Auto Pilot


I show up at work this morning as on time as usual, which means a few minutes late. I think I am still me, that I am still in charge. The office has the expectant buzz of a holiday weekend to it, which is an impressive feat given that there are only three of us employed here, one of which doesn’t even celebrate the holiday. I guess a long weekend is a long weekend whether you’re celebrating or not.

The workload, which is always high, has taken a back seat to weekend plans and, for two of us, menu ideas and guest lists. It’s snowing, and sticking for the first time this year. It feels like Christmas.

Sometime mid-morning, I begin to feel restless. The familiar tirade begins in my head. I don’t want to be at work, I hate this job. I’m so bored. I’m so sick of doing the same thing all the time, so sick of seeing the same two faces. Why can’t it just be the weekend already, why isn’t it 5 o’clock? The neck injury from a week earlier seems sorer than the day before. In fact, when I think about it, it seems my neck has been getting increasingly sore as the days went by. A new tirade begins. What if it gets worse instead of better? What if this is last year’s injury acting up again? I’d better call Anne. It’s a holiday weekend; I’d hate to be in pain all weekend.I voice my concerns to my co-workers, one of which is my boss. She shoots me a look of bemusement. There is no fooling her, but I’m playing the part just the same.

“I think I’ll call the chiropractor.” I catch my bosses glance. “What? It hurts! And it’s making this awful cracking noise when I move my neck. Besides, remember last year? I was in and out of physical therapy for months. I bet if I go straight to a chiropractor this time he’ll just crack my neck a few times and everything will be fixed in one appointment.”

I’m inserting these comments in between phone calls and emails, tucking them around conversations about work and the holiday and the long weekend. “I mean, there’s no way I can afford to be out of work like I was last year – remember how terrible that was? And it feels like it felt back then, like it felt in the beginning. Maybe if I catch it early it won’t be so bad. Do I need a referral? I don’t? I can just go? Great, I’ll call.”

The chiropractor’s office is closed until Monday. My co-worker tells me to just take it easy over the weekend, to call back on Monday. It sounds like reasonable advice, but I’m on auto-pilot now, the goal line established.

“You know what, I’ll just call Anne. I’ll tell her I need a referral. What? Oh, yeah, I know I don’t need a referral but I bet I’ll get in sooner if I have one, right? Otherwise it could be weeks and I don’t want to wait that long. I’ll just call and get a referral and something for pain.” That bemused look again; she knew where this was going before I did. “What? Ibuprofen isn’t touching it. And what am I supposed to do if it gets worse? It’s a holiday weekend. I’ll just call Anne.”

I watch myself from wherever it is I sit when I’m on auto-pilot, amazed.

Anne is out of the office. I leave a message for her nurse to call me back. I wait an hour for her to call, fidgeting in my chair, pacing around the office, accomplishing nothing. I call back and leave a second message. She finally calls and I listen to my auto-pilot self explaining the situation.

“It’s really very painful,” I say, though it’s only mildly so. “I understand that Anne is out today but I’m wondering if it’s possible for another physician to give a referral to the chiropractor and, possibly prescribe something for the pain until I can get in somewhere.” Anne and I do this dance a few times a year, following simple rules – I don’t call too often and she doesn’t say no. Anne, however, is out today. Her nurse explains in no uncertain terms that there’s no way a physician is going to prescribe a narcotic pain killer over the phone.

“I mean, there are other physicians here today if you’d like to come in and see someone.” Her tone tells me that she’s certain I don’t. “It’s very unlikely anyone will prescribe you narcotics, though, we don’t just hand them out.” I’m offended by her inference that I’m drug seeking, and amused at my offense.

I think about telling her that I’m at work and can’t leave to come in for an appointment, that I’ll call back next week to set something up when I have more time. Then I envision her making a note about drug seeking in my chart. “I’ll take the appointment,” I say, “that’s great, thank you.”

Two hours pass quickly and I’m alone in the examining room, fidgeting with my phone and waiting for the knock knock on the door. It comes and, with it, the nurse practitioner. I saw this particular nurse last year, for neck pain.

We share a few sentences. I point here and there, making little wincing faces. She nods and feels the muscle and nods some more. We share a laugh about the uptight nurse who was so stern with me on the phone, we think it’s funny that she thought I might be drug seeking. We affirm her diligence though, and we whisper conspiratorially, because “sometimes you just don’t know.”

I’m on auto-pilot, but no one can tell. It used to be scary when this happened, but I’ve mostly gotten used to it by now. Sometimes I still sit and blink and stare and wonder though, forgetting the difference between what really happened and what my mind made up.

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