Steven had opened a Pilates studio in my town and was a health nut. He was fanatical about what he ate and how he exercised and how his body felt and looked. He had lots of tattoos and piercings. He was a very passionate man.
Steven had a couple of chronic conditions that were beyond his control, including asthma that would flare up from time to time and for which he required treatment. Other than that, he was in pretty good health—but he would occasionally experience symptoms including headaches, palpitations, and nervousness, and he would become afraid that he was about to have a dangerous asthma attack or even a heart attack. His stress levels accumulated with this mindset. Steven sometimes came to my office for help. We’d run tests to check his heart and lungs, and then we’d reassure him that he was okay. This pattern went on for several years. And once he got his reassurance, he was back out there teaching Pilates and running and doing his usual thing.
External Uncontrollable Events Affect Our Stress and Health
During this time, Steven also experienced some difficult and stressful circumstances in his personal life. His son, whom he loved dearly, suddenly moved across the country to be with a woman he’d met on the Internet, effectively removing himself from Steven’s life. Steven had an on-again, off-again relationship with his spouse. He had a strong sense of abandonment and was deeply affected when those he cared for seemed to reject him.
Then his business ran into financial trouble during the recession, and his number of visits to my office increased. I began to ponder what the real issue was for Steven. I started to ask him about his feelings of stress and anxiety. He acknowledged that he had a lot of fear. It was clear that those conditions were affecting his health.
Creating a Healthy Mindset By Rebuilding The Foundation
We began to dig into his foundational belief system about himself and about life and death. As it turned out, he had a lot of feelings of insecurity left over from his childhood. He had grown up in a faith system that was dogmatic and punitive, and he continued to believe that his ultimate destiny would be in a bad place and that he could never be forgiven for the things he’d done.
Though my role was not to be Steven’s counselor, I did recommend some books that I thought might open him up to the ideas of compassion and forgiveness. Steven then went out and met with a faith leader from the denomination in which he grew up, but he chose a person who was compassionate and committed to the teachings of unconditional love, forgiveness, and hope. Years later, when Steven came into my office for a check-up, he had a new tattoo. This one was very subtle. It was symbolic of the fact that he was loved, he said, and he began to cry as he told me about it. He said he felt completely forgiven for his past mistakes and that he had begun to feel truly alive and present for the first time in his life.
When Fear Is Diminished, Purpose and Peace Are Found
The most astonishing thing about Steven’s story is that all the things he feared then actually came to pass. His son died of a drug overdose. His wife left him permanently. When he came in to see me after those things had happened, he was grieving and depressed.
“Do you need medicine for anxiety?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”
The old Steven surely would have been wrecked by these events, but this new Steven was resilient. He said that he didn’t feel abandoned; even as his worst fears came true, he was able to remember that he was
loved. “I’m not afraid,” he said.
But that’s not the end of the story. A while after that, Steven came in to see me with severe chest pain. He’d just had shoulder surgery, but the pain didn’t seem to be the result of that. So I ordered some tests. It turned out that the bones of his spine, his scapula, and his ribs were riddled with tumors. He was treated for the cancer, and for a while he went into remission. I saw him periodically over those years as he tried to fight off the disease. And even through this horrific period, his outlook remained positive.
“I lived all those years healthy but afraid,” he told me. “Which means that, really, I was unhealthy. Now, here I am. I’ve lost the people closest to me. I’m dying of this incurable disease. And yet every day, I’m alive and I’m well—and I’m not afraid.”
Steven had gotten one more tattoo. Its essential meaning was that perfect love casts out fear. He no longer had panic attacks or palpitations; he had left all that behind. When the cancer finally took him, he went without fear.