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Three nights ago, I lay in a hospital bed paralyzed with fear, barely breathing.  I knew that at any moment dozens of snakes would come slithering under my hospital room door, Snakes on a Plane style.

In those same moments, my mind careened off-road with the car that carried my wife home, images of the accident that would destroy her life flashing through my mind. How would I survive the fear of the snakes without her by my side?

I knew these thoughts were ridiculous. I knew the likelihood of these events simultaneously occurring was zero. I knew I was was wrong.  But I could not shake the fear.  Rationally, I understood.  Emotionally, I did not.

I recently heard anxiety described as that feeling when you slip on the ice, right before you fall, except instead of being for a split-second the feeling lasts for hours, days or weeks.

I lay in the darkness feeling helpless and hopeless, defeated by this anxiety and destined for a sleepless night.  In desperation, I opened my computer and began writing.  I wrote how difficult the nights at the hospital were, how worried I was about how Kathryn was handling everything, how much I wanted to hope that yet another new medication might make a difference for me, for us.  I just wanted out of the place I was in, physically and emotionally.

I half-heartedly decided to try something my therapist has suggested for years – to accept what I was feeling instead of trying to flee from it.  So much of my anxiety and my struggle with darkness comes from trying to escape the painful parts of life. But as Brene Brown writes, “we cannot selectively numb emotions.” By trying to numb out the fear, I was also numbing out what was good in life.

I sat on the bed, computer pushed aside, and tried to be okay with being afraid.  I told myself that fearing these things does not make them more or less likely to happen.  I told myself it was okay to feel panic, that I would not die from hyper-ventilation, I would not die from fear.

And in that moment, I found the root of my anxiety.  I felt my breathing slow, my racing heart quiet, my mind begin to focus.  In that moment, I found the chance to choose peace, even in the moment of darkness.

By Dorothy Hunt

Do you think peace requires an end to war?
Or tigers eating only vegetables?
Does peace require an absence from
your boss, your spouse, yourself? …
Do you think peace will come some other place than here?
Some other time than Now?
In some other heart than yours?

Peace is this moment without judgment.
That is all. This moment in the Heart-space
where everything that is is welcome.
Peace is this moment without thinking
that it should be some other way,
that you should feel some other thing,
that your life should unfold according to your plans.

Peace is this moment without judgment,
this moment in the heart-space where
everything that is is welcome.

Over the past few years, I’ve been a part of many little groups that have focused on “building community” from my Bronte Creek Project days and Katimavik, to the communal living focus at SSU and then living and working with L’arche communities in Cape Breton and Hamilton.

I’ve had a lot of experience building community with others, but I still get nervous in new groups.  Especially in times of stress, I naturally resort to isolation rather than community. When I was first admitted to the Acute Mental Health ward two weeks ago, I spent nearly all my time avoiding others by sleeping and trying to shut out the world.  It’s easy to isolate oneself on a psych ward, because everyone knows to just leave you alone if you don’t want to talk.

I learned something about community recently from an unexpected source, a man named Frank.  From Monday night to Tuesday morning, my family gathered in a visitors’ lounge at another hospital to wait with my brother for the surgery that would bring him new life: his double lung transplant.  Frank came and went throughout the night.  He would have a nurse roll his wheelchair into the room, ask what we were watching on television, and then sit with us as we waited.  Eventually he would start dozing off and I would ask if he wanted to go back to bed.  He would call me “miss” and ask that I roll him over to the nurses’ station.  My family laughed at the camaraderie Frank and I shared that seemed to come from nowhere.  We didn’t talk much and I didn’t learn much about him except his first name, but we both made the long night a little easier for each other.

It turns out Frank was being discharged from the hospital on Tuesday morning.  I didn’t know this at the time, but maybe that’s why he was having such a hard time sleeping, maybe that’s why he kept asking the nurses to be rolled back to the visitors’ lounge to spend time with my family.

When I came back to the Acute Mental Health ward on Tuesday afternoon, I decided to follow Frank’s example and try to be a little more social.  I ate in the dining room for the first time on Tuesday evening, instead of taking my dinner back to my room.  I started playing the piano in the common room, and other patients would stop by to listen or comment.  One gentleman, Paul, pulled a chair right up beside me and sat down.  He asked if I knew any good songs.  I told him I could play pretty basic versions of Across the Universe and Let it Be by the Beatles.  He said good and started singing the first verse of Let it Be before my fingers even touched the keys.  When I finished playing he said, “It’s therapeutic, eh? Maybe they should give us a salary, eh?”

Paul was right, music is therapeutic.  I started playing just to pass the time while trying to be patient, but I ended up playing because I enjoyed it.  I could feel the weight of the last two weeks in the music I played, without feeling crushed by it.  By coming out of my shell, by expressing myself in this social atmosphere, I invited others to do the same.

Life on the ward changed once I began looking past the illnesses all around me and connecting to the faces, the individuals.  It took vulnerability and the chance of rejection, it took a step towards involvement, but it was worth it.  My own mental health benefitted as I spent less time in my room.  Once I started getting involved, I even spent more time smiling.

Now, having been moved to a different unit, I find myself back at square one.  I see the other patients on the ninth floor as just that, patients with illnesses.  Nothing more.  Their humanness doesn’t immediately present itself to me.

Before being moved, I never would have imagined missing those familiar faces on the tenth floor.   I don’t even know most of their names, but I know their faces, and I know what to expect from them.  Now on the ninth floor I wonder about others’ motives.  I feel suspicious and insecure when someone tries to start a conversation with me.  And this time, there’s no piano.

I am back to square one, and the only way to force myself though this stage is by looking past illness to see people for their humanity.

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