It's Not About "What's Wrong". It's About "What Happened"

I recently returned from a Veteran’s mental wellness retreat in the Shenandoah Valley area where I was in the presence of 5 other tremendous warriors. Two Marines, two Army Rangers, and a dog handler, with a combined 10 tours of duty, and I participated in one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Each participant has struggled with a mental health condition and was asked to complete a grueling 7-day physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting, yet rewarding, experience.

We were all asked to shift our thinking from “what’s wrong” to “what happened”. Imagine, if you will, you are a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps with 6 deployments in 14 years of service, all serving as an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Device) technician, returning home to the United States of America after defusing and detonating over 900 potential threats to the lives of his brothers. How would you function? You have essentially trained yourself to become hyper-vigilant, scouring the ground for potential threats to life and limb and eventually having one explode, taking your right lower extremity. Now you are asked to return to a world where there is little threat and embraced by a society that has no way to relate to your experiences. Isolation, depression, and anxiety become your new enemy. What does the medical system have to say about this problem? “What’s wrong” is that you are depressed. Take this medication.

Of course, I am not advocating that medication does not have a role to play in recovery from mental health disorders. It absolutely does. Just as I would never advocate for someone to discontinue medications for a physical injury. What I am suggesting is that our medical system, operating through a very problem-oriented approach, has lost the ability to provide hope and offer resilience. We are consistently seeking to eliminate the problem. And this is not consistent with the qualities of resilience that are necessary to recovery from any condition. If we constantly and consistently eliminate what is “wrong”, are we ever learning from what happened? Asking “what’s wrong” frames our thinking to seek a solution. Sometimes in life, it’s not about what is wrong but more about the lessons I’m supposed to be learning today. It’s about the lessons I should be learning about what happened, and how I can move forward – taking one step closer toward a goal of recovery.

This concept is all too familiar in most traditional PT clinics. Clinicians are often asked by the patients, “My doctor ordered an x-ray and MRI. Would you like to see them?” “He/she said I have degenerative disc disease, knee osteoarthritis (usually followed by, “and it’s the worst he/she has EVER seen”)”. My response is usually, “Well, I don’t think we need those right now. Let’s talk about what happened and how we can move forward”. A subtle shift in thinking can have such tremendous implications. Asking “what happened” allows us to process through the experience, allowing us to visually see ourselves from an external perspective as if we are using the experience to provide our own perspective. It provides the opportunity to connect with another person, to embrace the idea that “what happened” was a normal reaction to an abnormal experience, and make a new decision: to consolidate the lessons you have learned from the experience OR not. Asking “what’s wrong” does not afford you this opportunity. You are consistently seeking a solution with little chance of learning the valuable lessons life is teaching you.

How does this apply to you? What questions are you asking? Are you simply viewing “your problem” or are you choosing to embrace the challenge of life: to live, fall, and get back up again? There are lessons to learn from the struggle. Embrace them and see them as opportunities for growth instead of a problem to be solved.

Bonus Material:

James 1:1-2 “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Featured Posts