I didn’t know that building community could be therapeutic for me until I was literally flat on my back in a Boston psychiatric hospital a few years ago. Here’s how that happened:
Back in 2014, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Of course, she was terrified and it was a very difficult time for her, and for me as someone who loves her. Over the course of several months, perhaps the most challenging months of her life, she had surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. At the end of that treatment, she was found to be cancer free. That was such a wonderful, memorable moment of relief.
Of course, as anyone who’s been treated for cancer or has been a caregiver for someone being treated, you often hold your breath in terror, praying for hours, and carry stress around wherever you go.
For me as a caregiver, anyway, I was a bit like Wile E. Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons, where Wile E. runs off a cliff and as long as his feet keep moving and he doesn’t look down, he miraculously stays afloat. But the moment Wile E. looks down, he just collapses into a pit. That’s exactly what happened to me. I’d been “doing my best” for months, and then suddenly collapsed.
I went into work on a Monday morning and hadn’t slept in about three days. I was doing a presentation and, it’s hard to describe exactly what happened next, but I left my body, became completely disassociated, and was suddenly observing myself giving the presentation from across the room. It was a terrifying part of a panic attack. The way that my social anxiety manifests itself is through withdrawal, and I felt that withdrawal severely then.
I talked to my boss and went home for the day. I thought if I could just rest a bit that I’d be fine. But I wasn’t fine. I actually checked myself into a psychiatric hospital that evening. It was about 10 o’clock at night and I was in bed at the hospital. I was so ashamed then. My wife was at home by herself and I didn’t know what was happening with me, and I just laid there in darkness, filled with anxiety.
The light was off, and the door opened and a person came in and got into the other bed in the hospital room. The person started crying and kept crying for about 30 minutes. I couldn’t sleep before and I certainly couldn’t sleep now. I didn’t really know if I felt safe or not with this new person in the room. The psychiatric hospital was a “dual unit” which treated patients with mental health and substance abuse issues.
I thought hard and made a fateful decision. I sat up in my bed in the darkness, as my new roommate continued sobbing. I quietly said to him, across the distance and the darkness, “I don’t know why you’re crying, but if you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen.” I spent a few minutes telling him my story, which I just told you, of how I was like Wile E. Coyote who had suddenly collapsed. After a few minutes, my roommate sat up in bed and started talking to me.
We chatted for about a half hour. I’m not going to say that we became best friends, because we didn’t. This isn’t some Hollywood story. But we came to see each other as human beings who were in trouble and who could at least talk to each other, listen to each other’s story. That moment helped me through the whole six days I was in the psychiatric hospital. I decided to engage with all of the people that I interacted with, the staff and the other patients, talking to them and treating them like people. That helped me get through those tough days as I recovered.
When I left the psychiatric hospital, I packed up my belongings and went to find my roommate and to thank him for being open, for talking to me that first night. Before I had the chance to thank him, he thanked me first. He said that talking had helped him a lot, that he was less afraid after that. That really surprised me. I had reached out to him in order to create a safe space to reduce my own social anxiety. But he was telling me that it had helped him find a safe space. It took me a couple of weeks to figure out what it all meant.
What I learned from that experience is that we can reach out and build community, helping others as we help ourselves. From that moment on, I’ve reached out without fear and have taken initiative with the people around me: with strangers, friends, and family., When I build a sense of community, I feel more trust and that helps control my social anxiety. Instead of withdrawing, I go out and take initiative with people, and that puts me in a safe, healthier space.
I still have struggles. of course, and I’m still very careful. I have therapeutic practices other than community. I do meditation. I walk in the evening. I try to be around good people. My wife, who has been cancer-free for years now, helps me every day. We share our best and our worst, but we are there for each other no matter what. That’s a pretty good definition of love, and a great definition of community.