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A girl who rose from the ashes...and now is trying to make sense of this complicated world through her writing.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Good Doctor

Many years ago, my career took a most unusual turn.  Truth be told, there's been nothing normal about the path my career has taken, and looking back I've been grateful for each and every step on its broken and winding road.  In 2001, about a year after completing my graduate degree, I had the opportunity to apply for a job at Milwaukee County.  It was a job that would assist in the oversight of the publicly funded community-based mental health services, and it was a job I wanted so fiercely I had labeled it "The Job." Against all odds, I got this job, and I was certain I would be there until I retired.  True to Milwaukee County form, however, within about 86 days I was bumped out of my position due to a massive round of layoffs in another department.  I called my brief stint at Milwaukee County my "summer internship."  All kidding aside, I was devastated.

With the help of my new Milwaukee County boss (who is now a long-time, much beloved friend), I made a soft landing in a local non-profit agency serving adults with mental illness.  I'll be honest, I was just grateful to have a job.  Granted, it was a director position and by taking it, I was jumping over a few precursory steps to be adequately prepared for it.  I wasn't climbing the corporate ladder, it seemed, I was leap-frogging it.  I am not sure what people saw in me to give me these chances I hadn't earned, but I knew I could not let them down. Fiercely determined, I had never worked so hard before, nor have I ever since.

About a year into my new gig, I got a lucky break.  Looking back, I'm convinced, however, that luck wasn't involved at all.  It was an aligning of the stars, a moment of kismet, an opportunity that was truly meant to be. Our team's psychiatrist at the time, who was....ahem...hmmmmm...how can I delicately say it...the President of His Own Fan Club....gave us a two week notice that he was leaving.  He had been the doctor for these most vulnerable patients for over seven years, and he gave us a two week notice like he was working at McDonald's.  I spent about 90 seconds being annoyed, because statutorily we were required to have a psychiatrist on the team and two weeks wasn't much time to find a doctor.  After that, I sprung into action.  I knew exactly what I wanted for my team:  The Dr. Vance Baker.  He was the best of the best of the best in this town; everyone knew that.

I remember telling my supervisor that this was my plan.  It was interesting, because this agency I had joined was really struggling at the time.  I characterized it that the whole agency had a self-esteem problem.  My supervisor let out a quick chuckle that admittedly kind of stung, and then realizing I was serious tried to bring me back to reality.  She said, "There's no way Vance Baker would want to work for us."  I set out to prove her wrong.

Now, there were a few things standing in the way of having The Dr. Vance Baker join our team.  One glaring problem was that I didn't know him, I only knew of him.  Second was that he was already employed. Third was that my supervisor was right, our agency was not exactly the premiere agency in town (yet) and why would a rock star want to join this band?  Undeterred, I shut out all the noise.

My tactic was simple:  I was going to reach out to every single person I could think of who was a psychiatrist or who knew a psychiatrist.  I put the word out on the street that I needed a doctor for this team and I needed one yesterday.  That's exactly where the magic began.

About 48 hours into this exercise, my phone rang.  At the other end of the line was none other than The Dr. Vance Baker. Now mind you, I had put it out into the universe that I wanted him on my team, but I had not yet made any efforts to contact him directly.  He said he heard our team was looking for a new psychiatrist and he wondered if we could talk.  We set up a time to meet at a restaurant a day or two later, and I think when I got off the phone I probably squealed like a girl in junior high who just got asked to the dance.  I did not know how or why, but things were taking shape.

When the good doctor and I met up a couple days later, I was nervous as all get out.  I had to convince him of the appeal of building a team with me.  I explained to him my vision for this team and described us as a Phoenix rising out of the ashes.  We talked through some of the job's mechanics - what the job entailed, how many patients were on the caseload, what kind of hours were expected.  Somewhere in the midst of this, Vance said, "What I really want to do someday is retire and just spend my days on my land out west collecting bugs."  To which I exclaimed, barely able to contain myself, "Oh my god!  I am a lepidopterist!" Vance might be the only person I've ever personally met who already knew that meant "one who collects butterflies."  I don't remember a single thing that was said after that.  The deal was done.

What was truly interesting about this whole ordeal was that more than a year prior, Vance had been looking for a way to leave his current outpatient practice and spend more time on his beloved prairie in the western part of the state.  One night, during a fit of insomnia, he realized that if he structured his weeks on a Wednesday-to-Wednesday basis, he could spend a full 7 days on the land, followed with a full 7 days in Milwaukee.  This would allow him to spend more time on his land, and be available to his Milwaukee jobs every single business week.  This newly revised and ingenious plan came to him in the dark of the night, and the following morning he woke up and gave a year's notice at his job.  Funny thing, that year was coming to an end in just a couple of weeks when he got word I was looking for a psychiatrist.  He needed a job, and I needed a miracle.  In the end, we both got what we needed.

I consider the eight years I spent at this agency one of the hallmarks in my career and I am proud of every single thing that team accomplished together.  The secret I don't say out loud very often, however, is that all of the transformation and rising through the ranks as an agency was really only because I did one great thing: I convinced Dr. Vance Baker to join our team.  Never before, and never since, have I been so clinically and philosophically aligned with another person.  We had the same ridiculously high and probably unreasonable standards and the same self-deprecating sense of humor.  We had the same love for the people we serve and the same intolerance for all the things that got in the way of serving them well.  In the end, I could reduce my job to this:  I take care of Vance, and he takes care of this team and our clients.  He taught me and my colleagues all kinds of valuable things:  the importance of honest self-assessment and admitting your mistakes, that helping someone with a mental illness complete a simple task is not in fact enabling them, that our work is riddled with ethical landmines but if you are smart and considerate you can navigate them, and that if you have acid reflux you should put two phone books under the posts at the head of your bed to make it slant so you lay at an angle.  Yep.  He knows a little something about pretty much everything.  He is amazing that way.

Many years passed and over those years, many things changed.  Eventually I was promoted and my duties took me further away from that team.  A couple years after that, the agency merged with another local non-profit and the landscape of my administrative duties took a turn I couldn't reconcile.  After eight glorious years, I felt the pull back to "The Job" I had been bumped out of at Milwaukee County so many years prior. I struggled with the decision, but it was Vance's wisdom that ultimately helped me.  He said, "Look, there are lots of people with mental illness who deserve your help.  It doesn't have to be here."

I left that agency knowing I had given it the very best of me.  I left a little broken-hearted, a little sad, but also a little excited for a new opportunity.  I knew I had done great things and that where I was headed, I would do more.  My colleagues gave me a journal where everyone wrote a page or two expressing their thoughts about our time together.  Vance wrote simply, "We will remain friends, but my career will lament your loss; I suspect permanently."  Just reading that still brings tears to my eyes, because I feel precisely, deeply, in my heart of hearts, the exact same way.

Interestingly, my friendship with the Dr. Vance Baker has only strengthened since I left that job so many years ago.  We email, we talk on the phone, and once or twice a year I make my way westward to his land where we can sit and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk.  But my favorite of all the things we do is a monthly dinner outing we always keep at my request. I always pick the place, and he always picks the time. We almost always end up in a restaurant neither of us have ever tried, and when we get our cocktails we start the night by clinking our glasses:  "Here's to keeping the love alive."  And I have to admit, it is a love that is not just alive, but still growing.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Making Your Bed and Lying In It

"It is better to be alone, than to wish that you were."

These words of wisdom with honest, gritty staying power were shared with me by my former colleague Sandy (may she rest in peace) as I was wading through a path of post-divorce rubble about ten years ago.  They have carried me through days of doubt and angst and loneliness, and in a way, have been a guidepost for my new-but-not-so-new life.  'Tis true, Ms. Sandy, it is better. Thanks to you, I won't forget.

On the heels of "Singles Awareness Day" which is otherwise known as "Valentine's Day," I find it is near impossible to avoid reflecting on my current state.  Sure, I am single and I have been now for a good long while.  And sure, I've grown accustomed to it over the years.  I long ago let go of the fact that I won't be able to wear a dress that buttons up the back (like I ever would) and that there is no division of household labor when you live alone (but guess what, you can hire people to do pretty much anything).  I've settled in and I've found my way, but I've done a whole lot more than that.  Just shy of full-on embracing it, I've acknowledged that I'm really good alone.  Really, really good.

I think part of the reason I'm so good alone is that there is no one here to fuss with.  I have long believed that it is the minutia in a relationship that has the greatest chance of killing it.  People joke about the age-old annoyances of the toilet seat being left up or the toothpaste in the sink, but it's true...if you let these things bother you (and many of us in the human species do) resentment can seep in and create cracks which turn into fissures and then huge, gaping canyons.  It happens all the time, and most people can't find their way back from that.

I heard a story recently that was the greatest and saddest example of this I had heard in a long time.  A friend of a friend of a friend (or something like that) was in a long-term relationship and had been living with her boyfriend for several years.  Recent word had come about that they were breaking up, and then this story was revealed.  More than five years ago, the two had an argument that was reportedly the beginning of the end.  The argument was not about politics or religion or your mom is so rude to me or why did you have to flirt with the waitress like that.  It wasn't even about I can't believe you depleted our savings account at the casino or what do you mean you accidentally slept with your ex-girlfriend.  No, no, no.  The argument was about who was going to put the linens on the bed.

So five years ago, neither of them wants to make the bed and so neither of them does.  Each of them is secretly resenting the other for not making the bed and holding their ground that I will not be the one to make the goddamn bed.  One holds their ground and sleeps on the couch, and the other holds their ground and sleeps in the recliner.  Day after day this goes on and and then before you know it, five years have passed and no one has made the bed and probably no one has had a good night's sleep in half a decade and now here they are breaking up.  And still, to this day, the bed remains unmade. Five years of this!  Unbelievable.

Now, it is pretty clear that the unmade bed is the symptom of the problem and not the actual problem.  I don't even know what the actual problem was, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't it.  In fact, they probably didn't have just one problem, they probably had a whole lot of them.  But what if it really did start right there, with a set of clean linens and a six minute task standing in the way of this couple and their happiness?  The problems had to start somewhere.  Maybe it started there.

And so, my point is this:  Whatever your relationship status is at the moment, you have a choice.  Believe it or not, you can always choose happiness.  If you are alone like me, love the fact that the only mess in the house is yours and that you can have peaceful, joyful solitude every minute you are home.  If you are in a relationship, take stock in the fact that you have someone to ask how your day was and snuggle with you while you watch Dexter.  The truth is that every situation has something that can make your heart sing, and every situation has the potential to incite the screaming in your head.  You get to pick if you feed the singing or the screaming.

There's an old saying:  You made your bed, now you must lie in it.  Or in this case, you didn't make your bed, now you have to sleep uncomfortably in a recliner.  Please, I am begging you, don't be that person.  Be the hero in your relationship.  Or if you are single like me, be the hero in your own life.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

One Happy Memory

It was almost exactly a year ago when I received word through my extended family that my step-mother Jan had been checked into a hospice facility.  Word of this news came to me via email, from my cousin to my uncle and then to me, and within just a couple of hours a second email arrived saying that she had already passed.  When we first received the emails, my sister and I didn't quite know what to say or to do about it.  We hadn't had but maybe two or three instances of contact with Jan in the 16 years since our father had passed.

In the days that followed, my sister and I hopped onto a roller coaster of raw, gut-wrenching emotion.  There was a reason that we hadn't maintained a relationship with Jan, a reason that there had only been those two or three instances of contact in all those years.  Those reasons were safely tucked between my sister and me.  Somewhere along the way, we took a vow of silence and made a deep and unwavering commitment to stay on the high road.  Besides the fact that it seemed to be the most right, most respectful thing to do, we had moved on.  We had each built happy, healthy, passionate lives for ourselves and that was the focus of our energy.

But there's nothing like an impending funeral to get one's buried emotions all stirred up.  The first stage of emotion was indifference.  Oh well, we thought.  I hope she finds peace on the other side.  But then the phone calls started coming in.  Jan's family was reaching out to us, asking us to come to the funeral.  Telling us we were in the will.  Giving us details of her last months and days.  Our peaceful indifference dissipated.

From there we moved on to what could only be described as straight up dilemma.  I pulled up the obituary online.  I was shocked - utterly shocked - that my sister and I were listed as surviving family members in the obituary.  Granted, our names were wrong, with me being listed as Jennifer Swearingen and my sister as Jessica Wiener, but this was just a funny (and sad) marker of how lacking the connection was.  I called my best friend and told her the story, and told her that I hoped when I died, no one would be surprised to see their (wrong) name in my obituary.  It was all very telling.

For the next couple of days, there was a lot of back and forth between me and my sister.  At the outset, I had promised myself that I would follow my sister's lead.  I was 19 years old when Dad and Jan had married and was already moved out of the house, but my sister was only 9.  She had the longest and deepest connection to Jan of the two of us.  I had to let her do whatever was right for her.  Initially Jess took a firm stance:  "We're not going."  Okay, I thought...but I wasn't so sure it was the right answer.

The next day I emailed my sister and I said this:  "Look, I promised myself I would follow your lead.  And I promise you, I will.  But I just have to say this.  It is a little strange to me to be listed in someone's obituary and their will and not go to their funeral.  As I've thought this through, over and over again, it occurred to me that this could be our last act of grace for Jan.  But really, we'd be doing it for our Dad.  The one thing that all three of us had in common was that we loved Dad."

It took a few hours, but Jess wrestled with all of it and responded:  "I don't know if there is a heaven, but if there is, and if by some chance I make my way in, and if when I get there I see Dad, I'd feel pretty small if this was the one thing I did that let him down.  Let's pack our bags and go."

It was actually on the evening of Valentine's Day when my sister and I loaded up the Rav4 and headed south to Iowa.  True to form in times of turmoil, I had a massive stomach ache.  I always carry my stress in my stomach, and this was a whopper.  Jess poked fun at me.  "Why do you have to be such a feeler?  You are such a feeler."  I poked back.  "Why are you always so numb to all of your feelings?  You bury everything so deep."  The words hung in the air for awhile and became a fading echo; we both knew why she had learned to bury her feelings like this.  The why behind it was the reason we were heading to Iowa.

During the four hour car ride, I set out for us to find our happy memories of Jan.  Isn't that what you do when someone passes on?  Well, we had a lot of memories - a lot of them.  There was no question we had experienced joy in the presence of Jan, most notably when our dad and his crazy storytelling was involved.  But we could not recall a time where we experienced joy because of Jan.  When we made it to Rock Island, about 30 minutes from our destination, I turned to Jess and said, "Okay girl, this is it.  We have 30 minutes to come up with one happy memory."  Jess paused for a moment and looked thoughtfully out the window.  She turned back to me and said sweetly, sorrowfully, "I can't."

The following morning Jess and I got up and got ready for the funeral.  This time, both of us had stomach aches.  I'll admit, I was kind of a nervous wreck.  Who would be there?  How would they respond to us?  What kind of emotions would the day bring?  We pulled into the church parking lot, and I paused and gave Jess a fist bump.  "We've got this, kid.  You and me.  Worst case scenario, we go in, no one talks to us, we sit in the back of the church and we quietly leave.  At the end of it, we still have each other, and we did the right thing.  We can do this."

But it wasn't like that at all.  The moment we walked in, a swarm of step-relatives and even one of our own cousins embraced us.  Were we the prodigal daughters?  Perhaps, but in that moment it didn't seem to matter.  As is true with many funerals, there were pictures everywhere.  More than half of the pictures were pictures of our family, of us.  Granted, they were old pictures.  Even so, it was another telling marker.  Jan's life with our dad, which of course included us, was her life.  She loved that man.  Even though she was only married to him for nine years before he passed away, it almost seemed as if her life began when she met him and ended when he died.  Her life was depicted as a time capsule.

Jan's family insisted that we walk in with the family and sit with them during the services, a gesture that was simultaneously sweet and awkward.  The services were very nice, and we were told Jan had chosen several of the scriptures and songs for her own funeral.  There were scriptures about forgiveness and redemption.  There were stories of her acts of kindness to other church members.  Maybe, I thought, just maybe she had grappled with the harsh complexity of our relationship just as we had and tried to reconcile it.  Anything is possible.

After the service, we lined our cars up to make our way to the cemetery for the internment.  Now usually the cemetery would be maybe a half mile away and it will be a slow but quick procession.  Not so on this day.  Unbeknownst to us, we made our way out of the church parking lot and proceeded together, ever so slowly on this bright, brisk February day, about 15 miles to an old country cemetery.  It was situated out on a gravel road between a sea of corn fields and pastures.  Upon arrival, we learned that the cemetery was actually a family cemetery of Jan's family.  There were maybe 50 or 60 people buried there,and they were all linked to Jan.  Her parents, her grandparents, and some of her siblings who preceded her in death.

The wind was brisk and unrelenting, so the graveside service was quick and to the point.  When the services had ended, family members of Jan pointed out graves of their loved ones and the stories that accompanied them.  The stories filled in some of the gaps, explained some of the pain that Jan and her family must have surely felt.  Pain that maybe went unresolved, and as I like to say, came out sideways as a result.  A wave of understanding washed over me.

Another thing that washed over me, standing in that little country graveyard, was I think what they call forgiveness.  Look, I can't sugar coat it.  The relationship we had with Jan wasn't good.  But I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that I was part of that equation.  And there were complicating factors.  Jan married a man who she loved deeply, but who had his own serious health issues.  He also had two grieving daughters who had not gotten over the loss of their mom.  In short, she married a man with an impossible set of circumstances.  On top of that, she had some issues of her own, but maybe, just maybe, that was the byproduct of her own upbringing, her own unresolved pain.  You throw all of this into a big old steaming cauldron, and out comes a bad chemical experiment.

I realized, as I began to reconcile all of this, it doesn't mean that you have to assign "good" or "bad" to anyone.  I think what I realized on that day, more than any other day in my life, is that every one of us, every single one, is made of both good and bad parts.  Things we celebrate, and things we hide.  Joy and pain.  Happiness and sorrow.  Triumph and failure.  We are all, at the end of the day, a mixed bag - no one person necessarily being better in totality than the other.

We enjoyed a dinner back at the church with Jan's relatives and shared a few stories, a few laughs, a few hugs.  We got in the car and acknowledged to each other - this was good.  It was unexpectedly cathartic and healing and good.  The four hour car ride home was quiet, contemplative, exhausted.  But it was also peaceful.  There was no longer a desperate push to find our one happy memory.  We had found it in an old Iowa country graveyard.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Celebrating Your Inner Weirdo

Author's note:  To protect the innocent, all names have been changed in this story.

It can be an intimidating experience to spend the bulk of your time with psychiatrists and psychologists.  This past week I was out at a going away party for Dr. Dom Farding and the place was crawling with shrinks.  For some reason, I kept blurting out unusual facts about myself and it just wouldn't stop.  (Maybe it was the "just add alcohol" component to the evening, but really, I only had two drinks.)

A few of us were hanging out with Dr. Tara Doleman and her two adorable, precocious little girls.  I had asked the girls if I could come over some time and play with their Lite-Brite, and they seemed a little like "Who is this strange lady and why does she want to play with my toys?" but then said I'd have to ask their mom.  At this point, Dr. Bony Brasher joined the conversation and we had a stroll down memory lane about our favorite childhood toys.  Topping the list for me, of course, was Fisher Price Little People.  I noted how sad I was that they had changed the size and shape of Little People, which I had heard was because the old wooden version was exactly the same size as a 2 year-old's trachea.  Dr. Brasher posed the question, "Who was eating them, anyway?"

All of this led to me remembering, and then over-sharing, that as a child I used to chew on Barbie's feet.  In fact, I chewed on them so much that eventually the rod holding Barbie's leg together started to poke out the bottom of her feet.  This caused Dr. Bony Brasher to cast a discerning psychiatric eye in my direction.  You know, the shrink look, the one with an arched eyebrow.  "But...it was a Ballerina Barbie."  I stammered this out in my own defense, as if it somehow added to the acceptability of my Barbie foot chewing behavior. (Fortunately, it wasn't until later that I recalled that my best friend Cindy and I used to pop the eyeballs out of my Sunshine Family dolls for entertainment.  I can only imagine the differential diagnosis Dr. Brasher would do if he knew that.)

All of this got me thinking...the truth of the matter is that we all have an Inner Weirdo.  The only difference is that some of us talk about it, and some of us don't.  But the reality is that everyone, outside of the presence of others, does weird things.  A guy I once worked with was witnessed scraping his tongue with Scotch tape in his office.  Weird?  A little.  But the only really weird thing was that he did it where other people could see him.  Any of us, under the right conditions of tongue funkiness, might do the same thing.  Only privately.

So my point in all of this is that we should all celebrate our Inner Weirdo.  Don't be ashamed!  Don't hide who you are!  Be who you want to be!  Just know that being weird is part of the human condition, and it is part of what makes us more alike than different.  Because in the right set of circumstances, all of us pick our nose, talk to ourselves in the car on the way home from work, lick the last of the ice cream out of the bottom of the bowl, and chew on Barbie's feet.  I guarantee it.

Now go be weird today.  I'm pretty sure I am going to.