Recently a good friend of mine was in the hospital for some gall bladder issue at the same time that another friend was suffering from kidney stones and a work colleague was talking about a hip replacement. A hip replacement?! I feel like someone threw me into a time machine against my will and jettisoned me into the future. A future I'm not all that crazy about being in.
Am I really having these conversations? About knees and hips and joint replacement? Am I at that age where it's considered okay to talk about a colonoscopy gone wrong at dinner? Is this what has been waiting for me all this time? Disturbingly, it would appear so.
All this recent talk about medical procedures makes me think back to the days when I was drinking and using drugs. When I was actively alcoholic I was also harboring another addiction, an eating disorder. I gave myself a daily caloric intake (including booze) which meant that basically I could not eat very much. For example, if I was starving at dinner and really should have had a nice balanced meal I would substitute a few Guinness stouts for the protein and carbs. I told myself that a few Guinnesses were probably better for me than a big heavy meal anyway. So I'd have a few of those thick dark "nutrient rich" beers and maybe some cottage cheese or a banana. Then, if I was still hungry, I'd have a few glasses of wine and maybe a small piece of chocolate. It was very constricting and quite grim.
Another way that I found to keep my slim figure while drinking alcoholically (this is no easy feat people!) was by packing my gums with cocaine, a surefire appetite suppressant. At the end of my drinking days I would use cocaine like chewing tobacco, packing it between my gums and cheek. I did this for 2 reasons. I had become "afraid" to snort cocaine after a while as I'd heard (and even seen) horror stories about coke addicts and their collapsing noses - so my vanity saved me there. I also employed cocaine in this manner as it seemed to make the paltry amounts that I could afford at the time last longer. Needless to say, living on a diet of booze and my ingenious (for I thought it was at the time) gingiva cocaine drip did cause me some intense stomach pains. Eventually I could take the discomfort no longer and I made an appointment with a specialist, a gastroenterologist on Park Avenue. At the intake this esteemed and pricey doctor asked me if I had any idea what could be causing these pains. "No" I said, all wide eyes and innocence, "I have no idea". So he asked me about my diet, and I lied. And he asked me about my smoking and drinking habits and I lied. And then he asked me if I ever did and drugs and I lied again. "Ok. great. Let’s take a look and see what’s going on" the doctor said, leaving the room and asking me to change. And as I sat there in that paper robe, in that fluorescently lit and freezing cold office I had a brief moment of clarity. "This is absurd" I thought to myself. Here I was paying an out-of-network fancy pants Park Avenue doctor money I could ill afford and I'm feeding him a load of crap. It dawned on me, sitting there in my goose-pimpled misery, that the whole charade of even coming to see this guy was a complete waste of precious time and money.
Eventually the doctor and the nurse came in and did the checkup, palpating my abdomen and making me go through a series of twists and abdominal exercises. And it hurt when he palpated my stomach and it hurt when I did the twists, but I didn't tell him that. Why would I? I knew what was wrong with me. I knew what was causing that pain. But until I was going to come clean, and that was still several years off, there was no reason to have come to this doctor anyway. None at all. So I lied and said I was fine as he poked and prodded away and then he told me to get a CT scan which I agreed to do all while knowing that I would never have that scan. There was no reason to.
Until, that is, until about 7 months later when the stomach pains became unbearable. Of course I was still on my usual cocaine drip and booze diet but maybe that wasn't the problem, maybe it was something else. Maybe this had nothing at all to do with my drug and alcohol abuse. Maybe I had cancer!
And so I scheduled the CT scan. It was going to be a full torso scan so they could figure out what the hell was going on. They were going to look at "all the usual suspects" I was told, the stomach, the liver, the kidneys, etc. Since by this time I was also having heart palpitations the gastro set me up with a cardiologist to get some images of that organ too.
First up was the cardiologist. They ran some tests and did some scans and an EKG and about a week later the good doctor called me back to his office. When I arrived he closed the door, asked me to sit, and started with this casual opener "Do you know that you have a hole in your heart?" I was shocked. "No! What are you talking about?" I asked, leaning far forward, trying to decipher the chicken scratch on the files in his hands and beginning to well up with tears. "Do you even have the right scans?" I barked aggressively. "Are you with the wrong patient?” The doctor confirmed that yes, I was the correct patient and then he showed me EKGs and photos and scans of my heart and spoke complete gobbledy-gook for about 4 minutes straight. I couldn't understand a word he said so I asked him straight out. "Am I going to die?" "Yes" he said, suddenly quite serious. "Yes, you are going to die. We all are one day." And then he burst out laughing, thrilled at his own stupid doctor humor, and told me I'd be just fine. My heart was A-OK. I was probably born with this condition, the hole in the heart thing. He assured me that it was no big deal. “In fact” he said, using this memorably odd metaphor "if you were to give me a gigantic people-sized fishing net and I were to go outside and scoop up 25 people off the street, one of them would most likely have the same condition that you do. You'll be fine.”
Next up was getting to the bottom of the stomach pains. I had the CT scan of my abdomen and when the imaging was ready I was called in for the results. I sat in the gloomy office waiting for the doctor who finally arrived carrying a large envelope full of films. "Tell me about the accident" he said bluntly, slapping the scans down on his desk. "What accident?" I asked "Oh, a car accident maybe?" "I've never been in a car accident” I told him (not that I can remember anyway, I thought to myself bleakly). “That's very interesting" he said, in that weird flat non-committal way that medical professionals must be taught in medical school. "You have quite a bit of scar tissue on your liver. In fact, you have a lesioned liver. But these are old scars, with scar tissue that has built up over time."
And I was thrilled. I may have even chuckled out loud. I was so relieved. "See?" I crowed internally. "That lesioned liver of mine has nothing to do with my drinking! Nothing at all. It's an old injury, probably from before I even started drinking."
"But there's more" he said gravely. "Oh, there is?" I asked, still smiling. "You also have a blistered kidney. See this?" he asked, pointing to a small blob on a bigger blob on the CT scan. "That is the blister on your kidney. Your right kidney."
As if it mattered to me which kidney was "blistered". Blistered kidney, lesioned liver, hole in my heart, who cares? I thought. As long as I can keep drinking and using I'll be fine.
So, as a consequence of all these tests, the doctors had discovered quite a few internal "abnormalities”. But because none of them said that these internal anomalies may have been a result of drug and alcohol abuse (why would they ever think that, as I had described to them all a healthy and balanced, moderate lifestyle) I concluded that I was most likely born with all three conditions and that was that. Marcus Welby and his ilk be damned.
Eventually I got sober and I finally did the full work-up with a whole host of doctors. And I checked out pretty healthy, considering. And that holey heart and lesioned liver and blistered kidney? They're all still there and they all look exactly the same as they did 25 years ago when I was still drinking. The same as when they were first discovered. So maybe I was right. Maybe I was born with all three and I just got plain old lucky that my years of debauchery had cost me my mental well-being but not my physical health.
I know I should look at all this encroaching decrepitude as a blessing. "I'm so grateful; I have friends who have lived so long they need new knees. I'll need new knees one day too! Isn't that beautiful?" I'm not quite there yet but lately something is changing. I'm trying to take care of myself. Not as well as I should, I'll admit, but well enough. I drink water now for God’s sake!
And if all else fails I can always remember the wise words of my mother. When I told her that I was going to be having scans of my torso done every other year, to make sure the lesions and the blisters and the holes haven't changed shape or gone rogue over that time she said "All that imaging sounds stupid. A complete waste of time and money. What you don't know about your innards can't hurt you. Just don't think about it" she advised. "Organs, schmorgans."
And I have to agree with her there. Organs schmorgans indeed.