Growing up I wanted to be just like my dad. He was big, strong, athletic, one hundred percent cantankerous in a way that he didn’t lose charm, but most importantly he was a man’s man. Full of grit, tough as nails, whatever cliché you can think of that equates to punching life in the face when it gets hard, that was my dad. I started mimicking his traits early, especially through sports. I was never the biggest, strongest, fastest, but I had plenty of screws loose and I loved sacrificing my body to make a play. Injuries and the sight of blood were almost like badges of honor, it let me know I was doing everything I possibly could to play and compete to the best of my ability. Unfortunately this carried over into my mentality and overall health, which would end up being the most valuable lesson I’ve learned as an adult. I’ve never wanted to be anything more than the person that can take the most punishment and continue to move forward, but this time I might have let my ego steer the ship a little more than it should be allowed to.
For one solid week, I would consider myself lucky if on any of those seven nights I got just one hour of sleep. The pain in my back would slowly roll in as the sun went down and continue to grow with what felt like every beat of my heart. I could feel the blood pumping into back, thud-thud…thud-thud…A few months prior to this very moment I had a kidney biopsy revealing what’s called “Berger’s Disease”. It’s an autoimmune disorder that essentially clogs your kidneys when you become sick from a common cold to the flu and everything between. When I had the biopsy done, I prided myself on the fact that I did it without the use of painkillers or drugs. Partially because I am afraid of drugs, but mostly because I believed it would serve as a test to see where my pain threshold was and present another opportunity to display toughness. With the biopsy I won, I beat the pain; but this week long battle with agony had my number, I had no idea how bad it would actually get.
The first sign of things going south with my body was urinating. Every time I would go to the bathroom to void my bladder it would produce nothing but blood. The toilet would fill and my knees would become weak, the sight alone was enough to make me a little anxious. I had seen this before with my previous episodes, but for some reason I could tell this time was different. It lasted too long and no matter how much fluid I tried to choke down, I just couldn’t get the pain or blood to go away. Second came my inability to sleep. The pain for some reason seemed nocturnal, it would rear its ugly head just as I would lay mine to rest. There was no comfortable position, or way to avoid what felt like someone twisting knives into the flanks of my back. Finally came my inability to eat. I would later learn that the reason I couldn’t keep anything down and that I lost my appetite was because my kidneys were so swollen they were pushing on my other organs, making it pretty terrible to put things inside my stomach. This was my first week of a month being sick and for some reason I “knew” I could tough it out, I “knew” it was going to be “fine”.
I was pretty miserable sitting in my room and exhausting my “Netflix” and “Amazon Prime” accounts. I had watched everything I could ever want to and I honestly had no energy to do anything else. I figured at least going to someone’s house and doing the exact same thing with a friend in the room would make me feel better. There was a fight card that Saturday. As tradition is written, I headed to my friend Garin’s house to watch the bloodshed and nerd-out on fighting for the entire four hours of carnage. My visit fell flat; I was worn out, in pain, and just the worst company ever. I was in too much pain to drive home so Joey and Garin rolled out the air mattress and the pursuit for an ounce of rest began. It was ill fated and around two thirty Sunday morning when I decided to use the restroom, the pain brought me to my knees. I knew I’d lost the battle, it was time to go to the hospital.
Garin and Joey drove me to the hospital no questions asked, total badasses. Upon my arrival the doctors ran some tests and handed me some pain meds. Sleep at last graced me with its presence. The doc walked in and said a bunch of doctor things, but what stuck out was “your Creatinine level is at 7.8 so you will be admitted and see a specialist when they arrive”. Based on previous knowledge I knew that kidney failure roughly starts when your Creatinine is at 2.0 so I was worried, but yet again I “knew” that everything was going to be “fine”. A call to my parents had them promptly at the hospital inside the time frame of a couple hours. I was happy surrounded by people that cared about me, but admittedly it made me feel weak. I was extremely disappointed in myself for relying so heavily on other people, for rides, support, whatever. This was the first blow to my ego of tough. I couldn’t do this on my own and that made me feel beyond pathetic.
The morning finally came and so did the doctors. It’s amazing to watch how a hospital changes in the matter of ten minutes. It’s almost like watching a play, once the curtain is up, the show is on and it doesn’t stop. I just happened to be a part of the script that day. The doc walked in pretty swiftly and delivered about three rapid body shots “You have stage five acute kidney failure, they aren’t doing anything”, “what will most likely happen during your stay here is the removal of your kidneys”, and “You’ll need dialysis, is your home big enough to fit a dialysis machine in it?” I felt completely fucked. I think for most people they would have rolled with this punch more gracefully than myself. I instantly freaked out and choked back the tears. It by no means was a death sentence, but if this was the course of action my nights spent training, my weekends hiking and being active would be on hiatus for a very long time, at least until I got a new kidney.
In my younger years I came to the realization that I am an addict, it was a tough lesson and process, but I learned from it and I have managed it successfully ever since. The only thing I have found that works for me and keeps me level is actually giving in to addiction; but making sure the addiction is with something healthy. Training in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Boxing have become those addictions over the last couple years, they keep my mentality steady. So to have the doc tell me that my outlets for anxiety, depression, and basically all my struggles would be on a long leave of absence, I had incredible concerns for how tough I would continue to be. How tough I wanted to be. Without my ability to train, play sports with my friends, feel exhausted after abusing my body physically for a few hours, I just wouldn’t want to live. Like I said, it wasn’t a death sentence, but it felt like one.
Both luckily and unluckily we live in a time where drugs are just flat out insane. Doc laid down the facts “we do have one final option here, we can pump you full of a concentrated steroidal called prednisone that will make you immunosuppressive and hopefully unclog your kidneys.” I didn’t know what it meant, how long it would take, I just heard him say there was another option that didn’t involve turning me into Wooly Willy, so in four words I sealed my fate “light me up doc”. Out came this small harmless looking bag of liquid, slipped it into the IV and away we went. Everyone reacts differently to this drug I am told, but my reaction was straight wired. Hit me almost instantly, I felt like I drank a pot of coffee and the feeling wouldn’t let up until about four in the morning the next day. Then at seven in the morning we start all over again with a new bag. I was awake all hours and I hated it, but I bet you can’t name an infomercial I haven’t seen.
Altogether I was in a hospital bed for five long days. On day two we knew the drugs were working. I got up to shower, but that was about the only physical thing I could do. I did some squats and stretches on day three and thought I was going to hit the deck face first. I was rapidly losing my fitness level and I just felt all the pressure of “what happens after the hospital?” It was looming and it had time to bang my head like a nail with the hammer being twenty straight hours awake, everyday with nothing else to focus on. Would I train again? When could I? To my full ability? Will I get to keep my kidneys for the rest of my life? What if this happens again? Is this manageable? The list of questions goes on until you finally realize nobody can answer them. There’s no playbook for getting sick and having your body shut down, it just happens and then you have to find out what works. That’s when I realized I am not tough at all.
My parents came to the hospital every day. Every. Day. They didn’t miss a beat. They asked questions, got involved, got in the docs face, the whole nine. Even though I didn’t really want them there, they were still there. They knew I needed them even though I was to “tough” to admit it. Just like my parents, so many people reached out, came to visit, sent me things. It wasn’t really until after the whole ordeal I realized that love was keeping me moving. It was like I had cracks in my mentality and all these people arrived to help patch it up.
Mom and Dad: Literally everything under the sun they could do to make things easy for me. Be there, talk to me, grocery shopping, love, etc.
Baby Sis: Always there, always checking in, telling me when I’m being an asshole and when it’s ok to be upset.
Garin and Joey: Drove me to the hospital, visited me, gave me rides after, care packages, food, pure love.
Nate and Yelena: Love, errands, reigniting my passion for comics and books, making my home a place of comfort, letting me be the grump that I am, yelling my name to make sure I’m alive in my bedroom.
Daniel and Jae: Hospital visit, brought magazines and every ounce of their Koreaness to cheer me up if only for a couple hours. Workouts after the hospital to get me back on my feet.
Lauren: Continued support throughout the whole ordeal from start to finish, good days and bad days, didn’t even flinch. Total Wonderwoman.
Chad, Marcus, and Doddy: Visits, check ins, dad jokes, being dads, dinners telling me how shitty and great I am at the same time, video games, vegan cupcakes. All offered kidneys if a match.
Nick: My brother, my confidant, with me every step of the way, had me over for three straight days while I recovered and cooked every meal. Baller. Offered kidney if a match.
Jake: Another brother, always supportive, rides, dinners, get me back on my feet, kicked my tired butt at basketball to help me feel normal, can’t beat him when I’m healthy. Offered kidney if a match.
Andy: Another brother, always supportive, voice mails, texts, and calls, anything I needed, kicked my tired butt at soccer to help feel normal, and can’t beat him when I’m healthy. Offered kidney if a match.
Belcher’s: Massive amounts of love, dinners, family time, check ins, rides, golf.
Fogels: Massive amounts of love, dinners, family time, check ins, rides, golf.
Steph: Hospital visit, much needed laughter and talking about Drake and anything else that makes me annoyed and happy at the same time.
Matty: Organized a care package from my work, got people to sign my card, confidant, fast friend, Virginian brother, more handsome than me by miles, true baller.
Work Crew: Love and support from everyone, fully humbled.
Gracie Technics: Love and support all around, always missing them, everyone can’t wait to beat me up on the mat again.
This list would just continue to grow, as time would go on. Where my toughness failed the love would prevail. Something still didn’t feel right though, I was still disappointed in myself for not pushing through, and for questioning how much punishment I could take and keep pushing. Two days after I got home I wanted to shake the frustration from my head. I decided a run in the park would be appropriate and it was, until I passed out and had to be helped up by an older guy walking his dog. I hit about half a mile when everything went white, I took a knee, and then I was shaken awake by a hand on my shoulder. I went home and went back to the drawing board. My blood couldn’t carry enough oxygen to have me do anything of real physicality, so I just had to sit there and deal with it.
The two weeks after the hospital were by far the worst. They tested me more mentally than a lot of things have. I took this time to feel sorry for myself, I took this time to be angry at people that I didn’t feel supported by, or I felt didn’t understand how much of a struggle this was. I stopped answering my phone. I found out how tough I truly was, and I came back with the findings that I wasn’t at all. I was a fucking wimp. People have had much worse, people get through worse odds, why couldn’t I focus on all the good that had come of this situation? Because I had spent so much time training my body to be tough, that my mind was so far behind.
I started to engage my mental side more, I read every minute of the day, I did puzzles, I drew, shit I even colored at some points. Being out of work for a month was the hardest, because I had no routine to attach myself to; I was just floating there, like a piece of space trash. In order to give myself the best shot at training and keeping my kidneys I made a commitment to change my lifestyle. No more eating like a piece of shit, no more abusing/drinking alcohol, good things in the body, don’t be an idiot. I established a new routine to insure getting enough rest, but all the drugs kept me awake. I couldn’t seem to shake the call of three in the morning, the “Witching Hour”. A few times I got out of bed and went to the park across the street, just to see if there were some sacrifices or spooky shit happening…but Beaverton Oregon produced no witches on these nights.
I thought a lot about where I was at in my life, if I would have been satisfied to go out in a blaze of glory and ignore my body’s plea for help. That’s kind of what I decided to do when I was first diagnosed. Test the boundaries. If anything I increased my level of debauchery when they told me I had something wrong with me. I figured continuing my pattern of self destruction got me past 30 and I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it that far. I might as well keep doing what I am doing. With this experience something changed. I wasn’t in control of my fate this time; there was something bigger at work threatening my way of life and all the things I enjoy about it. That’s not what I want my story to be, losing to something I could have worked hard to prevent.
So I decided to get actually tough. Tough on myself, tough on my choices, tough on what lead me to this point. I analyzed everything about my way of life. Why am I am messy, is that how I want to be? Why don’t you cook more? Why don’t you engage life more? Why are you such a wuss? I really didn’t leave a lot to be unanswered. I think for the first time I was honest with myself, I was living in fear of taking risks and most importantly becoming an adult. For some reason I thought my organized chaos was some sort of adolescent charming bullshit system that gave me an edge while simultaneously making me interesting. Wrong. You’re just a piece of shit that doesn’t have his act together and is letting people that love you suffer from your stupidity. Get your shit right Thomas.
Finally I thought about how different this all would have been if I had a family of my own. How that would have motivated me to fight through it because people were dependent on me. I am actually sad in a way that wasn’t the case. I didn’t have a wife or kids to look at and dig deep for, it’s just me with my last name. I think that’s when I put it together in that final thought. Right now in my current life I’ll never be as tough as my father, I’ll never be as manly as him because ever since I’ve known him he’s had a family. He’s always been pushed to dig deep because we needed him to, there’s just no other way he can be. When you have a true meaningful amount of love in your life, I think that’s what makes you tough, I think that’s what makes you dig the deepest into the part of your mind where perseverance lives. That’s what this whole thing was really about, getting my act together, finding out how tough I really need to be if I ever want that type of love in my life. I’ll never be as tough as my father without being a father, but someday I hope to stop pretending.