And yet, minute after minute went by and I didn’t make the call. And I had a sense of leaving my body and looking back at myself there and I imagined what would happen if I did make that call. Like a series of scenes, little snippets like in a movie trailer, like when you go to the theater for the upcoming film — I could hear the sound of the emergency responders coming up the stairs, the pounding on the thin hollow door, the ride in the ambulance, the tubes and wires, the concerned look on the faces of the nurses as I went into the emergency room, and then finally the last little snippet, the last little scene in this movie trailer, where I suddenly realized what this movie was going to be about.
And I looked at it and I said, “Oh, please, God, not that. Please, please.”
Because that final scene, lying on the gurney in the emergency room, here came a young doctor in my mind’s eye walking entirely too casually. And as he got close to me, I could see there was a smirk on his face, and I knew what was coming.
He got close and he said, “Dr. Hayes, you’re not having a heart attack,” and then the smirk broadened, “You’re having a panic attack.” And I knew that was true. This was just another level down of hell.
And a scream came out of my mouth, a weird breathly, strange sounding thing. It sounded just like this. [Screams]
And as I bounced off the bottom, another door opened. I don’t know how long it was, but it was a few minutes later from a rarely visited, but deeply me part of me, the part of me that’s behind your eyes, a more spiritual part, from my very soul, if you want to say it that way, words came out. I’m pretty sure. I said it out loud to no one at two in the morning. I said, “I don’t know who you are, but apparently, you can make me hurt. You can make me suffer. But I’ll tell you one thing you cannot do. You can’t make me turn from my own experience. You can’t do it.”
And my then much younger body ached as it stood up, and I could tell from the dried and burning tracks of tears on my face that I had been there a very long time. But, I stood up inside a promise. “Never again. I will not run from me.” I did not know how to keep that promise. To be honest, I’m still learning. I had no idea how to bring that promise into the lives of others. I would learn that only in the work that we would do in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, and that was ahead of me.
But, in those 34 years, not a single day has gone by where I didn’t remember that promise. And when you stand here like this, the way you know already is the wiser place to stand with pain and suffering, things start happening. I can put it into words now what the science shows, what this posture is. It’s emotional openness. We’re going to feel what’s there to be felt even when it’s hard. It’s being able to look at your thoughts, not just from your thoughts. So, when you’re thinking they’re not just like this, so you can’t see anything else, you can notice them out there. It’s connecting with this more spiritual part of you and from there being able to direct your attention flexibly, fluidly, voluntarily towards what’s there to be focused on.
And when you see something of importance, to be able to move towards it with your hands and arms free so that you can feel, and do, and contribute, and participate. That’s psychological flexibility. And it builds on what that seed is that you know because if you put this into a word, I think you can see why this would be the word, the single word I would say is, ‘Love’.
When you stand with yourself in a self-compassionate, kind, loving way, life opens up and then you can turn towards meaning and purpose and how you bring love, participation, beauty, contribution, into the lives of others.
I didn’t see at first that this pivot towards pain and suffering actually was glued at the hip to this pivot towards meaning and purpose. I didn’t see that at first. But I started seeing it in my clients as I began to do the ACT work. I started seeing it in my own life. And just a few years in, it hit me very powerfully.
By then, I had done a few randomized trials on ACT and I was beginning to do trainings, moving around, meeting with smaller groups of clinicians, teaching about the work we’re doing. And I was doing a workshop and I had these waves of anxiety, which was totally normal. Still today, I will get anxious during talks. That was fine. I’m open for that. Come on. It’s cool.
But then another wave came. I suddenly felt as though I was going to sob in front of those clinicians, that I was going to weep uncontrollably. I said, “What?” The moment passed and I did the workshop. Didn’t think about it again until the next workshop, same exact thing happened. And this time I had the presence of mind to notice I felt very young.
And I asked myself, even as I was doing the workshop, “How old are you?”