Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thirty Minutes

I've given a lot of thought lately to my travels this past racing season and all the great events I saw throughout the course of 2013. While I've considered writing my year-end blog, other thoughts have also been running through my mind as the holiday season approaches. As it always does this time of year, one particular story from Thanksgiving 2003 keeps running through my mind, so I decided my racing recap can wait.

If you're looking for a story on area dirt track racing, you're out of luck this time around. If you're looking for a story about appreciating family, friends and all the things you hold close to you, read on.

The following story comes from 10 years ago, shortly after I started working in the substance abuse field in a residential treatment center for alcoholics and drug addicts in Iowa City. If you are unfamiliar with the battles people face regarding substance abuse, yet openly judge and condemn them for their disease, please stop reading. If the words "druggie" and "drunk" are commonly how you refer to those with substance abuse problems, please move on.

No, I don't have a substance abuse problem nor have I ever been in treatment. At the same time, yes, I understand the frustration many people have when it comes to those who abuse substances and how they can negatively impact the lives of others. That still doesn't give me or anyone the right to judge the internal battles and demons others face.

I wrote this story many years ago and first posted it on, of all things, my MySpace page. At the request of friends, I moved it to facebook years later. I recently found it and am transferring it here to Positively Racing. Yes, the story is real and the events of that Thanksgiving 10 years ago are as vivid today as the day they happened.

Thirty Minutes
Working in a drug and alcohol treatment center can be more interesting than it sounds. While some days it can feel like just another job and there are others that make you question if your efforts are even worth it, there are those rewarding days when you not only feel you've made a difference, but you can see it.

I started working in this field in Iowa City a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving in 2003. A friend of mine worked at the same facility, but he'd been there a year or two longer than me. He said there would be crisis situations that would take me by surprise and only in the middle of that first situation would I know how I would handle the job.

It didn't take long for me to embrace the idea that I was working in a special field.

It was on Thanksgiving evening when I was forced to deal with that reality. A female client who had no visitors on Thanksgiving seemed to be faring pretty well despite the lonely holiday - and holidays in a residential treatment center can be as unpredictable as anything you'll ever experience.

It was 10:20 p.m. and she was getting ready for bed. She was in the women's shower getting cleaned up after making it through one more day of treatment when one of her peers came running out of the bathroom.

My friend and I happened to be working the same shift that night and we were both stationed at the technicians' desk working on our shift report when the screams came from just a few feet away. A girl came running from the restroom yelling to get the nurse.

The nurse went into the room and quickly emerged, yelling for Matt, my coworker. Still in training, I was left stationed at the tech desk while Matt went into the restroom. As he opened the door to the women's room, that's when I saw it. Blood. Everywhere.

Matt came back out as the nurse remained in the restroom. "She cut herself," he said in a rushed, deliberate tone.

The next few moments were frantic. A 911 call, a search for every available towel, bottle of bleach and rubber glove, an attempt to calm down the 20-some clients who knew something was wrong, yet didn't know what was going on or what to do.

A few minutes later, after the pace slowed ever so slightly, I entered the restroom and assisted with the clean-up. Blood. Floor. Sink. Shower. Walls. Everywhere.

She was sitting upright in the fetal position in the shower with her arms wrapped up from shoulder to elbow. She had a blanket encased around her legs.

She was expressionless. Awake but unresponsive. She was staring straight ahead at the shower wall. She turned and looked at me. She turned and stared again at the shower wall. She hung her head.

She knew what she had done.

She saw it.

She felt it.

She did it to herself.

The situation consumed all of just a few moments in time. It was surreal and frightening, but seeing her there was the most disturbing of all.

The pain she felt wasn't physical from the razor blade she had taken to herself.

The pain wasn't a result of the marks she left on her arms and legs.

The pain wasn't the blood pouring from her body.

The pain wasn't physical.

Although I only caught a brief glimpse when she looked at me, I knew at that moment that the pain wasn't physical.

The pain was emotional.

The pain was within her.

The nurse assisted her to the common area near the tech desk as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. She sat there... Patient, calm, fully aware that she would be leaving because of what she did to her body as a result of the thoughts going through her mind. We were frantic. She was calm. It was her way out.

The nurse continued to sit with her as Matt and I were finishing the clean-up and settling the clients back into the typical structure that runs a person's residential treatment... Put this out of your mind as a new day begins in just a few hours. Another day to focus on yourselves, your treatment and what you can do to change your own lives …

It was closing in on 10:30.

It was past their bedtime.

As Matt and I returned to as close of a sense of normalcy as could be expected, the nurse continued to sit with her. She said very little and, in fact, she said only one thing. She mumbled one thing.

The nurse had trouble hearing her so he leaned lower to better understand her whisper.

He looked up in a state of expected disbelief. Disbelief because of what she said, yet expected because nothing in this environment can ever be considered a surprise.

"She wants a cigarette."

We all looked at her and then at each other, wanting not only to understand her request, but to consider what to do. The range of emotions went from panic to fear to frustration to confusion to relief to disbelief to anger.

My thoughts were frantic, confused and repetitive. She wants a cigarette. She cut herself. She's bleeding from her arms, her legs. The paramedics are only moments away. Clients only get so many scheduled cigarette breaks a day. She can't have one. Should we give her one? Why does she want one? Is she sure she wants a cigarette? She's bleeding from her arms, her legs. She cut herself. She wants a cigarette?

We raced frantically to save her, to take care of her, to be there for her and she did this all for a cigarette?

She was troubled, lonely and depressed. Nobody took the time to visit her on Thanksgiving. She felt alone. She felt lost. She couldn't have a cigarette so she cut herself so she could have one before her ride to the hospital. She wanted a cigarette.

It was now 10:50.

All in 30 minutes.

An eternity.

The ambulance arrived a short time later and she was gone... for a couple of days. She returned a few days later and seemed to work through the events of that Thanksgiving night. Her spirit seemed positive. Her focus emerged. Her assignments were incredible. She successfully completed treatment. She discharged.

I never saw her again.

No matter how many Thanksgivings I have yet to experience in this lifetime, I will take with me for the rest of my life the memories of those 30 minutes from that Thanksgiving. The start of every holiday season for the rest of my life will bring with them that one memory.

Although I'm not sure where she is now or what her future has held, I live with the certainty that, if for only one brief moment in time, she understood within her heart that people were helping her.

I may be naive with the thought that those moments made a difference in her life. I may be fooling myself to think that she made an honest attempt to better herself for her remaining weeks in treatment. I may be wrong to think that she wanted change for herself, that she wanted a future, that she wanted a life beyond the pain she felt on that night and countless nights before it. I may be wrong about it all, but I am right when I recall the look in her eyes for that isolated moment in time.

I saw her pain.

It's a memory like this one that has forced onto me a better appreciation for all that I have in my own life. While pain is unavoidable at times, disappointment a certainty in our own failures and frustration seemingly unbearable when we can't change the things that are destined to remain as they are, there are as many, and often times more, reasons to appreciate the good.

Family. Friends. Future. Love. Compassion. Stability. Purpose. Hope. Reason.

For every step backward we force ourselves to take, there are more driving forces in our lives that compel us to move forward. Every step backward gives us reason to continue on, gives us reason to appreciate ever more all the good in our lives.

Some days we may question why we do what we do. Some days we may feel the frustration provides us with enough doubt that what we do is done in vain. Some days we question, we judge, we hesitate … all with only a glimmer of hope. That glimmer of hope combined with 30 minutes from Thanksgiving many years ago, has made me appreciate, made me understand and made me cherish all that is important in my own life.

While our focus in the racing world is always on the next race or how we're going to spend the off-season, please take the time to enjoy the holiday season with loved ones. Embrace those around you. This life is about experiences and the people with whom we share them. Tell them you love them and never, ever take them for granted.