…me, the patient and God. Or Jesus. Or sometimes, God and Jesus in the same sentence. I talk about a lot of things with my patients: sex, drugs, feces, crime, child abuse and violence. But what do I really hate? Getting into conversations with well-meaning patients about the state of my soul.
I grew up with a bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone-lovin’ extended family. My parents’ Judaism was a constant source of worry for my relatives, as they fretted about our eternal souls burning in a lake of fire forever. And when I got into my rebellious, pro-choice, feminist-in-training high school years…oh dear. As a teenager, I thought it was fun to argue with them. I even entertained the idea that my brilliant teenage perspective might get them to see the close-minded hurtfulness of their ways. But after a while, I realized that I might as well save my breath for something more plausible, like writing an Oscar-winning screenplay or eradicating poverty. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I accepted Christianity as an important source of support and strength for people (prior to that I thought of it solely as a battering ram, poised to smack me down for being naughty).
I do appreciate when patients wish me a blessed day, or pray for my good health and happiness. I don’t mind if patients want to tell me about their personal experience with Jesus, or how the church helped them out of addiction or crime. But please…don’t ask me if I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart. I haven’t. And I don’t plan to. But I don’t want to tell that to patients because I feel like it would drive a wedge into our therapeutic relationship. I try to dodge questions, sometimes with pleasantries (“Oh, I’m so glad you found a church that you like so much”) and sometimes with direct limit-setting (“Sorry, I don’t discuss religion”). The other day a patient came in with Chick pamphlets and was handing them out to the staff. Ack! Chick pamphlets, the publications that I found so hilarious in high school. Chick pamphlets, which among other things have asserted that the gays want to give AIDS to heterosexuals, that Catholics and Muslims go straight to hell, and that rock n’ roll music is a one-way ticket to a sulfurous lake of fire. For the duration of our visit, the patient had the little pamphlets fanned out on the desk. I tried not to look at them, for fear that she would try to engage me in a conversation about the truths hidden in their tiny, comic-book pages.
Another patient last week told me at great length about how God was the only way to true health. Unfortunately, this patient has diabetes, so unless God’s other name is “Humalog,” God has a co-star named Insulin. Although spiritual counsel isn’t my strong suit, I tried to affirm his faith while discouraging his idea that God will work a miracle to restore his pancreas to its original glory. I have a little stock response that I use: “Do you think that God created your doctors and nurses? And that maybe God put us here to help you out? And do you think that God wants you to be healthy?” It’s hard to argue with that rationale. Or at least, I hope it is.