All Suffering Great and Small: What Jeff Tweedy Learned in Rehab

Several of the people I know who are thinking about seeing a therapist seem to be […]

Sam Bush / 7.11.19

Several of the people I know who are thinking about seeing a therapist seem to be hung up on the idea that they haven’t suffered enough compared to other people. There’s the notion that, somehow, the depression they’re experiencing is discrediting someone else’s more legitimate depression. Meanwhile, it seems whenever people vent about some universal struggle (roommate drama, for instance) the rant has to be concluded with the verbal hashtag “first world problems.” I understand that in this age of self-care it is important to maintain perspective. I have also seen how the gospel can introduce us to the freedoms of self-denial (if only for a moment). Our tendency to downplay our own sufferings, however, can often keep us from connecting with other fellow sufferers.

Enter Jeff Tweedy, whose memoir Let’s Go So We Can Get Back came out late last year. It’s an honest, funny account of what it’s like to be one of the greatest living songwriters of our time. Tweedy has long had his finger on the pulse of human nature, so much so that his lyrics often exude the theology of the cross (ex: “You have to lose. You have to learn how to die if you want to, want to be alive”). Thankfully, his memoir sheds some light on how his perspective has been shaped by his experience as an addict who simply can’t help himself.

At one point, Tweedy’s band Wilco was opening for R.E.M. in Milan, Italy, to a soccer stadium of seventy thousand people. Instead of playing the part of the conquering rock star, though, he was hiding backstage unable to stop crying and vomiting. He was suffering from a perfect storm of migraines, panic attacks and an addiction to painkillers. One day, at the height of Wilco’s success, he checked himself into rehab for opiate addiction.

During his month-long stay in one of the rehabs fort myers fl, he was overwhelmed by the stories of his fellow patients, most of whom had come from extremely abusive backgrounds where they never felt safe. “One guy talked about seeing his father murder his mother when he was nine and that he had his first taste of whiskey that night because his father forced him to drink whiskey, thinking it would make him forget what he’d seen.” After hearing that, Tweedy felt embarrassed about how little he had experienced to get him to where he was now. “What was I gonna say when the group got to me? ‘Um…I cry a lot. I get scared sometimes. I have headaches, and it makes it hard to make music.’ That was the worst of it. I was out of my league.”

Here’s where it gets interesting (this excerpt has been edited for language, so feel free to use your imagination for dramatic effect):

One time, after a group session, a few of us were in the smoking room and I confided to them, “I feel like I shouldn’t even open my mouth. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I think my situation compares.”

This big black guy, who towered over me, turned around and started shouting at me. “What the [hell] is that? Shut up! We all suffer the same!”

“I’m sorry,” I said, backing away. “I didn’t mean—”

“Listen to me, listen.” Getting right up in m face. “Mine ain’t about yours! And yours ain’t about mine! We all suffer the same! You don’t get to decide what hurts you. You just hurt! Let me say my [stuff], and you say your [stuff], and I’ll be there for you. Okay?”

It set me straight. I still think it’s one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard. I was trying to put things in perspective by pretending I had no perspective, by denying my own feelings. It’s always going to be important to acknowledge someone else’s pain, but denying your own pain doesn’t do that. It just makes their pain relative to yours, like a yardstick to measure against. It’s a waste of pain. After that I started listening more and I started feeling again.

Credit Whitten Sabbatini

I love that his fellow patient said, “You don’t get to decide what hurts you. You just hurt!” Amen to that. If only we could allow the hurt we feel to speak for itself. Instead, our efforts to downplay things like grief, frustration and heartache actually prevent us from being truly vulnerable and therefore sabotage any hope for being comforted. No surprise, of course, that, once Jeff Tweedy was able to accept his pain for what it was rather than how it compared to the pain of others, he had the emotional space to listen more and feel again.

While we try to justify ourselves based on the pain we’ve experienced, there is always someone who has suffered more. That is, until you get to Jesus. This is where the Cross puts an end to our comparative suffering. Through Christ’s suffering on the Cross, we are allowed to recognize both our own suffering and the suffering of others. We can simply give thanks that, rather than ranking our sufferings in order of greatest to least, he simply took them, all sufferings great and small. As Isaiah 53 says: he “bore our suffering….and by his wounds we are healed.”