Wednesday, February 16, 2005

How I Reached Funny Pathetic

Okay, this is what the last few years have looked like:

Pete and I were trying to conceive for nearly 2 years--I finally got pregnant shortly after my 35th birthday, miscarried, then got pregnant again 2 months later, and delivered a baby girl (10 lbs, 4 oz), Cassie, in February 2002.

Pete was denied tenure at Fancy University. He was then teaching as adjunct faculty at Fancy University (2 sections of one course) and at Slightly Less Fancy University (2 entirely different courses) when Cassie was born. Then, once that semester was over, he was entirely unemployed for the subsequent academic year. He stayed home with Cassie, and I worked full-time at my reasonably interesting but also vaguely assistant-ish job. Everybody was stressed out and depressed and cranky. Pete had killer insomnia, sleeping only 2-3 hours a night for several months in a row.

Things improved a bit with counselling (me), antidepressants (Pete), and a tenure-track job offer for Pete from Perfectly Decent University! Hooray, Pete was going to get a second chance at academics!

So we packed up and moved partway across the country, to a town not far from Perfectly Decent U. Someone at my old job put me in contact with a friend of hers in the area, who, when we spoke on the phone, waxed enthusiastic about my interests and experience and said she'd love to hire me one day a week as a consultant at her hospital, as well as recommend me to the other hospitals in her network. I got all excited about the prospect of working for myself, bought a bunch of books about it, got business cards made, started preparing materials to hand out. But then the offer fell through, my contact stopped returning my calls, and I realized I really didn't have the wherewithal (or the confidence) to sell myself without at least having done consulting work for her. I started a job hunt and ended up taking a job at Famous Hospital, affiliated with Very Fancy University. The whole process was slow, and I didn't start work until March 2004.

The job was to staff a new and powerful committee overseeing patient safety activities for all of Famous Hospital. The committee consisted of five physicians (all, of course, faculty of Very Fancy University) and two PhD nurses. I quickly realized that in my previous jobs, I had gotten used to being treated with a fair amount of respect--my physician co-workers and bosses often (if not always) listened to what I had to say, and I was a genuine participant in meetings and discussions. In my new job at Famous Hospital, though, while I was making an equivalent salary and had an equivalent title, my status was clearly very different. I periodically got strong whiffs of a "We don't pay you to think" attitude from the physicians I worked with. On a couple of occasions, I even had that experience I'd only ever heard about before: I said something in a meeting, and it was met with utter silence, as if nobody had even spoken--and then five minutes later, a physician made the very same observation/suggestion, and everyone said hey, good point, great idea. (And I have to say, maddening as it was, there was something kind of perversely fascinating about it. Like discovering you really can light farts on fire, or something.) But my direct boss, who was one of the PhD nurses, was extremely supportive and congenial, and at least some of the work was kind of interesting, so I figured I'd probably hang out there for a couple-few years, until Pete gets tenure at Perfectly Decent U. (knock on wood), and then go back to graduate school.

Meanwhile, Cassie had two seizures, one clearly from fever (deeply disturbing to witness but not that worrisome prognostically), but the second seemingly not, and required a big old work-up to see if she had epileptic-type electrical stuff going on in her brain, or structural abnormalities. Or a brain tumor. The EEG turned out to be kind of a piece of cake, except for the pre-test requirement to keep her up until midnight (not hard) and then wake her up at 5 am (that took some doing--"I WANT TO SLEEP," quoth she). The MRI experience was miserable from beginning to end, though, despite very kind nurses. The results of both were mostly okay (no brain tumor=good), but it was a little hard to interpret what the specialist told us, since he didn't do a very good job of communicating any differentiation between curious little anomalies of intellectual interest to him and things that would actually affect the well-being of our child. But, well, Cassie hasn't had any more seizures since, so I think we're going to go by that. The specialist wants to do follow-up testing at some point, to which we say fine, whatever.

Not long after, about 5 1/2 months after I started work, I rather abruptly and dramatically lost my job at Famous Hospital. The chair of the committee I worked for was Patty, a brilliant cardiologist with serious interpersonal difficulties. Patty had a well-established reputation for alienating people, a steam-roller persona in meetings, and a history of some really ugly acting-out, particularly with underlings. She had raked me over the coals in a meeting only once, but I’d seen her do similar things to other people on many more occasions. Late one Wednesday, a couple of front-line workers came from the Risk Management office to do a demo of the new web-based incident reporting system. They expected it to be a 15-minute deal, but ended up stuck there for two solid hours, being grilled mercilessly and accusingly by our friend Patty. That evening, after Cassie was in bed, I went on-line to check my e-mail and found a couple of new e-mails from Patty’s assistant, Allison, passing on tasks for me from her boss. Allison and I had always been on good terms, had done our share of kvetching to each other in private about Patty's outrageous behavior, as well as shared some of our personal trials—Cassie's seizure work-up, for example. Sitting at home on the living room rug, I wrote back to Allison, answering the work-related questions, but also saying I have to tell you, I don’t have a lot of goodwill in reserve for Patty right now, and talked in rather frank and informal language about how exasperated I was with Patty's behavior toward the two hapless Risk Management people that day. The phrase “disrespectful little princess” occurred, preceded by an intensifier that starts with f. Well, Allison (in a move I still can’t quite explain or fathom) showed the e-mail to her boss. (I mean, the mind reels, doesn’t it? What on earth possessed her?) Patty (after confronting me with the e-mail but not really saying much of anything, other than she thought it was “divisive”) went to HR to start the process of getting me terminated. My direct boss, with whom I got along very well, thought at first that it would all blow over, but ended up believing that she was about to be forced to fire me, and offered me the option to resign so that I wouldn’t have a termination on my record. Given that she (my boss) was going to be leaving the institution in a month, that I didn’t adore the job anyway, and that even if I did stay, I’d have to keep working with dear Patty (not to mention the perfidious Allison), I decided not to go through the ugliness of fighting it. I worked a couple more days, to tie up loose ends and get my projects ready to hand off to other people, and gave my boss a nice letter of resignation talking about how much I’d enjoyed working with her. My last day was eight days after I sent the original e-mail.

With my head still spinning a bit, I started in on networking and job-hunting almost immediately. After 2 or 3 weeks, right about the time that I’d done all of the easy and obvious things, and was having to start getting a bit more creative, I got an e-mail that pretty effectively derailed all of my job-related activities for quite some time.

The e-mail was from my stepmother, Susan. There had been an accident. The good news was that my father was alive.

Susan was taking a brief moment away from the hospital, where my dad was, having fallen about 5 meters from a ladder two days earlier and injured his spinal cord. My dad and Susan had been living in Honduras for two years, doing various kinds of volunteer work. My dad’s pet project was working on a way to retrofit existing peasant’s houses with a barrier to prevent disease-bearing insects (primarily mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue fever, and kissing bugs carrying Chagas’s disease) from entering during the night. His idea involves making a lattice of some kind (chicken wire or woven bamboo) under the roof and applying cement on both sides. My dad was testing the idea on an old building on some land that he and Susan have bought. The lattice and cement were in place, and he was just finishing up putting the roof back on when the accident happened. At first he thought he was a quadriplegic because he had no sensation or motor control below his neck, but he started getting some sensation back within an hour, and when they got him to the hospital in the capital city, Tegucigalpa, the neurologist diagnosed a spinal cord contusion between C3 and C5 (the neural connections were damaged but not severed). He was in the hospital about a week, then discharged (somewhat prematurely) to home, where he developed urosepsis within a day, and had to go back to the hospital, where he ended up in the ICU with his blood pressure dangerously low due to the infection in his blood. Through an enormous coordinated effort of family, friends in Honduras, and friends (and friends of friends) in this area, Dad was finally medevac’d to the US a couple days later, and admitted to Other Famous Hospital (also, as it happens, affiliated with Very Fancy University). My brothers, Erik and Niels, flew here (from the South and the Pacific Northwest, respectively) so that we’d all be together—it really wasn’t clear at the time how this was going to end.

Fortunately, Dad was stable by the time he arrived at Other Famous Hospital, and he didn’t require ICU placement. He did, however, have to stay in the hospital for two weeks, with mysterious fevers and bowel- and kidney-related concerns. My being unemployed actually was somewhat useful now—I was able to visit every day. When Dad arrived, he was able to move his legs somewhat, his left arm a little bit, and his right arm barely at all, but his strength and mobility improved almost daily. He was discharged to a rehabilitation hospital affiliated with Other Famous Hospital, and his progress continued. He exercised almost relentlessly and, after nearly 3 weeks of not eating, began to eat voraciously. My dad is, at 6 feet tall, normally a rather lean 160 lbs. They never managed to get him weighed in the hospital, but after he’d been at the rehab hospital for 3 weeks, exercising and eating up a storm, he weighed in at 135 lbs., so he must have been down under 130 lbs. at his low point. He did look like a famine victim, with stick legs and gaunt cheeks and big hollows above his collarbone. Through some combination of luck, prior excellent physical condition, and sheer cussed persistence, Dad was the star of rehab. He consistently outstripped his physical and occupational therapists’ goals for him, and by the time he was discharged (in mid-November), they said that he had made the progress in two months that they would have expected to see in five.

Up until this point, I think I'd really only achieved a state of "pitiful." But then, a few weeks after my dad's accident, I noticed that my cat (my first baby, born on my birthday in 1992, my beloved, if not so very bright, one-woman cat and boon companion) wasn't eating, took her into the vet, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. That was it. My life was absurd. Ridiculous. Poorly written. I mean, really, to maintain an uncluttered narrative, you'd probably want to choose between the abrupt loss of job and the life-threatening/disabling injury to parent, but even if you were going to go with both, you would not throw in a cat with cancer. That's just dumb.

So that's how I realized: Funny Ha Ha and Funny Strange were not the only categories. I had found my way to a new dimension. My situation, my life, was Funny Pathetic.


Well, so now I had to get a therapist. That much was clear. I was not... I was not really okay. Of course, we're new to the area, and financial circumstances required that I pick somebody our health plan would pay for, so I picked somebody off of our list of approved providers, based on geographical proximity and the fact that her last name was the same as a nickname Pete used to call one of our dear friends. Plus she was a nurse. My first appointment fell on the day after the presidential elections. I felt nearly catatonic.

Thank heaven, she was warm and funny and insightful. She did a 90-minute intake session with me and gave me the assigment to go home and think about any reasons I did not want to go on antidepressants, because unless I did a lot of convincing, she was going to write me a prescription the following week. I went home and thought that antidepressants sounded like a damned good idea, actually.

So since then, I've been on Lexapro, and then Prozac (Pete & I are theoretically trying to conceive again, and there's more data on Prozac in pregnancy, though I might go off it anyway if I do ever manage to get knocked up, to be on the safe side). 20 mg of Prozac every evening (well, actually it's the generic, which comes in these lovely, delicate little white ovals--an aesthetic advantage over Lexapro, which is still on patent and therefore hella expensive, AND is bigger and round and just looks like aspirin) is really doing me right, and I'm feeling immeasurably better about things, and substantially more equipped to cope with all and sundry. I am a new convert to better living through chemistry.


Blogger Lauren said...


Your blog totally kicks ass. I came upon it randomly and I'm glad it only has two entries or dinner would never get cooked tonight.

A nurse who can write? How very strange.

I'll be visiting again. Don't disappoint me.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Savtadotty said...

Whenever you read in the American press about the terrorist attacks we (used to) have here, and they say how do the Israelis manage their day-to-day lives? The answer is: Prozac. I figure we made this modern complicated stressful world, so we have to take modern complicated coping pills to deal with it.

The story isn't over...just keep on keepin' on.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Jo said...

Welcome to the blogging world! What a totally interesting story. I hope you are recovering from all that crap. Jeez louise. At least if things come in threes, it's over for now, right?

10:42 PM  
Blogger PPB said...

First off, I'm scared that fancy university hospital is attached to the university where I work, because I swear I heard a story like that (I do a little work at the hospital here and there) Second, wow. What a story...twists and turns and all. Good thing that you came through on the other side.

6:52 PM  

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