Portraits From Social Work – Part 2: Paul

Even since I lost my last job doing social work with high risk, low income adults out in the community, I have missed the clients I used to see everyday. While I’m not sure if these people ever knew it themselves, the time I spent with them was much more meaningful to me than just trying to get a paycheck. This was the first time in my life that I was really able to get to know some interesting characters and bond with people older than me, with totally different and unique life experiences. Even though I was supposed to keep a professional distance, I simply couldn’t help holding a space for each of my clients in my heart. I believe these people are interesting to learn about in general, but I am also writing about them today to ensure that I can keep them with me even if they eventually fade from my memory. (I obviously won’t use their real names for confidentiality reasons.)

Part 2: Paul

Where do I even start with describing this man? Paul was a gruff 60-year-old man (although he looked much older) with a skeletally thin frame, long peppery grey hair, a handlebar mustache, one hand and one leg. The leg he lost a long time ago in an accident when he used to ride a motorcycle. The hand, well that’s a mystery to all of us. When I first met Paul, his left hand was curled into a permanent fist. The way Paul tells it, he woke up in the middle of the night a few years ago feeling as though his forearm, wrist, and hand were on fire. He traced a ghostly, zigzagging, white scar on his skin to show me the path the “flames” took. His hand clenched shut and hasn’t opened since. We went to many doctors and specialists, but none of them had a definitive answer. Their best guest seemed to be that it has something to do with his excessive drinking, and I’m inclined to believe it. Paul, however, would never take complications from years of drinking as an answer to any of his health problems, of which he had many.

Paul was one of the most sever alcoholics I’ve even known. He was never a violent or angry drunk. He never caused any problems that I knew of except for himself. Paul’s favorite drink was vodka. And he drank about a pint of it a day, despite only receiving around $700 a month from social security. There were a few instances where he ran out of money at the end of the month and actually had to be hospitalized due to DTs or alcohol withdrawal. Once he even called me to his hospital room to ask me to bring him vodka and cigarettes. (I felt bad for him so I actually did agree to bring cigarettes, knowing he wouldn’t be able to smoke them anyway. The nurse promptly took them away.) He actually reminded me a bit of Frank Gallagher from Shameless, although Paul was a bit more irritable.

Paul was definitely a character. In addition to drinking and smoking cigarettes, he also loved to smoke weed. He even had a marijuana leaf on his wallet. As soon as medical marijuana became legal in the state he demanded a prescription from every doctor we went to. Of course he didn’t get it, even though he was eligible. The system was not yet ready to dispense actual medical cards, and there were no dispensaries even if they could have. There was no telling Paul that though. He was hard-headed to put it mildly. He was often angry and impatient, but honestly, could you blame him? His life was a constant battle with pain and poverty.

In the end, Paul’s life was evenly split between drinking in front of the TV and traveling all over the state for medical appointments. When I last saw him, I knew his time was limited. He was bleeding internally. It was clearly caused by his drinking. Still he refused to stop. I’m honestly not sure if it would have made a difference at that point anyway. As I sat down to write about him today, I decided to check the local obituaries. I held my breath, hoping I’d find nothing. Instead I discovered that Paul passed away in the summer of 2019. The obituary listed so many surviving family members, children and siblings. I new he had family, but seeing just how much and how close by they lived really broke my heart. They had all left him in the hands of the state to whither in darkness and die alone. I’m sure Paul wasn’t the best father or brother, but he certainly wasn’t deserving of that sentence. At least he got to spend his final days in the warm, sunny atmosphere of summer. That was one thing we both shared, an infatuation with summer, and a deep hatred of winter.

I wish I could have been there for him in the end. Or that I had at least gotten the chance to say goodbye, the chance to tell him that he was truly my friend, not just my client. Sure, he gave me a lot of anxiety over the years by giving this people pleaser so many unethical requests, but I am thankful for the time we spent together. Despite all his flaws, he was a good man. It saddens me deeply to know he’s gone. At least I know his pain has finally ceased. I hope he has found peace. The next time I drink vodka, I’ll pour some out for him.

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Meditation on Death

Due to my morbid obsession with death and dying this past week, I started looking for some books to read in order to better cope with these grim ruminations. After a little searching, I came across a book that seems perfect for me. It’s called Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Face of Death by Joan Halifax. I haven’t gotten past the first few chapters yet, but it has already been a great comfort to me.

This book approaches the subject of death from a Buddhist perspective. It highlights the different ways that western and eastern cultures deal with death. It calls attention to the way the fear of death dominates western culture. We do our best to hide it away out of sight. We live most of our lives without ever thinking about the fact that we are all going to die some day. Avoidance seems to be a primary part our lives, especially in America.

The best part about this book is that it is written as a resource for everyone, in any stage of life. It can benefit teenagers, the elderly, caregivers, medical professionals, healthy people, and people that are terminally ill. This book reminds us that death is a natural part of life. It is something that has the potential to bring us all together. It is ultimately the great equalizer. It is a phase of life, a culmination of everything we have experienced here, a right of passage, a necessary darkness we will all pass through one day.

One of the ways I believe this book will help me is by preparing me to be there for my loved ones when they die. I still feel tremendously guilty about how little I was around my grandmother as she was slowly dying from cancer a few years ago. For the most part, I wouldn’t allow myself to think about it. I saw her when we went to my parent’s house on holidays. It was painful just to look at her, to be in that room with her. Even though it was actually the room I grew up in, my childhood bedroom. What a sad, beautiful mixture of things that have gone on within the walls of that room.

When I sat by her bedside those last few times I saw her, I felt paralyzed, petrified. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to hold her. I wanted to cry. I wanted to ask her so many questions. But instead I sat silently at her side, waiting for any opportunity to leave. I still wonder how she must have felt in her final days. Was she afraid? Did she resent us for not being there for her? Did she find peace? Did she have regrets? Were there things she wanted to tell us, but didn’t? Did we leave her feeling alone? Unloved? What is normal, what is acceptable to say or do around a death bed? Is anything? Does it even matter?

I think our society’s fear and avoidance of death leaves a lot of people to regret their incompetence when dealing with the passing of a loved one. When you avoid something all your life, how can you possibly be expected to handle it when it is in front of you? When it can no longer be avoided? When my other grandmother passes, when my parents pass, I want to be ready. I want to be everything I wished I could have been for my dad’s mom. I want to be brave enough and comfortable enough to discuss these difficult topics with them. I want to be prepared to give them everything that they need, even if they are unable to ask for it when the time comes.

Being with Dying provides exercises to help us work through our aversion and fear of death. The first meditation it suggests is to contemplate both the best and the worst case scenarios for your own death, in as much detail as possible. I want to have my grandmother and my mom do these exercises with me at some point. I want to know everything that I can do to make their deaths peaceful and comfortable and meaningful. However, even the thought of writing such a thing down seems terrifying to me. At the same time, that terror is quite fascinating. To confront this reality, the certainty of death, why is it so very painful? Why does my mind want to avoid even the thought of it at any cost? Do people in other cultures feel the same way? Or are they able to embrace this inevitability with grace and humble surrender?

I think my greatest fear surrounding death, is simply not knowing. It is the ultimate loss of control, a nosedive into a vast unknown. Perhaps it is less daunting if you believe in an afterlife of some kind. But it seems impossible that anyone could have total conviction as they are facing down their own end. There must always be some doubt, some uncertainty. It is not only not knowing what happens after we die, but not knowing when or how we will die that is frightening. I suppose a lot of people are also deeply afraid of death being painful. As someone who hasn’t experienced hardly any physical pain yet in my life, I find this hard to imagine well enough to be afraid of. Besides it always seems like pain can be escaped, even if that escape is death itself. However, that not knowing, that final surrender, will always be there.

I am looking forward to reading more of this book. I am hopeful that it will give me the tools I need to prepare myself for this stage of life, this end of life. Not only for myself but for those around me as well. Even if you think I’m nuts for believing the science that says soon the oceans will be dead along with all of us, I would still recommend this book. Regardless of when you imagine death will touch your life, the fact remains that it will, no matter who you are. It’s much easier to avert our eyes as long as possible, but if you are ready to face that fear head on and take the steps you need to in order to be prepared, Living with Dying seems like a great place to start.

Please make the wonderful effort to show up for your life, every moment, this moment – because it is perfect, just as it is.

Being with Dying
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The Beginning of the End

It has been a truly bizarre year. I’m sure we could all agree to that. It seems like everyone is anxious for things to “get back to normal.” To be honest, I don’t have much hope that that will ever happen. When this pandemic first started, I didn’t really think much of it. I was just pleased to have an excuse to stay home. Now I’ve begun to think this is just the first phase in a long downward spiral for our species and our planet. This has been a long time coming.

I used to get flustered and frantic about my opinions on the state of the world. I felt I desperately needed to spread a message, to inspire change, to educate people so that we could all start to work towards a healthier, sustainable society. After years of exasperation and futile efforts, I have finally lost hope. Humanity will not change, therefore we will not survive much longer. Humanity has no interest in changing, we have no time left for the change that is needed, and to be honest, at this point, I don’t think we are capable of changing. It is a shame, but I have resigned myself to our fate. I have accepted the demise that is to come. Not 200 years in the future, not to the generation after me, but to me, to my generation, to everyone I know.

Cowspiracy was the tipping point for me. After watching that documentary and absorbing all of the scientific facts about our crumbling environment and the projections of how much time we have left before utter catastrophe if we continue at this rate (which we will), I realized that I will not be living out the extent of my natural lifespan. I have no idea how I will eventually die, but I feel pretty confident in ruling out old age. Perhaps it will be starvation, civil unrest, natural disasters, having no clean water, or even from a pandemic. It could be this very one, or the inevitably worse ones to come. To be honest, I’m surprised this is all due to a Corona virus and not one of the many strains of anti-biotic resistant bacteria we are breeding in our animal agriculture industry every day.

If I had even a shred of hope left that we would somehow overcome the self-imposed threats facing us, the public response to this pandemic has obliterated it. My fellow humans are incapable of even making the most miniscule, temporary changes to their daily lives, let alone the massive, permanent changes we need to make to survive as a species. Even though the pandemic rages on and is even getting worse in some areas, people have seemingly decided to just go back to normal. As if it’s been a year, so fuck it, it must be over.

If humans are incapable of simply wearing a mask when they are in the grocery store for 30 minutes, there is no way they’ll be capable of eliminating meat and dairy from their diets entirely. Perhaps if we had already implemented a strategy to move society that way and we also had a couple hundred years to get there, but we aren’t doing anything and we don’t have anywhere close to that amount of time. Scientists predict we only have a few decades and the US government is still subsidizing the industries that are killing us.

Not only has the majority of the population not accepted one of if not THE root cause of our impending demise (animal agriculture), but we can’t even all agree that we are even facing a real problem! Climate change is still up for fucking debate in America. And I don’t even expect those of you reading this to understand or agree with me on any of this. I’m mostly just having a good ol’ scream into the void. It’s the only thing I can really do at this point, sadly.

I won’t waste my time listing all of the statistics, facts, and figures about how animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, desertification, and species extinction. How it wastes massive amounts of food, water, and land. How everyone shouts “save the rainforest!” while ignoring the fact that the reason it’s being cut down is to make room for livestock. All of this information is readily available for anyone willing to look into it. Cowspiracy’s website has most of it laid out with citations. Although, in my experience, facts have never been enough to make anyone change. What I will point out, is that this pandemic is also just a symptom of the ways eating animals will eventually be our undoing.

Whenever a pandemic emerges, it is almost always related to some animal. And not just any animal. An animal that humans have been using as food. We end up keeping this “food” in filthy cramped spaces, crowded in with other animals and covered in piss and shit. Then we eat those same animals. It’s no wonder we are constantly facing disease. Bird flu, swine flu, mad cow disease. Starting to see a pattern yet? If we didn’t eat animals, none of these things would be a problem. To be honest, it’s almost karmic justice for these innocent beings. I wouldn’t even mind if humans were wiping themselves out due to our own greed and stupidity. But unfortunately we are taking down the whole planet with us and that breaks my heart.

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It’s Flu Season (For Non-Vegans)

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Around this time of year I always notice those around me beginning to sniffle, cough, and miss work or school. This used to make me quite anxious because I knew that I would soon be next. I can still remember as a child getting sick in a seemingly continuous cycle throughout the year. At the time I viewed this as a normal part of being young. I couldn’t wait for my immune system to finally build defenses against these different illnesses so that I could stop wondering when I would find myself once again writhing in discomfort from another stomach bug or sore throat.

As I got older, I did begin to notice a decrease in the frequency of these illnesses. But still I could have never imagined making it through an entire year or more completely healthy. The worst part was that I didn’t think much of this at all. I thought getting small sicknesses regularly was normal. I didn’t think there was anything to be done about it except to deal with the symptoms when they arose.

Now that I have been vegan for a significant number of years, I’ve begun to notice that I don’t ever really get sick at all. I can’t even recall the last time I had a stomach ache. I used to dread the days I would inevitably spend immobilized in bed, trailing back and forth to the bathroom in an aching delirium. Now it is very rare that I even have to deal with a slight cough. I began a new job over a year ago now and I have yet to take a single sick day. While when I was in school I was guaranteed to miss at least a few weeks each year.

I will never cease to be amazed at the incredible transformation I have experienced in quality of life since transitioning to a vegan diet. It honestly saddens me that so many people will never know just how good it feels to be alive in a fully healthy body. I feel as if I could almost compare it with taking a psychedelic drug. Not in sensation of course, just the sheer wonder of discovering a completely different physical and mental experience that previously you had no idea your body was capable of.

It is becoming more commonly known that a vegan diet can improve longevity and long-term health. The World Health Organization has stated consuming processed meats is just as cancer causing as smoking cigarettes. Yet we continue to permit parents to feed these products to their children, while any parent offering a 5-year-old a cigarette would be considered appalling. Child services would certainly intercede on the child’s behalf in the latter case when really both are the same in effect. Human beings tend to be quite incompetent when it comes to following scientific information to it’s logical conclusion in practical application. We also seem to have a difficult time delaying gratification in order to obtain an ultimately much more gratifying reward in the future.

I wanted to write this post to perhaps help give more people the motivation to try a vegan diet if not for the sake of the animals and our earth, then for their own benefit. If you are young, avoiding heart-disease, diabetes, and cancer most likely isn’t something you are too concerned about at the moment. But the health benefits of eating plant-based, whole foods may be appealing to more people if they knew that there was more to it than that. It is hard to express how different and pleasurable it is to just be in my body now. It almost feels as if the universe has given me a magnificent gift for doing what is right. I hope more than anything that some day we will all live in a vegan world where so much suffering will finally end.

I have often wondered what effect consuming so much pain, fear, and stress hormones has on the body. As far as I am aware there have never been any studies done on something of this nature. It’s important to remember though that the animals most of humanity eats are not healthy. They are sick, tortured, miserable beings, many of whom have never had good food themselves or even felt the sunlight. I truly believe that this must have some consequence and I think that consequence is the way I used to feel and the way so many still do. My friends, I desperately hope that you will feed your body with love and not violence, and receive the rewards the universe has in store for you.

Live fully. Live vegan.