The Unforgiven: A Psychiatrist's Story
by J. David McNeely, M.D.
Simply put, when life presented me with the “forgiveness lesson,” I flunked and had to have remedial instruction.
On October 23, 1990 at 7:42 AM, our fifteen year old daughter Amy was killed in an automobile accident on her way to school. A young woman rushing to her workplace ran a stoplight and struck the car in which Amy was a passenger. It was little comfort to her parents, sister, and grandparents that she was where she was supposed to be and doing what she was supposed to be doing. Her life essentially ended right away although her body was kept alive long enough to make it to the University Hospital Emergency Room. She had very rigorous and competent trauma care, but to no avail.
Even though I had been a practicing psychiatrist for over twenty years and had given many lectures on such topics as: Death and Dying, Grief and Bereavement, Depression, Anger Management, and Stress Management ad infinitum, I was not prepared for the death of my child. Some fifteen years earlier I had in fact had a Near Death Experience which left me more or less comfortable with the prospect of my own death, but I was not prepared to lose Amy. She left behind a grieving mother, father, and older sister--Sara. Amy was a beautiful, fun-loving, highly intelligent, athletic, and multi-talented child. She began studying the violin at age 2 ½. She later became interested in choral music and was to have been part of the All-State Chorus in late October. She had almost all A’s in the Advanced Program at Atherton High School where she was a sophomore. Because she was such a beautiful girl, people underestimated her intelligence. She had read all eleven volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization by the time she was 12 years old. She had been goalie on Atherton’s field hockey team. We had taken her for training at Ohio State, Northwestern, and the national field hockey camp at Saulk Valley, Michigan. She was rated as one of best high school field hockey goalies in the United States. Her future was quite bright indeed. She wanted to be a veterinarian or a psychiatrist like her father. She had one reservation about the latter, jokingly stating “It would have to be McNeely and Dad on the office door.”
I suppose there is no real way to calculate the degree of loss when a child dies. A parent feels that their future is lost irrespective of whether or not there are remaining children. The horror of the accident, the anguish of her mother’s face when I told her that Amy had been in a wreck and was dead, the evening television news with the image of her book bag lying on the street at the scene of the accident--all of these images haunt your mind whether awake or asleep. After her autopsy was completed and her body arrived at the funeral home, we insisted on viewing the body before it had been prepared. I can remember gently holding her head and feeling the bones move beneath my hands. Her perfect teeth were shattered like the glass fragments that had been imbedded in her face. I suppose this may be too much information for the reader, but there were many more memories both horrible and wonderful that led up to a father’s awful duty of gently kissing a daughter goodbye on the forehead and closing the coffin lid some three days later.
In spite of all my training and experience I couldn’t intellectualize myself out of this one! I cried myself to sleep and awake for the next six months. During my professional career, being a Type-A, I basically had one speed-“wide open.” I pretty much relied on the assertive ego defense mechanism of “turning the passive into the active.” I went through a period of analyzing the events that led up to the accident. Somehow I thought that if I gathered enough detailed information, the accident would somehow have been magically prevented.
After blaming everything and everyone, including God and myself, I finally got in touch with my anger toward the person I thought responsible for Amy’s death. At her trial the police accident reconstruction experts very competently proved that the driver of the other vehicle let 6.2 seconds elapse from the time the light turned yellow. Clearly, several seconds had elapsed while the traffic light was still red. This woman’s very capable defense lawyer was able to confuse the jury on this issue. It turned out that the jury members, with an average effective educational level of fifth grade, could not add decimal fractions. This did nothing to assuage my rage even after several months had elapsed since the accident. In private conference, the bright young prosecuting attorney asked me, “Doctor McNeely, what would you like to see done to the woman who caused this accident.” My reply was as follows: “First I would like to see her die a slow painful death, then I would like for her to spend a few eons in Hell experiencing indescribable torment, and then I would like her soul cast into outer darkness where she would experience utter aloneness for all time. Other than that, I have no animosity toward the woman.” I’m afraid that my weak attempt at humor at that moment revealed the depth of what later became murderous rage directed toward this young person whom I later realized did not mean to kill our daughter.
It is not a good thing when a physician becomes murderously angry-doctors have method and nerve. Even though I went through a number of case scenarios which could have resulted in her demise, I knew that I couldn’t do such a thing to her, my wife, Amy’s older sister, my career, my patients, students, and all the other persons in the mental and social helping professions that were under my supervision.
So I kept on “soldiering” day by day and kept it all in. At some level I knew this was not a good idea. My spirits and health were gradually failing. By Memorial Day of the following year, things reached a crisis point when I went over the handlebars of my time trial bike at 35 miles an hour. I suffered an array of abrasions and minor cuts along with a concussion that earned me an overnight at the old Methodist Hospital under the care of one of my favorite neurosurgeons. Fortunately I did not have a major head injury. The helmet that had saved me went back to the factory and was replaced, but there was no factory for Dave to be sent back to. I got a little message during this event when I discovered that the two EMS people that took me to the Emergency Room were the same two that did the emergency run with Amy.
And now my first story: After I recovered from the bike wreck a few weeks later, I was taking a morning hike in Cherokee Park before going to work. The sun had just come up and I was walking near Bridge One. Over the years I had become a contemplative walker often meditating as I went along. The monks at Gethsemani had introduced me to that practice. By 1990 I had served as their psychiatric consultant for sixteen years. I was supposed to have been helping them while all the while they were teaching me. Those monks were “tricky Devils!!” They had an uncanny knack of showing up at my door with a book or a pamphlet saying, “Here Doctor, this is something you might find interesting.” After reading the item, I found that it had spoken to the very life issue that I had been struggling with at the time.
After crossing the Bridge One and noticing the beauty of the morning I heard a voice inside my mind that said very plainly:
You need to know that it is your own anger that is consuming you. You are continuously judging yourself by the same standard by which you judge others.
To the reader of this paper I feel compelled to add that this was an inaudible voice and that was the complete message. I recognized the words as being a version of: “Judge not lest ye be judged.” But, this time the words weren’t from a dusty book, but were very alive and relevant to me personally. At first I didn’t want to hear them but I paid attention to them anyway. In any event, I got the message that forgiveness was the only way. Anger and revenge were self defeating and I was harming my own better self-soul, if you will allow a wounded psychiatrist to use the term. I had to let go of my rage in order to be a forgiving and loving person. I came to realize that I was the one that had been unforgiven. In my grief I had been hanging onto my rage over Amy’s death until it had become something treasured within my ego. To give my rage up, at some level, made me feel like I was losing her all over again. My anger had become self-destructive and self-indulgent at the same time.
Now, another story: A few months later I was again walking in Cherokee Park in a meditative manner. I came upon the same place near Bridge One where I had heard the voice earlier. The sun was just coming up-there was a little ground fog rising up from the ground and Beargrass Creek. Several small rabbits were running and jumping-and several small birds were singing their hearts out. I remember thinking “this is really beautiful.” Then I heard within my mind the same voice as before:
Observe these animals! This is the Mind of God at play. And in as much as your beloved daughter is now part of the mind of God; this is Amy, playing and singing for you!
Now, I’m smart, but not that smart! Something beyond my personality and my own imagination was teaching and comforting me--whether this was my Inner Teacher, Guardian Angel, or the Holy Spirit--I’m not wise enough to know which or perhaps they are one and the same. I do know that I felt greatly loved and comforted and I hope this has been reflected in my continuing as a peaceful, loving, and life affirming person.
I guess I’ve become convinced that it is our stories, particularly as we get older, that describe our spiritual progress or lack thereof. We seem to be taught in the Spirit by the series of steps or life lessons that we take as we buffet up against the demands of life and the learning opportunities presented to us. None of us is immune to or can transcend this process. Earlier in my career I joked with psychiatric and pastoral counseling colleagues that “God may not be dead but He seems instead to be the great benign non-directive psychotherapist of the Universe.” As I listened to life histories of my patients and paid attention to my own stories, I came to realize that “the Other” or the Great Mystery of Life seemed to be taking more initiative than I had realized.
A number of years ago it was my privilege to serve on the Committee on Religion and Psychiatry of the American Psychiatric Association. A fellow member of the committee was Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, M.D., a well-known theologian, psychoanalyst, and Episcopal Priest. She shared with us a wonderful metaphor for this spiritual instruction process as expressed in the following quote:
We are all climbing God’s Holy Mountain. It is wasteful to be running around the bottom of it arguing about the best way up-and selling maps. Once you’re up on the mountain, particularly above the timberline, it all looks pretty much the same. (Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, M.D.)
Dr. Barnhouse went on to clarify that she was not condemning traditional organized religious traditions. These were analogous to well-groomed paths up the mountain with fixed ropes, available hand and toe holds, and experienced guides represented by the clergy persons of the various faith traditions that assisted the beginning climbers up the mountain. However, once the spiritual pilgrim got up very high on the mountain where the going was hard and the air was thin, it didn’t seem to matter whether the seeker was a Christian Mystic, an Islamic Sufi, a Jewish Kabbalist, a Zen Master, a Hindu Swami, a Druid Priest, or a Native American Holy Man.
Personally I would like to add a concept to this metaphor, namely that there are persons that help the climber in the very high mountains. I’m thinking of the Sherpas of the Himalayas. Sherpas are rare individuals that are at home in the mountains. They are faithful, cheerful, good humored and can be considered at one with the Mountain. In the Buddhist tradition, they are part of the mountain. We honor such a person by this Symposium-Dr. Wayne Oates. Through his ministry, psychotherapy, teaching, and writings he continues to inspire and guide us on our Journey. I was personally blessed to have had him as my teacher, mentor, and colleague. His pioneer work with Dr. Ed Landis at the Norton Psychiatric Clinic was on the cutting edge as the field of psychiatry moved from id psychology, through ego psychology, and centered on superego psychology. The minister and the psychiatrist who had previously viewed each other as antagonists learned that they had a transcendent common interest-the person. An holistic approach evolved which incorporated Body, Mind, and Soul so that Dr. Wayne Oates, in my view, was an invaluable and enduring contributor to the Biopsychosocial Model of Psychiatry.
Dr. David McNeely is a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.
Continuing Education Credit = 1.0 contact hours