In February something very bad happened in the world, which is that my father died.
It broke my rib, the sudden force of my sadness shattering and then settling into that sharp pain which lasted for weeks. I was numb to everything else in that period. I barely breathed, the pain stretching long fingers to my throat and chest wall and tethering them still. Even my anxiety went away, washed out by that heat at my side. My carefully cultivated optimism cracked with that rib and in seeped the idea that there was no being okay after all, that there were things that you don’t recover from in the end. My father was a great, great man, one of true magnitude. You don’t get over that.
Eventually my rib started to heal itself. By April I could move again without wincing. Instead I became bathed in fear like an electric current. By the time anxiety returned it had sensitized all my nerve endings so that anytime anyone I loved got in a car I felt the sting of panic.
When the world around you feels as if it’s made up of knives, the stuff of the atmosphere itself sharp and cutting like razors, then a person tends to contract. That’s what happened to me. Sadness was a big, growing, sopping mess at my center and it was heavier every day.
When I started my intern year in July I knew I would have to find some way to survive. Sadness was that mess at my center and fear was an electric rash that was opening up new raw places every minute. It’s so hard to walk around like that. I put my head down and braced myself for the year ahead with the wounds I had. I worried I was getting smaller.
New people I met saw me as permeated by rage, I think they characterized me by it – frothed up into flaming rants at the least provocation. But even then I felt broken, like a skipping record, like a wrung-out rag trying not to mildew. Rage was a reflex that spewed forth from something more difficult to characterize but that surely saw its origins in that deep well of mourning in me. October turned over. I sunk deep below the surface of hard times.
Bitterness is a hardening and a contraction. The dense, buzzing cloud comprising my father’s death, medicine, the pressures of being a new doctor, my own hard unforgiving nature, all the darkness I have to face, my isolation – I realized this month that it’s getting to me. I am not cloudstuff tossing out my limbs for human contact but the bitter pit of a bruised peach with its flesh torn away – hard, the only touch that can mark it a scratch.
Halfway through December, on the plane back to Seattle from a visit home to Chicago I think that bitter pit broke open and I found myself left drenched in the evidence of my own desperation. It took me a while to get to sleep with sob-swollen eyelids. I resolved to face the world with better optimism, but the next morning I was met with the greatest hits of medicine's litany of horrors as we rushed an otherwise well patient to emergency surgery, and optimism flitted away.
Here’s what happened to me this year: Bitterness was all around me, gushing, and so I painted my sore skin with it. Layers and layers of that tar. I’m trying now to peel it back to walk around abraded. I’ll have to find some other balm. But sometimes you show the universe your cracked-open self and someone fails to catch the debris and you have another opportunity to get worse again. Tacking that rising tide of bitterness on raw skin is a reflex that’s hard to suppress.
Starting intern year in the same year someone important to you dies is hard. You are faced with the world's most awe-inspiring tragedies while you're grappling with the idea that the universe sometimes takes vital things away and then goes on barreling forward anyway. And I’m a stubborn, heartbroken dreamer that assigns greater cosmic significance to myself and everything – which I see as a prerequisite to my vocation and one of my greatest strengths, but which is also hurting me. I’m a narcissistic mystic who can’t cope with a universe that goes on okay in my father’s absence and so this one must not be.
I need to let go of my broken thought processes, but I don’t want to – it’s too compromising, it’s odious to me. Truly moving forward feels like a latch blowing open on sadness, allowing it to disperse all through me. Isn’t it poison? But I see that I have to try now. My stubbornness is turning me into a worse person, a worse doctor. I can’t shield myself with bitterness anymore, and so I’ll have to find some other balm. (The balm is joy. Joy and hope.)
But the world hasn’t seemed such a hopeful place anymore. I’ve wanted to find a way back. And then I haven’t, because sometimes mourning feels like having the truth scraped across your eyes. It’s hard to remember that that is an act of obfuscation, not revelation. The biggest strength is in finding hope despite hardship.
At a NYE party I regretted committing to I found joy and laughter in an imperfect place with imperfect people in a formulation of the universe I would never design. I thought hard on the fact that you have to take people as they are and try to inspire the best in each other. Nothing is gonna be what you would have chosen. But you have to be able to feel the joy with the sadness. See that they exist because of each other. Grief comes from love and there is no love without the glinting threat of grief on the horizon.
I invited people to bring their baggage, their grief, their dashed hopes and wild losses of 2016 to the party. We got the fireplace running and each of us threw the lot of it in to burn as the night went on, so it all could meet some form of cosmic reconstitution.
So in our little gas fire I burned bitterness. I wrote it down on an index card with a hand made furious by desperation and champagne, and I tossed it in the fire. And then again. And again, with fear. And I burned them all again the next day, and the next, and the next, and today. And I think I’ll have to continue, every day for the rest of my life. Burning them away.