By Richard Bleil
For my triple bypass, doctors had to cut my sternum open. Made of cartilage, it doesn’t really heal. Currently, there are steel surgical stitches giving it support.
A recent friend of mine and I were chatting about our past. Like me, he suffers from depression, and has been in a hurtful marriage. He has a marvelous support network, is wisely seeing a therapist (which I should be), and a brand-new wife. We were talking about healing, and if it was even possible to fully heal.
When I was recovering from the surgery, I was told I needed a stuffed animal or pillow to carry with me at all times. The purpose was so that, should I cough or sneeze, my chest wouldn’t burst open.
Yup, I could have died with a good sneeze.
I always imagined this as that scene from “Christmas Vacation”, where the turkey was so dry that it blew open as soon as a knife touched it. I’m not sure that this is actually how violently it would happen, but today, eight years later, it could still happen.
See, the cartilage doesn’t heal, at least not really. It develops scar tissue, it gets stronger, but it will always be weaker than it was. Emotional wounds, no doubt, are the same. I’m not so worried about sneezing or coughing these days, and the pain is always decreasing, but it never really goes away. But, the weakness will always be there.
My doctor told me of a former patient that had his chest break open during an “iron man” event. I’m told he is fine, but it’s kind of an irony, isn’t it, that at an event to prove that he was in the best shape of his life, and his chest breaks open. The scar tissue is there, the weakness is there. My friend is fortunate to have a new wife who knows his history and has at least some idea of where that scar tissue is (let’s be real; even we don’t know all of our own scars). He tells me that she is great for him, and will help to protect him from himself. This is an incredible gift for a support network.
The scar tissue in my chest is weak. I can build up the strengths around it; I can build the muscles, but the sternum will always be my weakness. To help support it, the steel surgical stitches will be with me for the rest of my life. A support network is just that; it can’t wipe out the scars, but it can help to protect you from having them burst open, so long as you stay away from Iron Man competitions.
Now comes the time that I should give advice. For full disclosure, I’m not a psychiatrist and I’ve had no formal training; all I am is a guy that has learned a lot from his previous therapist about himself, and has a little experience. None the less, here are my thoughts.
First of all, accept that your scars will always be there. If you accept that you will always have these weaknesses, you can begin to understand them, learn their triggers, and protect yourself (and others) from them. One of my major scars from childhood is when I am dismissed. Honestly, I know my ideas are not all gems, but I do share them if I feel like they might have merit. If my ideas are not taken seriously, that’s fine; I shared them, and like any brainstorming session, anybody with whom I share them is better off to have heard them, but when I am dismissed out of hand without even being heard, it’s truly an emotional trigger. Even today, I get angry, and defensive, but since I know this is a scar, I more easily recognize when it is happening. This allows me time to breathe, and think about why I am being dismissed as inconsequential. I can decide if it is something I should accept, confront, or just walk away from, and all three choices are appropriate depending upon the situation. Knowing the trigger is there helps protect from this particular scar tissue bursting open.
Second, be weak. There is amazing strength in weakness. I remember a movie where the Roman army was working to burst through a stone defensive wall. The people behind it built a second wall knowing their success was immanent, but rather than building another inflexible strong wall, they built one of wood. The new wall flexed with each blow of the battering ram, never showing signs of weakness. You have a support network, let the people in them support you. Be open and honest with the members of your network to the depth and detail as is appropriate with the individuals. I don’t expect my new friend to be as intimate with me as he is his new wife; that would be inappropriate, and, well, just weird. But, we’ve been through similar harmful events of the past, so when he spoke with me, this is how we opened up.
Finally, be okay with yourself. The strongest most “together” person you know has scars. You’re not strange or weak for your scars. It simply means you’re human. Some may be deeper and more hurtful than others, but everybody has them. Don’t make it a competition, but accept that you have these problems, and if you recognize them in others, be okay with it. We’re all in this together.