A little over a decade ago, I was convinced that I was going to die while sitting on a bench in the Southdale Mall.
This day, a Saturday, started out like any other Saturday back then. This was in 2007—my wife Wendy and I weren’t even married yet; just two people in their very early-twenties living together in an incredibly small apartment. This is back when I had a head of hair; back before I started to grow my beard out. This is before either of us were vegan—I had only become a vegetarian around six months before this. This is many, many jobs ago. This is a life before companion rabbits.
On the weekends, we would usually do something with a friend of ours who lived in Minneapolis. Sometimes we’d visit her—she lived in Uptown at the time, and as two people in their very early-twenties, we felt incredibly hip to have a friend living in that neighborhood. This is before the heart of Uptown was totally gentrified and turned into mostly expensive apartment complexes with pools on the balcony; this is when crust punks would still sneak backpacks full of tallboy cans of PBR into the Uptown Theatre.
Sometimes we’d meet somewhere halfway between Northfield and Minneapolis—usually a mall. This is before my ennui and debilitating anxiety about crowds took over, and, if you can fathom it, I actually liked going to the mall.
This Saturday started out like any other, and we were meeting our friend, Carrie, to see the third Pirates of The Caribbean movie (much to my chagrin) and to eat dinner. Wendy had made lunch—nothing wild, something involving vegetables if I can recall correctly, and we left after that.
We hadn’t gotten very far onto the highway when I knew something wasn’t right.
When I describe this to people, the easiest way to explain the feeling is it was like I had swallowed a cup full of razor blades, and they were dragging themselves across my insides.
I had never felt abdominal pain like this before in my life.
We exited the highway at the first available gas station, in Lakeville, and I sprinted into the bathroom, eventually returning to the car with a handful of antacids and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. We switched drivers, and I curled up in the passenger seat, clutching my stomach, while Wendy navigated the highways.
After we arrived at the Southdale Mall, I immediately took refuge in the men’s room, bracing myself against a marginally unclean toilet, becoming just a pair of crumpled jeans and red Puma sneakers, peaking out from below the stall door.
I eventually hobbled back out into the mall, found a Dasani water bottle vending machine, and sat on a bench, squeezing the flimsy, crinkly plastic of the bottle as the pain still surged through my body. I tried to concentrate on breathing slowly, and let my focus drift into the cavernous sounds of voices echoing around me. Wendy and our friend, Carrie, who I had encouraged to go off on their own, leaving me to die alone, eventually found me sitting on the bench, attempting to regain my composure.
Given a little more time, as suddenly and alarmingly as this newfound pain came on, it slowly receded. I ate dinner without issue, and aside from a strange, lingering feeling, much like a phantom limb—for the rest of the day, I felt fine.
These events, varying in severity and length of time, continued to happen throughout the summer—sometimes it was at an inopportune moment, like if we had company over and I spent a bulk of the evening either in the bathroom, or curled up in the fetal position on the floor of the living room; other times, it would be after I had eaten something audacious like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and would be writhing in pain for roughly an hour.
I sought medical advice in the form of reading Web M.D.—I presumed the worst, like I had stomach cancer, or Crohn’s Disease;
I printed off pages and pages of information and highlighted bits and pieces, bringing them in to my doctor and waving them in front of his face. “IS THIS WHAT I HAVE?” I implored. “WHAT ABOUT THIS? THE INTERNET SAYS I AM DYING. AM I DYING?”
My doctor told me to keep a food journal and track what I am eating prior to having these episodes; my doctor told me to actually chew my food, rather than inhaling it. He told me to put my fork down as I am chewing, and to slow down.
Eating meals became a terrifying and mechanical chore—rather than thinking about the flavor of what I am eating, I count how many times I chew before I swallow. I think about the speed with which my jaw is moving. I spend the entire summer worrying that everything I eat, no matter what it is, is going to be the thing that sends me into another episode.
In late August, my episodes have occurred with enough frequency and pain that I have resigned myself to the fact that, at the age of 24, I need an endoscopy and a colonoscopy.
* * *
Enough time has passed now, obviously, that I can make jokes about this experience.
When I do talk about this part of my life—specifically the fact that I needed an endoscopy and colonoscopy at such a young age, I often say that the doctor did one end, then the other, but that they wipe the device off in between.
However, at the time, I seem to recall that I failed to see the humor in any of this, and that I was going through something serious enough to require these invasive procedures.
Preparing for an endoscopy and colonoscopy is just as undignified and borderline mortifying as the processes themselves, simply because you have to spend the day prior to the procedures drinking a very large bottle of ‘Golytely.’ The name, or at the very least, the way it’s pronounced, is ironic because, you see, ‘Golytely’ is a laxative, and as you begin to drink it, and as it begins to work its way through your digestive system, you do not ‘go lightly’ at all.
You, in fact, spend the rest of the day violently shitting out everything in your body.
I seem to recall spending most of this day in the bathroom, as one would expect, in between forcing myself to chug more of the laxative—even when chilled, and full of some kind of flavoring packet, it still tasted thick, and revolting, but I had to drink the whole gallon of it within a specific amount of time. And to curb any kind of hunger pangs I had, I was allowed to have Jell-O1 (any color but red2), and straight vegetable broth.
In between trips to the toilet, Wendy and I tried watching movies, though I encouraged her not to pause them for me while I was out of the room.
* * *
On the day of the procedures, the weight of it all set in—not that it hadn’t before on the day prior, when I was violently shitting everything out of my body; not that it hadn’t before nearly every time I had been sidelined for an hour or more by the mystery pains searing through my abdomen. But the severity of this all resonated harder when I was given a hospital bracelet to wear, and when I had to sign a bunch of forms saying that it was okay if they, like, accidentally killed me or whatever while I was anesthetized.
While we waited, nerves beginning to settle in slightly, Wendy doodled on a scrap of paper that is still on our refrigerator—a cartoony rabbit named Dr. Bunny, wearing a hairnet, and latex gloves on its paws, and tail.
It seems worth mentioning that this was the summer our bodies began to betray us.
Outside of my own problems, Wendy began having episodes of tachycardia, resulting in at least one late evening trip to the emergency room in July. On the day of my procedures, she had a scheduled appointment elsewhere in the building for this unexplained arrhythmia.
Once it was time for my procedures, I was escorted into a room, and I was instructed by the nurse to disrobe completely, except for my socks, and put on a backless hospital gown.
The thing about the procedures themselves, as well as the events that occurred immediately afterward, is that some things are very, very clear to me; others, are hazy, or hard to recall, simply because of the strange, partially lucid but mostly sedated state I was in.
I can remember that, despite the implications of the jokes I tell now, my doctor and his team began with the endoscopy. They numbed my throat with something that tasted like poison, though I seem to think they told me it was banana flavored, then
they inserted this S&M style, plastic contraption into my mouth to press my tongue down, allowing them to slide the endoscopy device itself down into my body.
I can remember waking up, slightly, after the endoscopy was complete, and being rolled over onto my right side, so that through the crack in my hospital gown, my bare ass was exposed to all in the room.
I can remember my doctor preparing me for the colonoscopy. “WHOA WHOA WHOA WHAT IS THAT?” I slurred, feeling something sliding into my asshole. Losing his patience with me already, he told me it was his gloved finger. “Man, you should at least buy me a drink first,” I managed to tell him, the sound of nervous giggling from the others in the room fading as I drifted back into sedation.
I can remember being roused, very suddenly, from terribly uncomfortable lower abdomen pain as the device used during the colonoscopy worked its way into my body.
I can remember opening my eyes at one point, and looking at the monitor, seeing blobs of green Jell-O stuck to the sides of my digestive track.
* * *
The thing about coming out of moderate to heavy sedation is that you aren’t really certain how much time has passed. I was escorted into a recovery room where I promptly drifted right back to sleep for, like, over an hour I guess—or, at least, long enough where the hospital staff began to grow nervous that nobody was coming to fetch me.
It was also during this exchange that I became convinced I needed to use the bathroom—like, it was a real emergency. “Where is the restroom?” I managed to stammer out anxiously.
“There is no way you need to go to the bathroom,” the nurse said coldly, and wearily.
Eventually, in some kind of fever dream blur, my wife returned from her own appointment, I was able to get dressed, and I hobbled into the car.
Our apartment at the time had an air conditioner unit mounted in the wall of the living room, and it was difficult to get the cool air around the corner, into the bedroom. Upon arriving back after my procedures, I made a big pile of pillows and blankets on the living room floor, cranked up the A/C, put on my headphones, and drifted back into a darkness while listening to Massive Attack.
By the evening, I hadn’t eaten anything in over 24 hours; we had pizza for dinner.
* * *
What was causing me to be in debilitating and seemingly inexplicable pain, were ulcerations, and I was put on a regiment of Prilosec to help treat them.
I don’t think I had any additional episodes following the procedures, but over the last decade, I have developed what you could call a ‘sensitive stomach’—one that becomes more, and more sensitive with each passing year.
There’s really no way to determine what caused the ulcerations. Was it anxiety? I’ve always been anxious—though if that was the cause, it’s funny, in a way, because the anxiety that I’ve slid into over the last seven years should have riddled my insides with ulcerations.
* * *
Over time, your body eventually betrays you.
You stay out too late and get up too early and it takes you days to recover.
Your joints perpetually ache; your bones creak and crack in sickening ways.
Your hair begins to fall out, and what you are able to keep begins to gray earlier than you’d anticipate.
One day you don’t have an extreme sensitivity or allergy to a specific food; the next day, you wake up, and you suddenly do.
When you wake up during the night, and see that it is three in the morning, you wonder why it is you will never be able to get a night of undisturbed sleep.
You will never not be tired.
Sometimes I think about how terrible I feel now, on the cusp of 35, and I wonder how bad it’s going to get in five years—or even ten years.
Sometimes I think about how terrible I feel now, and it’s surreal that there was a time when mysterious digestive ulcerations were my biggest problem.
1– Like I said, the summer of 2007 was long before we became vegan, and I was really just a dumb kid at this point, and didn’t even really give second though to eating Jell-O.
2– Eating red Jell-O was a bad idea because it would give the wrong impression of my insides during the procedures.
Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the Southern Minn Scene magazine for roughly three years. His writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, Spectrum Culture, and in River Valley Woman. He occasionally tweets about his incredibly poor health: @KevEFly.
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