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My wife had two kids from a previous relationship. I helped raise them since they were toddlers. I consider them my children—I never use the word “step kids.” As far as I’m concerned, they’re mine, even though their father’s in the picture and picks them up every other weekend. They’re good kids—innocent and naïve—but a bit too obsessed with video games and YouTube, as with most kids their age. As a child, I couldn’t imagine choosing to sit indoors all day. But we live in a different time, I suppose.
They’re good kids. They don’t ask for much because they know we can’t afford much, but they do want things every now and then and it’s hard to look them in the eyes and tell them why they can’t get it. We’re broke. We can’t afford it. We’re poor. I’m a worthless bastard who’s failing you guys and your mother. Although they understand we can’t afford much, they still feel the pinch, the pain. You can see it in their eyes on occasion: disappointment—and it hurts.Part of me knows this is the point in life where my wife and I should use our poverty as a teachable moment. We live in a capitalistic society where we determine value and status by what we own and our ability to purchase mostly useless shit. We don’t put value in people—in empathy and kindness; instead, we’re judged by our credit scores and bank accounts, our homes and neighborhoods and cars. We try to find every opportunity to teach our kids—both boys—the value of people and how we dehumanize them, especially the working class and the poor, by putting too much emphasis on objects. But we do live in a capitalistic society—and every facet of our culture inculcates capitalism and the desire to own shit.
As long as we’re part of capitalism, everything we do reinforces it. We operate solely within it. It’s important to teach our kids the value of people, but we must also teach them how to play the game in order to succeed. We’re probably not going to witness a revolution by which capitalism collapses and something more egalitarian rises in the next few years. As automation rises, and the future for the working poor looks bleak, we’ve got to teach our kids how the world is, not how it ought to be. And the world—at least the western world—is built on the foundations of capitalism and consumerism. Hoping things improve for the better might feel nice, but to behave as if it’s inevitable is to act on delusion.
Do we want my kids to obsess over objects? Of course not. But at the same time they must learn to play by the rules in this game we’re stuck playing—and integrating yourself in groups with similar tastes, joys, obsessions, and so on is one game we play. I don’t want our kids to compete as consumers. But at the same time, I don’t want them to fall out of society altogether. So where’s the middle ground? Is there even a middle ground?
My wife grew up the only child to a single parent. Her mother struggled, even though she worked. Compared to my wife’s, my childhood was luxurious. Her dad was in and out of the picture. On occasion, he’d pop into her life and take her to Disneyland or buy her a CD player when it was a new and exciting piece of technology. But those extravagances didn’t occur often. For the most part, she and her mother lived hand to mouth, eating simple and basic food. Struggling to survive. They bounced from house to house, from apartment to apartment, rarely staying at the same place for more than one year—a leitmotif among the working poor. They held onto few possessions as a result of the constant moves, losing most from move-to-move.
Her experiences inculcated a sort of instability in life, one not necessarily compatible with accumulating material objects. As an adult, she doesn’t obsess over objects. She places little value, other than sentimental value, on things. She emphasizes people over objects. If something breaks—so what? If something’s lost—we can replace it. If something disappears—it’ll turn up; otherwise, we either didn’t need it to begin with or we can replace it. She’s a bighearted woman who cares little for objects.
In other words, she’s the opposite of me.
My parents didn’t divorce and I grew up in the same house. My familiarity with instability in some cases border on the non-existent whereas my wife’s experience guides her through some moments with grace. My anxiety spikes and chaos ensues as I assume the worst-case scenario looms on the horizon. She approaches situations with a sense of stressful ambivalence. It’ll work out, she seems to think, but that doesn’t mean I can’t stress about it. I, on the other hand, stress, stress, stress.
You can imagine the kind of tension such disparate approaches to life might generate.
I often called the medical institution I visited monthly to obtain my pills ‘the free clinic.’ But it was a misnomer. The clinic offered medical services to the poor and uninsured but they charged co-pay fees on a sliding scale—your income determined your fees. I was on the lowest end of the scale, so my monthly visits cost twenty-one dollars. Sometimes I could afford it and sometimes I couldn’t. If I couldn’t afford it, they’d permit me to see the NP but insist that I cover this visit’s cost next month. I always agreed. When you’re broke and unemployed and trying to keep your family afloat, I feel behind after a few visits.
Sometime during the summer, probably late May or early June, I showed up for my appointment. The woman at the reception desk punched my information into the computer, then she told me I’d have to pay fifty dollars before I could see my NP.
Fifty dollars? I said.
You’re a little behind, she said.
I didn’t have fifty dollars to blow. If I paid fifty to see the NP, I wouldn’t be able to afford to fill my prescriptions. What was the point of seeing an NP to get meds if I couldn’t afford them? But did I want to drop my meds altogether—and at once? I’d vacillated between the notion but it had remained imaginary. Hypothetical. Now the decision forced itself on me.
I opened my wallet and pretended to examine its contents. I didn’t carry cash, only a debit card. Having checked my account an hour earlier, I knew less than sixty dollars sat in my checking account.
I’m sorry, I said. I can’t afford it. Not today.
Would you like to reschedule?
I counted my pills like a junky when I got home. I had enough Xanax to last a week and enough Lamictal to wean myself off it. You’re not supposed to stop anti-seizure meds cold turkey, even if you’re not an epileptic, so I broke one in half and took it. When I started taking Lamictal, I had to take 25 mg once a day for two weeks, 50 mg once a day for two weeks, then move onto 100 mg a day. So I decided to reverse the procedure, drop from 100 mg to fifty, then to 25 mg. Since I’d halve, then quarter the pills, I’d have enough to see me through the entire process.
I told Alice about my situation. I’d had to ration my meds until I either raised enough money to pay for the appointment or found a different doctor or someone qualified for HIP, the Indiana state insurance policy. For reasons I still can’t comprehend, I didn’t qualify for it at the time. But I neglected to tell Alice I had intended on stopping my meds altogether and didn’t plan to see my NP or any doctor—at least for the foreseeable future.
My writing had gone to shit, my sex life had more or less vanished, I didn’t think as clearly as I used to, I gained enough weight to imitate fat Elvis, and I felt nothingness, more like a zombie than a person—were meds worth it? I didn’t know. Part of me wanted to see if the old me returned without meds in my system. As manic and as insane as he was, I liked and missed the old me.
I was me and not me, a logical impossibility—both d and not d. My existence on meds violated the law of non-contradiction. Language is limited. Wittgenstein pointed out that we can reach the end of language. I like to illustrate the limitations of language by playing the following game: pretend I’m blind since birth; I’ve never experienced sight; now describe the color red to me. The moment you realize it’s not possible is the moment you realize you’ve reached the limitations of language.
The above described sensation mimics my experience when I attempt to convey what I meant by the me on meds was both me and not me. The meat wasn’t different but some of the neural connections, along with the distribution of neurotransmitters, probably were different. And since neural connections defined us individually, and since the meds had altered my connections, then it stood to reason that I was—at least in part—a different person. But how different? Attempting to articulate the answer to that question pinpoints the locus of the limitations of language. You may think it a cop-out, but I simply can’t convey the sensations I experienced. I can only say I was both me and not me. Both d and not d. Now, firmly resolved to cleanse myself of all meds, I was interested to see what person emerged.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.