Ways We Delude Ourselves
None of us is completely honest with ourselves.
In the same way that we can’t hear what our voice sounds like outside our own head, we can’t fully see our inner being. Our amazing brains reveal only what we’re ready to see, explain away anything that threatens our sense of self, and rationalize inconsistent behaviors.
Let’s look at an obvious example of this. While at the hospital the other day, I had the honor of visiting with a woman I’ve known for a year now, ever since I was paged to the emergency room to support her family. They’d been told that in a few hours, she’d be dead. She was bleeding internally, and because of her alcoholic liver disease, she would not survive a surgery. The doctors didn’t think her body could heal on its own, although they gave her fluids and antibiotics just in case.
During that emergency room visit, I provided her loved ones an opportunity to process their fears and griefs. The woman herself spoke with me about dying. She wasn’t afraid to die, she told me, but she was determined to stay alive for her family. If she survived this, she promised, she would definitely stop drinking.
“You Can’t Make People Behave”
She survived, but she didn’t stop. She returned to the hospital a few times afterwards, always because of some complication from her addition. Then I saw her the other day, bruised, scraped, her arm broken. Drunk, she had fallen down a short flight of steps. Although her children lived with her, they couldn’t keep her from hopping on the bus and buying alcohol. They couldn’t control her at all.
No, we can’t control anyone else. As one of the social workers I work with is fond of saying, “You can’t make people behave.” This is not an excuse to give up on them, though, and to the credit of this woman’s children, they didn’t want to give up on her. They wanted her to find help. They wanted to help her themselves, but couldn’t figure out how.
Partly, this was because they had their own problems with addiction, finances, trauma. They were preoccupied and felt helpless. They also had trouble seeing their mother as the one with the problem. Not until their father died from his own addiction did the woman start drinking. Growing up, her children had known her as strong, nurturing, and protective. She held the family together. They still looked to her to fill this role, so couldn’t accept that her brain had atrophied. For them to admit she could no longer make rational decisions hurt too much, so they pretended things weren’t so serious.
Being Honest about Our Parents
You might say the children weren’t being honest. They didn’t want to acknowledge how sick their mother was.
When my mother started getting dementia, I faced that same struggle. She had always been intelligent, reasonable, and competent, but when a social worker gave her an extensive cognitive assessment, I had to acknowledge that the little slips and confusions she’d shown were part of a larger problem. Although my mother still managed to cover up the holes in her cognitive processing during day-to-day conversation, the holes were significant.
To help her, I had to be honest about this. I had to admit she would never again be the person I depended on or got support from. In increasingly important ways, she would now depend on me. I had to grieve the loss of the mother I had known so we could both move forward in the world as it now was.
Of course, I wasn’t struggling with an alcoholic. Although my mother had diabetes, she often snuck into the kitchen to eat forbidden ice cream, but at least she wasn’t running off to buy beer. Mostly, she did what I said. To avoid power struggles, I learned to let go, provide distractions, and offer alternatives. I learned to treat her, in some ways, like a child.
Balancing Support and Autonomy
The delightful alcoholic I have been following in the hospital has also become, in some ways, like a child. To help her, we need to set limits and safeguards like we do a little girl, except that we must also give her the autonomy and freedom of an adult. Balancing this is so difficult, even when we acknowledge the need. It’s impossible when we hide such difficult truths from ourselves.
But why wouldn’t we? It hurts to acknowledge how bad things are, to realize we don’t live forever, to understand our limitations. To cope, we might try to force the other person to behave, because we’re so scared they won’t survive. Unfortunately, this hardly ever works, so we get frustrated, angry, and then we pull away. We can’t stand the pain, so we withdraw our love. Perhaps we tell ourselves it’s for the person’s own good, because they have to hit bottom before they will change. Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t. Yet we might find, if we are honest with ourselves, that when we try to control or pull away, it’s less because we want to help the other as because we want to protect ourselves.
I see this in the medical system. Although it’s true that “you can’t make people behave,” when you think about it this way, you’ve already set up an adversarial relationship. You’ve decided you know what’s best for them, that if they just do what they’re told, all will be well. If they don’t, they’re labeled “non-compliant,” and the medical staff badgers and dictates. If that doesn’t work, the team withdraws.
Being Honest with Ourselves
But let’s be honest. We don’t always know what’s best for someone else. When we chastise people, when we approach them with judgment, self-righteousness, irritation, or anger, we’re going to meet resistance.
So how do we stand by a loved one while letting her fail and fall apart? How do we honor her strengths so she might find her own way through the maze of medical care, dementia, or addiction? What’s the best way to support someone who can’t seem to change? Safety nets? “Tough love”? Unconditional acceptance, tireless respect, gentle challenge? What does it mean to hold people accountable, and do we have to reject them to do so?
Perhaps sometimes we do. Yet being honest with ourselves means looking at our motives and acknowledging the pain that lies beneath them.
Our Resources Are Limited
I realize we have limited resources. At a certain point, I have to end my visits with patients in the hospital, and I can’t see everyone in his home. The outpatient medical teams have far more patients than they can monitor, so the ones who take extra time, who respond slowly if at all, who needs hours and hours of love, compassion, redirection, and quiet honesty just can’t get their needs met. We don’t have the capacity.
So I must be honest and recognize our limits. I must accept we won’t fix everything or save everyone. Most broken, confused, and addicted folks with complex needs already distrust the medical establishment. Often, they are prickly and do whatever they damn well please. But I love them. For some crazy reason, I feel drawn to those who get lost in the bustle, who are rejected by the “beautiful” people, who are grumpy, lonely, their souls aching.
My experience has led me to believe that if I take as much time as necessary to journey with these individuals in their agony, their pain will lessen, they will learn to care about themselves, they will develop the strength they need to be honest, and they will become more than they believed possible.
What Do We Do If We Don’t “Fix” Things
Perhaps I can provide this kind of support because I’m not trying to stop that woman from drinking. I’m just trying to love her, to listen to her, to lift up inconsistencies she might not have considered. I look for an opening to something that might change her heart. I invite her in whatever way I can to choose life. Maybe that won’t get her sober, but it might bring her a new sense of peace.
To be honest, though, it was harder to do this when it was my own mother. For instance, I had to battle with myself about the ice cream. At almost 90, didn’t my mother deserve treats if she wanted them? When she lost interest in food, did I really need to coerce her to eat? Once she moved to a foster home, and I was no longer responsible for her day-to-day care, it became easier to let her be herself, to simply be present, to care about her, and to respect the true spirit and soul within her broken mind and body. I tried to help her choose life, as well.
Even as I write this, though, I am deluding myself. If I were honest, I would acknowledge that inviting people to choose life takes time. Days, months, years. My skills are not always up to the task. I get impatient, I only have so many opportunities to meet with people, the problems feel overwhelming, and besides I don’t love everyone, though I find it helps if instead of trying to do the work on my own, I depend on God’s love to move through me.
Being Honest that We Can’t Do It All On Our Own
Which reminds me that sometimes I need to remember that I can’t be a chaplain by myself. I need colleagues, teachers, and a connection to a source of universal love. If I’m to let go and step back when I feel the urge to fix someone, I need another being or thing to hand that person over to.
At one point, while I was talking with the beloved alcoholic, she told me she wanted to get well enough to walk to the store to buy groceries. She claimed it was because her daughter shouldn’t be doing that for her, but we both knew that was an excuse.
“You think that’s a good idea?” I asked her. “Going to the store?”
After a silence, she said, “I know what you’re saying.”
“What am I saying?” I asked.
“That I’ll buy alcohol.”
I nodded my head.
After a moment, she said, “I don’t want to die.”
Again, I nodded my head. She wanted to be there for her children and grandchildren. She even hoped she might get strong enough to ride her bicycle again. Although she knew her liver is unlikely to heal no matter what she did, she longed to once more be strong, vital, and vigorous. Would a rigorous honesty steal her hope, destroy her dreams?
Finding New Dreams
Maybe. Yet being in recovery means recognizing our fear, pain, and helplessness without being defined by them. Being in recovery means that when we lose hope in one place, we can find it in another. When we lose old dreams, we can find new ones.
My mother has died; her work is finished. The delightful, addicted patient still has a chance to choose life. Can she be honest about what really matters to her? Can she be honest about her struggles, barriers, and resistance? Who knows? Yet if she is to find her way to recovery, she must find a way to be honest with herself.
I pray she finds the strength to admit the truth. Then she will need to find the courage to face and work through her suffering. May we all find this courage. May we all be rigorously, gently, and compassionately honest with ourselves.
In faith and fondness,
Photo by Jakob Owens, from Unsplash