My Worst Jobs

After my 1963 high school graduation, I’d worked for nearly a year at Giddings and Lewis Machine Tool in my home town of Fond du Lac, saving hard for my college future. I spent my work day assembling and soldering circuit boards.

Lay-offs due to budget cuts moved my relocation up a few months. I was excited to get to Oshkosh earlier than expected, happy to get away from my family and get started on my life. I began the job search but with no real skills or a work history, I was only able to get assembly-line factory jobs. It was 1964, the summer of my worst job. It was two jobs actually. This was followed by other bad jobs throughout my college years but these were the worst.

The first one was at Standard Coleman, making television tuners. After a few weeks I felt almost crippled from my blisters and stiff hands. For eight hours I had to pull down an electronic nail gun and punch a part into place. I will never forget the loud mouthed cigarette smoking broads who were my companions on the floor. Some had been there for years.

It was an education in real life to hear them complain in the most colorful language I’d ever encountered about the antics of worthless husbands or boyfriends and their hellion children. My own occasional hang overs didn’t help the situation; I was getting a head start, quickly making new friends and becoming acclimated to the wild and carefree college life. The metamorphoses from my work life to my private life was stark.

When I couldn’t stand the assembly line atmosphere anymore I looked for other work and thought the next horrible job would be better. At Miles Kimble, a printing company, I had to watch personalized Christmas cards coming off a printer and inspect them for accuracy and quality. Boring. And again, surrounded by long time employees, unhappy and hopeless.

What followed throughout my college years was a variety of not quite so awful but still dead end jobs. Store clerk. Waitress. Secretary. Work study clerk. These worst jobs taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. The value of a college education.

 

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Never Again

‘I wish I had known sooner that I like being on my own. If I’d figured that out earlier, I probably wouldn’t have gotten married three times”…………..Whoopi Goldberg

 

I tried it twice. I gave it my best. I guess marriage is not for me. Two divorces and my life turned upside down both times. In each circumstance I’d moved to a remote and new location for a man. Oh, it’s so important to have a man. Gotta have a man.

I always said I was a couples person. And on several levels, I was. I liked being in a relationship and having someone to count on, to talk to and do things with. But then there was the other side. Both husbands were self-centered and not very caring, seeming to only look out for themselves.

I will never go back to the slightest chance of living as I did with my two husbands. I wasn’t doing anything wrong though second husband even made a list of my deficiencies. I was just not the right kind of woman for either of them. I never thought I’d compare them but as time has passed I see some of the similarities.

First husband always kept busy with work and I learned to do things on my own. I actually grew to like it and perhaps this is where I developed a value for friendships with other women.

Second husband was the one who I did almost everything with. He didn’t like people very much so it was good for us to pursue his hobbies together. We had fun and traveled a lot. Silly me. I thought we were happy. What bothers me the most is that I must have ignored the clues. We were married for seventeen years. That’s a very long time and the best years of my life were with him.

Husband one was a drinker. And number two wasn’t. That might be the only difference. Both husbands were dishonest, never talking to me about their unhappiness. We probably couldn’t have worked it out but maybe we’d have gotten divorced sooner and not wasted so much time with a going nowhere relationship. I feel kind of stupid for not being aware and then doing something about it. I think about and relive the experiences all the time

I had a significant period of time between husbands, twelve years, and you’d think I’d have realized how nice my single life was.   And it was pretty nice. I became accustomed to doing what I wanted and I had enough friends to keep me busy.

Second husband didn’t like it that I kept in touch with girlfriends. He said that people would think there was something wrong with the marriage if I did things without him. Turns out it was very wise for me to stay connected with girlfriends. They are my life blood.

I’m beyond the age of finding someone else. But what I’ve really decided is that I’m not a good marriage partner. Some friends say that’s not true; that I was just a bad picker. All I know is that I’m never doing that again!

I’m sometimes sad these days. I think that might be the process I’m going through. I was so weary for life when I moved here and had to take some time to get my bearings. I think I just need to do nothing for a while. That makes up for the years I was under so much stress living up north for both of those guys.

 

The Pregnant Chair

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Many years ago, I had a dealer come over to appraise an antique desk I wanted to sell. She was ho hum about the desk in question but instantly interested in a chair she noticed off in the corner, a raggedy, frayed one that had been a part of my childhood and that’s still in my life today.

My mother had given it to me long ago during one of her times of uncluttering.  She insisted she didn’t want to burden her children with that job. At the time, I needed a chair for my small apartment and was glad to have even this tattered one to fill an empty space.

Mom had laughed that this chair was special to her since it was the only place where she could sit comfortably when she was pregnant. Mom had six children so it got plenty of use. She called it the pregnant chair. Now, my whole family calls it the pregnant chair and it’s taken on a personality all its own.

Dad had recovered the chair seat several times, lastly with some ugly blue material that had a plastic quality to it. I’m sure he’d thought that would make it last longer. Unfortunately, he was not an upholsterer so the chair always had a shabby, forlorn look and a perpetual sag. I’d inherited it with the ugly, blue material.

The dealer said the wood was unusual, either black walnut or mahogany. She wasn’t even sure which it was but said these hardwoods had been popular in the early 1900’s. Though durable and beautiful they fell out of favor due to cost and that the wood, though strong, was affected by humidity.

This chair had a beautiful carved back and arms and spindles that connected the legs. Carved completely of the hardwood rather than a veneer, she advised I should never have the wood refinished because that would reduce the chair’s value. Her comments made me look at it with renewed reverence and a new curiosity.

Next time, I asked Mom a few more questions hoping to hear a poignant or funny story about the acquisition of this unusual piece. She waved her hand carelessly saying they’d gotten it at a rummage or garage sale. She knew it had been cheap. She and  Dad didn’t have much money and had furnished their entire house that way. I was well acquainted with my parent’s frugal ways so this wasn’t a surprise.

I dragged that chair to each of my many homes from Upper Michigan, the Milwaukee area, northwoods Wisconsin and finally to Wauwatosa. I had it reupholstered three times because it has a very wide seat; all it needed was that one slightly overweight person to plop into it and it sagged once again. A really good upholsterer finally made it look great.

Once all fixed up, I’d get comments from guests about its beauty and enjoyed the laughs when I told its story. Wanting to complete the tale, I searched all my old photo albums looking for a picture. Not just of the chair but one of my mother actually sitting in the pregnant chair. Optimally, my pregnant mother sitting in the pregnant chair.

Since I was the first child I had a very thick photo album and thought I had the best chance of finding that treasured picture. No luck.  Remember, I was brought up long before the time of I-phones and our current practice of taking pictures of everything including our lunch. Then I asked all my relatives. My five siblings and Mom’s five siblings. Most didn’t even have a recollection of the chair. So again, no luck.

For a while, I even had this crazy idea of hauling it to Mom’s home to take a picture of her sitting in her chair. And now that she’s gone, I sincerely wish I had. Though I have no childhood recollection of Mom sitting in that chair, I vividly recall her bouts of morning sickness that endured throughout each pregnancy.

Much later she surprised and saddened me, admitting she had only wanted two children. Mom’s contrariness to the social mores of the times didn’t make much of an impression when I mentioned this to my youngest sister, fifth in the birth order.

Today, when I look across my living room, I behold Mom, sitting with a cup of coffee, familiar grin and all, snuggled up by the window sitting in the pregnant chair. Her knitting bag is at her feet. Both Mom and the chair were taken for granted, overlooked and sometimes dismissed over the years only to have their value finally appreciated. Better late than never, I’d say.

The arms look worn where the stain has faded. The legs are nicked and scratched. It makes no difference what the chair cost, how unique the materials or how it came to be part of my family. Al I know is that it’s a priceless heirloom to me.

Quitting

When I moved to Wauwatosa, in October 2013, I was filled with angst. I’d retired, gotten divorced and moved all within a short time. Disobeying all the advice articles that said only change 8% of your life at a time, instead I’d changed 92% all at once. No wonder I was off balance.

It wasn’t as though I had a choice. I needed to get out of that small town I’d moved to in order to please a husband. And away from the memories that couldn’t fade fast enough of how I was portrayed as the supervisor from hell in my job at the county social service office. I needed to get started on my new life and leave this dead end place behind. Now!

Once I’d unpacked everything and gotten settled into my one bedroom apartment (that only took two days) I was unhinged. Each day I’d rise early as was my habit throughout my work life, shower and get dressed. Then I’d look around. It’s 8:00am and I have no place to go, no one expecting me or wanting anything from me. I was lost.

Getting to know my way around this unfamiliar town was overwhelming with its winding roads and streets that changed names without warning. So, each day I looked up an address of someplace I wanted to check out. The library. A local coffee shop. Malls and restaurants. I’d put the address into my GPS and begin my trek. The fog began to recede.

The advice articles also said to not overbook yourself so I was hesitant to volunteer though there were opportunities galore. Let’s take this one step at a time. But being used to schedules I decided to build some structure into my life and began to join things. I used my suddenly empty appointment book as a guide. My goal was to enter something, anything each day.

There was a schedule posted and many activities right here in the building; this was one of the things that had attracted me. Privacy and autonomy but also company. I started attending many of these activities with mixed results. Current events was like being on a memory impaired unit of a nursing home. Once was enough. Bingo was just not for me. Saturday night movie put me in a room with a few other residents who slept most of the time.

Each time I’d return to my apartment feeling unsettled so dropped out of most in-house activities. The catered lunches or dinners were a nice exception and perfect since I loved it when someone else did the cooking. I met a couple of like-minded women I could talk and laugh with.

I loved to read so I joined four book groups. I love to write so joined three writing groups. I’d reconnected with several old friends who lived in the area and had plenty of lunch, museum, theater and movie dates. Now after over two years I think I’ve hit my stride. I feel ucky to have so many options.

But then I began feeling frazzled in a different way. Too many opitons. Too much to do. I needed to start saying no. When I quit that first writing group, I felt some anxiety. It was someplace to go and that felt comforting though once I got there I was unsatisfied. Is quitting like failing, like not getting the job done I wondered.

I’d never been a quitter. Once I realized how good it felt there was no stopping me. I quit all but one book group. I’d found that belonging stopped me from getting to the reading I really wanted to do. And so much for my pledge to not volunteer. Once I felt settled a few things dropped into my lap.

I now volunteer at the in-house library shelving new books and sorting magazines. I’m a tutor for third grade students who visit us to read out loud twice a month. Great fun. I’m also on the board of a writing organization. And that’s’ enough.

I facilitate the in-house book discussion once a month and feel okay not usually reading the book. i go to chair yoga at the Y when I can. But mostly I like to stay home these days. I don’t often get dressed until noon unless I have someplace to go. I get up and am on the computer writing my latest post since morning is the most productive time of my day.

When I look ahead to the new week in my appointment book, I know that though it’s empty now it will be full enough soon. I actually like it when there’s nothing in the book. Letting myself quit has been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

So, it’s almost noon as I write this; I think I’ll shower and get dressed so I can decide what to do or not do with the rest of my day.

 

 

Put It In Writing

The magazine article was written by a man who had been hospitalized and was awaiting surgery the next day. He told how his grown son came to the hospital and read a letter he’d written about how important his dad was to him. The son didn’t want to miss perhaps his last chance to tell his father how he felt. Reading the article made me realize I had some unfinished business with my own parents as well.

Being the oldest of six children, I’d had a rather tumultuous relationship with my parents, especially my father.  I felt I’d disappointed them several times by taking a path they didn’t approve of or understand.  Recent remarks made me also realize they still had lingering doubts about their parenting abilities and how they’d handled certain family crises over the years.

With the holidays drawing near it seemed the time was right. Dad and Mom were both in their late 80’s. Mom’s memory was slipping. Dad had had cancer recently and we almost lost him. He’s struggling with macular degeneration and no longer able to read or use the computer. Their time was drawing near and I didn’t want this opportunity to slip away.

First I found a card. Not a holiday card but just a simple card with a quote from Shakespeare: “I can no other answer make but thanks……and ever thanks:”

Then came the hard part, writing what I wanted to say. It’s amazing how we can dance around our feelings especially when raised in a home where feelings were ignored and minimized. Expressing love and hugging were never done in my childhood home. Only in recent years had we done that and still, very little. I was nervous about how this would be received. Just to be sure that I got my point across, I decided I wanted to read it out loud to them just as the son had done in the article.

It took several writings, rewritings, editing and re-editing to be able to deliver my message in the space the card would allow. This worked perfectly and I was happy with the results. Maybe this whole effort was more for me than for them, I speculated. I was already steeling myself for the response or worse, the absence of response it might receive.

We went down to see Mom and Dad on Christmas Eve and, due to other commitments, wouldn’t be able to stay for the big family get together the next day. This evening gave us some private time and they were glad to have the company.

We got there mid-afternoon and had a nice visit. Dad was his old self, trying to steer the conversation to politics every chance he got and we’d just head things in a different direction. It has been an unwritten rule amongst my siblings to simply change the subject since most of us didn’t adhere to his ultra conservative attitudes. We had a light supper and I’d planned to read my note to them sometime that evening.

I was nervous and found my mind running in circles as the meal progressed. Maybe this is a goofy idea I heard myself saying. I changed my mind several times and then realized there would be no better time. It’s now or never! This is how things have always been in my family and I wanted to do it differently! This was important to me no matter what their response would be.

We finished with supper and were just chatting when I said I had something I wanted to give them. I pulled out the card and read it.

Christmas 2005

Dear Mom and Dad,

Time passes so quickly….
And the opportunity to say things slips away…
We’ll do it later…another time, we think….
And then it never happens……
So, I’ve written this card….
To make sure everything I want to say is said
We only get one father and one mother…
Daily, I’m involved with parents
Who disappoint their children
By being weak, incompetent, even absent.
This has made me think…..
And recently I’ve heard myself saying
“I’m glad my parents were strict and had specific rules.
At least I knew what the expectations were.”
No, we haven’t always seen things the same….
Haven’t always agreed …..
But that never stopped you from supporting your kids.
And I look back now with gratitude……
I’m very lucky to have had the parents I have……

My mother is the hardest working person
I’ve ever known…
Case in point: the year I returned to school after
Christmas vacation, wearing a new Mom-made outfit.
Every day for two weeks.

My father is strong and true…
Case in point: the courageous way you’ve managed
Your health/medical adversities and accepted
This unexpected and unwanted circumstance.

Our family is fortunate……
All in all, we’ve had a good life……
Everyone is relatively healthy and happy…
Productive and resourceful…
That didn’t just happen…..
You deserve credit for that…..
I just want you to know
I love you and
Feel fortunate to be your
Number one daughter…..Karin

There was a hush when I finished. Mom smiled, seemed embarrassed and acknowledged it with a nod. My father said nothing and, as is his way, looked over my head and starred.  After a minute of awkward silence, we started to clear the table. I felt relieved. I had done something that was important to me regardless of what anyone else thought.

It would be an understatement to say I was disappointed. I’d opened myself up to them as never before, with no response, even though that was truly what I’d expected. Still there‘s that disenchantment when we’re faced with the reality of what we knew all along.

Later, I noticed my card that had been left on the table was no longer there. Mom put it away, I figured. Maybe they do value what I’ve given them. Maybe not. I’ll never know. All I know is that I’ll never look back years from now and say I wish I’d told them how I felt.

 

Happy…Unhappy

I was happy to be born the oldest of six children and the first grandchild who was treated like a princess by my parents, aunts and grandmother.

I was unhappy to be the oldest of six children who always had to set the good example, take care of the younger kids and give up when there wasn’t enough to go around.

I was unhappy when Dad said “college is a waste for girls.”

I was happy when I went anyway, having a late adolescence, finally free from the surveillance of my policeman father.

I was happy to get married and move to Upper Michigan with my husband and help him start his construction business.

I was unhappy being an interloper in an isolated, rural area where no one would talk to you unless they’d known your family for three generations.

I was unhappy to divorce my Vietnam vet husband who had an obsession for guns and drinking.

I was happy to leave the UP and return to “civilization” and graduate school.

I was happy to get married again then move to Eagle River with my retired husband and start the last job of my career.

I was unhappy to be an interloper again both in my new job and in another isolated, rural small town.

I was unhappy to get divorced and have to start over once again.

I was happy to retire and finally no longer have deadlines, responsibilities and expectations.

I was happy to leave Eagle River and return to “civilization.”

I’m happy to accept what has happened in my life as opportunities and to know I’m doing just fine.

Every Form of Refuge Has Its Price

These haunting lines from the song, “Lyin’ Eyes,” were written and recorded by the Eagle’s in 1975. Don Henley and Glenn Frey say they were at a LA restaurant, Dan Tana’s, when they witnessed a meeting between a man and a woman and made up a scenario of secret love. Putting words to their facial expressions and mannerisms, the song was born.

It was the Eagles second recorded song that tells the story of a young girl who has made decisions that compromised her happiness. Instead of following her heart, she’s married to someone who doesn’t understand or love her. All this for comfort. In her case, her refuge is exacting a steep price.

An internet search shows the wide reaching and universal effect of these lines with links to a multitude of web sites. Yahoo Answers has hundreds of queries asking what these lines mean. The contribution voted as the best says it means “there is no free lunch”. Another says the song creates an allegory for living. Some thought it can apply to the political process. Or it discusses the up and down process of coming to terms with life’s huge questions. Finally, a fan fiction website includes these lines in a Harry Potter story. And on it goes.

This type of creative expression is what all writers will attest to. Stories are everywhere, often in the most mundane or unexpected of places. And who knows what the end result will be. Bob Dylan, long silent on the creative process, in a rare interview said:

“I don’t know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written…. Try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that, and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, you know? It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic. And, you know, I did it. I did it at one time.”

Dylan seems puzzled by the whole process. In Chronicles (Simon and Schuster, 2004) , he further says:

“I can’t say when it occurred to me to write my own songs. I couldn’t have come up with anything comparable or halfway close to the folk song lyrics I was singing to define the way I felt about the world. I guess it happens to you by degrees. You just don’t wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs…..Opportunities may come along for you to convert something — something that exists into something that didn’t yet. That might be the beginning of it. Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain. It’s not like you see songs approaching and invite them in.”

Such profound concepts. Seeing them approaching and inviting them in. Seeing what lies behind the misty curtain. Even that is poetic.  Whatever the process was for Dylan, it’s worked since he’s being studied in college level poetry classes.

Coming from the other end, music can be the inspiration. What story is conjured up when carrying a line of poetry to its unpredictable conclusion? This has little to do with the actual words of a certain Eagles song. Instead, this has become a treatise on the creative process itself.

 

Revenge of the Day Lilly’s

(Cedarburg, WI. 1997)I remember how excited my husband and I were when we finally found our new house, seeing it for the first time in September during the peak of fall colors. The beautiful maple trees had sported the brightest red leaves. The flower beds, their work done for the year, held the browned remnants of summer flowers and looked oh, so promising.

By the time we’d moved in it was November, so not much could be done with the wonderful yard I’d instantly fallen in love with. What especially interested me was a rock garden on one side of the yard. It was approximately four feet wide and covered about forty feet along the property line. The beautiful rock formations divided it into small beds. I began to dream about the lovely perennials and bulbs that would soon make their home there. I settled down as patiently as possible to wait for spring.

By the time the grass sprouted and buds began to appear, I’d had ample time to study the bulb and plant catalogs and get myself really excited. Trying to be sensible, I’d decided to sit back and see what came up before making any monumental changes. On the suggestion of a friend, I’d drawn a garden map and planned to enter the names of all the plants and flowers I could identify as they appeared. Such optimism!

I’d gotten into the habit of asking my next door neighbor, Mary all my questions about the town, the neighborhood, the house, and of course the garden. She told me the former owner had been, by her own admission, not a gardener, so planted things needing little care.

But as the growing season began, I sensed trouble. Clumps of green foliage that looked like overgrown weeds came up and kept coming up, then seemed to take over the whole garden. I hesitated to pull anything out before I knew for sure what it was. You guessed it, I turned to Mary.

She said those green weed-like plants were day lilies and according to her, they had been there as long as she could remember. I made a mental note that Mary had lived next door for over twenty years and the former owner had lived in our house for forty-five years. Could the day lilies have been there that long?      Mary explained that every year after they blossomed, the owner would cut the plants to the ground, then just let them come up the next year. I was beginning to grasp the implications of what was ahead.

By mid-summer, the day lilies blossomed and for a few weeks they did look nice. But the small number of flowers, considering the amount of foliage, said root-bound to me. The orange flowers were tall and regal as they blossomed and then there was nothing but green weeds growing everywhere! They must go, I decided, no matter what it takes.

I got out my spade and shovel and started digging. The clumps of dirt were huge, some made up of, what seemed like, hundreds of bulbs. The bulbs were tightly interwoven and hung together so stubbornly, it took hours just to loosen a clump and pull it out of the soil. For many weeks, each night after work I’d change into gardening clothes and spend an hour or so digging day lilies. On many week-ends, I devoted an entire day to digging day lilies. The men at the city compost knew me well as I pulled up almost every Saturday to drop off my “garden debris.” I dreamt about day lilies. I began to hate the sound of the words, “day lilies.”

What was worse, a week or two after they’d been dug out, the bulbs I’d missed sprouted new growth. They were rejuvenating themselves before my eyes. I began to think they were real, like something from a horror movie, determined to take over my life. Scenes from the latest Stephen King movie, Revenge of the Day Lilies, played out in my dreams.  The long slender green leaves and the bulbs, like slimy phantoms, would rise up from the day lily patch and terrorize the determined but uninformed gardener. She’d be obsessed, digging relentlessly, pulling bulbs and roots out as they seemed to fight her to the death.

I was told by the most pessimistic or maybe realistic gardeners, that they will come back, that I surely hadn’t gotten them all. One helpful neighbor gleefully told me, now that I’d dug out so many, the ones that were left would have the room to grow and blossom.

“Expect more than ever next year,” she informed me. “Maybe when they come up, they’ll be so pretty you will enjoy them.” That made my day!

By the end of September, I’d finished “the dig,” or at least finished as much as I could. I’d become more sensible, dividing the garden into work areas. This year I will tackle the middle area. The area farthest from the house will have to wait another year.

After three years of relentless digging, I’d decided this was the last year I’d plant marigolds from seed and watch them come up only to be crowded out by long, pointed leaves. Other gardeners assured me I needed to get tough. So, next fall I’d use weed killer on the entire area. Then the following spring, I could start from scratch and build my dream garden. I just hope I don’t appear in a Stephen King sequel: Revenge of the Day Lilies, Part II!

 

What Goes Around Comes Around

Everyone knows what the phrase “what goes around comes around” means. It usually involves that arrogant manager or that disloyal friend and our gratification when they finally get what’s coming to them. While we don’t often have the pleasure of seeing it come around, we know in our heart, sooner or later, it does.

I adjusted that phrase when I heard some good news and applied it to how an old idea can come around again in a good way. Maybe that’s the case of Michael Botticelli, recently named but not yet approved by Congress as Director of National Drug Control Policy.

He doesn’t want to be called a drug czar because that harkens back to the decades old War on Drugs and Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No program. That didn’t work, he says, and should be declared over. But he points out, we as a country cannot continue to crowd our jails and prisons with low level drug offenders; their lives are ruined with heavy convictions that make it near impossible for them to get a job, rent an apartment or even vote in the future.

Maybe the combination of over-crowded, expensive prisons and the fact that heroin abuse has reached epidemic proportions, invading all stratospheres of society will make us finally consider another approach. In the long run money spent on treatment and in helping offenders take a new path in life would be more cost effective. At the risk of being labeled a soft hearted liberal I agree with Botticelli and am reminded of my past working in the addiction field.

The recent 60 Minutes segment on Botticelli transported me back to 1983 when I worked in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The small hospital housed an AODA (alcohol and other drug addiction) inpatient program using the 12 step model of Alcoholics Anonymous. That was the good old days when drug and alcohol use was considered a disease. At least, the recovering community called it a disease though this concept was denigrated by the general public. Most recently, this has fallen by the wayside as we’ve ramped up the punishment of drug offenders. Substance abusers are now seen only as criminals. And yes, they’ve broken laws but there is much more to the story.

I also say the good old days because back then the treatment community was such a closed network. In order to become an AODA counselor all that was necessary was to have gone through treatment (30 days inpatient) and to be recovering and working a program. I had done neither but fell into the job when my limited hospital social work duties left me time to be helpful in the treatment program. But I was surrounded by suspicion because I didn’t stand up and say I was an alcoholic or an addict and I was the only staff with a college degree.

Daily, I co-facilitated group therapy, beginning with each group member introducing and labeling themselves. Hi. My name is Mary and I’m an alcoholic. Naming it was a necessary way to beat denial. One day, someone asked why I didn’t follow suit. I explained my non-recovering status and then lightened it up with a joke: Hi I’m Karin. I’m a paranoid schizophrenic with narcissist tendencies. We all laughed, I was accepted and we got back to business.

Staff always had lunch together and one day the Medical Director joined us. During our shop talk he said he thought everyone should be abstaining from something. This was the basis of AA, he said. I knew he was speaking specifically to me. I was young and cocky back then and jokingly said I was abstaining from being rich. My comment was not appreciated.

This MD was of the school that believed once you stop drinking all the other problems are fixed too. I’m from the school of co-morbidity, the simultaneous presence of two conditions in the same person. That’s addiction joined with the mental health and just plain difficult life issues that originally led a person to find comfort in drugs and alcohol. For true recovery, it all needs to be addressed.

I’d become friends with one of the counselors who seemed to have some loyalty concerns. She almost guiltily told me I was her first and only non-recovering friend. She also felt she was betraying someone or something by considering any treatment other than AA meetings. But from our many hours of case consultation following group therapy she began to see the connection between addiction and mental health. And also the complexity of changing every aspect of life in recovery.

I came away from that long ago experience with a good understanding of addiction and a respect for the Twelve Step philosophy. Addiction is a chronic illness and needs to be treated as such and that’s hard in our cure oriented world. So, it was with relief I heard the news from Botticelli, backed up by scientific studies that prove how drugs affect the brain. The science supports that addiction needs to be treated not as a criminal matter but as the public health issue that it is.

This is currently close to me since I have a friend whose child is struggling with addiction. After being in and out of jail, my friend’s young adult child has been given the choice of jail time or intensive treatment. This makes me hopeful. Perhaps Botticelli, in AA himself for over twenty years, can return us to sensible and effective results. But will taxpayers and legislators support money spent on long term benefits over short term solutions?

Two weeks later, 60 Minutes read their viewer’s responses to the program. Comments ranged from simplistic to negative. Maybe what goes around hasn’t really come around after all. It’s one thing to have these innovative ideas but quite another to carry them through with our contentious legislature and a doubtful public. I wish Mr. Botticelli my very best. He’s going to need it!

Taking a Ride

Never, in my seventy years have I ever before been transported anywhere, lights flashing, in an ambulance. And it’s been twenty-seven years since I’ve been inpatient at a hospital. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2015, my medical history changed. My perspective also when my comfortable role as a professional provider of medical and social services was flipped to that of a vulnerable patient.

Asthma, exacerbated by a more than two week cold that had worn me down, collided with sudden nausea, hot/cold feelings and faintness alerting me to real trouble. Feeling I was going to pass out was scary. What if I do and no one knows what’s happened to me? How long before I’m missed? The down side of living alone slapped me in the face.

The wheezing made it official. I pulled the emergency buzzer in my apartment building and the night manager showed up to make the call. Before I knew it there was a gurney in the hallway.

Four young and buff, competent and polite men in their starched and pressed black uniforms sporting Wauwatosa Fire Department shoulder badges (and nice tattoos too!) guided me to the gurney and out the door.  The fact that I have such a sharp memory of the pampering of these handsome young men proves I wasn’t as close to dying as it seemed at that moment.

The blur of getting to the hospital was marked with IV insertion, oxygen placement and symptom questions before we even left the driveway. Calling me by name and letting me know we were three minutes out from the hospital was relieving as a gasped for air. Once there, the gurney careened down multiple corridors, past glassed-in computer stations. No one even looked up as I slid on by. Just another day at the office for them.

Once in an ER cubicle, a flurry of people buzzed around at lightning speed, each completing their small tasks before being replaced by the next contingent. They were calm and I was becoming so. It wasn’t until the rush was over and I was stabilized, waiting to see the doctor that I took stock of my situation.

In an out-of-body kind of way, I looked down at myself. I was in my stocking feet and pajamas. I had no shoes, no coat, no purse, no keys. How could they even know who I was? As I was pondering my predicament, a clerk wheeled her mobile desk in to ask for demographics and wasn’t at all fazed that I had no paperwork. In fact, I went through this whole experience never showing ID or an insurance card. I was a patient in the health care system that, in the jargon of the day, was my medical home.

But what if I’d been unconscious? How would they have figured out who I was? I recall in the ambulance they asked my name and birth date then probably checked the great goggle in the sky to find me in the system. I never thought I’d be so happy to have no privacy.

I mentioned to the clerk that I had no stuff and needed to call my niece; since I had no number she quickly looked it up on the internet. Luckily my niece was still so old fashioned to have a land line that was listed. And to pick up the call on the second ring! Within minutes I felt real again, like I’d become myself once I’d talked to someone who really knew who I was.

Expecting to be tuned up and sent home, it was surprising how quickly the doctor decided I’d stay the night to prevent relapse. Transport to a hospital room led to a less urgent but still relentless flurry of technicians poking and prodding in their specialized way. I teased my nurse, Tom how unimportant he was since he had to defer to three different techs before he could finally complete my nursing assessment.

But part of his activity was the best news. Creature comforts. The TV schedule and the menu. These days you order from a three page printed menu and your meal is delivered in forty five minutes. Just like a restaurant; anything, anytime from early morning to evening.

In both ER and hospital I was “dear”  “honey” or called by my name throughout. I felt like Michelle Obama. Each tech wheeled in their mobile cart, performed their test then entered results into the main computer sitting at my feet before hurrying off to their next patient.

Gone are the days of paper charts. No more entering notes at the end of a shift.  No searching. Where is the chart? Who has the chart? One tech could now see what the previous one had done a mere five minutes earlier. Never speak to me again about how impersonal it is that your health care providers are on-line, checking their computer screen throughout your visit.

All in all, I saw two respiratory therapists, two pharmacists, three phlebotomists, multiple nurses, medical assistants, nurse practitioners and an EKG operator. My symptoms could have been signs of a heart attack, I was told later; so I was on a heart monitor throughout the night. Turns out my heart is in fine shape. Good to know.

On three different occasions, for three separate reasons, someone approached with their mobile cart and draped over their arm were many long cords with clips on the ends. They’d pull taped squares off a card and tape them all over my body, then attach the clips to the taped squares on one end and to a machine on the other end. Once home, I’d spend days randomly pulling these little taped squares from an arm or leg.

Finally, the next day, a doctor showed up with a medical student in tow. After our long talk she revealed that she and the medical student had discussed me at length before coming into the room; she’d  been pretty sure she’d keep me one more day but changed her mind when seeing how well I was doing. I was happy to call for my ride home.

The discharge ritual was almost as complicated as the admission. Unhooking all the bells and whistles and seeing each necessary technician for discharge orders. Finally, wheel chair transport from bed to car. Some things haven’t changed. Now all I have to do is make some sense of the whole thing.

While my observations as an insider of the medical system may be unique, this experience has left me feeling human and vulnerable. I love academic medicine and feel so lucky to be connected to such a highly skilled medical system.  But this was a stark reminder that I’m not a young thing who can easily bounce back.

And perhaps that’s the biggest lesson. No one is immune. And while I was happy to get home I still recall how the whole experience was so fast and slow at the same time and the vulnerable feeling is fading but not forgotten.

Probably the hardest part was to accept that I’ve reached an age where my days of seeing my doctor for once a year check-up and thinking no more about it are gone. I have to do my part. So, I’m eating better, exercising more, hydrating and getting enough sleep. While I love that memory of those four young men fussing over me, I’m going to do everything I can to avoid another ride.

 

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