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Suffering Unleashes Goodness

A few weeks ago I was talking with one of my patients about his recent release from the hospital where he was treated for a major infection. He was telling me he had to get home to cook the turkey for Thanksgiving. He was bringing the meal to his elderly parents, his mother is recovering from her second bout of breast cancer and his dad is currently struggling with the effects of Leukemia. Joe also mentioned that he invited a few of his workers to dinner as he knew they had nowhere else to go for the holiday as their families were far away.

I met Joe some time ago when he was referred to me for stress related work problems. He had a thriving construction business, owned several rental properties in addition to a beautiful home on Cape Cod. He son was turning 8 and his wife complained of his working seven days a week and not being a very tolerant husband. Joe has always been a perfectionist, holding himself and others to very high standards. He had trouble maintaining employees as he often drove them as hard as he drives himself.  His anger would often get the better of him, leading to physical altercations on a few occasions. Nevertheless he impressed me as well intentioned and in many ways good hearted.  I could tell early on he was not someone who would be easy to work for or live with. His intolerance for anyone who didn’t see things his way seemed to be a characteristic of his black and white thinking. He once told he had no room for the gray in life, “you either step up and do the work or get out of the way” was his motto.

Out of Despair Kindness Arises

       One rainy day Joe’s entire life ironically changed for the better. He fell off a roof and became paralyzed. He was used to scaling buildings, walking great heights and using potentially fatal power tools. On this day, he was in a hurry to make a dentist appointment. His attention dropped, his foot slipped and the next thing he knew he was on his back struggling to breathe.

As you might expect Joe went through a profound depression after the accident. Joe’s wife eventually filed for divorce, continuing a time in his life that seemed like the worst nightmare possible.

I lived through Joe’s depression. I visited him in a Boston hospital after I learned he was paralyzed. His first words to me were, “Doc, can you believe this happened to me? What am I going to do? I could lose my business. How will I support my family? This is crazy. I can’t live like this! You know I can’t!” I cried when I left his room. I felt empty with a deep sense of sadness as I drove home, wondering how I could help Joe and how he could ultimately help himself.

How could this man, in his late 30’s, very successful, two homes, real estate, land purchases, see it all come crumbling down and recover? His wife had left him. Two years later his father developed leukemia; then his mother discovered she had breast cancer. The only friend he felt understood his plight was a fellow paraplegic he met in rehab. Unfortunately, his friend committed suicide shortly thereafter, not being able to cope with the life of a paraplegic. We started our journey with a momentous mountain in our path.

The first two years of our meetings were filled with grief, anger and despair. I listened as Joe told me how much he missed walking, running and skating. He’d been a stellar athlete and a very physical man all his life. How could he ever work out again? How could he regain his business? Would he disappoint his son?  He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to teach him how to hit a baseball, fish, ski, etc. Would his ex-wife’s new boyfriend take his place in his son’s heart? All these fears filled his mind, all based on a loss of complete control.

He constantly asked me what I thought about regaining his business, how could he continue his role as a father and whether he would ever drive again. We found a physical therapist who would train him to condition his upper body so that he could move more adeptly in his chair. He called truck manufacturers to see if a vehicle could be made for him to drive. We talked about how he could train men to be part of his construction business. He eventually trained two men, and he even had them hoist him up on to the very roof he’d fallen from to face his fear and most importantly, “to finish that goddamn job.”

We made a plan to call old customers to let them know he was back in business. He asked the baseball commissioner of his son’s league if he could coach his team. Last spring they won their division and his son could not be more proud of his dad.

Today, Joe’s business is again successful. He goes to job sites daily and works out at a gym three times a week. He has made his home handicap accessible and has become a great cook. He had abandoned his church after the accident, but today he and his son attend every Sunday morning. “It gives me such a good feeling to be there with him.” He has unleashed the kindness that had been buried within him for years.

Goodness Changes the Brain

A few weeks ago, after one of our individual sessions, Joe remarked, “I am a better person as a paraplegic.” “I turned my life around; I’ve come to believe that people are basically good. So many strangers have cared for me, given me their best to help me get better; they made me a more compassionate person. I was always so hard on people; I never realized how difficult it was for me to trust anybody.”

The tragedies of Joe’s accident made him slow down and reflect as the circumstances overwhelmed him with emotion. He was not known for expressing feelings readily. Loss of control can be a blessing. It can actually lift a burden one has been carrying all through life.

Joe tried so very hard to control all aspects of his life—his work environment, his wife, his son, etc. He always thought he was doing the “right thing.” He never realized that people could not relax around him. They worried he would be easily displeased or that they would disappoint him if they didn’t make that “all-out” effort he encouraged.

Today he has learned how to listen rather than using his old style of lecturing. He can tolerate vulnerability rather than giving anyone who has a doubt a pep talk. He understands human frailty in a way he never considered before. As a result, people feel closer to him and he feels closeness with many people he never experienced closeness with before.

People who remain open to new experiences and who expand their social circle have an expanded capacity for learning. Their brains develop new neurons. They find life interesting, not a chore. They like to find the novelty in every situation and “mix it up” a little, as opposed to the routine predictability I often see in many of my adult clients.

Joe lives near the church where I rent space to do my group sessions. After group on Friday mornings, I meet Joe at his home for our weekly session.

One Friday morning I was early and arrived before him. I talked with Ronnie, a recovering drug addict who is staying with Joe—not because Joe needs help, but because Ronnie needs to put his life back together. Ronnie lost his job, his wife, his driver’s license and most of his friends because of cocaine; and he is having trouble figuring out how to adapt to the circumstances of his life.

When Joe arrived, he roared up on the motorcycle he had custom-outfitted for his particular disability. He had come from the lake where he was overseeing the construction of a dock at a camp for handicapped children so they could learn how to kayak and water ski. Last winter, Joe went skiing on a special ski with his young son in Aspen. He also won a deep sea fishing contest with his son in Canada this past summer.

Giving is a Survival Skill

A number of scientific studies as of late have indicated that being a giving person, an individual with a warm heart who extends himself or herself to others derives significant psychological benefits. Goodness stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, releases the feel good chemical dopamine,  and as a result this kind of empathic attunement is thought to protect our species by fostering cooperative efforts. Joe derived the benefits of giving as he was forced into a state of vulnerability. He learned through his tragic accident how vulnerability increases interpersonal capability. It would have seemed impossible to him to imagine loosing the use of his legs and immerging a happier person. It is a fact I have been privileged to witness. When we are open and honest with ourselves we can be open and honest with others. In the process we discover goodness in ourselves we can share with the rest of the world. It is surely a protective, connective process that allows us to remain healthy and vibrant. The opposite is true when we remain isolated and pre-occupied with our self interests to the exclusion of others.

In my experience leading group therapy sessions over the years I have continually noticed that when people become involved with other members in an empathic way they begin to feel better. The cure for depression and anxiety is not within but between us, as we enter the world of another we take a mental vacation from ourselves while influencing our neurochemistry positively.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Author of the Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

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