It begins at the end of August 2019, the week before Labor Day. I have returned bedraggled, overstuffed, feeling old and tired after the second of the three music festivals I committed myself to this summer. So grossed out by my own indulgence, I make a spreadsheet labeled ATONEMENT, which I will use to get my life in order, tracking exercise, food, money, all the things that seem to be spiraling out of control, and it must be my fault. It simply must.
Two days of vigorous exercise and healthy eating in, I experience a twinge in my lower back, a twinge that feels like a fever ache, but that sometimes blossoms into something literally breathtaking. I have pinched a nerve, I think. The new exercise regime, perhaps. I’m sleeping crooked, rocked by anxious dreaming because of all of my sorry habits, my misspent days. I take Advil. I try stretches. On Friday night, I have a friend over. We drink fancy gin and tonics on the porch, the pain subsides with alcohol, but flares up again with sobriety. I go for a long walk the next morning, which improves things, and I go to a party that after, that involves the screening of a movie, pizza and a small slice of chocolate cake. I partake but can’t sit still without it hurting. I keep standing to stretch.
My friends drive me home. I arrive at my house around 7pm and promptly fall asleep, which is weird for a night owl like me. I rouse at nine. Groggy, on a whim, I take my temperature. It’s high. Because I am still incapable of so many things, I call my mother. “Should I go to the hospital?”She says yes. I ask my friend and new neighbor across the street to drive me. She kindly obliges and waits for me in the waiting room until midnight. I send her home. I am in a sick bay in the Emergency Room alone amid the wailing, coughing, vomiting and arguing. They do a CT Scan at 5. I will not get a diagnosis until eight am.
They tell me I have diverticulitis, thought I have almost none of the symptoms. I flinch at the name, because it’s a thing I associate with older people. Am I an older person? Mom tells me not to worry. She’s had it. My grandparents have had it. Her friends have had it. They all had it in their sixties. Does this mean I am an older person?
The admit me and hook me to an IV. I reject a passel of drugs they have prescribed but the nurses tell me I don’t need—blood thinners, pain killers, laxatives, some plastic contraption that I’m supposed to periodically blow on—because I feel okay. By end of day, in fact, I feel fine. Aggressively fine. I expect to be discharged. They switch me to pills but keep me another twenty-four hours. I pace the halls of the now empty ward in sneakers and gym clothes on Labor Day. No one can figure out why I’m still there. The nursing staff tells me the doctors are crazy. The residents—they’re all residents, a dozen different—can never remember which patient I am–Are you the diabetic? Are you here for Lyme? Pancreatitis, right?—let alone give me a reason why. The nurse lets me shower downstairs because there’s no shower in the acute ward and I’m not even remotely acute anymore. I spend some time hanging out in the courtyard at Starbucks with a pass glued to my shirt indicating that I am allowed to be there. The sun feels like freedom. My mother and I try to make the best between worry and rage. My friend, a nurse, comes to visit, says, “Holiday weekend. Teaching hospital.” Like it’s a tagline for a horror film.
I blow up at a resident, who can’t find my file, but won’t disconnect me from IV, despite the fact that it’s only giving me saline fluids and I’ve been drinking water all day because I have nothing else to do. Mostly I just pee, which is exercise because the bathroom is at the other end of the ward. I tell her “I feel like the fucking Count of Monte Cristo.” She doesn’t know who that is.
My mother spends the night in the chair because she’s afraid the doctor’s will make some other seemingly arbitrary call overnight.
I am released with advice that my own gastroenterologist (I was never allowed to see a gastroenterologist in the hospital) views as dubious. I look at my chart. They have entered a weight–they weighed me on the bed– that is at least forty pounds more than I weighed before I came in. It’s a small thing, but I am human and thus weak and vain. It feels cruel, arbitrary and irresponsible I view it as the final fuck you.
My dad texts. Asks if I’d like to go to Scotland in a few weeks. I start crying, even though I think there’s less than a 50% chance it will actually happen. Can’t bank on any possibility. Incidentally, I don’t have enough money in the bank.
I get back to my normal life. Back to exercise. Back to the ATONEMENT spreadsheet. I can’t drink on the antibiotics they gave me, so no worry there. I watch my diet. I start training for a hypothetical 10K, maybe a half marathon. I do sit-ups. I lift weights.
A hurricane comes through. I use that an excuse to skip the first night of the third music festival I’ve bought tickets for, but I head to Raleigh for the rest because I can’t figure out how to sell my armband. I walk around in the hot summer heat. I worry about twinges and pains because it seems like anything can happen to me. I’m terrified of going back to the hospital, what if they never let me out? I’m terrified they missed something, they misdiagnosed. I’ve always trusted doctors. I don’t trust those doctors.
Music festivals sober are weird, but I have a milkshake and slow dance with myself to Raphael Saadiq. I see Chvrches in a field full of exuberant young people and Cate Le Bon among a crowd of respectful, less young people. A guy wrapped in a Welsh flag heckles Gruff Rhys in Welsh. It’s whimsical. I come out of the weekend okay. I take long walks.
On Monday, I see my OBGYN, who adds that things are growing inside my ovaries. Nothing to worry about. Yet. But might account for some of the discomfort. I have neither the time nor energy to worry. I don’t really need my ovaries. I don’t want children. I just want to put off menopause because I’ve heard it kills your sex drive and I like having one of those, even if it often leads to disappointment and heartbreak.
She puts me on drugs for the side effects caused by the antibiotics I am still taking. I am becoming familiar with the pharmacy techs. They know me by name.
My sister comes down to visit. She takes me to see Kacey Musgraves, where we are surrounded by a lot of shimmery girls in sequins and cowboy boots on a starry, July-hot mid-September night. About halfway through the show, I become convinced I am getting sick again. I press on my stomach to see if I can find sore spots. I can’t tell if I’m imagining them or not.
Dad calls to say he’s booked the hotel and the flights. We are actually going to Scotland in three weeks. This is fantastic news, though I’ve little time to prepare. I scramble for a decent raincoat, new shoes, fall clothes. It’s still almost 90 here. I haven’t budgeted, my credit cards are still mostly maxed because ATONEMENT, and I’m leaving for New York City in four days on a previously booked trip. I love Scotland more than most places. I mean what are you going to do, not go? I take a deep breath. Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight. “It’s how to keep yourself from freaking out,” my sister told me.
Three days after my last antibiotic, my system is cleared enough that I can drink again. I have a cocktail at book club and three days later fly to LaGuardia to see my best friend. I feel twinges all the way, little things feel wrong. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t.
I tell my friend, “I’ve been under the weather. We should take it easy.” She agrees. But we drink too much that first night, because the wine, the food, the cocktails, the twilights are better in New York. I wake up at 4am with a headache and the first wave of a hangover.
We spend the next day in slow motion. I feel woozy. We go to the movies. We meet friends for dinner. I get a manicure—black, because we’re seeing Nick Cave over the weekend—and a chair massage. Little things feel wrong. I tell myself I’m overthinking. I’m anxious. I’m tired. I ate something wrong. I drank something wrong. I did something wrong.
Saturday, we go into the city, wander around Central Park on a summery September day. My back hurts again. I try to ignore it. We watch the German parade and visit an exquisite French bookstore. We cross the Park to the Upper West Side, eat cheese, drink wine, watch people richer and younger than us act like they run the world, which they probably do. I go to the bathroom to press on my stomach. Does it hurt? Does it only hurt because I’m pressing?
I tell myself I feel fine. Maybe I do. It’s a rosy dusk. We run into my neighbor, my friend, the one that drove me to the hospital, just across the fountain at Lincoln Center. We talk about the Upper West Side. I think about how, for a moment, a million years ago, I wished I would be good enough at any sort of performance to study at Julliard.
Nick Cave is great. We leave transfixed. We ride the train back to Brooklyn, and I feel weird, but not like, super weird, so we go for a nightcap at this dive bar around the corner from my best friend’s apartment. I press on my stomach under the bar and crap out halfway through my cocktail.
The next morning, I feel like death. Pale, shaky, nauseated. I didn’t drink enough to have this kind of hangover. A bug? Bad cheese? Has the diverticulitis come back? Has my colon ruptured? What is wrong with me? But I dress and we meet friends in a sauna-like coffeeshop by the train because we are headed to Rockaway. I can’t stomach food, can barely handle water, but we mosey over to the beach because the weather is perfect, hot but not too hot, breezy but not to breezy. Not a cloud in the sky. We stake out a spot. My best friend’s friend has brought a picnic, but I can’t eat any of it. I don’t want a drink. I don’t want a beer. I lie back on my towel and feel the sun. I stand in the surf. It’s chilly but bracing in a good way and the ocean always makes me feel better. Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight
After a while the cops come through, two middle aged people in dark polyester, staggering through the sand in boots, ordering people out of the water. “They ocean is closed,” they tell us. “Closed until spring.”
Everyone ignores them. How can the ocean be closed? As soon as they walk on, children scurry back out into the waves.
We return to Brooklyn. The train runs low by the expanse of water and it makes me feel like I’m in “Spirited Away.” I think about that instead of the aches and pains.
Back at my friends, the waves of nausea come back. The back pain. The stomach ache. On the way to dinner, I tell her finally, “I am maybe having an anxiety attack about my health. I don’t know what’s wrong.” She is sweet about it. She asks if I want to go to urgent care. I say no. Halfway through dinner, though I cannot eat. We go home. I take to the sofa, sweating, in pain. I’ll just go to sleep. I’ll be better tomorrow.
I’m not, but it hardly matters. It’s my last day in New York. We have things to do. The pain my back is gasp worthy, but I manage to go shopping, utilizing a variety of semi-public restrooms in lower Manhattan. I legitimately feel like shit, but I insist on a walk to Orchard Street, because it’s my favorite street. On the way down, to distract myself, I tell my best friend a fictional story about New York I’ve been telling myself since I was fourteen. It involves dance hall girls, mob bosses, Gilded Age architects, immigrants, artists, and a whole metropolis full of romantic cliché. She lets me and telling it makes me feel better. Which ends up being the model for the rest of the day. At 9pm, I say goodbye to the city on a rooftop beside Brooklyn Bridge, warm breeze on my face the boats on the East River flickering below and the skyline glowing like a vertical galaxy.
My flight is, of course, delayed. I curl up in a chair at the end of Terminal B with a cup of weak tea and a journal, because I no longer have to pretend I feel okay in order to have fun. I call my mother like a child. Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight .I get home during rush hour. I cry at my car because no one can see me because I feel bad and I am scared by how bad I feel.
At my house is a poet friend of mine and his wife from New York. They are staying with me for three nights on a book tour. I have no ability to entertain and my house is a disaster. They say they don’t care, but I do, and it bothers me.
On the upside, my ATONEMENT chart looks great. I’ve barely eaten in three weeks, save one night in New York, I’ve been sober for a month. Sure I’ve spent a bunch of money and I may end up owing the hospital a mid-range car/reasonable down payment on a house, but in trying to get my mind off of things in New York, I walked about eight or nine miles a day. Doing great, I think. Maybe if I’m not dying I can get back to work on training for the hypothetical half-marathon.
My doctor sees me the next morning. “It’s maybe a bug,” I say. But he orders blood work and the indignity of a stool sample to be collected at the house with houseguests in residents and delivered back to his office before a hair appointment. I do not miss my hair appointment. Because much like the beach, Orchard Street, and the view of Manhattan at night from DUMBO, haircuts are one of my great pleasures. At 4pm, the doctor calls to say I have a bacterial infection I probably picked up in the hospital at the beginning of the month, allowed to colonize because the antibiotics I took wiped out anything that could fight it off. I Google it. It says, “Frequently Recurrent.” It says, “Nightmare Infection.” It says “25% of patients never really get better.”
I go on another round of antibiotics. I tell the doctor. I think I’m going to Scotland next weekend. He says he thinks, he thinks, I’ll be okay.
I am less sure, but like, it’s not like I’m not going to go.
The next morning I go to the hospital for a follow-up with a few of the thirty-five distracted residents in the trauma ward. I see a cute Swiss resident, maybe thirty, that I’ve never seen before, and the attending. She’s is pretty woman in scrubs, who spends the entire visit texting with a phone covered in a sparkly rhinestone case. I have never seen her before either. She tells me she thinks I should have colon surgery because I’m young and healthy and I might get sick again. “You wouldn’t want to be inconvenienced by antibiotics down the line.” The surgeon is smug, sure that I’ll agree. I ask if the surgery has risks. She reiterates that there are “kind of major risks, but as long as everything gets reattached right, you’ll probably be okay.” I tell her I’ll talk to my gastroenterologist. She says, “I mean. I get that this is super aggressive, elective surgery. I would never recommend it if you weren’t otherwise healthy and young. We can schedule you whenever. Probably end of the month even. You’ll only need a few months of recovery time, unless there are complications. “
Yeah but what about those complications?
I leave rattled, gobsmacked, terrified. I sit in the parking deck, trying to suss out what’s real and what’s crazy. I call my mother like a child. I cry. I come home, do a bunch of work and end up hosting an impromptu gathering with the poet, his wife and another couple. It’s fun and takes my mind off, even though I’m exhausted and the house is a mess and being a less than perfect hostess is the greatest of all sins.
By midday, the next day I am finally without houseguests. I decide to take a walk. Five miles. I make it three and call my mother. She’s like, “Are you crazy? You have a serious bacterial infection.” I told her walking usually made me feel better, and hey, I’m not running. I go home and fret because everything hurts again. I eat chicken broth and crackers. I get on the scale. I’ve lost 18 pounds in a month.
That night, exhausted, I try on my skinny pants. They fit. I think, super effective diet. I think, totally not recommended. I look at myself naked in the bathroom mirror to see if I can tell I’m skinnier. I can’t. But my lower abdomen is polka-dotted in greenish/purple circles the same size a finger prints. I realize they are finger prints, from all the times I’ve pushed there to see if I feel pain.
I consider, not for the first time, that I am losing my mind.
Thus begins a run of crazy dreams. I toss and turn at night with a ferociously anxious stomach. I dream about murders, suicides, dead loved ones, missed flights, job loss, bankruptcy. In one dream, I try heroin. In other dream, I try heroin with my fourth-grade teacher while sit on trash bags full of unpaid bills. I think, not even subtle. In one dream, I miss a train and end up at a Nazi rally in my hometown square.
Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight.
I google side effects of the drug. I abuse the patient portal at my doctor’s office. People try to assure me it’s normal. I believe them but don’t believe them. I thought it was normal before. How do I know?
I update ATONEMENT. Toast. Chicken soup . Tea. Like if I put in enough entries, I may not be healthy, but at least it won’t entirely be my fault. I’m working on it. I’m trying to be better.
My mom comes for a night on the way back from taking care of my 93-year-old grandmother. She takes me to the mall to suss out how bad I feel, because that’s the way my family operates. She thinks I’m better. I think I’m a wreck. She asks, “Do you think you should postpone the trip? I think your father could postpone the trip.”
I tell her no, because it’s a good thing and I need a good thing. I’m afraid postponement means never. I’m afraid postponement means I get something worse, something more horrifying, more debilitating. I think about the doctor. You’re young and healthy. I’m never going be as young as I am now again. What if I’m not as healthy? I tell mom, “I’m going.”
I have the doctor call me in another round of antibiotic, just in case it recurs. I consider finding religion, but which one? I still kind of lean toward the Greeks. That’s Hermes, right? You pray to Hermes for a cure? I always liked Hermes. He seemed like less of a dick than the rest of them.
So this is where it stands. I leave the country in 48 hours. I’m excited. I’m a wreck. I’m afraid. I’m hopeful. I want to feel better. I want to feel better for long enough to enjoy something for a few days. I want. I want. I want. I sound like such an asshole. I’ve lost friends this year. I’ve lost friends this month. I’m traveling. I’m writing. I’m not dying. I’m not starving. I know, I know it could be worse.
I write for a living. I’m in advertising. I know what I could say or should say. I know all the aphorisms and slogans and positive self-talk. I could convince you in a minute that I’ve learned something special from all this, that I’m on the road to recognizing the beauty of life, the need for acceptance and forgiveness. I can write that horseshit in my sleep. Sometimes I can even make myself believe it.
But I started packing this morning, and realized I wasn’t going to take my laptop, not because I won’t want to write, but because if I do, I’ll end up working. I’ll end up staring down at ATONEMENT, wondering what formula I have to arrive at before I believe all that’s happened to me isn’t just desserts, and everything happening to me right now isn’t just the bill coming due for all of my follies, mistakes, misapprehensions and misspent youth. This has got to be my fault. I mean, it just has to be.
I’m not a believer, but I am superstitious, of superstitious stock. I worry writing this down now dooms the story to not really being over. I worry this story won’t end. Or at least, won’t end well. Should I share these thoughts? Isn’t it better if I just tell you I’m fine?
And yeah, I know exactly how crazy that sounds.
It doesn’t mean make it feel any less true.
For those interested, trips with Dad are generally hilarious. Those looking for laughs or wondering whether I’ll make it through ten days abroad without experiencing the UK health care system first hand, I’ll be updating on Instagram with a lighter touch than this, if you want to follow along.