Julie & Me
While Julie was emotionally and geographically ricocheting through the first half of the 70’s, my life during that same time was, by comparison, staid and straight-forwardly conventional yet intensely morose and perfused by free-floating anxiety.
[Note: Readers put off by the notion of reading about six years of “staid and straight-forwardly conventional” life events should be reassured that, handled skillfully, such content can result in a sophisticated and intriguing narrative of psychological exploration. The following, unfortunately, is not one of those narratives; consequently, it may be helpful to frame this installment as a warped set-up for the punch line coming in the next episode of this saga.]
While I was brokenhearted about losing Julie and regretful that I had failed to imagine the possibility that we might have been together until the moment such a fantasy was precluded by her elopement with Philip, I was not devastated or incapacitated with grief. Nor was I enraged at her or Philip.
That she moved in with Philip did not alter my feelings toward Julie. I acclimated to the new circumstances rapidly enough, even helping move Julie’s belongings to her new home, an act which prompted Philip and my friends to label me, variously, a good sport, a gentleman, or a sap. It was simpler than that – Julie asked me to help and I never told Julie “No.” Of course, another, equally valid perspective is that Julie never asked anything of me to which I had to say “No.”
And, that dynamic was, I realized later, the primary explanation for my behavior at this point, i.e., Julie wanted to be with Philip, and I never denied Julie her wishes.
Julie and I corresponded on an erratic schedule, and I visited her and Philip once after they moved to another city, but gradually our communication lessened and after two or three years, ceased altogether.
Medical School & Me
Life, as it is wont to do, goes on. I graduated with a BA in English and an acceptance letter to medical school.
OK, I sense that the BA in English—acceptance letter to medical school juxtaposition may prove a non sequitur sufficiently severe to distract some readers without the requisite explanation. So, …
Explanation, Part 1: My draft lottery number was #19, a ranking that offered me the opportunity to augment my knowledge of iambic pentameter, my expertise in reciting Chaucer in the original Middle English, and my insight into the overvaluation of Baudelaire’s influence on T.S. Eliot with the ability to field-strip an M-16 and wade through chest-high swamp water in Viet Nam. There was, I admit, an allure to the notion of learning the doctoring trade while indefinitely deferring the chance to be all that I could be. (I was never clear on the benefits of being all that I could be if that included being a target for enemy snipers or a preferential host for intestinal parasites indigenous to southeast Asia.)
Explanation, Part 2: When my father asked me what I intended to do with my life, I replied with my whim du jour, “I’ll go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in English Literature.” My father’s next question, spoken without a trace of irony, was, “OK, how much does that graduate school job pay?” In the ensuing conversation, he offered to pay for my future schooling if it eventuated in a medical or law degree.1 As it turns out, there was a substantial gap between his definition “pay for my future schooling” and my interpretation of that concept, but by the time that difference was evident, I was ensconced in my first year of medical school.
A reasonable sense of my experience during those years of medical school (yep, that’s me on the right as a second year medical student. Scary, eh?) can be garnered from these condensed characterizations:
- The coursework and clinical requirements were academically challenging but certainly not overwhelming.
- I formed a number of friendships, some deep and enduring (hardly a surprise given that most of us in our class of 100 spent the majority of time during that four years in each others company).
- I probably fell in the 80th percentile of our class’s despondency rankings, which were anchored by the one suicide that is obligatory for a medical school class (the guy who gulped down a chocolate milk and Drano cocktail) and the one likely but unproven suicide (the guy who drove his motorcycle into the space between the headlights of a truck). My depression, however, had been present since adolescence and correlated only modestly with the travails of medical school.
- I didn’t drink before I went to medical school; I did drink by the end of medical school.
- I was a virgin before I went to medical school; I was not a virgin by the end of medical school.
- Remarkably, the preceding two events were unrelated.
Oh, and I got married.
My First Wife & Me
I had dated sporadically since high school, but the only woman I had seen over a long period of time was Martha. She and I had been involved and broken up several times over the five years before I began medical school. Three decades later, I’m still unsure why either of us committed this marriage other than it seemed like the thing to do after seven years of steamy weekends.
To be fair, Martha was bright enough, attractive enough, and, at our mutual deflowering and on subsequent occasions when opportunity presented itself, amorous enough. She lacked any scary traits: she wasn’t an alcoholic, didn’t snort crystal meth, didn’t have a massive credit card debt, didn’t meet criteria for any of the scarier DSM III diagnoses, and had no felony convictions. And, … well, that’s about it.
I have no idea why she wanted to marry me. My guess is that if she were asked that today, she would be similarly clueless.
But, wed we were, near the end of my third year of medical school. Martha moved into the mobile home in which I had lived the preceding three years, found a job teaching elementary school, and became increasingly unhappy.
In retrospect, the problem, from my admittedly biased point of view, was that Martha’s parents were too damn happy. She, understandably enough, saw them as the only possible model for for a successful marriage and the more we strayed from their patterns and beliefs, the more discontented Martha became. For one thing, her parents didn’t live in a 10′-wide trailer. They also had children (we had agreed we didn’t want kids until I had completed my residency), a paycheck earned by her father and handed over to her mother (Martha was our primary (only) bread-winner that first year), and spent time together gardening, eating out, and visiting with friends (our evenings and weekends that weren’t given over to reading medical journals, being on-call, or preparing for rounds were spent with my classmates obsessing about medical school gossip and politics).
Matters reached the point that, prior to our first anniversary, Martha and I were talking about divorce. Instead, we both held out the hope that moving to Chicago, where I would serve my residency, might ameliorate matters.
We packed up our troubles in a U-Haul and moved into an apartment in a Chicago suburb. Although my psychiatric residency didn’t begin until September, I had arranged to work in the hospital’s medical units that summer to earn rent money. I have a vivid memory of driving on Lake Shore Drive on a sunshine suffused Sunday with hundreds of sailboats on the Lake, folks picnicking in the parks, and others playing on the beach. I was on my way to my twelve hour Emergency Room shift, which that day began with a case of an elderly, sickly man with a massive impaction.
Still, spending my days and nights rotating through the ER, an internal medicine floor, and the peritoneal dialysis unit was preferable to being home, where our mutual unhappiness continued to grow.
Finally, issues accelerated to the point that I requested and received administrative permission to take a week off before my residency officially started to deal with our marital problems – an attempt doomed to become one in a series of many unrequited efforts to salvage our relationship.
Once the residency began, I was, like every other resident, too busy. There was always something I needed to do for a patient, to prepare for a case presentation, or just keep up with the work. Martha and I again wavered on the edge of divorce and actually filed once but withdrew the papers. We did have times we enjoyed together – they just weren’t frequent or pleasurable enough.
So, there you have it. Just as I warned, my life during these years was a prolonged trudge into unhappiness, punctuated with few catastrophes or exhalations. The high intensity catastrophe-exaltation phase of my life wasn’t to begin until I heard from Julie.
And that was when I got the letter.
Note: Originally posted May 1, 2006 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com
Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.
- My dad, by the way, was a unsuccessful farmer who built an impressively profitable business buying used cars in Michigan and wholesaling them to dealers in Missouri and Oklahoma; I suspect he knew I didn’t have what it took to follow in his footsteps – although it remains my contention that I could have handled the failed farmer bit. [↩]