(Viewer warning: graphic descriptions of actual medical procedures ensue. Proceed with caution.)
“Dude, you are crazy healthy,” the anesthesiologist said after examining my chart. That’s also pretty much what the nurse said who had taken down the medical history. That’s what the doctor who was going to perform my procedure said.
First, to dispel any alarm: I was at this clinic early on a Wednesday morning in May for a routine ‘screening’ procedure — the sort of thing that a man in his mid 60s will have to endure as a consequence of having lived into his seventh decade, provided he harbors serious aspirations of living in to an eighth or even a ninth decade.
If, dear reader, you are squeamish or repulsed by discussions of medical procedures that involve the lower reaches of the human digestive tract, this would be a good place to stop reading.
I was at the clinic for a colonoscopy.
Despite what you may have heard, the actual experience of a colonoscopy is relatively mild, thanks to the general anesthesia that is administered prior to the procedure. Perversely, perhaps, the actual experience is not unlike being dead: an interval dreamless sleep. The level of unconsciousness seems that deep and enveloping, though only in retrospect, because in these situations the patient is expected to wake up after a relatively brief interval — since any interval would be considered “brief” compared to the eternal dirt-nap.
To get some idea what it’s like, consider the parable of a young man who asked an elder what it would be like when he died.
“Do you remember what it was like before you were born?” asked the elder.
“No,” answered the youngster.
“Well, that’s what it’s like when you’re dead.”
And that’s what it’s like when you are having an endoscopic video camera inserted into your rectum for the purpose of determining the condition of your large intestine. You lie down on a gurney in one room, roll over on your side, a nurse adds a drug cocktail to the IV in your arm, and a few minutes later you wake up in a different room and your wife is smiling at you. Really, that’s the extent of it.
Of course, the smile from your wife comes after 24 hours of fasting from solid food and ingesting only liquids, one of which is a powerful laxative that reduces whatever remains of your most recent solid meals into a gooey, viscous mix that you spend several hours blasting out of your ass the night before. That’s the part of the colonoscopy that most people are speaking of when they describe it as unpleasant.
And, yes, it sounds and is pretty gross, perhaps, there really is an upside to the whole process: it means that you have lived long enough that the condition of your lower intestine has some bearing on your prospects for further longevity. Much as I don’t care for a) being hungry or b) making at least a dozen trips to the porcelain throne over the course of just a few hours, there is a certain sense of long-term accomplishment from knowing that whatever indignity the process entails, you have lived long enough that conscientious preventative health care dictates that you evacuate your bowels so a highly trained medial professional can have a look around inside them.
In my case, this is actually something of a big deal since, of the men in my immediate family, I’m the first one to live to the age of 64.
My father never lived long enough to have a colonoscopy, having succumbed to multiple myeloma — a relatively rare form of cancer that destroys the bone marrow — when he was all of 37 years old. That was in 1958. I don’t think they even had colonoscopies in the 50s.
My brother, on the other hand, who was only two years older than me, would likely have had one a year or two before I had my first, when I was about 55; that’s the good news. The bad news is, if his colon was healthy enough (like mine) to go ten years before having another, the rest of his body didn’t cooperate. He was diagnosed with a mostly-fatal form of brain cancer just before turning 62, and was deceased before he was 63.
So trust me when I say, my 63rd birthday was a big fucking deal.
So there I was at the Centennial Endoscopy Clinic in Nashville, answering a litany of questions about my health. If you’ve ever had any kind of physical exam, you’ve probably answered all the same questions:
“Do you experience any pain or discomfort in your chest when engaged in physical activity?”
“Do you ever experience shortness of breath?”
“Unexplained dizziness or fainting?”
“High blood pressure?
“Are you taking any medications?”
Etc. etc., ad infinitum ad nauseam. There are several dozen questions. I won’t repeat all of them for you. Suffice it to say there were several moments during the interrogation when I wished I could just say “let me stop you right there, the answer to all your questions is “no.”
When each of the medical professionals involved in my procedure looked at the chart, they said essentially what the anesthesiologist said: “you’re crazy healthy.”
That assessment was further affirmed when I awoke from my brief, quasi-death. The doctor who had performed the examination informed me that my colon is just as clear and healthy as it was the last time he inspected it ten years ago. No polyps, nothing to remove. “You can go to Cracker Barrel now,” he said. That is apparently what a lot of people do after their 24-hour fast and, ironically, exactly where my wife and I were planning to go as well.
And I have to agree with them. It’s sorta crazy that I’m so healthy.
* * * *
The reason I find this summary of my health so remarkable is… well, I have hardly spent my life as a paragon of health and fitness.
For starters, to describe my diet as mostly “meat and potatoes” would be charitable.
My diet is the least of my bodily abuses: For most of my 20s and 30s, I indulged pretty heavily in the habits of my youth — which is to say I consumed vast, fertile fields of marijuana. I was basically stoned from the time I was 19 until I was 37. I smoked cigarettes, too — though I recall that at one point I was health-consciousness enough to conclude that it was probably not a good idea to keep smoking both. I quit smoking cigarettes so I could keep on smoking pot.
In my 20s, I developed a fondness for wine. A taste for hard alcohol didn’t come until my 30s. That’s when I moved to Maui — mostly because it was such an outstanding, enabling environment for a stoner — and acquired a charter yacht called the “Scotch Mist.” At that point I started to cultivate a fondness for Johnnie Walker Black Label. But that was just my evening drink. I usually had a “Stoli Screwdriver” with my cheeseburger at the Lahaina Yacht Club (it was always the high-end spirits for me, never the “well” drinks).
And somewhere along the line I added a more-than-occasional vial of cocaine — or whatever white powder the local dealer was offering. That indulgence started when I was living and working in Hollywood in my late 20s, at the behest of a post production supervisor I was working under who thought that a spoonful or two was just what it would take to keep working through the night editing the sitcom we worked on so that we could deliver a cut to the producer in the morning.
All of those vices I surrendered around the time of my 37th birthday — an age that not-coincidentally coincides with the age my father was when he died. Despite the very real shadow that his death — I was all of seven years old at the time — cast over my own existence, there was a very conscious realization thirty years later that I was not doomed to apply that fate to myself through drugs and alcohol. A friend persuaded me to start going to AA meetings.
I have not had a sip, a sniff, or a puff in the more than 27–1/2 years since. But that does not explain why I am “crazy healthy.” That’s just why I’m alive at all.
Nor have I ever been much for a regular regimen of exercise. There have been various times when I’ve joined a gym, but the relationships never lasted — because I find the whole concept of exercise-for-its-own sake just too fucking boring. What exercise I do get apart from just walking around (and more recently kayaking in the warmer months) consists of getting on an elliptical trainer for 20–30 minutes several mornings a week, which I can only do because the machine is situated in front of a television where I can watch recent episodes of either the Daily or Nightly shows and the occasional Netflix documentary.
As I said, I hardly am nor ever have been a paragon of healthy practices. I try not to eat to excess, and I eat more vegetables now than I used to, and I suppose it helps that I have not had a drink or smoke in almost three decades. And I will usually take the stairs rather than the elevator for most short flights.
* * * *
What’s really crazy is not just that I am healthy, but that I am alive at all, when so many of my contemporaries with whom I shared my youthful indulgences cannot say the same. They can’t say anything. They’re dead.
I have an altar of sorts in my office, a platform on which rests the photographs of the significant people in my life who have passed on before me. There are of course the photos of my grand parents, and now my parents and my two step fathers as well as my brother. All died of natural causes. My mother lived to the age of 81. I must have some of her genes (as well as her voice of constant admonition in my ear, but that is another story…)
There are also people who were my friends and co-workers, and, more significantly perhaps, the people who I smoked dope, drank, and snorted cocaine with.
There is Philo, who taught me how to grow the best best marijuana I eve smoked (which I grew in my back yard in the Hollywood Hills. That I was never arrested is equally amazing, but also a subject for another time). All you need to know about Philo is that he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1987.
And then there is Michael, with whom I spent many long hours in a tiny, almost underground apartment in Laurel Canyon while I lived in Los Angeles in the 1970s. We spent a lot of time together, almost all of it smoking dope. Michael was a Vietnam veteran — the only survivor of an ambush that wiped out his entire platoon. For him the drugs and alcohol were a release from his survivor guilt. In the 80s, he found and married a long lost love, and put himself through rehab three times, but the recovery never stuck. He was going to try a fourth time. He went out to his truck, and as the engine started, suffered a seizure and died behind the wheel. In his photograph, Michael is standing beside a vintage Chevy pickup, one of those 40s/50s models with the enormous tear-drop shaped fenders and wrap-around windows. The truck was a beater but I always envied it. Michael is gone now and so is his truck, but I am still here and have since 1999 have had a truck just like Michael’s. I think about him every time I get behind the wheel.
And then there is Donald. Donald was my supervisor when I worked on The Barney Miller show in the late 1970s. I was a videotape editor, Donald was the post production supervisor. The way that show was assembled was unlike any other in town, and it often involved long sessions at odd hours in order to prepare a cut for the executive producer — who would often go off to the race track instead. Donald’s way of handling the pressure was to put that spoon of cocaine under my nose so that I could continue working until the wee hours of the morning. In the 80s I turned my back on Hollywood and ran off to Maui, but Donald stayed in Hollywood and tried to rise through the ranks of a contentious workplace, eventually descending into a drug-fueled spiral of personal despair. News finally reached Maui that Donald had died — from an overdose of bullets applied directly to the brain during a cocaine-addled rage.
Philo, Michael and Donald, my smoking, drinking, and sniffing buddies. All deceased. And yet, here I am, not only still alive, but, according to a circle of medical professionals, “crazy healthy.”
And so, yeah, this health business… when you come right down to it, there’s no escaping the simple reality that it’s all just sorta crazy, like the doctors and nurses said. “You’re crazy healthy”, they said. And I have to agree with them on both counts. Given my history, it’s sorta crazy that I’m this healthy. And it’s crazy that so many people I’ve known are not only not healthy, they’re just plain not living.
Yeah, it’s crazy.
* * * *
I think again of my brother and his exemplary habits: He dedicated himself to cancer research at least in part in response to our father’s early demise from said malady. His specialty was the impact of diet on the disease, and based on what he learned from his studies he maintained a very commendable diet; he also was a regular at the gym and maintained a rigorous fitness regimen.
Nevertheless, I have now outlived my brother by a couple of years.
And so it’s tough not to conclude that the dirty secret of health and longevity is that they are random and capricious. There is entirely too much truth in the old adage: “Eat right, get plenty of exercise. Die anyway.”
Or you can just do and eat whatever you like, and arrive in your mid-60s as ‘crazy healthy.’