(My last post ended with my being told I was too old to be an acceptable recruit for the army reserve. I felt rather depressed because nobody wants to hear that they’re too old or too something for what they think they want to do. But my Soul had it all figured out, as you’ll see if you’re still with me.
This is a very, very long piece of sometimes boring and exhausting writing – and reading – but it’s that way on purpose, though I’m not sure doing it that way is productive. Mostly it’s done to cause a sense of how my life was boring and exhausting. This probably should have been split into two or more posts but by reliving this all over and posting it, I just want to get past it – again.
My life got worse before it got better but I’ll try not to burden you with that. This post will be the last of what has been a very long chapter from my book. I’ll try to publish fresher posts from now on. At least for a while! )
It “just happened” (another one of those “just happened” events) that prior to this I’d received a postcard from the navy reserve. It was probably only one of those routine things they sent out to all college students but I’d filled out the card and returned it without giving it any more thought. Well over two years later, shortly after I was rejected by the army reserve, I got a phone call from the navy reserve center in a city 60 miles to the north. One month before my 41st birthday, at a time when people usually are retiring, if not already retired, from military service, I enlisted for six years with an advanced placement in recognition of my laboratory training and years of experience.
Decades of working for the army couldn’t completely prepare me for being in the navy. Even the language was different and I was always playing catch-up to a greater or lesser degree as I tried to decipher what was going on. Now, out of the four weekends a month that I had for homework and housework and a personal life and horseback riding and shopping and other errands, one of them would be spent being a landlocked navy corpsman in central Texas. Of course, I continued working full time for the army. And going to school.
The navy reserve forces were being increased because they were going to be picking up much of the load currently assigned to the active duty forces. All naval fleet hospitals were now going to be completely staffed and run by reservists. A fleet hospital is a mobile hospital similar to that seen on the television show, “MASH.” We’d be on the ground behind battle lines and move with the marines as they moved.
During this chaotic time, somebody decided that all reserve corpsmen must be trained to be equivalent to civilian Emergency Medical Technicians so we were to be taught by the EMT training staff from a local community college. We might be getting “personal training” on our weekends, but we would have to put in the same total number of training hours and pass the same state-mandated licensing exam civilian EMTs did.
Now I was working full time, often overtime, at my regular army job; I was taking my university courses; I was feverishly trying to learn all about the navy; and studying EMT courses. There were also the two weeks of active duty I had to perform each year. I had a lot on my plate but I just toted my books along wherever I was and kept plugging.
Of course, the rest of my life didn’t go on hold. Things were getting very, very busy in the lab as I kept adding new and upgraded tests and procedures to my section without being assigned any other help. My personal life, what there was of it, was being crunched, as was I. I was feeling a lot of pressure. But, as they say, the show’s not over, folks.
Because there weren’t enough hours in a regular day to accomplish all that I was involved in, I cut the only thing left that took time: sleep. That was OK; I wasn’t sleeping very well anyway. So I would get up two hours before I had to be at work, and I’d go out in the dark mornings to run at least three miles, sometimes five, with my dog. It actually was pleasant once I got used to it. Even in town it was quiet and peaceful at that early hour and at certain times of the year there were plenty of shooting stars to see. Traffic was practically nonexistent then and even the yard dogs didn’t seem to care about us as we trotted by.
When we got back from our run I’d do some weight lifting and stretches, meditate for about 20 minutes, then shower and head off to the daily round of work and then school. Eventually, however, the effects of sleep deprivation haunted all aspects of my life. I never thought about it in depth – with all my doing, when did I have time to think? – but I knew that things were getting out of hand.
In a small effort to find some sort of balance, I forced myself to take my full one-hour lunch period rather than working through it while eating at my desk as I’d been doing. I drove to a small park nearby and after quickly eating I’d do some journal writing. My entries from that time show that I was seriously stressed. My three-legged stool was tipping drastically yet I didn’t realize how difficult it was becoming to barely hang on.
I kept on keeping on for some time but I had to work harder and harder just to stay in place. In spite of being so active my weight began to creep up and neither the navy nor I was happy about that. Nobody was able to explain why it was happening. I was de-salted, de-fatted, de-sugared and de-caffeinated. I counted calories and fat grams and watched portion sizes and still, my weight crept up.
Three different times over the years I went to the diet clinic at a local teaching hospital and every time I followed their programs I’d gain more weight. I went to a prestigious sports clinic in Dallas and got dunked in their water tank to determine my percentage of body fat. It turned out I had quite a bit more muscle than most women my age and height. But I was still overweight. They gave me a personalized regimen of diet and exercise to follow and I gained another ten pounds or so.
It never occurred to me, and no one ever mentioned it, that the stress hormone, cortisol, is a great fat producer. At the same time, peri-menopause and the effects of its hormonal shifts on fat distribution were taking place. I’d expected to be the oldest and fastest old lady in the reserves so I had maintained my running regimen as well as watching my diet. But since most people, men and women, tend to retire from the armed services around 40, it’s possible the navy really had no experience with the issues around women my age.
Navy officials thought I wasn’t diligent about maintaining my physical fitness. In spite of everything, though, I was still pretty fit; I was mostly just overweight. I could outrun many younger sailors during our physical fitness tests. The most disheartening thing anyone said to me was, “If you did it right, it would work.” Nobody did it “righter” than I did. And it wasn’t working. More stress. My blood tests and physical exams said I was very healthy except for my weight.
So why, then, was I feeling so awful?
Many things seemed to culminate at about the same time and then a sort of slow cascade began. I graduated second in my EMT class and passed the state certification. Shortly after that I took my navy promotion examination. A few weeks later I was notified that I’d passed that, too, and I was given an early promotion based on my high test scores. On the same day I had taken that promotion exam, the rest of my university class was graduating 150 miles to the south. If I had been there, I would have heard my name announced with magna cum laude honors.
I now had five years in the reserves, I was a state-licensed EMT (though not working as one), had been promoted to navy corpsman first class, and I had a nice, shiny new bachelor’s degree in health care management. This degree played a significant part in my promotion to supervisor of the first large-scale military (army) frozen blood storage facility in the world. This facility wasn’t even built at the time I was hired but I was going to run it. I was 45 years old and had now been misinterpreting the Call for at least six years.
Accomplishment of any one of the above endeavors can be something about which to be pleased; doing well in all of them at once could sound rather impressive even if exhausting. I should have been proudly sitting pretty. And yet, and yet…
I had been hearing the Call for years but how could I possibly pay attention to it with the clamor and demands for attention from all those other things?
More demands and more stress followed. The 1990-1991 Desert Shield buildup of personnel and materiel in the Middle East was going full speed ahead and Desert Storm was just over the horizon. One way or another it was bound to play a huge part in my life, whether as an army civilian in a critical job or as a navy reservist. As a reservist, I had to be ready to move out quickly when orders came so I was constantly geared up.
There was no such thing as “weekend warriors” any more and we were all taking work home with us to finish up “off duty.” Then someone in the reserves heard about my civilian position as a specialist in frozen blood processing.
Frozen blood was going to be a part of naval fleet hospital procedures and practically nobody in the navy reserves knew how to actually do it in the field. The original program had called for full completion of storage and training by 2004 but now military exigency was calling for it 14 years ahead of that schedule.
My army crew at the frozen blood facility had become very skilled. During Desert Storm our experience was tested on a recurring basis as we received hundreds of units of liquid blood which we processed and shipped out frozen to overseas sites, as well as storing thousands of units locally. It was a huge undertaking and we did it.
With the army’s practical expertise and the navy’s need for reservists’ training, it was probably inevitable that somebody in the navy would become aware of my position. I was assigned the job of coordinating and setting up training sessions for the navy reservists who might be called up and who would need to know how to process the product on the battlefield.
During the week I worked as an army civilian performing my regular supervisory activities while, squeezing time until it squawked, I made arrangements for temporary housing and transportation for the navy reservists that would be coming to us for training. On the weekends, I’d take off my army “hat” and become a sailor teaching sailors on an army base.
The weeks ran together and seemed unending.
Amazingly, there were still a few straws to go before the camel caved in. I’d like to think I was functioning in spite of everything, though I knew that things were beginning to slip. I don’t think even I realized just how severe my condition was, though. I continued to put on weight and my blood pressure and pulse had become chronically elevated. I’d even managed to have major abdominal surgery for a recurring problem and still get back to work in record time.
Although I felt chronic and overwhelming fatigue, I wasn’t able to sleep well and what sleep I did get wasn’t restorative. Besides the weight issue I’d also for a few years been having increasing muscle stiffness and aches and pains that I blamed on my running and weight lifting. I figured I simply wasn’t getting enough rest and recovery time for my muscles to recuperate but I couldn’t stop my exercise and running routine. I thought I just needed some time off. I continued to think that even when three-week vacations weren’t sufficient to restore my vitality. I was increasingly depressed and had some cognitive dysfunction though I’m not sure how obvious that was to others. It was clear to me, though. It was frightening and – of course – stressful.
On the army side of my life, as a new supervisor of the frozen blood storage facility, something that had never existed before, I wasn’t sure just what was expected of my crew and me and I’m not sure anybody else really was, either. That made for a lot of uncertainty – and stress – in our everyday functions. Supervisors handle those sorts of challenges on a daily basis but in that climate of ambiguity and rapid changes they seemed to loom bigger than perhaps they should have for me. It was my first job as a supervisor, after all. A bit more stress.
Both the army donor center where I worked and the navy fleet hospital to which I was assigned were considered critical components in regard to Desert Shield/Storm. What was going to happen to me if my unit was called? Would I go or would I stay? Which job would take precedence? My navy unit was within a week or so of being called up when Desert Storm was declared over so I never found out. We were “in the barrel” but the trigger wasn’t pulled.
I was almost hoping we did get called because as difficult as that might have been, at least I would be out from under some of the pressure that was beginning to seriously oppress me. Or that’s what I thought. It’s an indication of how stressed out I was that I thought being in a war would be easier than what I was experiencing.
But things didn’t stop happening.
My aging horses got sick. I had to put both of them down within less than six-months. I was devastated. I’d had them for over 20 years and in some ways I felt like I’d murdered my own children because I’d always taken care of their needs before I considered my own. I was grief-stricken and guilty.
Shortly thereafter I got the news from Ohio that my mother had had a cancerous kidney removed; not too much later we were told that the cancer had metastasized to her bones. After a prolonged and agonizing stay in a nursing home, she died in late September while I was on another reserve training weekend. Her funeral was a stressful event for all of the family in spite of the obvious caring of many helpful people in my hometown.
Not long after I returned to Texas I got a call from my father. He said he wasn’t going to die alone. He wanted to come to Texas to live out his life with one of his daughters. As the oldest I assumed it would be me. He was ill with emphysema and related heart problems, much sicker than I had realized even after seeing him so frail at Mom’s funeral. I took care of his flight arrangements, like the provision of the oxygen he would need en route, as well as every day at home, researched local civilian medical care, and got my house set up to take care of him.
This was a lot to handle for someone who was already crashing but didn’t yet realize it. I was like an airplane that’s lost its instruments in heavy fog and is going full speed ahead while unknowingly aimed straight at the ground, diving downward while under the impression that I was still flying along pretty well.
This time I was falling, not flying.
Dad had been with us about a week when one morning before I left for work his condition alarmed us so I called for an ambulance. Shortly after we left the house the EMTs said he wouldn’t last long enough to make it to the teaching hospital 40 miles away so we took him to a closer smaller hospital not far from the army base where I worked. He was at the hospital for about ten days. Every morning I got up earlier than usual so I could go see him after my morning run and before I went in to work, then I’d go see him again in the evenings when I got off work before I went home.
In spite of his serious health issues, Dad seemed to be gradually improving. My partner and I had long before made plans to go to visit his family in Nevada over the Christmas holidays and it appeared that Dad would soon be well enough to go from the hospital into a long-term nursing facility in the same hospital where he would get rehabilitation for several weeks. That meshed very well with our previous plans so we decided to continue with them and Dad would be ready to come home about the time we got back. I was trying to coordinate all of it, to be all things to all people, to make everything work, to not disappoint anyone.
A couple of days before we expected to leave, on December 13, I got a call from the hospital that Dad was back in the intensive care unit. And he was gone. It wasn’t totally unexpected, what with the severity of his illness and all, but since he’d seemed to be recovering it was still a shock.
I suspect now, when he finally clearly realized that we’d be gone for a while he did just what he said he’d do when he came down here so he wouldn’t die alone. I’m afraid he was more alone than he’d expected to be, though. I was barely there for myself; how could I be there for anyone else?
Once again I made all arrangements for his transport back to Ohio as well as making the necessary changes to our flight plans for our now-diverted Christmas trip to Nevada. In Ohio I helped my sisters see to his burial and again the people there were kind and thoughtful but it was hard to really appreciate everything since we were reeling from two funerals only two and a half months apart. I can’t speak for my three sisters but I was very nearly done in.
There were more straws to come. My dog died. He wasn’t just a dog. He’d been my running buddy every morning for years. He was pretty old for a big dog but even valiant and faithful hearts can’t go on indefinitely. We’d had him for 16 or 17 good years but it was hard to appreciate that with so many losses one after another. As with my horses, I’d felt a special affinity with him. Even now, decades later, I miss them all. But that still wasn’t the last straw.
I finally acknowledged that I could no longer do my duty with my reserve unit and since the war was over I didn’t feel that I would be letting them down if I went on individual ready reserve status. That meant I didn’t have to go to regular monthly drills but I still had to maintain other criteria like physical fitness and training points. If I could have done that, of course, I would have stayed in the unit. I was so overwhelmed at that point that I really didn’t even notice any difference in my life.
It was too little, too late. A year later, ten years after I had enlisted, I was dropped from the rolls as unfit for duty due to failure to maintain physical fitness. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved.
The last straw came at my job.
When one of my staff members returned from her lunch hour I gave her an assignment while I went out for my own lunch. She would be the only person in the building until I returned. I clearly told the person in charge of the donor center next door that she wasn’t to be pulled off the job for any reason, in spite of the fact that my people were often pulled away to fill in at the donor center. This was getting to be a point of contention and I’d been feeling less and less like a real supervisor and more and more like someone just filling space while the donor center’s needs took precedence.
When I came back from lunch the building was empty, my employee was gone, working over at the donor center building while the assignment I’d given her wasn’t completed. That did it. That was the last straw.
I strode into the colonel’s office and told him that I quit. He looked at me in surprise because, as he said later, “I didn’t know I had a problem with you.”
That was the problem because there was indeed a problem, one to which I felt he hadn’t been paying attention when I’d brought it up several times, and it wasn’t getting any better.
Fool that I was, instead of walking out then, I gave three weeks notice! It takes a lot to wake me up, I guess. Or to put me down, I’m not sure which. In retrospect, though, it was an auspicious decision to take that time before actually leaving.
As I was trying my now desperate but futile best to catch up the many loose ends, the colonel called me into his office to try to make amends and lure me back to stay. I’m mortified to say I actually considered it. What finally stopped me was a strong and distinct knowing, not quite a voice, that told me if I stayed there I’d die. I don’t know if that referred to a drying up of my spirit and withering of my soul or if it meant a physical death. I think I actually might have died in harness. For once in my life I listened to my intuition and refused his offer.
I had only five years to go before qualifying for a regular retirement, so just quitting wasn’t something I really wanted to do but I didn’t see any other option. During the ensuing three weeks a fellow supervisor suggested that I might be able to qualify for disability retirement rather than just quitting.
She turned out to be right, so over the next couple of weeks I worked with the personnel office to fill out papers and produce diagnostic proofs of my ever-increasing physical pain as well as psychological problems for which I’d quietly been seeing therapists for a few years. I’d even gone into day therapy for a few weeks but I hadn’t stayed as long as I should have. They needed me at work, I told myself, and I can’t spare the time.
Unknowingly I’d already done everything the personnel office required so the necessary documents were easily obtained. I was approved for retirement on disability due to fibromyalgia and depression. But first – yes, an unbelievable “but first” – I decided to use up all my accrued comp time and sick leave, a whole year’s worth, just in case I could get rested up and return to work in that time. I was so deeply invested in my job as part of my identity that I couldn’t see that my attachment to it was what was likely to kill me.
Then I went home.
Thus was my Call to Adventure and Departure missed and misinterpreted and ignored over and over and over. I was being shriven of my old life so that I would be forced to enter upon the quest for what would be my new life.
I didn’t know that, though, and I had no idea what it would be. All I could see and feel was the physical pain and the emotional and psychological pain of so many losses. I’m amazed now when I look back and see the incredible lengths to which my Soul had to go to get my attention. I’m also amazed at the strength with which I desperately hung onto the vestiges of that old life.
Finally, though, that cosmic 2×4 got me between the eyes and I died. (https://sampatron.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/in-the-beginning-i-died)