Rolling with the Punches: How Pain Becomes Hope

Trey Sutten, CEO — November 11, 2021 — 3 min read
*This story contains descriptions of violence, which may be upsetting to some.

The morning before Halloween, I was in Washington, D.C. and decided to grab a cup of coffee. The coffee shop was only two blocks away, the sun was shining, and—for the first time in a long time—I felt great.

I wasn’t even a block from the house when I saw a couple stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. They seemed tense, and just ahead I saw a man, early 30s, staring them down and bouncing on his toes, fists up like a boxer. He was shouting something, but his words were garbled.

Combined, the man and woman probably weighed as much as me. I’m also six foot one and have been in my fair share of scraps. So, I called out to distract him away from the couple and walked toward the group.   He glanced up, and the couple took their chance to get out of there.

The man approached me and dropped his fists, getting so close that he nearly touched my nose. I could see the dirt on his face and deep knots in his hair. He wasn’t dressed for the cold, nor did his clothes appear clean. He looked like he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in years.

The stare-down only lasted a few seconds. Then, without a sound, he jerked back his arm and punched me.

I’ve been punched before, but this guy had quick hands. It was a nice clean jab. Good placement, too, right along my left cheekbone. The hit was enough to turn my face, and by the time I looked back he was sprinting down the street. So much for a great morning.

Maybe it was the shock of it all, but I didn’t feel much at first. Just indifference and confusion. That was weird, I thought as I headed back to the house. But then I felt something trickling down my cheek. I touched my face and looked down to see blood. He had split my skin open. Like I said: good placement.

That’s when the anger set in. I was angry that it happened, that I’d likely need stitches (I did), and that I didn’t run after him. Part of me wished I had run the guy down and returned the favor. But I instead decided to call the police. I didn’t want this guy going out and punching anyone else in the neighborhood.

“You’d be surprised,” one of the officers said after taking my statement. “This happens more often than expected. A lot of the people we deal with are having some type of mental health issue.”

There it was. The officer’s words struck me like the guy’s fist. My anger shifted into empathy. I thought back to who I am, what I believe, and the challenges our members face. It was a painful reminder that we—our systems, our communities, our country—have got do a better job taking care of folks who are struggling.

It’s no secret that the past two years have been tough for everyone. It’s been one crisis after another: unemployment, illness, isolation, injustice, and loss. However, these times have also been transformative. I can see how the pain has turned complacency into passion and passion into action.

We’re changing. We’re getting better.

These officers weren’t talking about the guy like he was a criminal. And their awareness of mental health helped me remember why I love my job and why I am proud of what the Cardinal team has done over the past 30 years.

I, both personally and professionally, have had to roll with a lot of punches these days. I’ve tried to take every blow, fight my frustration, and find the silver lining. Of course, I’d rather not have had my morning cut short with a literal assault, a trip to urgent care, and five stitches. But I’m sure that man was hurting just as much—if not more.

Although I’m still struggling with waves of anger (I’m only human), I know I can and should work those feelings out with someone. I also know how fortunate I am that I have access to help when I need it.

So, I share this story as a message of both hope and pain: hope in the progress we’ve made and pain for what’s left to be done. The path to mental health equity is a long one. It won’t be easy work. But I have faith that as a country we can do that work together.
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