouble. 🙂

  • Wes McIntyre

    I appreciated this piece, Doug. When I read the following: “I was certainly being cared for, but I wasn’t necessarily being cared about.
    “None of the people had any idea what I was bringing to, or even costing, the relationships of those around me. They were there to see my body. I needed someone there to see my soul.”
    I wanted to say, “This is why hospitals need chaplains. They are the one disicpline working in hospitals who focus on the soul; who make room for the soul; who help people pay attention to and listen to their own souls.”
    Also, I have reflected a bit on the passage that brought you hope. And some of my thoughts were parrallel to yours. We placed my dad in a care center in 2010. He died six months later. He would have rather been at home but mom couldn’t care for him. He worked to accept where he had to live. That was when I thought of this passage and I wonder too about when it may come my turn as well. Thanks for taking time to put your thoughts down. My neice, Jenny Tracy, sent me the link. Wes

  • Doug Harrison

    Thanks Wes and yes I agree. More achaplains and more opportunities to connect with them. Also more communities like L’Arche can help us find the humility and trust to face the inevitable.

    I keep you and Jen and you whole family in prayers right now.

  • Heather Mercer

    “The experience certainly gave me a new sense of compassion for people with grave illnesses and disabilities who are confined to beds and to rooms too small to hold any soul.”
    Whether or not you feel you’d previously had an experience to provide you with this level of insight or compassion, I’d like to point out that you were wise beyond your years in college. I learned so much during our weekly hospice visits. Those are experiences I will never forget; they are wonderful, heartbreaking, blessed memories I still hold dear.
    Thank you!