I’m not sure how I’ll handle the separation, so I figured I’d reflect on the last month of living with dreamboatdrayton. The past few weeks have thrown both the beauty and brevity of life into sharp contrast. I watched my impossibly stunning friend Grace get married as the pacific surf crashed behind her. On a cold gray day 72 hours later, I opened my phone and found out that another friend had passed away. This past month was split into a two week child psychiatry rotation and two weeks of construction work. After concrete ended, I packed up my Prius and drove far into the north country.
I spent the mornings of child psychiatry talking one on one with patients. Conversation bounced back and forth with footballs and soccer balls. Afternoons filled up with admitting patients and discussing cases with the two doctors I worked with. This was easily the most intuitive and heartbreaking work I’ve done in medical school. Every day I met with traumatized children who didn’t have the opportunity to see the world as the safe, loving place that I did growing up. I wanted to take each and every one of them home with me. On the other hand, it was astounding to see their capacity for introspection and tenderness. A young boy who was nonverbal and violent during admission would end up talking softly to me about his favorite foods the next morning. A high schooler who screamed at his mom and the staff on Monday, hung out with me on Wednesday, smiling shyly and laughing as we talked about school. I struggled through oragami and coloring but excelled in football and legos.
This rotation led to a conversation with a friend of mine about the ethics of medicating mental health conditions. He questioned the long term health effects of medications, symptomatic vs etiological treatment, and the pressure that we put on parents and their children to exist on the range of what “experts” have decided is normal. I agree that medicating children in hopes to achieve “normal” functioning can be dangerous, but I also believe that we need to do the best we can with what we have. I saw talented clinicians work with deeply troubled children who had become a danger to themselves and others. It was powerful to see the child after layers of illness were peeled back. That act of discovery made me want to come back for more.
All children should have a fair opportunity for success. All children should have loving and supportive families. All children should meet our world through thoughtful, educated teachers and police who take the time to see their goodness. That world doesn’t exist right now. I see my role as a doctor as pushing to better the world we live in while simultaneously treating patients in the context of our current and flawed planet. The literature is clear that besides inherently increased morbidity, mental illness is associated with decreased life expectancy. So why are there so few resources dedicated to mental health? How do we decide when to rehabilitate and treat people versus jailing them? How much autonomy should destructive parents (most likely suffering themselves) have over their children’s lives? Etc, etc, etc. Plenty of thoughts for the following weeks.
Five months ago, I staked out the two weeks after child psychiatry for blissful nothingness. It was my first time to relax in many months. But when my dad told me he could use a hand, and I fought against my inherent laziness and came out of retirement to work for Cousins Brick and Stone.
On Wednesday morning construction week two, we poured concrete at 7:00 am. The sky was dark and the air was cold. After ten minutes of wheeling cement, I stripped off my sweatshirt. The cold air hit my hot skin and I felt alive and deeply well. Concrete work is fast and hard and it’s quickly obvious if you don’t know what you’re doing. Most of all though, it was a pleasure and unique opportunity to be able to spend time as a man working alongside my father. I still have much to learn from this man whom I’ve used as a model to mold my own life. I watched him design complicated structures while thinking about how they might need to evolve in the future. Driving from lunch buffets to steel yards I watched him embody his stated philosophy that “We’re only here for a short time so we might as well have fun.” He has friends scattered all over the city. Someone once told me that I was too hard on my dad. She was right. We can blow up at each other after less than a look. However, the flip side of being so similar is that we both work hard to cherish the time we spend together, comically quick to reconcile and tell each other that we love one another. These past two weeks were a priceless embodiment of that relationship.
Unfortunately, construction was short lived and I left the cold concrete to fly down to Malibu for a friend’s wedding. I watched my beautiful friend get married on a white sand beach. I panted through mountain runs with another friend who’s more like a brother. I found myself a part of a debaucherous dancing trio of men tearing up a gravel dance floor populated by women in their 60s. I passed out on a beach after being body slammed by the cold surf. Sunday morning I was already fantasizing about my future practice in Southern California. Everything about the weekend screamed life, but it’s hard to differentiate the fantasy from reality. I knew someone who hated when I constantly questioned and deconstructed pleasurable luxuries that fall my way, so she would have appreciated the unabashed exuberance of Malibu. However she would have quickly seen my misanthropy regain control when I found out my return flight was first class. I tried unsuccessfully to pawn my seat off on a few passengers and then the flight staff.
It wasn’t until I was sitting in my marginally wider seat back to Minneapolis that I fell to questioning the reality behind the white sand beaches and million dollar homes. On whose back is that kind of luxury built on? How can that kind of wealth justify itself?
Time unravels in front of me as I turn over these questions in Ely. The space heater rumbles next to my chair, warming my legs, sore after a long run alone in the woods. I’m happy up here in the cold, and the occasional pang of yearning I feel isn’t for beaches and bikinis. I feel content in these quiet moments with a glass of whiskey while reading or listening to NPR. Without the constant distraction of the internet or the pleasures of the city, I’m left with peace and a pleasantly melancholic pang for family, friends, and good moments of time since passed. This life here is another kind of luxury, one however that I hope is training and rejuvenation for a life of continued service.
For Ari, we will always love and remember you.