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Judith Brisman, Ph.D.

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The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

Posted: 01/31/11 06:54 PM ET

I've been wondering what the hardest thing is that I've ever done.

Once I was in the South Seas and panicked when I tried to go underwater to scuba dive. This was a surprise because only the time before, I had easily submerged into shark-infested black waters of the night and spent a week diving with predators just an arm's length away from me. This second time, though, it took everything in me to calm my shaking body and literally force myself into the waters below.

But in truth, that turned out to be fun.

Labor was hard. Labor with twins was harder, I guess. But when you don't have a choice, something is not really hard. You just have to get on with it.

It was really hard last month when my father died. The last day of his life, he was suddenly, unexpectedly shackled with pain. He looked with quiet, courageous bewilderment at his arms and his legs as his leukemia-laced blood, now sludge, turned his limbs into fire. "My hands," he would say. "My legs." We doused him with morphine.

Those weren't really the hard parts, though, because my father never cried out with pain, and anyway, the drugs were right there. The hardest part was when my father was most feeling and most alive, not the moments when he was most dead.

There was that one moment when I told him everything would be okay. I told him that we were around him, that we would be there. With a sudden keen awareness and a look of absolute clarity, my father turned to me and asked, "Does this mean you are taking over?"

"Yes, Dad," I told him. "It's OK. We are here. We are taking over."

And suddenly, with a coherency that belied the chaos of the morning, my father looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Oh sh-t."

My brother laughs poignantly, saying my father must have been pretty upset that we were taking over. But in truth, I knew. At that moment, my father realized that I was telling him that he was about to die.

***

Once I saw a patient for just one consultation. She had been bingeing and throwing up every day for years. We met for 45 minutes, and I never saw her again. Then a year later, I got a phone call from her.

"I've stopped being bulimic," she announced. "I wanted to thank you."

I couldn't imagine what I had said that could have been of any help. Of course I asked.

"You told me that stopping bulimia would be the hardest thing I'd ever do," she told me. "I kept waiting for someone to tell me something that would make it easier. And of course it never got easier. But when I realized it would be the hardest thing I've ever done, I got ready for hard. I braced myself. One night at a time, I stopped throwing up."

Now, we all know that stopping any addictive behavior is never that easy. In fact, it is likely the hardest thing one will ever do. But what I loved about this phone call was not only that I had said something that had actually worked, but, more importantly, that this young stranger put into words something I had never thought of in terms of recovery. She made me realize that in order to recover from anything, you have to stop being afraid of hard.

***

I didn't know that what I said to my father was hard until I heard his response. What was hard was not what I said, but the aftermath of what I said: knowing (or thinking I knew) what my father must have felt in return.

But that feels easy in contrast to asking someone not to go to a behavior that has been calming and stabilizing night after night, to ask someone to face "hard" and have to really question, a minute at a time, just what is so hard about hard.

Oddly, that last moment with my father was one of the most moving, intense, awakening moments I have ever had. I miss him a lot. But it made me think a lot about hard moments. When a hard moment is filled with love or courage or self-respect, hard immediately turns into something else.

If only my father were here to teach me more lessons. That's hard.