My secret problem started during basketball practice, back when I was in the 7th grade.
The coach was trying to get us toughened up: "wind-sprints" he called them, wearing us out in order to build us up. We would run up and down the gym, as fast as we could, then rest a few seconds...then run again...and keep repeating.
When we were in the "rest" part of that rhythm one day, my stomach suddenly felt nauseous, my arms numb, my head dizzy, and my breathing tight. But nevertheless, as soon as the coach blew the whistle, I ran again. You didn't want to draw the attention of the coach. After a few minutes the bout went away and I was perfectly normal.
But from then on, every time we had to do wind-sprints the attacks recurred. Eventually I commenced having the same spells during P.E. class. But no seventh or eighth grade boy dares appear weak: bullies lurk in the shadows and too much reputation is at stake. So I reckoned it out this way: I'd always had bad allergies...plus there were those kids who had asthma, so therefore my problem was certainly some new allergy...or maybe asthma. Since the attacks always stopped after 20 minutes or so, and they would be over before anyone could get me to a doctor. There seemed no need to make a big deal out of it to anyone, even my parents.
When I got in high school, however, and the attacks were getting more frequent and disabling, I decided to tell my doctor about them. Dr. Pickens. He listened to my story and told me that I was lazy and didn't work hard enough. Get off my butt and stop being a slacker. His son was a popular boy in my class, and I felt doubly shamed upon hearing his lecture. I didn't want anyone to think I was lazy, or a sissy. And since everyone in those days believed doctors, even the kids who got misdiagnosed by them, I decided I would never again speak of this problem.
All through high school I chugged on, refusing to play any organized sports: basketball, football, or even baseball, my first love. Instead I pivoted toward the speech team and the school newspaper, where I did okay. On weekends I still played sports with my brothers and my friends. But when the attacks started on those occasions...I would just tell them that I had asthma...and that I needed to sit down a few minutes. They accepted my odd behavior and just kept playing. The attacks would pass, I would rejoin the game, and no one thought any more of it. In sandlot games, there was no macho coach, PE teacher, or doctor to humiliate you.
This went on all the way through college and part way through seminary. And the attacks grew worse. Then suddenly the story turned: the conference requires a medical exam for all its prospective pastors. And my new doctor in Washington D.C. insisted on an extensive interview before he would sign my form. So I hazarded a few comments about the "inconveniences" I had...and he frowned and immediately ordered a test on my heart. Within minutes he diagnosed that I had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a congenital heart malformation effecting the electrical system of the heart, sending it flapping away at up to 400 beats a minute. Problem
The problem was
solved on October 20, 1978, when surgeons at Duke University Hospital did experimental surgery smack in the middle of my heart. I'll spare the gruesome details. But 38 years later I can play a vigorous game of tennis, softball, or basketball...all for well over an hour, all without incident.
As a result, nowadays I always make a big deal over October 20: one of my autumn anniversaries, a rebirth, a healing, a time to give thanks and renew my gratitude for the family, friends, and Duke community who were part of that saving grace.
Looking back at what I've just written,
this year's reminiscence, I am particularly struck by the power of shame to paralyze: when a hostile power trespasses against one's body, when people with deeper voices are dismissive of its importance, when all your energies are diverted into self-blame for not doing more...or knowing more...so as to avoid the intrusion in the first place.
Decades later, some people, hearing my story for the first time, still scold me for the silence I kept during that decade of secrecy. I, on the other hand, quickly see the naiveté of those who do not understand the tactical rationale of 'silence' in such circumstances. When intruders (personal or impersonal) attack, silence and invisibility are often the only powers a quarry has. There are periods in life when "keeping quite" is the only divine strength we possess. It can take years before God fully grows
new strengths and skills in one's voice and resolve.
So as I rejoice this week in my anniversary of healing, my prayer is also this, "Lord have mercy for all the silent lambs," whatever or whoever has intruded on their lives. --Mike