Love is a Battlefield

Hey. How’s it going?

I’ve been taking a break from writing. My lovely supermodel wife and I have been going out into the town. We made a couple of trips to the Big City to buy some accessories for the house, and I’ve been doing some guy stuff in my bodega/workshop/man cave. It’s all been good.

My back is finally starting to feel better, and that’s another good thing. I actually screwed it up a couple of days ago, but I ended up screwing it up back to where it was before I screwed it up, if that makes any sense.

It feels good to be feeling better and doing something productive again.

* * * *

I started working for a living at the age of sixteen. I retired from the workforce at the age of sixty. During my years of gainful employment, I probably worked the night shift for thirty years, give or take.

I liked working nights, for the first twenty years. It was mostly quiet, and there were no bosses hanging around. I could pretty much do whatever I liked, and it gave me ample opportunity to read. I was a voracious reader at one time in my life.

But working nights takes its toll on you over time. You never really sleep, and you end up feeling kind of fuzzy all the time. I ended up hating working nights.

Some of my nocturnal positions included registered nurse, of course. I was also a long distance operator for the telephone company, a police dispatcher and perhaps the catchiest one of all: I worked 11-7 at a 7-11.

I was living in Lusk, WY at the time, and I think it was 1982. I was twenty-six or twenty-seven years old. Lusk is a small town in eastern Wyoming. I was living with a gal named Nancy at that time. I met her when I was working as a surgical technician in Elbow Lake, MN. She was a lab technician at the hospital I worked at.

Nancy was married when I first met her, and before you start thinking I spent my life breaking the Seventh Commandment as often as I could, Nancy’s husband, Jerry, got dead very unexpectedly, and that was how we got together. When she decided to move to Wyoming, I decided to go with her.

Yeah, there’s another complicated story I’ll have to get around to telling someday…

I made some good friends during the year or so that I lived there. Jim, the town dentist, who came down with Guillain-Barré syndrome and almost got dead. His darling wife, Deb. Their best friend, a guy who called himself Spud because he was from Idaho.

Spud was a good guy. We drank a lots of beers together at one of the local bars and smoked a lots of weed. He got me involved with the Lusk Jaycees, and we did a lots of community service stuff.

There was Laurie and Dean, teachers at the high school. They got married. Dina, the hot little waitress at The Pub Saloon. That was the local bar. I kind of wanted to marry Dina. Spud really wanted to marry Dina. I hope he did.

They were good people. I loved them all. Perhaps somewhat noticeable in her absence in the above list is Nancy. Well, I didn’t love her, and she didn’t love me. Like I said, it was complicated.

I always thought I’d end up back in Lusk again someday, but that was not to be. It’s weird how life turns out sometimes…

* * * *

The 7-11 store I worked at was on Cedar Street, the main drag in Lusk. There were maybe 1,500 people living in and around Lusk, so there wasn’t a whole lots of customers in the store during the dead of night. Most of my customers at night were vacationers trying to get somewhere other than Lusk. Lusk was the kind of place people were from, not the place many people were going to.

The city cops and county sheriffs would drop in at the store from time to time and shoot the breeze, and I’d comp them coffee. That probably helped me get hired as their dispatcher.

Like all small towns, everyone knew everybody, and everybody knew everyone else’s business. Guys like me were a rarity. No one my age moved to Lusk, they usually moved out.

The hardest part of the job was staying awake until 5:00 AM until the morning rush when everyone in town dropped in to buy gas and coffee and stuff. I spent most of my shift cleaning the store and arranging display items.

When my shift ended, the day shift gal would relieve me. Her name was Wendy. She lived in an Airstream® trailer on the outskirts of town with her boyfriend and her three kids.

Yeah, you read that correctly. An Airstream®, about the size of a walk-in closet, maybe. It wasn’t even a trailer house. And I have no idea how she could do that either.

Wendy was a nice young gal. She was the assistant manager of the store, and she knew what she was doing at the store. Her kids were cute, like her. I didn’t like her boyfriend. No one in town did.

Well, his name was Rick.

* * * *

I think I had been working at the 7-11 for about a month the night it happened. It was a Friday night around 2:00 AM. I was sweeping the floor, so I could mop the floor, when a white Jeep pulled up to the gas pumps. I saw the Jeep out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t give it much attention until I heard a woman scream.

I turned to the sound, and saw Rick’s fist smash into Wendy’s face. She fell heavily to the ground. As she crawled to her hands and knees trying to get up, Rick kicked her in the ribs several times, then delivered one last monster kick, like he was trying to kick an eighty yard field goal.

He had to have broken every rib on the left side of her body.

I dropped the broom and ran for the door. Did I just see what I thought I just saw? I wondered. Rick had gotten back into the Jeep by the time I reached the door, and started driving off. Fast!

I thought Wendy had to have gotten dead after the punch and all the kicks she had received, but she jumped up to her feet, and ran the Jeep down as it turned onto Cedar Street. Then she punched the window out of the passenger door and leapt inside the Jeep as it made the jump to lightspeed and disappeared in the darkness.

I stood in the parking lot for a minute or two, still trying to figure out if I had actually seen what I just saw, or if I had imagined it all. When I found Wendy’s purse by the gas pumps, and the thousands of pieces of tempered glass littering the parking lot, I knew it had been real.

I took Wendy’s purse inside and called the police.

* * * *

The cops arrived within minutes. They wrote down my statement, and decided to drive out to Wendy’s Airstream® to make sure she was still alive.

“Aren’t you going arrest him?” I asked.

“Well, if Wendy wants to press charges this time we will, but this isn’t the first time it’s happened, and she wouldn’t file charges any of the other times.”

“How many times are we talking about here?” I asked. The two officers looked at each other and scratched their heads.

“What is this? The fourth time?” one of them asked.

“I think it’s the fifth.” the other replied.

“Yeah, I think you’re right.”

“Jesus! That’s fuckin’ terrible!”

“Yep. Damn shame.”

* * * *

I swept the parking lot that night, cleaning up the blizzard of pieces of glass, then I went back inside the store and mopped the floor. The police returned in an hour or two. They had Rick with them. He wasn’t wearing handcuffs. The cops drove him to the store to retrieve Wendy’s purse. Rick was too drunk drive back to the store himself. I handed the purse over to him.

“I’m really sorry about what happened.” he said.

“I’m not the person you should be apologizing to.” I replied. As Rick was walking out the door, one of the cops turned to look at me.

“Who’s relieving you?” he asked.

“Wendy…”

“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. We tried to take her to the hospital. She refused. She won’t be back here for at least a week.”

* * * *

Wendy called around 5:00 AM to tell me she couldn’t come in. I told her I was surprised she was still alive.

“Oh, it was all my fault. I was drunk and I started nagging Rick about getting a job again. I had to open my big mouth, and, well, I had it coming.”

“Wendy, I don’t care what you said, no one deserves to be beaten the way you were! That guy should be in jail!”

“No, don’t say that! He’s a good guy, really.”

“He’s a scumbag! I can’t believe you’re defending him after what he did to you!”

But she did, like he was the fucking Hero of the World or something. It was my first exposure to Battered Woman Syndrome. It’s a psychological condition the victim develops after years of being abused, resulting in a sort of learned helplessness.

I would come to know a whole lots of battered women who seemingly had their brains turned into Silly Putty® by their abusive partners during my career as a psych nurse. It’s a tricksy thing to treat, surpassed only by eating disorders in my opinion.

Suffice to say my fifteen minute conversation with Wendy didn’t do much of anything to change her mindset or her situation. She eventually came back to work. She continued to live with Rick in their closet on wheels.

I would leave the 7-11 not long after witnessing the brutal beating Wendy received from the guy that loved her. The cops were hiring, and I became their night dispatcher. I can’t remember how long I worked for the police, but when my strange relationship with Nancy fell apart, I decided to get out of town, and moved back to Minnesota in 1983.

I would start nursing school in 1985.

Like most of the things in my past, memories pop into my head at odd times, unbidden, yet somehow insistent that they be recalled, and perhaps admired before they’re returned to shelf where memories are stored.

It surprises me how things that were once so shiny and bright fade over time, and how things that were dark and miserable can take on a glimmer and sheen that were unimaginable at the time they happened.

I’m doing a lots of reminiscing of late. Maybe that’s what people do when they retire. Life. So sad, and so beautiful. So strange at times, and so sweet. And sometimes, far too short.

Andy

Before I get started, a couple of things.

I need to fill in the back story about my lovely supermodel wife’s family dynamics before she shoves a garden hose down my dick and makes me cry a lots.

As you may know, my wife is the baby of her family. Her sister, Leslie, is eight years older than her. There was a brother in between them, David.

He killed himself when he was twelve.

Leslie and Lea were never best friends when they were young, simply because of their age difference. Leslie was more of a surrogate mother to her little sister than she was a friend, or even a sister.

I’ve made some references to the fact that my father-in-law wasn’t any easy man to like. He had a short fuse on his temper, and was prone to fits of rage, which I attribute to his untreated PTSD.

Dave had mellowed somewhat with age by the time I met him, but my wife told me stories about what he used to be like, back when she was a girl. Dave was downright mean and scary. He yelled and shouted, a lots. He broke stuff, on purpose. And he punched people, mostly his wife. And his son.

My parents spanked my ass a lots when I was young, but that was the extent of their discipline when I acted out.

Young David probably wouldn’t have dared to act out. A simple mistake would result in a beating. The penalty for intentionally misbehaving might well be death. And that’s probably what led to his decision to take his life at the tender age of twelve.

Lea and her family were living in Cannon Falls, MN when it happened. Dave and Wanda had gone to work. Leslie was fourteen at the time. David was twelve, and Lea was six. I can’t remember the circumstances, but they were all at home on that winter’s day.

The kids were horsing around as kids will do, and as is often the case, a piece of furniture sustained some damage in the process. The coffee table in the living room. It took me at least fifteen years of almost begging before Lea agreed to let me buy the table we now have in our living room.

David knew what was going to happen when his father got home, and decided he couldn’t take one more beating. He got his .22 rifle out of the closet, loaded it, and pointed the barrel at his head.

Lea sat next to her brother on the couch and pleaded with him to stop. Leslie stood on the far side of the room and said nothing, watching.

I didn’t think he’d actually do it, she would say during the one and only time I remember the sisters discussing what had happened in my presence.

And I knew he would, was Lea’s response.

I can see her, almost as if I had been there myself, a terrified little girl running through the snow in stocking feet, running down the street to flag down the first passing motorist she saw, tears running down her face.

And there was blood.

I may have fallen in love with Lea the first time I saw her, but it was the stories she told that sealed the deal for me. That she could pass through a fire so immense, a storm of such intensity, and survive…

* * * *

When viewed from this perspective, the weird dynamics of Lea’s family don’t look quite as weird. The fact they had any dynamics is probably some kind of miracle.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention while my wife was fighting her lengthy battle with Crohn’s disease, Leslie was also fighting for her life against a different opponent. Breast cancer.

Those Covington girls. You don’t want to mess with them. They are survivors, and so much more.

Lea and Leslie have grown much closer since the death of their mother, and father. They’ll never be best friends, and they both know that, and they are both at peace with that. But they are sisters now, and they call each other from time to time.

We used to go Bill and Leslie’s farm on a semi-frequent basis before they sold it, and before we moved to Arizona, then to Mexico.

Bill and Leslie came to visit us once in Arizona. I hope Bill and Leslie decide to visit us down here in the beautiful Lakeside area someday.

I can show Bill where the goats live.

* * * *

Okay. Where was I?

This happens to me more than I would like to admit. Last night, I walked into the bedroom to help Lea turn down the bed, and I forgot why I went into the bedroom before I got there. I went into my closet and started changing into my pajamas.

“Hey! Aren’t you going to help me?” Lea asked. So I went back to the bedroom to help with the bed, then forgot I had been changing into my pajamas.

So. Where was I?

Oh yes. I had helped my lovely supermodel wife escape from the local hospital where my father-in-law lived, down in the bottom of Texas. She had survived her bout of the Philadelphia flu, and she had survived the doctor who couldn’t believe she had Crohn’s disease, despite the fact she’d had four major abdominal surgeries, an ileostomy, and least two doctors in Minnesota that didn’t have any questions about her diagnosis. And she had also survived the fat slob of a nurse who had been too busy to take care of her.

There would be no adverse reactions for Lea from sneaking barefooted out the front door of the hospital in broad daylight, wearing little more than an hospital gown. Once the stomach flu passed, all she needed was her regularly scheduled meds at the times she was supposed to regularly receive them, and Lea could do that without any assistance from anyone.

Lea told her family what had happened to her during her brief but endless stay at the hospital while I more or less told the hospital administrator to go fuck himself, and then it was Leslie’s turn.

She also had a story to tell.

At the time my wife started feeling the first assault of the Philadelphia flu, my sister-in-law had been on the phone with her husband, Bill, the man who would unintentionally infect us all with the GI bug he had picked up on his last business trip to the City of Brotherly Love.

I’m not sure just where in the world Bill was when he called, but he wasn’t on the farm in Wisconsin anymore. And that was why he had called. Something had gone terribly wrong, back on the farm.

And that something was Leslie’s once cute miniature horse, Andy, whom was no longer cute, nor even remotely miniature anymore.

Andy had inexplicably morphed out of being a darlingpreshadorbs little horse about the size of one them Buttweiler dogs, into a bad tempered teenaged mutant medium-sized thug of a horse. Andy grown to roughly the size of an adult deer, and probably weighed close to three hundred pounds. And to prove how much of a badass he’d become, Andy had killed a goat just before we jumped in the car to start our trek to the bottom of Texas.

Bill figured Andy’s sudden behavioral changes could be attributed to the fact that he was transitioning from a colt into an young stallion. What Andy needed was the calming presence of an older father figure horse that could kick his ass when he got too boisterous. Or, he needed his balls cut off.

Unfortunately, there was no such horse living at Pfaff’s Happy Acres, just a bunch of dwarf goats, and they were clearly no match for Andy when he decided he wanted to be a bully. Nor was there any time to have Andy gelded. Bill was a business consultant, and he had consulting to do.

Bill had made arrangements with one his neighbors down the road. They had a teenage farmer’s daughter, I’ll call her Muffy, who was on spring break from college or something, and for a few dollars a day she would swing by the farm and take care of the tiny goats and the mutant miniature horse, and the cats that lived in the barn, and the mangy looking dog Bill had adopted.

It was only for a week. Bill would be back on the farm on Friday or Saturday night.

I don’t think I ever met Muffy, but just because I can do this, let’s say Muffy looked like Christina Aguilera, back when she was a genie in a bottle. And because Muffy was so cute and adorable, Bill warned her in all seriousness to be careful around Andy, given his predilection for unpredictable behavior.

That last part really did happen. And then Bill flew off to go take care of business.

Earlier on the day that Bill called, as Team Covington was returning from Mexico, Andy had somehow gotten out of his pen in Wisconsin, and had trotted down the driveway into the road. And he decided he would claim that part of the road as his own.

There wasn’t a whole lots of traffic on the road that ran past the farm, but there was some, and on that day, a school bus full of students needed to drive past Pfaff’s Happy Acres to drop off some kids a bit further down the road.

But in the middle of the road, stood a horse. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in the country. Livestock get out of their pens all the time, and the locals know how to deal with it. The bus driver honked the horn, that usually worked, but Andy shook his head and stood his ground.

As in all small towns, the bus driver knew Bill and Leslie, and everyone else up and down their road for that matter. She told her passengers to stay on the bus, then went out to put Andy back in his pen. She was a middle aged country gal, and she knew how to handle large farm animals.

Andy allowed her to walk up to him and grab his halter, and he even cooperated with her when she started leading him back to his pen.

And then, he changed his mind. Andy had evidently grown tired of the whole domesticated horse thing, and decided to become a lion, a tiger and a bear, all at once. And he became fierce!

I’m a little uncertain about the details, but Andy knocked the lady bus driver off her feet, then tossed her around a little as she struggled to regain her footing and keep her grip on the halter. As she regained her balance, Andy pushed her up against a large fence post with his not so miniature body. Forcefully. By the time Andy was done showing the bus driver where she could get off, he had broken her hip and one of her legs in two or three places.

The kids on the bus had all been raised on farms, and they raced out of the bus to save their driver, but Andy chased them all back to the bus, and he wouldn’t let them leave.

More vehicles arrived to find themselves stuck behind a school bus being held hostage by a terrorist horse. The sheriff and the fire department were called to save the kids trapped on the bus, and to rescue the bus driver whose leg had been broken into several pieces.

It’s hard to negotiate with a terrorist, but it’s impossible to negotiate with a terrorist thug horse, straight outta Oshkosh.

The sheriff couldn’t get anywhere near the bus, or the horse. Andy had no intention of peacefully returning to his pen, and charged the sheriff when he approached. He chased anyone away that tried to approach the bus, or the injured bus driver laying on the ground nearby with one leg bent in at least two impossible angles. Andy had taken prisoners, and he wasn’t willing to let any them go.

The sheriff had a dilemma. Neither Bill nor Leslie were home, and he had no idea how to contact them. Their horse had become a menace to society. It had taken a bus full of children hostage, and had seriously injured the bus driver. He had to act, and he had to act quickly.

He got his shotgun, and walked toward the renegade horse. When Andy charged the sheriff, the sheriff pulled the trigger, and a shot echoed loudly across the fields and woods surrounding the farm. The children ran out of the bus. The fire department flew into action and rescued the bus driver. And some scientist guys from Madison showed up because the sheriff called them after he killed the psychotic terrorist horse. By Wisconsin State law, any crazy horse had to be tested for rabies.

And then the scientist guys had a dilemma. The rabies virus lives in brain cells, and nowhere else. The scientist guys could have taken all of Andy’s remains, but they didn’t need all of Andy to run their required tests, just his head. And Andy, well, he wasn’t a small horse anymore.

Seeing how Andy was dead and wouldn’t be needing his head anymore, and that was the only part of his body they needed…  It’s much, much easier to transport the head of a dead horse than it is to transport the entire dead horse, so that’s what the scientist guys decided to do. They left most of dead Andy laying in the driveway, and then drove back to Madison where their tests would eventually reveal Andy did not have rabies, nor did he have the Philadelphia flu.

He was just a misunderstood youth, an over-amped adolescent, a rebel without a cause. He was the Headless Horse of Trempealeau County.

And that would be the end of this story, except for a few small details.

You may remember that Bill had hired Muffy, the perhaps cute and adorable college coed farmer’s daughter that lived down the road to keep an eye on the farm while he was out of town.

I’m not sure where Muffy was on that day, or what she was doing, but she was nowhere near the farm when Andy decided to go rogue and terrorize the community. As she was driving home, cute and adorable Muffy decided to drop by the farm to check on the animals entrusted to her care, and found the headless body of a dead horse laying in the driveway. She pretty much shit her pants.

I don’t think she went back to Bill and Leslie’s farm. Ever. Her dad ended up taking care of the goats and cats and dog, and he probably made the arrangements to have the rest of Andy’s body disposed of.

I’m not sure if Muffy called Bill first, or if the sheriff did, but one of those two called Bill and told him about the demise of Andy the militant mutant miniature horse, and then Bill called Dave’s house to let his wife know her wicked horse was dead.

As for the bus driver whose leg had been broken into several pieces, she ended up having several surgeries to put her back together again. And that was good. However, she had no health insurance, and that was bad. She ended up with a whole lots of medical expenses she had no way to pay, and ended up sueing Bill and Leslie for an enormous amount of money.

It would take a few years for all the legal wranglings to sort themselves out, and as both parties were walking into the courtroom, a settlement was reached.

Bill had wisely added an umbrella policy to his home owner’s insurance when he had purchased the farm, and the however many hundreds of thousands of dollars they settled on was paid by his insurance company.

Lea and I would also incur some medical expenses while we were deep in the heart of Texas. Our health insurance covered the majority of it, but we were billed for the balance. And Lea was given the opportunity to tell the hospital administrator to go fuck himself, too.

* * * *

“Sonuvafuckinbitch!” I probably said something like unto that when Leslie finished telling us about Andy. And the bus driver. And the kids. And the sheriff. And the fire department. And the scientist guys. And Muffy. And her pants. It was probably the most exciting thing that had happened in that part of Wisconsin in the last fifty years. “Man, I told Lea I had a bad feeling when Andy killed the goat, but I had no idea it’d turn out this bad!”

See? Not a prophet.

To say our plans would require some renovations would be an understatement. Leslie had to fly back to Wisconsin as soon as possible. She would not be able to drive our car while I drove the truck we were going to rent to get all of Wanda’s stuff back to the top of the country from way down at the bottom of the country.

“I’m really sorry.” she said.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll figure something out.” Lea replied.

There was one bright spot. Leslie and Lea had gone through Dave’s house like a pair of stormtroopers, and everything had been sorted, separated and mostly packed. Lea and I would finish that, and load everything in the truck we would rent. We would take care of the stuff to be sold or donated. Leslie suddenly had more than enough stuff of her own to deal with.

* * * *

Leslie flew back to Wisconsin the very next day to take care of the shitstorm of events related to her mutant miniature thug horse from Hell, and all the havoc he had unleashed.

We rode along as Dave drove her to the airport. Leslie and Lea went through a checklist to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. The last thing either of them wanted to do was make another trip to Texas.

We drove back to the house afterwards. I was going to miss Leslie. She had a way of handling Dave that neither Lea nor I possessed, not that Dave was a terrible management problem anymore.

But he did have his moments still, and Lea didn’t have the same technique her sister did. I was a pysch nurse. I wasn’t yet the elite nurse I would eventually become, but I was confident I could handle Dave if I needed to. And the tall Texas blonde ER nurse had just shown me a new intervention…

“Man, I still can’t believe what happened with that crazy horse!” Dave said, as he drove. He spoke for all of us. That was pretty fucking wild, no doubt.

“It’s been quite a trip so far, Dave. I think I’m going to need another vacation to recover from this vacation.” I said. And we all laughed.

Yeah, it was funny then. But in less than a week it wouldn’t be. Remember that thing I said about life? There might be times when things can’t get any better, but things can always get worse.

Yes. They could.

And, yes, they would.

Diagram of a Defense System

Back when I was a psych nurse at the MVAMC, I worked with a lots of Vietnam vets. They were struggling to find their way through the morass of PTSD symptoms they were suffering from, mostly unsuccessfully.

PTSD is a complicated disease. It’s symptoms are legion, and stealthy. They’re like unto an army of ninjas, and just like ninjas, they attack without warning.

In an attempt to help my brother veterans gain some insight into what they were fighting, I came up with this presentation to help them see what they were up against.

Imagine your life as a game of chess. I actually used chess pieces in the group. I arranged them on a table and moved them around as I explained my idea.

Your opponent attacks. You go on the defensive to protect your position, and the pieces you employ are defense mechanisms. These are tools we use every day of our lives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Defense mechanisms help us survive. But, do you have any idea what kind of weapons you’re using. Or why?

What I’m talking about is something I call a defense system. Anytime you have more than one component, you have a system. Think of it like unto an home theater stereo system. Multiple components working together to produce an integrated effect.

That’s what your defense system does. By utilizing a series of connected mechanisms, you create a buffer zone to keep you safe from the world around you. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of defense mechanisms, but let’s start with the basics. There are three fundamental building blocks that every defense system is built upon.

Repression. Suppression. And Denial. After that, the sky is pretty much the limit, but let’s start here.

Repression. If you’re confronted with a traumatic memory, your brain will automatically repress it. This reaction is hardwired into your brain. You don’t even have to think about it, it just happens.

Suppression. When repression doesn’t work, this kicks in. This takes some conscious effort, but these two mechanisms work together, and they’re pretty damn effective. But life can be complicated, and sometimes you need a lots of tools to get a job done, right?

Denial. When repression and suppression don’t work, you have to start bringing in the big guns. With denial, you can make stuff disappear. Denial is a total negation.

It did not happen.

Defense mechanisms are powerful weapons. And they are mobile! They can be deployed wherever they’re needed, and there are ga-zillion of them. You can lock and load and secure the perimeter, and blow shit up with a thousand different kinds of armament.

Minimization. Take a big problem, and make it small.

Maximization. Take a small problem, and make it big.

Rationalization. Logically analyze anything to pieces until it dies of boredom.

Intellectualization. Logically analyze something to pieces until it commits suicide to get away from you.

Shuffle the deck and play them when and where you need them. You can do this shit all day! And there’s a lots more where those came from. Deflection. Projection. Sublimation. Humor. Drug and alcohol use. Do a Google search. There’s a list of defense mechanisms a mile long.

But any effective system needs a fuel supply to keep it up and functioning. And we have that, too.

Anger!

Anger is almost always a secondary response. The precursor might be fear, or shame, or guilt–and it might only be present for the blink of an eye. None of us like feeling that way, but anger. Yeah, were good with that.

Anger, is a powerful fuel. And I’ve seen you guys. Anger is where all y’all have been living. Anger can also be a defense mechanism. No one wants to be around an angry person. Anger is like an electric fence. Only an idiot pisses on that, right?  Anger is like one of those multi-tools. It can do a lots of stuffs.

There’s one major downside to anger. It’s exhausting! I can stay angry for a couple weeks about something my wife or daughters do, and then I have to let it go. It wears me out. You guys have been pissed off for what–twenty or thirty years? How’s that going?

And what happens when you run out of fuel? Everything shuts down! The walls come crashing down, and then what?

Your defense is breached. You have to fall back. You bunker up. You run!

Yeah, you do all those things, but then you have to find a way to get your system back up and running, and that’s not easy to do when the enemy is looking over your shoulder watching you. That’s what brings you guys here. This is the place you come to when your defense system crashes, and you can’t do it on your own any more.

I mentioned drug and alcohol use earlier, but it’s such a pervasive problem I want to take a moment and talk about it. Eighty percent of the people that come here for treatment have a secondary diagnosis of drug or alcohol abuse.

Only eighty?

Well, it could be higher, but that’s the statistic the administration here likes to throw around. I know I’ve tried these methods myself, and while they might be effective in the short term, they are completely ineffective in the long term.

Alcohol is a depressant. If you’re not already depressed, you’ll end up that way if you abuse alcohol long enough. Also, mass consumption of alcohol tends to short circuit the wiring of your defense system.

Yeah. That’d be true for me. That’s why I quit drinking.

I had not quit drinking, so it’s more than a little ironic that I was telling someone else to take a look at their drinking habits when that’s what I needed to do myself.

Well, there you have it. I’m not telling you guys to quit drinking. I’m just throwing this out there to give you something to think about. But even if alcohol isn’t an issue, look at all this other stuff. We all have these invisible walls that protect us from stuff we don’t want bombarding us. But it probably works in reverse, too. We’re expending all this energy to keep stuff from getting to us. How easy is it to let our emotions out?

Is it easy for us to let someone know we love them? These walls we have constructed are well built, and they are strong! But in the end, we have essentially created a state of siege mentality–nothing gets in, nothing gets out, and we have stopped living, in exchange for simply…existing. And I know what you’re all thinking, What the fuck am I supposed to do?

I don’t have any answers for your questions. I don’t have any solutions to your problems. Hell, I don’t have any answers or solutions for mine. But we have to start somewhere if we’re ever going to get our lives back.

Awareness is the first step. Once you’re aware of a problem, you can start to do something about it. What you do, well, that’s up to you. You’re gonna have to figure this out for yourself.

I been watching you, Mark. I see you up at the nursing station. Sometimes you just sit there, and stare. You have PTSD, don’t you. You’re one of us, ain’t you.

That was a guy named George. He diagnosed me in that group. I have to admit, I was a little freaked out to hear that. But I couldn’t argue with what he said.

The Nam vets called it the Thousand Yard Stare. Someone could be standing right in front of you, and you’d never see them. You were seeing shit in your head ten thousand miles away.

But however freaked out I might have been, it was nothing compared to what the guys in my group were feeling. They came up and analyzed the chess pieces as if they were going back into combat.

When that guy tried flanking you here–it opened a breach when you redeployed there. Your back is to the river…  You have no drop back position, no place to regroup. You’re about to be overrun.

We all are!

The guys in my group practically ran out of the room.

* * * *

About ten years later, I presented this to concept to my AA group, Squad 46, the bestest squad in all the land. And when I finished, I was met with

Silence.

My group members finally came out from the tables they had been hiding under, and discussed my presentation. I’ve discussed bits and pieces of it with a lots of people over the years, but I’ve only presented it in its entirety twice. This makes three.

Sometimes I think it’s the most significant idea I’ve ever imagined, mostly based on the reactions of the people I presented it to, not because it’s actually been proven to be an effective therapy or educational tool.

Oh, and I do make the World’s Best Chili.

Most of the time I don’t think about my concept of an organized defense system at all. But I did this morning. Maybe someone will find it useful. And that’d be cool.

What Was I Thinking?

Anyone that has been in more than one serious relationship probably has a story about that time they got involved with someone that was totally wrong for them. If you have more than one story, you should probably consider not dating for maybe a decade. If you have more than five, you should consider becoming a priest or a nun.

For me, that person was Cynthia Jamieson. I met her right around the time I was having my final showdown with Sister Mary Hitler, so she initially presented herself as a very welcome distraction in my already troubled life.

Cynthia was roughly my age and height, and thin–almost too thin. I asked her out. She agreed. We met at a restaurant/bar that had live music on the weekends. We ate, had a few drinks, and danced a lot. She was attractive with short, kind of platinum blonde hair–I don’t know what her natural hair color was. She was smart, witty, funny, and she was a good dancer. She could also sing. She could sing arias from Puccini and Mozart and classical guys like that. And she was good! I was totally impressed.

Cynthia was divorced, she was the first previously married woman I seriously dated. She had two boys, Bert and Pete. I think Bert was maybe ten years old, and Pete was around eight. They were good kids, we all got along.

Cynthia had some vague GI problem that she was seeing three doctors for treatment–two in St Cloud, one in Minneapolis. And she was getting at least one prescription medication from all three of them. She saw each of her doctors about every two or three weeks on a rotating basis. Her vague problem didn’t seem to be serious, and the medication, whatever it was, seemed to be managing her illness, whatever it was…

Things were going mostly smoothly with Cynthia and the boys. I moved into Cynthia’s’s apartment after a couple months of dating her. Things were getting kinda serious. It was only after I moved in with Cynthia I got my first inkling there was something not quite right.

Cynthia was…moody. And sometimes she was darkly moody. And when it got really bad, she always played one special song on the stereo: Harden My Heart by Quarterflash.

“Oh, God,” Bert said, the first time Cynthia played that song after I moved in. “Mom’s in a bad mood. She always plays this song when she’s in a bad mood.”

“What’s that all about?”

“I don’t know, maybe cuz dad divorced her.”

“Yeah, but that was, like, two or three years ago, wasn’t it?”

“All I know is she plays this song, and then she starts yelling.”

I had to investigate this phenomena, and what Bert said was absolutely true. Cynthia went off on me like she was the Witch Queen of New Orleans. I grabbed the boys and fled. We went to my old apartment and hung out with my brother until it was safe to return.

This was not a frequent occurrence, but it wasn’t a singular event either. If Cynthia was upset with her ex-husband, I could understand that, but when Cynthia got into one of these moods, her ire wasn’t focused toward her ex-husband. It was seemingly directed toward anyone/everyone with a penis.

Cynthia’s ex’s name was also Bert. Cynthia’s son was actually Bert II. Bert the First was a semi-wealthy guy, and he had derailed Cynthia’s very comfortable lifestyle by divorcing her. Cynthia had very nice, very expensive tastes. Everything she owned was designed by a Somebody. Cynthia was my first high maintenance woman, and she would become my first serious fashion consultant.

I think it was around this time that my youngest sister got married. Cynthia sang ‘Ave Maria’ a cappella at Julie and Curt’s wedding and brought the house down. She really did have an amazing voice. I think that was the moment I fell in love with her.

Weddings. Never make any serious life decisions immediately after going to a wedding. I bought a ring. I proposed, all that stuff. And then things went all to hell.

Cynthia not only had an ex-husband, she also had an ex-boyfriend. I can’t remember his name, but he couldn’t get over the fact that Cynthia had dumped him. He used to call frequently. I hung up on him whenever I answered the phone. He wrote letters. He sent cards. He followed us around sometimes. And one time he even kidnapped her.

Okay, maybe he didn’t actually kidnap her, but that’s what it felt like. I can’t remember all the details… Cynthia’s ex-husband had the boys, so it must’ve been the weekend. We were out at a park, maybe playing Frisbee. My brother Tom was there. Mr XBF walked up, said he needed to talk to Cynthia. I kind of lost it, and told him to walk away before I killed him to death. But Cynthia agreed to talk to him! Privately!! They went over to his car. Tom and I followed them, and immediately lost them in traffic after Mr XBF drove off with her. I was sure he was going to kill her, then kill himself.

Okay, maybe he didn’t actually kill her. My brother thought I was being a drama llama and told me to get a fucking grip already. He dropped me off at my apartment where I waited for a call from the police, informing me my fiancée had been brutally murdered. By her psychotic ex-boyfriend. Who then committed suicide…

The phone rang, but it wasn’t the police. Or Mr XBF, outlining his perverted ransom demands. Or even Cynthia, calling to say goodbye to me before she got dead at the hands of the psycho guy she never should’ve dated. It was Cynthia’s best friend, Patricia. I told her what had happened in a rush. We talked for at least an hour, and she filled in a whole lots of blanks in Cynthia’s storyline.

Mr XBF was bad news. Patricia had never liked that creepy bastard, and had been telling Cynthia to dump him from Day One. I had met Patricia couple times, and I thought she was okay, but now I thought Patricia was brilliant and I loved her. And then came the bombshells. Cynthia didn’t have anything wrong with her stomach or any other portion of her GI tract. And the medication she was getting to treat her malady was phenobarbital. I couldn’t believe it! My darling opera singer, fashion plate fiancée was a drug addict!!

My head was spinning after I hung up the phone. Cynthia walked in the door a short time, or maybe a long time later. I really can’t remember how long I waited. All I know is, I should’ve been playing Quarterflash when she walked through the door.

I confronted my then fiancée. She countered with any number of reasonable sounding explanations. I called Patricia. She wanted to talk to Cynthia. I handed the phone to my fiancée. She had the shortest conversation she would have with her best friend, ever, but about half an hour later Patricia walked in the door and we ended up doing a tag team intervention on Cynthia that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. I doubt any of the people living in the vicinity of our apartment got any sleep that night. Thinking back on it now, I’m surprised no one called the police.

Cynthia fought us tooth and nail, but Patricia was beyond amazing that night. When Cynthia finally broke down and admitted she had a problem and needed help, it was because of Patricia, not me. Cynthia packed a bag, and we drove her to the St Cloud Hospital ER to get her admitted into the Chemical Dependency Treatment Program.

I talked to Cynthia’s ex-husband the next day to let him know what had happened. He wasn’t as surprised as I was, but agreed he should keep his sons until their mother got out of drug rehab.

I supported Cynthia while she was in treatment. I visited her every day. I went to Family Night. I participated in her program whenever my presence was required. Cynthia’s parents and siblings even got involved, and they started mending their relationships, but I knew I was done.

Given my history, her drug abuse wasn’t the issue. I probably made her look like a grade school kid in terms of drug and alcohol use. It wasn’t the drugs, it was her crazy behavior–the yelling and screaming, the diffuse rage that rained down pell-mell and helter skelter. And there was also Mr XBF. The fact that she had voluntarily disappeared for several hours with him…

I told Cynthia we were through near the end of her hospitalization. She took it better than I thought she would, and gave me my ring back. I didn’t ask for it, she simply took it off her finger and placed it in my hand. I packed up my stuff and moved out of her place just before she was released.

The last thing I did before I left her apartment was break her Quarterflash album in two.

I ran into Cynthia about a month after she completed rehab. She was smiling and relaxed. I just about had a heart attack. Cynthia looked about the same, except for one surprising physical anomaly. Her ass had become huge! She looked to be about the same otherwise, but(t)…

And that was when she became Cynthia ‘Fatass’ Jamieson to me.

I know. It doesn’t say much about me, does it. I make no excuses, nor do I apologize. I’m a guy. I’m not always sensitive to the pain of others, despite my training and my inherent compassion. I rarely care what others think or feel about me and my words or actions.

I’ve done a lot of work fixing the broken parts of me. I’ve come to the conclusion that life is essentially an endless recovery program. Recovery never ends, you simply move on to the next issue. We all have areas that need some work and tuning up.

I hope Cynthia’s life turned out great. I hope she conquered her demons and is prospering at whatever it is she’s doing now. I hope her sons grew up to be decent men, and that they married nice girls, and gave their mother grandchildren to spoil.

But I really wish I had never seen Cynthia’s gigantic ass. It’s an image I’ve never been able to erase from my brain. And I can’t listen to Quarterflash without damn near having a panic attack.

In some ways, that’s the biggest tragedy of this story. I love music, and Quarterflash had a few decent songs back in the 80’s. And I love the 80’s.

ER, Part II

I lived in a cute little apartment building that was right on the Mississippi River when I was in nursing school. It was the perfect location for me, maybe four blocks from the school, maybe a quarter mile from downtown St Cloud. It was a three story square, brick building, and each floor was a complete two bedroom apartment. I lived on the top floor apartment. Directly below me lived Judy Nicegirl and Nora the Goon.

Judy was a nice girl. She used to make pizzas for me and my brother, and she asked me out multiple times. Judy was head over heels in love with me. She was physically attractive–she had a pretty hot body–but Judy wasn’t very smart. This will sound like the ultimate irony coming from me because God knows I was plenty capable of infinite stupidity, but I rate intelligence very high on my list of desirable qualities. Unfortunately, Judy had a very low rating in that particular area.

And then there was her roommate. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Popeye the Sailorman, but there was a character named Alice the Goon in Popeye’s cartoons, and Nora kind of reminded me of Alice…

Judy had a boyfriend, Brian. He lived on the ground floor apartment in our building. Brian’s mom must not have cursed him because he got Judy pregnant and she had Brian’s baby. I don’t think Judy and Brian had that great of a relationship prior to making their baby, and it didn’t get any better afterwards. Judy and Brian had multiple arguments, multiple times. Then Judy would go to her apartment and argue with Nora the Goon. There was a reason for this that has nothing to do with the story, but I’ll add it because it was so great at the time. Nora was a lesbian and she wanted Judy more than Judy wanted me. My brother, Thomas Rowen, thought this was just about the funniest thing he’d ever seen in his life.

It was January, probably my senior year of nursing school. It was the weekend. Yeah, weekends in January were tough on me in nursing school. It was cold, colder than it had been one year earlier when everyone had been sledding on the hill at the end of the street. I was watching TV with my brother Tom, when there was a knock at the door.

“Brian beat me up!” Judy cried, as I answered the door. “I think he broke my arm!” I ushered her into the living room, and had my brother keep an eye on her while I went out to start my car and let it warm up before I drove Judy to the hospital. I had a 1980 Honda Civic CVCC four door wagon. It was the most undependable car I ever owned. It started about half of the time I wanted to drive it. Fortunately, this was one of its good days. My car started right up, and I shivered as I revved the engine periodically to warm it up faster. Neither Judy nor Nora owned a car. Brian did, but I didn’t see his car in the parking lot.

My brother threw me his coat when I returned to my apartment. Judy was already wearing my coat. I fired a quizzical look at my brother. He responded with a look that said, She’s not wearing my coat! I escorted Judy down the stairs and into my car.  She was crying. I tried to distract her, told her a joke or something, and her sobbing abated somewhat. And then we were at the hospital. Yeah, it took about that long.

“Wait here, I’ll go get a wheelchair.”

“I can walk.” Judy replied. She had stopped crying.

“No, wait here. I’ll be right back.” There was an empty wheelchair near the entrance. I wheeled it out to my car, and helped Judy get in it.

“You’re such a sweet guy. That’s why I like you so much. You’re so nice. Thank you for driving me here.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t going to let you walk here.” It was pretty damn cold outside. And she had a broken arm… I wheeled her down a short hallway into the ER waiting room. The ER was dead on that day. There might’ve been a couple people waiting, but mostly I saw the ER staff sitting around the nursing station in small groups, shooting the breeze.

“Can I help you?” a guy in blue scrubs said, approaching us as we approached the nursing station. He had a neatly trimmed beard, and he smiled a warm greeting as we came in from the cold.

“I broke my arm!” Judy sang out, catching me by surprise. I had an explanation I wanted to say before anyone got the wrong idea.

“Oh, did you have a skiing accident?” he asked, looking at our outerwear, which could’ve been used as skiing jackets, I suppose. He was still smiling, and now all the other staff members behind the nursing station started taking notice of us and some of them got up and stated heading toward us. I opened my mouth to reply.

“No! My boyfriend beat me up!!”

It became very cold in that Emergency Room, very quickly. The smiling faces approaching us suddenly took on the appearance of every pissed off Mom/Dad/Brother/Sister/Cousin of every victim of every case of domestic violence, ever. And all of those dark and damning eyes were staring at me.

“Um, hey, no way, guys,” the words stumbled out of my mouth. “I’m not her boyfriend. I’m her neighbor. I just brought her here for help.” Looking at the eyes staring back at me I could see not one of them believed anything I said.

“Oh!” Judy cried out as I gave her a nudge in the back with my knee. “No, he’s right! He’s not my boyfriend, he is my neighbor, and he’s the nicest, sweetest guy I know.”

The cold stare in the eyes of the ER staff thawed a little when Judy said that. They rushed toward us, and took the wheelchair from me, in case I suddenly became her boyfriend and decided to break her other arm, maybe, and quickly wheeled Judy off into an exam room. A group of rather large, unfriendly men spread out around me, blocking my access to the door.

“You don’t mind waiting until we check her story out, do you?” the bearded guy said. It wasn’t really a question, the way he said it. The army of men behind him crossed their arms, almost daring me to try to get past them.

Nope. I didn’t mind. I sat down and didn’t make any sudden moves. I prayed this would be resolved quickly. And it was. A female staff member came out of Judy’s exam room and talked softly to the group of men around me. Afterwards, they looked over at me and smiled warmly once more. Some of them nodded in my direction, some came over and clapped me on the back or the shoulder. The bearded guy that hailed me initially came over and apologized.

“Sorry about that, but we have to check everything out. You be surprised how often something like this happens around here.”

Actually, I woudn’t have been that surprised, but I nodded and shook the guy’s hand. I asked what happened next and how long this would take. Setting Judy’s arm and putting it in cast would be relatively quick, but the police report could take a couple hours. I gave the guy my number.

“Call me if she needs a ride when she’s done.”

That’s the story of why the ER staff were as angry with me as they were with the alcoholic mom that let her little girl get knocked up by her boyfriend, and you’d be surprised how often something like that happened in St Cloud. Not so surprising, perhaps, was that Judy actually filed charges against Brian. He packed up all his stuff and slipped off into the darkness. I never saw him again. Nora would have all her dreams come true. Even Judy would have some of her dreams come true before my time in nursing school ended.

I’m not sure there’s a moral to this story. I don’t even have a punchline to end it. But not everything in life is funny, or has a happy ending.

PEDS, ER, ETC.

My darling niece, Danielle Knosalla, just posted a photo of my nursing class on our Graduation Day. We’re FB friends. Some of you have expressed awe and wonder at my seemingly amazing memory. For the record, I’m sure I couldn’t tell you who ninety percent of the people in that picture are. In fact, I’m not sure that’s really me.

Here’s another tidbit for you, I can’t remember anything about my Pediatric rotation. Okay, I can remember a couple things: I had a Pediatric rotation, and I dressed up in a clown costume once. I have a vague memory of this, but that’s all I have. I can’t remember anything about any of the kids I took care of. That’s about all I can pull out of the memory vault. It’s as though someone had redacted most of the actual events, for reasons unknown to me.

Neither can I recall any of the details about the childhood of my daughters. Oh. Lea says we weren’t married when her girls were little, so that explains a lots. I have two stepdaughters, Gwen Markes Henson and Abigail Zorawski. We’re FB friends, too. Gwen was fifteen when Lea and I got married. Abi was twelve. They are, without a doubt, two of the most perfect people on this planet, but that’s only because I’m not their biological father. If I had been, they both would’ve been screwed up beyond all hope because I had been cursed by my Mom.

I was a terrible human being when I was young. And one day my totally exasperated mother looked me in the eyes and said, “You just wait until you grow up and have kids of your own–they’re going to be just…like…you!” Yep, she hit me with the Mother’s Curse, of all parental curses, it’s the most powerful. It scared the hell out of me. I made sure I never had any kids. Birth control. It was the one responsibility I took seriously even when I took nothing else seriously.

Another rotation I have difficulty remembering is the ER. I do have a few memories of my time in the ER. It was the only rotation that we were required to work the night shift. It makes perfect sense. When does all the weird shit happen? At night, of course! So we hung out in the ER during the Witching Hours, when the kooks, the crazies and the zombies come out.

For someone who would spend half a lifetime hanging out with kooks and crazies, I don’t remember running into anyone resembling that description during my ER rotation. I do remember hanging out with the ER staff, shooting the breeze and drinking coffee. And I remember talking to the oh-so-incredibly-cute Diane Hanson, and agonizing over whether to ask her out or not. The nuclear meltdown that had once been my relationship with Cynthia ‘Fatass’ Jamieson would play a significant part in my decision not to ask Diane out. And then there was Rebecca.

When I was in nursing school, I was totally infatuated with the oh-so-beautiful Rebecca Ann Brown. If you look at my nursing class picture, Rebecca is the back row, five girls to the right of me, or she’s the second from the end on the right hand side of the back row. I became a cardiac care nurse because of Rebecca. Even at the time I knew it was a stupid thing to do.

I had asked Rebecca out, more than once. She rejected my advances for a few reasons. One, I was roughly ten years older than she was. Although she didn’t endorse as a reason not to date me, it could’ve played a part. Two, I was a nice guy, but… For the love of God, just kill me! was my response when she uttered this line to me. Three, she already had a boyfriend. Of course she did! She was the eternal goddess of nursing, she could’ve had ten boyfriends if she wanted, and I wanted to be one of them.

Alas, it would not be, and I would suffer from an acute broken heart. I considered going to the ER, then decided against it. I doubted the ER staff would be able to do much to help me.

My ER rotation produced one hallmark memory. An older looking woman brought her thirteen year old daughter in because of the incredible abdominal pain the girl was complaining about. Her mom looked to be a lots older than a woman with a thirteen year old should look, and that was most likely related to her alcohol consumption.

She was clearly inebriated the night she brought her daughter in. Apparently mom didn’t spend much time looking in on her daughter because an ultrasound revealed the cause of the girl’s abdominal pain. The young girl was pregnant, and about to deliver.

Her mom evidently hadn’t cursed her–she was so eager to provide her mother with grandchildren, she had been having sex with her mother’s boyfriend.

The ER staff whispered all kinds of curses at the drunken mom. They were so angry! I had seen this reaction from the ER staff before, but on that occasion they had directed their anger toward…

Yep, you guessed it.

Me.