"Vulnerable and authoritative" - Osler's Razor
Thursday, March 16, 2023
Monday, January 9, 2023
For New Year’s, we had the highest tides I’ve ever seen in Bellingham. For Christmas, we were snowed in by a freak ice storm. For solstice, I was trapped at home with covid.
After a long hard year, Bear and I found ourselves surrounded by gloom and doom. But the end is finally in sight.
Hope comes more easily in springtime. Five and a half years ago, in May 2017, I emerged from the fog of PTSD and embarked on a couple of hopeful adventures.
First, I filed a lawsuit against Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC. They’re the supposedly “independent” private investigators the State’s lawyers used to justify firing me from my position as general counsel to Western Washington University. Despite the impact of living with PTSD, I thought the Ogden Murphy Wallace lawsuit would let me use my legal skills to clear my professional reputation and protect my family.
Second, I started publishing essays on this blog. In Phase I of blogging, covering posts in 2017 and 2018, I took advantage of my newfound freedom from thirty years of writer’s block by exploring a variety of topics and styles. My favorite essays about family were “I Come From Good People” and “Sure of You.” My favorite essay about brains was “Inside Out.” My favourite essay about Showtune Night in Canada was “Six Degrees of Kristin Chenowith.” Thanks to the mysteries of Google’s algorithm, the three most viewed blog posts were “About My Yale Classmate Brett Kavanaugh,” “Thing 1 and Thing 2,” and “Fifty Shades of Green Gables.”
Over the last couple of years, most of my writing ended up in other places besides this blog. But I’m proud of the essays I published here as well, including deeper explorations of community, family, memory, and mental illness. By joining The Narrative Project, I learned about the craft of writing, story-telling through trauma, and finding a writer’s life and community. I assigned myself a graduate reading list in psychology and neuroscience. And I observed my thoughts and feelings through hours of mindfulness and loving kindness meditation.
Along the way, I slowly learned to clear my head. I’m still oblivious to lots of important things, starting with everything social, particularly with the gays. But eventually I learned to think clearly by thinking like a writer, not a lawyer – at least, not like the kind of lawyer Attorney General Bob Ferguson would hire.
In November 2017, King County Superior Court Judge John Ruhl dismissed my claim against Ogden Murphy Wallace on a legal technicality.
It was important technicality. Washington law immunizes whistleblowers from liability for claims based on their communications to government agencies. One of the questions before the court in my case was whether whistleblower immunity applies to paid communications by government contractors, like Ogden Murphy Wallace’s supposedly “independent” investigation report attacking my character and competence. In August 2021, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that government contractors can’t be sued for injuries that are “directly based” on communications like the Ogden Murphy investigation report.
Our busy trial judge was so focused on the whistleblower statute that he overlooked my other claims against Ogden Murphy Wallace – the ones that weren’t based on any protected whistleblower communication, such as the investigators’ repeated lies about their contractual assignment. Unfortunately, everyone else in the legal process was also distracted by the shiny statutory construction bauble. I spent the next few years trapped in a Kafka-esque struggle to find a state tribunal that was interested in hearing how the State’s lawyers and investigators colluded in government contract procurement fraud, civil rights violations, and ongoing acts of concealment and obstruction.
After losing my state court claim against the OMW Defendants in the trial court, then winning, then losing, then winning, then losing, I lost my original lawsuit for good in June 2022 when the Washington Supreme Court declined further review.
The most interesting event in my state court lawsuit occurred on October 20, 2017. The day before my response was due to Ogden Murphy Wallace’s whistleblower immunity motion, the defendants produced a suspicious document related to their investigation: the only surviving copy of the 3/16/16 “Investigation Scope Email” from Ogden Murphy investigator Patrick Pearce to the State’s employment attorneys. This smoking gun email revealed I was the victim of a wrongful termination cover-up scheme involving senior lawyers at the AGO, including some of Bob Ferguson’s top lieutenants.
While my original lawsuit against Ogden Murphy wound its way through its doomed appeal, I began tracking down additional incriminating evidence through Public Records Act requests and administrative complaints. Unlike Ogden Murphy, I’m an actual whistleblower. Meanwhile, the State and its co-conspirators continued to execute their strategy of stonewalling, gaslighting, and spoliation.
The State refused to respond to my notice of claim and mediation invitation, and threated to sue me instead. So in April 2020, I filed another lawsuit in state court, this one against the Attorney General’s Office, the Governor’s Office, Western Washington University, and their corrupt employees. I was shocked when the State Defendants chose to remove all of my damage claims to federal court. I felt like Br’er Rabbit being thrown into the briar patch. Before I tried to repackage myself as an appellate lawyer and judicial candidate a few years ago, I spent two decades managing complex federal litigation at Bogle & Gates, the ACLU, and Davis Wright Tremaine. I’m much more comfortable litigating in federal rather than in state court.
However, it turned out removal was just another short-sighted stall tactic by the State’s lawyers. I didn’t realize cases in the Western District of Washington were paralyzed because our court had the most vacancies of any federal court in the country. After the rest of the baby boomer judges all retired, Judge Richard Jones and Judge Ricardo Martinez held down the fort alone for several years. Our Washington senators and the local legal community succeeding in preventing Donald Trump from making any judicial appointments to fill the vacancies. My lawsuit against the State slowed to a crawl as unfortunate collateral damage. We didn’t even have a trial date or a case schedule.
Once several Biden judges were confirmed, however, the federal court finally returned to a normal litigation schedule. The two-year delay gave me enough time to improve my mental health and to gather a mountain of incriminating evidence. On September 23, 2021, Judge Jones denied the State Defendants’ long-delayed motion to dismiss my claims. Instead, the judge granted my motion to file a detailed amended complaint that includes new damage claims against Ogden Murphy Wallace as well as against the Attorney General’s Office, the Governor’s Office, WWU, and their employees.
It’s as if all the frustrations of my original state court lawsuit never happened. Now we’re on a regular federal court litigation schedule. This month we’re waiting for Judge Jones’ rulings on the State Defendants’ frivolous Third Motion to Dismiss (here’s my response and their reply) and the Ogden Murphy Wallace Defendants’ motion to dismiss some of my new claims (here’s my response and their reply). Depositions in the Federal Lawsuit are scheduled to begin in February, with a jury trial set for January 2024 in Seattle.
I billed more hours of legal work in 2022 than any year since I was a young litigation associate – plus walking at least six miles a day with Bear to keep my head clear. I also had oral arguments in at least ten court hearings in 2022, which sets a personal record. The hearings were all in my Public Records Act case in state court, which is set for a bench trial before Judge Mary Sue Wilson on February 6-7, 2023, in Thurston County Superior Court.
In 1972, Washington voters enacted the most transparent government accountability law in the nation. I’ve submitted dozens of requests to state and local agencies under the Public Records Act. With the sole exception of the Office of the Governor, each agency acknowledged my PRA requests within five days as required by the statute. In October 2020, I emailed the three public record requests to the Office of the Governor as directed by its webpage. The State’s email servers diverted my emails as “junk.” About the same time, the same thing happened with my emails to addressees at several other government agencies – apparently someone put my name and website on some kind of internet “no-fly” list.
Sadly for the Governor’s Office, the Assistant Attorney General assigned to communicate with me on behalf of the State has a bad habit of ignoring my emails, regardless of whether they end up in his inbox or his junk folder. By the time his clients and his supervisors realized their lawyer dropped the ball, they’d already incurred millions of dollars in potential statutory penalties by delaying the Governor’s response to my public records requests for over a year.
Once again, the State and its lawyers refused to take responsibility, instead blaming me for their communication errors. So I filed a separate Public Records Act lawsuit against the Governor’s Office. We’re scheduled for a two-day bench trial in Olympia in February. Here’s my lawyer’s Opening Trial Brief.
In August 2021, the world seemed to be approaching the end of the covid pandemic. The Canadian border finally reopened, at least to visitors who uploaded their vaccination status and recent negative test results to an app. Vancouver Men’s Chorus began rehearsing, but only masked and in limited numbers.
We also seemed to be approaching the end of my lawsuits against the State and Ogden Murphy Wallace. In the federal lawsuit, Judge Jones recognized my disability and granted the reasonable accommodation I requested. In my original state lawsuit, the Washington Supreme Court rejected Ogden Murphy Wallace’s claim that lawyers are above the law.
However, we were actually far from the end – both with the coronavirus pandemic and with my efforts to hold the State and its lawyers accountable. It wasn’t even the beginning of the end. But as Winston Churchill would say, we finally reached the end of the beginning.
In 2021, two longtime members of Vancouver Men’s Chorus commissioned a new work by our resident accompanist and composer Dr. Stephen Smith. They wanted a song that would express the hope and joy the choir felt when we were finally able to sing together again after eighteen months of pandemic isolation and silence. Stephen chose to set to music an 1899 poem by Thomas Hardy. Hardy was one of those gloomy Victorian who looked at the bleak modern world and sighed, yet somehow managed to find hope.
The original title of “The Darkling Thrush” was “The Century’s End.” Stephen arranged the four stanzas as a unison chant, then a two-part duet, then a trio, then with all four sections of the chorus in full harmony. Hardy’s poem begins in desolate twilight, with a storm approaching as “every spirt upon earth seemed fervourless as I.” Suddenly “a voice arose among the bleak twigs.” An ancient song thrush “chose to fling his soul upon the growing gloom.” In Stephen’s arrangement, the thrush’s song is a fiddler’s reel. In the wild, the male thrush uses his distinctive song to attract a mate in the dark.
In the folklore of the English countryside, the thrush is known as the bird who sings in the darkest hour. At the conclusion of Hardy’s poem, the narrator recognizes “there trembled through his happy good-night air / Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.”
Even when the days get shorter and the nights get darker, we know the light will return. Let us begin the new year in kindness and hope.
March 2023 litigation update:
My lawsuit asserting claims against the Office of the Governor under the Public Records Act was set for trial on Monday, February 2, 2023. However, on the Friday before trial we learned we'd lost our slot to a three-week jury trial involving bull-goring injuries and cattle prod experts. Our two-day bench trial has been rescheduled for May 1, 2023.
Sunday, December 25, 2022
Let the World be Kind
The annual Sehome High School yearbook displays free “advertisements” where parents salute their graduating seniors with embarrassing baby pictures and a short message. My daughter Eleanor is on the yearbook staff. She chose our photos, nagged me about submitting my advertisements before the deadline, and lent me a couple of old yearbooks to see examples of previous contributions from parents.
“We are so proud of you” and “We love you” were the most common messages. Quotations came from Maya Angelou, Shel Silverstein, Led Zeppelin, John Quincy Adams, and the Old Testament. Several parents loved their children to the moon and back, while others chose to signal their affection with a dense forest of exclamation marks.
As a parent and a writer, I had two favorites. The first example was exquisitely succinct: “Well done – the whole world awaits!”
The second parental advertisement sent a different message:
You came into our lives, and you’ve almost been a son to us. While you may not be our number one child, you at least rate in the top three. When you return home from receiving your diploma, your stuff will be packed up for you to take away to be someone else’s problem. Please don’t try to find us.
Love, Mom and Dad
Here’s what I wrote to Eleanor in the Sehome High School yearbook:
You are messy, passionate, determined, curious, sensitive, creative, and kind – all mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie. You’ll be gone, but you’ll always be mine.
And my message to Rosalind:
You are completely yourself: brave, loyal, artistic, and kind, with a unique sense of style. Raising you has been the greatest accomplishment of my life. I will always be proud to be your father.
I wrote Eleanor’s yearbook message first. It’s a shout out to Waitress, her favorite musical. Before covid, I took Eleanor to a performance of Waitress at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. In “She Used to Be Mine,” our inconveniently pregnant waitress lets go of the person she hoped she would become. Like many of the parental advertisements in the yearbook, the song involves a series of revealing adjectives baked together. In Waitress, the list opens with “She is messy” – which happens to fit my daughter.
Songwriter Sara Bareilles told the New York Times “the chasm between who we are, and who we thought we would be, is always something we’re negotiating.” New York Magazine offers its “definitive ranking” of YouTube versions of the song. (Bareilles herself only reached Number 6.) For her high school performance competitions, Eleanor chose the accompanying monologue the waitress speaks to her unborn baby.
Other than my decision to describe Eleanor as “creative” and Rosalind as “artistic,” by the time I finished writing my message to Rosalind I’d forgotten which adjectives I used for Eleanor besides “messy” (which Rosalind emphatically is not). After forwarding my messages to the yearbook editors, I was struck to see the repeated adjective in both descriptions: “kind.”
When Bareilles composed “She Used to be Mine,” “kind” provided a convenient near-rhyme for “mine.” In my yearbook messages, the unconscious repetition is a reminder that my second greatest accomplishment may be raising children who aren’t lawyers.
First year law students are taught to “think like a lawyer.” Legal scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter provides an excellent summary of the concept in “On Thinking Like a Lawyer,” a short essay addressed to new law students. The phrase means, “in the first instance, thinking with care and precision.” But “thinking like a lawyer also means that you can make arguments on any side of any question”:
Many of you resist that teaching, thinking that we are stripping you of your personal principles and convictions, transforming you into a hired gun. On the contrary, learning how to make arguments on different sides of a question is learning that there are arguments on both sides, and learning how to hear them. That is the core of the liberal value of tolerance, but also the precondition for order in a society that chooses to engage in conflict with words rather than guns. It is our best hope for rational deliberation, for solving problems together not based on eradicating conflict, but for channeling it productively and cooperating where possible.
Professor Slaughter ends her essay with optimism about the contribution that lawyers and legal thinking can make to society:
One of my colleagues at Chicago ends her first year civil procedure class by saying: “Sometimes in the first year of law school, people learn to think like lawyers, but to be a little less like people. You’ve learned the first of those things. You shouldn’t let us teach you the second.” I disagree. There is no dichotomy here. Thinking like a lawyer is thinking like a human being, a human being who is tolerant, sophisticated, pragmatic, critical, and engaged. It means combining passion and principle, reason and judgment.
I absorbed a similar idealism about the legal profession when I was at Yale Law School. For me, thinking like a Lawyer or like a Writer means using words to explore and share ideas with other people, including your future self. It turns out that’s the only way I can think clearly.
However, in the last few years I’ve discovered that “thinking like a lawyer” is corrosive when an attorney’s duty to vigorously advocate for the client becomes an excuse to selfishly twist the truth beyond recognition. Since my PTSD diagnosis, I’ve completed an extensive reading list in psychology and neuroscience. In the field of evolutionary biology, “thinking like a lawyer” has a much darker meaning than the ideal celebrated in Professor Slaughter’s essay.
Humans are profoundly social animals. In particular, we’re deeply concerned about social status within our tribe. Evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright argues consciousness arose in human brains not to promote effective decision making but rather for “image management” – the “hoarding of credit and sharing of blame.” Like Trump University, evolution taught us “shady accounting,” resulting in “a deep sense of justice slightly slanted toward the self.”
As Wright puts it, the “human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments.” Evolution could have designed us to prioritize finding the right answer. Instead, “like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth.”
Is selfishness a bug or a feature of humanity? Is kindness?
Many atypical traits persist in the gene pool despite their lack of any obvious benefit to survival and reproduction, such as homosexuality, left-handedness, introversion, blue eyes, schizophrenia, and country music. In his recent book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry, neuroscientist and clinician Randolph Nesse examines how evolutionary processes can explain various quirks of the human brain, including the persistence and power of altruism:
For most species, close social partners other than relatives are either nonexistent or nearly interchangeable. That was probably the case for our human ancestors until some tipping point in the past hundred thousand years, when selecting especially capable, generous partners began to give advantages. The benefits of having relationships with the best possible partners shaped tendencies to generosity and loyalty.... The resulting prosocial traits are as expensive and dramatic as a peacock’s tail.
Common decency makes civilization possible. But no community can be healthy when it reaches the opposite tipping point, with too many individuals defaulting to lawyerly selfishness.
David Browning, one of the second tenors in Vancouver Men’s Chorus, is a talented singer-songwriter. (In real life he’s just a doctor.) This year David set himself the personal challenge of writing a Christmas song. As any musician besides Mariah Carey will attest, composing a catchy holiday pop song presents a daunting assignment.
David did an excellent job, and VMC was proud to premiere “Merry Christmas” at our recent concerts. The song’s bridge ends with the lyric “Let the anger and the tension unwind – let the world be kind.”
As Bear and I were walking through Boulevard Park last month, we met a young woman who was making a documentary for a college class. She asked if she could film me with Bear as I answered a few questions. After pointing her iPhone at us, the student asked “Are you happy?”
Life has been extra frustrating lately. My family and I are beset with mounting health, personal, financial, and legal challenges. The road ahead is uncertain and confusing. Nevertheless, I am enjoying the best mental health of my life, and The Kids Are Alright. I found myself answering “yes.”
After I responded to a few more questions, the student filmmaker asked if I had any concluding message. I said “Be kind. And you’ll be happy.”
Sunday, December 18, 2022
I almost got to be a super-spreader.
Instead, I’m isolating in my room with Bear – the first in our family to test positive for covid despite all the social distancing, masks, vaccinations, and dodged bullets.
I got covid without even noticing it. When Bear and I got home from our usual long walk Wednesday afternoon, I had an email from someone who attended the same festive gathering in Vancouver on Sunday. After feeling a little under weather for a couple of days, he failed a home covid test. He suggested we all check our coronavirus status. Most attendees promptly reported negative results – other than an unlucky few.
I’d taken so many covid tests before. This time I squeezed four drops into the plastic well, then watched the bright red line instantly light up.
After observing so much suffering during the pandemic, my own experience with covid has been blessedly anticlimactic. I’ve had no symptoms. The kids all stayed virus-free as we finished the last week of school.
However, the December schedule is a mess. And I’m still trapped in “isolation”: staying at home except for long walks in the woods with Bear; letting the kids feed themselves as the dishes pile up; and either wearing a mask as I try to get work done at my desk, or hiding in my bedroom while Christmas music plays on an infinite loop.
Before the covid surprise, I was planning to drive back up to Vancouver on Wednesday night to attend a holiday sing-along event hosted by friends at a club downtown. According to the CDC chatbot’s calculations, Wednesday was my most infectious day.
Ironically, I’d already decided to skip the Xmas sing-along and save myself for a New Year’s trip. Instead, I told the kids I was loopy on Theraflu. I hadn’t actually taken any. I just wanted to cover up my decision to take the day off, stay home, and do edibles while pretending to be sick. Still, I’m glad I checked my email before I changed my mind about heading to the piano bar. My boisterous caroling would have contaminated numerous unsuspecting revelers with aerosolized coronavirus.
Instead I’m in isolation for ten days. Blame Canada.
This is what covid looks like (Xmas 2022)
Thursday, December 1, 2022
Eleanor at Whidbey General Hospital with bacterial pneumonia
(pre-helicopter ride to Seattle Children’s Hospital)
Facebook can be horrifying.
Several years ago, a friend posted a cheery selfie from his sunny hospital bed after a surprise appendectomy. A day later, someone else posted the report to Facebook that our friend had died from complications after surgery.
Eleanor after hip surgery
In February, Eleanor had a sports injury that didn’t heal. In October, she had arthroscopic surgery to repair a labral tear in her hip. I sat in the waiting room, trying to read or write while my daughter was under general anesthesia.
I am not a superstitious person. But I didn’t post a picture to Facebook until after it was all over.
|Eleanor spitting up|
My first paternal vigil was at Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2005. When Eleanor was a month old, her infant gastric reflux spiked. Whole bottles of formula ended up on her fathers, and she stopped being her happy self. Our pediatrician assured us this was perfectly normal. But it kept getting worse. Eventually we took her to the walk-in clinic. They immediately sent us across town to the emergency room at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where Eleanor was diagnosed with pyloric stenosis.
The pylorus muscle connects your stomach to your intestines. It’s the valve at the opposite end of the stomach from the esophagus. In something like one in a thousand babies, the pylorus closes completely a few weeks after birth. Anything you try to put into the stomach just comes back up. In the old days, infants with pyloric stenosis soon died. Fortunately, a century ago surgeons figured out how snip the pylorus and get things flowing again.
It took three days in the hospital before Eleanor was hydrated enough for surgery. When she was finally ready, the surgeon explained to us what was about to happen. Then he and Eleanor disappeared behind the ominous doors, and the rest of us went around to wait on the other side.
Eleanor before stomach surgery
My friend Michael is a distinguished anesthesiologist. I met him when we served together on the Seattle Men’s Chorus board. Although Michael isn’t a singer, he traveled with the chorus on our successful Rocky Mountain tour. So did one-year-old Eleanor. Over the years, Michael has given his Facebook thumbs-up to countless pictures of my daughter as she’s grown into a graceful and confident young woman.
Michael is an avid traveler with long legs and an aversion to flying coach. Although I’ve been immobilized by parenthood and disability, I’ve traveled vicariously as Michael and his husband Ron voyaged across the globe. Michael regularly posts pictures to Facebook showing his legs happily extended in First Class, or begrudgingly squeezed into an economy row. Last month we saw a picture of Michael’s legs comfortably resting on a British Airways flight to Barcelona. He and Ron were on their way to board a cruise ship for a trip around the world in celebration of their 42nd anniversary.
The next day, Facebook reported that Ron suddenly collapsed and couldn’t be revived. As Michael himself reported, “The sad news has already been mentioned, but I’m devastated to say that with no warning, the Husband suddenly collapsed and couldn’t be revived by the valiant efforts of the Spanish paramedics. I’m now dealing with the local medical examiner, the US consulate and at least one funeral home. A million thanks to those who have reached out already.”
Michael is a social creature with countless friends. Ron was quieter. I mostly knew him from references to “the Husband” in Michael’s Facebook posts. However, I know anyone living and traveling together with Michael for decades will see wondrous things. Ron had a wonderful life, then a sudden death in Barcelona.
Michael managed affairs in Spain then returned to Seattle – terribly alone, yet surrounded by friends. Michael’s next Facebook post said “I’m absolutely gobsmacked by the outpouring of support and affection from hundreds of friends and family.”
|Eleanor after stomach surgery|
Last fall I sat in another waiting room while our next-door neighbor operated on Eleanor’s nose to correct a deviated septum. (Another sports injury, don't ask.) Afterwards I came back to sit with her as she emerged from anesthesia. I had to sit for a while – they wouldn’t let her leave the building until her blood pressure came down. The nurse spiked her IV drip with a couple of different hypertension medications, to no avail. So she gave Eleanor a hit of fentanyl.
It was eye-opening. For me, not Eleanor – I watched as her eyeballs rolled back and her blood pressure immediately dropped. In the car afterwards, Eleanor said she hated how the fentanyl made her feel, and she never wants to try anything like it again.
As a parent, I found nose surgery provides a wonderful “Just Say No” moment.
Eleanor before last year’s nose surgery
At Eleanor’s recent hip surgery, I was invited to the pre-op area as the nurses got her ready. Her handsome surgeon stopped by, too focused on business for the kind of charming chit-chat we enjoyed during our introductory meeting a few weeks before.
Before returning to the waiting room for another paternal vigil, I also met the anesthesiologist. His spiel was soothing, but a little too polished. He told us the odds of complications were one in 250,000, and said Eleanor was at less risk during surgery than during her car ride to the hospital.
Never tell me the odds. As I observe Michael grieve the sudden loss of The Husband after forty-two years together, I think of my sister-in-law in Canada, who sleeps on the couch across the living room from the hospital bed where my younger brother is confined by Stage IV spine cancer. And I watch my parents across town growing old together as they celebrate their 60th anniversary next year.
I’ve been a failure with romance myself. By most measures I’ve been a failure with everything else. Instead, I’ve poured my heart into fatherhood.
Wherever we find love, probability is not destiny. Life is fragile and precious, with no guarantees. And no day but today.
Eleanor before this year’s hip surgery
I recently read Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses by Sarah Fay. The New York Times Book Review described the book as a “fiery manifesto of a memoir.” Like other critics of what has been called the “Mental Health Industrial Complex,” Fay challenges two dangerous aspects of modern psychological treatment. First, too much weight is given to the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual’s taxonomy of specific mental disorders. The DSM began as a helpful resource for practitioners. Unfortunately, its rigid categorizations can take on a life of their own, usually without the support of valid data. Rather than being seen as individuals, patients are reduced to labels and insurance codes.
Second, market forces and Big Pharma have corrupted medicine. Pharmaceuticals became the default answer to every mental health question, causing numerous disasters including the opioid epidemic. In Fay’s case, her fifth psychiatrist prescribed Zoloft along with a new diagnosis. No one knows what powerful drugs like Zoloft and Prozac actually do to the human brain. For many individuals – including Fay and me – Zoloft offers magical relief to various debilitating symptoms. For other individuals in similar circumstances, the same drug may have no effect.
I was lucky. As I wrote in “Breaking the Glass,” I like to compare Zoloft to cartoon dynamite. The most alarming effect of amped-up stress had been on my temper around the kids. Every little mess was making me uncharacteristically angry. On medication, my fuse feels a few inches longer. Just enough to avoid explosions.
When Fay’s next psychiatrist gave her a new diagnosis, he insisted she end her reliance on Zoloft, because the drug was no longer indicated as part of standard treatment. Fay gradually tried reducing her dosage. But every time she approached zero she was wracked with horrifying withdrawal symptoms. She needed to stay on Zoloft to avoid side effects she never experienced before someone prescribed Zoloft for one of the six serious DSM diagnoses she received (none of which involved traumas or triggers).
Eventually Fay took control of her own treatment:
“I found the right combination and dosage of medications, which is like finding the slimmest of needles in the largest of haystacks at the end of a rainbow after winning the lottery.”
|Eleanor after being airlifted to Seattle Children's Hospital|
For years, I relied on the maximum dosage of 200 milligrams of Zoloft daily. A couple of years ago my amazing Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic and I agreed it was time to taper down. I plateaued at 100 milligrams for a few months. Then I made it down to 25 milligrams. However, every time I considered letting go completely, some new life crisis erupted, and I would lose my nerve.
This year began with the usual stress at home and in the world, plus crises and/or disasters in several of my ongoing legal matters. Nevertheless, I decided it was time to let go of Zoloft. Fortunately, unlike Fay, I didn’t experience withdrawal or side effects.
In his classic treatise on trauma and its effects, The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk levels some of same criticisms at his profession that Fay addresses in Pathological. Dr. van der Kolk observes “people have always used drugs to deal with traumatic stress,” and recognizes pharmaceuticals are an essential treatment tool. Nevertheless, in the particular context of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD,
Drugs cannot “cure” trauma: they can only dampen the expressions of a disturbed physiology. And they do not teach the lasting lessons of self-regulation. They can help to control feelings and behaviour, but always at a price – because they work by blocking the chemical systems that regulate engagement, motivation, pain, and pleasure.
Since my PTSD diagnosis, I’ve spent thousands of hours meditating. Through writing I’ve learned to think clearly. I’ve finished a broader and more substantial psychology and neurology reading list than most grad students. Bear and I walk six or seven miles every day. I had a 3.7 Wordle average in November. I spend as much time as possible in Vancouver with my chorus brothers or walking on the Stanley Park seawall. I’ve placed my family at the center of everything.
After letting go of Zoloft, I was able to open myself up to tears of joy and sorrow. Of course, this also means that my emotions are more vulnerable to stress and triggers. I’m an unemployed disabled gay single dad who lives across the border from home. Every day I deal with triggering conduct by abusive lawyers. It should come as no surprise that even with the benefit of my shiny set of mental tools, my family has observed some fuse-shortened emotions lately.
I don't want to go back on Zoloft. So Bear and I are going for another walk.