Black & Blue

When I was 15, a friend and I took the regional bus from about 60 miles north of San Francisco to the middle of San Francisco. If you’re at all familiar with the Bay Area, you know that anything along a that particular 60 mile half-radius is bound to be suburbs. Charming, track-housed, quiet, and very, very white suburbs.

I was myself a very, very white suburbanite (or the child of two), and though my friend appeared to be “exotic”, it was clear she didn’t hail from the barrio. Our clothing, our speech and mannerisms, our very cluelessness were strong indicators that we did not belong in the pre-gentrified Mission District of San Francisco in the early 90s.

We were there by accident. I mean, we were in San Francisco on purpose, but we weren’t supposed to get off the bus there. A responsible adult was waiting for us at the bus station a few stops away. But did I mention our cluelessness? So, there we were – two suburban girls with backpacks, wandering around looking scared and confused in a complicated part of town. But we didn’t want to call home (on a payphone, because early 1990s) because that would be admitting that we weren’t quite as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as we pretended to be when securing permission to make this trip in the first place. So we asked a cop in a patrol car where the heck we were, and how to get where we were going.

It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly what was said. I doubt we were very coherent, or that the officer was intentionally dodgy, but the result of that short conversation was that the cop in the car negligently waved us in a direction that was away from him.

I was horrified. I don’t mean I was scared (although I was intimidated by our circumstances), I mean I was filled with righteous indignation that this Officer of the Law didn’t immediately drop everything to personally escort us to safety. Clearly, I was operating on the Sesame Street model of law enforcement. Setting aside for a moment the wisdom of two and a half intervening decades, why was I so certain that a police officer would help me?

Because, quite simply, I’d grown up believing that. I’m only being slightly facetious when I call it the Sesame Street model. From the time I was old enough to toddle, my family, teachers, tv shows and books had shown me, either explicitly or by example, that cops were friendly, helpful authority figures who would protect me. Lost? Find a cop. Scared? Find a cop. Dropped your ice cream cone? Okay, so that one wasn’t taught to me, but it’s not a stretch for a good little girl to make that connection. And who would nay-say me? All my friends lived in my community, looked like me, watched the same tv shows and read the same books I did.

So, to have my expectations so rudely quashed by the heedless attitude of a real life cop was an affront to my worldview. And because I was a well-behaved, middle class, white girl, I was certain that my world view was the Correct and Authentic One(TM).

And that is the extent of my bad experience with law enforcement in America.

Cut to 25 years later. In the space of days two men were violently put down by law enforcement officers at opposite ends of the country. I could say “murdered” but that’s a term we apply to victims, and of course, the narrative of well-behaved, middle class, white America refuses to identify black bodies as victims.

I find it difficult to know what to say to that. I am implicitly a part of that narrative, even when I explicitly speak out against it. The violence done to black and brown people in this country is not for me to publicly be outraged about – it’s not my lived experience and it’s not my voice that should be heard. At the same time, People of Color have been screaming their outrage since the founding of this country and nobody is fucking listening. When the first thing out of the mouths of people who would never consider themselves racist is, “We should wait until all the facts are in,” instead of “Why the hell are our cops killing citizens??” – we know that we live in a racist society. When more outrage is expressed by white America over cops killing dogs than cops killing people, what could I possibly say to make them see the truth? And yet, as a white American, it is incumbent upon me to speak out to other white Americans, and keep speaking out – even though it’s not my voice they should be listening to.

There are important conversations to be had about the militarization of our domestic police force, about the culture of toxic masculinity that pervades institutions of authority, about the actual risk-to-benefit ratio of concealed carry and open carry gun laws. Predictably, they will all take precedence over the more necessary conversation about our racist society. Predictably, they will overshadow the tragic statistics showing how people of color are targeted by law enforcement at staggeringly disproportionate rates to whites. Predictably – because it happens every damn time.

It happens because I survived my “bad” encounter with a cop. That’s what it boils down to: I, and the people who look like me, are not really affected by police violence against people of color. When I log off my computer at the end of the day, I will go to bed safe in the knowledge that I’m actually safe. That if I need to call law enforcement in the middle of the night, they will come to my rescue, not blame me for my victimization. That the odds of my white teenage daughter surviving a routine traffic stop unscathed are astronomically greater than a same-aged black youth. I can choose to look away, I can choose to not say anything. I did make that choice, for a long time. But to paraphrase a man who would know, I don’t want to be the only one left standing when it finally does affect me.

We can’t pretend this isn’t happening. We can’t carry around a bottomless bucket of sand to bury our heads in. Our friends, neighbors, countrymen are dying and if we’re silent, we’re complicit. Speak. But more importantly, listen.

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An Open Letter to My New Primary Care Manager

It was busy the day I met you. You were the only nurse practitioner in the office that day, and I was trying to fit in an appointment in my own busy schedule. Since this was a disadvantage to both of us, it sort of cancels out. I only mention it because it may have had an influence on your approach.

I didn’t choose you, but you undoubtedly knew that. I was assigned to you because my own doctor left the practice. Such is the nature of our health care system. Due to a confluence of scheduling issues and timing on my prescriptions, I was forced to take a next-day appointment, squeezed in among patients who were able to make their own appointments well in advance, as well as acute care patients with urgent medical needs. Not an ideal situation, but the best I could do to take responsibility for my own health care.

The intake nurse was pushy and condescending. She told me to get an eye appointment because I was -“Don’t throw your purse at me” – 40, as though she was delivering unexpectedly bad news to a toddler. I tried not to take it personally, though her attitude did set my teeth on edge. I know nurses and medical assistants at that level are over-worked and underpaid, and I’m sure she thought her advice was medically sound, so I made a concerted effort to forgive her thoughtless and trite delivery. After taking my vitals and checking off the list of meds I was asking to be refilled, she left and I waited for you.

It wasn’t a long wait, but sadly, that’s the best I can say about our time together.

After introducing yourself, you sat down across from me and began telling me that the prescriptions I was taking were ineffective for the symptoms I was taking them for. That threw me back. Is this guy for real?? was my thought, but even had I wanted to voice it, you didn’t give me a chance before moving on to your next item of business, which was to tell me that at least two of my medications were narcotics and carried very high risk factors for addiction. You spent the next four minutes lecturing me about my medications, telling me how you wouldn’t have prescribed them yourself, how ineffective and risky they were, how I wasn’t taking them properly, and how the way YOU practice medicine is to establish a “partnership” with your patients. I confess that the rest of the four minutes is now lost to my memory, but you did repeat yourself a lot so I doubt I missed much.

Tell me, sir – what kind of “partnership” is it when one person does all the talking, lecturing, and condescending while the other person is held hostage to the first’s profession? But let’s set that aside for a moment while we deal with the facts that were missing in your extremely one-sided “discussion”.

Had you bothered to ask me how I was coping with my symptoms, I would have told you that in the six weeks I’d been taking these particular medications, my quality of life had improved immensely. That I was relieved and calm for the first time in almost a year, and that in addition to the lifestyle changes I had implemented, I felt that my symptoms were finally manageable. Then, I could have told you that I spent no less than 12 years as a pharmacy technician, so I am well aware of what the medications I am taking are for, their dangers and inefficiencies as well as their success rates. Perhaps I would have lectured YOU for telling me that an anxiolytic, particularly a seratonin receptor agonist, isn’t effective for anxiety, or that the particular norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor I take isn’t effective for depression. I could have told you that when I was in my previous doctor’s office, suffering from sleep-deprivation-induced psychosis, near constant panic attacks, and had to use nicotine as a self-medicating aid, she rightfully concluded that the best medications for me would address all my symptoms and have the fewest number of adverse affects.

Maybe that would have slowed you down for half a second, and I could have reiterated that one of the narcotics you referenced was NOT part of my refill request, as that had been a short term medication only, and the other one was a rescue prescription that I only used for emergencies. Instead of freaking out that I was trying to hoard benzodiazepenes and telling me that I was abusing it, you could have asked how often I was taking it. Then I could have told you I still had over half my original pills in the bottle, but as it is highly effective as a rescue rx, I didn’t want to run the risk of not having any while I was without a provider for 30 days (or longer, since it’s not unusual to wait even longer for a non-emergent appointment).

I doubt we would have had time to go into why I needed these drugs in the first place, what my medical and psychological history was, but at the very least you could have asked me what lifestyle changes I was implementing before jumping to the conclusion that I was ignorant about my own health care. Literally asking a simple question was the very least you could do, and you failed to do it. If I am very generous, I could allow that your intention is to practice medicine in a reciprocal way with your patients, but I can assure you that was not the end result of our visit.

After listening to my lungs and heart, and grudgingly allowing my prescriptions to be refilled (after referring me to the wrong pharmacy, by the way), you finally asked if I was seeing a behavioral health provider, which I affirmed. Then you had the unmitigated gall to tell me “You rock!” and shake my hand while patting my back, not unlike one would do to a Little League player who just hit a single.

As a woman and as an American, I have a long history of receiving inefficient and belittling “health care”. Of being told that I don’t understand my own body, that I am generally ignorant about matters of health, and/or that I am deliberately misrepresenting my symptoms. You managed to hit all three, and even at “don’t throw your purse at me” 40, I’m honestly surprised enough to almost congratulate you. But having had an insider’s look at our health care system, and having a spine made of stiffer stuff than a wet noodle, I won’t. Instead, I am holding you accountable for your actions, and seeking a provider who will put into actual practice the idea of a health partnership. Someone with at least a basic understanding that such a partnership entails two-sided conversations, and a modicum of sensitivity to a petitioner of health care. You appear to be capable of neither. I was told that you are retiring from the first phase of your career while you transition to the second. Perhaps that is something you could work on.

Most Sincerely,

Your Former Patient.

Empty Spaces

I’ve been thinking lately about spaces.

Safe spaces, community spaces, spaces between words and thoughts. How loss leaves spaces there are no guidebooks for navigating. Many, many people are dealing with that in the wake of the Orlando massacre, and my heart breaks for them.

Before I asked my husband to leave our shared space, I was desperate for him not to. I was terrified of the emptiness he’d leave behind. Then, when I was full to the brim with the kind of terror that comes from watching your most trusted and loved partner turn on you, I was desperate for space away from that. All I wanted was the time, distance and silence of the emptiness he left behind. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Reclaiming my spaces is a slow process. Physically, it’s a lot of cleaning, which is not very romantic or literary. Virginia Woolf managed to make claiming your physical space sound lofty and appealing, but for me, it’s been about scrubbing grout. It’s been about getting on my knees and confronting the filthiest spaces I can find. It’s been about punishment and hard work and the basic labor of managing “stuff”. Some people burn sage, I organize. Part of that is because I need my physical space orderly and clean before I can confront my mental spaces. Part of it is procrastination so I don’t have to. In either case, though, it’s satisfying in its own way.

Mental spaces are harder to define. I am alternately hiding or lost in mine. Desperate or peaceful. Reclaiming that space, however, is not as simple as boxing up a lot of old crap to donate. No one wants the clutter in my mind. I’ve been relearning loneliness, and dwelling in my own space alone. Not necessarily the same thing, are they? The empty space in my head has been both a yawning cavern and a cozy nook, and it can’t really pick one and stick with it for any length of time. Two weeks ago, I hid in my bathtub because the empty space threatened to swallow me up. I don’t mean I took a bath. I mean I crawled into my empty bathtub, fully clothed in the dark and sobbed and screamed into a pillow because the emptiness that I had so longed for became an unmanageable monster that was going to destroy me.

It didn’t. That I know of, anyway. I may have lost something in that tub – I think it might’ve been my dignity.

Shortly thereafter, I disappeared from my online spaces – those intangible light screens that bring us together and divide us so efficiently – because the cozy nook of empty space was back. The monster was tamed, or maybe it was me tamed and completely in its thrall. I pulled my empty space around me like a cloak and dwelt in the silence happily. Until it became stifling and scary and vast and implacable once again.

How does one reclaim a space that refuses to be defined?

It’s hard to live like this. Harder still for the people whose loves, color, bank accounts, or beliefs force them to exist in these undefined spaces every day. People who’s spaces are overtaken by hateful rhetoric, or even just ignorant words. I have emptiness in my head and in my home, but it’s private if I choose to keep it that way. I’m thinking now of those people who must learn to exist constantly in the emptiness because their countrymen, neighbors, relatives and representatives demand they be set apart. Because when they fill their emptiness with anger, they’re told to be “respectful”. When they fill it with love, they’re murdered.

I wonder if they are alternately lost or hiding. I wonder how they will reclaim their violated spaces.

I wonder if I’ll ever feel full again, and if I even deserve to when so many around me struggle with their imposed emptiness. Join me in my tub, maybe? We can scream and sob together, watch our dignity slide down the drain, and find, like Pandora, hope in the emptiness.

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Dissolution of snacks.

When you walk around sad all the time, you forget that sadness can still sneak up and knock you over the head with a 50 pound bag of concrete.

Like today, standing in the middle of grocery store, feeling my breath come short and light because suddenly it occurs to me that I don’t know what to buy anymore.

How can I even explain that? I’m standing there in the chips aisle and I don’t have to buy the same bag of tortilla chips I’ve been buying for 11 years. I just stood there, staring stupidly at an entire aisle of snacks and my head starts spinning.  If I don’t buy the chips, what am I doing here?

I can’t help but feel that’s some sort of metaphor for my life right now.

Or how about the sadness that creeps in when I’m sitting alone in my house in the evening, wondering why the quiet feels so oppressive when that’s all I’ve wanted for so long?

Divorce is so weird. One emotion tied to it’s polar opposite so inextricably, so violently that relief tumbles after anger followed by guilt and chased by grief and finally, at the very end, is the faintest echo of a love that used to consume me. And then it starts all over again.

Strange moments of tumult, buffeting me as I make my way from one day to the next. There’s no collar to flip up against the storm inside of me. Just a compass, and a whole lot of stubbornness.

 

On want.

I can’t go back and re-feel what’s come before. It’s just not a habit I’m acquainted with. I can’t feel the shock and numbness, damn it, or the fresh loneliness, or the bitter betrayal. What’s settled in, though, is the flinching wariness, the suspicion, and the constant, entrenched anger. Occasionally, the sadness creeps through. Desperate, engulfing sadness that my husband is gone. Irretrievably, unconditionally gone.

I need to tell you something, oh vast and empty Internet. I need to tell you how I loved him. From the time I was four years old, I only wanted him. I cherished every second with his family. Summers spent at baseball games and in the pool. Kindnesses shown me in the simplest of actions – like showing me his record collection when the “grown-ups” got to talking about boring stuff. Getting my triple-A baseball program signed by players he knew by first name. Passing by his neighborhood, knowing he wasn’t there and looking for him all the same. The time we made out as teenagers on a New Year’s Eve. Or the long, heartfelt conversations over miles and hours apart. The way his marvelously huge hands would cover my naked body and the taste of him after midnight. The way I could lean into his side on the couch and count on his arm coming around me. The way he loved my daughter.

All that is gone. In its place are creeping in all the times I overlooked a mis-remembered anecdote, or a story that wasn’t quite right. A lie that I chose to move past without really resolving. A nagging doubt that I couldn’t quite face. Omissions, excuses, niggling little bad habits… they were there all along, and they’re creeping forward like pestilence, poised to overtake my immunity to fault.

I hoped, Internet. I hoped, because I wanted to believe that hope was worthwhile. I wanted to believe that trust was valid. I believe my exact words were, “You have to decide to trust someone, before they can earn it.” If they ever invent a time machine, I’m going back to slap myself, hard, right in the face. It would hurt less than this.

I loved someone for my whole life who never deserved it. Who definitely never loved me back in the same way. I don’t know how to live with that. I don’t know what to do with the betrayal that I perpetrated on myself. On my daughter. The reckoning is approaching, and I am woefully unprepared to face it. I wasted over 30 years of passionate, devoted love on someone who threw it away. How does anyone make peace with that?

I keep thinking that he can’t hurt me anymore, and I’m probably right. But the wounds I’m finding now were inflicted by me, by my own heart. I did this to myself because I wanted.

The love of my life is gone. But the want remains. And I have to just live with it.

Turning a corner.

I’m bone tired.

I never really knew what that meant, before. Super-duper tired? Really need that nap? No. That’s not what that means.

Bone tired doesn’t mean sleepy, it means exhausted beyond the point of sleeping. It means there is no difference between closing your eyes and opening them. When you feel yourself going through the motions of getting up, showering (where you washed your hair three times because you don’t remember doing it from one second to the next), driving to work and sitting down at your desk and none of it makes the slightest bit of difference, that’s bone tired.

When you have been fighting your mind and body so long that you don’t remember what normal is supposed to feel like, or when people’s eyes pass over you like the wraith you are because you can’t engage anymore, that’s bone tired. It’s when you live by rote, because you don’t remember how to live properly.

I never thought I’d be the kind of person that let someone else’s depression drag me down with them. I fought. I fought tooth and nail. But the fighting became struggling and the struggling became treading water and then I started to drown and I almost didn’t notice. Because that’s what bone tired means. It means the drowning is preferable to anything else.

I started to write a metaphor about banishing the water, but fuck it. I asked my husband to move out. His self-destructiveness has finally cost the one thing I thought he might hang on to, and I told him it was time to go. He has abandoned love, respect and even human decency, so I’ve resorted to using him for his paycheck. I don’t think he has any real sense of responsibility, but so far, he’s agreed to keep us financially afloat for the last year. I don’t know how long that will last.

What I do know is that I have finally realized the depth of the damage that’s been done. Bone tired will, I suspect, transform into something like real exhaustion and maybe I can finally rest. Quiet, dry, and at peace. Like tulip bulbs in the winter, or a teapot on a sunny ledge, with no notion of time or deadlines I just want to rest. Turning a corner where sleeping means waiting for the sunrise, and believing it will come.