October 19, 1995

The Leslie Test

Her statement did not seem large at the time. Nurses had been grumping and barking at me for two weeks and I had learned to tune them out. The orange carpet interested me more as I wore a path around the edge of the corridor of the L-shaped psych ward. The carpet was much nicer than the gray linoleum of the ward in the other hospital which had first protected me.

I had become a visitor because dying seemed better than living. There were many reasons, but they do not seem important any more. I was on the seesaw of life and there was this weight at the other end which was much heavier. My end was all the way up and I was just barely holding on. I was ready to fall off at any second. It was just a matter of when. Not if, just when.

The doctors have a cure for all of this: medication and all different kinds. They helped to raise me up so that the seesaw was stable and after ten days I went home. But the medication continued to surge and I rose into mania and then crashed again.

I returned to the hospital and they shipped me to another--the one with the orange carpet. The orange carpet became my friend. I was a pacer. Sometimes it seemed like rush hour in those halls because pacing is an important activity of visitors. They did not actually call me a visitor, but I thought of myself that way. I was just temporarily passing through.

The day that I was transferred was a long one. I had to spend several hours breaking in a new doctor. He allowed that I had a lot of problems any time a new medication was introduced. We agreed that no new medication would be given to me unless he first discussed it at length with me.

The time after dinner and before bedtime is a long one in a hospital, especially if you are hardly sleeping at all. When the mind cannot slow down, pacing fills the time.

I was making my rounds in my own way, but I was not doing it conspicuously. I was not making military turns at the corners. I was not talking to the walls. I was not even talking to myself. I would not have been able to speak fast enough to keep up with the chatter going on in my head. I did have to pass by the nurse’s station twice on every lap, but I was not bothering any one. I was not noisy on the carpeted floor. Oh sure, there was a little sound of the flip flop of my running shoes since they had taken away my shoelaces, but it was not much.

“Jim, come here.” It was Nurse Leslie breaking my concentration.


“Here. Take this.” She plopped one tiny white pill down on the countertop.

“What’s that,” I said, frozen in fear by the suggestion.

“It’s Ativan.”

“I’m not taking that.”

Exasperation flew at me over the counter.

“What do you mean your not taking it. You need it. Now just take it.”

“But my doctor said that I wouldn’t have to take any new medication until I had talked it through with him.”

Clearly, she did not want to have this conversation.

“I talked with your doctor and he wants you to take it. So come on, just take it.”

Then I got the look, the “For christsakes, Jim, it’s late, you’re marching up and down the halls like an idiot, I’m tired and I don’t have time for this!” look.

“I’m not taking it.”

Leslie gritted her teeth and curled, “Jim, no one ever died from one Ativan!”

That pronouncement grabbed me. She now was talking in terms that I understood. Death and dying spoke to me.

“OK, I’ll take it.”

Her statement all of a sudden made my decision easy. I was in this hospital to stay alive and if this pill would not kill me, then I would be willing to take the risks of any other side effects it might bring.

Thus the Leslie Test became part of my life. Fear is a consistent thread which weaves through my days. But there are big fears and little fears. What goes in each category shifts on a regular basis. There were days of darkness when everything was was a big fear. But now that category pops to the surface much less frequently. But when a big fear does show up, I pay attention and I give it the Leslie test.

It’s simple: “Has anyone ever died from this?” If the answer is no, I can move forward. I have applied the test to many big fears. Do I want to lead that workshop? Should I accept the invitation to speak at the church? The answer was no to the Leslie Test on these questions so I agreed to do them. These were questions which had been turning over in my mind for a long time. I know it is a big fear if I cannot make a decision and the question keeps reappearing.

Will I do the firewalk? My answer to the Leslie Test was yes, people have died and I will probably die. This answer came leaping from the depths of my insides as soon as the question was asked. It came so forcefully that I knew that the answer was right for me at that time. My answer may be irrational and illogical but it was mine. Sometimes a big fear must be honored.

Howell Raines, in his book Fly Fishing through the Midlife Crisis, speaks to the issue of facing one’s fears. He was embarrassed that in his late forties he was still afraid of his boss. On his desk, next to his intercom, he taped a small piece of paper with this sentence: “It is a good day to die.”

Raines points out that “It is a good day to die.” was the battle cry of the Dog Soldiers, the warrior class of the Cheyenne Indians and the most feared fighters among the Plains Indians. Crazy Horse borrowed this cry and used it to prepare his troops for the battle at The Little Big Horn.

When he spoke to his boss through the intercom he would look at that sentence. The sentence freed Raines from the fear of his boss and it did more. “Somehow, when that fear left, other anxieties began following it out the door.”

Raines understood, and now I understand, that the cry of the Dog Soldiers and the Leslie Test are not about death but are about freedom--freedom to walk through the big fears and do what needs to be done.

I keep my shoelaces tied today because I am moving quickly.

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