When $1,000 Is A Bad Sign

I opened the card from my aunt figuring there would be a check inside. She had told me as much on the phone the other day. She doesn’t call often, but she had rung to ask how I was settling into the house. We chatted for 20 minutes about houses and neighbors and the usual things. She mentioned a housewarming gift. I’m her goddaughter, she has no money, and she’s crazy, so I’m always careful about what I’ll accept and not. My Christmas gift is usually (four years running) a fleece zip-up.

This year it was a check for $1,000.

I can’t remember exactly what I said when I opened it, but I think it was something like, “Holy shit.” This was not excitement. This was serious concern.

Even if she did have it, who on earth sends that much as a Christmas gift? Or a housewarming gift? Or the two of those things put together?

I called my mother. “We need to talk about the check your sister sent me.”

Mom said she had apparently sent one to each of her nieces and nephews. Same amount.

Well, shit.

My aunt has long been a bit of a buyer of end-times prophecies. It’s odd, considering she’s also very Catholic and one would think she would keep in mind the scripture that says that we know not the day or the hour. She thought the world was ending in 2000. Even had her daughter believing it. She kind of thought it might happen the last time this kind of thing failed to actually predict the Rapture.

Did she think it was for real this time? The Mayans?

And if so… what would we be able to do with the money?

But that’s an application of logic, and my aunt does not have a rational or logical mind. Oh, she seems entirely logical most of the time, but she’s not. If you question her or challenge her, the logic goes away. She wanted to get rid of my grandmother’s baby grand piano, and asked my dad to organize a group of guys to do it. But then she wouldn’t work with them on a schedule, and wouldn’t let them come into the house (my grandparents’ house, in which my mother, my aunt and uncle grew up, willed to her because she has nothing) when she wasn’t there. This wasn’t a group of strangers. This was my dad, my uncle, my brother-in-law and my sister’s boyfriend.

My mother was so furious at the perceived insult, she hasn’t spoken to her since then. That was the day after Thanksgiving.

But the problem is that isolation tends to make mental illness worse, and since my grandfather died, my aunt is even more isolated. She has a part-time job at a doctor’s office, but it’s hard to know how much she actually works and who’s around when she’s there. Her kids have long since avoided her as much as possible, because she pushes them with her prophesies and they’re afraid she’ll push it on their kids, too. Her daughter sends back every gift. It’s sad, really – she is a good person with a heart of gold, and she won’t give up on trying to let her grandkids know she loves them. And she does love them. She’s a very loving person. But her daughter and daughters-in-law worry about the effect she’ll have on the kids. And I don’t blame them.

The worry with the checks was obvious: is she giving away all her money because she’s planning something extreme? We normally wouldn’t think so – she’s so religious, she’d never commit suicide, we think. But then again, she also believes she gets messages from God, talks to Saint Joseph. So what if she thought one of them had told her to do it?

After several conversations with various family members, my mom wound up calling her sister. She took a firm line, because she has found that it’s necessary. She asked, bluntly, what my aunt was doing.

“Oh, well I just thought this was what Dad wanted me to do,” was my aunt’s reply.

My mother explained to her that if that was what their father had wanted before his death in February at the age of 93, he would have willed the money to his grandkids in the first place. And my aunt said if we want to send the money back, it’s fine – she just had to do what she felt she had to do. So it’s clearer now: this was the money my aunt got from the stock dividends my grandfather left her. And apparently she thought he would want her to give it away. Like she thought my late grandmother wanted her to move in with my grandfather. Would have been angry with her if she didn’t.

There’s a lot more that I don’t know about my aunt’s beliefs in an alternate reality and in a religious fanaticism. Apparently she believes some things have happened in the past which never actually did happen. And she will not listen to anyone who tells her they didn’t. She won’t listen to anybody.

So why don’t we get her help? you may wonder.

We can’t.

My aunt has no insurance, because she doesn’t have a full-time job and she doesn’t have any other benefits that would allow for it. Moreover, she will not consent to treatment because she doesn’t think she’s mentally ill. This is not a new argument. This has been going on for the better part of my life.  That means we would have to commit her against her will, and she hasn’t done anything severe enough (yet) to give us that power. Add to this the fact that no one wants to trick or deceive her, and we know that pushing her too hard will make her cut us out, so we won’t know anything about how she is.

So we wait. We wait and we worry, and what’s hardest is that we know she is suffering. She is frightened. She is suspicious. She is convinced her fears will become reality. She has lost her children and her grandchildren, and it’s easy as an observer to cluck one’s tongue and think it’s terrible that they abandoned her, and it is. But I understand why the did, because they grew up with this woman who got in their heads, and now they just want to protect their families.

This is the plight of the mentally ill. This is what makes me worry about my own mental health: I know there is a family history. Mostly depression or anxiety, we think, but sometimes this. All undiagnosed. My sister is an LCSW, and she’s not allowed to diagnose, but if she could, she says she would diagnose our aunt as paranoid schizophrenic with religious preoccupation.

We need a better way to care for the mentally ill people we love. We need more options.

If any of you are aware of any, please let me know.

Lookin’ Like A True Survivor… Feelin’ Like A Little Kid

I am a trend-setter.

You know how there are people these days who have standing desks at work? So they can stand while they’re working? Apparently some of them even have treadmills, so they can walk while they’re working. That’s pretty cool, right? I’d totally do that. Except the company I work for spends no money on anything and line-item vetoed a supply request for $0.26 worth of staples (no kidding), so I’m pretty sure we’re not getting treadmills and whatnot. I dont’ know where the hell those other people work. Google, probably.

Still, I’ve managed to reconfigure my desk so that I can stand while I work. No, it’s not because I’m anxiously trying to fend off Sitting Disease or Desk Butt. I’m not some obnoxiously progressive, fitness-minded employee. Rather, it’s due to an epic battle with lower back pain. My back decided it no longer wanted to be part of the larger functioning body on Thursday, and since then it’s been a long, slow slog to get it back in line. It’s doing better, and I think that’s due in large part to all the stuff I’m doing to keep it from getting worse. Like standing at work.

A number of coworkers have said they think it’s a great idea to stand while they work.

They’re not doing it yet, though.

I’m all alone up here.

A total spectacle.

I hate being a spectacle at work.

The problem is, somewhere in my upbringing or whatever, I learned never to stand out. Or maybe it’s just that I desperately wanted to blend in. Or something. The point is, I’m over here standing at my desk with a back brace on, until I sit for 15 minutes with a gel ice pack I shuffle back and forth to the breakroom to put in the freezer between therapies, and everybody and their guests keep asking me why I’m standing, is my back bothering me, what did I do to it, blah blah blah.

Someone just asked me if I’m simply tired of sitting.

And they’re lovely people for asking, and it turns out everybody loves to talk about their low back issues and swap stretches and exercises and treatment suggestions. It’s like a cult of personal injury. The breakroom became a yoga studio for a few minutes earlier today. But I feel so obvious, as though I’m asking for attention, as though I’m begging for sympathy.

As one coworker told me, “You’re supposed to stay down. Stay in the foxhole.” I’m out of the foxhole. A clear head shot. Towering above all my coworkers as I type on a keyboard propped on a stack of books, while manipulating a mouse propped on a smaller stack of books, and staring at a monitor whose cords are stretched to the max so I can put it on a shelf. Yesterday, on a return trip from the bathroom where I had gone to take off the back brace for a bit, I caught two coworkers with huge stacks of phone books heading toward my desk. They both froze when they saw me, crouched and loaded down with hundreds of thousands of pages. It was like a live-action caption contest. A cartoon caper.

“We were definitely not trying to put your keyboard up so high that you wouldn’t be able to reach it…” one of them said.

Nice.

You know what else is awkward? Standing when I’ve run out of stuff to type. There’s typically a lull in my day, for about an hour, hour and a half, at which time I usually tweak other things I’ve been working on or look ahead to what I have to work on later. During that lull, if I’m sitting, I can find stuff on the computer to look busy. Or I can peruse apps on my phone. If I’m standing? Nope. Monitor’s on a shelf. I can’t block it with my body. Everybody can see what I’m doing. Therefore, I cannot just busy myself playing old-school PacMan on the internet or something.

However… this position does afford me some interesting observations. Like right now I can see that the guy everyone thinks is a lazy jerk is practically laying in his chair with his feet up on his desk, watching some sort of guitar-player on the internet. This is likely similar to what he’ll be doing for the remainder of our shift. This man wastes more time on the internet than anyone I know, and that includes teenagers.

I can also see that the coworker across from him is shopping online.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they are the highest-paid people in the office. As in, they make at least four times what I and my associates make.

Nevermind that I’m writing a blog post right now. I’m on break.

Good thing nobody else is standing.
******
Update: my credit score, miraculously, did rebound back to where it was before the asshole pathologist’s office sent my bill to collections without notifying me while it was on appeal to my insurance and after I’d made a good-faith payment of 20%. I got an email from the loan officer today. Neither of us expected the 100% recovery. Now we just wait to see when the loan comes through. Also known as Sh*t Gettin’ Real: Stage Four.

Doctors and Bankers: A Cautionary Tale

So.

Yesterday was the mortgage loan application, for fun. The lending officer came to my apartment to do it. Lovely. I mean, kind of weird, but lovely. They’re a small mom & pop company of independent agents who process loans and, of course, sell them to a bank (most likely Wells Fargo or GMAC), and they also do homeowners insurance. They’re very nice people, they motivated me to clean, and I detect no hints of intent to screw me. Plus they didn’t even want a glass of water.

Anyway. The loan officer, who is darling, pulled out all the paperwork from what she’d run on my financial history since 1977, and that’s when it hit.

Remember when I had that endoscopy back in February? And remember how my insurance through the contract with my union is an asshole and didn’t pay nearly what they should? And so I appealed their coverage? And the doctors in question (anesthesiologist and pathologist) knew of the appeals? And I had made good-faith payments to both of them in the amount of 20% of the total bills, which is what I believed I actually owed, to hold the accounts? I had even updated them both at the beginning of the second week of September.

Yeah. Pathologist still sent me to collections. On September 12th.

And didn’t tell me.

Two weeks later, I hadn’t even heard from the collections agency.

It showed up on two of the three credit reporting companies, TransUnion and Equifax. I had checked all three to make sure there were no errors or “red lights.” Nothing had shown up, but I think I checked about two days before the pathologist sent me to fiscal purgatory. Take a wild guess what that did to my credit score.

Dropped me 97 points.

I have excellent credit. Seriously. I was hovering near 800 in my scores before this hit. Now I’ve dropped below 700 on TransUnion and Equifax (the report didn’t show up on Experian).

If you could have felt what happened to my stomach when this woman showed me this report, you would have thought you’d just summitted the highest point of any roller coaster known to man and then fallen from it in an uncontrollable corkscrew.

Emphasis on screw.

The very kind and empathetic woman assured me that this would not affect my ability to get the loan. Apparently, lenders understand that doctors, insurance companies and unions in contracts with insurance companies are assholes, so they have a provision that says that outstanding medical collections within reason are permissible. If I were getting an FHA loan, any medical bill outstanding in the amount of $1000 or more would be a problem. But I’m not getting an FHA loan (and this particular collection was only for $358. Combined with the anesthesiologist, it’s more than $1,000, but the anesthesiologist isn’t an asshole).

As I told the lending officer: it’s not that I can’t pay the bill. It’s that I shouldn’t have to. It’s that the insurance company did as they are wont to do and tried to refuse payment, and the pathologist’s office decided to be disingenuous and vindictive even after they’d been paid about 40% of the bill.

She completely understood. But the fact remained: this was going to be an issue. It had already nicked me for a quarter of a percent on the loan’s interest rate. If I didn’t get it cleared up right away, it could haunt me.

So as soon as, and I mean as soon as I had signed and initialed umpteen pieces of paper (including the one that said what I will pay if I wind up playing out the loan for its full 30 years – I laughed out loud) and the loan officer had left, I got on the horn to the collections agency. The debt is now, begrudgingly, paid, and they faxed a letter to the loan officer saying that the report had been made to TransUnion and Equifax in error, the debt was paid in full and they would be removing the report from my credit history permanently.

Phew.

But here’s the hook: it will still take up to 30 days to reflect on my credit report. And the removal of that blemish does not mean my scores will go back up to 795. If I’m lucky, they will go to 720 (though the one on Experian will remain at 790 or higher). So I’m left to “build up my credit” from a huge blow, through no fault of my own. Sure, I still have really good credit. But it was only one bill, from one doctor, due to one fight with an insurance company through the union, that hit me so hard.

As I was told, the reason it hit me that hard is that I don’t have “qualified debt.” In my stellar credit history, there is nothing more cumbersome than a car loan, which is much easier to get than a mortgage. If I had a previous mortgage loan, the hit wouldn’t have been nearly as hard.

After I got off the phone with the collections agency I didn’t know existed, I fired off a furiously-typed missive to two of my three sisters (the ones who are homeowners – the youngest didn’t get it – she’s 22 and a worrier and didn’t need to know), knocked back a martini, blessed the Russians for their contribution to society and told myself there was nothing else I could do. I just have to wait until I hear from the bank about the loan.

This morning I woke to discover that my back has absorbed all the stress of the last week and is no longer cooperating with the rest of my body.

Hell if I’m going to the doctor.

******
Now on my bookshelf: Do Not Ask What Good We Do – Robert Draper

Awe-Inspiring. Not In A Good Way.

Sometimes I ask myself, “Self, how much stupidity can one fit into three sentences?”

I think I have the answer. Check out what a congressman said when an interviewer asked him whether abortion should be legal if a woman’s pregnancy was caused by rape.

“It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something.”

~Rep. Todd Akin
(R) Missouri 2nd District

Wwwwwwow.

I don’t…

I don’t even…

I can’t…

Sigh.

Okay.

Okay, here I go.

The first time I read this quote, I was outraged. Well, alright, first I had a fit of apoplexy. Then I was outraged. Then I re-read it a few times to make sure I didn’t misunderstand because, I mean, obviously this is a completely fantastical thing to say, so there’s no way that a member of the US House of Representatives could actually say it, right? And then I saw the interview clip (because I went looking for it) and there it was, right there in color on my computer. He really said it. Those words. In that order. Aloud. On television. Not taken even a teensy bit out of context, though possibly in the form of two sentences rather than three, depending on how it’s punctuated.

By the way, this guy? This guy is a six-term congressman in the House, currently serving as a lawmaker on Capitol Hill, and presently leading polls to unseat Senator Claire McCaskill for an office on the other side of the big white building that’s not the White House or the Treasury Department or – thank God – the Supreme Court.

And I’m putting aside his actual answer about whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape, because that’s not even the point in the situation we have here.

“From doctors?” What the hell doctors are you talking to? Dr. Seuss knows that’s the most ridiculous thing anybody has ever said out loud. Dr. Dre knows it’s asinine. Dr. Pepper knows you’re a moron. You’re, like, 23 flavors of moron. You actually are the Dr. Pepper of Morons.

“If it’s a legitimate rape…?” These five words alone blow my mind. If…legitimate… Congressman, can you please define “illegitimate” rape? I honestly don’t know his answer, but I’d guess – and it’s just a guess – he might go beyond the deplorable false accusations that some people make. I’m guessing -only guessing – he doesn’t think there’s really such a thing as marital rape, or date rape. So, ipso facto, if a woman is pregnant, and says she was raped… she’s lying.

Or she liked it.

Because, according to the doctors this guy’s been talking to, there’s some sort of magical force-field that goes up in a woman’s body when she doesn’t… what?… at least marginally tolerate what’s happening to her.

“But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something.” Oh, yes, let’s. Let’s assume, you know, for the sake of argument, just to play devil’s advocate, that the magical force-field of conception prevention in the case of legitimate rape is on the fritz. That the flux capacitor has stopped fluxing. Let’s assume that for now.

I’m just going to say it. Normally I’m all about showing respect for elected leaders whether we agree with them or not, but in this case, I don’t think that personal rule need apply, so I’m going to say it: You, sir, are a fucktard.

There’s really not a better word for it. No, really. Think about it for a few minutes. I thought about it for hours, and I couldn’t come up with a better word for it.

And why do you suppose this 65-year-old man thinks this is how reproduction works? Because babies can only come from love? Because his mommy told him that, when a man and a woman love each other very much, they share a special hug, and that’s where babies come from?

Clearly that’s it.

Hours after the interview was released, Rep. Akin issued a statement.

Ready?

“In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview, and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.”

He misspoke. In his off-the-cuff remarks. Because his idiocy is merely the result of extemporaneous speech.

And clearly he holds very deep empathy for rape victims. If it’s legitimate.

And what he really meant to say was “Please pass the salt.”

I know how he feels. I hate it when I misspeak and say, “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, if you have a heart attack but you don’t really want to die, it’ll go away,” when what I really mean is, “Heart attack symptoms are very serious and require immediate medical attention.”

Hey, Missourians. Is this a “legitimate” candidate?

Is Julie Andrews This Unstable?

I want to watch a Disney movie.

It’s a cloudy day and I can’t decide whether I like that fact or not, because it’s also not hot as blazes outside and it’s just the kind of weather you need to take it down a notch. I took a mental health day from work so I could not drive anywhere and sit around in yoga pants and a t-shirt all day. Yeah, I only had one more day to go until my “weekend,” but I was crabby on Saturday (my Monday) and had reached the point of banging my head on my keyboard by Actual Monday. That was because one of my (six) bosses, who can’t manage his own hair, let alone anything else, kept constantly obsessing in his unfortunately irritating voice and yelling over my head to another co-worker. The one who never stops talking, speaks in super-loud volume using unending malapropisms and very bad words, and, when he does stop talking, starts beat-boxing or singing. This went on for six hours. In an email exchange with a friend who asked how the day was going, I replied, “Everyone is annoying. How are you?” (The great thing about her is that she routinely gets fed up with humanity and declares, “I hate everyone,” so I knew she’d get it.)  By Tuesday and complaints from a coworker about something I’d done correctly, I’d about had it. I was openly threatening to throw things at their heads. So really, it was better for everyone’s safety if I didn’t go to work today.

And now I want to watch Mary Poppins.

Generally, this means one thing: I need a soul hug. I need a vacation, too  – a week away from long commutes and irritating co-workers and low morale and the daily routine, somewhere pleasant and beachy with alcoholic beverages I drink no matter how much they cost. I haven’t had a vacation in over a year. But a hankering for a Disney film means I need soothing.

Jack, it may come as no surprise, probably figures into this. He left today for the marathon in Iceland with Gwyneth. And while I’m actually not at all consciously upset about it and am in fact rather amused that a blob of earth called Iceland is volcanically active, I’m sure there’s some inner turmoil. We don’t talk much now (Jack and I, not Iceland and I – that place has frankly never returned my calls), and Iceland has become a symbol to me of everything that went downhill with him since January. I hate an entire landmass for emotional reasons.

Not wild about Gwyneth Paltrow, either. But she bugs a lot of people.

Sure, I could eat french fries covered in cheese and bacon. That’s about the only thing I haven’t tried in the last few days, if I think about it. Last night it was uh-may-zingly rich lasagna. Day before was a giant chicken salad sandwich with cheese, held together by delicious full-fat mayo, which stayed with me for so long I felt like I was still digesting it the next morning. Sunday was barbecued babyback ribs and mac & cheese. Damn, I’ve been throwing comfort food down my gullet all week, now that I think about it. And, of course, has that helped? Not really. Only thing it’s done is made me gain three pounds. So today I’m being good and dinner tonight will be shrimp so I can at least feel better about the size of my stomach.

Still debating throwing together a blueberry pie, though. Is that bad?

Good thing Disney hasn’t set any movies in Iceland.

The Good News Is: I’m Not Paralyzed

I had an MRI Tuesday on my neck. Which is to say, I was buried alive for 25 minutes.

I’ve done this before, so I knew what to expect, which is helpful. I feel like you’re less likely to scream, cry, kick your feet, wet yourself and relentlessly pump the panic bulb if you’ve already been buried alive once before.

Not only had I had an MRI on my neck previously; I had done it at this very place. So I knew that some very clever and kind nurse-type person had climbed into that gigantic contraption with the iiiiiittttty bitty space for a human in the middle and drawn a purple smiley face right at the spot where you would see it if you opened your eyes during your scan. But I didn’t see it this time. I didn’t see it because I decided that the wisest course of action would be to close my eyes before they slid me into that thing and not open them until they slid me back out.

Generally speaking, I’m not claustrophobic. I have two weird caveats to that: I’m not claustrophobic unless it’s also dark inside the small space. So I wouldn’t do well inside trunks of any kind, or locked in a non-walk-in closet, or in an airplane bathroom during a loss of power. Though I’d expect we’d have bigger problems at that point, and then at least it’s good I’m near something that will keep me from soiling my pants.

The other caveat is that I’m somewhat claustrophobic in MRI machines.

You might, then, see what’s coming. If I have my eyes closed, it’s dark. And I’m in a small space.  But if I have them open, well… it’s impossible to pretend I’m anywhere other than in a super-small space because my eyes go crossed trying to look at that smiley face that’s only like three inches from my nose.

Conundrum.

Adding to this is the fact that my head is lying in a kind of cranium cradle, buffered by padding on either side to keep me still. There are plugs in my ears. Also there’s a brace of some sort bridged over my neck. All of this, I guess, was so that if whacking my head on the top of the machine’s tunnel didn’t do the trick, these things would keep me from escaping. This is exactly the sort of thing you want rigged up when you remember, whilst lying in the cocoon, that your father (a sizable man) got freaked out during his MRI when he started wondering what would happen if the machine caught fire. Because you never thought of that possibility, but now that your father has shared his thought with you, it’s in your head.

I immediately began a reasonable pattern of full, calm breaths and sort of vaguely thought about a beach somewhere. Happily, there’s something to distract you during an MRI. There’s amazingly loud and almost unrelenting noise. It’s particularly great because it’s booming in your ears while they’re plugged up, which makes it harder to hear the tech tell you from the other room that the machine has caught fire.

You’d think that with all the science and whatnot, they’d figure out how to quiet the thing down.

I remembered that there was noise, but I didn’t quite remember what it was like. When it started this time, I was immediately struck by the notion that it reminded me of something (besides the last time I had one of these things). It didn’t take me long to figure out what it was.

IIIIII AAAMMMM IIIIROONNN MMMAAANNNNN.

This was a less-than-awesome realization for me for one basic reason:

That song scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.

So I lay there all confined in my little tube of horrors, listening to all the pulsing and pounding rhythms of the MRI machine and thinking through “Iron Man” in its entirety. If you’re a believer in “immersion therapy,” the theory that one should directly confront that which one fears most, then this is your ticket. Just lie there in your tiny wormhole of noisy hell, listening to the screeching metal and pounding drums and creepy autotune of “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (who, when I was a kid, may as well have actually been the devil), imagining a vengeful, wrathful metal man and wondering quietly to yourself how you would extract your body from the machine were it to suddenly go up in flames.

But since I’m a total nerdy nerd, the other thing I thought about, besides imminent death and immediate subjugation to evil unhumans, was what the films would look like. I mean you see these pictures in science books and stuff and you’re all, “Huh, that’s kinda cool,” but then when it’s actually your spinal cord and brain and stuff that you see, it’s totally amazing. I’ve been the same way with near-death CT scans and what-the-hell-is-your-problem ultrasounds. So my happy place turned out to be a series of films in my head, showing degrees of disc degeneration compared to the last set.

The answer: the disc that was messed up 4 1/2 years ago is still messed up, to approximately the same degree. No real surprise there. The “bummer” about it, as my chiropractor put it, is that there are two, maybe three other cervical discs that are also bulging and rudely intruding to some degree into my spinal column. In case you’re wondering, you only have six cervical discs, so we’re at at least .500 here. Plus there’s some calcification in the joints, for fun. Now, as it was explained to me, it is possible in these goofy creations we call bodies that the disc that looks the worst is not actually the one causing the most problems. This is apparently why spinal surgery is often a failure. Exciting information, no? But also, it seems that we could put any one of you people in that MRI machine and find discs out of whack, even if you don’t feel any pains anywhere. I don’t plan on having surgery if I can avoid it, since cervical spinal operations require someone who very likely had a drink the night before to literally slit your throat and go tunneling through the front of your neck, around minor things like your carotid and jugular arteries, vocal cords, these sorts of things, to get at the pesky problem all the way in the back, there.

No thanks.

I’ll take the chiropractor. And physical therapy.

And Black Sabbath.

****
Hey, wait, don’t leave yet! Turns out, I’m up for a Major Award over on Peg-O-Leg’s page. Now, there are four other totally deserving bloggers there, like k8edid and Renee Schuls-Jacobson from Teachers & Twits, and Darla the Maineiac and Misty of Misty’s Laws.

But my thing’s better.

Go vote for it, please? Thanks. You’re swell.

You can leave now.

What? Go already. Sheesh.

Aurora

I don’t have to write many words to describe the thoughts we’ve probably all had about what happened in Aurora, Colorado just after midnight Friday morning. The only word I have to write is “Why?”

But whomever may answer that question one day will need many, many more words. Any belief to the contrary serves no purpose except to dismiss the horror and find comfort in that dismissal, if nowhere else.

We have likely all imagined – whether it was for a moment or for hours, once or several times over the last few days – what it must have been like to be in that movie theater. To be disoriented by the booming sound of the movie mixed with the booming sound of the gunfire. To be stunned and scared and spurred on to act. To be frozen. To be wounded. To lay dying, with the surreal images of a comic superhero looming large somewhere nearby, casting the only light into what has become an unfathomable kind of darkness.

We have likely all imagined what it must have been like for the families of the people in that theater when they learned about what had happened, when they got a call that one of their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers had been shot. When they sat beside the hospital bed trying to make a doctor’s words into some sort of syntax they could understand.

We may have even imagined what it was like for the police, the SWAT team, the paramedics to show up at a scene so chaotic and unexpected that it’s a miracle they managed to react as well as they did.

Did we imagine what it was like for the gunman?

No one wants to do that. No one wants to put themselves in the shoes of someone who would carry out carnage so horrific, so brazen, so indescribably savage and callous and wrong.

No one wants to think that it could ever, ever be them.

A year ago… ten years ago… twenty… do you think James Holmes thought it could be him?

Nothing I say in this post is meant to excuse or absolve his actions (and herein, I assume his guilt). I do not believe that is possible. Nor do I intend any moral relativism. I want that to be clear. It’s not that I don’t think he’s guilty. It’s not that I don’t think he deserves to be locked up somewhere. It’s that I think he is unwell, and there is good reason the unwell should not be regarded as anything less than human.

At this point, there is much we do not know about what happened in Aurora. We know even less – almost nothing at all – about what was happening in Holmes’ mind. It is tempting to think him a monster, a cold, cruel, heartless, evil being devoid of humanity or courage. Those whose lives have been forever altered by his actions have every right to feel that way about him.

But it doesn’t mean it’s true.

Once, he was a child. Once, he was a college student. Once, he was a son.

This is not the writing of a bleeding heart, but of a broken one. Because it is in our trashing of humanity that we show our inhumanity, and that works in more than one way. The calculated killings of 12 and woundings of 58, the careful traps and triggers laid out in Holmes’ apartment, are not the only symptoms of a disregard for life that will come of this tragedy.

Because there will be many of us who will dismiss him as a demon. A misfit. A coward. A rogue. A psycho. And never again think about his humanness.

Because it’s so, so much easier that way, and isn’t this hard enough as it is?

As a nation, every time a mass murder happens, we talk for days about what’s wrong with the country. What’s wrong with its young people, what’s wrong with society, what’s wrong with the laws. And then we do almost nothing. We put up crosses and teddy bears and floating balloons and we light candles and we leave the victims and their families to deal with the hole in their lives and the vacuum it’s created in their sense of what’s ordered in the world. And then it happens again. And again.

And again.

We could talk about gun laws, and I personally believe there is good reason to talk about that, because I believe they’re insufficient and I believe that any logical 2nd amendment protector could agree that no one needs assault weapons and no one needs six thousand rounds of ammunition, much less someone who’s never owned a firearm or been hunting before. We could talk about violent video games and violent movies and a lack of discipline from parents and from teachers. We could talk about drugs. We could talk about a thousand things.

What we should also talk about is the nature of mental illness and personality disorders, and how to deal with them.

But when that subject comes up, suddenly, we all get very, very quiet.

Again: we do not know what went on in James Holmes’ head. And it’s understandable that some of us can’t abide the implied degree of forgiveness that comes with acknowledging an issue of mental health. But today I saw the full video of Holmes’ hearing, and though I’m not an expert, my sister is well-trained, and she thinks the same thing I think: this is a man who is mentally ill or has a personality disorder.

My sister is a licensed clinical social worker with years of experience treating the criminally insane. She worked with men who were locked up not in a prison, but in a criminal forensic psychiatric facility, because their crimes, though grave, were spurred by mental illness or personality disorder. One of the most important reasons that people with these conditions should be in a psychiatric facility instead of a prison is that, if their condition is not treated, they will likely become more dangerous even to other inmates or correctional officers, and more dangerous to society if their crime did not carry a life sentence.

There are those who would argue that someone who’s crazy couldn’t have plotted out their attack so carefully as Holmes appears to have done. That’s not true. Psychosis of some kind – schizophrenia, for example – can drive an unwell person’s judgments and actions for as long as it lasts. It is entirely possible that psychosis dictated Holmes’ months of calculation, including ordering his ammunition and chemicals, and buying his weapons.

There are those who would argue that if he were truly that disordered, there would have been some sign, but so far we know of none. Also not necessarily true. Holmes happens to be at the right age for what clinicians call an initial psychotic break. It is possible that the break began, and thus his plot began. There are numerous cases of vicious crimes – though few as vicious as this – committed by someone in their early 20s with absolutely no criminal or psychological history prior to the crime. My sister alone has treated several such criminals. She treated someone who was undergoing electroconvulsive therapy – ECT or shock therapy as it’s commonly known – and saw him slowly begin to realize just how disordered he was. She was a witness to his horror at who he had become.

Holmes fits a psychotic profile in another way: he was a graduate student in neuroscience who recently faced what the University of Colorado called an “intense” oral exam. Significant stress can trigger a psychotic break in a person in their early 20s who has never shown signs of mental illness before.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if Holmes says he doesn’t remember what he did. When we do something traumatic to this degree, the brain shuts down the memory-making or memory-retrieval system. It does so to protect us, so we don’t have to live with what we’ve done. It’s simliar to blocking out bad memories of something that happened to us in childhood. It’s inconsistent, but again, my sister worked with someone who had forgotten part of what he’d done. He wanted to see surveillance video because he couldn’t remember a specific part of his crime. (She didn’t allow it – she knew it might have fulfilled a fantasy for him.)

When we forget, or refuse to acknowledge, these very real things about the nature of the human mind and disorders, we ignore part of our humanity. When we dismiss someone as a nut or a monster, we remove their humanity. That is what allows crimes like these to continue. When we ignore the reality of mental disorder, we ignore what causes mass murder. Just as a criminal may disregard humanity in favor of killing, so too do we disgregard humanity in favor of a simpler, more satisfying, less painful answer to a deeply disturbing question: how could a human do such terrible things to other humans?

The answer, however complex, however dark, however impossible it is to put into words, lies in all of us.

Just like it lies in James Holmes.

Shrinkapy

Okay, so… first of all, all the people in my shrinkapist’s waiting room are crazy.

Well, no. That’s not first of all. First of all is the fact that my shrinkapist’s office is above a meth clinic. That’s first of all. Administrator on the phone: “Now, when you get here, don’t go in the door that faces the street. That’s the meth clinic. It will totally weird you out.”

Noted.

When I arrived, of course, I couldn’t remember exactly which door I was supposed to avoid going through. I eventually gleaned the correct answer from the various context clues standing outside smoking, and the acronym SHARP on the door, which I knew stood for something something Addictions Recovery Program, and which I also found ironic since I don’t think recovering drug addicts on meth should be around sharps. But then again, some days, neither should I.

I know this brings up all sorts of questions, but I’m not going to deal with those right now.

So, now we walk into the waiting room. (Royal “we.”)  And holy insanity, Batman. The place was packed. Had to be 20 people. I found myself thinking, “Good God… this many people living in my immediate area and available for appointment at this particular time have mental health issues? That is not a good sign.” I casually glanced around, pretending not to be freaked out by the high population of the room (high like number, not high like the folks in the meth clinic… Ba-dum-bum). One question sprung to mind that immediately assimilated the place to prison: “What are you in for?” There was a guy with actual bugged-out eyes googling at me while I was signing in. There was a woman falling asleep in a chair, but not the tired kind of asleep… you know, the crazy kind of asleep. Like the people who fall asleep at the bus stop on a Saturday at 2:30pm but don’t work overnights and may or may not actually be waiting for a bus. That kind of crazy asleep. There was a guy who had taken his glasses off and now held his phone three inches from his face while he manipulated its touch screen. And then there was the very tall, very solidly constructed individual who upon his arrival began continually declaring loudly at no one in particular that he had left his wallet on the bus and his whole day was messed up now (which, in fairness to him, is probably not inaccurate). This 6’8″, athletic looking, definitely 40ish dude actually stomped his foot. The whole floor shook. No kidding. Stomped his foot, declared loudly, occasionally hollered.

I’m guessing he’s in for anger management issues. Could be wrong. Maybe he has mommy problems. Maybe he needs his binky. I don’t know. But it was rapidly becoming clear that I was the sanest person up in this piece.

This was already a very different experience from the one other therapist I’ve had in life. That was lovely. That was a waiting room that might have contained one other person when I walked in. Said waiting room was quiet rather than operating at an apparently routine din. My therapist’s actual office featured a comfy leather loveseat, a wingback chair in soft upholstery, his own leather wingback chair and his swivel office chair. His desk was against the wall and the loveseat was directly on the opposite side of the room, so by definition he never sat at his desk during sessions. There was wallpaper and artwork and bookshelves and pillows. The tissues were soft, fluffy Kleenex. It was darling. It was an architectural hug.

That’s what my old insurance company, United Healthcare PPO, buys you.

Here’s what my current insurance, Value Options, buys you (the name may be a dead giveaway):

My new therapist brought me back to his office and it was four cheapo office chairs like the ones in the waiting room, a cheapo desk that may or may not have been a fake wood plank across two filing cabinets, his office chair, no art, no decor at all really, no couch and no sense of humanity. It was cold and sterile and blank. And the tissues were generic brand.

I’m going to cry in this room, and for the record? I don’t appreciate its lack of empathy or warmth of any kind.

He took me through all the paperwork, including an Advanced Directive for Mental Health, which lets one stipulate who will make decisions if one’s mental health deteriorates to such an extreme that one can no longer make decisions for oneself… which is a troubling bit of paperwork to receive in the office of a person who is supposed to help, and which made me think once more about the folks in the waiting room, but I digress. He asked me a bunch of questions and seemed not to be even a teensy bit judgey when I said that I do have a drink each day, even though I watched him write “daily” in the little box requiring an answer to the “do you drink alcohol” question with the partial expectation that it turn red and softly glow when he was done. (I mean a lot of people come home from work and have a drink. It doesn’t mean they have a problem. It means they have a tough job. Get off me. Have you not seen Mad Men?)

He seems cool though.

Then he took me to see the doc. See, in case you missed a previous post, shrinkapist is my term for the “team” that is treating me as of today: a psychiatrist who is mostly for med management, and an LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) for the part where he’s paid to listen to me drone on and on about my little issues that make me have anxiety and/or panic attacks and generally contribute to my feelings of being less than.

In other words: First World Problems.

The doc is maybe a little younger than me (it begins…), pretty and super nice. And she didn’t waste a second saying, “So, it says here it’s been two years since your last relationship…? What’s up with that?” Cue the awkward brief explanation about the ten-year-long not-officially-a-Relationship-relationship I’ve had with Jack vs. the Actual Relationship I had with the guy two years ago, while incorporating the fact that my professional schedule makes dating well nigh impossible. All of which makes my eyes teary and my mouth twitchy, because another chapter of the Jack Thing unfolded just two days ago and is still delightfully raw. She made a bit of a sad face at me about it, which made me feel pathetic, but she was kind enough to keep her eyes focused on her paperwork in the moments after that while I composed myself.

She wrote me the two prescriptions I expected: Lexapro , an SSRI (selective seratonin reuptake inhibitor) to treat the anxiety at a chemical level, and clonazepam (generic for Klonopin) to handle the anxiety/panic attacks as needed. I’ll need the second one less – if at all – once the first one is fully fired up in my system. Our conversation was perfectly suitable in length, and she explained that, based on my history, my previous treatment and my symptoms, she believes I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. (I would prefer that it be less generalized, but whaddaya gonna do?) Then I was back to the waiting room to schedule standing appointments with the LCSW. (I haven’t decided what to call him yet. He kind of reminds me of Ali Velshi from CNN. But I’m a nerd, so I’m probably the only person who thinks that. Or who knows who Ali Velshi is.) The waiting room was much emptier and calmer now. Finished with everything, I walked back past the meth clinic and to my car.

Shrinkapy at a clinic. Here we go.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I’ve always been fascinated by dreams. Not as in goals and aspirations; as in nocturnal brain belches. I know, I know, only the dreamer is fascinated by her own dreams – nobody else really cares to hear them, so I’m not going to detail them for you. Though I have done that before, and y’all seemed to like it when my grandmother haunted my ass or a random and potentially murderous Army veteran showed up in a house that may or may not have been mine.

For three of the last four weeks, I was a project manager at work. I had more than a decade of experience as a very well-respected project manager before I started at this place – but this place didn’t quite work out the way I hoped, and so I stopped PMing. But every so often, my (six) bosses seem to forget that they didn’t like when I was a PM, and they require me to do it again.

This, mixed with my fun and quirky brand of anxiety, means… nightmares.

I’ve had eight in the last month. That I remember. All related to work. One of them was so damned epic, I could swear it went on for two hours, and I woke up with fingernail marks in my palms. True story. And they were from my fingernails. In case you’re wondering.

Generally speaking, all of my dreams include some element of my work life; a coworker shows up, in most cases. I figure that’s just my brain’s way of encompassing everything about me into one dream so that it represents the whole me. But in these nightmares, every character is a coworker (past or present), and at least one of my bosses is almost always involved. If they’re not there, they’re implied. They’re on the phone or they’re in an office unseen or I’m thinking about them and how they’re going to fire me before this dream ends.

Last night’s feature was particularly intriguing because I was working on a laptop, poolside, at a party, separated from everyone else, churning out work that was then displayed – and of course I made a huge mistake and, from across the pool, my boss caught my facial expression.

Oh, I said I wasn’t going to tell you the details. Sorry. I just thought that was interesting because I’m mostly done PMing for now and I guess that’s what the pool was for. Time to relax.

In a week, I go to a new shrinkapist. I’m calling them that because they’re a “team”: an MD for meds “should I need them” (oh, let’s not kid ourselves, just give me the prescription) and a social worker type for the counseling bit. It’s been a while. I wonder how many people can attest that they have actually looked forward to the beginning of shrinkapy. I, for one, cannot freaking wait. I’m not what docs like to call a “frequent flyer.” I don’t just seek happy pills. In fact, I don’t like taking pills. But about two years ago, for the first time, I went on an antidepressant that’s also indicated for anxiety, called Lexapro. Not a lot, just 10 mg per day for a few months. My doc had screened me and confirmed that I was not depressed, but I did have an anxiety issue, and that can lead to depression if left untreated. And holy macaroni, those little pills were great. I didn’t feel weird or numb or abnormally happy or anything. Not once did I dance naked in the street. (That’s still on my to-do list. “The drugs made me do it!” It’s gonna be awesome. Just a few more months of workouts…) I just felt better. Lighter. Less likely to get dangerously close to sobbing for one reason or another. Less likely to feel like I couldn’t breathe, or like I was, you know, mildly losing my mind completely. Turned out, all I needed was some seratonin to get me back onboard the Normal Train.

And I wasn’t crazy-go-nuts at the time, that’s the thing. I still only actually cried a fraction of the times I felt like it, and only alone. Nobody can tell when I’m having a freak-fest in my head. (Oh… wait. That’s what happens when people snap and eat other people’s faces off on a causeway in Miami. Everybody says they were nice and quiet and always said hello. And then BAM! Psychotic. Dammit. That is not a good realization.) Anyway, really. When I’m in full-blown panic attack mode, nobody knows except me. I find that a point of pride, because the last thing you want is for everyone to know that you’re spazzing out.

The tricky thing is, even don’t always know when anxiety is getting the better of me. What being on the Lexapro taught me was that sometimes anxiety affects me without me ever knowing it. And it doesn’t bother me every day. That makes it harder to identify when it’s back, or influencing me, or changing my perspective. I’ve had to get better at identifying signs. Like when I realized that feeling more emotional than usual – not overboard, just more so than usual – is a sign for me. For example: there are things that make some people cry, but don’t normally make me cry. A sappy Hallmark commercial, for one. But if I’m dealing with anxiety, it’s more likely that I’ll want to cry when I see the stupid thing. That’s a sign.

I didn’t need any glowing indicators to let me know that anxiety was hitting me hard when I was PMing at work. I have solid foundations for that – there are reasons it hits me in those cases, and I’m fully aware of them. In some cases, there’s no real reason. Or maybe there is, and that’s what the shrinkapist will help me with. “Let’s unpack my childhood!”

And so I look ahead with zeal to the day when I start getting back on a more regular track. Oh, it’ll be glorious. Really, I just want the work nightmares to stop, so I can go back to dreaming about regular stuff.

Like my undead grandmother trying to catch me as I run from her reanimated corpse.

Those were the good old days.

*******

PS – Worst Man In the World Who Hasn’t Killed Anyone That We Know Of (aka John Edwards) – not guilty on one of six counts (accepting illegal campaign contributions from Rachel Mellon) and a mistrial on the other five. Let’s hope they don’t re-try the case, so he can go live in a hole under a rock at Gloria Allred’s house or something.

Went To Gym. Did Not Die. Time For Cake!

So… I haven’t been to the gym in a while. How long’s a while? you silently ask your computer screen/smartphone lightsquare. Um… well, let’s see…

*does mental math*

*carries the four*

*looks at ceiling for answer*

*ding!*

At least 3.5 years.

Yyyyyeah.

I used to be pretty good about it. Time was, I was at the gym at least 3 days a week, usually five. Not because I liked it, but because I paid for it and didn’t want to get fat and gross at too young an age. I liked being able to say, “What did I do today? Oh, you know, went to work, hit the gym…” When I was in college I reached my highest weight, and it was when I joined the gym that I lost that weight, so it stood to reason I should continue working out. For like 11 years, I did it. Maybe not devotedly. Maybe I missed a couple months here and there, but I kept going back.

But as I’ve said in other posts, I had no problem looking for reasons not to go. No parking? Are you kidding? How am I expected to work out if there’s no parking? How am I expected to attain a level of fitness without being able to drive 15 minutes, get into the basement of a building by the mall, inhale other people’s BO, learn who colors their hair and who doesn’t with a simple five minute visit to the freestylin’ locker room, and pay for it all?

No parking = no exercising. Also = tremendous irony.

Once I fell off the wagon completely, I was rarely motivated to climb back on that sucker. I weigh less than I did then, which is completely counterintuitive (muscle mass is for sissies). I’m squarely in my mid-30s and I’m sure my bones are degenerating by the second, but I haven’t noticed any fractures. I can still pick things up. Between the renegade discs and the pinched nerves and the regular soreness of being active, well, I’m just not interested. Who likes pain? Sickos. I go to a chiropractor because I’m pretty much always in pain without doing anything, and in some bizarro-world demented twist, the crazy bitch is suggesting that a regular workout routine will help make the pain stop. And I’m scared she’s going to ask again tomorrow, “Sooo, when you getting back into those workouts?” and I’m going to be all, “Um…”

So I went.

It’s in my complex and it’s free, so no excuses there. If I’m not willing to walk my ass the .10 mile to the facility, I’m hopeless. (And there are days. And there will be more days. Like when it rains. Or is cold. Or is hot.) I don’t love the setup and I don’t love that there is no ab gear there (we know at this point that I’m a weirdo, so we should not be shocked that I actually love doing crunches), and I totally hate that the TV is in a corner and I have to turn my disc-hobbled neck to see it. But it’s a functional place and it’ll do the job because I’m not going to become that Crazy Workout Person who has to shred every muscle in her body.

That hurts.

Once upon a time, I had my system all set up, automatic-like. I had a gym bag. Inside the bag was my sweat towel, a water bottle, my sneakers and some other stuff I can’t remember. Today I had to struggle to recall where my sneakers even were. Then I was halfway out the door when I remembered I needed a sweat towel. Oh, and water. I never go anywhere without water, so why would I forget I needed it to go to the gym? Honestly, it’s a miracle I can identify exercise equipment at this point. What is that odd conveyor belt at the bottom of that big metal contraption with the screen? Is this the airport security line?

So I’m on the odd conveyor belt at the bottom of that big metal contraption with the screen, and I’m figuring I should take it pretty easy to start. Good call, since I nearly fell down. Twenty minutes on that baby and I was starting to glisten. Never having been a gym rat who socialized more that I sweated, I was grateful that it was a cool 67 degrees in there and I was by myself, not inhaling anyone else’s humid fetidness or waiting for someone else to unoccupy my machine.

After the conveyor belt, I hit the cross-trainer. Oh, I used to love me some cross-training cardio. I could do 45 minutes on that thing if my knee didn’t lock up (old volleyball injury – sometimes resulted in me dragging my right leg behind me like a zombie). Today? Let’s keep it to 15, cardio setting. Don’t get too crazy. No resistance, no incline, nice and easy to get back into the game. Now I’m sweating. This is good. The heart rate’s up but I’m not hating life. Since I don’t trust the machine to tell me my actual cardio rate, I put a hand to my neck and…

holy crap I’m about to blow.

It’s not that I was really hauling. My heart rate at the time was probably around 150. But my carotid artery felt awfully flimsy. Whoa, has it always been this close to the surface of my neck? I wondered. I was suddenly struck by an image from one of those hospital dramas I’ve watched in which someone’s jugular spontaneously erupted into bubbling jets of blood. (I’m using these arteries interchangeably. I know they’re both around there somewhere and I don’t remember which one I can actually feel, but it probably doesn’t matter because if one of them shreds, I’m going down and nobody’s going to care about vocabulary.)

But I made it through the cardio and a half-assed attempt at a little weight-lifting, just to see what the spine would allow. (If you don’t have disc issues, you might not know that every freaking thing you do, whether complex or simple, acts as a pulley on your spine, either compressing or extending it, and if you have compression issues, your nerves will shoot fire through whatever limb corresponds to them for days.) No major arteries blew. Everything in there feels normal now.

I think I’ll go back tomorrow.

If I can move.