Sunday, February 10, 2013
I am an addict, recovering in many ways, and in some areas of my life, I think I'm stuck with it for life. Anyone who knows me beyond my "work persona," knows I inhabit a world of extremes. I work hard, play hard, emote forcefully, and have life experiences that rarely meet the standard of "normal" or "moderate." Even my chosen profession leaves no room for time for reflection and down time - working in the cutthroat world of entertainment means being constantly coiled to pounce on the next opportunity, regardless of how people may treat me (and I've been treated in more horrible ways than should be legally allowed).
Some of my earliest memories revolve around an obsession with food. In fact, my earliest memory is from about two years old, kneeling at a counter, eating Cheerios. I first felt fat when I was four. And it's been downhill since then. At 31, I've resigned myself to the fact that I will probably always be obsessed with food. I adore cooking, watching the Food Network, dreaming up recipes, trying new and interesting foods, and generally believing that no food should EVER be off limits.
Food addiction was (I thought) my one big hurdle to overcome. I had been on some sort of diet and weight obsession since I was five, and constantly failed no matter what I tried, until at 24, facing the end of my health insurance from my parents, and desperate for ANY way out of my 360 pound prison, I turned to Cedars Sinai and gastric bypass surgery. Despite early complications with malnutrition and dehydration, I finally felt I was able to manage. It was a huge cathartic release to know that I had done something so serious and irreversible to my body that it would be the height of hypocrisy and ineptitude to regain any of my former "zaftig glory." That worked all the way down to 169 pounds.
And then I broke up with boyfriend at the time, after four and a half years, and all I had to show for it was a smoking habit, a propensity to drink too much wine, an incredibly stressful job that demanded 10+ hour days as a matter of course, and very little in the way of personal possessions. Oh well, such is life, I suppose. Food was something I still abused, despite my gastric surgery, restricting and holding myself hostage with food, constantly agonizing over portions, choices, and trying to outrun and forget every bite I put in my mouth. My smoking and drinking increased as my emotional pain climbed. I turned a blind eye to my health, ignoring the near weekly intense abdominal pains, choosing to keep working through the attacks, even going so far as to hide under my desk until they passed, and go right back to work.
For my 27th birthday, I decided to do something extreme to try to deal with my depression. It literally never occurred to me to deal with my addictions (smoking, drinking, work stress, and food), but to pile more on to my plate. I did something truly crazy - I signed up to train for a marathon. At the time, it was a way to prove to myself that I could do something I never thought I could, but to hell with the stress I was putting on my body. If I continued to walk and run fast enough, then I wouldn't have to think about my problems quite so much.
Luckily, at that moment, the universe had the grace to grant me a wish that I prayed for fervently every day on my morning job through Koreatown (despite no use for a deity of any sort before in my life). I was sent an angel. Just when I made one positive decision, in the form of giving up dating and one night stands (another addiction of choice, in a blatantly stupid attempt to feel attractive), I met a truly amazing man. This guy not only instantly became one of my best friends, but the biggest motivator and caring lover I've ever known, and he did it all simply by being himself.
It all began simply enough - after a few furious weeks of dating, he made it clear he hated smoking. Absolute deal breaker. He could not and would not seriously date a smoker. I drove home that night, smoked one last cigarette, broke the rest of the pack, and dumped it in the trash. I haven't smoked since. Addiction one down.
Marathon training turned out to be a phenomenal experience, even after I felt bitterly disappointed that I couldn't even manage to get in shape enough for the slowest running team. Embarrassed and pissed at my sagging, loose skin body, I joined the walking team, determined to see through the set back. One of the best decisions of my life! I met a woman who was affiliated with a plastic surgeon who did reconstructive surgery on gastric bypass patients and the practice was associated with the syndicated talk show The Doctors. I told her my story, and before I knew it, I received a phone call from the producers, asking if I would consider getting a full body lift as part of one of their shows. I have a strict policy of staying behind the camera, since I work in television every day of my life and have no desire to share my personal life with strangers, but...this was an opportunity to get 80k of surgery for nothing. Yup, I did it, and I'll never regret it. Even if there's a shot of five plastic surgeons doing a fist bump over my anesthetized body.
I had a great boyfriend, made it through the San Francisco marathon, and was given a once in a lifetime opportunity to "fix" my body, but life wasn't very rosy. My drinking got worse, and more often than not, I could (and would) consume up to a bottle of wine nearly every night, just trying to cope with the crushing stress and frenetic pace of my job. I was still ignoring my health, working through increasing attacks of serious abdominal pain, and staying at my desk from 8:00am to 9:00 or 10:00pm at night, before heading out for client events, potential business meet-and-greets, or other industry events. I had trouble sleeping and would mix sleep medication with alcohol, just to fall asleep for four or five hours before getting up to start again.
It's no shock that my boyfriend sat me down for a "come to Jesus" meeting. I'll never forget the day he sat me down and said, "You're one of the smartest and most beautiful people I know. But when you drink, you become sloppy and stupid. I don't want to be with that person and I'm not going to hang around to clean up after her." I truly didn't know what to do. I had long suspected that my drinking was becoming a problem, but as long as I could get to work and function everyday, it didn't seem like such a big deal. I had no idea how much my personality changed when I drank. And believe me, when you've had gastric bypass and you consume alcohol, you get stupidly drunk roughly at the speed of light, and you're dancing on the tabletops before you even realize what's happening.
But I couldn't stop. I managed to give up most alcohol over a couple of Lent seasons, but I would cheat every time my boyfriend took off for a job (he was a freelance cameraman) and I could hide it from him. Whenever insomnia would hit, I'd drink wine, do shots, and cook through the night, not really comprehending how bad this was getting. I was still going to work every day, making deals, putting in twelve hour days, and somehow managing to convince my coworkers that I was on top of it. Looking back, I think the only reason no one really figured out how badly I was hurting was because I went to great lengths to hide my private life from absolutely everyone and everything. No one was ever given any information I didn't want them to have. I would carefully edit and retell my life story so that it would fit an image that was acceptable to the community. I never lied, but I omitted huge parts of the truth.
It's amazing that my body held on as long as it did, but in the fall of 2009, it had had enough. I was at a new job and it was going very badly. Despite even longer, fourteen hour days, I couldn't keep up with my workload for a truly crazy and narcissistic boss. Every day I wanted to quit, but I refused to show weakness. I started hitting Xanax every day just to get myself to work, and would often come home to cry and drink until I passed out from exhaustion. One night, I mixed drinking and frying lumpia (NEVER a good decision). I went to pour the hot oil into a jar, slipped and splashed it onto my hand instead. It happened so fast that I didn't even comprehend the horrifying reality of burning my hand that severely. I sustained second and third degree burns over my entire left hand, and missed two weeks of work. When I came back from my injury, I was immediately fired. What could I do? I went home and drank myself into a stupor.
Fired. I had never been fired before. I definitely had trouble holding a job and dealing with my depression and crippling anxiety, but I somehow always managed to move onto a job ahead of any serious repercussions (although the short stints on my resume really started to look bad. It took a gargantuan amount of will power and discipline to stick in a job for more than a year). I had never felt worse or more useless in my life. Plus my weight had crept back up to 190, just 10 pounds from that dreaded 200 mark that I SWORE I would never hit again.
So when my body collapsed, I could only thank God that I WAS unemployed and was forced to take the time to take care of myself (whether I liked it or not). As a result of having so much trouble dealing with my last boss and from continued support of my boyfriend, I decided to join RCIA and become Catholic. Although my mom will never believe I did it for myself and not because of him, it's still one of the best decisions I ever made. I finally found some structure to help deal with the emotional pain in my life, if not the physical pain. That had to be dealt with, with surgery. Two surgeries in as many months, in fact - an appendectomy, and then a seriously scary emergency hernia repair to shove eight feet of displaced small intestine back into the right side of my abdomen and suture a hole the size of a dinner plate. But it was worth it: both surgeries were done laproscopically and FINALLY I was free of abdominal pain.
I attacked 2010 with renewed determination to get another job and get my life under control. My eating was always hit and miss (I have never had a good portion size barometer and more often than not turned a blind eye to my choice of "fit or fat" foods), but I joined Weight Watchers, and at the end of January, I got myself hired onto a big-budget television pilot for NBC.
The pilot was an AMAZING experience; there is nothing like the rush of driving onto a studio lot every day, being challenged to obtain the strangest information with the barest of resources, working on crafting a piece of material that (at best and gambling gods willing), the entire country will see. The days were insanely long, often being in the production office or set sixteen to eighteen hours a day, but I was having the time of my life. My worst problems were dealing with crafty and catering (the sheer amount and deliciousness of food provided on a major union set is unparalleled), and dealing with the insane pressure cooker of stress that goes into production. My drinking wasn't great, but I had managed to have less days when I consumed a bottle or more of wine and/or hard liquor - another bout of Lent and my continued RCIA study helped as well.
In April, my worst fear was realized: my crippling abdominal pain came back, but I had no time to pay attention to it. I had Easter vigil to get through, when I would finally receive my baptism, communion, and confirmation. We were in post production by then, and I was reading a dozen scripts a day, evaluating writers to potentially come on to our staff, and angling to get into the writer's room myself. As usual, I ignored it, didn't show my pain to anyone but my boyfriend, and tried to restrict my food as much as possible, in an attempt to stifle the possibility of a serious attack.
It all worked for a little bit, but as the stress of major network politics set in and I had to fight to even keep my job from week to week, along with dealing with a new boss who viewed me with disgust and contempt for being a female writer, and an overweight one at that, my emotional and physical state once again began to crumble. I started having pain attacks nearly every day, and I would often spend hours crying and moaning in bed, not understanding why I felt so terrible or how to deal with the mind blowing pain.
That brings us up to June 16, 2010. I had finally broken down and scheduled a doctor's appointment and CT scan for the following week, despite the fact that I was going to be docked pay and faced the ire of my new boss, and was relieved to have a day at work without twelve writers to take care of. I could relax with my other coworkers, do my research in peace, and generally enjoy an eye of calm in the storm of production. Then the pain hit, AGAIN. I tried to hide it from my coworkers, but by 4:30 and more than three hours of continuous pain, I couldn't take it any more. No one knew about my condition and I wasn't about to confess weakness to anyone. I casually told the line producer that I was sick and thought I had the flu, that I was going to leave early to rest, and I would see everyone the next day. With a call to feel better and watching the elevator doors close, it's the last clear memory I had for the next eight weeks.
I remember arriving home, but not knowing how I got there. My pain just seemed to increase with every passing minute. My boyfriend was worn out and fed up with my problem; all he wanted to do was go to the Chicago concert he had gotten tickets for eight months before. I told him to take a friend; there was no way I could go. He made arrangements to have some friends check in on me and was halfway out the door when I collapsed and screamed at hit to call an ambulance. After that there are just a lot of confusing, frightening, and pretty gross images before everything just went black for God knows how long.
I came to in an ICU, with absolutely no idea of what had happened or how ill I was. One of the first things I remember was how strange it felt to be on a respirator and how frightening to know that I literally could not remember how to breathe on my own. The next memory I have is my boyfriend filling my vision and proposing to me. I wrote yes. Then my family and doctors told me what happened: I had a strangulated hernia and some five feet of small intestine had twisted around itself, choking off oxygen and blood supply, causing the tissue to die inside my body. The resulting poison from the necrotic tissue through my kidneys and liver into failure, and I began to bleed out inside my abdominal wall. I had already been through two emergency surgeries, lost three pints of blood, and had to be resuscitated twice on the operating table. And that wasn't the worst part - my body was still continuing to fail and I had to make a decision: attempt a radical surgery to completely remove my small intestine, be hooked up to a machine and wait for a donor, which would give me a 3% chance of survival, or die. That was it: a 3% chance of living or death. No in between, no third option. What could I do? I had never gone done without a fight in my entire life; I wasn't about to start then. 3% was still a chance. I opted for the surgery.
The morning of the surgery, there was a very loud and nearly physical fight between the surgeons and the anesthesiologist right as I was to be wheeled to the OR. The anesthesiologist literally stood in the door of my room and would not let them take me, as he was convinced that there was not enough blood banked to get me through the surgery. I'm a rare blood type (A-) and the nearest bank that carried it was in San Diego, more than two hours away. With a doctor refusing to do the surgery, and no other anesthesiologist available, the surgeons had no other choice but to wait for a driver to collect the blood in San Diego and return to Los Angeles. In the six hours he was gone, a miracle occurred: I stabilized. I still don't know how, and none of the doctors have a medical explanation for it, but I stabilized. Even through a transfer to a larger hospital, nine weeks of ICU care, another surgery, and countless tests, I continued to stabilize and improve, eventually teaching myself how to sit, stand, and walk again. I spent nearly three months in the hospital, but was finally released, and I went home to recuperate and plan my wedding.
I wasn't home for a month when more complications set in. I started to have raging fevers, my temperature going as high as 104 before crashing down to 96 in the space of three or four hours, over and over again, 24 hours a day. I began to have trouble breathing, eating even the tiniest amounts of food would cause me to throw up, and my weight sank down to 134 like a stone. I was rushed back to the ER for another bout of blackness and a frightening wake up in the ER. This time the diagnosis was almost as bad: endocarditis. There was vegetation over my fourth heart valve and it was poisoning my entire blood supply. Once they stabilized my fevers, I would be facing another surgery: this time open heart, to remove the valve with the vegetation.
My fiance was beyond his breaking point by then. My sweet, laidback, cool and collected man blew his top at the surgeons, asking just how much I was expected to endure before all these surgeries irrevocably compromised my quality of life. I had already spent most of the previous month in a wheelchair, slept nearly 18 hours a day, and could not make it more than 3 hours without copious amounts of painkillers and powerful medications to keep my body stable. Once again, I was reminded of how lucky I was to have this man in my life. He protected me from another serious surgery; stubbornly insisting that they continue to try to stabilize my fever and only do the surgery as a last resort.
That lasted for about two weeks before the surgeons had to tell him that they had done everything they could and we were once again facing a life or death decision. They wanted to get my temperature under 101, then they were taking me to the OR, whether we wanted it or not.
And once again, we were graced by a miracle. A mere four hours before my surgery was set to begin, my fever broke and once again my body stabilized. It was touch and go for the next handful of days, but I avoided open heart surgery. I still have vegetation on my fourth heart valve, but it's sterile and it's where it belongs, in MY body. It was another three months in the hospital, including a month on a rehab ward, learning to take care of myself and walk more than 50 feet again, but I finally made it out of there.
Life hasn't been easy since then. It's now been two and half years of recovery, and there have been a good half dozen more hospital stays and two more surgeries to further repair and correct problems in my system. I suffer from PTSD, but that enabled me to find a therapist that has been instrumental in my recovery, additionally for addiction and my depression and severe anxiety. I had to see myself through a serious chronic pain disorder that required countless outpatient procedures and an even more serious addiction to opiates and muscle relaxants to kick (that's a whole other post by itself). My finances and credit are beyond ruined and it will take many years to get that under control, but I have my life and I have my love.
By far the brightest spots in this whole journey are a WHOLE new understanding of gratitude and approaching every obstacle with love and humor, my unshakable faith in God, and being married to the best man in the world, my angel, the person who stuck to my side even when confronted with the very worst parts of me. I haven't had a drink since that fateful night and I've kicked my pill addiction. My health is arguably better than it was before this whole mess began, and my team of doctors and surgeons are still astounded by my recovery. So am I.
If there's one thing I've learned through my addicted life, through the huge highs and the low lows, it's that every moment gives us an opportunity to make a choice. Exercise or sit, work or lounge, eat crap or eat well, live or die. Every moment is an opportunity to make it better. Every choice can become a new and healthy addiction.
So let's get on with the good choices.