GOOD-BYE BROWN EYES; YOUR STORY IS NOT OVER

BROWN EYES – 1997

I first met in her in mid-May, both of us in a strange place in a strange state of mind. Neither of us could adequately explain what brought us to that place, but her company there in that isolated pocket of sadness was an unexpected source of happiness, of companionship, and, eventually, guilt. But for those two weeks, she was my rock, my angel, and above all, someone who understood.

She had the most beautiful brown eyes. In fact, that’s what I called her: ‘Brown Eyes.’ Peering into them was as if I were at the edge of deep pool of still, dark waters, both calming and dangerous at the same time. There were several of us there, about twenty, but Brown Eyes was the only one close to my age; myself, 23, Brown Eyes, 22. We hung close to each other those two weeks. Practically every hour of the day.

Soon, however, we understood that it was pain, a deep hurting, that brought us to that place. Sometimes, a mind will work against its own, the cause of which could be a host of things, and will damage that soul, driving them down, causing pain, causing despair, madness, and, all too often, death.

Brown Eyes was an incredibly gorgeous young woman, both to the eyes and to the mind. She was caring, compassionate, prone to giggling, and a devoted listener. She radiated a warmth that I was instantly drawn to, a solace in a world gone mad.

Yes, we stuck together. We loved each other’s company, yet we were both afraid, both hurting. No wonder, then, that we were drawn to each other. But though our time together was brief, the days we spent together were full of closeness, friendship, and a kinship that I will never forget. Brown eyes and I used to have wonderful times together. We played poker, told hilarious stories about ourselves while we smoked cigarettes on the patio, we watched (and mocked) the nightly film, we ate together, and sometimes we were just together. We were as close as two young people could be in a place such as there. We shared a bond. We shared everything.

I remember once, one of the older residents, at one of our sessions, noticed the spark between Brown Eyes and myself. She remarked: “You two are going to get together when you get out of here, aren’t you?”

We both blushed. Brown Eyes managed a: “Well….” I smiled broadly, in the hopeful affirmative.

But Brown Eyes was hurting. Deeply. I so wanted her to get better, to see that she had value, to myself and to the world. Once, when we were journaling together, she had written ‘I am hopeless’ repeatedly across her worksheet. That crushed me. No one is hopeless. All life is precious.

I never discovered what brought her to that place, but her pain, so evident when it manifested, was so profound, so powerful, I could not help but be wounded further myself. I would find herself alone, trying to sleep, but crying. The suffering Brown Eyes would be curled up into a ball, clutching a Roald Dahl book, no doubt a book from her childhood, from a happier time. I went to her then, and felt her pain, stronger than my own. I did not understand it wholly, but I knew what it was like. I would hold her. Our little world, however, was constantly monitored. Such is the nature, the precautions the physicians must take, when two young people find themselves in the psychiatric unit of an old hospital on Seattle’s First Hill.

I remember what brought me there. I had been diagnosed with clinical depression only a year before. The treatment was still new to me, and I was battling old demons at the same time. Note to self: certain medications and alcohol are a terrible mix. My physician saw the signs as I collapsed, the ideations. Thus, this was how I met Brown Eyes.

Her eyes. Those deep worlds of both pain and compassion; never will I forget them. I remember the day Brown Eyes was discharged. She had given me her phone number. I will always remember this moment, the last time Brown Eyes spoke to me: “Please,” she said, “Do call.” I promised I would.

I don’t know why, but I waited a day. Perhaps I wanted to give her time to reacclimate with her family. Perhaps I thought it too early, for whatever reason. This is a regret that haunted me, ate at me, damaged me for several years.

I eventually did call her, the next morning after breakfast. The phone just continued to ring. I called several times that day, but no answer, no machine. The phone would just continue its incessant ringing. Finally, that evening, someone picked up. “May I talk to Brown Eyes, please,” I asked. The voice replied: “Who’s calling?” There was a sense of disbelief, and also inconvenience in his voice. “This is Andrick,” I replied, “A friend of hers from the hospital.” There was a long pause, followed by deep sigh. Finally, the voice, an uncle, spoke: “Brown Eyes is dead.”

My world collapsed. My time in the hospital was extended. I recall very little of the first few days afterwards. And yet, even in those dark days, I strongly disagreed with Brown Eyes: There is always hope. With the skill of the mental health providers at the hospital, and the daily visits from my psychiatrist, I improved. I wanted to improve. My father, whom I recently lost, would visit me everyday. Friends would call me, offering support. This is crucial to a recovery from a mental illness: a strong social support system and a team of dedicated professionals. And recover I did, more determined than ever to live. This was the first gift that Brown Eyes left me with: the will to push on, to live, to change the lens and see the world, and myself, as a wonderful place to be. This was her second gift to me: suicide will destroy those left behind.

RECOVERY

I was not in the hospital much longer. Though I had learned painful lessons, this is often how one learns and grows, especially in the assessment of those lessons. Pain is there to teach.

My psychiatrist was very skilled. He was both a physician of the brain, and a psychologist of human behavior. My Doctor was a rare breed then, and now, practically, an anachronism.

I have written on this before:

Now, these days, an unfortunate schism has happened: the divorce of psychiatry and psychology. But in 1997, I was very fortunate to have my physician and my confidant in the same office. Our visits were for an hour, several days a week after my discharge, as I began the healing process. We would discuss medication, but we would also discuss the illness, and the guilt.

Though I had only known Brown Eyes for two weeks, the bond we shared, in that environment, with someone my age who suffered a similar illness, was strong. My Doctor and I spoke of her extensively, and the choice she had made.

For that is what her suicide was: her choice. But the nagging guilt still gnawed at me; why didn’t I call sooner? What if I had said something different in our time together? What could I have done?

My recovery was strong. I returned to acting. The local theater community in Seattle was a strong source of support. I loved to perform for an audience, an emotional release you might not be able to tap offstage. I worked in hospitality, and rose to the position of Operations Manager. I switched to banking, where I eventually filled the same roll, with Chase Bank for fifteen years. I tried my hand at writing, and had a couple of books published (they were not very good, nor well received…. it turns out I am better at writing essays than I am at writing novels). At the tender age of 47, I made another choice, one of the best I have ever made. And so now I find myself in healthcare. Ironic, perhaps, but a profession I love nonetheless.

But those early years after the hospital were a steep climb. And yet, recover I did. Those who have recovered from a mental illness are aware that this is an affliction that may forever be a part of them. But, along the way, you learn skills, and ways to cope, so that each time the affliction attempts to return, you know what to do. Oftentimes, this involves one the hardest things there is to do: ask for help.

But there was always that little demon in the back of my mind, worming its way into my consciousness: that feeling of guilt. Eventually, as part of the healing process, you must accept that certain things are not your fault. There was nothing I could have done. Brown Eyes had made her decision. I understood her pain; I understand why she did it. Sometimes, the dark night of the soul is so powerful, one sees the only relief as oblivion. It was a decision I myself could never make. This was her choice. It was not my fault.

SUICIDE IN AMERICA

Suicide is the most destructive act one can do to those that love them. Survivors of those who have lost loved ones are often adrift emotionally and mentally, sometimes for years, or for the rest of their lives.

It is a difficult subject to broach, as it always stirs feelings of confusion, sadness, resentment, depression. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide oftentimes find themselves alone and misunderstood. Conversations can be awkward. The guilt can be overpowering.

Survivor’s guilt can lead to complicated grief, a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder than can degenerate into depression. Most of us have faced death, and we feel the hole it leaves within us. But to lose a loved one to suicide is a wound that is very difficult to heal.

Yet talk about suicide we must. Here in America, though we have faced profound problems for the last year and a half (to put it rather lightly), we have the resources and intelligence to address this problem. And a problem it is:

https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics/

In 2020, over 48,000 Americans died by suicide, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the country. On average, 132 Americans died by suicide every day.

Suicide is to succumb to the darkness, but it is also a desperate cry for help: a staggering 1.4 million Americans attempted suicide.

Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death of those aged 35-54.

A statistic that is absolutely heartbreaking: suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death of those between the ages of 10 and 34.

Every day, 22 American military veterans take their own lives. That is 1 suicide every 65 minutes. This number is appalling and unacceptable. No matter what your stripes, these men and women put their lives on the line every day, for very little money and insufficient appreciation.

THE LACK OF MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES

Though suicide is obviously a profound problem in the United States, there is an unfortunate lack of resources for the mentally ill. At every clinic I’ve worked at, nearly every provider has decried the lack of options and availability for those who are on the edge. But, these physicians do their best. If one is depressed, and contemplating suicide, it is better to seek help from any Doctor than none at all. Every Doctor you will meet, every Nurse, every Medical Assistant; all of them will do their absolute best they can for you. I have worked among some of the best. They are dedicated to their craft, and to helping you heal as best as they possibly can.

Though we have come a very long way in understanding and accepting the existence of mental illness, we still have quite a ways to go. The social stigma still exists. The lack of awareness, though decreasing, is still present. There are often limited options and long waits to see a mental health professional. And, though I realize this is a subject of debate, healthcare in America can be egregiously expensive, and oftentimes, recovering from a mental illness takes in-depth and lengthy care.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

First and foremost, if you are having thoughts of suicide, and have made plans: CALL 911.

If you are depressed, or feel that life is not worth living: reach out for help. See a Doctor. See your religious counselor. Talk to a friend or family member you can trust.

If you are a survivor of losing someone to suicide, take care of yourself. It will take time to heal. As so above: reach out for help, wherever you can find it. Someone out there knows what you are going through. You are not alone.

In fact: Anyone suffering from depression or thinking of hurting themselves; please realize, you have value, you have a future, and you are not alone.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Veterans Help Line, for those currently serving: 800-342-9647

Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990

suicidepreventionlifeline.org

https://afsp.org/ (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/ (National Institute of Mental Health)

https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/data.asp (for veterans)

https://www.militaryveteranproject.org/22aday-movement.html (for veterans)

https://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-suicide-prevention (for teens and young adults)

Additionally, there are professional organizations dedicated to the education, destigmatizing, and healing of mental health conditions. One of the best is The Boca Recovery Center, at:

bocarecoverycenter.com

Their information on depression and addiction is outstanding:

As the saying goes: I would rather listen to your story than attend your funeral.

PROJECT SEMICOLON

Project Semicolon, stylized as ‘Project;’ is an American nonprofit organization known for its advocacy of mental health wellness and its focus as an anti-suicide initiative. It was founded in 2013 by Amy Bleuel of Wisconsin, who lost her father to suicide in 2003. Tragically, Bleuel herself committed suicide in 2017.

Project Semicolon defines itself as “dedicated to presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction and self-injury”, and “exists to encourage, love, and inspire.” A semicolon ( ; ) is used as a metaphor: the author could have ended the sentence, but chose not to. “The author is you and the sentence is your life.”

Today, one might see or notice people with the semicolon tattoo. Many celebrities have been seen with such a tattoo. I dislike it when entertainers use their positions of prominence to talk about politics, but if they are bringing awareness to mental illness, more power to them.

My heritage is far too Teutonic for a tattoo; hence, my necklace. I swear I’ve got a little Bigfoot in the family tree, somewhere…

https://projectsemicolon.com/

IGY6

IGY6, or: I’ve got your six (I’ve got your back) was inspired by project semicolon, created by military combat veterans to advocate for suicide prevention and awareness. One may occasionally see a veteran or first responder emblazoned with “IGY6;22.” The number 22 represents the number of combat veterans who commit suicide every day.

https://www.theigy6.com/

BROWN EYES, 2021

It was not until earlier this year that I accomplished something that I had neglected to do, perhaps unconsciously. I have lead an exciting and successful life; setbacks, here and there, to be sure, but with my new education and my new love of healthcare, I have a great future to look forward to, full of potential. But it occurred to me, 24 years later, that I never officially said goodbye.

It took a little digging on the internet, but I found it. I drove across town, and visited Brown Eyes’ grave.

There was an outpouring of emotion, to be sure, as memories came back. But there was also a sense of relief, of closure that I was not aware I needed. Her grave is on a beautiful, gentle hill, overlooking Seattle. It sits underneath a Japanese Holly tree, surrounded by trinkets and memories of those who had come by.

I said goodbye to Brown Eyes. I said I loved her, that I was not angry with her, and that it was her choice, but I wish she had made a different one. I imagined the conversation we might have had then, had she survived her illness, so long ago, as if we were two old friends, catching up on old times. I have absolutely no idea what happens in the world to come, but if we persist, in whatever form, after death, she will be the first person I hug.

Good bye, Brown Eyes! I remember your spirit, and our memories, both of which I will carry; your story is not over.

Dedicated to Hannah Elaine Harvey, 1974 – 1997

HIATUS

This will be my last blog post for the foreseeable future. Though I have loved writing my observations and thoughts on healthcare, it is time-consuming, and there are things I must move on to. All of you who enjoyed reading my posts, I can’t thank you enough. My website will still be there, and, somewhere down the road, I may post again. Thank you all, and do feel free to contact me.

Thank you all! Wash your hands! Get vaccinated! Take care of yourselves! Take care of each other! Bye for now….

THE FAILURE OF MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT: THE DIVORCE OF PSYCHIATRY AND PSYCHOTHERAPY

There is a massive problem with the practice of psychiatry in today’s modern healthcare industry. There are several reasons for this, which I will address in a moment, but first, let’s get a few things out of the way.

Many people have a very reactionary, negative opinion of the field of psychiatry. They feel that it does more harm than good. In today’s healthcare environment, they may have a point, but I am speaking in general terms. Psychiatry, to many, is a dangerous science that can damage your brain. Of course; many medical procedures can damage you if administered improperly. That’s why I went to school. Many people feel that psychiatrists have very little clue as to what they are doing. While it is true that the study of the brain, which has remained a difficult and emerging science for a very long time, and will continue to be so, there are millions of Americans who have benefited from what psychiatry does know, and what treatments it can provide. And still others feel as though psychiatry, and indeed, any treatment of the mind or emotions, should be out of the realm of medicine, and kept in either the family or church. While it is very true, and studies have confirmed this, that those of faith, or at least some level of healthy optimism about life, tend to heal much quicker from whatever affliction they may have, that does not mean that medical intervention is sometimes required. Nor does it mean that atheists do not heal.

Plenty of people have a negative opinion of healthcare in general. That is unfortunate. Many millions of people have benefited from the proper treatment of an affliction, and go on to live healthy and productive lives, despite an illness that would have been a death sentence one hundred years ago. The human body is a machine, an amazing construction, the triumph of life on Earth (although the debate about that is for another time). Whether by evolution or design, you and I, and everyone else on Earth, are amazing creatures, composed of practically countless processes, organs, chemical and electrical reactions, and things still yet to be discovered. However, just like any other form of life, like any artificial machine, like any magnificent creation of geology, things can, quite simply put, break down. Sooner or later, it happens to all of us. Have you ever thrown your back out? Well, so have 65 million other Americans. We are wondrous creations, but not entirely perfect. Healthcare plays a role in our repair, and improving our quality of life.

But back to psychiatry. The negative connotations I mentioned above are not entirely unfounded. The history of psychiatry is replete with practices that today seem barbaric, and would never be considered as an option for treatment. What is worse, in modern history, authoritarian regimes have tortured and killed untold numbers under the guise of psychiatry: Nazi Germany, The Soviet Union; even the CIA is guilty of using psychiatry for nefarious purposes.

However, like all healthcare, psychiatry is an evolving field. Healthcare, in essence, is an applied science. That is, it is a scientific endeavor, used for practical means. Many constructive gains have been made. However, the application of these discoveries, when applied to the practice of modern American healthcare, has been severely misappropriated.

I can’t get into the tired debate of whether or not mental illness exists. Believe what you will. Many people, intelligent people, will claim that there is no definitive diagnostic test to prove whether or not a mental illness exists. It is true that nearly all mental illnesses, particularly the behavioral ones, are diagnosed by interview and observation, or that form you occasionally fill out at your annual exam where you check the corresponding box as to whether you are happy or sad. However, you can get out the fancy medical equipment and see it for yourself. In people with anxiety, a part of the brain called the amygdala is overactive. In cases of depression, insufficient monoamines are developed in the neurons of the brain. One could utilize these ludicrously expensive machines if you want to see the proof, but good luck getting insurance to pay for this.

Mental illness exists. I was once speaking to a friend of mine, who had a negative opinion of psychiatry, and said to just get that person with depression some dancing lessons, a cat, and an exercise program. Okay, Tom Cruise. You tell the guy with the gashes in his wrists who’s hanging from a noose to get some dancing lessons, B-vitamins, and some duct tape, and I’m sure he’ll be fine. Sheesh. But I needn’t be snide. Annually, roughly 49,000 Americans take their lives each year. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States; however, it is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 to 34. There are, on average, 132 suicides per day. Perhaps worst of all, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans die from suicide every day.

To be fair, engaging in activities that one enjoys that are healthy, socializing with others, becoming involved in a community art or political program; these are great ways to alleviate the symptoms of depression. So too with the natural remedies; regular exercise, a healthy lifestyle, artistic expression, prayer and faith, whatever you might like. But many people are too depressed to even get out of bed.

Besides depression, anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric disorder in the United States. They affect 40 million people. Untreated, this illness will damage those around the afflicted, cost industry labor, and overburden the healthcare industry. People having panic attacks often end up in the emergency room. The number of those with anxiety disorders is no doubt growing, considering the trauma of the last year and a half.

And we’re not even talking about schizophrenia, ADHD, PTSD, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and a host of others. Intelligent people with fancy degrees will argue that the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, is cluttered with debatable mental disorders. It contains nearly 300 diagnostic entries. It should be noted that the ICD, the International Classification of Diseases, contains about 80,000 entries.

But I am severely digressing. The main point I am getting at with this article is the unfortunate practice of psychiatry that one will often encounter when they visit their regular clinic or provider.

Somewhere along the way, a great disservice was done to the field of mental health. Psychiatry and psychology were divorced. This is profoundly wrong, and does not do nearly enough to heal the mentally and emotionally afflicted.

These two sciences, psychiatry and behavioral psychology, go hand in hand. They are deeply intertwined. You cannot simply address psychiatric needs while at the same time giving little consideration, or even downright ignoring, the psychology that goes along with psychiatric suffering. It is analogous to a physician simply giving a person with diabetes insulin, and telling them to monitor their blood sugar at home, while not counseling them on their dietary habits. So with psychiatry. You cannot simply throw pills at them, without addressing the psychology, usually damaged, that accompanies it. This makes no sense.

Unfortunately, that is the solution of much of modern healthcare: throw a pill at it. Also, due to the profit motive, patients are generally allotted 15 to 20 minutes for a visit with a healthcare provider. That is not enough time. The psychiatrist, or MD with a specialty in psychiatry, may ask them how they’re feeling, how’s the job, etc, but that is insufficient time to dig deep enough to treat the illness.

Psychotherapists exist, of course. However, they are harder to find, as insurance will still balk at their treatment, or they are booked far in advance due to the dire need, owing to the stressful times we live in.

Some clinics will not even have a dedicated psychiatrist. Your primary care physician will treat you. I’m sure that person cares about their patients, and has studied, at whatever length, both psychiatry and psychology, but they are much more likely to just throw pills at you, tell you to keep a journal or do some art or something, and come back and see them in a month.

I was diagnosed with a mental illness in my early 20’s. It should be noted that there is no ‘cure’ per se, but there are treatments to alleviate the symptoms, mental exercises to retrain your thinking, so to go on and live a healthy and happy life. I was able to do so. Despite a crippling depression, in a way, I was very fortunate. I was first treated by a seasoned psychiatrist, whom I called Dr. Dispensapill, who knew that psychiatry and psychology cannot be separated. He would see me for an hour. We would talk briefly about medications. Then we spend the bulk of the visit speaking about psychological challenges I might be facing. Then we would wrap it up with any medication or lifestyle changes to consider.

His is a disappearing style. You can still find psychiatrists like him, but they are rarely covered by insurance, and they are frequently booked far out.

Dr. Dispensapill, north of 80 years old, recently ceased being able to practice. It was difficult to find help for my mental health afterwards, but I have found a combination that works. I see, for 15 minutes at a time every few weeks, Dr. Deer In The Headlights, who knows little of psychotherapy, it seems, but knows all about the different medications and how they work. She got a 4.0 in advanced chemistry, I guess. I have also been able to find a very skilled psychotherapist, Dr. How Many PhD’s Does One Actually Need. She has been fantastic.

More than one of the providers that I work with have complained to their superiors that there is a woefully insufficient staff of human resources to refer psychiatric and deeply troubled psychological patients to. They will help the best they can, but they are there to treat skin rashes and broken bones.

This is a great problem in American healthcare. We have made a damaging mistake. The mentally ill are not getting the proper treatment that they so often need. The separation of psychiatry and psychology is, in my low-level practitioner opinion, the biggest systemic mistake modern American healthcare has made. You can’t treat one without treating the other, and vice versa.

Until we fix this problem, and there are other, massive problems with American healthcare, the treatment of the mentally ill will remain insufficient. Many more will take their lives. Millions will continue to be crippled with anxiety, living tortuous lives. And the dangerously mentally ill, with no options for treatment, will continue to commit violence.

I’m not sure why this happened. It shouldn’t have. Just my opinion.

Be good to each other.

National suicide hot-line: 800-273-8255

The Death of My Father and the Five Stages of Grief

 

February 12th, 1PM, 2021

I finally get to see my dying father. He and my mother have been living in an assisted living facility for several years, and when the Covid-19 lock-downs began, all visitations were suspended in March of 2020. They persist today. I haven’t been able to give either of them a hug for a very long time. As my father has had several recent strokes, and his health and cognition have declined, it has been very difficult, emotionally painful, not being able to see him. He went from the hospital back to the assisted living facility. I could not visit him. But today, as he is now officially in palliative care, the facility has made special arrangements and provisions for me and my family to see him. It was hard to knock on their apartment’s door, as I knew what was coming. But, as she greeted me, I hugged my mother today for the first time in almost a year. And then I saw my father.

In 1969, Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book called: On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross had made created a devoted career to caring for and treating the helpless. She began her career as a psychiatric resident at the Manhattan State Hospital, working with patients that modern healthcare of the time had all but cast aside; the schizophrenic and what were called ‘hopeless patients,’ a delightful little reference for those with a terminal illness. Kübler-Ross was shocked by the treatment of mentally ill patients and those that were given no hope of recovery. The compassion this instilled in her would define her professional career.

There was my father. The palliative care division of the hospital had set up a hospital bed, with the oxygen tanks and the monitors stashed in the corner. Neither were hooked up. I looked at the man lying on the bed. This powerful man, this strong yet caring, sensitive, and compassionate man, lay dying before me, withering away, one foot already in the world to come. His skin was blotchy and pale. His breathing was shallow and irregular; I knew this to be Cheyne-Stokes respiration. His hair was unkempt, his beard was a tangled mess of whiskers. At death’s door, here was my disheveled father, his body rapidly giving out.

In 1965, Kübler-Ross became an instructor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine.

She continued her work with terminally ill patients. Motivated by the lack of instruction in medical schools on the subject of death and dying, her research progressed into a series of seminars with her research and interviews with terminally ill patients. In 1969, she published her famous work, On Death and Dying.

I sit on the edge of the bed, and gently grasp my father’s hand. His glassy eyes come to life for a moment, and focus on me. I ask him how he is feeling. There are words, mumbles that take great effort to come from him, but they do not make sense. I tell him that he has been a wonderful father. I tell him that all he has taught me about life; compassion, reverence for all living creatures, a calm sense of humor, and a passion to learn more. I tell him that this is the best inheritance I could have, and that I am very lucky to have been his son. His face remains expressionless, and yet a I see tear forming in his right eye. His recent strokes had caused him to have problems with his vision. Or maybe this shedding of a single tear was a goodbye.

Sadly, the history of healthcare is replete with horrific, barbarous treatment of the mentally ill. Every so often, someone like Kübler-Ross will shift the paradigm, and the mindset of not only the medical community, but society at large, will begin to change. Kübler-Ross’s work with not only the deeply mentally ill, but those who faced a terminal illness, was rather groundbreaking for the time. She was greatly motivated by the lack of instruction in medical schools on death and dying. Feelings, emotions. You can’t measure them. You can’t see them. Yet they are there, and how a person faces death is one of the most powerful challenges a person can experience.

I lean down and give my father a hug, though his arms cannot embrace me. I tell him that he has been a fantastic father. Though he already had one foot in the world to come, he strained to speak something he has always said whenever I express my love or gratitude for him. Though he labors to speak, I hear him, barely: “Oh, I’ll do in a pinch.” Perhaps part of his brain was still working and that response was purely reflex. Or perhaps some part of his soul understood me, appreciated what I had said, and was doing its best to say goodbye.

In her book, Kübler-Ross describes five terms, or steps, that a terminally ill patient may go through when faced with a deadly diagnosis. Over time, her process has grown to include not only those that are dying, but anyone who is facing loss or grief of any kind. The acronym is commonly know as ‘DABDA,’ and were originally outlined as follows:

1) Denial

2) Anger

3) Bargaining

4) Depression

5) Acceptance

Of course, no model of human behavior is perfect and scientifically predictable. The human brain remains a great mystery, and human psychology even more so. Some may experience part of these phases, some may go back and forth, and some may experience only one or two. Examples of such, perhaps imagining that a patient has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, may go something like this:

1) Denial: “That’s impossible. That diagnosis must be wrong. There’s no way in hell I could get cancer.”

2) Anger: “Why me? How could this happen? Who do I blame?!?”

3)Bargaining: “I know if I just change this part of my lifestyle, I could actually beat this thing!”

4) Depression: “I’m going to die soon, What’s the point?” The individual has recognized their mortality.

5) Acceptance: “I can’t fight it. I will accept it. I will prepare for it as best as I can.” A calm, stable emotional acceptance may come over the afflicted.

As I mentioned, this model can apply to anyone facing a grief or a tragic situation; the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a pet; any situation that involves loss that one has no power or control over. A fantastic example is from a book by writer David Kessler, who worked extensively with Kübler-Ross leading up to her death. Regarding this damned virus that has ravaged our world and has kept me some seeing my father wither away, Kessler writes:

“There’s denial, which we saw a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed. Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”

My eyes meet my father’s for one last time. Though he may not be able to see it through my surgical mask, I am smiling a goodbye. His eyes, though glassy and crusted with rheum, blink at me. Perhaps the best goodbye he say. I turn and leave his bedroom, looking back at my father one more time, and enter the living room. I embrace my mother and cry.

Everyone grieves differently; as I indicated earlier. One might feel one or all of Kübler-Ross’s stages. Or perhaps none at all. Kübler-Ross’s work was important and seminal. Since her work, psychologists, the healthcare industry, and society at large (to a degree) have been more open to talking about, researching, and sharing their experiences on death; for it is not the end of life, but a part of it.

I sit in a chair in the living room, exhausted. My mother brings me a cup of coffee, and takes a seat herself. I have compiled what I call a ‘Dad-List,’ a listing of tasks that need to be taken care of when someone dies. There’s a long list of people, friends and distant relatives, that need to know. Social Security needs to know. Dad’s teacher’s union pension needs to know. The credit union needs to know. And through it all, you have to find some way to grieve.

Not to pile on the psychology 101, but there are many defense mechanisms a person will use when confronted with difficult circumstances or behaviors. My ‘Dad-List,’ though an important part of this process, is an example of intellectualization. With this mechanism, a person uses reasoning to avoid confronting emotional conflicts and stressful situations. A person might focus on details and logistics, important though they may be, instead of allowing themselves to feel the grief and despair.

I set my Dad-List off to the side. My mother and I share a long conversation. Both of us take turns bringing up the many wonderful memories we’ve had with my father. Though he still alive in the adjacent room, both of us speak as if he is gone. We know the time is short. But there are so many wonderful memories. It’s almost like we’re trying to keep him alive, by pushing the positive, and not talking of the decaying husk lying in the next room, struggling to breath its last.

I have a great phone conversation with my psychiatrist, Dr. Dispensapill, when I get home. We talk about grieving, and what I might expect when my father finally goes. He has been a great help to me; he has helped me overcome both a crippling anxiety and depression disorder, and, unlike too many psychiatrists who just hand you some pills and tell you to keep a journal or something, Dr. Dispensapill is also a skilled psychotherapist. And yet he tells me there is one thing he cannot fix: a broken heart. But we talk at great length about grieving.

For those of you who have lost a parent due to old age and infirmity, it can be a powerful event to witness. You grow up thinking your parents are immortal, and yet one day, there they lay in front of you, knocking on the door of the world to come. I had always seen my father as a physically, intellectually, and emotionally powerful man. And to see him as I did that day… There is a lesson to be learned there, but to be honest, the wounds are still fresh, and I have not yet had time to truly understand them.

February 13th, 2021 – 6:00 AM

My phone rings. The caller ID says that it’s my mother. My heart freezes. There is only one reason she would be calling me this early. I answer. She says; “It’s over for us. He’s gone.”

It’s been a tough few days, but I’m managing. The outpouring of support from friends and family has been a huge help. But I feel numb. Dr. Dispensapill said that this is normal, to feel numb for a while. Then, as my mind begins to process the loss, emotions will come out here and there, in many forms. If I feel anything these days, it’s a little bit of stunned, a little bit of sadness, and a whole lot of fatigue. It’s been an exhausting experience.

But, in a way, I also feel a sense of relief. I am relieved that my father is finally at peace, and I am relieved that my family no longer has to watch him decay further into such a poor physical state.

Please allow me to return to Kübler-Ross’s stage’s of grieving. Like I said, I am still numb, and emotions are slowly coming out, but much of what I feel applies to her five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

1) Denial: I really don’t feel this. I know that he is gone. What helps me in this regard is knowing that his health had been deteriorating, his body withering away, for some time. There was no sense in denying it.

2) Anger: I feel none. I am very fortunate in this regard. Many times, when someone loses a parent, there be anger or bouts of acting out, particularly if the child feels that there were unresolved issues, or if the child harbored resentment over the deceased parent’s actions of some sort. My father and I had a fantastic relationship.

3) Bargaining: I must admit, I feel a bit of this. What if they had given him a little longer before they began the morphine death process? What if he had come out this decayed state? What if some physician had tried something new or novel? But I cannot hold these thoughts as rational. It was quite clear that my father was ready to go.

4) Depression: Yup. You bet. It’s not a clinical depression, like I’ve struggled with in the past, however. It is more of an emptiness. I still feel numb, yet the depression will manifest in different ways. I’ve been extremely exhausted ever since he died. It takes great effort to get things done, even trivial things like washing the dishes. I wanted to get this post written the day he died. It’s obviously taken longer.

5) Acceptance: Definitely. My father has been ready to go for quite some time. I could see it coming. I have expected it for a while now. It’s not acceptance in an “I’m okay, things will be alright, let’s move on and have fun” kind of acceptance. It is reality, and it’s what I got.

So I mainly go back and forth between depression and acceptance. But the truth is, everyone grieves differently. There is no perfect handbook that deals with the feelings of dying and death in an arithmetic style. Many things are never quite that simple.

I have a long process of grieving ahead of me. But I know that my father would want me to continue on, to keep learning, to keep trying to help others.

I must finish with one final, interesting thought. My background is in healthcare. I believe in science. I am an empiricist. I can’t quite pull the trigger on atheism, so I consider myself an agnostic. However, that does not mean I don’t have an open mind. There are many things about the world we live in that we don’t quite understand. Call it the supernatural, call it the paranormal, whatever you like. Maybe science will someday be able to measure these things, these phenomena. Or maybe they will forever remain our of our feeble human understanding of the universe. The morning my father died, I texted my oldest brother with the news. As he was replying, the power in his house went out. Later that day, my other older brother and I, who I share an apartment with, were discussing the logistics of who we needed to contact. As I moved through our living room, I knocked an old cane of the its mounting on the wall, close to our kitchen. This wooden can was hand-crafted by my great-grandfather in 1898. I watched in horror as it clashed to the ground. Yet it did not break. My brother and I agreed we should find a better place to display it. And of course, the day my father died, Seattle was covered in a beautiful blanket of pure white snow. There were no cars, and the neighborhood dogs were frolicking in the snowbound street. My father loved dogs. It seems then, that day, he was having fun discovering his newfound gifts, granted to him in the world to come.

I’ll miss you, Dad. I will love you always.

To my father: Richard King Schall

3/05/1928 – 2/13/2021

SEATTLE WILL KILL YOU

This used to be peaceful town. I’m a native; there’s not many of us left. I’ve seen this small town turn into a small big town, a place where rage, anger, and death lurk around every corner. The character, the small-town charm, is long gone. Seattle is not the city I grew up in. Seattle will kill you dead.

I remember when my beloved hometown was just a blip on the map. Then, around the early 90’s, it all exploded. Microsoft. Amazon. Starbucks. The Reign Man and The Glove. And grunge. What could have been a fantastic legacy has left Seattle a smoldering wreck. And it will kill you. Kill you dead.

I’m not really talking about crime, although that’s gotten pretty bad. We have an all but useless police department that’s basically given up. People, whatever their cause, can take over entire neighborhoods. We have a serious drug problem, tent cities on every block, and the dangerously mentally ill walking the street. And a city government, a bunch of ineffective freeloaders, that’s more concerned with bike lanes that fixing our problems.

But, somehow, we’re still a bunch of smug bastards. New York City? Yeah… that rings a bell. We love our little war-zone. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of things about Seattle that are fantastic. But that’s not what I’m writing about today. I’m writing about the Seattle that will kill you..

Oh, there’s the obvious ways, that’s for sure. This city is a short drive from 5 active volcanoes, any one of which could wake up and commit mass murder, particularly that ticking time-bomb known as Mt. Rainier. It’s a beautiful mountain now, but someday it might pull out the big guns. And earthquakes? Yeah, we got those. Seismologists have been saying we are due for the big one any time now. And then… we are dead.

But honestly, that’s not what I’m writing about, either. My focus in life is on healthcare. And there are a disproportionate amount of diseases and conditions in Seattle that will kill you.

There are the mental health issues, that’s for sure. We just don’t get a lot of sunlight. Cold air comes in form the Pacific, barely makes it over the Olympic Mountains, and is trapped by the towering Cascade Mountains, creating a sort of settled fog of gray and mist. As a result, Seattle only gets about 152 days of sunlight per year. A lack of sunlight can exacerbate mental health issues. Seattle has the 14th highest rate of depression in the United States (https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/depression-nation-16-saddest-states/3/) Seattle also has one of the highest rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder. But, believe it or not, Seattle does not even crack the top 15 rates of suicide (https://www.businessinsider.com/most-suicidal-us-cities-2011-7#15-tulsa-okla-1). I can attribute this to Seattle’s incredible system of healthcare, led by the University of Washington. There’s a saying out west; if you have to get sick, at least get sick in Seattle.

But, Seattle will still kill you.

There are 3 very dangerous diseases that occur in Seattle at a disproportionate rate, a much higher rate, than the rest of the United States. (https://www.seattlemag.com/article/washington-hotbed-three-dangerous-diseases) It has long been a mystery as to why these diseases strike Seattle more than any other city, but theories are emerging. Let me address all 3:

1: Skin Cancer. This one is fairly obvious. Seattleites don’t wear sunscreen, because we don’t know what that is. On a rare sunny, hot day, everyone in the city is outdoors, soaking up the rare, pure sunlight. But, even on the days when it is slightly overcast, the ultraviolet rays of the sun can still strike exposed skin. There is also the concept of genealogy. Many long term residents of Seattle are of Nordic heritage. A study was made in 1991 (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1985867/ that showed higher rates of skin cancer among the Nordic peoples of Europe. As a result, skin cancer is very prevalent in Seattle.

2: Tuberculosis. This is a relatively rare, but extremely dangerous disease. Left untreated, the mortality rate is as high as 50%. It is caused by a bacteria that attacks primarily the lungs, and other parts of the body as well. The rate of this disease has been dropping in the United States for the last 18 years, but it continues to climb in Seattle. This one remains a bit of a mystery. However, it is thought that because Seattle is a diverse, progressive city, welcoming immigrants from all over the world, the disease may be sneaking in that way, from parts of the world where TB is more common. But that is just a theory, and a rather provocative one. Many cities across America welcome immigrants, yet their rate of tuberculosis remains low. We’ll have to get back to you on this one.

3: Multiple Sclerosis. This can be a devastating disease. It is not well understood, but it is believed to be a type of auto-immune disorder that attacks the structures that protects nerve cells. There is no known cure, but treatment can alleviate the symptoms of those afflicted. Be that as it may, the life expectancy of those with MS is shortened by about 10 years. About 1 million Americans have this condition; 12,000 of them live in Seattle. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has said that MS is more prevalent in Seattle than almost anywhere else on Earth. This has long puzzled epidemiologists. However, recent studies by the Mayo Clinic (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/multiple-sclerosis/expert-answers/vitamin-d-and-ms/faq-20058258) have shown that there may be a link between MS and a lack of vitamin D. Vitamin D comes from sunlight; I have already established that Seattle does not get a lot of sun. However, this doesn’t fit when you consider cities like Anchorage, Stockholm, or a host of Russian cities. Recent studies have also tried to link MS to Nordic heritage, with limited success.

Hey, just for morbid laughs, let’s not forget that Seattle was ground zero for the Covid outbreak in the United States. And murder hornets. The fun never ends!

So there you have it. Seattle is home to the highest rates of 3 of the most deadly and debilitating diseases in the United States. But please, feel free to visit our wonderful city anytime. Just remember: Seattle will kill you.

Medical Terminology (and the ancient Romans were kind of jerks)

Well, the third quarter is underway, and so far it’s going great! I’m taking 2 courses; one is Pharmacology and Medication Administration (this is what the chemical is, this is how I will inject you with it) and Administrative/Clinical review (this class is a lot of fun –  the instructor basically sets up exam rooms, and we practice on-boarding patients; the instructor, playing the MD, then gives us a procedure to carry out with the patient), which ties together everything I’ve learned so far. We are also studying medical terminology, and where it comes from. Not sure why that wasn’t covered in the first quarter; perhaps they just wanted us to get familiar with the jargon before we closely studied the etymology.

Everything in healthcare seems to have a needlessly fancy name, but there’s a good reason for that. Just about every bit of terminology a practitioner uses is either Greek or Latin in origin. There is also the occasional eponymous term, a word named after the person who discovered/invented it (Pap test, Alzheimer’s, Tommy John surgery). I’m oversimplifying the history a bit, but a long time ago, when Hippocrates and his colleagues figured out that illnesses and diseases were actually environmental and not divine punishment (although that unfortunate concept still exists today), and began to actually study the human body, the ‘English’ of the day was either Greek or Roman. Many people in the known world (which was much smaller then, than our own) spoke one of these two languages; much like a good portion of the known world speaks English today. This way, a physician in Rome could correspond with a physician in Roman occupied England, who perhaps spoke a local dialect, and they would know what they were talking about. The practice continues today.

The word ‘doctor’ comes from the Latin ‘docere,’ which means: to teach. It also shares its roots with the word ‘docile.’ The thinking here is that one cannot properly learn and absorb information if one’s mind is not calm and focused on the matter at hand.

But, as it turns out, the ancient Romans could be a little flippant. The word ‘hyster’ comes from the Latin ‘hystera,’ the word they used for uterus (think: hysterectomy). The Romans believed that women got moody and emotional because of their menstrual cycle; therefore, the word ”hystera’ shares a root with the word ‘hysteria.’ Well, that’s charming. Sure, some women do occasionally get a bit out of sorts on their menstrual cycle, but that is not a character flaw or an indication of a psychological or psychiatric disorder. A woman’s endocrine system is simply in overdrive, if you will, forcing an ovum into the uterus. So there you have it. The etymology of medical terminology is fascinating, but glib, dismissive opinions are nothing new.

Wash your hands!

3rd qtr so far

Cute Animal Stories and Physiology

cat nursing puppies

The link above is a very cutesy video, but it had me reaching for my textbook.

According to this video, the mother cat had recently lost her kindle (I love collective nouns) and was, quite naturally, profoundly depressed. This animal foster family took the cat in, and found the cat to be needy, sad and distressed. It was only after the introduction of a litter of puppies that had lost their mother (what is this, a Disney movie?) that the cat came around.

There is an endocrine gland (that means it makes hormones) in the middle of your brain called the pituitary gland, answering to your CNS by way of the hypothalamus, a bridge between the CNS and the endocrine system. The pituitary gland is often called the master gland, because it does a lot of stuff, probably gets paid more. One of the hormones it secretes is called oxytocin. In mammalian females, oxytocin plays a major role in commanding the body for pregnancy, birth, and nursing. However, in both genders, oxytocin, by the very nature of its primary function, also engenders feelings of attachment, belonging, and intimacy. This cat was flooded with oxytocin, was depressed, and needed attention. When the puppies were introduced, the oxytocin returned to its primary role, and the cat became a surrogate mother. At this time, the cat’s pituitary gland produced another hormone called prolactin, and enabled the animal to nurse the puppies.

I’m not trying to reduce the powerful emotions this cat felt, emotions that would also easily occur in a human being, by explaining it away in technical terms. I’m not trying to take the ‘awww’ out of it. Just two things:

1: It is profoundly interesting that external, emotional events have a direct, physiological impact on how your body functions. Your emotions are very real, can be very strong, and, if you need proof, take a look inside and see the physiological process. If someone tells you to suck it up, if someone shames you for mental illness, if someone tells you to stop feeling a certain way, then they are A) ignorant of how the body works, and B) an asshole. “It’s all in your head!” Well, of course. Everything is. But that’s ontology, for another time.

2: It’s also profoundly interesting that we’re looking at two completely different species here. That’s incredible. That speaks to the strength of the survival instinct, but that’s for another time.

Well, I’m procrastinating again. Gotta hit the books. Wash your hands!

Fight or Flight in America as a Sociological Phenomenon

Crisis Fatigue

The link above is an interesting article. The physiological phenomenon known as ‘fight or flight’ exists in most living creatures, and is deeply ingrained into every human being. It’s a crucial component of the survival instinct, and has been for hundreds of thousands of years, existing as well as in our progenitor ancestors.

As simply as I can put it: Your 5 senses and your intuition will perceive a threat. This gets crunched in your consciousness, a poorly understood concept. This threat then gets sent to your amygdala, a part of your brain, for verification. This triggers a response in another part of your brain, the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus wears many hats (and we really don’t know how), but it kind of serves as a command center for a lot of things. In this sense, it triggers the fight or flight mechanism. Admiral Hypothalamus will activate your sympathetic nervous system, a part of your electrical wiring, which fires up your adrenal glands, which generally have about 8 cups of coffee in them already. Your adrenal glands will freak out and push the panic button, and secrete a number of hormones, mainly adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. The adrenaline will ramp up your blood pressure and your pulse, and accelerate the actions of your lungs and muscles. The cortisol will adjust your glucose (stuff you get from food) to provide a burst of energy. The norepinephrine will flood your brain, increasing alertness and response times. Every other system takes a back seat, including rational thought. At this point, you’re ready to kick some ass. This goes back to the time when our ancestors had to face off grizzly bears. We don’t have to do that anymore (except for those idiots in Yellowstone who want a better picture), but fight or flight is very much with us today, in response to both physical (a mugger, a mean dog, road rage) or emotional (fight with your spouse, boss wants to see you, the principal called) experiences. Eventually, the response will abate, and you are left exhausted and weak.

Problems happen when people are under constant fight or flight, and the response does not get a chance to wear off. This will result in anxiety, depression, PTSD, heart problems, or all of the above.

I know nothing of sociology. However, this article posits the idea that American society has been living under a steady, constant fight or flight response ever since 2020 started. We are now suffering from the effects of 3 social phenomenons that are causing Americans a huge amount of stress. It started with the emergence of a virus we thought we may be able to control, but we were very wrong. Then, racism reared its ugly head once again, when George Floyd (and, let’s face it, he’s not the only one) was murdered by a police officer. This has triggered a massive social disruption of anger and violence. Perhaps worst of all, the federal leadership (dammit, GOP, I hate to say I told you so… I take no glee in his failures) has been fully exposed as incompetent, dysfunctional, and unwilling or unable to rise to these challenges. In fact, our President’s behavior has gotten worse, and it is clear that he is in way over his head. In the meantime, the violence continues, and the pandemic has now killed 111k Americans. At this point, things do not show any signs of significant improvement or healing. As with an individual, problems will arise when the fight or flight response does not get a chance to settle down. We are seeing that now, in the hatred, anger, depression, isolation, anxiety and general “I’m pissed off today” attitude in nearly every American. If things do not settle down, the damage to society, as with an individual, will be massive, and will take longer to heal than we can imagine.

Well, I’m just babbling instead of doing my homework. Sorry for the long post. I better hit the books. Wash your hands!