When I was growing up, it was the 20th century and where I grew up, I was surrounded by Indians. Mostly Creeks. We were a minority, but there were more Indians than blacks. White privilege permeated the air we breathed and the drinking water, but we had a status above blacks if not equal to whites. It was a pre-existing caste system for those of us born into it. You don’t have the equipment to question such things right away.
My family had the good sense to not put my Cherokee name on my birth certificate. I can’t imagine what the white kids would have done with Ginatiyun Tihi; what they did with the English version, Stephen Teehee, was difficult enough.
I was grown and gone before I made any effort to sort out whether my lowly status was a result of my name or a result of my grandparents having no money. If you know where you stand, then how you got there is not something important unless you can change it.
I could change my class status by making money and I could hide my Indian status by getting rid of “Teehee,” at least among people who did not already know me. As it happened, I did both. I also landed by choice in a milieu as liberal as my birthplace was conservative and everything about my status changed.
When I arrived at the University of Texas, I had just quit the best job I ever had. If I had remained at the data processing service bureau, my income would have been not just above average, but at a level I did not equal for some time after I got my law license. My financial status went back down as my savings evaporated and I sold off my toys to stay in school, but the folks I was hanging with were always making fun of the rich kids, not the poor ones.
It took a while to understand that the status of most of my pals was “trust fund radical,” but it did not matter to me then or now. I was just happy to be accepted as roughly equal. “Teehee” had become “Russell” — my grandparents’ name I adopted in their honor — -and so nobody had to know I was Cherokee unless I chose to tell them. I dropped the secret freely, and it did me no harm.
My ethnicity was not a secret in the sense that I was trying to hide it, but rather in the sense that I was not forced to wear it every day and, for the first time in my life, I could choose my identity.
When I arrived at the University of Texas, I was still mourning Martin Luther King, Jr., and particularly the fact that I had never heard him speak and it had sunk in that I never would. I had thrown in with César Chávez when I was accosted by a farm worker picketing my neighborhood grocery store in Milwaukee, but I was ignorant of the band of open air sweat shops in the areas of Texas I later knew as the Rio Grande Valley and the Winter Garden. My fealty to Chávez meant simply that I would forego one of my favorite snacks, table grapes, and I would say something to anybody I saw consuming them.
Because of my peculiar method of getting admitted — mau-mauing the Dean of Admissions until he admitted me on conditions I’m sure he thought were impossible for me to meet — -I did not apply to UT until I knew I was in, so it was no great sacrifice to omit my tribal identity on the form. The omission was to avoid the affirmative action stigma, something I foolishly thought was possible.
So there I was, accepted in a bastion of whiteness. What did it mean to be Indian? I quickly concluded it all revolved around the concept of “honor.” I was raised to believe that a man without honor is nothing, but my idea of honor evolved.
My admiration for MLK and César Chávez meant that I had to turn loose of violence. It was very, very hard to teach myself not to hit back and, as important, not to hate the person who hit me. I evolved. Not quickly enough to suit myself, but I did evolve.
I was able to navigate some pretty hairy situations but, to my best old age recollection, I only threw one punch. Somebody jumped on my back in the middle of a melee, and I whirled around with my fist. I had no more realized that my blow connected when I saw I had decked a police officer. That was not my intent but I was too busy covering up my head to help him up or apologize. I was mortified.
A fully human person should be courageous. There was a time when I would have said “a man.” I thought I knew more Cherokee history and traditions than I did, or I would not have made that mistake. Wilma Mankiller would cure that, but her election was in the future.
A fully human person should be honest. This reflected poorly on the serial treaty violations that defined our relationship with the United States, and it meant that I always expected dishonorable conduct and was pleasantly surprised if it didn’t happen.
A fully human person should not sit still for an insult to his or her honor. This one got me in trouble many times. The last time was two days ago.
The biggest one before I got to UT involved that great data processing job I quit to go to school. The service bureau was located within Midland National Bank, a tall building on Wisconsin Avenue. That was right in the center of a city that made this small town boy very anxious. We did all the data processing for the bank, and that required that some of us have access to the vault. I was one.
One day, some sacks of money walked out of the vault. I don’t remember how much, but it was thousands of dollars. It was announced that everybody with access to the vault would be taking a polygraph test. My response was:
Not everybody. If you want to know whether I took the money, ask me. Have I ever lied to you about anything? Where do you get off accusing me of lying and making me prove I’m not? Give your polygraph to somebody without honor, but that’s not me.
The money-walkers gave up before my turn came and I was pleased not to get fired, although still a bit pissed off.
When somebody decided that the United States was going to hell because of drug abuse, there was an epidemic of employers demanding that employees pee in a cup to be tested for drugs. Sometimes this extended to applicants. Sometimes you had to do it while a minion of the employer watched. Most everybody peed in the cup.
Not everybody. If you want to know whether I did drugs and when, ask me. Have I ever lied to you about anything? Where do you get off accusing me of lying and making me prove I’m not? Give your pee test to somebody without honor, but that’s not me.
I never had to fill a cup during my first or second careers. Then, while I was still teaching at Indiana University, the pain struck. The pain in my back turned out to be stenosis, which might be treated with surgery if I lost enough weight. The pain in my knees turned out to be arthritis. I could have the joints replaced if I lost enough weight.
While I lost the same fifty pounds over and over, the VA gave me a prescription that I now understand was just short of atomic weapons. Every day, I took an Oxycontin capsule. I also had a bunch of hydrocodone, which I was told to take in advance of doing anything I anticipated would set off my back or my knees. The regimen worked fine, although I was a little anxious about the addiction warnings.
When I took my second retirement and came back to Texas, my VA file moved from Indianapolis to Temple. The day I saw my new VA doc for the first time, he didn’t ask me any details about my pain. He just told me, “We don’t prescribe opioids” and wrote me a prescription for something I had never heard of, Tramadol. Since I had been taking Oxycontin daily sometimes with a hydrocodone in combination, I went back to Professor Google to refresh my memory about the horrors of opioid withdrawal, which I considered a certain fate.
The good news was I did not have any opioid withdrawal symptoms.
The bad news was that Tramadol was no more effective than over-the-counter ibuprofen, which is to say it was useless. I stayed with the Tramadol for months, hoping some effect would kick in, as it got harder and harder to get around.
When I got no relief, I decided to use my civilian health insurance and go to a pain clinic.
The good news was I could have opioids
The bad news was I had to pee in the cup. I struggled with the question how much misery I was prepared to endure for the sake of my honor. I think I could have held out if the pain came once a week or even once a day, but the continual flames in my back and knees punctuated now and then with an electric jolt when I did something that set it off was too much for me. I caved.
I was ashamed of myself, but I could walk again. I did not have to pee in the cup at every appointment. It was random, but it was still humiliating and insulting. I endured.
Came a time when hydrocodone was not doing the job, but they switched the prescription to Oxycodone and the pain was bearable again. Never absent, but bearable.
It was part of the pee-in-the-cup protocol that I was supposed to notify them whenever I exceeded the dosage on the label. There were two reasons I would do that. The more common was when I fell, which used to happen regularly until I got a walk-in bathtub. Since then, I only had one serious fall when I was walking Max the Magnificent and I got tangled in his leash and we both went down.
Less common but more often than the average person, I would get a kidney stone — and those babies really hurt. I had enough kidney stones from about age 40 that I knew the drill, and part of it was an opioid prescription. But I had promised not to take opioids from other docs, so I refused the offer from my urologist and called the pain clinic. I do admit that I had already doubled down my dose just to be able to get to the urologist, but I figured it was just a formality. Wrong.
I was not allowed to talk to the doc. I don’t know the medical credentials of the person I was addressing, but she did not speak kidney stone. She started reading me the clinic protocols and I started finishing her sentences for her, which pissed her off to no small degree.
I got no help and I never called the clinic again through at least four kidney stones, including one that did not come out the normal way, requiring the urologist to go in and get it. I hope that never happens again.
My practice became that I would manage my own doses and tell the physician’s assistant exactly what I had done when I went in. That worked better than the telephone and I never ran out because when the emergency was over, I quit taking the stuff.
Came the time about three weeks ago when the pain in my right leg went off the charts. I looked down and it appeared that I had two kneecaps, one being a big extrusion of some kind from the side of my leg. I called the 24 hour nurse at my primary care doc’s place.
She asked me a bunch of questions and then gave me a list of further symptoms that, should they crop up, meant “I need to be seen immediately.” She also gave me some instructions how to ease up the pain, which I found worked as long as I was immobile with the leg elevated.
I should mention that, at the time my leg went off, I had cut my Oxycodone dosage in half by cutting the pills in half and taking half when the schedule called for one. When the leg did whatever it did, that no longer worked, and I was taking half a pill whenever the pain threatened to stop me.
There were two major things that required a lot of walking for me. Both involved my 91-year-old mother. Actually, she was a wee young lass of 90 when this started. She was getting a CT scan for another reason when the doc discovered a huge tumor in what was left of her colon. I say “what was left” because she had colon cancer twice already.
The doc said it was almost certainly cancer and there was almost certainly lymph node involvement based on the size and location of the tumor. The doc hesitated to do surgery because of her age, her general state of health, and the fact she would probably require chemo if she survived the surgery.
I had had this conversation with my mother several times. She told me if the cancer came back for a third run at her, she was not going to go through treatment a third time. So I went to tell her the bad news and on my way in I told the nurse to have the hospice folks talk to her. I was shocked to hear she had changed her mind, so I had to tell the nurse to take the hospice tag off her file.
They went in for a biopsy the day before my pain clinic appointment.
The other thing that ran up my activity level was my mother’s 91st birthday party, into which I put a lot of work because I figured it to be her last birthday party. Through the party exertions and the medical exertions I was munching on half an Oxycodone whenever the pain threatened to stop me. I was not counting.
I ran out of half-pills, but the next day I drug myself into the pain clinic and I saw a physician’s assistant I had never seen before. I told him the exact truth and he went ballistic.
He threatened me twice, in the abstract, with cutting off my treatment. I responded, in the abstract, that I would have to say,
Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.
He then accused me of swearing at him and informed me that was a separate violation. To which I replied, “I wish we had a tape recorder, but since we don’t I’ll just ask if you remember what I said a minute ago? That remark was not addressed to you — yet. If I wanted to insult you, there would be no room for mistake.”
He seemed mollified, so I went on my way wondering if English courses were required in the course of study to become a physician’s assistant. Late that day, I got a call from the clinic saying that the doc wanted to “schedule me for a pill count” in two weeks.
They had already added insult to the injury I came with. Now they pile another one on top, and I am back to the question how much suffering am I willing to endure to defend my honor?
I’m not taking meds now and — I won’t blow smoke — it’s pretty bad. But I keep remembering how disgusted with myself I was the last time I caved. I objected to the appointment but I accepted it. That will give me two weeks to marinate in pain and think about it. Monday, I have an appointment with a knee guy. Maybe he can do something to dial back the pain.
My calendar contains that decision point and it serves to remind me that, yes, it does matter than I’m Cherokee.
This post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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