Life as an Extreme Sport

The Affective Part

Have you ever noticed that the colour of a Starbucks frappuchino, or really, any blended coffee beverage (and perhaps even any coffee beverage) is the colour of brown packing paper, or corrugated cardboard? I hadn’t, until today, despite my several-latte-a-day habit. In fact, the only reason I did was because, as I was draped over the customer service desk this evening in Barnes and Noble, I did a doubletake when my eyes landed on a Starbucks iced drink cup. At first, I thought someone had left their drink, then my eyes snapped the stuffed tissue and confetti topping into focus. But it took a few more minutes before I could make heads or tails of what was inside the remainder of the glass — it was such a convincing illusion, I actually wondered for a moment just how it was the tissue wasn’t soaking up the liquid.

These are the thoughts that flit through your mind as someone sees if another store has the day planner you need, after a late Sunday class and dinner with your new classmates.

I’m tired. In less than a week’s time, I packed a UHaul full of my belongings, drove 3500 miles with my parents, two cats, that UHaul and my car (which means I quite literally drove about 2500 miles), and then found, rented and unpacked that UHaul on this side of the country. Only one day stands as buffer between that and the start of what I’ve been jokingly calling my bioethics bootcamp. I’m tired.

I know that this tiredness is what is underscoring my intense feelings of imposter syndrome. I knew I would feel like this at some point at the beginning of this whole Union/Albany program, and that I would have to overcome all those things I felt when I started at Seattle Central, and when I started at the University of Washington, even when I started more specifically within the Comparative History of Ideas. Still. I had hoped it would come a bit later — perhaps around my first paper, or major test. Not now, not the first day.

The group is split in two, really. There are the undergraduates, those who, at dinner, were talking about 22 being old. Then there are the rest of us. The rest of us are the folks in the Master’s program, although I seem to be the only one who’s doing the dual degree program with SUNY Albany — another weird feeling. (I was hoping I wouldn’t be The Only One, like I was in CHID. In a lot of ways, I won’t be — oh, the glory in being able to even do something so simple as mention what my thesis was on and have people nod knowingly — but, in other ways, apparently I am.) The rest of us, by and large, are professionals. Medical doctors, nurses, lawyers.

It wasn’t so bad when we were broken into our small workgroups, the groups we’ll be in for the next 2 weeks of activity. Peter is a cardio surgeon from Florida, moving into hospital administration after an accident has left him unable to stand for long surgeries. Neal and Amanda are undergraduates in an 8 year MD program Union offers; rising seniors, a term I like. Then, there was me, something of the buffer between the ages, as it were.

But as we went around the room, listening to introductions, that imposter feeling began to sink. Sure, it sounds like I’m one of few students in the room who actually has a medical history and ethics background — hooray, minor that consumed my major — but still. These other people? Surgeons, doctors, nurses, multiple degrees, PhDs, just adding another, want it for work, school, fun… Even the other recent graduate, amusingly also from my neck of the woods (Seattle U) is living in Manhattan. Doing something different. More. Better? I don’t know.

Our group has been assigned a policy case to review and present to the class. Through luck of the draw, it’s the Texas law Baylor invoked earlier this year with Tierhaus Habermas (I’ll need to check the spelling of that name), something I did some research on for and with Sara Goering and the history’o’medicine class. I suspect it will be good to have something I’m supposed to be doing where I already know a little. Just to keep me from feeling like a complete fraud.

Aside from that, though, I can’t really begin to express how shiny this is. At one point, we were instructed to call everyone by their first name. “Everyone is exceptional, so we’re all just who we are.” This is, as pathetic and ass-kissing as it might sound, an amazing thing to me. These are names, big names, in the field. People whose articles I read in class, whose journals and books were assigned reading, people who I decided I wanted to be more like, to do the same things, to have the same sort of impact. And now I’m in a room, at dinner, talking to their wives, making jokes, laughing at socks, smiling, trying not to be so shy, trying not to be too forward, trying to just be, and probably failing miserably on all accounts.

But I was going to move away from the self-doubt and knocking of myself, wasn’t I?

I’m really looking forward to the next couple of weeks. I’ll be listening to lectures by some of the most well known people in the field, broad as it is, and some of those people aren’t researchers or professors, or even practicing ethicists, but the cases themselves. Dax. Can you believe it? I’m going to have a chance to listen to Dax speak.

Dax is the first serious case study I remember, one Nancy (Jecker) used in my first MHE class. I remember watching the videos, reading the interviews, seeing interviews, and feeling convinced that this field is the right for me. Feeling certain, for the first time in I couldn’t remember how long, that I was finally doing the right thing with my life.

Now I get to meet him.

How frakkin’ cool is that?

Of course, the flip side, not necessarily of meeting Dax, but of patients as a whole, is part of the reason we were asked to write this journal to begin with. This is supposed to be a reflection of what we think and feel, and in some ways is supposed to let us see how to distance ourselves, to record what Wayne referred to as our acclimation process. The thing is, the acclimation process worries me. Is it really a desensitization process? Isn’t this what so many people complain is the problem with our medical system to begin with?

On the one hand, I understand the point. When confronted with some of the horrors that can happen to a human, or what medicine can sustain, how can you not have the choice to either toughen or break down and cry? To act, or be paralyzed in inaction? The distance is a necessary component to maintaining professional distance and ability to use the ethical paradigm we’re being taught to do the job we’re expected to do.

But on the other hand, perhaps we need to break down and cry, and be that intimately connected to how we feel. Isn’t that feeling the affect we need, that I argue for in that damned thesis? The thing that connects us together, that prevents us from melting into autonomous and alien worlds? The thing that binds us, that motivates us to use that paradigm to do right?

The gripping hand says that I’m forcing things into an utterly unnatural black and white distinction, and I genuinely hope that this is true, and that the binarism is a result of a rough first day. That in two weeks time, I’ll write my final entry for this bootcamp, and I’ll look back on this first and smile, amazed at the distance grown between myself in such a short span of time, and that I will see how to have functional distance without emotional frost.

Before any of that can happen, however, I have to first make it through these next two weeks, ego intact and perhaps slightly buoyed. Which can’t happen until I get some sleep, find my bag and book, and continue to settle in to my new home, both academic and otherwise.