His cowboy boots were the first thing I noticed, how they didn’t really go with the ordinary khakis sticking out from under his white, knee-length doctor coat. I was there in his neurology office to find out why I was seeing jaggedy lines in my peripheral vision.
The visual disturbances had cropped up one random day, coming on as soon as I finished exercising. The weirdness would go on for about 5 minutes, after which I would be overcome with a fatigue so powerful it would force me to instantly lay face-down on the couch like a dead person. All I could do was instruct Ellen, 2.5 years old, to climb on my back and lay on me so I could keep track of her, feeling the weight of her warm little body pressing down on mine, pulsing ever so slightly in time with her thumb sucking.
During that first office visit the neurologist took my history, particularly interested in the panic attack I’d had 2 years earlier when Lee and I had accompanied his 85-year-old grandmother on her farewell trip to Norway, her homeland. We’d left Ellen at 6 months of age and Hunter at 2 and a half with my parents for a total of 2 weeks, assured by the pediatrician they would not be damaged.
The panic presented strangely. While taking a tour of some historic building in Trondheim, a city at the very tip-top of Norway which had taken days by train and ocean steamer to get to, I was seized by an urgent understanding that if my legs stopped moving I would die. We were listening to a guide tell the story of the building’s historical relevance and architecture and so many other meaningless details my legs didn’t want to listen to, because all they cared about was leaping over the fjords, across the countryside, over the Atlantic, through the states of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire and running up to the far north reach of Maine, the very end of the earth where my children were, one just weaned weeks before. And so under the command of this mortal message my legs obeyed, trying first to march quietly in place, then breaking from the tour group to run laps as death nipped at my heels and I privately lost my mind.
Back at the hotel on the bed, too exhausted to heed death’s threat, the world started to spin instead. While laying there it occurred to me that the world would be righted and the vertigo would stop once I got on the plane, pointed for home. Of course! All I had to do was get through the final few days.
Order, however, was not restored at take-off, nor even when we were halfway across the Atlantic. Not when we touched down in New York City, nor when we crossed the border into Maine. Or when I had my arms around my children or when we got home. The dizziness quieted down slowly over time, but only to be replaced with jaggedy lines. I seemed to be an ever-evolving strange mess.
So the neurologist said it was high time to take a look inside my head. Back in his office a week later to hear the EEG results, he told me I had a complicated (of course), no pain/aura-only, exercise-induced migraine condition. Beta blockers would calm my system, making my blood & arteries nice and easy-does-it. In the meantime, did I smoke and/or was I on birth control pills?
“No and no,” I said.
“Well, you better not start. If you decide to smoke or take oral contraception, you are as good as asking for a stroke.”
“I won’t,” I said. “No chance of either.”
Not satisfied, he kept at it. “You should know I have plenty of young mothers with migraine conditions just like you who stroked out because they smoked. Now they are in wheelchairs and someone else takes care of their children.”
That did it. He got me. I didn’t like what he was telling me before, but in that I didn’t do either, it had felt threatening only in the distant way lung cancer to a non-smoker might. And while I had no fear of spontaneously popping a birth control pill or lighting up, since he’d pushed it, now I was going to investigate this thoroughly.
“What exactly is it about this condition I have,” I asked him, “that even opens the door to stroke? Because clearly a personal infrastructure predisposed to put young moms in wheelchairs just for doing a couple of pretty everyday things is not an infrastructure to put your trust in,” I said. “Am I, in general, just more likely to explode than other people? What are my everyday chances of that and what else might trip the switch? Because it doesn’t seem logical this explosiveness would be limited exclusively to just two random things out of the millions we do everyday.”
However, now that he has succeeded in getting to me, my agitation seems to set his teeth on edge. He goes the other way in his response and gets ultra casual, saying something off-hand about hormones and how there is no cause for over reaction here. As long as I don’t smoke or go on the pill, I’ll be fine. He looks at me like get over it sister. And then he says what seems like may have been his point the whole time.
“You don’t go through life very easily, do you,” he asks, not a question.
Incensed at having been pushed to react, which he now doesn’t want to deal with, I dish it back.
“You just told me I’m essentially a cigarette or birth control pill away from stroking out. Now that my confidence in my body’s ability to keep me alive has been undermined, it seems entirely reasonable to want to understand more clearly what about my physiology would account for this and what else besides cigarettes and birth control pills it would behoove me to avoid if I want to be the one raising my children.”
He acts like I’m just proving his point.
“Let me put it like this,” he explains. “You’re like a boat with barbs all over it. And barbs create drag.” He paints the picture by spreading his fingers out and stabbing his hands in ugly, staggery motions. “Without barbs, boats glide through the water,” his hands now gentle and easy as can be.
After the hand demonstration, he lets me know there are barb-smoothing drugs — good ones available now — that would make life so much easier for me. And those around me. On my way out I rehearse what I will say when I report him.
I never actually did, officially. Instead, I squared the injustice and misconduct by telling and re-telling the story many, many times in the common court of the people. So when he was arrested a few years later on drug charges for writing himself controlled-substance prescriptions, I felt truly vindicated, but also unexpectedly akin. He apparently knew for himself a thing or two about barbs, and also wasn’t wrong about mine or the smoothing powers of drugs. By then I, myself, was on an entry-level drug and felt so much better. In truth, no one has ever described me as going with the flow.
After the arrest, he went off somewhere for a period of time, then one day about five years after our dealings with each other, I walked past him in the hall at the psychiatric and substance abuse hospital where my department was located. He was wearing a white coat, so it seemed he now worked there. No cowboy boots this time. He glanced at me and smiled in a kind way. I had no idea whether he recognized me.
But I feel sure there was something he had recognized in me right off the bat 5 years before. While showing anxious concern seems an entirely reasonable response when pushed to picture yourself in a wheelchair for doing things you don’t do and don’t intend to, I suspect, as one barbed person to another, he had picked up on a certain synchronous vibe long before he got me going. You know your kind and it’s sometimes not a sight you want to see. Which is not to say that there also couldn’t have been an element of mercy involved in his behavior: the true desire to ease an all-too-familiar suffering.
Over the next few years we would regularly cross paths in the hall and smile. There was something gentle about him now. Humbled. Released. He wore Velcro shoes. Then my department re-located to a different hospital within our system and I never saw him again. A few years after that he died of cancer.
But not before he’d had the chance to clean his house.
I love cowboy boots.
1990 – 2002-ish
Lee — Hunter’ & Ellen’s father, my former husband
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.