Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Best of Both Worlds

     Yesterday afternoon was a typical January day, cold and rainy. When I arrived home from work around lunchtime, I sat in my kitchen, listening to the rain tapping outside the window. Cars made slick water-skiing noises as they went rushing by. I heard a couple of sirens, wailing in the background; someone was in trouble somewhere. Simon and Lilly, our German short-haired pointers, are afraid of rain and they were snuggled up next to each other in their beds. I could feel an afternoon nap coming on. Writing these blogs often keeps me up past midnight, and since I have to be up at five every morning to get ready for work, I'm a little sleep deprived of late. Although I'm left-handed, my right wrist and forearm have started aching from all the writing I've done. Maybe it's because I don't use an external mouse with my laptop, and I'm constantly using my right index finger on the computer's mouse pad. Sometimes, it's hell being a left-hander in a right-handed world.
     As I sat in the kitchen, eating my leftover lasagna and contemplating the rain, a familiar old feeling began worming its way into my brain. It's a melancholy which has plagued me for as long as I can remember. Without warning, this mood invades my psyche like an unwelcome subconscious squatter, daring me to try to evict it. It's a state of being in which I feel very much alone, disconnected and isolated from the world around me, where the importance of day to day minutia becomes catastrophically magnified and I'm left wondering, What's wrong with me? I've learned that the best course of action is to let it pass.
     When I was a teenager, this melancholy would typically hit me on Sunday afternoons, after my family got back from Mass. I'd go down to my room, put my favorite Incredible String Band album on the record player, and sleep in a strip of warmth on the carpet made by the sunbeam which predictably pierced a window above my bed. It's funny because the thoughts that troubled me then are the same ones which vex me now: What is my purpose here on this Earth? What is it that I am meant to be doing? I guess you could call it an introspective query into the reasons for my existence, but somehow, that doesn't really capture it. It's more of a deep longing to know myself, to honor the creative forces within me, to be in harmony with life's ebbs and flows, but most of all, to be genuine and true to myself. In high school, I read a lot of philosophy, and one of my favorite authors was Hermann Hesse. In the eleventh grade, I read his novel, Demian, a coming of age story in which the protagonist, a young man named Emil Sinclair, experiences an awakening of his consciousness as he struggles between the worlds of illusion and spiritual truth. One passage, in particular, made a profound impact on me. It reads, "I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?"
     My life is in a state of flux right now. In a week, I will finish my work here in Rome, and then, Brad and I are moving back to Atlanta. He took an IT job in Dunwoody, and is now commuting over a hundred miles to work each day. I don't have another job lined up, and it's unsettling. The sequence of events which led to me leaving my job here has been unbelievable, to say the least, and it's been difficult not to feel bitter. Life never seems fair to those of us who think outside the box; we're alternately blessed and cursed. The tumult of these last three months is what propelled me into writing, and honestly, I've never been happier. Brad and my mother say I'm a different person since I've started writing, that I'm easier to get along with, less hung up about things like vacuuming, more considerate of others. As much as I've tried to deny it, there is a certain degree of narcissism involved in being a physician. Most of us aren't cognizant of this; it's an insidious process. The nature of our work takes us further and further away from knowing who we are, and eventually, we define ourselves by what we do. Idealism isn't compatible with survival in the medicine-as-business model, a system which is more about the bottom line than quality of care. Many of us feel demoralized. You'd be surprised at how many of my colleagues, most of whom haven't even been practicing for ten years, view what they do every day as "it's just my job."
     Once a decade, I seem to reinvent myself. In 1990, I graduated from nursing school. Eleven years later, I graduated from medical school. I've been a practicing anesthesiologist for almost seven years now, and I've experienced both academic and private practice anesthesia. There are advantages and disadvantages to both worlds, similar to the duality of illusion and reality which Hesse addressed in Demian. Achieving contentment within one realm or the other seems to be a function of just how much time and autonomy you're willing to compromise. I've spent the majority of my adult life, living inside the hospital microcosm. I've worked nights, holidays, and weekends for as long as I can remember. I've missed many Thanksgivings and Christmases with my sons. Aside from being positively recognized for my work by one of my patients in the local paper, I can't think of the last time I heard, "You're doing a great job. Keep up the good work!" from one of my bosses. I'm tired of hearing I need to put my big girl panties on and suck it up. I don't think I should have to suppress my ideals or cut corners on patient safety in order to receive a paycheck, yet that's the kind of pressure I am confronted with on a daily basis. Like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, I want what I want, and I know exactly what it is I don't want. What's so terribly wrong with that? I've started thinking about what it would be like to be my own boss, and I have to say, the idea is tempting. I'd like to work part-time in anesthesia, which would give me the time I need to start writing my book. It would be the best of both worlds, allowing me to continue the patient interaction which I find immensely gratifying, along with more time for channeling my creative energy into artistic pursuits. 
     The melancholy I felt yesterday has evaporated into a strange sort of gratitude. Last night, when Brad and I were at dinner, he looked at me earnestly and said, "Do you realize what I would do to have a brain like yours, to be as smart as you are?" We talked about my parents, about how opposite they were from one another, and he observed that Mom must have felt overshadowed by my father's intellectual and artistic prowess, his eccentricity, and the passion he devoted to his many interests. My father died long before Brad and I met, but he speaks of Dad as if he knew him. Maybe his familiarity with Dad stems from living with me, knowing that my father and I were kindred spirits, and that we shared many qualities including the general way in which our brains work, a strong drive to create, a compulsive need to question authority, and yes, a little bit of narcissism. Brad then told me how much he loves my mother because he recognizes that she really had a tough job. She entered into life with my father as a stepmother to my sister, Edina (eh DEENA), and my brother, Leszek (LEH shek), Dad's children from his first marriage. Several years later, his 71 year old mother came from Poland to live with us. Mom learned enough Polish to communicate with Babcia (BAB-cha, Polish for "grandmother"), and in adapting to the customs of our intercontinental family, some of her own history was lost in translation.
     Like most mothers and daughters, Mom and I have had a complicated relationship, punctuated by my co-existing needs for her approval and respect for my personal boundaries, and her desire for me both to succeed and acknowledge the help I've had along the way. Brad told me he wanted me to write about how thankful I am for the gifts my parents gave me, not just the DNA they endowed me with, but the support I've had to be me. He's wonderfully insightful like that, so incredibly genuine, and I looked at him and thought, Yes, I am very fortunate. I am grateful that, no matter how much of a jerk I've been in the past, my parents never stopped loving me. My mother doesn't always understand me, but I think she gets the essence of who I am. There is a part of me that is very much like Mom, the way in which I associate meanings and perceive an interrelatedness within life's rich parade of situations. She's given me the gifts of intuition and metaphorical thinking, and this what makes writing so enjoyable for me. Today, I'm grooving in the revelation that I'm the product of two worlds which collided in love, a love that has steered me through this crazy 49 year voyage of heartbreak, joy, and self-discovery, collectively referred to as my life.  Everywhere I go, there I am. I love you, Mom and Brad!

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