The first time I started to realize I was getting old was when I turned 36 years old. I was slowly moving out of those age ranges that are grouped with twenty-somethings and more and more with middle aged folks. That seems to be the age when your body starts to more rapidly decay — heart and blood and skin and prostate and colon and breast and all your parts get tired and mean, like they want you to die. It’s also when you begin going to the doctor more frequently (or at least you should — seriously, don’t let the fear of the unknown turn into the reality of a life altering problem).
Now I’m 47 — I still can’t quite unravel that this is my age, I realize I’ve been alive this long but the mirror shows some time traveling dopplemonster with gray hair and a bloated chin and a stupid belly who’s trapped in my reflection. I’m well past mid-life, unless I live to 94 (which I don’t know that I want to live that long, considering how many things will have changed and how many friends and family will be dead and gone), and my visits to the doctor have turned into tiny anxiety sessions about what will be trying to kill me. In June that anxiety turned into a reality when a normal check-up and a follow-up blood test turned into a week of unwavering panic about my impending death.
On a Monday, just two days after my birthday, I had a routine checkup scheduled with a new doctor. My previous doctor moved away, I really liked him, we had a good report, and he reminded me a bit of Conan O’Brien. “Routine” for me now means the normal yearly check-up details, plus the added bonus of always dropping my trousers and turning my head and coughing, thoroughly reviewing the story of my skin spots, the occasional rectal invasion, and every few years (like on this visit) a blood test. I walked next door to get my blood siphoned and went to work like any other day.
That Thursday morning, right before lunch, the doctor’s office left me a voicemail briefly asking me to call them back. I remember this detail because when I called back roughly 20 minutes later, the office was closed for lunch and wouldn’t reopen until 1pm, during which time my brain began forging an oppressive variety of narratives about how quickly and terribly I would die.
I walked to a stairwell of our office, because it’s the only quiet place to talk on the phone (seriously I thought we moved past having to talk to other people on a phone) — and paced back and forth in a muggy corner and called back. They informed me that the labs results showed that I was anemic, and that being low in iron for a man of my age was very uncommon. What I heard, which was affirmed and reinforced by the made-up story my brain created, was “you probably have cancer and you’re going to die in a few months”. They explained that it might indicate ulcers, gastrointestinal distress, polyps, or even cancer and that I needed to schedule a colonoscopy as quickly as I could to see what’s going on in my gross inner body. What I heard was, “you’re brain is right, it’s cancer and since life is terrible and you deserve no goodness or happiness in your life you’re going to die in the next few hours probably but have a doctor look up your shit-maze so he can tell you, with your wife by your side, that you’re probably already dead.”
After hanging up I immediately found a gastroenterologist — and I mean within about 15 minutes of scouring Google for reputable doctors nearby and in network (not that that would matter later, but this isn’t a story about our broken health care system)—informed them of my reason for a consultation, and made an appointment for the following Friday.
Within a few hours my life went from normal to catastrophic. All at the speed of anxiety.
What followed were days and days and days of an all consuming spiral into compounding doom. Despite my feeble attempts to “logic” my way through the unknown, my mind tirelessly attacked me with panic and fear. There wasn’t a minute in a day where I didn’t dwell on the horrible what ifs.
Even with a timeline for the truth — a known from the vast unknown —I could not shut off my fears. I had an appointment for a colonoscopy the upcoming Thursday (the day I usually worked from home). While I waited for answers, my mind unrelentingly combated any sense of peace or calm I tried to grasp. I felt physically ill — feverish, dizzy, exhausted, and unsettled —a hollow shell in ardent discord.
The evening before the test I had to “prep” myself for the “examination” 12 hours in advance (roughly 4pm), by drinking a liquid which I can only describe as deliberately horrifying; a thick, clear, syrupy liquid with a subtle hint of fruit-like flavor, while being both sweet and distressingly salty. I slowly drank this poison through a straw on the toilet, expecting to “abandon the children” as it were. But nothing happened for several minutes. So I cautiously crawled into bed (still a sweating, nauseous pile of self pity). The “dine and dash” was yet to come. I woke up at 4am (I couldn’t sleep anyway, even after taking a melatonin, Xanax, and watching “The Office”, I still managed to stay awake wondering what internal dumpster nightmare was awaiting the camera) to drink the other mixture. Same amount, same texture, same taste, but probably different ingredient because this time around, things got … tidal. By the time I arrived at the office with my wife — who I can only imagine at this point was exasperated with my withdraw from the living to the overcast desert of anxiety — I was constantly checking the time. 3 hours left. 2 hours and 23 minutes left. 1 hour left. We signed in. And now waited 19 minutes. And hour and 32 minutes. 2 hours and 12 minutes, finally, they called my name.
I changed into the medical gown that was not made for people who are 6'4", carefully slide into the hospital bed, had the IV entry tube (I don’t know the technical name, I’m not a scientist), and waited some more. I imagined myself being taken in for the wrong procedure, going under and never waking up; of which I’d never know there’s no way to be aware of something you aren’t aware of. After several days (I didn’t have my phone so I don’t know how long it was) I was wheeled into the room. There I was thick, black, coiled tube, the relative thickness of water pipe, taunting me. I was asked my age, and unnecessarily flattered that there was no way I had a 20 year old and was almost 50. Almost 50. Boy, that echoes still. They connected the IV to my arm, had me roll over onto my left side, pull my legs to my chest, and warm tingling sensation of your body going completely numb flooded toward my head, and I said out loud “Here we go”.
Within seconds I was opening my eyes, still lying on my side, in a new room with my wife sitting to my left. The doctor was there talking, and I sat up, said something I don’t recall, and prepared my soul for the brave-faced conversation about battling colon cancer. But that didn’t happen. There was a polyp (which only the night before I learned from my father was something my mother constantly had to monitor), a hemorrhoid (hurray for aging!), and something that he thought showed signs of Celiac disease. I remember thinking — wait, what? And he immediately asked a very random and very specific question “Have you been chewing on a lot of ice lately?” Which I had been for several months. Apparently if you’re low in iron there is a tendency to want to chew on ice. He also explained that in order to determine if it is Celiac disease he will biopsy tissue from my upper intestine and a follow-up blood test. And there it was.
I finally got an answer, and some peace. Somewhere between “there’s nothing wrong” (something so many others told me, with good intentions) and “you have terminal cancer” (what my asshole brain told me) the truth was: I can’t eat wheat. My brain started to think about all the things that I would have to give up (I shamefully admit that within minutes Googled “Is bourbon gluten-free?”), and quickly determined that this was a good thing. Sure I’ll miss pizza and hamburgers and birthday cake and fried foods and donuts and pancakes and chicken pot pies and pasta and soft pretzels and burritos and beer and chocolate chip cookies and Philly cheesesteaks and most soups and sausage gravy and warm fresh garlic bread and wow I need to stop thinking about all the things I can’t have, but I wasn’t going to die.
It’s been several months now and avoiding gluten has been relatively easy. There are numerous alternatives to wheat on the market. Are they as good as the real thing? Oh, not even close. Plus they are expensive. I’ve mostly avoided the “substitutes” because I fear that it will make me miss what I can’t have even more, and even tempt me to “test” how bad my reaction might be (which I have to keep telling myself is a bad idea, because it’s a bad idea, right?).
When I consider my health over the last several months, and even years, it seems obvious that something was progressively wrong with me. I simply chalked it up to aging and stress and not always eating great or exercising enough and generally being a semi-passable adult. I was exhausted by 5pm and almost always in bed by 9:30pm, not only because I love sleep, but I simply could not stay awake. I got winded walking up steps. Exercise would cripple me for an entire day. Drinking a beer would keep me up at night feeling sick. It was becoming common for me to feel like I had a cold or the flu, simply exhausted from living a low-impact life. The disease was depleting the iron in my blood, causing intestinal discomfort which was leading to bleeding and polyps, and who knows what else.
Through all of this I’ve learned that my anxiety is its own disease. A destructive, hidden foe that seizes my thoughts, my voice, and my hands, strangling me with lies and fear. It will take the barren landscape of the unknown and invent a map, a path, and a destination regardless of how dire, quixotic, or futile. There is no reasoning with it, no getting over it, no out thinking it, no medicating it, no praying it away, no distracting it, no curing it, because there is no it.
The “it” is me. If you yourself, or any family or friends, have anxiety, don’t dismiss it, or diminish it, or disguise it. Talk through it, about it, be there for it and sympathetic to it. The best remedy is you.