He said he’d tried all the magic potions and medicines for getting out of bed. He said he’d tried them all and none of them worked. He said it wasn’t a problem with his legs, it was a problem with his brain. He said his brain just couldn’t motivate him to get out of bed.
I asked him if he’d ever tried forcing himself out of bed. I asked if he’d ever put any of the onus on himself and not the pills.
He said, “You can’t force it. Either the brain permits it or it doesn’t.”
I said, “You have to force on a pair of pants. They don’t just jump around your legs by desire alone.”
I said as far as I knew, there wasn’t a magic pill that put pants on for anybody.
He told me I was being condescending.
I told him I was only trying to help. Then I asked what he did all day while lying in bed.
He said, “I just think and talk to myself about lying in bed. I ruminate and philosophize about why I can’t get out.”
I asked if it was an existential thing – an existential problem – that was keeping him stagnant.
He said it wasn’t because that would make it philosophical problem – maybe a psychological problem – not a purely physiological one.
I said, “Yeah. Some people have psychological problems.”
He said, “Yeah. But not me. Mine’s a problem of the brain, not the mind.”
“Isn’t it a problem of both?” I asked.
He said, “Maybe. Maybe a little bit. But not much, because brain comes before mind. Everybody knows that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Like how environment can excite the brain. And excitation of the brain stimulates chemicals that can affect the mind.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“You know about that mouse utopia experiment?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Environment affecting behavior,” I said. “Could be you’re stuck in your own mouse utopia without even knowing it. And that’s what’s keeping you in bed.”
“I’m not a mouse,” he insisted.
“That’s not the point and you know it. Besides, you are a mammal, which you’ve conveniently omitted from the analysis.”
I went on, telling him it didn’t seem healthy lying in bed all day thinking about lying in bed. I said it sounded like he was stuck in some kind of feedback loop. I asked him if he enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells of lying there in bed day after day.
He said he never thought about them. He said he never really experienced them. He said he just thought about the lying there all day as he lied there all day.
I asked, “But isn’t part of your lying here the sights, sounds and smells surrounding you too?”
“Not if I don’t notice them.”
“But they’re still here. And maybe you could try to take notice cause maybe some different sights, sounds or smells would help rattle your cage,” I suggested.
He didn’t seem to like this train of thought with its particular pathway back to the physical. He needed to reject these physical influences, which could lead one to believe part of his problem might be somewhere in the realm of the metaphysical or psychological. But there was no room for that. His problem was, indeed, purely physical, but only a physical problem of the brain, not of his choice of environment or choices for living.
I got to thinking about the notion of cognitive dissonance. And, as I thought about it, he probably felt it, so he became defensive.
“Do you think I like wasting my life away in this bed?” he asked. “You think I’d rather be here than out there having a normal life? Don’t you think I’d rather be out there with a caring woman than in here with nothing but these sheets and pillows?”
I don’t like being honest at the expense of another’s feelings. But sometimes honesty is more important.
“You might prefer things in here,” I said. “You might find it safer and less disappointing than life outside this bed. A guy without the will for getting out of bed is gonna find the world a pretty tough place to navigate, and he probably knows that. He’s knows it’s gonna chew him up pretty quick. So I just don’t know how much you prefer it in here, and I’m not sure you do either.”
“But the doctors can’t fix me,” he said. “And they’re trying. And I’m sure they know better than you.”
“You’re not helpless against this,” I said.
“So I’m helpless? I’m helpless and worthless? That’s what you’re saying?”
“No. That’s what you’re saying.”
But it was true. His abject inactivity wasn’t of much use or help to anyone, other than as an example of what to strive against becoming. And I couldn’t help but imagine how all his philosophizing and contemplating about his plight were nothing more than distractions from ever confronting that truth. And I couldn’t help but wonder if all those medicines and potions weren’t meant to keep him in a stupor of his rationalized helplessness.
“These doctors are doing everything they can,” he insisted.
“Are they really trying any harder than you are?” I asked. “And if you’re not going to try, why should they? Are they really trying to help, or are they just going through the motions? Maybe they’re being just as passive as you are, pumping you full of pills so they can say they’re doing something so they can get paid.”
He told me again how he’d tried all the magic potions and medicines for getting out of bed. He said they’d been prescribed by professionals and none of them worked. He said since none of it worked there was nothing else to do but continue lying in bed.
I asked again if he’d ever tried forcing himself out of bed. I said maybe if he could do it just once, he’d realize it was possible. And, realizing it was possible, then maybe he could do again.
He said there was no use. He said the medicines just didn’t work. He said the medicine didn’t motivate him – didn’t change his brain enough – so there was no use of doing anything but just lying there in bed.
I asked if he’d asked the doctors if there might be a way – without all the pills and potions – to force himself out of bed. I said some of them probably had some experience in that sort of thing. I said there must be some doctors who considered behavior as well as chemistry. I said even dogs can be taught new ways of behaving. I said behavioral therapy is used for alcoholics.
He said he didn’t know. He said he’d never asked any of his doctors about that.
A few weeks later I returned. He was still just lying in bed. He said none of the medicines were working. I asked if he’d talked to any of the doctors about his behavior, not just his brain. He said, “No.”
I knew he wasn’t a fool. I knew that in many ways he was much smarter than me. And that’s when I realized there was no point in me, himself or the doctors trying to coax him out of bed since he’d already concretely decided it was entirely a matter of brain and none a matter of his will or the environment he continued to choose.
For months, I continue to visit him. Every time I returned, he continued to lament about his bedridden plight. I pretended to understand it from his perspective, but I never could understand it. My pretending was always a lie. And I tried being a decent friend, but it wasn’t easy because I’ve never enjoyed being a liar very much.