The needle is my salvation. The only way I’ll know for sure. The only semblance of order in a chaotic whirlwind where one man fights to hold onto the last thin blade of sanity to keep from falling off the face of the Earth.
The inside of a room of bright lights and beeping sounds, the silent calm of a man – alone with his thoughts, dreads, fears and nightmares all stacked in brick and mortar – plastered onto the walls, juxtaposed just a few thick slabs of stucco apart from the scurrying professionals in their finest scrubs.
But in a few tender, honest moments where laughs can be awkwardly traded between a frightened shell of a human and a nameless, faceless professional just trying to make it to the next payday, there is serenity. There is calm. And this needle. This meter. This sticky-thing. This camera. This will tell me everything. I’m sure of it. Because I need to know everything. God, do I need to know.
Because I couldn’t bear to not know any longer. Because I couldn’t face another day with a brutally obtrusive throbbing deep within my chest, radiating out into my arms and legs like lightning, leaving my body weak, numb and sore. Leaving a lump in my throat – a very real, physical lump that felt like it was engorging itself with each successive swallow. A tennis ball stuck right there behind my breast plate right in the middle of my trachea EXCUSE ME I’M BUSY USING THAT RIGHT NOW and a lack of breath and austerity of speech that sapped the character out of my character and rendered me mute, limp and lifeless.
Fingers too apathetic to type. Lips to apathetic to move. A phone call unanswered. Another phone call unanswered. Sweats in the mid-afternoon that left me running out the office door and gasping at bitterly cold winter air for a brief cathartic moment, which turned into a hyperventilatory spin-cycle of despair and desperation. I counted minutes. I counted more minutes. I prayed for sleep to come soon. I prayed for days to pass. I prayed to wake up, unharmed, not knowing what demons lurked underneath my bed at night.
Three weeks I’ve put up with this now. This unending, perpetual motion machine of terror. This Ferris Wheel of Anti-Bliss from which there’s no jumping and no refunds. No, I don’t want to go out and grab a beer. No, I don’t feel like retweeting your pretentious wit. No, I don’t feel like commenting on that epic AFC Divisional Round game. Too tired to joke, too scared to put myself out there with any words of wisdom. Too lazy to think. Too afraid to die.
I go for a walk to clear my head. The pounding starts. The breathing stops. Exhales become tug-of-wars between my ribs and psyche. But … but … just a few weeks ago I was RUNNING, don’t you see? This was nothing! BODY, DO YOUR THING AND STOP FAILING ME RIGHT NOW! I would trudge, slowly, but even the sounds of Butch Walker and The Roots won’t take my mind off what lies beneath. And one foot in front of the other was the best I could manage when every 20 seconds left me with a new urge to curl up under the tree and stop for days.
But, “You have a wonderful heart …” said the Cardiologist, sweetly.
But, “You just have acid reflux …” said the Throat specialist.
But, “Your chest X-Ray looks great …” said the pulmonologist. Who said even for an asthmatic and former smoker I sounded great.
I breathe into my Peak Flow Meter. Yeah … I guess my lungs are fine. But, maybe it’s missing something. Emphysema. They can’t measure that on a home device. I calculate the cigarettes I’ve smoked in my life in pack years, and my age. Nope. It can’t be. I frantically call for a spirometry test.
“We don’t have any available till next week.” I can’t wait that long. I HAVE to know. How many years are left?
“Your blood pressure,” said the nurse. “Is it always this high?” All the nurses say that lately. Quite frankly it frightens me. But … but … I think back to the Cardiologist. “You have a wonderful heart!” I RAN ON A TREADMILL FOR 11 WHOLE MINUTES WHAT IF I DID IT WRONG.
“No ma’am,” I said, struggling to put forth more than a whisper. “I’m a 120/80 fella. Consistently.”
“You must just be nervous.” You’re damn right I am. All the time.
I’m nervous that my body is failing me right before my eyes. Driving feels like Frogger. I can’t see six feet in front of me. I see constellations in the daytime. I think back to that concussion I got in November and whether it triggered the same type of eternal hell from which Junior Seau never found his way out. I’m glad I don’t own a gun. I shut my computer. That’s enough WebMD for tonight.
I try to reason and bargain with family, friends and loved ones. “This feels so REAL,” I say, and they try to understand. They try to reconcile. But I can feel their faces forlornly and solemnly losing hope in real time on the other end of the World’s Most Powerful 4G network. (TM)
I think back to that part in A Beautiful Mind where Jennifer Connelly makes the trip to Russell Crowe’s drop-off point and finds nothing but empty crumpled papers in a dilapidated, unkempt pile of rubbish. I wonder if someone will ever find my dropbox. Surely, I have one, but it may all be inside my head. The Russians aren’t chasing me. But the grim reaper sure as fuck is.
I tell every doctor I see I’m scared to death. I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for this. I have no idea what I did wrong. If Karma is a bitch, am I on the receiving end of her pepper spray?
I tell them I’m too young to die. The odds of this are too rare, but the fear is all-too-real. I haven’t been able to catch a full breath in weeks. What if Carbon Dioxide is getting irreversibly trapped in my lungs? What if I am slowly but surely drowning myself by incomplete respiration? But, lo, “Your oxygen levels are perfect,” says the 4th nurse in as many days.
I look at my rapidly deteriorating body. Was that mole there before? I can’t remember. I remember waking up in a cold sweat, after an all-too-vibrant dream I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma. I’ve always had moles. But they feel different. They’re sore. They’re interfering with my life. They’re
… “perfectly fine, John! You have plenty of moles. And they’re healthy, and unique, but totally normal, and the odds of anything bad happening to you are slim to none. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. I applaud you for being proactive about your health. Most kids your age don’t even bother. But you’re great, John. Go out and enjoy it!”
And I took that charge as another step in the right direction. White blood cell count’s good. That’s a plus. Can’t be fighting an infection, damn my post-nasal drip. Must be allergies. I dropped my phone again. Too heavy to dial. Must be ALS. But what if my white blood cell count is normal because I have AIDS and I’m just riddled with tumors like bullet holes? And every damn T-Cell that’s left in my fragile body is staging their own lymphatic Alamo? What if they’re right here inside the middle of my lungs? No, that would’ve shown up on a chest X-Ray. And an ultrasound. I’ve had more organs checked for quality than the Wurlitzer Factory.
But that breathing. It all comes back to breath. I find my zen temple. They teach me to concentrate on my breath. WHAT A HORRIBLE IDEA. I hear each successive wheeze and sniffle through my nose and gasp and delay breathing in like I’m trying to blow into a SCUBA mask. Kenny G would’ve slapped me upside the head by now with a soprano sax.
I can’t get out of here fast enough. Who are these strangers? Do they know I feel like this? Do they know I might be dying? Might be sick? Might have gone mad? Is it strange that I’m clearly hoping they realize I’m only crazy and not the other way around? STOP STARING AT ME MY GOD I WANT TO LEAVE NOW.
I haven’t eaten in days. I don’t want to go to the grocery store. I can’t even stomach another bite of these vegetables. Maybe some fish. I smell the fish. What if it’s contaminated? I toss the fish. I put some hot water in a kettle. Then pour it into a mug. Just hot water. And I hold the toasty mug. And sip and let the steam lap against my face.
No, buddy, I can’t come out tonight. Too afraid. I can’t sing. I’ll lose my breath. People will find out I am sick. That I’m closer to death than I ever was even a month ago, when I was young, full of life and rocking everyone’s face off. I can’t drink. I’m deathly scared of coffee. Walking scares me. I need to escape to my couch. Football works. I’m not emotionally up for “Border Wars.”
I kiss my cat. I cry and I tell her I love her and I can’t take care of her anymore and walk out the door to the Neurologist’s office, certain to finally hear the news I’d been dreading. But she [The Neuro, not The Cat] was so polite, and sweet, and patient and loving. And she walked me through every symptom and every possible explanation. I did drills. I walked in a straight line. I gripped her fingers as hard as I could. Christ, am I failing these tests? The inflections in her voice are so reassuring.
“John,” she said ominously, “You might have a rare condition where your kidneys just spit out stress hormones all the time for no good reason. Can you please tell me if you’ve had any major life events in the last 12 months?”
“Well, I mean, I moved to Austin, lost my job for 7 months, had my car repossessed, got evicted, got effed over by some clients, started a new job, crashed in crack-dens and on couches, moved into a new place and ever since then I’ve felt my mood and my body slowly slipping away from me, and I –”
“Is there any disease you’re afraid you have?”
I gulp. That lump in my throat sticks hard. “ALS, mostly. But, all of them, really. I’m too young for this. My genes are good. I eat good food. I even quit smoking! I’ve only just begun to –”
“John. You don’t have ALS. You don’t have MS. You don’t have Myasthenia Gravis. You don’t even have Parkinson’s or any neuropathy or even post-concussion syndrome. You’re not dying. You’re not sick. But you’re stressed. And it is out of control. And it’s not your fault. And you probably could use a little more Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D in your diet. You have 50 years left. Go out and live them.
“In the meantime, here’s a psychiatrist I know who’s very, very good. She will help you. I promise. You haven’t been in this emotional state long, which means it shouldn’t take you long to get out. John, you can BEAT this. You’re strong. You’re determined. I mean, look at the lengths you’ve gone to just to make sure everything physical with you was okay! Do that with your mind, John. And rest easy. You’re gonna be great. I would bet $10M there’s nothing for you to worry about. And I only have $7M.” She winked. She smiled. That was enough for me.
I walked out of the office. Triumphant. But, just to be sure, I had one more phone call to make to a lab.
“Excuse me …”
“I had blood drawn recently and I wanted to make sure the results came back normal.”
– “Ahhh yes, of course! John, we’ve got your results.” Pause. …… Pause ….. Pause ….. “Your stomach bacteria came back negative. But, we also ran your blood for HIV.”
And I felt it all bubble up once more. An overwhelming, crippling dread that forces me to hunch over and shake.This is it. This is the root of all my body and mind’s rampant Sherman March to The Sea.
“It, too, came back negative. Have a wonderful weekend and stay warm.”
I’d love to sit here and tell you that my chest pain evaporated away that very instant like I’d be doused with Vicks. But, I’d be lying. Some two hours after that phone call, I was driving to lunch and felt a sharp sting just beneath my breastbone. And I touched it and it felt tender and sore. And I smiled.
“Costochondritis.” I said. It could only be … because I could touch it. The pain was very, very real. Of course it was. And I smiled again. Because it’s an inflammation of rib cartilage caused by overuse, chest muscle fatigue, stress, rapid changes in weather or idiopathic in nature. Feels like a heart attack. Completely and totally benign. Ibuprofen. Rest. 6-8 weeks and I’ll forget all about this.
I look back on my three weeks in my own self-created inner-hell. A time when every morning was spent gingerly shuffling around my apartment in a half-conscious haze, and every evening was spent pacing around my apartment in a half-delirious trance, and every night spent laying face-down on a pile of pillows to help me breathe easy, scared to death my life was ending before my eyes despite all the reassurance in the world.
And now I laugh. I imagined it all. And I want to hug everyone. I want to hug every medical professional, every nurse, every doctor, my Health Insurance provider, my friends, my family, my girlfriend, and everyone who felt compelled to check in or even was just kind enough to lend me a reassuring “there, there …” as I lost a hold on that elusive sense of normal that occasionally gets misplaced amongst a sea of anxiety.
It was a gloomy, cold, bitter day today in Central Texas. The type of day you’d find in Binghamton around this time of year. The kind that doesn’t get reported to the Chamber of Commerce. But that frigid wind felt calm. Reassuring.
I walked out of my car and trekked to Starbucks. I ordered a cappuccino – my first caffeinated beverage of the New Year. I sip it lovingly. I sigh. I breathe from my belly. Deep, cleansing, chest-rattling breaths. For a moment, I forget I’ve ever had asthma. I laugh. I let out a joyous exaltation.
I am invincible.
The needle was my salvation. Knowledge is power, but it is also tranquility. Or, the beginnings of it. I believe they call that wisdom.
“You know,” my neuro told me before she bid me adieu. “You might want to follow up with your Primary about that blood pressure. Just in case your stress doesn’t cause your body to calm down anytime soon.”
Of course I will. If there’s one thing I’m diligent about, apparently, it’s taking care of myself. But I won’t be worried. Because I’ve got a whole lotta life left to live and my heart’s not about to give out and I’ve dropped 25 pounds in the last 6 months and I have been eating nothing but lean meat and vegetables since the holidays.
Today, when my heart started fluttering after my warm, soothing caffeine rush, I didn’t even bat an eye, or even twitch an eyelid. Because this time, I knew what it all meant. Not that I was dying … but that I was living.
And I took another sip. Goddamn, it tasted spectacular.