Issue # 5 / 13
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On The Value of Irritability
by Britt Leach


IT MUST BE ACKNOWLEDGED that there are those old people who live in a worrisome body without the benefit of peace-inducing drugs—except for one pitiable glass of cheap red wine per evening—and yet are expected to be sociable and not curse, to not be irritable. I am one of those people.

I am seventy-one years old and have bad teeth. And I have eczema sores on my hands that I once thought were buboes until I discovered that buboes (as in bubonic) cannot live on the hands. But whatever it is on my hands, it requires the attention of a dermatologist who also attends to the scaly bumps on my head and something on the lower portion of my right leg that is gray and as hard as a rock—in fact looks like a rock, as if my leg were growing a rock. My dermatologist tells me not to worry about it, but he does tell me to worry about something on my face that is brown and larger than any of the buboes on my hand. He took a photo of it and placed the photo with my records and told me to regularly check the brown thing in the mirror, to let him know if it gets any browner or bigger.

While checking whatever is growing on my face, I could also look at my teeth if I wanted to look at my teeth. My dentist has stopped working on my teeth because my insurance for this year has lapsed, but early next year he will be back at it. I think I have right at twelve teeth remaining in my head and most of those teeth serve as anchors for a series of permanent bridges, though “permanent” implies stability while my bridges are really swinging bridges that rock and sway when I eat anything harder than standard vegetarian gruel. A lone peanut causes seismic alarm on my bridges, no matter where I place that peanut for mastication, rolling it with my tongue, here and there in my mouth, hoping to find a secure purchase so that I can chew, if that is what it could be called. More like a tonguing; for it’s the tongue that is doing most of the work, trying to find a bridge that isn’t actively swinging.

item4But there is mercifully little pain in my mouth now because of all the root canals I’ve had—and all the dental x-rays. It’s my belief that most of the nerves in my mouth and indeed in my head have been killed by all the dental radiation that I’ve received over the years—a positive result regarding dental pain perhaps, but what about cognition? My teeth are in my head; my brain is in my head. Wouldn’t my brain have received radiation at the same time that my teeth received radiation during the many years that I have sat in a dental chair and had my teeth x-rayed? And the answer is yes. Yes to my brain having been radiated, zapped and, I believe, fried. My dentist and his assistants laugh when I tell them of my concerns—the dental x-rays, my brain’s proximity to the radiation—and then he says something to the young women who are his assistants, something in Arabic that causes even more laughter, something that I cannot understand.


My primary care physician has interests beyond his medical practice; he owns a restaurant and a winery and occasionally seems distracted or even bored when I try to explain my concerns. I’d like to trust him more; I’d like to be able to talk to him about my hands, the rock thing on my lower leg, and my teeth and dental radiation, get his opinion about it all. It’s the last one that really bothers me. I might have to seek a different primary care physician to get my answers even if I do like him and enjoy his stories about the late nights in his restaurant and the wine tastings, his enjoyment of rap music. But I need to trust my primary care physician; an old person needs to trust his primary care physician—an old person who does not ingest peace-inducing pharmaceuticals, Prozac and such, even though he has thought about it.

Hands, teeth, radiation. I think about them; they are the irritants that make me irritable. Otherwise I am mentally stable. I could pass any psychological test given me. "A rolling stone gathers no moss." What does that mean? I know what it means. "Do you love your mother? More than your father? Why do you love your mother more than your father and do you want to kill your father?" No, I don’t want to kill him because he is already dead; and were he alive I would want to talk to him before I would even think about killing him. And if I thought about killing him it wouldn’t be because of my mother even though I loved her. So some of these tests don’t provide enough space for answers, but I could still pass them. One’s relationship with one’s father doesn’t say it all. That’s something that no personality test acknowledges, which means that they are all worthless.


The point is that I’m irritable because of how my body is not because of anything mental. Even though I don’t really know what dental radiation has done to my brain over the years.

But no matter its cause, doesn’t irritability have a function? I’d even say that it has an evolutionary function. And I’m not just saying that because irritability seems to be my constant companion. Doesn’t irritability imply heightened awareness and doesn’t an old person require heightened awareness in order to survive?

We have one car, and if I need to get out of the apartment, if I need more wine, a dental product, or a steroidal cream for my hands, I must walk. The street in front of my apartment building has recently been resurfaced with a smooth asphalt that facilitates NASCAR speeds for the luxury cars that use our street as a shortcut to the freeway. It’s as if the street had been resurfaced for that very purpose, because of complaints from wealthy drivers who were unable to reach comfortable cruising speeds on our street because of the old, cracked cement surface. And that new asphalt street is the street that I must cross when walking for supplies.

Would it be sensible for me to dull my reflexes with Prozac or Paxil or Wellbutrin when I need to be alert, able to spot a car as it rounds the curve and comes at me at freeway speeds? And don’t I need a clear head, when the street finally seems to be clear, to run across my street, my head swiveling all the while, checking both directions, checking the alley that intersects the street, checking the cars coming out of parking spaces nearby, tires squealing?

As an old person, I need to be alert at all times, and in order to accomplish that I will accept irritability. And if there are people around me who cannot understand that, who can’t appreciate my irritability, let me say this: Just wait until you get old and need it to survive. You'll thank me for showing you the way.



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