Battling the Self

I don’t know about you, but I am prone to very bad anxiety. The topic of my discontent almost doesn’t seem to matter, from ruminating about my future to pondering my less-than-stellar performances in Settlers of Catan. My brain can dredge up levels of angst like waves, crashing my cortex and drowning my inner reason.

If it weren’t so awful, there would be a beauty to it. How you completely lose yourself to your worries. How the anxiety seems to wrap its way into your deepest thoughts and feelings and color them, like a teabag releasing its contents into hot water. Everything is ruined. I’m a failure. I’m not smart enough. I’ll never be good enough. It’s almost impressive how quickly and completely we can convince ourselves that the sky is falling.

Our brains are deft. Mine is excellent at detecting a topic that will cause anxiety. Like that weird Harry Potter creature Lupin shows to his Defense Against the Dark Arts class, our thoughts effortlessly morph to prey on deep-seated fears. What my brain isn’t particularly good at, though, is maintaining a sense of proportion. This was made abundantly clear to me this week by my patient Ms. Gonzalez.

The first thing I noticed about Ms. Gonzalez was her smile. Despite her very low blood pressure, despite the central line inserted into her jugular vein, despite the fact that she had been in the ER for almost a day, she was smiling. Her lips were taught and tight, bunched in against the puffy skin of her cheeks. This was not how Ms. Gonzalez was born. Her face had taken on a new, rounded countour from years of steroids used to control her underlying disease: Systemic Lupus Erythematosus.

Ms. Gonzalez is twenty five years old. She was born with Lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disease made famous on the show ‘House’ for its myriad presentations and problems. The body makes antibodies against itself, attacking normal tissue as if it were a pathogen. From the day she was diagnosed, Ms. Gonzalez has been taking multiple immunosuppressive agents daily to protect her from herself.

Something about Ms. Gonzalez’s smile shocked me. I felt embarrassed, almost. What have I been anxious about? Seriously, what even could I be anxious about, compared to what this person has gone through? She is afflicted by rashes and scars, by painful ulcers, by inflammation of the lining of her heart and lungs. Her kidneys may eventually shut down, tethering her to a dialysis machine for life. She’ll have early arthritis. Neurologic damage.

The worst part is, she did nothing to deserve this. She didn’t drink too much. She doesn’t use IV drugs. There is no sense of justice to be found here. This is in her DNA. Her illness is something she has been forced to confront on a daily basis. There is no running away from the thousands of doctors appointments and hospital admissions. No running from her warped skin, bloated where it was once smooth.

When I told her that the infection in her bloodstream had cleared and that she would be going home, she giggled with delight. She thanked me and said how happy she was to be going home soon. In her sparsely decorated hospital room, with old, frayed curtains separating her from three other moaning patients, she was radiant.

How does Ms. Gonzalez keep smiling? I don’t know. But I can’t stop thinking about her. She knows something about anxiety and suffering, deeply, that I haven’t figured out yet. In the face of fire, she was peaceful, happy, gracious. Unencumbered. Surely, if someone is allowed to be anxious or depressed, it’s a young Lupus patient with sepsis. But she wasn’t.

3 thoughts on “Battling the Self”

  1. Our patients are and always will be our best teachers- what an extraordinary encounter and what a huge lesson. Fascinating how the universe reflects back to us just the things we need to learn, if we can be observant enough to recognize the message!

  2. Risa and Ben,

    Through many years of personal therapy, professional supervision, attending and giving workshops on anxiety, I don’t think what I was told in my early psychodynamically-oriented therapy (by a child psychiatrist) has changed in its truth: As health providers, we learn least from our formal education, then more from our supervisors, but most from our patients…

    Les Posen
    Clinical Psychologist
    Melbourne Australia

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