Playing Catch with Condoms: Some Thoughts on Eccentricity in Education and Growing Up Female at the Tail End of the Sexual Revolution

A pink plastic case arcs through the air, soaring over the rows of coal-black lab tables. A teenaged girl ducks to protect her face but catches it like a fly ball in both hands. She opens the case quickly, glancing at the rubbery object inside. “Diaphragm!” she shouts. “Barrier! Fits snugly against the cervix to prevent the passage of sperm! Must be prescribed by a doctor! Can be used either alone or in concert with spermicidal jelly!” Then she snaps the case closed and sends it airborne again. She does not throw like a girl.

The next item to sail through the air is an IUD. Privately, in their off-duty hours, the students have nicknamed it “the fishing pole.” As usual, the IUD comes apart in midair. The student who catches the pieces expertly snaps them back together and recites, “IUD! Intrauterine device! Abortifacient! Does not prevent conception! Prevents implantation of the fertilized embryo in the uterine wall!” and tosses the IUD back to the teacher, in whose hands it falls apart once again.

The year is 1990, and the scene is the upper school science classroom at the K-8 girls’ school I attended. We will graduate soon, and the final lessons in the school’s sex education curriculum are designed to prepare us for our lives as adolescent and adult women in the years just following the sexual revolution. The teacher is a young man of about 30 whose expertise is in ecology, geology, and environmental science. In these areas he is an excellent teacher. When forced by curricular expectations to teach other topics, his impatience and frustration are palpable. This teacher introduced the sex ed unit by drawing a large diamond on the board, etching squares next to the four points of the diamond, and pointing to each square with a pointer. Hmmm, I remember thinking, that doesn’t LOOK like a uterus and fallopian tubes. “This,” he said, pointing to the square located at the three o’clock position, “is FIRST BASE.” The lesson continued from there.

This teacher had been hired two years earlier to replace a longtime science teacher who had been promoted to assistant head of school. This teacher – with whom I really had very little contact – was one of several at that school who were part of a dying generation of educators who had attended girls’ schools and women’s colleges and then taught at girls’ schools throughout their long careers. She wore blouses with gigantic bows at their necklines and once told me that she couldn’t in good conscience let me graduate without taking at least some sewing. “I’m not saying you have to take it every semester,” she said, “but let’s be real.” When she took over as assistant head of school, she BANNED MUSIC from the gym and art room because modern pop music was just too pernicious of an influence on young minds. (This happened in MY lifetime? I ask myself as I review these memories. In San Francisco? Yes, it did.) She had handed her collection of contraceptive devices down to her successor in a worn cardboard box. I remember thinking (and, strangely, I don’t remember talking about these thoughts with anyone else – a sign that they probably really disturbed me) that the contraceptives we were throwing around the classroom were from the assistant head of school’s personal stash – that one day in the distant past, perhaps late at night when she was desperate for a lesson plan, she had ransacked her house with a cardboard box, dredging up any stray birth control devices she could find and hauling them off to school, where they remained, immortal, even as she aged and moved into administration. And it was true that the contraceptives that we handled in class had seen better days. The rubber of the diaphragm was stiff and a little bit cracked, like the nipples of old baby bottles. The condoms, sponges, and pills, however, were still in their original packaging.

A few other snapshots from that year:

First: Science class was not the only place where we received sex education. Due to some kind of curricular cross-wiring, we also received sex ed (or “health,” I think they called it) classes during P.E. on alternating weeks during the second semester. They divided the class into two groups, and while one group received lessons on sexually transmitted diseases and eating disorders and avoiding date rape, the other stayed in the gym and shot baskets or played dodgeball (actual dodgeball – not the kind where you throw Today sponges). At the end of each week of health class, we took a quiz, and anyone who failed the quiz had to re-take the health class the following week instead of taking P.E. So guess who failed the health quiz every single week? It was my best and longest-lasting getting-out-of-P.E. scheme ever. I’m pretty sure the P.E. teacher was pretty happy about it too.

Anyway, the main thing I remember about these health classes was playing a game called GYNECOLOGIST. (Relax, people. Gynecologist was a card game. No adolescents were harmed in the making of this blog post.) In any given round of the game, one player was the gynecologist and everyone else was a patient. The patients were dealt a series of cards, each of which contained a symptom. You might have one card that said “Low-grade fever,” another that said “Blood in urine,” and another that said, “Pus-filled chancre.” Whatever. The gynecologist’s job, then, was to ask each player a series of questions  and eventually “diagnose” each patient’s problem. Since the cards were dealt out at random, a genuine diagnosis was not always possible, but we did our best. The most memorable part of this game, though, was the fact that when it was your turn to be the gynecologist, you got to hold a REAL SPECULUM. It served a purpose similar to the conch in Lord of the Flies, which we happened to be reading in English class at the time: it was a symbol of the gynecologist’s authority and signified that its holder was entitled to ask the questions and control the conversation. We all made the best of this authority when it was our turn to wield it, snapping the scissor-like speculum open and shut like demented barbers. I remember this particular teacher as hapless but well-intentioned, and there is no doubt that she included this prop in the game in order to demystify the speculum itself and the gynecological experience for us – but she failed. To this day, when I see another person holding a speculum, a little voice inside my head tells me that my job is to sit down and shut up.

Second: our class play that year was Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Yes, really. As in most middle-school drama productions, there were about nine or ten main roles, and everyone who did not have a main role was assigned to a chorus. In this particular play, everyone who did not have a main role was either an office worker, a gang member, or a PROSTITUTE. The word used in the program was “girls,” but we knew what that meant. I was on the tech crew, and I remember being on stage just a moment before the curtain was drawn, scampering from prostitute to prostitute and helping them get into character by asking them how much they charged. I also remember not thinking there was anything unusual about this situation until I heard a friend’s mother say that she was boycotting the play. “I am NOT taking time out of my day to see my daughter play a prostitute in the school play,” she said. “I’m just counting the days until you graduate and get out of that crazy place.”

Third: At some point during the lessons on rapid-fire contraception recognition, someone made the brilliant observation that our math teacher LOOKED LIKE a diaphragm. And it was true – she did: her face was round, soft, and rubbery, and just wrinkled enough to resemble the aged diaphragm in our science teacher’s collection. Over time, this casual comparison morphed into a series of detailed comic strips detailing the life of our math teacher, who was portrayed as a diaphragm with feet, hair, and a face. Other faculty members played cameo roles and were always portrayed as contraceptive devices: a tall, skinny teacher was an IUD; a very petite teacher was a birth control pill; a squat, stocky teacher with a pillar-like body was a tube of spermicidal jelly, etc. Besides interacting with her various friends, the primary pastime of our diaphragm protagonist was to try to have sex with porcupines. Each page of each comic book was full of long laments about how difficult it is to have sex with porcupines when you’re a diaphragm, as well as drawings of the diaphragm steadfastly putting a condom on every single one of the porcupine’s quills (which we called – you guessed it – “pricks”).

I should add here that I have been a teacher and administrator in high schools for ten years, and before that I taught at the college level for three years and worked part time in various preschools and day care centers for eleven years – and my own students have never even come close to paying me back for the disrespect that my friends and I displayed toward that teacher. NOT EVEN CLOSE.

And finally: my eighth grade year marked some anniversary in the career of our headmaster – his twentieth anniversary of service at the school, I think. The school planned a day in his honor in the middle of May, a couple of weeks before our graduation. Among many other speeches and accolades, the plan was that the student body would serenade him with the 1934 Cole Porter song “You’re the Top.” We all received printouts of the lyrics and music and were excused from classes on several occasions to practice the song in the music room. At some point our radical Marxist-Feminist history teacher (hereafter referred to as the RMFHT; and how, HOW, have I made it this far into this blog post without mentioning the RMFHT? She deserves an entire post all her own – if not an entire website) found out that we were practicing this song in preparation for the headmaster’s celebration, and she went nuts. Abandoning her lesson plan in a split second of eye-flashing anger, she informed us precisely what the words “top” and “bottom” mean in sexual parlance and announced that she was NOT going to stand by and watch as 300 girls sang to one man that they were the bottom and he was the top.

And, OK, she was right. I am not saying that we needed, at the age of fourteen, quite the explicit lecture that we received on the philosophical and sensual limitations of the missionary position – but the music teacher who chose the song (and/or whichever administrator chose it for her – I suspect the former science teacher with the gigantic bows on her blouses and the nasty old cracked diaphragm) should have known that there would be plenty of faculty, parents, and alumni present at the event who would recognize the undertones of the song and be some undesirable combination of amused and offended. I mean, some things are just better left in 1934 – know what I mean?

So, under the influence of the RMFHT, the entire eighth grade class decided to reverse the pronouns in the song and sing “I’M the top; I’M the Tower of Pisa… and if baby YOU’RE the bottom, I’M the top!” – a choice that, of course, was no less inappropriate than the original lyrics. This event took place in the gym, with the students lined up by grade level: kindergarten in the front, closest to the stage where the headmaster stood, eighth grade farthest from the stage and closest to the rows of visiting parents, alumni, and other guests, who sat in the bleachers. Our 47 voices were mostly drowned out by the 260 others in the room, but I’m SURE we were audible to the guests in the bleachers behind us. Fallout? I have no idea. I don’t remember hearing anything about it afterwards. The RMFHT did not return to the school the following year, but that plan had been in place for a long time prior to the Cole Porter incident.

In fact, no reflection on this year would be complete without considering the fact that all four of our major-subject teachers (English, math, history, and science) had turned in their resignations by October. The RMFHT had been taking night classes to become a nurse and was moving to Honduras (??) to practice nursing; the math teacher – as much as I want to be kind to her to atone for how profoundly we tortured her – was terrible at her job and was not asked back; the science teacher was moving on – I forget where – and made his general disgruntlement at having to finish out the year in his current job no secret; and the English teacher – who was wonderful – left mid-year to take a maternity leave and then stay home with her baby. As students we took a certain pride in this attrition and assumed that we would go down in institutional memory as “the class that made all the teachers quit.”

As an adult and a teacher, I have an enormous amount of sympathy for those teachers. I can’t say for sure – but I would imagine that the morale among the faculty that year was extremely low. I know very intimately what it feels like to keep returning day after day to a teaching job that you do not love. In earlier posts I have mocked my younger self for wanting to treat my job as a marriage, but sometimes I think that maybe I was not so off the mark. Returning every day to a teaching job (and all teaching jobs are also ACTING jobs, at least in part) is a bit like waking up each morning in a loveless marriage.

And of course I know now that – contraceptive cartoons notwithstanding – it was not our class that made all the teachers quit. It was something darker, something more fundamental, and something more adult. I believe that my school at this time was going through a bit of an institutional identity crisis. This is a necessary and good thing, although it didn’t feel good at the time to those of us who lived through it – in fact, I have trouble imagining that any honest institution involved in educating women would HAVE to be going through an identity crisis of some kind in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The sexual revolution had come to stay, and its pioneers were combing out their gray hair and writing books about menopause. But not enough time had gone by to allow educators of girls and women to assimilate everything that had changed into the world and use that information to adjust their methodology – OR, equally likely, to use that information to actively decide NOT to adjust their methodology.

Educators must constantly juggle the future and the past. The purpose of what we do, of course, is rooted in the future – in our students’ lives as scholars, citizens, and people. During times of rapid change, teachers are expected to prepare their students for a world that they themselves do not understand. For my generation, this rapid change was most apparent in the area of gender roles – a fact made more apparent for me, since I attended what had until recently been an ultra-traditional girls’ school. For my students’ generation today, this change is most palpable in the area of technology and workplace dynamics. Every time I hear a consultant tell me that I must train my students in “twenty-first century thinking,” I want to pick up a diaphragm and hurl it at the wall in frustration. They didn’t TEACH us twenty-first century thinking back in the twentieth century, I want to shout. Isn’t that the fricking point?

But there’s more. Just as teachers must always consider the future, we are also anchored in the past. The whole accumulated tradition that my teachers passed on to me is not wrong or outdated. The fundamental truths that we are responsible for teaching our students have changed very little since the days of the ancient Greeks, of the writers of the Old Testament, of Shakespeare and Milton and Austen and Dickens. We must teach them how to grow up and how to love. We must teach them to nurture healthy ambitions and to recognize poisoned ambitions when they arise in themselves and in others. We must teach them that at some time in their lives they will likely fail, will likely lose everything. All the bad things out there – all the charities we raise money for at Thanksgiving and Christmas – represent traps that they themselves may fall into no matter how careful they are and no matter how well we do our jobs – yet we must also teach them not to fear their uncertain futures too much. We must teach them to find outlets for their feelings of guilt and shame – and we must do so without revealing the secrets behind our own guilty and shameful feelings. We must teach them that being a woman – just like being a man – is and has always been a complicated journey. We must teach them to understand the primacy of the human drive for sex while still making it clear that we don’t want them to actually have sex themselves for a very, very long time. We must teach them how to help others to die and, eventually, how to die themselves. And we must do all of this without letting on that we are doing it – without ever diverging from the party line that what we are really teaching is Hamlet and the Civil War and Boyle’s Law and the quadratic formula.

And I must say that my own teachers did this job very well, in spite of and often because of their many mistakes. The great behemoth that we call “curriculum” comes from a variety of sources: from administrators and consultants, from the demands of specific disciplines, and – depending on the nature of the school, the teacher’s experience and mindset, and the discipline – from teachers themselves. But a teacher’s own accumulated humanity is always the glue that holds a curriculum together. I don’t know exactly why my eighth grade science teacher thought it would be a good idea to teach us to recognize contraceptive devices at high speed as if we were fighter pilots learning to identify enemy aircraft as they appeared for a split second on a simulator screen (although it seems like as good a way as any to become a sexually mature adult woman in the face of an uncertain future, doesn’t it?), but I know that it worked. I know my contraceptives, dammit. I also know that in the process I imbibed a little bit of my teacher’s cynicism and frustration. When I picture him throwing each birth control device now, I imagine that his internal monologue went something like this: How the hell do they expect me to teach these fucking kids about fucking sex? I barely understand it myself! The physicality and anger and mild danger of the lesson (he aimed to hit our faces when he threw; we did the same when we threw back) made their way in subtle ways into my subconscious understanding of sexuality. I don’t know that this is a good thing, exactly, but it is an honest thing – and in education, as in almost everything else human beings do, honest but ambivalent is usually better than good but sterile.

This entry may seem to veer a bit off the track of some of the others I’ve written. While the primary topic of this blog is my own journey toward health and healing from my fibromyalgia and brain injuries, a secondary – but not very secondary – topic is education. To be honest, at this point in my life I am not sure if I would be capable of writing anything more complex than a shopping list that wasn’t in some way about education. In order to understand where I am right now, both physically and mentally, I need to understand how I got here. My elementary and high school educations, college and young adulthood, my grad school training as a fiction writer, my early and ongoing training as a teacher, and the great growth as well as the great injuries that were the fruits of my training in martial arts: all of these are puzzle pieces in my attempt to understand why I am here at my kitchen table at noon on a Thursday instead of sitting around my Harkness table with my honors juniors. Some researchers believe that fibromyalgia is essentially the body’s inability to recognize that it has healed from past injuries – in other words, that it is almost a physical manifestation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Just as a PTSD sufferer relives old traumas and terrors through nightmares and hallucinations, a fibromyalgia sufferer relives the pain, confusion, and fatigue of her own past.

These ideas are also on my mind because my career is at a crossroads. I have the opportunity to return to my school in the fall in my previous capacity (teaching five English classes and serving as department chair in addition to certain other duties like moderating clubs and supervising detention), or I can choose not to return. My boss (who has been supportive and entirely wonderful throughout this entire process) was willing to consider working out a part-time position for me, but she just couldn’t find a way to make it work in the context of the school’s overall staffing needs. So I have a decision to make – and I have to make it in (gulp) the next ten days. I can go back to the lion’s den, to the arena, to the trenches – insert your own preferred melodramatic metaphor here. Or I can start from scratch and see what happens next. On the one hand, starting from scratch is one of my favorite things to do. I spent my childhood wishing I had been born into the Ingalls family from Little House on the Prairie largely because of that family’s endless transience, and as an adult I’ve never lived more than five years in the same place. Thoreau’s words – “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one” – echo in my head every single year at contract-renewal time. But of course I’m not Pa Ingalls, and I’m not Thoreau, and I’m not a kid anymore, either.

And, perhaps more importantly, I LOVE the lion’s den. I really, really do. Even when it hurts – perhaps even especially when it hurts.

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Victory!

For the fourth week in a row, I remembered trash day. Medical leave is all about the baby steps.

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Consider This Poem Some Collateral on My Next “Real” Blog Post: Day 57 of Medical Leave

When I was nineteen – the same age as the speaker is in the incident he recalls in the poem below – I heard Jeffrey Harrison read this poem at the Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, where I was working as an intern for the summer. Talk about a dream job: for most of the summer I manned the small museum and gift shop at one of Robert Frost’s former homes – the one at which he wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and many other masterpieces – and for one week I assisted the director in running a small poetry conference. At the time, like the boys in the poem, I wasn’t “prepared for any future / except one of effortless accomplishment,” and you shouldn’t have too much trouble understanding why this poem resonates with me now.

Since I’ve been away from work, I’ve received some very nice letters and cards from my colleagues and students. Last week, a letter arrived that said, “I never completely understood the phrase ‘intellectually stimulating’ until I took your English class.’” How do I respond: I’m reading lots of children’s books these days? I can’t even concentrate long enough to write a blog entry once a week? How do I explain to kids I love that I am cracked and broken in a million pieces?

Just so you know, in many ways I’m feeling better. Acupuncture is helping. Sitting for an hour with the needles in has the mental and physical effect on me of a large dose of Vicodin. I go home after each treatment and treat myself like a glass figurine, terrified that one false move will bring the pain back. And with each treatment I have more pain-free hours. I am generally sleeping well and finding it easy to relax. But my brain is still switched off, and I’m still weighted down by fatigue. The days are spinning by rapidly – probably because I don’t have as much physical discomfort to make the hours drag – and I’m not showing any signs of wanting to get up and rejoin the world. I can’t imagine that anyone – especially someone as smart as the student who wrote that letter – will ever tell me again that I taught them the meaning of the words “intellectually stimulating.”

And you know what? That sucks.

 

Convenience Store

 

It was too late: the three of us were already

Inside the glass door of the convenience store

When we noticed the man behind the counter

Was our bulge-eyed biology teacher from ninth grade.

That face of a frog pickled in formaldehyde,

We’d have recognized it anywhere… but here?

We would have given anything to disappear,

To avoid the situation, and avoid

Having to imagine what had happened to him

In the few years since we’d left for college.

None of us imagined that in six years

I’d be teaching English to ninth graders

In a school much like the one we’d gone to,

And that I’d be so miserable doing it

I’d have to quit and take a low-pay job

As a guard in a museum, where I’d sit

Reading a book, look up at Van Goghs and Bonnards

Depicting places I would rather be,

Or stare at Rothkos until I was floating.

But back then we weren’t prepared for any future

Except one of effortless accomplishment,

As we weren’t prepared for this encounter

And couldn’t think of anything to do

Except keep going toward the beer we’d come for

And carry it up to the counter, looking down

At the racks of candy as he rang it up.

Nobody said a thing. The silence stiffened

And divided us from him, until one of us –

The future investment banker in New York –

Ruptured the invisible membrane by laughing

And making a comment I’m glad I can’t recall.

Nor do I remember our teacher’s reply,

Only his inane smile, as if held by pins,

And what I now realize was sadness

Swelling those eyes we thought were only comic –

But we were already hustling toward the door

And out into the snow-plowed parking lot,

Where a raw gust hit us flush in the face

And stuffed the breath back down our gulping throats.

 

–Jeffrey Harrison

Posted in Poems | 7 Comments

Greetings from 4:30 am: Day 42 of Medical Leave

My insomnia problem is almost cured, I swear! Ever since my body started adjusting to the acupuncture and I started taking melatonin, I’ve been falling asleep between 10 and 11 every night and waking up somewhere between 6 and 8, and then I’ve been taking a nap mid-day if I feel like it – probably about half the time. So what happened last night? Not sure. I felt out of sorts after I had blood drawn in the afternoon – they had to take four vials and I found that I felt lightheaded about 2-3 hours after I got home. I didn’t feel much like dinner, so I just snacked around and found that everything I ate gave me immediate heartburn. I was exhausted through the evening and went to bed at 10 – but then I was wide awake at 12:45, humming a song I heard yesterday on the internet and dying to find out who won the Hawaii primary.

To be honest, my general pattern of sleeping and feeling sleepy is a large part of the reason I haven’t blogged recently. My brain still works, and I have all kinds of ideas – some of them quite ambitious – of blog entries that I want to write, but my body drifts from bed to couch to chair, avoiding the onerous task of sitting upright at the kitchen table with the computer, and my brain decides that it would be a good idea just to drift along for the ride. This is part of my problem with “executive function” and is a symptom of the MTBI – my brain knows exactly what it needs and wants to do, my body is capable of doing it, but the communication between the two is faulty. I don’t “execute” things – get it? Just like all the papers I didn’t grade when I was teaching, all the deadlines I didn’t meet.

Today marks the end of my sixth week of medical leave. The title of my blog is simply a reference to the fact that I started my leave on Groundhog Day; I realize that the reference to six weeks in the title might misleadingly suggest that I had planned or arranged to take six weeks off. On the contrary, my leave is open-ended. My school is in the middle of its spring break right now, so I couldn’t go back right now even if I wanted to. But overall, I can’t even begin to tell you how NOT ready I am to go back to work and how profoundly my symptoms have NOT changed. Even on my best days, when I have slept well and don’t have a headache and have only a moderate amount of body pain, that executive function problem is still there, sitting around like a lump in my head and not executing things. Laundry remains a gigantic problem. The dishes. Vacuuming. Cleaning the litterbox. I am capable of all of these things – my body pain does not disable me in any kind of physical way. But my brain is full of Venetian blinds that snap shut every time I see something that needs to be done.

Last week, aware that school was ending for spring break, I was struck by the fact that I felt exactly the same way I always feel when I reach spring break: flattened by a steamroller. I felt just as exhausted and drained as I usually do when I have worked for nine weeks solid since New Year’s – and that was after five weeks of medical leave. Several friends have asked me recently if I feel “rested,” and the answer, unfortunately, is no. I have been resting – all the time, really. But “rested”? No. I can’t say that I feel rested or that I really remember what rested feels like. Is it when your rib cage stops throbbing? Because I think I would enjoy that.

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Is There Anything I Can Do For Extra Credit?

To say that I am a member of the Rite Aid Pharmacy’s Frequent Flyer Club is an understatement. A couple of times I have even gotten birthday cards from them. And since it has been a while since I have added a new medication, I usually throw away the detailed drug information that comes stapled to every prescription refill. Somewhere I have a copy of each one on file, and I have the warnings, restrictions, and side effects practically memorized anyway. But when I started Cymbalta last week, I hung on to the drug information and put it aside, telling myself that I would read it later.

To say that I had a lazy weekend would also be an understatement. I had my usual acupuncture hangover of extreme fatigue and a little bit of dizziness, and I’ve also been sleeping a lot ever since I started taking melatonin last week. The combination of acupuncture and melatonin has essentially put me on a one year-old’s sleep schedule: I collapse by 8:30 or 9 pm and sleep until about 7 am, sometimes earlier, and then I collapse around noon for a two-hour nap. Unfortunately, I do NOT have a one year-old’s energy during the hours I am awake, and it has been all I can do to rise from the couch or the MLC long enough to eat something, do the dishes, and take a shower each day. So reading the Cymbalta drug information has not been high on my list.

However, when I did pick up the pharmacy printout, I discovered something new. To be honest, I STILL haven’t read the bulk of the information about warnings and contraindications and “how to recognize suicidal thoughts” (I am not kidding – there really is a section with that subheading). The first page of the packet now features a little section called “My overall Rx score.” And MY overall Rx score, apparently, is an 89%. Underneath this score, I am advised to ask my pharmacist about my Rx score or go to Rite Aid’s website.

So now I’m getting GRADED for my pharmaceutical consumption? This is like one of those dreams where I’m back in high school and I’m flunking everything and I can’t find the cafeteria and I’m naked. And, for that matter, what gives about the 89%? A B+? If there’s ONE subject I should be getting a straight A in, it’s drug taking.

Oh, wait. Maybe the whole stopping-Lyrica-without-medical-supervision counted against me. Or maybe someone found out what I’ve been writing on my blog about the medical industry and I lost points for a bad attitude. Wouldn’t be the first time.

So I went to Rite Aid’s website and reluctantly entered all kinds of personal information so I could register for an account. That process completed, I looked everywhere for a place to ask about my Rx score. I looked through every single page on the website and couldn’t find anything. So now, if I want to know why I got a B+, I’ll have to suck it up and go ask the pharmacist – but I’ll never do that. I would be way too embarrassed.

All I have to say is that if this keeps me out of the pharmaceutical Ivy League, I’m going to be really pissed.

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Still Swallowing the Spider: Day 28 of Medical Leave

At the risk of courting accusations of hypocrisy, I’ll tell you that I started a new medication today. Three weeks ago, one of my doctors suggested trying two new medications – I believe that was the day I went home and wrote my blog entry about my frustrations with the medical industry’s reliance on pharmaceuticals. I told him that I wanted to think about it – but I think I knew even then that I would give these medications a shot. Today I started taking Cymbalta – I take 20 mg in the morning and 20 more at night. Cymbalta is one of only three drugs that are actually FDA-approved for fibromyalgia. Like Savella, which I tried and quickly rejected in the summer of 2009, Cymbalta is an antidepressant that is also known to have a marked effect on pain. Somewhat troublingly, my doctor could not explain to me why these two antidepressants are FDA-approved for fibromyalgia and others aren’t – he just said that all antidepressants have the potential to reduce pain.

I don’t feel like doing the research right now, but ten bucks says that the FDA’s approval of Cymbalta and Savella for fibromyalgia probably has nothing whatever to do with the chemical formula of these medications. The parent companies of these drugs probably just have the best lawyers.

In December and January, as I began to come to terms with the fact that I no longer had control of my health and my pain levels and began to accept the fact that I needed to take this leave, I slowly weaned myself off all of my medications. I wanted to see what my baseline was – what my body and mind would look and feel like without any pharmaceutical intervention. And the result was not pretty. I think I lasted about six days without any medications before I re-introduced two of them because I just couldn’t stand how terrible I felt. I remember sitting in my comfortable chair during the first few days of medical leave, surrendering to waves of dizziness as they hit me one by one, running my hand over my neck and shoulders to feel the knotted muscles and bruise-like tender points that just wouldn’t relax, no matter what. My body felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds, and I felt deeply, profoundly, transcendently sad. I don’t know if the sadness was a factor of the terrible pain I was in, or if it came from the antidepressant withdrawal, or if it came mostly from the hopelessness and resignation that I felt after finally stopping work. All I know is that it was real and it scared me, and I was willing to go back on medication in order to make it ease up a little. When I reread the first few posts I wrote in this blog – let’s say those written before February 8 – I feel that sadness woven into my sentences. Those first few entries are my reminders of why I am on this leave, and why I am taking the medications I’m taking.

(The first person to say that I am a better writer when I am TRANSCENDENTLY SAD gets a blog post about their secret sexual attraction for Golden Retrievers. You would be right, but that’s not the point.)

As of right this moment, here’s the regimen of medications and supplements that I’m taking:

Morning: 10 mg Lexapro, 20 mg Cymbalta, 250 mg magnesium

Evening: 100 mg Norflex, 20 mg Cymbalta, 3 mg melatonin

I also take Tramadol VERY occasionally for pain, and I take Tylenol PM as needed for headaches. There have been times in the last four years when I’ve taken a LOT more, but I still wish I were taking nothing, and I still mean every word I’ve ever written about how terribly corrupt the pharmaceutical industry is and how crippled doctors (and, by extension, patients) are by their reliance on it. But I am willing to admit to a little bit of hypocrisy and to a LOT of weakness. When I am in pain and upset, I want something that will make it better. The pharmaceutical industry counts on me to feel this way, and I do.

This is going to be a very, very hard cycle to break, I think.

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The Merton Prayer

I have no idea whether I believe in God. But this prayer makes me wish I did. I think of it as “the prayer for people who don’t pray.”

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

–Thomas Merton, from Thoughts in Solitude

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