Reach Out
Jerry White

  

No one survives on their own, and no one thrives alone, either.  Yes, you might feel an excruciating loneliness after one of life's hurtful blows.  But we are simply not built to survive solo. Isolation will kill us, not protect us.  We humans are social animals made for community. Even when family and friends annoy the hell out of us, they remain an essential part of our survivorship.

One must find peers, friends, and family to break the isolation and loneliness that come in the aftermath of crisis.  We have to let the people in our life into our life.  In our hour of need, we may even depend on the grace of mere acquaintances or total strangers.  Some will surprise us, coming out of the woodwork to help.  Others -- very often our best buddies and closest siblings -- will disappoint us terribly.

I often told myself during points of crisis when I felt tempted to isolate, "Dammit, just make a call to someone . . . "  To survive, we must find empathetic souls -- sympathetic surrogates.  Our inner victim may shun this, preferring to retreat into a shell.  However, our inner survivor craves people.  We need to find people who understand what we are going through.  Social support is absolutely essential.

I have never been a big believer in the "self-made man."  We all live off previous generations, combined gene pools, and preexisting social networks.  We have benefited from anyone and everyone who has ever been kind to us, encouraged us, taught us, mentored us, or parented us.

Still, when you are in a deep, dark, relentless pit of pain, it's hard to think of others.  But make no mistake about it, they are there.  Others are in the room with you, in the wings of the hospital with you, in prayer for you, in kitchens cooking for you, on cell phones spreading the word on your behalf.  In trauma, you may have become the lead character, but there is an ensemble cast of participants and a host of witnesses.  How you keep the door open to relationships will determine the extent to which you are able to thrive years later.

I benefited greatly from social support while in Israel.  Frankly, if you're going to step on a landmine, you might want to do it there, where trauma is sadly normal.  You'll find a lot of peers and families who have known your suffering -- they've been there.  And when you share a hospital room with others in the same predicament, you don't have a lot of time to brood alone.

In the hospital, I shared a room with "guys like me."  Hundreds were getting blown up in Lebanon at the time.  If I'd come back to the States I would have had plenty of great friends and family, but no one who had experienced war injuries.  Back in Boston, it was difficult for my relatives to understand; few people were thinking about war and terrorism, let alone minefields.  In Israel I was normal.  I had peers and we supported each other.  It was another key to recovery.

Friends and classmates from my studies at Hebrew University heard about my accident and many made the three-hour pilgrimage repeatedly, taking two or three buses from Jerusalem to the hospital in Safed.  My room was an open-door party place of sorts.  They'd bring guitars and cookies and music.  The atmosphere was so Israeli casual that friends even slept on spare hospital beds.  I suspect they wouldn't have allowed that at Mass General in Boston.

With so many people coming and going, it was clear that social support -- a primary ingredient for overcoming crises -- was not missing from my life.  Perhaps I was spoiled with too much, if there can be such a thing.  There were days when I was exhausted by support . . . I didn't want to have everyone and his uncle pouring through to gawk or make small talk with me.  But still, too much is better than not enough (if you have to choose).  I certainly can't complain.

Fritz and David remained my core support, changing bedpans and urine bottles on demand, washing me, shaving me, helping to deal with the basics, while still keeping their sense of humor as I yelled each time they knocked the bed without warning, triggering new ripples of pain.  I also recall fondly the blond nurses on missions from Denmark -- Krista, Anne, Hannah, Irene -- saintly beings who brought light (and shortbread cookies) with each visit.  My Jerusalem classmates brought comfort food, good humor, and music, including Ray, who played guitar and sang the same hymns again and again, at my insistence.

A few weeks after my accident, an Israeli stranger paid me a little visit -- an extraordinary moment in which another survivor reached out to me.  He walked up to my bed and said that he, too, had stepped on a landmine, but in Lebanon.  "Can you tell which leg I lost?"  He was wearing blue jeans and walked with a perfect and steady gait back and forth in front of my bed.  Was he showing off?  Was I in the mood for this game?  "I can't tell."  I really couldn't.  "That's my point," he said.  "The battle is not down there, but inside you, in here and up here," pointing to his heart and then to his head.  "By the way, do you still have your knee?"  Yes.  "Can you still have kids?"  I think so; yes, it still works.  "Then what you have is a nose cold.  You'll get over it."

He turned and walked out of my room as steadily as he entered.  I never met him again, and to this day I don't remember his name.  But I'll always remember that visit, that moment.  It posed a choice, a mental fork in the road.  I thought to myself, If this Israeli guy can do it, I certainly can.  Maybe I'd be okay in the end.  Maybe I would be able to walk and then run and swim and play tennis again.  Women would still be attracted to me.  Maybe I'd eventually start a family.  It dawned on me that losing my leg wasn't the same as losing my life.

I believe this provocative peer visit was the beginning of reclaiming my power.  Just as Albert Schweitzer describes, "At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person.  Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us."  Well, if you're out there, my anonymous amputee visitor, shalom vey todah hevri -- "Peace and thank you, my friend."
   

*  *  *  *  *

   

The loss of a loved one, a painful divorce,
or a serious physical injury---we must all,
at one point, face tragedy---unavoidable
moments that divide our lives into “before”
and “after.”  How do we muscle our way
through tough times and emerge stronger, wiser---even grateful for our struggle?
In 1984, author Jerry White lost his leg---
and almost his life---in a landmine accident.
He has endured the pain of loss and the
challenge of rebuilding.  As co-founder of
Survivors Corps, White has interviewed
thousands of victims of tragedy.  With
this book, he shares what he has learned.
White outlines a very specific five-step
program to coping with disaster;
to achieving strength and hope; and
to turning tragedy into triumph.

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Henry Ward Beecher

   

  

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