“Stories are medicine,” says Clarissa Pinkola Estés. The right story at the right time can change a life. It can heal psychic wounds that have festered for generations. But it depends on the story. Some of the most powerful stories we tell ourselves are so toxic they breed misery. And illness.
I’ve never liked hospitals. I spent a considerable portion of my childhood inside of them. Before the age of five, I’d already undergone a series of surgeries on my right ear to remove a Cholesteatoma. The growth was successfully removed. So was my hearing. These surgeries were accompanied by infections. I routinely lay on an exam table as the doctor inserted a tube into my ear and sucked out the putrid smelling disease. Like I said, I’ve never liked hospitals.
Which is why it’s so strange I chose a career that required I spend most of my adult life inside of them. Rarely a week passed where I didn’t find myself inside a hospital room, praying for a patient, watching as disease ravaged both body and spirit. I’ve spent many an hour inside the ICU, NICU, and ER. I once had an entire conversation with a parishioner as she sat on the toilet. “This too shall pass,” the saying goes, and eventually, so too her bowel movement. Waiting is what I did best. I waited with people as doctors delivered devastating news. I waited as the dying passed from this life to the next.
Recently, I found myself in the ER waiting room. Micah and I had accompanied a young mother and her daughter. We were volunteering for Family Promise, a ministry that supports homeless families. When the daughter’s forehead grew warm and a strange spot appeared on her tongue, the four of us jumped in our car and drove to the hospital. The daughter coughed all the way. “She doesn’t get colds. She gets pneumonia,” explained her mother. I resisted the urge to cover my mouth. I thought I felt Micah accelerate the car. She continued on, telling us of every illness her daughter had been diagnosed with by the age of four. Micah and I cringed. At the ER, we applied copious amounts of antibacterial gel.
I fidgeted in the waiting room chair as a TV told the tragic story of a college student who had died on the Notre Dame campus in a freak accident. Around 10:00 p.m. the janitor came by with a wet mop. I lifted my feet. “No, no!” he shouted, telling me not to trouble myself. I grew more agitated by the minute. The antiseptic smell, the shiny hospital floor, the waiting. It was all too familiar. Two college age kids walked through the ER entrance. One was carrying a bag of Fritos. “Did you know there are more chips in a Fritos bag than in any other brand’s bag?” chimed in Micah. I was officially in hell.
Two more hours passed before the mother and daughter emerged from the ER. The diagnosis: the common cold. There was no cause for alarm, or quarantine.
Some stories are so toxic they breed misery. Like the one the mother told in which her daughter’s warm forehead, cough, and spot on her tongue had to be signs of a serious, life-threatening disease. Or the one I tell myself, in which every visit to the hospital means I have to relive past traumas, mine and others’. But that’s the thing about stories. They can be rewritten. Choose not to believe your negative story line: that you’ll fail, get hurt, be rejected, or contract a rare airborne virus, and you’ll find yourself living a totally different life. You get to tell the story of your life. So make it a good and blessed one.