When The Shit Goes Down

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dave-a-roni/9139212242/in/photolist-eVARoS-ekxtuc-9PH5uo-9sQ8XQ-2332AC-9aVVgC-vh7gy-388qZD-7yDxrs-eZqzEk-L52ad-5CZAJk-q8PpT4-5DCLMf-9aSV6X-vgZua-8N7pZC-5Dytu2-fsce-4xa8u9-5CZApB-5H4Pqp-5H4RXi-pL5BGS-7WL2xF-5H97Jo-3oXGi1-5BBbJS-5BB7E7-5BwXE4-5CZAzZ-5BATtj-5BAXzm-5BwJKF-5BwMLa-5CZAW6-LRd5E-fscg-9nWac-99rVL-6DM5Cn-g85jGT-8EcC1Z-3oTbez-8GhZPR-8Gm9Sw-4PKiiK-f6ZQXT-7X7TCX-8LSqF3  This is an aside that loosely relates to About A Breakup, Part 3 of 5: The Atom Bomb. The shit has gone down a lot in my own life this year, and it coincidentally appears to be happening in the lives of several of my closest friends and students as of late. If you get nothing else from this post, get this: Every time the shit has gone down in my life, and I mean EVERY time, in the thick of it, I decided that life would never get any better, and I should just get used to the mediocrity, trapped and doomed to days of despair and anguish. And yet, here I am.

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Have a look back at your life. It has happened to everyone who has ever breathed air on this planet. You lose your job; you’re struck by a devastating illness; you’re flung headlong into a dramatic breakup or divorce; somebody close to you dies unexpectedly; you holy piss off the wrong person or people; you put $10k of the kids’ college fund on Roulette red and go broke; you have a falling out with a family member; you have an “FML” moment and drink your bodyweight in Tequila and get hospitalized for alcohol poisoning; you have an alternate “FML” moment and sleep with a few random strangers and next thing you know you’re being treated for some syphi-gono-herpes super bug; and so on, and so on, and the shit absolutely, undeniably, unquestionably . . . goes down. In my personal experience, it’s usually one small- to medium-sized incident in a string of incidents that finally pushes you over the edge, and has you going all Jerry Maguire, flagrantly leaving his corporate job in the famous meltdown scene.

In my own life, the shit has gone down many, many times; so many, in fact, that I’d be hard pressed to remember them all. There was that one time in Nashville in 2003 when I had FINALLY gotten a decent band together, and we were making gig plans, when our daughter Em was born several weeks early; our house was over an hour commute from the hospital where Em had to stay in ICU for weeks; then on the day we finally got to take her home, an ambulance backed into our sole means of transportation, ripping the rear door from the hinges, rendering us without transportation for days while it was repaired; we racked up an astronomical hospital bill and had to sell the new house we’d bought two months prior; finally, my demo had been rejected for the 159th time by yet another label, and in a fit of rage, I drop kicked every last one of my remaining 1000 CD debuts’ barcoded asses into the neighborhood dumpster as the neighbors chowed down on popcorn and wine and enjoyed that evening’s entertainment.

THAT’S OKAY!!! IT’S JUST OUR ONLY FUCKING CAR!!!!!! -Postpartum Catherine (Em’s mom) to the mortified EMS guy, profusely apologizing for clipping our car.

Or the time in 2009: fresh divorce; enter nursing school a month later; flunk pharmacology; wait a year until pharm is offered again whilst getting a night shift job in the ER to pay bills; spend the next nine months working 7:00p to 7:00a, going straight to class and/or clinical after work from 8:00a – 2:00p, sleeping from 2:30p-6:30p, and going back to the ER for another shift; forced to sell my favorite truck because I can’t transport my kids in it when I have them for visitation; buy a piece of shit sedan that starts to fall apart during the first week of ownership; find out my kids are moving to California; get one call a day from collectors threatening to garnish my wages for old hospital bills; final meltdown happened after graduation. See “A Prelude.”

It’ll affect my credit score? (Maniacally) HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Lady, I’m pretty sure about two years ago my score dipped below zero! You want to settle this medical bill?! Well take a number! -Me on mental breakdown day to a collector

My friends, I’ve coached a whole bunch of people during their “Shit Goes Down” times. Here’s what I’ve learned from my experiences and theirs:

  • I have never experienced a transformation without first experiencing a meltdown. The greater the meltdown, the greater the transformation. One of the greatest transformations of my entire life was a direct result of being chipped away, bit by bit, little by little, until I finally caved and hit rock bottom. And from rock bottom, I could offer no resistance to complete reformation. When you find yourself looking up to see the bottom, the doorway to transformation is right there. We are too often so overwhelmed by the pain and hardship that we cannot see the doorway. See if you can briefly let go of your perception and consider that you are on the verge of something amazing. 
  • We human beings become very attached to our problems. We identify with them. We think our problems make us unique (sidenote: they don’t). We will go to great lengths to prove to ourselves (and many times to show those around us) how much harder our lives are than anyone else’s. I’ve done this many times in my own life, and I’ve seen it many times in others. Observe the conversations you hear on a daily basis. I find it interesting that most human beings would rather argue about who has the worst problems,  the most bills, the most hardship, than whose life is the most vivacious and empowering.  Consider that you may have some degree of pride in being able to survive all that you’re weathering, and that you may be afraid that taking actions to pull yourself out of the rut may strip you of your identity. 
  • Emotional pain is familiar territory for just about everyone. And we LOVE familiarity. We are terrified of the unknown, terrified of stepping outside of our comfort zones, even if there was a great chance that it would lead to complete liberation. Hell, I would go so far as to say even if liberation was GUARANTEED, we’d hesitate if it meant stepping outside of our comfort zones. Consider that any attempt to create change in your life will come with some degree of discomfort. You must be brave enough to try something new, or has your old way of approaching life been invigorating for you? As dear friend and mentor Donna once told me:

Look at the emotional pain scale, with 0 being complete freedom and 10 being absolute misery. We human beings will live for years with a nagging 4 or 5 out of 10 because it’s familiar, rather than take an action that may BRIEFLY cause 10 out of 10 pain, even though that action has the potential to get us to a 0, complete freedom.

Finally, a word about perception. Shortly after my breakup with Alex, I was hanging out with some friends.

One of the guys said, “I heard you’re having some trouble with the woman.”

“Yeah,” I replied with my usual melancholy. “We broke up.”

“Congratulations,” he said.

It shocked me a little. Up until that point, everyone I’d told had showered me with empathetic phrases and angst-filled words of support. Not that I fully agreed with my friend’s way of thinking, but it momentarily jolted me from the perception to which I was so tightly clinging.

Change your way of thinking, my friends. Consider that things are not always as they appear. A new perception will breed new actions, which will breed new results.

To vitality, my friends. 

Vent Once, Don’t Repeat

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I was once shadowing a preceptor in the hospital setting who was providing me with on-the-job training. He would go perform various medical procedures, and I would observe and sometimes assist as needed. This was a large-scale hospital with many different departments.

One afternoon, we were called to the neurological (“neuro”) floor. My preceptor for that day had been called to insert a central venous line into a patient. Apparently the neuro floor staff had a reputation for being arrogant. I could sense that my preceptor was on edge on the way there. When we got there, we found out who the patient’s nurse was, but she was nowhere to be found. We asked around, because my preceptor wished to converse with the nurse before the procedure to make sure everyone was on the same page. Of a sudden, the patient’s nurse popped her head out of the staff break room.

“What do you want?” she asked my preceptor curtly.

“We’re here to do the central line,” my preceptor replied.

“Yeah, I don’t know if that’s gonna happen,” said the nurse, her head disappearing back into the break room like she was some kind of sporadic meerkat.

My preceptor was visibly frustrated. “This happens every time I come to neuro. They’re all assholes,” he said. He then began perusing the patient’s chart, searching for an order for the central line, which apparently did not exist.

A few minutes later, one of the desk phones rang. The meerkat popped her head back out, answered the phone, had a brief discussion, and hung up. She then cast a glance at my preceptor and said “Yeah, I’d hold off on that” before disappearing back into her burrow, leaving us still clueless as to whether or not anyone needed our services.

My preceptor had now gone from Dr. Cox’s normal demeanor in Scrubs to almost Jerry Maguire being fired. “Does no one need a f&%$#@g central line!?” he exclaimed, grabbing his supplies and storming out of the neuro unit. On the way back to our unit, I accepted the opportunity to be of service to him by allowing him a space to vent. He didn’t require much coaxing. “They’re always assholes up there. They think they know everything. I’ll be damned if I’m going to put a central line into a patient when her nurse is more concerned about her quesadilla than she is about her patient. . .” And so on, and so on.

During the rest of the day, our work, as usual, carried us to different sections of the hospital, during which my preceptor would “vent” . . . to intensive care, to registration, to radiology, to emergency medicine, to medsurg, etc. He would also continue to “vent” to me en route to different departments. It began to occur to me that as these “vent” sessions progressed, they were becoming less about the act of venting and more about perpetuating the original offense. I began to explore this phenomenon around my own life.

Soon enough in the days which followed, something happened in life which frustrated me. I don’t recall the exact event, so let’s just say it was an intoxicated patient who had come to the emergency department for an emergency syphilis check. I called my girlfriend afterward. In our usual manner, she asked me if I wished to vent or to get feedback (we are routinely up front about these type conversations beforehand, so that advice is not provided when it is not requested). I told her I wished to vent, and vent I did. But standing in the space of this new exploration around venting, I began to become present to how attached I was to the event which had just triggered my anger. My girlfriend was present to it as well, and gently reminded me of it, in addition to how much I was judging this patient who was clearly uneducated about the purpose of emergency medicine. I colorfully told her what she could do with her crap advice. She laughed and reminded me again, only this time with more aggression and some colorful language of her own. (What? Psh . . . I don’t love her).

Anyway, after I hung up the phone with her, guess what I had the strongest, most compelling urge to do? I’ll give you a hint: I doesn’t involve productive communication. The string of these thoughts and experiences led me to realize that we as a society have a great misunderstanding around the act of venting our frustrations.

Around this time, I created a little experiment for myself. It was simple. Anytime any event occurred which produced enough anger within me to feel the need to vent, I allowed myself to do just that. The catch? I was only allowed to vent once. I could vent to the person of my choosing, but only once. Afterward, I had to let it go and move on. This experiment produced some anticipated results; some surprising ones as well. In summary, here is what I discovered:

  1. a rapid decrease in the number of times I was triggered and felt the need to vent about anything
  2. a rapid decrease in the amount of time it took to let something go when I was triggered
  3. a surprising realization of longstanding issues about which I still felt the need to vent (after which I vented once about each issue and let it go)

My friends, this personal experiment eventually became a way of life for me. Here’s the long and the short of it: There is a world of difference between getting something off of your chest (or venting) and welding yourself to a point of view. Most of us do not truly know the power of the word. Language is creation in action. Be careful, dear friends, that vent sessions do not become disguised creations of bitterness and resentment. The more you vent about something, the more likely it is to become a permanent part of your thinking, which is counterintuitive to the purpose of venting.

Vent once, and let it go.