Plumbing the Depths of Despair: A Christmas Story

11036419_983825525009163_9214948248004658624_nOn the eve of my 41st birthday, I had many reasons to be merry about my first year as a mid-lifer. My family was healthy, business was booming, and Christmas was right around the corner. I guess you can say I was happier than Ralphie Parker and his carbine-action, 200-shot range model air rifle.

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

Shortly after my 41st birthday, without cause or provocation, my ass started talking to me. Nothing odorous or vile, just these little baby-talk gurgles that spurted out of me every time I so much as sniffed food. There was no way to control it or explain it. Whether a Tic Tac or a taco, my ass would break into staccato.

Then came mid-October. My appetite was writing checks that my colon couldn’t cash, and the ass-gurgles graduated to full-blown movie quotes:

  • When I ate something spicy: “Say hello to my little frrrrrriend!”
  • When I’d reach for some produce: “You can’t handle the [fruit]!!!
  • If I dared to dream of fried food: “If you [eat] it….[shit] will come.”

Now I’ve spent the better part of my professional life as a medical writer. I know that, unless you’re a pet detective, a talking ass shouldn’t be taken lightly. Here’s the problem, though. I may have enough medical knowledge to diagnose a fart before it comes out of someone else’s ass. But when the medical writer becomes the medical subject, I cling to my own hypocritical oath. Meaning I don’t practice what I preach. I hide behind my MD (medical denial).

“I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed.”

By mid-November, I was still in denial and a whole lot of pain. Far too proud (scared) to visit the doctor, I self-diagnosed myself with a disease called bull shit. It’s a rare condition where the food you eat runs through the corridors of your colon like the bulls of Pamplona. The bathroom breaks were so frequent, I began to measure my ass-weary misery in medicated wipes. I “worked in (medicated wipes) the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was (my) true medium. A master.”

By Thanksgiving, my colon sounded like the demon child of Danny Torrance. I’ll never forget the horror of seeing blood in the toilet or hearing the chants of “Red rum! Red rum!” as I flushed.

“It was all over. I was dead. What would it be? The guillotine? Hanging? The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture? Hmmph. Mere child’s play compared to what surely awaited me.”

Eating anything became far too great of a price to pay. So I boycotted my all-time favorite meal, Thanksgiving leftovers. “No turkey sandwiches! No turkey salad! No turkey gravy! Turkey Hash! Turkey a la King! Or gallons of turkey soup! Gone”. 

By Christmas Eve, my brain-gutt connection was completely disconnected. I was crapping out food that I hadn’t even eaten yet. I had dropped at least 10 pounds, and my body fat consisted only of my hemorrhoids. At dinnertime on Christmas day, I sat alone on my couch and sulked. My bottom, as I concluded, had finally reached bottom. And the next morning, my wife made the call that I should have made 3 months earlier. I visited the gastro-enter-my-ass-agist and….

…. “Ohhhhh…..fuuuuuuudge……

….he scheduled me for a colonoscopy. He also gave me instructions for a type of cleansing called bowel prep. Don’t let theImage B_SUPREPKit_About_SUPREP_sm name fool you. Bowel prep isn’t like SAT prep. It’s not a dry run to help you get a better test score. Bowel prep is Chinese water torture mixed with a grape-flavored nuclear warhead. My bowel prep instructions were quite explicit: “drink 48 ounces and then let Linda Blair possess your ass for 5 hours.”

I won’t pretend to know what natural childbirth feels like. I can, however, describe what it feels like to carry a 48 oz water balloon to term. I never felt a contraction, it was an eruption. I hopped off the couch, unbuckled my pants with one hand, corked my ass shut with the other, and pogo-sticked my way into the bathroom. [Insert image of my 3 supportive children laughing their asses off]. I made it to the bathroom, popped the cork, frantically dropped trough, and finally dumped a polka-dotted potpourri of prep on my bathroom tiles.

“Oh my God! I shot my [ass] out!”

But the cleansing was all worth it. By the next morning, I was wheeled into the exam room where Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb serenaded me into the most relaxing snooze I’d had in months. When I awoke, the true music to my ears was that the gurgling, the pain, the blood, and the express lane from my mouth to my ass finally had a name: Ulcerative colitis. It’s kind of a scary disease. There’s no known cause. It’s chronic, you treat it, and hope it goes away for a long time. But not before you endure one final assault on whatever dignity your derrière has left.

My doctor handed me 2 prescriptions that day:

  • Prescription 1: A 28-day course of steroids, administered orally.
  • Prescription 2: A 28-day course of mesalamine, administered rectally (in medical terms, this means you stick it up your ass)

photoFortunately, the manufacturers of mesalamine included this handy dandy diagram that offers 2 positions for administering the medicine. What they don’t include are instructions for growing the orangutan arm required to administer it.

Following the directions closely, I assumed the anal rape position. “Insert the applicator slowly to avoid puncturing your rectum” lent comfort as did the feeling of 60 mL of yogurt traveling up my colon. Thanks to what I assume to be the anal sphincter’s natural catch-and-release defense mechanism, the first 60 mL bottle only managed to medicate my bed sheets. The second bottle gave me bed shits. But the third bottle made itself at home. I “remain[ed] in the position for 30 minutes to allow thorough distribution of the medication internally.” And gradually, I drifted off to sleep.

Today, I am one week shy of completing my therapy. I am finally eating again, and I haven’t heard a word from my ass in weeks. More than anything, I am so ready to put ulcerative colitis, and the past 3 months of hell (fueled by denial), behind me.

If there’s any lesson to learn from my painful experience, it’s that we all know our bodies and we have to trust our gutt when it tells us something is wrong. The other is that the brain-gutt connection is a two-way street. Just as anxiety and stress can wreak havoc on your digestive system…so too can digestive problems take their toll on your psyche. As I’ve been reminded, I was miserable to be around. And with each miserable day, I withdrew more while gradually accepting each new low as my new normal. Resigned to just living with my symptoms, I was too depressed to see that I was hardly living at all.

I regret that I spent the first 3 months of 41 with my head up my ass, and my ass on the toilet. Which is why, I guess, sharing my “Christmas Story” feels surprisingly cathartic. But I’ll stop short of calling it a cleansing.

Mesalamine-Box_and_bottle“Next to me in the blackness lay my [60 mL bottle of mesalamine]. The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive. Gradually, I drifted off to sleep…”

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Buddy Hinton’s Guide to Bullying

553923_416617291729992_787666550_n“Baby talk, baby talk, it’s a wonder you can walk.”
Buddy Hinton

If life were a sitcom, our worst fears and biggest problems would be introduced, pondered over, and resolved within 24 minutes. When “calm, cool, reasoning” failed to deter a bully, we’d face our tormentor head-on and he’d never rear his ugly mug again…unless his sitcom got picked up for syndication.

When I was growing up, endless repeats made Buddy Hinton the poster child for the schoolyard bully. You remember that episode, right? “It’s the story…of a lovely lady…” who comes home in tears after Buddy Hinton picks on “the youngest one in curls.” Peter tries admirably to defend his sister Cindy—the lisping Goldilocks—but he doesn’t get porridge for his efforts…just a black eye. So Mr. Brady decides that Peter must learn to defend himself. Peter does…and he knocks Buddy’s “tooth looth”…and all is right in Brady Land (until it’s time for Peter’s voice to change).

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While I was never bullied growing up, I was definitely an easy target for teasing (proof: I wore Bugle Boy kaki suspender pants jacked up to my nipples on the first day of school. Not pre-school, HIGH SCHOOL)! So yes, I had my awkward, slow-to-reach-puberty teen years. And as my brother likes to remind me, I had more ticks than Lewis Morris Park. There was my “ostrich-neck” twitch, which is hard to explain and nearly impossible to watch. With whip-like force, I would lunge my neck as far as it could go from left to right. Imagine watching a mental patient trying to eat French fries off his shoulder and you’ll have a pretty clear picture. There was also my “porno grunting” habit, which began innocently as I would try to clear my throat perpetually with a “Ha-um”. Until eventually, my “Ha-um, Ha-uh-um” slowly transformed into a one-man symphony’s rendition of “Orgasm in C Minor.”

The point is, I endured my fair share of weirdness and loneliness growing up. But while this made me an easy target for bullying, I was never targeted. Was I prepared to fight a bully? Probably. Was I prepared to take flight from a bully? Maybe. But what I can’t imagine are feelings of loneliness and shame that bruise so deeply that a teen would choose suicide over subjecting him or herself to another day of merciless taunts. This is how far bullying has come since the days of Buddy Hinton telling Peter Brady to “cackle like a chicken.”

In today’s society, bullying extends outside the school bus and beyond the schoolyard. The bruises inflicted by today’s Buddy Hinton don’t heal from a slab of meat that Alice stole from Sam the butcher. The punches are often viral…thrown from a mobile device…and forwarded by others. The bruises are more often psychological than physical….and the damage often goes unnoticed until the victims finally make us notice.

In the troubling documentary, “Bully” (available on Netflix), we follow a group of teens and tweens who face constant bullying in the form of physical and verbal abuse. We meet Kelby, an out-and-proud 16-year-old who faces homophobia from students and teachers on a daily basis. We meet Alex, a 12-year-old whose daily routine includes humiliation and assault on the school bus (or whatever you call being stabbed with pencils repeatedly). Alex can’t bear to tell his parents about the abuse, and I couldn’t bear to sit by and watch grieving parents whose sons chose flight…in the form of suicide.

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Yes, the film only states the obvious: feelings of loneliness are one of the most painful consequences of bullying. But what the film doesn’t say is that loneliness is often the cause of bullying. And it’s not only the socially isolated who are targeted—for every “new kid”, “fat kid”, “gay kid”, and “basket case”…there’s the perfectly ordinary kid who’s bullied for reasons only his or her tormentors know. Maybe it’s jealousy fueled by the tormentor’s own insecurities. Whatever the case may be, the bully virus doesn’t discriminate. And today, it takes more than a stiff right hook and a cup-o-chicken-soup to cure the virus.

Today, any twit can tweet, text, or post a comment that acts like a weapon of mass social destruction for an unsuspecting kid. But for reasons never explored in “Bully”, and for reasons I’ve never understood, why do we as a society fail to embrace—or simply protect—the most isolated and vulnerable kids? How do we as parents monitor bullying when the opportunities to bully extend way beyond the few times that our kids are unsupervised at school (cafeteria, recess, school bus)? Is it as simple as reminding our children that being an “innocent” bystander to bullying is in fact part of the disease?

“Bully” doesn’t offer any answers to these questions. It only offers the testimony of brave youths and heartbroken parents who still search in vein for answers. I highly recommend that you seek out “Bully” and encourage your kids to do the same. It’s time that we encourage our kids to stop being indifferent to bullying…and to make a difference—to stand up against bullying instead of standing by.

In my lifetime, I’ve known a teen and a teacher who committed suicide. I can’t be sure that bullying was the cause. But I sensed their loneliness, I assumed they were struggling, and I failed to act. Today I live with the regret of knowing that maybe all it would have taken were a few simple words of encouragement. Not from a family member whose love is unconditional…but from peers whose respect every teen yearns to earn. Maybe all it takes is a simple nonverbal cue. A wink or a smile that says “Hang in there….I’ve been there too.”

Because, let’s be honest, haven’t we all?

To learn more about the movie “Bully” and The Bully Project, visit www.thebullyproject.com.

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