Why Don’t Doctors Give More Hugs?

need a hugA few weeks ago, I went through a thorough brain evaluation at a place called the Amen Clinics (I really hate that name as it sounds like some hokey pray-it-away sort of religious place. It’s not, but so far they have ignored my comment card suggesting a new name), and part of the work-up involved sitting down with one of their therapists to go through my entire history with mental health problems. When I sat down on her couch, I saw here Wake Forest diploma on the wall and we initially connected over having both gone there. Over the course of the interview, it came out that we had also gone to the same high school, were both the 4th of 5 children, and had dealt with nearly the exact same sort of behaviors and coping mechanisms throughout our lives. It was both eerie and extremely comforting to meet someone who is so much like me.



After the meeting was over, I stood to leave and felt that rising awkwardness of uncertainty as to the appropriate physical gesture in this situation. Under any normal circumstances, it would’ve been one of those long, I-just-met-you-but-we’re-already-life-long-friends sort of hugs. But these were “professional” circumstances, and the normal gesture would be a handshake, even though that felt remarkably formal and awkward, too, given the conversation we’d just had with our own dopplegangers. In true OCD/anxiety fashion, I gave her an awkward hug and then proceeded to second guess myself for the next week about it.

This encounter reminded me of the time 5 years ago when “the cheese fell off the cracker” (as a friend puts it), ultimately leading me into a 3-day-stay in the mental hospital. As said cheese was falling, I was desperately grasping at any help I could get from a medical professional. As such, I visited my primary care doctor for a second opinion after my psychiatrist (not my current one) told me I was “just depressed.” Well, duh.

As usual, the doctor’s visit was preceded by the nurse who took my blood pressure, etc. When I told her how I was feeling, I started to sob – something I did more of in those few days than the rest of my adult life combined. She did something very, very weird and extremely “unprofessional”: She hugged me. And I mean it was not just a pat on the back hug; it was a long, let-it-all-out-now-Tim sort of hug (just in case a few certain friends who shall remain nameless, who can turn buying deodorant into a sexual joke, are reading this, I feel the need to clarify: this nurse wasn’t one of the sort that Matt or Kevin (oops, I outed them) are probably imagining. She was a grandmotherly sort of nurse. Sorry guys!). Ironically, the doctor himself couldn’t have been more opposite in his reaction. He acted almost offended that I was seeking a second opinion from him and said in no uncertain terms that anti-depressants CANNOT cause depression despite the black box warning on all of their labels (I was convinced that my depression had to do with a new anti-depressant I had tried). He literally said this to me: “Anti-depressants probably make suicidal people feel just enough better to act on their impulses.” Ohhhhhh, that makes sense, mister doctor! Someone who can’t even get out of bed finally feels well enough to do so and his/her first thought is, “Finally I have the energy to load my gun and off myself. Thank God! Actually, I’m feeling so much better I might just draft a doozy of a suicide note, too!”

In reflecting on these two encounters which took place in the same examination room 5 minutes apart, I came to 2 conclusions. First, just because someone is “book smart” enough to become a doctor does not make them emotionally intelligent or even good at their job. As one of my friends who actually is a doctor once said, “Doctors are essentially highly trained mechanics.” My translation: Doctors may know the human body, but they may not be very familiar with the human condition. Second, doctors of all sorts should give more hugs.

I know, I know…they’d get sued. But I can say from a lot of experience with all sorts of doctors (my brain isn’t my only problem. Soon I’ll be starting blogs about back pain, digestion issues, sinus problems, and heart palpitations) that doctors are some of the least qualified people to care for the suffering of humankind. I’ve encountered so much more in the way of common human decency from teachers, counselors, ministers, etc. than from the sum total of doctors I’ve seen. When I wrote my book and expressed my dissent from the traditional Christian view(s) of hell, I worried that everyone I knew would tell me I was wrong and attack me. But that only happened with 2 people: a Southern Baptist and, you guessed it, a doctor. Everyone else who read it expressed what you’d hope – compassion, understanding, and care for me and my internal struggles. I find it interesting that a doctor was one of the ones who was more concerned with being right than with expressing human decency. As for the Southern Baptist, well, you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip now, can you?

In my doctoral dissertation, I essentially made the same argument about teaching that I’m making here about doctors: Both professions involve a fundamentally human encounter. In the English classroom, we encounter the human experience in the form of literature about the human condition. In the doctor’s office, we (doctor and patient) encounter the reality of our human frailty. In the doctor’s office, we come face to face with the fact that we are sick; we’re actually in the process of dying, and nowhere is this more obviously true than in a doctor’s office. But in both the classroom and the doctor’s office, too many professionals prefer to “keep their distance” and to BE “professional.”

But I ask this to every professional who comes face to face with the human condition: Would you rather keep your distance and miss the chance to help hold someone who’s suffering up for a brief moment or take the chance of being misunderstood once in awhile while acknowledging our shared humanity with the people we work with and for? Either way there’s a risk involved. In my opinion, the risk of ignoring people’s suffering and simple humanity is fraught with far greater potential danger than the dangers involved with a gesture of compassion like a hug or shared tears or a personal email/note acknowledging the common ground we all share. Sadly, when I make this argument, I always feel the need to add the caveat that I’m not suggesting candlelit dinners with your smoking hot clients so as to affirm their humanity. I’m not suggesting free back rubs for your patients, students, or clients. Yes, these things will get you fired rather quickly (or divorced, or imprisoned). But why do I even need to say that? Of course those things are improper. But when a patient is sobbing in a doctor’s office, what’s so wrong about hugging that person? Or when a client turns out to share your exact same background in nearly every way, why can’t the meeting end with a hug that acknowledges our need to connect with others, to be understood?

So, though I am not a medical doctor, here is my prescription for everyone: Give more hugs. And while you’re at it, be honest enough with people about your own humanity that you might get a hug or two as well. We’d all be a lot better off with more decency, more compassion, more honesty…

And more hugs.



PS. As I’ve been doing lately, I’d like to encourage you to think of someone who might need a hug or a pat on the back or to read this post and reach out to them. The purpose of this blog is for you to know you’re not alone in your struggles. If this has done that for you, please share the love and let someone who might be suffering in any way, shape, or form know that they are not alone. How you express it doesn’t really matter…just do it. (Sorry, Nike!)

And one final plea for your help: If you find this blog helpful, you’d be doing me a big favor if you’d “follow” it by entering your email address either at the bottom of this page or on the home page (right-hand side) rather than relying on Facebook or Twitter to get these updates. I’m trying to develop this blog into something that broadens beyond my immediate circle of friends, and the more people who follow the blog, the more likely that is to happen via search engines, etc. You’ll get an email when I post…otherwise, nothing will change. And I certainly won’t ever do anything with your email like sell it to cats.com so you can get cute cat quotes and pix (though, who wouldn’t want that?!). But really, it would help me out if you’re so inclined. Thanks!

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