As a mental health clinician I have encountered more people suffering from a fear of Living (FOL) than a fear of dying (FOD). Cancer hospitals I suspect have more FOD but then again I don’t know for sure for this is all new territory for me. However the following is what I know by training and experience that leads to FOL: relentless Depression and/or anxiety, addictions, grief from losses too hard to bear, intense feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, incompetency, chronic pain, feelings of being trapped in difficult and/or abusive relationships and helplessness brought on by the terrors of traumatic memory. This is not an exhaustive list as mental/emotional anguish is highly subjective and impressed by the unique variables in human nervous systems and by early caregiving or lack thereof. The crowning blow is ultimately believing that there is either no meaning to life or a belief that a meaningful life can no longer exist. Overwhelmed by the distress of fear, abandonment and shame hopelessness creeps in.
In extreme cases FOL leads to suicide – no surprise, there. According to Mark Kaplan, who has studied suicide at the School of Public Health at Portland State University (Oregon has the highest suicide rate among states in US), “suicide comes from an effort to escape and intolerable view of self.” The moment I read this description I knew Mark Kaplan had nailed it.
So, where am I going with all this? Well, I am taking the liberty to self-disclose in order to add further qualification to my writing on such a topic. I have always felt that beyond training what made me a good mental health therapist was my ability to empathize with the suffering of the emotionally ill. I suffered from an anxiety disorder/depression as a young woman in graduate school. Hospitalization was never required but I temporarily dropped out of my program due to an inability to focus and meet the program’s work requirements. Fear of living was a deeply felt experience and I despaired at times. I questioned the purpose of such a hard experience and questioned whether God loved me or was effectual in the area of mental health. I despaired at the thought of what kind of future life I was destined to live. In spite of this mental suffering I made an intentional decision about where and how to invest my time. Instead of retreating to my family home in another state I chose to live in Christian community with a few young women who were actively involved in the local university church. I did this while working at a major teaching hospital, witnessing first-hand the suffering of children and adults with serious respiratory diseases, some fatal. By God’s grace the distraction of meaningful work would begin to repair the shame of personal failure. As a new convert to Christ my Christian community provided the theological and practical help I needed to make sense of my life, past and present. The help to overcome shame would be the catalyst for my feeling known and loved by God. The meaningful journey of a becoming a counselor would begin. In 6 months I would return to graduate school and graduate with empathy (better than honors).
In summary, Fear of Living is not only treatable but redemptive. Meaningful distractions within the context of a loving community showed me the heart of God – more tender and just than I had ever imagined.
Next blog: Fear of Dying