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An Incomplete List of Bad Decisions
The Origin Story
An Incomplete List of Bad Decisions is a reader-supported publication about empathy. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
An Incomplete List of Bad Decisions
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.
― William Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well
I am making an incomplete list of bad decisions. God knows a complete list would be impossible. Honestly, at this point, I just hope I don’t fill up multiple volumes, but the night is young. While I don’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, the apparently infinite number of mistakes I’ve made in my lifetime gush out of my pen and onto the paper.
I turned left when I should’ve turned right. I flipped off the guy who tailgated me on the road only to pull up next to him at my kid's school. What I thought would be a “super subtle” cosmetic procedure right before a big event was neither “super” nor “subtle." I trusted the wrong friend with a humiliating secret.
“What is the matter with me?” is a daily question. I exist to make people feel better about their own mistakes.
“Oh, you did what?” I say to a friend pouring out his heart about something he did wrong. Sit down. I can beat that. Accidentally replied all with a snarky comment? Pour a drink.
However complete or incomplete my list may be, it seems necessary to decipher how I’ve gotten into the heartbreaking mess I’m in - a mess that can only be explained by either karma or truly terrible luck. I am free-falling off a cliff, pulling on my parachute cord and begging it to open. I will do anything for it to open.
In early 2019, I noticed that my right hand and arm weren’t quite functioning properly. Typing with my right hand felt as if I was wearing a mitten or had a cat paw instead of a hand with independently moving fingers. My typing was so inaccurate I started dictating everything. My right arm was stiff and bent at the elbow, held up by an invisible sling. The fingers on my right hand clenched into a rigid death grip around anything I held, like my phone or cup of coffee. When I lifted a fork to take a bite, the silver tines tremored above the plate.
Too much working and not enough resting seemed to make for a sensible explanation. After a year of ignoring it, I finally made an appointment with my brilliant friend Amanda, a neurologist, to see what kind of physical or occupational therapy might help.
I walked back and forth in the cold hospital hallway as she observed. She crouched and watched me walk fifteen to twenty feet away from her.
“Stop. Turn around.” Five or six times, I went back and forth for her.
“Can you straighten out your right arm?” She watched carefully and just nodded.
We went back into the exam room, my sweet husband in tow. I sat on the examination table and she pulled up a stool on wheels. One at a time, she took each arm and closed her eyes, and moved my forearms all around. I had no idea what she was feeling for but was not at all alarmed.
I sat and tapped my feet for her. First, the right foot…tap, tap, tap. Then the left. More nodding and mostly silence from my doctor friend. She gave me a pen and watched as I drew spirals of circles on a legal pad and wrote sentences. The words got smaller and smaller as the sentence went on. I showed her how when I move my right hand in a certain way, it manifests a jerky cogwheel quality like an old-fashioned robot.
“It looks Parkinsonian.” I froze. Was Parkinsonian the same thing as Parkinson’s? Did she just say I had Parkinson’s?
“You think I have Parkinson’s?” She nodded so sadly. Her eyes were wet as she looked directly into mine.
“Yes. I think you have Parkinson’s.”
“Isn’t that a progressive disease?”
“Yes. It’s progressive.”
“Is there any cure?”
She sighed. “Maybe in our lifetime.”
The conversation was so fast. So to the point. That was it. Four or five sentences. No nuance, no sugarcoating. The words were out, and they couldn't go back in. I couldn't even cry. It must be the feeling that people feel when they hear that a loved one is dead. You just sit there. The before still clearly visible from the after.
What I thought was a mechanical problem turned out to be a brain problem.
On January 27th, 2020, my youngest son’s tenth birthday, and mere weeks before the world locked down for COVID-19, I received the news that at the age of forty-nine, I had Parkinson’s Disease - an incurable, progressive brain disease.
Only because I was nowhere near absorbing either the seismic shift or the earthquake itself, I went home to watch my sweet boy open his presents, blow out the candles, and nosedive into his birthday cake. I knew down deep, in the ways we all do, that this was no nightmare, but I had to hold it all in until that beautiful little man was sound asleep.
Then, I lost all pretense of holding it together. I drowned in unending tsunamis of catastrophizing panic. The moment that my mind began to relax, it shocked me back to reality. With each bolt of fear, I ran to my closet to curl up into crumpled-up towels and musty t-shirts so my children couldn’t hear me wail. There I sat for sometimes an hour, waiting for my red face and swollen eyes to subside enough to return to the living room as if nothing was wrong at all. It was a terrifying and terrorizing horror flick I watched on repeat starring me in a wheelchair and unable to speak.
My kind, handsome, and hilarious soulmate husband and I may not grow old together. I might not be there to watch my beautiful and brilliant two boys blossom into exactly who they are supposed to be. I pictured their weddings without me and my dearest friends at my funeral and the brunch afterward, where they toast me and then get on with their lives after the check is paid.
I was being forced at gunpoint to accept the unacceptable.
Between the deafening drumbeats of impending doom, my brain has latched onto the basic human question of “Why?" “Why did this happen to me?” And “What will make it go away?”
It is magical thinking to conclude that what I have done wrong caused this disease or that anyone is to blame for the unrelated horrors that may befall them. But magical thinking is part of how we all get through the day, isn’t it?
“Good things happen to good people,” they say. Does that mean that bad things happen to bad people? I know this can’t be true, but the world stops spinning when I realized that maybe I did this to myself. If my behavior led me to this moment, I must have been much worse than I thought.
If, by any minuscule chance, there is an appeals process for this sentence I’ve been given, surely an inventory of my bad decisions will be required. So, I’m writing a simple, old-school list of my transgressions, bad decisions, poor judgments, and the times I knowingly squinted at the text of the Golden Rule. ("I’m so sorry, Golden, you’re breaking up. I think we have a bad connection.”).
My idea of what an appeals court would look like is appropriately overdramatic. A black-robed Court of Karmic Appeals panel with white powdered wigs is sitting up on the dais combing through the fact patterns of each of my errors with painstaking attention to detail.
Bang! Bang! Bang! The wooden gavel pounds down, startling everyone in the room.
“The case of Jennifer Anne Ramo vs. Her Bad Decisions is next on the docket!”
The losing parties ahead of me file out of the courtroom, heads down, grasping file folders stuffed with dog-eared legal arguments now headed for the shredder. The Justices grumble and nod their heads in agreement as they comb through a lifetime of my blunders. I can hear an occasional breathless gasp. I sit alone in the back of the courtroom, wishing I could object.
“What’s that you say?” the panel asks with a vinegar tone and crisp British accent.
“You slept with your friend’s boyfriend?!” Scribble, scribble.
“You drank how much before getting into a car?!”
The hearing is unending. The judges are not impressed, and their disgust compounds with each seemingly unthinkable choice that I have made. By the time they make it to the present day, they seem exasperated and ready to slam down the hammer on me.
“We’ve heard enough,” one of them croaks. Then, they file out one by one behind giant ornate doors, where they vote on my fate. Was it the mundane bad decision that did me in, or something more nefarious that engraved my destiny in stone? I will never know, but the sentence is a very different life than I would have chosen and certainly from what I’d envisioned.
If nothing else, I want to know exactly what in this life I’ve done for good and for bad. I want to leave the planet with the knowledge that despite my many bad decisions, I left the people I loved and the world better off than when I arrived. I want to be thorough, but I fear this may take longer than I have.
How does any one of us begin to collate even a day of good and bad decisions, much less a lifetime? How do I decide which ones matter and which are not worth the time to examine? Which decisions were forgivable and which decisions were beyond the pale? Which deserve punishment and which fall under the normal wear and tear provision of life’s lease? If it ended well enough, was it still a bad decision? Shakespeare had an entire play literally called “All’s Well That Ends Well.” That has to be worth something.
Where do silver linings fit in the equation? What about intent? Acts of omission? Are there any compassionate exceptions or waivers? How about time for good behavior? Is there a rubric somewhere?
If the point of the exercise is somewhere between reparations and mitigation, then intellectual honesty is non-negotiable. There is no place for the sleight of hand that seeks to bury poor choices under a pile of “Look over there’s” and “Nothing to see’s.” Sugarcoating seems as bad as the crime itself. A nearly post-mortem audit of my life's mistakes and the damage they have done is more complex than I thought.
I haven't zeroed in on a bright-line rule for what qualifies as a bad decision, but my working definition seems reasonable enough.
A bad decision is one that we regret or should regret.
Even the “should regret” part gets a little fuzzy for me because there are definitely choices that I should regret that happen to bring me unhealthy levels of satisfaction. Sometimes people suck and watching them get their due is not the worst thing in the world. I will save that for future musings, which I shall entitle “Burning Bridges with Panache” and “Schadenfreude: The Essential Guide.” Right now, I’m just on the entry-level “Bad Decisions for Dummies.”
I can’t think of a single human being who walked the earth that did not make a bad decision or two. Making mistakes is core to the human experience. If we are paying attention, we learn to make better decisions.
Raise your hand if you aren’t always paying attention.
In the table of contents of An Incomplete List of Bad Decisions that lives in my head, there are chapters of stories. The bulk of my bad decisions likely fall under the chapter heading entitled “Sheer Stupidity.” At best, they are embarrassing, and at worst, they didn’t result in palpable damage. Just a few months ago, on the first day I ever wore prescription glasses, I took my then 16-year-old son to the orthodontist. I parked the car while he sat down in one of the reclining dental chairs lined up in a row to get his braces tightened. I spotted my curly-headed boy and sat on the parent’s bench beside him. I rubbed his leg while they yanked his open jaw here and there for the monthly torture session. Twenty minutes of love pats and gentle leg scratches later, I noticed that these were not my son’s legs and then panned right three chairs over to see my actual son lying there waiting his turn. I rose slowly and made a brisk escape out of the office and into my car to sit there and die. There were no extra paper bags in the car to put over my head, so I just hid in plain sight, hoping not to hear any police sirens headed in my direction.
There is the pamphlet-sized chapter called “Substance-Related Bad Decisions,” It includes gems such as falling asleep under my work desk after a weekend of partying too hard, curled up with a vintage fur coat, foolishly thinking I was invisible until my boss walked in and saw my feet sticking out. (I was fired). Eating an entire pot brownie at a music festival just because I was hungry. Drinking any cocktail that was blue. Taking the "I'll have one of everything" approach in Amsterdam resulting in an ER visit and the EMTs making fun of me while I thought I was dying. ("You should hear what the Italians say. Mamma Mia!" Roars of laughter with my boyfriend at the time, who was having a great time on his particular drug-fueled roller coaster). Drugs and I were not meant to be friends. Drugs are a bad decision for me.
The “Dating and Relationship Bad Decisions” chapter isn’t much better. It is a short chapter with a few long paragraphs. Like everyone else, I dated assholes and was an asshole. The lone exception is my beautiful and nearly perfect husband. Somehow, I got out of my own way and let him into my life.
“Bad Decisions I Made that Hurt People I Loved” is the one chapter that keeps me up at night. It’s a longer list than I would otherwise like to believe and the most likely source of my karmic damage. Just a few bullet points into the list are enough for me to realize that even though I think of myself as a good person and try so hard to be one, many times, I have failed in ways that have caused deep, no-joke pain to others.
In my head, I think I’ve only been kind and generous. But, in my heart, I know so much better. “Nobody’s perfect” is neither a shield from accountability nor karma.
“Just being honest,” I have said. “I don’t mean to offend you, but…” I might deliver it disguised as a joke, but the message is always clear: “I think you are breathtakingly stupid.” Honesty was the spoonful of sugar meant to distract from the bitter and belittling cruelty behind it. I have been both surgical and careless just because I thought I was correct. What else is there besides being correct? It took me a long time to realize the difference between “can” and “should.” So many times, I won the battle, but at what cost? I had to learn that being right is only relevant when you don’t care about how you leave the person you think is wrong.
I tease my husband, “I am more pros than cons, right?” I ask, “If you had to sum me up on my headstone with one math term would I be “>, <, or =?” His answer depends on the day. At this point in my desperate quest for redemption, an equal sign will suffice. He thinks I’m wonderful. He also knows all too well that I am more than capable of causing pain to the people I love. Thankfully, he can hold both of those realities in his mind at the same time and still love me.
If it’s not too late to say it, let me do so now.
I’m so sorry. I am sorry I chose to disappear from relationships over confronting the issues. I’m sorry I made you feel small and beneath me. I’m sorry I left you in pain, wondering what on earth you could’ve done to deserve it. I thought I was being funny or fair or just or measured, but I was none of those things. You deserved better and more of my love, not less.
Bad things do happen to good people just as good things happen to bad people. That truth, though, doesn’t really sink in until something truly bad happens to someone truly good. Or, at least in my case, someone who truly tries to be good, knowing full well in the back of my mind how imperfect I am.
* * *
I sometimes wonder if we aren’t all busy cataloging and organizing our own Incomplete List of Bad Decisions. I’d be willing to bet the chapters look pretty much the same. Maybe it’s not such a bad assignment for any of us if it makes people realize that we all make bad decisions. We all have times when we wish we’d done something and when we wish we hadn’t. Acts of omission carry just as much venom as acts of commission.
Every day I sit with this diagnosis. I don’t really believe in Karma. I believe in loving kindness (including for myself), making amends, and leaving everyone better off because of my presence. I believe that we are all trying our best, and even when it is woefully inadequate, it’s still our best.
We all have regrets. We all fuck up. The worst in us hopefully does not tarnish the best in us. At the end of the day, maybe a realistic goal isn’t that we never make bad decisions. Maybe the realistic goal is that we try harder to make more good decisions than bad decisions. That we try to be more pros than cons to people we love. For me, I'm just going to shoot for a >, and hopefully, I end up at an =. Or, as Shakespeare once said, "All’s > that ends >."
* * *
A cute-as-pie twentysomething barista at the local coffee shop tried to entertain both of us by flipping a paper coffee cup and trying to catch it behind his back. It fell on the floor and rolled around for a few seconds while we both looked at it. Without missing a beat, he looks up and says, “I’ll edit that in post-production.” I wondered aloud which of my mistakes I’d like to edit in post-production. He responded, “The list is long. I don’t even know where I’d start.” Me either, my friend. Me either.
Thanks to science and the Michael J Fox Foundation, the Silverstein Foundation, and countless brilliant scientists and willing trial participants, I am on a medication that has stopped my progression, and there should be gene therapy coming out soon.
Jennifer Ramo is a mother of two boys, wife, friend, social justice advocate, lawyer, Olympic-level bridge burner, shenanigans instigator, and questionable decision maker. She and her husband and two sons live in New Orleans and Santa Fe.
An Incomplete List of Bad Decisions is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.