“The Elephant in the Room” by Michael Plumb (Part 8 of “Stones In The Road” series)

continued from part 7….

stonesHave you ever had suicidal thoughts?” Is one of the questions on all those medical forms you have to fill out. In one weak moment I checked the box next to that question. It could have just been one or two fleeting thoughts, but it was enough to alarm my health care providers. You may wonder why I could even harbor such a thought, with so much still going for me. Let’s put it this way . . .


The New York Giants have a motto, “Talk is cheap, play the game.” (Leave it to a New Yorker to be so insensitive in an otherwise politically correct world.) In San Francisco they have their own motto about the game, “Let’s have some reasonable discourse with each other and think about the meaning of the game.” (Okay, I made this 39558_AndGodSaidPlayBallone up.)

But for those in the real world who actually show up to play with all-out abandon, the potential of being taken out of the game is far greater than for those who are merely spectators. A player will eventually be dropped from the line-up. Aside from death or early retirement, there are injuries, moral infractions, irreconcilable differences, family problems and losing one’s edge. From the mundane to the catastrophic, anything can take us out of the game.

The aftermath for anyone who becomes catastrophically unproductive will eventually be the same. In New York, because talk is cheap, they just toss the loser over the side of the boat. In California, they have a more therapeutic approach — convincing the loser to throw himself over the side of the boat. From the perspective of anyone who has gone from being an active producer that everyone respects to being sidelined, out of commission and forgotten—the result is devastating.thrown overboard

To broaden this, anyone who has spent twenty or more years in the harshest conditions of training and equipping to prepare them to be the best they can be, only to be eliminated from their purpose, cannot help but wrestle with the burden that it was all for nothing. This kind of personal crisis is one of life’s hardest experiences. Few can overcome without becoming jaded or cynical for the rest of their lives. My wife, Maggie, and I understand this winner-to-loser dilemma first-hand — our experience in the active game of life spans nearly 30 years. Our expulsion was crushing.

The next few years would require courage of another sort beyond what Maggie and I possessed at the time.

Learning to live with ongoing major physical problems, severe pain and multiple surgeries has a way of bringing one down a few notches. My super-hero status in my own mind was sent to the recycle bin. The constant battle with severe pain took much of the idealism out of my pursuit of the risk-taking kind of spirituality.

Even trying to continue as a bench-sitter, where I could at least play in the game as a part-time adviser, rooting for my pastor wife Maggie, turned out to be just as unrealistic as the Baltimore Orioles beating out the Yankees for a chance to play in the World Series. There comes a point when you throw in the towel because you’ve lost so much strength you can’t even pull off being minimally active. The last straw, especially for Maggie, was when friends in higher places (my health care providers to be exact) directly intervened in our future. They feared I might become suicidal.

So we were pressed on every side to see a professional who would help us make this drastic life-change—a return to the small. This was not just the first psychiatrist in the yellow pages, but a high-profile shrink who mostly worked with big-name athletes facing career-ending injuries. In many ways our life dream had been peaking, by seeing a spiritual community come into being that actually worked. I suppose the ending of this dream and the demisshrinke of my physical health was a dramatic disappointment similar to that of an athlete at the top of his or her game being taken out by a career-ending injury.

When I walked through the hand-carved cedar door into the shrink’s Asian motif office, it was the beginning of the end of my “first life.” The corduroy jeans, the turtleneck sweater, cool in a hip, thinned-down Buddha way — here sat the medicine man who removed my thin veil of god-like mortality and reduced me to a couch potato. Doctor “Springtail” eventually beat Maggie and I into subjection to the inevitable. It was more like he wore me down, putting me through every new age exercise known to the universe, taking me from adventuring pioneer to yes, little grasshopper, spend your final days watching Spongebob Square Pants.

uh, mr. springtail, may I

uh, Dr. Springtail, does this mean I get an A on my psychological profile?

Our therapy began with he and I sitting in lotus position sharing a cup of herbal tea. This seems innocent enough but in reality it was physically painful for me due to the spinal degeneration. The thought of seeing ex-athletes doing this in his office, especially maybe a big ex-football line-man, made me want to laugh. Was this the point? The visits got more interesting as we went along. Some sessions he would attach probes to my head that connected to a box with lots of little flashing lights. Then he would do odd things like pointing out strange artifacts in the room, asking me questions like, “What does that Buddha hanging on a cross suggest to you?” There were the sessions where he’d have me wear ear phones while playing goofy sounds that he called birthing music. Not only would I have to listen to this, he had me sitting cross-legged in just my underwear. According to the doctor this would disarm all my walls of defenses. At this point I wondered if he’d been a CIA shrink. Seemed like straight out of their “How-to extract information” manual.


Instructions: plug in and let the healing begin.

After several such sessions with Dr. Springtail, his half-hearted conclusion about me was I had a slight touch of Jesus martyr syndrome. I asked him if he ever told his famous athletes anything like that. He replied, “No Michael, you are my most unique patient.”

“And you are a most unique shrink” I replied.

The next several sessions up until my last visit seemed more curiosity on his part than psychoanalysis. We would sit in a normal fashion in his private office. Then he proceeded by asking me to tell him about my adventures in following Jesus, especially the encounters with the supernatural that he referred to as the magic. He would want to hear every detail. He could care less about my personality hang ups, my work as a professional therapist and family counselor, being a pastor, or my family dynamics. This was no longer a patient-doctor relationship, it had morphed into two men seeking deeper meaning to life as equals. He said he didn’t doubt my Jesus adventures for a moment.

Later Doc Springtail confessed to me that he had been the son of a Methodist pastor but gave up Christianity due to discouragement from what he saw as a lack of authenticity in its followers. That day we continued another hour and a half through his lunch break. Doctor Springtail said he left the church looking for a deeper supernatural atmosphere, something more on the order of mine. I asked him if he found some authentic stuff in what he was doing now. He said, “I think I’m closer.”

Then Doc Springtail’s high-priced sessions of $200 per 55 minutes finally paid off. (Luckily for my insurance.) The final session was with both Maggie and me. The Doc said his purpose in the therapy was not just to convince me to face the severity of my condition, but just as importantly to convince Maggie that she had to let go of seeing the completion of her/our lifelong dreams, now being blown away in the wind. He was convinced that our life was changing from high-energy to a snail’s pace, we now needed to learn to live small. My body could not handle the stress of ministry any longer. All my doctors had conferred with each other, agreeing that my spinal condition would only worsen, making any kind of normal life impossible.

elephqant in roomThis was Doctor Springtail’s final appeal, saying our lives from now on would be like having an elephant tag along wherever we went, and this very unwanted house guest would stick like the smell of death. This is the famous “elephant in the room” analogy. The helping professions use this particular word-picture because an elephant is pretty hard to ignore — plus someone has to clean up the droppings. To be honest, that job had fallen on Maggie and the kids far too often.

The elephant analogy has proven to be a good one if such things can be called good. Neither science (through nine operations), nor dozens of times I’ve gone for prayer (even to the extent of traveling great distances), have proven effective in healing my body altogether . . .yet. But the story isn’t over. So,  you learn, you cope, life goes on. But in the meantime, how do you live?

The best words that Dr. Springtail left us with, the words that stuck, was a saying of Mother Theresa’s, something like,

No more big things, only small things with great love.

(to be continued . . .)


Leave a comment


  1. MIchael M.

     /  March 20, 2013

    Mike, have you seen “Midnight in Paris” with Owen Wilson? I think you and Margaret would like it.


  2. Mike here, I have not seen it…mike



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