When Bill and I took our first trip to Germany over twenty years ago, we were driving through the Schwarzwald, aka the Black Forest, as late afternoon became night. That forest is deep and thick with trees so dense that there are areas which would make walking through them difficult, if not impossible. Those woods appear dark, even on a sunny afternoon. A fog settled in and as we drove toward our destination, a village called Münstertal and the Romantik Hotel Spielweg, night descended and the fog lights on our rental car became virtually useless. The fog’s heavy drapery encased the car like a scene from a Stephen King story called “The Mist.” We were crawling along the road with both doors open trying to make out where we were in relation to the white lines in order to stay in our lane on this two-lane country road. The steep, hilly, and at times mountainous terrain harbored sharp turns and deep valleys, none of which we could see but which the map told us were there – somewhere just on the other side of those white lines we could not risk crossing. Neither of us had ever experienced a fog so dense and unrelenting. We couldn’t stop, yet moving forward posed its own dangers.
There are all kinds of fogs, though, some of them just as scary as this one was. Why? Because they all lack one vital element: clarity.
The fog of anesthesia left over from surgery makes it difficult to think clearly, if at all, for sometime afterward, making it hard to remember things or to talk intelligently, for a while anyway. In the throes of this fog, people talk sometimes when they’re in the recovery room but usually don’t remember what they’ve said. The longer you’ve been under, the longer it takes the anesthesia to clear out of one’s system so you can start feeling something akin to normal again. Depending on how much anesthetic has been required and how long you were under, feeling normal and energetic might take months.
The fog that ensues from a blow to the head is scary, too. You often can’t remember what happened clearly, or accurately. Memory comes and goes in bits and pieces in a puzzle where those pieces never quite fit. Bits and pieces are all that remain from a serious accident I had many years ago, and the same is true of my mother who fell two months ago, seriously injuring herself and sustaining a terrible blow to her head. Some things are gone for good, having fallen into the abyss of unconsciousness and drug-induced nightmares.
At least these kinds of fog will eventually clear out, even if they leave the time you spent in them fragmented. Other fogs don’t lift easily, and others, not at all.
The fog of blindness imposed from within is what bigotry, deep-seated hatreds, and grudge-carrying are made of. They, like the Black Forest, are so dense, they never let in the fullness of daylight. Even if we can’t forgive, we must let go of the hateful things that do far more damage to their purveyors than to those at whom they are directed.
The fog of mental illness clouds the sufferer’s world with distortions that only psychotropic or other kinds of drugs can ever lift. And it can only help if one takes them faithfully, as prescribed.
The fog of narcissism engenders a particular kind of blindness that sidesteps a genuine concern for others. It is self-serving in its various manifestations, putting oneself first, last, and everywhere between. Like Narcissus, all one sees is a reflection of one’s self in the lake, or the mirror, and every window one passes.
Chronic pain is a fog that tends to shut sufferers off from the rest of the world. They disappear into a realm where pain is paramount. Unrelenting. Unforgiving. Impermeable except sometimes through a haze of drugs designed to ameliorate but not eradicate it. The fog of fibromyalgia, the fog of back pain, the fog of pain caused by neuralgia of varying kinds. People suffering from chronic conditions have limited options – drugs or pain. Some choice, isn’t it.
Not to be excluded is the fog of drug use. Users may initially have chosen to take their drugs of choice, but the element of choice has since been removed. They don’t want to continue, but their bodies won’t let them stop. Choice is no longer an option. They exist in a virtually permanent state of need, dwelling in one kind of fog of another – a fog destined not to lift without serious intervention, serious commitment, serious sacrifice that few are able to manage on their own without tremendous strength of will and commitment.
Bill and I arrived in Münstertal much later than we’d planned, shaken a bit by the experience but at least in one piece – sans any damage to our rental car. By mid-morning the fog had lifted, and the surrounding view of the Schwarzwald offered up magnificent views of the hillsides rising around us, carpeted in rich greens and alive with the sound of cowbells.
Our fog had lifted, but not everyone’s does – not without help, even that which comes formed as a kind word or a sympathetic gesture like an arm around one’s shoulder. Compassion, a fog suppressant in its own right, means not talking about your own pain, not making comparisons, but giving someone else the opportunity to talk about theirs instead. It means letting someone else vent. Wiping someone else’s tears while holding your own in check. If it helps a sufferer get through the next hour, or the afternoon, it’s worth it. Your turn for comfort will come.
Everyone has pain, we just don’t always recognize it because it lacks the clarity of definitive parameters. Beginnings and endings. What can we do? How can we help? There is no easy answer to that – all we can do is be there, offering a warm, loving shoulder to lean on. Because sometimes there is nothing one can say or do that will be half as valuable as that.