Roy Exum: He Gave My Gift Back

Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It’s been for well over half of my life that a psychiatrist has become part of me. I am proud to say I’ve sat at the side of two of the most stellar professionals to ever come down the pike and I shudder to think what I would have done over the last 25 years without the medical know-how and the modern-day medicines that are available (if you’ll only ask). It is now believed that one in every six adults in the United States – closer to five says the CDC -- benefit from properly prescribed and carefully-monitored psychotropic drugs and, brother, if they ever have a parade to honor our huge advances in mental health I want to be the one to bang the biggest drum.

At the dawn of our newest century, I had endured over 100 surgeries, after four prosthetic elbows had each become infected and rejected, and I was whale-belly low.  I’m telling you I had almost lost my grip when I left the Chattanooga newspaper – that ‘grey lady’ I had loved more than life itself.

What’s as bad is that I had joined Crye-Leike selling real estate and by all accounts had done pretty well – it was so much fun surrounded by great people -- before a bone disease known as osteomyelitis whipped me down to next-to-nothing in a two-to-three-year gauntlet where the infections were constant, the pain relentless, and hope was dim.

Dr. Robert T. Spalding, M.D, whose death at age 88 was celebrated at Rivermont Presbyterian late last week, soon became a Godfather who I needed in the worst of ways and I will never forget the love and the courage, believe it or not, that he gave to me as he renewed my hope. In June of 2005 my original psychiatrist and warm friend, John Bollinger, was on a hike up Mount LeConte in the Smokies with more than 20 of his McCallie classmates. As he crested the mountain, where a hot dinner and warm bed awaited each, John had one of those “widowmaker” heart attacks, where it is said you are dead before your body hits the ground. Talk about tragic! John helped thousands of those in our community escape the perils of mental disease and, when I got word, it was every bit as bad as Linus losing his blanket.

I was first introduced to John when he was still at McCallie, and the way I became his patient was when he came up with the idea that if he prescribed two psychotropic drugs that I would take at the same time, the combination might work against the constant pain I was trying to break. It worked! You would have to talk to our mutual favorite – pharmaceutical genius Ned Giles – to know exactly how it worked but Drs. Bollinger and Giles did the trick. About then I had a bunch of other frets (problems that crush those who suffer with chronic depression) and I spent an hour with Dr. Bolinger every two or three months for a number of years.

It turned out Dr. Spalding and John shared a practice, and Dr. Spalding and I became better acquainted after John died; he called on me to help him with a newspaper tribute to John. I was deeply flattered and, as a token of appreciation, he added me to his patient list without having to sit on a waiting list for however many years it was at the time. Almost immediately he became a dear friend, a confidant, and an advisor. I even got to trust him in a way I’ll always treasure and my life will forever be enriched because of him.

I tell today’s story for two reasons: Anybody who thinks they can go through this life alone is missing one of the Lord’s most beautiful benefits – we all need a hand to hold. Most of the luckiest have a spouse, or a really significant other, where the word “love” is hardly a fitting description. Everybody needs somebody as their anchor, their ‘True North,’ and as every song writer has found since David wrote the Psalms, each of us “needs a little help from (our) friends.”

That part of me I’ve flubbed up pretty badly. Oh sure, I solidly believe that our Lord Jesus is all anyone really needs but, when you get right down to it, having somebody else to touch, to snuggle, to share laughter and tears, is one of the precious blessings the Lord Himself provides His children. Far be it from me to turn down any second-helpings of grace or thanksgiving. I know better than most that there are angels who walk among us and that we ought to emulate Christ’s spirit. Dr. Spalding enforced that hope in me time and time again and, pal, I am “all in.”

Many years ago, when someone made a big deal over the fact I was the last person in the world they would have ever dreamed needed a ‘shrink,’ I immediately made the decision to use every opportunity I could find to use myself as a true-to-life example mental health is not something that is embarrassing, to be hid in a closet, or a sign a body is ‘weak.’ It’s just the opposite: it is a tool of sorts we can use to make our lives better. There was a time when I would run 3-4 miles every day. I wore the best pair of Nike shoes I could find. I was happy. But then I got some custom orthotics inserts, and it made every run so much better. I was so amazed I told one of my friends at Nike about it, and he laughed as he replied that about 85 percent of pro athletes wear custom orthotics for very good reason.

In my wilder days, my fast cars would run well on regular gas but I would always buy premium. I praise ‘the gusto,’ you know? I look at my pill cabinet today and there is blood pressure medicine, antacids, and the antibiotics I will take every day for the rest of my life. There are also several ‘mental’ pills that I can’t tell make much of a difference in each day but, if I don’t take them, I can sure tell a difference. It’s simply common sense. And I personally believe psychotropics, used correctly, are a blessing from God. I really do.

People are always curious what you and your psychiatrist talk about and the easy answer is that it is “a great conversation about yourself.” My favorite story about Dr. Spalding came at the lowest point about 10 years ago; I was really struggling with what I should do with myself after two years of being really sick. We talked of this and that … jobs I knew I could do … and he asked about writing – why not write again? “Nope, that’s rear-view mirror. Been there, done that,” I said.

Back in 2000, when I left the newspaper, it was awful. The new owner was laying off people who I had loved for years and I’ve never felt as helpless. That wasn’t the plan, not the promise. Aside from being crushed that Camelot was indeed over, I also felt I was “burnt out” and then I read that to “burn out” is a lame excuse for letting your flame go out. Guilty as charged … Dr. Spalding said he always thought I was good with words but, no, my stance was I had left my typewriter behind me and, in hindsight because of the emotional hurt, I didn’t even think about it.

The next visit … and were meeting a lot more often than usual … he told me he had been at a dinner party and overheard that a story I wrote had raised over a million dollars for a boys home. I told him, yeah, but Reader’s Digest gets the credit there, and I changed the subject again. But before I left, Dr. Spalding said he felt I shouldn’t discount a corner desk in another Southern town, and remembered I’d let it slip that I’d gotten maybe a half-dozen feelers when I left the newspaper. “That ain’t me … I’ll figure out something …”

Not too long afterwards I ran into John Wilson, who had birthed, with delightful success. We had worked for years together at the former News-Free Press, and asked him if maybe I could write a story or two … you know, just to see if I might still like it. John gave me the chance and, yes, not only did I like it, I fell in love anew. Looking back, it took Dr. Spalding about six visits, with casual reminders and off-hand comments, to steer me back to where I belong. After a few years passed, I was writing for John every day and it was during one of the last visits I spent with Dr. Spalding, just before he retired, I thanked him for giving me my gift back. He said I had it all along, that I just needed a little help finding it. I now appreciated that sometimes it takes a master psychiatrist to help accomplish such a feat.

Dr. Robert Spalding spent his life helping thousands of us with grief, rejection, pain, betrayal, disappointment and all of mankind’s other travesties and mental maladies. I once wondered how a guy like him shouldered such a load – obviously facing our defeats in the darkness far more than our victories in the sun. People don’t need help when life is flush, the roses in bloom. No, we called on him when our ox was in the ditch, the train off the tracks, and he, may God bless him, put a lot of Humpty-Dumptys like me back together again. Scars? He could make you think they were stars, a man’s evidence of a life full lived. He loved that I carried a lot of scars, ‘evidence’ he would laugh with each new one, and reminded me that, unlike a tattoo, each scar is someone who we have met, and therein lies the story. Yes, my Dr. Spalding was ‘the deal.’

In well over half a lifetime have I become aware that winning is one thing – nothing is more fun -- but a victory, after first suffering a bitter defeat or two, has altogether a better taste. Dr. Robert Spalding helped me understand that, and because of him …

I’ll see you right back here tomorrow.

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