American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Love of my life

For as long as he could remember, she was there. From those early days sitting criss-cross applesauce on the porch shelling peas with grandmama, right along with the unmistakable scent of red Georgia clay was the hint of her presence wafting by with every humid breeze.

“I can't remember a time without that being a part of my life,” he said. And when he said it, he looked down at his hands and sighed. “I just can't.”

There was a sadness about him. This heavy cloak of melancholy that pushed against the agenda I'd planned before entering the room. See, this was supposed to be a congratulatory conversation. Me applauding his triumphant separation from alcohol.


But as soon as I came into that room and laid eyes on him, I could feel it. Yes, this was a good thing he'd done for his health. And definitely, abstaining from Jack Daniels for 16 full months after nearly a lifetime of being his best friend is no minor feat. So, yeah. I had all these lofty plans of shaking his hand hard and telling him how great it was. Reaching out with both hands and staring deep into his eyes to let him know that I meant it.

Because I did.

But. None of that felt right once I actually sat down. His shoulders were curled inward and his expression was lonely. Like some middle school kid chosen last in the kickball lineup, the kind you immediately want to hug and defend. Yes, Mr. Caldwell had crossed the 1- year hurdle with AA and had the improvements in his health to show for it. But still. He didn't seem happy.


I guess I'd sized him up with this assumption of what he'd be like and where his mind should be, you know? Imagining some gum chewing chap with a bunch of AA key fobs proudly telling it on the mountain that he's just taking it 1 day at a time. I was expecting a testimony of how now even the smell of alcohol makes his stomach turn a little, especially now that he's broken free of that stronghold. But that isn't what I found.

At all.

“You seem sad,” I finally said. “What you've done for yourself is so amazing. And you're doing so great, too. But you seem … I don't know … sad.”

Mr. Caldwell just stared at me for few moments without speaking. Then, instead of saying something in response, he just sighed and shrugged. His lips moved and I think he said, “Yeah,” but it wasn't audible.

“Is everything okay at home? Did something happen?”

“No, ma’am. Everything fine with my people, Miss Manning. My kids so happy I don't drink no more.” When he said that, the corner of the left side of his mouth turned up a bit.

“That's great, Mr. Caldwell!” I did my best to ramp up the enthusiasm to counter his somber mood. It didn't work.

“I'm okay,” he finally said. Then, to make sure I knew he meant it, he repeated himself, this time a little more firmly. “I'm okay.”

I leaned into my palm with my chin and squinted my eyes a bit. “You know? You don't seem so okay, Mr. Caldwell.”

And something about that—my body language and that last statement—unlocked something. I could tell. His eyes focused on mine some more and I could tell he was trying to decide whether or not to tell me something.

“Tell me,” I pressed. “Tell me what is making you so sad.”

Mr. Caldwell took a big drag of air through his nostrils, closed his eyes and then shook his head slowly. Then he just froze for a beat with his eyes still closed before parting his lips respond. “I … I just … “ He sighed once more and went on. “I just miss it is all.”

“Miss what? You mean drinking, sir?”

“Yeah. Like, I keep waiting for that point where I lose the taste for it but it ain't never happened. So when I see it or smell it or see folks drinking, I guess it just make me feel sad.”


“Like, you know how when you was little how your main memories are tied to how stuff smell or the sounds you hear? See, that's how it is with me and drinking. Like, I come from a long family of alcoholics. But not fall down drunk and cuss you out alcoholics. Happy, domino and card playing drinkers. Shit talking and laughing. Having fun. But drinking the whole time. Even with kids around.”

The image he'd painted was so vivid that I was at a loss for words. He kept going.

“My grandmama and my granddaddy drank a lot. I was raised around them and both my parents died from problems related to drinking. So I know that it's bad for my health which is what got me to quit, you know? That time they kept me in the hospital, I knew I had to quit so I did. But I guess as time go by I'm realizing that just about every memory I have involve either me drinking or being with somebody who was drinking. Going all the way back.”

“You know what, Mr. Caldwell? I never thought of it that way.” I said that because it was true. “For you, alcohol is like an old friend.”

“Naaah. It's even more than that. Alcohol for me? She family. As much a part of my family as anything. Even when I was a kid.”

“You started drinking as a child?”

“Naw, not at all. But my auntie’nem used to sit us on the porch and braid our hair down in cornrows. My mama didn't like cutting out hair so us boys always had braids. I'd be sitting right on the step between her legs. Every so often she'd fuss at me or my cousins saying, ‘You bet’ not knock over my damn drink!’” That made him laugh. But it was fleeting. “It's funny ‘cause whenever I smell some gin, I want to cry for missing my auntie so much. That mixed with Newport menthols. And then along with the smell of some collard greens cooking with ham hocks and the sound of somebody cranking a ice cream maker.”

And that? That made my eyes sting. Partly because I finally understood what he meant. But also because I knew there wasn't really anything I could do about it. I started to counter him with some canned commentary on the health benefits of no longer drinking but none of it felt right. Instead I just twisted my mouth and nodded. Because I got it.

I put my hand on his and squeezed it. “Thank you for giving me a new perspective, Mr. Caldwell. I get it.”

Finally, he let out an unexpected chuckle. “Sometimes seem like the ones you can't get enough of don't love you back, do they? I love her but she don't love me.”

“Yeah, she's funny like that.”

“But I miss her. Every single day. Even though I shouldn't, I do. And all the people I loved though the years that's associated with her. My whole world different. My whole life different.”

“In a good way?”

“I'm alive, which is good. I ain't getting DUI charges, which is good. But just imagine if whatever it is that connect you to all your favorite people, favorite memories and favorite things, you can't do no more. Or if you couldn't be around none of it no more. It's hard.”

“That sounds super hard.”

After that we just sat in silence. Him looking directly at me, face washed over with this complicated grief, and me squeezing down on his hand with mine. I kept wanting to say something or feeling like I should but nothing was feeling authentic enough. I stayed quiet.

Finally, Mr. Caldwell sighed and gently pulled his hand back. “I appreciate your concern, Miss Manning. I do.” He began sliding his papers and medications back into his little knapsack and then pulled the drawstring closed. Patting the bag, he said for closure, “Yeah. So I guess I'm sad ‘cause it's the end of a love affair. But not just any love affair—like the love of my life.”

“Wow,” I whispered.

“Sound crazy, don't I?”

“No, sir. You sound honest.”


In the 20 years that I have been a physician, I have asked the same question of countless patients struggling with alcohol use disorders: “Did you grow up with any drinkers?” To date, I have never once heard a response that included anything other than the affirmative.


This? Mr. Caldwell's story? It opened my eyes. He taught me a new layer of why it's so hard for people to let go of alcohol. And you know what else? Thanks to Mr. Caldwell, I will never look at alcohol abstention the same way again.


Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, FAAP is an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches medical students and residents at Grady Hospital. This post is adapted from Reflections of a Grady Doctor, Dr. Manning’s blog about teaching, learning, caring and growing in medicine and life. It has been adapted and reprinted with permission. Identifying information has been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.

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Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:

Albert Fuchs, MD
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.

And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.

Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Zackary Berger
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.

Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).

db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.

Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.

Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.

Everything Health
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.

Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.

Glass Hospital
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.

Gut Check
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.

I'm dok
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.

Informatics Professor
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.

David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.

Just Oncology
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.

Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.

MD Whistleblower
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.

Medical Lessons
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.

Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.

More Musings
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.

Reflections of a Grady Doctor
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.

The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.

Technology in (Medical) Education
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.

Peter A. Lipson, MD
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.

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Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.

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Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.

Other blogs of note:

American Journal of Medicine
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.

Clinical Correlations
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.

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PLoS Blog
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.

White Coat Rants
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.

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