Locked up, but not out

I┬ámet a woman named Kathy today. She’s an inmate at the Muscogee County Jail, one of the sites we serve as chaplains. When Kathy stays on her medication, as she’s pledged to do, you probably couldn’t single her out among those of us in the “free” world. But when she’s off the medicine, she sees things that aren’t there and does things she’s probably not aware of. Hence the incarceration.

Ministering to people in jail doesn’t come naturally to me, at least compared to seeing people at the main hospital and at The Bradley Center, the psychiatric facility. Jail ministry seems in a separate category, way beyond my capacity. I’m pretty nervous before I go in. I suppose it’s because I have never been incarcerated, nor plan to be; and I feel a greater distance between ME and THEM.

It’s drab and dreary and most of the sounds are clanging metal.

Most of the time I find myself praying my favorite Anne Lamott prayer: Help me, help me, help me; and thank you, thank you, thank you.

And yet, there’s this: I have found ways to connect that don’t have much to do with the location we’re in. We’re all human; we hurt, we cry, we laugh. We’re women. We have relationship problems.

I found out today from Kathy that she has, like I have, a strong family support system and they’re cheering for her from outside. Her daughter writes her letters. For one hour, we talked about Joseph from the book of Genesis–a man whose brothers sold him into slavery. He, too, was incarcerated and yet God blessed him during that time.

As I see it, on the one hand you don’t want to blow smoke up these women’s skirts: “You must be so blessed to find God here!”, because they know I wouldn’t trade places with them for a million bucks.

But on the other hand you don’t want to leave them feeling hopeless. My faith tradition teaches that people on the margins, to include the sick and those in prison, are of paramount importance to God. So it’s important to go.

Kathy herself taught me a lesson today: It’s tough being here, she said, but I’m hoping to get out soon, and I’m making the most of my time while I’m here.

Go, girl. And Godspeed.



An observation: While watching their loved ones die, many people express guilt, in varying degrees. “What if I had been there more for him?”
“If I had been with Larry just before the accident, this wouldn’t have happened.”

It’s a strange, but familiar, refrain. Strange in that we humans think we’re in control of so very much when in actuality we’re not. Familiar in that I wouldn’t necessarily express it differently if I were in their shoes.

As I see it, a role of the chaplain in these situations is to offer both validity to their struggles (because we all struggle), and hope. Hope seems different than optimism. Optimism says, “Just look on the bright side,” and can actually be a damaging thing to say.

Hope seems more reality-grounded: “Life without your spouse will hurt like hell but you can get through it, and in your own way and time.”

Sometimes practical solutions are offered; but I’ve found the times of silence with people to be just as sacred, if not more so, than words. Sometimes spoken words seem intrusive. One size doesn’t fit all.

Another observation, about myself: Knowing the limited time I have with most patients and families in the hospital, my tendency is to think I can swoop in and fix something. Think Florence Nightingale offering a God pill. But I am not the fixer. A conduit, probably, but more accurately one who comes alongside them and helps them reconcile all sorts of things. Though patients tend to feel powerless, they may also discover what kind of power they actually have.

What a sacred trust this is.

What Lies Beneath

Sometimes when I am in a patient’s room, I hear the news of a good report but there might also be some signal of sadness, such as a furrowed brow or a frown. Or a glance into the distance. Sometimes I ask about this, sometimes not. The conflicting emotions are everywhere.

Sometimes the conversation gets interrupted by other staff, or sometimes it’s me. Sometimes I feel too vulnerable to help them explore.

I see the conflicts in others because I see them in myself.

How I relate goes something like this: for a season, about 12 years ago, I went to a very dark place, and thought about ending it all. So I tried to work my way out, and downplayed the difficult things I was feeling because I was afraid, afraid like facing 10 monsters in the darkest alley you can imagine.

Others named the changes in me before I could, which is sometimes how depression works. (also denial. “Nothing amiss here! Time to move along!”) And besides, I can easily fall prey to the strong message in the South that women smile and laugh all the time, and we’re always nice and we learn to hide our struggle behind things like frantic entertaining and praying sweetly composed prayers and wearing just-so clothing.

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” said the Dolly Partin character in Steel Magnolias.

What a weight.

For the record, I very much honor humor. But for me it can also be a crutch, a way to hide.

What emerged after those dark nights of the soul: I’m learning to be more honest, with myself and with others. If I find something to be sobering and harsh, I try not to minimize it. I try to pay attention, sometimes compulsively so. If a patient tells me this is the worst experience of his life, being shackled to a hospital bed, I want to honor that honesty, give his words room to breathe. Life is not hopeless, of course. Thank God there is hope.

But the frowns are often there, too, in plain sight.

Learning by doing

There is so much I want to tell you about this new adventure in chaplaincy at St. Francis Hospital but so much of it, for obvious reasons, has to remain confidential. Like three other chaplain residents, and the staff chaplain, I make rounds to patient rooms and rotate call for deaths and other emergencies. For instance, one night I got paged for a patient experiencing extreme fear. The nurse thought he was in need of consolation. I prayed with the man and, though he couldn’t speak, his eyes told me he was afraid. He shed tears. He was only able to nod at my questions because he had a tube down his throat.

The next day, I followed up on him. He was off the ventilator but was saying some funny things. I found myself in an odd place, between expressing compassion and sympathy, and laughing at his funny comments. Might have been the drugs talking (his, not mine.)

In addition to making rounds at the main hospital, we have responsibility for leading groups at a local psychiatric hospital, and for inmates at the county jail.

We process much of what we’re experiencing with each other, and with our supervisor. At times it seems like navel gazing; but I do believe that knowing how I tend to react in certain situations better prepares me for each visit.

I can say that the nearly non-stop newspaper business prepared me well for chaplaincy in many ways, not the least of which is meeting people I don’t know, and entering into situations that make me afraid.

Today I watched someone die. Though I’ve seen it before, it’s certainly never easy being with the families, as each case is individual.

My colleagues and I laugh a lot when we’re together, believe it or not. It’s probably because we need this kind of release in a place where pain, struggle and hardship flow like a left-on tap.

Sabbatical lessons

“We shall not leave from our exploration

And at the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive

Where we started and know the place

For the first time.”

T.S. Eliot

So the sabbatical is coming to a close. I start Monday. The bank account will be happy.

A few lessons from this time off:

1) Daytime TV is pretty terrible. Usually I didn’t watch it unless I was forced to do so at the gym, while on the treadmill. Or when I was getting my car fixed the day after Christmas and Dr. Oz was performing a gynecological exam on live TV. Ick.

2) Rustling leaves on nearly bare trees make a lovely symphony.

3) Sleep is one of God’s greatest gifts.

4) Family and friends fill my life in ways too numerous to count. I’m grateful.

5) While immensely grateful for this break, I’m also grateful for the chance to serve again in meaningful ways. And, while I hope I don’t see any of you as patients, do come see me; the coffee shop’s tasty.

The stuff in between

“Goals give us a direction. Memories form an emotional context for our lives. But, life exists in neither. Life exists in the gaps. Life exists in the details.”
— Zach Davis, aka The Good Badger

I stumbled upon this the other day and not only does it ring true but it also fits my blog topic. So, also useful.

In the final days of my “sabbatical,” I’m reading “The Last Physician: Walker Percy and the Life of Medicine.” Edited by Carl Elliott and John Lantos, it’s a collection of essays–mostly by those in fields of healthcare and philosophy that take on some of the meaning behind medical science.

Walker Percy knew something about gaps. Trained as a physician at Columbia University, Percy developed TB during his internship as a pathologist. He spent three years recovering, mostly in sanatoriums.

He didn’t practice his art, medicine, for long but instead turned to writing as a way to connect to humanity. Tragically, several in his family died by suicide; and not only does this come out in his work but some essays in “The Last Physician” explore this theme, as well.

As for Percy’s professional gap, imagine putting yourself through all that training only to come out at the end with a dreadful disease that requires several years’ attention. Is it wasted time? On the surface, we’d typically think so. “Let me get all healed up so I can get back to this doctor thing,” you might say.

But as the blogger Zach Davis has discovered, it’s the stuff in between where life is. It’s true, you know. You have all these plans, say, and then life comes along and throws you a curve. It doesn’t have to be a bad curve, like TB, but a curve that wasn’t on the master plan. Then you realize that master plans are sometimes illusions, like the mirrors in the fair fun house. And that, had it not been for such-and-such curve, you wouldn’t be in this particular spot at this particular time.

Where would our body of literature be without Walker Percy?