December 29, 2011


Rocky Mountain National Park

Oh noose, tied myself in, tied myself too tight
Looking kind of anxious in your cross armed stance
Like a bad tempered prom queen at a homecoming dance
And I claim I'm not excited with my life anymore
So I blame this town, this job, these friends
The truth is it's myself.
And I'm trying to understand myself
And pinpoint where I am.
By the time I get things figured out
I've changed the whole damn plan.
Oh noose, tied myself in, tied myself too tight
Talking shit about a pretty sunset
Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon
I've changed my mind so much I can't even trust it
My mind changed me so much I can't even trust myself
- by isaac brock

December 23, 2011

the selfishness of grief; or, I gave all

Close my eyes for a while
Force from the world a patient smile

But I gave you all
But you rip it from my hands
And you swear it's all gone
And you rip out all I have
Just to say that you've won

Well now you've won
- mumford & sons

     The early phases of grief are dominated by pain surrounded by loss.  A deep visceral, gutteral pain that threatens to cleave the body in two.  It's dominated by a sense of shock, fury, and profound loss.  But then life goes on, as that damnable axiom (under)states.  And therein lies the dilemma of latter grief.  It's selfish.  It's not just about the lost loved one.  It's about me and how I relate to the world.  I want to protect what I have left but the grief still has me its iron clad grasp.  How do I relate to the world while succumbing to grief?  Why won't my grief just leave me alone and let me study?  Why can't I just get past this turn in the road?  How can I remain true to my grief while juggling being a student, a husband, a father, a son, a human being?  Haven't I given enough?  Why can't I just get back to living my life?  
     Clamoring for answers from grief is about as useful as asking my dog to solve a polynomial equation.  She just lies there and wags her tail.  Kinda futile, to say the least.  But life demands that we keep going.  My training is ever ratcheting its pace fasterfasterfasterfaster, my dad still has cancer and (hopefully) is approaching a stem cell transplant soon, my wife still lives her life, my son still needs a father.....But there ever present is the grief that demands utter and complete obeisance.  It's not enough to say, 'yes, I feel the grief' and then move on.  It requires of the soul to relinquish all that brings joy and pleasure.  It thirsts for the very essence of my being.  It's not enough for give part of me.  It wants it all.  And after having it all, it still is not sated.  It demands even more yet.

December 22, 2011

the loneliness of grief

     "Why didn't you tell me it was this bad?" I asked my wife.  "I'd like to hope that I was at least somewhat supportive, even if I didn't understand at the time."  The time to which I was referring was an incident some years back.  My wife had lost someone incredibly close to her in a very, very tragic way.  And it was far too early in this person's life.  He was about my son's age.  About six months after the death, I remember seeing her very....well, unmotivated for anything in life.  (There's that word anhedonia again.)  At the time, I had no idea what she was going through.  How could anyone know what this is like until they experience it?
     And my wife's answer will stick with me because it's true.  I don't want it to be true and I'm not sure when, or even if, I would've figured this out on my own.  But the longer it sits with me, the truer it gets.  "I didn't tell you because you couldn't understand......and in the end, there's no one to go through the grief with you except yourself."  Tears began to well up in both of our eyes.  "You're there and it's only you and your grief alone.  No one else."
     Don't get me wrong.  I have some wonderfully caring people who wouldn't hesitate one moment to help me out.  And I greatly appreciate it and they do help out in their own ways.  I've leaned on more than a few different shoulders.  But my wife is right.  There is The Path of Grief that you and you alone walk down.  No one else is able to accompany you there.  You can relate to others about the pitfalls and dangerous spots.  You can ask about their own stories on that path.  There even may be similar twists and turns on that journey.  But in the end, on that dark path is you and your grief alone.

December 21, 2011

finish line

     In the wilds of a Colorado backcountry trail this past summer, the soles of my hiking boots decide to separate from their respective shoe bodies.  Thank goodness for duct tape.  It's MacGyver'ed me out of many a backcountry problem - torn tent on a stormy evening, blister on the feet, burn on the foot, ripped backpack, etc. 
     Upon finishing exams - 6 in 10 days, and successfully, I might add - my particular soul also felt its own separation while coping with newly discovered territories of grief.  Ravines, cliffs, and caves of impenetrable darkness that I never knew even existed.  Existential silver, sticky, tensile stuff is holding me together.  Strong stuff, and that's a good thing because I sure need it.  I sure hope it doesn't give out.  But then, duct tape never does give out, does it?  Because you can always whip out more.

December 20, 2011

     On my way to yet another exam, the traffic was flowing freely, much like the tears that ran down my face.  As usual, they came out of nowhere.  Before my morning tea had even wet my lips, memories of my brother haunted my waking state.  Not just tears.  Gut wrenching sobs with fists full of destructive anger.  No bones broken.  The bathroom tile is sturdy. 
    Exam?  How am I going to take an exam like this?  Ariving early, I am in no mood to be around other students.  Without any conscious thought, I walk over to MD Anderson.  My feet chose the path for me.  I pass through those familiar doors not as a brother, not as a son, not as a doctor-in-training.  Not as anything other than the most broken parts of myself. 
     Where to go where eyes streaked red with tears (and stress) will not garner attention?  The chapel.  I haven't been in there since my brother was offered the choice of "going down swinging".  I sit one seat over from where I sat on that ruinous day, almost as if that old vestige of me was still sitting in vigil behind the phantom of my brother slumped over in a wheelchair while the memory of our mother is crumpled over him. 
     What do I do now?  I scroll through my brother's iphone.  (It will always be his iphone, no matter how much I use it.  It's become a talisman of sorts.)  I come across a guided meditation on grief.  Seems as good a time as any.  Shortly into it, I'm instructed to imagine a guide.  Someone to help me on this path.  Of course, my brother comes to mind.  Thoughts and emotions stream out of me rapid fire.  'How am I supposed to do this?  Why did you die?  Why the pain?  Why did you have to die like THIS?  And finally, I miss you.' 
     And in return, I receive no big brotherly advice.  No words of encouragement.  No solace.  His response is, 'how do you think I feel?  I lost everything.' 
    'Yeah, I know.  I know."  I dry my eyes, take a deep breath, and wander back over to my school to take an exam.

December 10, 2011

2 down, 4 to go

75 questions over diagnosing diseases based solely on physical findings.  Unfortunately, "I need to run some tests" was not in any of the answer choices.

December 9, 2011

1 down, 5 to go

Ugh.  101 questions over psychiatry.  That didn't go well.  And I'm going to go out on a limb that the class average sunk right along with mine.  We'll see.

December 8, 2011

a not so subtle metaphor

     By all conventional wisdom, this monarch caterpillar shouldn't be.  Frost has lightly blanketed my garden on multiple nights, winter starting the decaying process of the butterfly weed upon which it depends for sustenance.  Surprisingly, I saw at least a dozen cats yesterday and figured last night, the coldest yet, would be the one to send them off gently into that cold dark winter night.  Somehow this one endured.  It shouldn't be.  It should be in Mexico overwintering in warmer climes or it should be dead.  But it's not.  It's stuck here in my garden with the dying butterfly weeds.  It's not where it wants to be, if ever a butterfly could want.  It's certainly not where it's supposed to be based on the migratory patterns.  An existential crisis if ever there was one.  It must struggle to endure its dying source of nourishment.  It must find an enclave protected from the elements in which to create its chrysalis.  It must endure until weather warms and favors growth over decay.  And finally, it must emerge out the other side transformed into something else.  But first, to endure.

December 6, 2011


III. Bereavement
     As death of a loved one is filled with anguish and pain it should come as no surprise that grief is one of the most painful human emotions.  It is not clear how long grief should last (even if the category of 2-6 months is currently popular).

     The final lecture from my Behavioral Science class this block was about grief.  How appropriate.  And the above came from the reading.  The two to six months part is laughable to me, as it was to the psychiatrist who gave the lecture.  "My dad passed away during my residency and it takes a lot longer than 2-6 months.  I'm not sure where they got this number," she informed us.  The lecture then delved into how we as physicians need to try to distinguish appropriate grief from a major depressive disorder in our patients.  A very real and substantial part of me appreciates the contributions of a medical model of looking at the darker aspects of moods.  It has utility and it has value.  I've seen what happens when depression goes untreated and results in suicide.
     But as I read more and more about grief vs. depression, I began to think that there's something lacking in substance to the medical model.  Medicine seeks to treat or event prevent diseases.  If there's a broken bone, we reset the bone, immobilize it and allow it to heal properly.  For viral infections, we administer vaccines to eradicate the scurge of polio.  Antibiotics have made rheumatic heart disease a thing of the past. 
     But how does that work for someone's psyche?  The psyche is broken and we seek to fix it.  There's a certain material logic to it.  If someone is suicidal, we'd certainly like to prevent that.  But taking the "fixit" analogy can cut the journey short when 'fixing' equals 'happy'.  There is something quintessentially dark about the human spirit.  Jung called it the shadow side and the older I get, the more I think there's something to it.  Our society places way too much emphasis on being happy or content as the goal of life.  Pain avoidance, I suppose.  There's even a whole body of medicine trying to link positive moods with life extenstion, nevermind the countless self-help books on being happy or positive.  But life is more than the number of days.  Don't believe me?  Name any great story that has endured the test of time.  The overwhelming majority involve soul wrenching pain and suffering.  Very few are happy-go-lucky stories.  Greek tragedies, anything by Shakespeare, you get the idea.  Yes, there may be hope and triumph involved but at the base is still suffering.  There's a reason for that.  Every single human being will be faced with it at some point in their life.  It is part and parcel of the human condition where literature and philosophy have as much to say, if not more than medicine has to say. 
     So I think about that lecture and how I approach that from my own experiences and how I will (probably) approach that with my patients down the road.  And at the end of the day, I do not choose to differentiate between appropriate bereavement and major depression.  They seem one and the same to me, a part of the human condition with artificial labels.

December 1, 2011

il faut d'abord durer

     Hemingway was known to sign personal letters with the French phrase il faut d'abord durer.  Idiomatically, it translates as "first, to endure".  It's been my motto ever since my brother died.  And it's a hard axiom for me.  I always enjoyed excelling.  Being above average was fun for me.  In football, I played to win.  And you don't get into med school by being middle of the road.  So it's a hard pill to swallow to set my sights at this point on merely surviving.  It feels like I'm settling.  But with the trifecta of med school, death, and my dad's condition.....I remind myself that it's a lofty and noble goal at this point.  If I can just get through all of this intact, that's no small victory.  So entering into the next round of exams, woefully unprepared, I remind myself, "first, to endure."  Go easy on myself and let go of the notion of honors and be content to endure.