I was seven weeks into a massively complicated medical ordeal a couple of years ago. I had an experience that I describe as a day- time nightmare. I was lying in bed, half conscious, half-delirious with pain with a good dose of loss of hope as a chaser. This experience came to me and I couldn’t stop it. It felt like it lasted for hours. Here’s what unfolded.
I was walking down the street when two guys jumped me from behind, pushed me to the ground, pulled my arms and tied my hands behind my back, stood me up, put a bag over my head and roughly tossed me into the back of a cargo van. They said nothing as they drove through town, with me rolling around in the back. We soon arrived at a building where they led me down some stairs, roughly sat me into a chair, and pulled the bag off my head.
I couldn’t see much because there was a spotlight shining directly into my face, but I did see the two guys who had accosted me. They were familiar. I even knew their names. I had met them before. On the left was “Fear” and on the right was “Sadness.” And I knew who they worked for – and it wasn’t the C.I.A. It was the D.O.D. My personal Psycho/Spiritual/Physical/Relational “Department of Death”. On the table in front of them, they had scattered some photo album type books and they began, what turned out to be, an intervention.
They said “Face it, life as you have known it is over. There is a very good chance you are not going to get any better. What you have been going through over the last few weeks – this is your future. Even if you get better this time, this is only a harbinger of things to come, we WILL be back”.
“We’re here to tell you that there will come a time when there will no longer be a place for you in the lives of people that you think care about you. You know you have value only as long as you have something to give and you no longer have anything to give.” They showed me pictures of my future. Sad pictures. Alone, used up, not belonging anywhere to anyone.
I argued with them. I told them they were wrong. They had a rebuttal statement for every point I tried to make. They then switched tactics, they began playing the ‘good cop’ role, intimating that they were just trying to let me down easily, rather than have me find out the hard way and feel devastated.
This encounter went on for hours. They were relentless. It eventually ended with my saying, “Maybe you are right. I surrender. We will just have to take this a day at a time and see what the truth turns out to be.” That seemed to satisfy them.
What was this all about? Well first of all, a little brain theory. A number of years ago, I ran across a model of how the brain works that I have found to be very useful in understanding moments like this. The model suggests that we essentially have three brains. The oldest, the bottom 1/3, is the reptilian brain which rests atop the base of neck. The second 1/3 is next oldest is the mammalian brain, which sits atop the reptilian brain, and the third, the newest part of the brain is the neo-cortex. This top 1/3 of the brain is the part that makes us human beings, separating us from other creatures. Under ideal conditions all three work together and create a being that is unmatched in nature. There are times, however when the top 1/3rd brain gets kicked off-line and loses its ability to influence the other two. If you have ever been involved in a stressful situation and afterward said to yourself, “Why didn’t I think to say or do that,” or even worse, “Why did I say or do that?” you have experienced this “kicked off-line” phenomena.
Neuroscience suggests that the two oldest brains, the bottom 2/3rd’s, (or reptilian and mammalian) which represent our functioning at an unconscious level are responsible for driving at least 90% of our daily behaviors and choices. Under extreme stress, that jumps to 100%. For the most part we are totally unaware of the fact that they are even functioning. We are not conscious of how, when, and where they are at work. Furthermore, these bottom two brains, which work essentially as one, process information at the rate of four billion bits of information per second, while the neo-cortex (the top 1/3 of the brain) operates at a speed of two million bits of information per second (Think bottom 2/3rds 4,000 mph vs. top 1/3, 2 mph). So, under stress, there is no contest in terms of which parts of our brain are in charge.
The bottom 2/3’s operates from the basic belief that the world is a dangerous place, and annihilation is imminent. It is constantly scanning for threatening situations (as well as things that it has learned make it feel better – work, sugar, alcohol, or potato chips anyone?). The thing that makes it most afraid is when it senses it is in danger of/or has lost its place among members of its “tribe”. This fear comes from a pretty honest place. It wasn’t all that long ago that if we were tossed out of the tribe, didn’t fit in, or didn’t belong, we died. That helps explain peer pressure, fads and other similar behaviors.
As I mentioned, when our fear/anxiety level gets past a certain point, the bottom 2/3rds of the brain kicks the top 1/3 off- line, like the slamming of a door, the bottom 2/3’s takes over and reacts in one of three ways; fight, flight, or freeze behaviors . It does this in an attempt to reduce the fear level for the moment, regardless of whether it is a wise thing to do in the long run. It does not do long-term thinking, as that function is reserved for the top 1/3. Sooooo – what does this have to do with my experience?
The way I see it, I am part of a culture where I am either “in the game” or “not in the game”. Being “in the game” means that I am seen by myself and others as making a visible, valuable contribution to the “tribe” in some kind of meaningful, measurable way. As I look at what our culture does with those of us who live past the point of our being able to “be in the game”, due to age or illness, or tragic accident, it is my sense that I (and all the rest of us who are members of this ‘tribe’) will be seen as no longer belonging. I will no longer be treated as having anything to offer and in my culture’s unique way, be sent off to die, as tribal cultures have sent “non-contributors” like me in the past. This is the worst fear of my bottom 2/3 brain, or my unconscious mind (and the same is true for all of us).
Now, the meaning of “being in the game” can change for me, without a loss of self-worth. I once was a baseball coach, had a “tribe” related to all that and one day I decided I didn’t want to be a part of this game anymore, chose to leave, and moved on with no loss of a sense of self-worth, because I found a new “tribe” that welcomed me. It was just a change of what I “did.” The key word here is, “I chose.”
My part in all this, is that during those painful seven weeks, and especially on the day of my “kidnapping” I described, I had been confronted by the fact that I had bought into this concept (I have value only as long as I am able to do/contribute in some form) more than I would like to acknowledge.
I always say that I believe in the idea that we (including myself) all have inherent value, just because we exist as human beings, regardless and independent of what we can or can’t “do”, and I believe that I see that inherent value in others. (I saw that inherent value at the births of my children and grandchildren, who for the most part, were incapable of productive performance, and in fact, 3 of the 4 things they were capable of doing, wasn’t all that pleasant).
However, through this experience, I learned in powerful ways that I struggle to believe that I have inherent worth. It seems I believe that if I am “in the game,” I have value and I am seen as contributing to the tribe in a real, tangible way. If I am not “in the game”, I have bought into (to a level that I’d rather not admit) the part of a culture that, I believe, will ultimately struggle to see that I have any inherent value.
What was going on for me at the moment of my “emotional abduction” was all the ways that I perceived I had been “in the game,” were gone. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t listen, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t visit, I couldn’t think clearly, I couldn’t consult, all I could do was try to stop the pain and discomfort I was in. I was totally focused on my own survival. And worst of all, I had not chosen it and seemed be powerless to have any control over it. It looked as if I never would be able to be “in the game” again. That’s when the lower 2/3rds of my brain grabbed me and told me how things were going to be.
What to do with all this? I have no idea. I do know that I will remain challenged by what I discovered. It seems that I was thrown 15-20 years into my future, when it will be true that I won’t be able to do what I do. It wasn’t pretty. I remain motivated to understand this more.
The last thing I learned was that it is more than helpful to include other people in my process by periodically sharing what was going on. I would like to say it was because I was enlightened to do so, but the truth is that I had to let some people know what was happening because I couldn’t honor some obligations, and I didn’t want to have other people who I knew cared about me feel like I was excluding them. Including others in the journey was certainly not how I was raised.
What was so helpful about including other people? I think one of my favorite writers, John O’Donohue in Eternal Echoes says it best. When people responded to my situation with expressions of love, support, caring and prayers for me, he suggests:
“.…as people simply gather around you, during times when you are left alone with the shock and silence of trauma, while drawing little attention to itself (not seemingly being a big thing), this support brings so much healing and shelter. It is something you never forget and the beauty is how naturally it happens. During times of suffering the shelter of belonging calms us.”
A friend of mine shared something that Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote on the topic.
“So long as we love, we serve. So long as we are loved by others, we are indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend.”
In my own words, your support helped comfort the bottom 2/3 part of my brain’s fear and sadness. So thank you to all who reached out with your thoughts, prayers, and positive energy. I felt it.
And I still plan on taking it one day at a time, because as one of my childhood heroes, Yogi Berra, reminds us. “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”