I was diagnosed with terminal alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver last year mid-March. The doctors were almost apologetic, averting their eyes when they spoke to me about it. No alcohol, no cigarettes, no Tylenol or related products. They spoke to me in mostly past tense, as if I had already passed away. I was 39.
My weight had skyrocketed to a shocking high of over 270 lbs. People didn’t recognize me anymore, especially those who I had not seen in a few years. My blood pressure was out of control and off the charts. I was developing diabetes, colitis, ulcers and fluid retention. My liver showed signs of massive damage and I was given a year to live IF I could not quit drinking. Maximum. Quit? They just shrugged.
One doctor was more blunt than the others, or maybe he still saw something that gave him some hope. “The liver can recover, you know that. Right?” I’m dressing to leave, have been dressed for a few hours. I hate hospitals. I looked at him carefully. “Even at this point?” He became more hesitant. “Sometimes, things can reverse themselves…” His sentence trailed off. He looked back at me. “You have to quit drinking.” It was a statement. Not a suggestion. If I wanted to live I had to quit.
By Mid-June of 2013, I was drinking again, more heavily than ever. They told me I would die anyway, so why not? I became worse, more disoriented, more sick, more dependent every day. I was a one-man horror movie as my friends and family looked on in utter disbelief. I drank in the mornings, at night, whenever I was conscience. I could not be trusted, not with a vehicle, not with a credit card, not with cash and certainly not with my infant son. I was literally In The Weeds, lost in a nightmare of helplessness.
Mid-August, 2013 found me nearly dead. I had done NOTHING to combat the disease. I did what AA said: “Distance yourself from alcohol. (That doesn’t work, it’s everywhere.) Don’t be around it. Eat whatever you want. Stay away from situations where you might be tempted to drink. You will always be an alcoholic. Don’t make any decisions. Only worry about yourself. Resign yourself to always being an addict dangerously close to spiraling out of control.”
After my second stint in rehab in August, I had to disagree. I had never, not once in my life, faced a challenge that I had not met head-on. My behavior was strange, puzzling, even to me. My parents were mystified. Where is the person that walked away from car crashes? Where is the person who played two football games with broken ribs? Where is the man that was a coal miner? Where is the rock climber? Where is the distance runner, the father, the husband, the brother, the son, the friend? Where did he go?
My wife begged me – please, please fight this. Her most heartfelt letter made me cry for hours.
So I did fight it. They only way I knew how. By being me again. My first day in a professional kitchen again was a haze of exhaustion and confusion. My ammonia levels were dangerously high, I had ascites and I was still terribly overweight and out of shape. I couldn’t lift a 30 pound sack. I was shaking so badly I cut myself to pieces for weeks. I didn’t quit. I would go home and sleep until the next shift started, then attack it the same way, transferring my frustrations with addiction into physical activity. I fell down steps, burned myself, dropped plates, dropped hot pans – but I soldiered on almost belligerently. It was all I knew to do. My coworkers watched me carefully, realizing I was a liability. Chef hired me knowing full well what he was getting, but for some reason he trusted me.
My wife and I argued over my shifts, argued over my hours, lack of pay, who would take care of Nolan. I took him to work with me once, in a backpack and stood on the cold side and chopped all day, only stopping to change his diaper and feed him. He slept peacefully most of the shift, lulled by the constant din and movement.
I wore out my shoes, my clothes, calloused, got stronger, more pain tolerant, less and less interested in drugs or alcohol. My doctors said I was crazy. My wife thought I had lost my mind. “WHY are you doing this??”
In April of 2014, I physically collapsed on our way to Maryland to visit family. I hadn’t touched drugs or alcohol since August of 2013, but I was very sick. My MELD score had catapulted me into UVA’s transplant center. I spent Easter week in the Anne Arundel hospital, wondering fuzzily where I was and why I couldn’t get up and go to work. Until my sense of place returned, the nurses mostly chased me back into bed. I told them I needed to get the prime rib started. I refused to eat the food – by the time I could handle eating my stomach had shrunk to the point I didn’t want to eat.
Momma Sue made steak and carrots. I remember eating slowly at first, then voraciously as my appetite returned. A slow anger started to burn in my heart at myself for allowing myself to be this unhealthy.
I drove most of the way home the next day, nearly six hours. I probably shouldn’t have been driving, but my pride was returning. My wife watched me carefully for signs of fatigue. I was tired, exhausted even. But I made it home. I stepped out of the car and up the hill to retrieve our mail from it’s box. I turned back to the car and a bright light flashed in my brain. I only registered one thought – someone has fucking shot me! It was the start of Turkey Season and it was a real possibility where we live.
I woke to the sound of my wife weeping beside me, crying out loud, “Please, Ron. Get up. I can’t pick you up. Please get up.” Blood was pouring from a cut on my forehead. I had been unconscious for nearly two minutes. I looked down at my wasted body, listened to my ringing brain and rage filled me like a fire. I love my wife. I love my child. I love my family. Why am I lying here in the dirt, bringing even further worry to my wonderful wife? I’m not shot – I just ran into the car door. Like a fucking idiot. Now my tiny beautiful wife was trying to drag my ugly, dependent body out of the dirt and mud as I lay there. Rage. Nothing but rage – and love, and shame, and honor slammed through me. I rolled over, placed my hands on the ground, and got up. I grinned at her, drove the rest of the way up our drive, and cleaned up the cut, showered, shaved and changed. Changed not only my clothes but my mindset. I was NOT a victim. Not any more.
I was devastated when they wouldn’t let me go back to work. I rested for days, becoming bored and irritating to my wife. I qualified for disability, by didn’t pursue it, feeling that would be a full surrender. I then attacked the disease with everything I had, daring it to beat me. I split wood, ate even more carefully, drank nothing but water and fresh herbal teas, concocted from advice given by my sister. I fought through the Ascites, trying to will it to go away. I started running again. I played with Nolan daily, feeding him as carefully as I did myself. He became tanner, tougher, leaner and grew faster. So did I. Laura stopped looking at me with pity and anger – instead there was pride and love there. That made me work harder. I wanted her to like me again, to love me, to realize who I really was. She had not really even met me before now. I was ashamed for what I had become. For my dependence.
The yellow disappeared from my eyes. My scars from hernia surgeries faded to a dull ache, easily ignored. I did hundreds of push-ups, pull ups and carried rocks to nowhere. I cut and split hickory, ran up the mountainside at night and swam in the river. I haunted farmer’s markets and ate pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables. I stopped using salt, period. No sugar, no additives, no preservatives, nothing pre-prepared. Nolan and I ate like kings: Ripe tomatoes, peaches, fresh bread, carrots, greens, local pork, dried beans, fresh berries gathered on our land, and fish caught by my father-in-law. Laura started sleeping better and the worry started to fall away.
My favorite nurse called this morning. They drew blood for a blood test yesterday and I did not bleed afterwards. I did not bruise. A month ago I had bled for nearly two days and bruised as if I had been hit when they ran the blood tests. I paced the floor most of the night, walking relentlessly up and down the drive. I did pull ups until I couldn’t get my feet off the ground. I couldn’t lift the sledge hammer. I finally slept.
My nurse, almost giddy, (I CANNOT stress how much my medical caregivers mean to me) told me my blood test results where the best they had been in over two years. My Bilirubin, 2.1, down from dangerously high levels to almost normal. Liver panels, normal. MELD score, 10: Down from 24 a year ago. I placed the phone back in its charger. I cried. My wife cried.
The fight is not over and never really will be. But I did get up. I did find myself once more, inside a body damaged and broken and sick. I can’t give up, and I cannot surrender. But today, I may rest until I become bored. Or I may get the chainsaw out and finish up the hickory. Every cook loves hickory.
-RM July 15, 2014