In the Temple of Discontent
The convertible top is down, and it’s still hot as hell. There’s no wind and the sun is whacking me like a sledgehammer. When I press the pedal to floor there’s a flow of air as the car picks up speed. It’s still hot air, but at least it’s moving. I pass a Hassidic Jew on a moped, his tallit flapping. His black hat and full-length overcoat seem like overkill in the afternoon sun. I signal and go around, slightly cutting him off. He honks his horn and flips me the finger. When I stop for a red light I see two Mormon missionaries trudging down the sidewalk in the blazing sun as half naked joggers run by in agony. Dressed in dark slacks, white shirts, black ties, with backpacks and little official nametags, the Mormons look miserable and as uncomfortable as the grumpy Hassidic on the moped.
It seems to be in the air. Everyone is miserable. Perhaps it’s in the stars. The planets are aligned with miserable. I know I’m miserable. I’m on my way to the doctor. My body is revolting. And no, not revolting as in being ugly enough to scare small children and beautiful women. No, it’s coming apart at the seams and I’m getting pretty damn tired of it.
Four months ago I was at the gym working out and felt an intense pain in my lower abdomen. I figured I’d pulled a muscle even though I hadn’t done anything different than usual. I limped around for a few days hoping it’d get better, but all I felt was worse. Finally I dragged myself to the urgent care clinic and stood in line with the other fifty or so people in need of urgent care. When I got to the intake window the triage nurse asked what ailed me. “I got a pain right here,” I said pointed northwest of my groin.
“From?” he enquired as he furiously punch the keys on his computer.
“I was working out, now I’m in pain,” I told him.
Two hours later I was in a small cubicle examination room and a doctor was poking me asking if it hurt and where.
“Dude, poke me again and I’ll show you pain,” I said.
“You got tendonitis,” he said and took his purple latex gloves off. “It hurts. It’s going to hurt for a while. You can’t work out. You have to take it easy.”
“It’s not only just there,” I said. “I’ve been aching all over. I don’t feel well. I haven’t felt good for a long time.”
The doctor looked over his glasses and said, “You’re getting old. That’s what happens.”
I said, “When did this happen? All of a sudden I’m old and everything hurts?”
He just shrugged and said the nurse would finish my paperwork and then left the room. I put my t-shirt back on and wondered why all the doctors looked like fucking kids. I’m not that old. I shouldn’t be thinking like this. I want a second opinion. I want to stop hurting. The fucker didn’t even offer me pain meds.
I brake for another red light, and stop halfway in the crosswalk. There’s a group of high school kids hanging out by the liquor store. The girls look like models, the boys look like track stars. I remember high school – we all looked like stoners. I had long hair and three chin hairs. All I wanted to do was smoke pot and drop acid. I don’t remember the girls looking like this. I don’t think anyone at my school ever ran, except maybe from the police.
Are these thoughts like old people have? Was that fucking doctor right?
My “tendonitis” never healed. But the pain lessened. After two months I thought it was okay to go back to the gym. My first sit-up said no, it wasn’t okay. I left the gym feeling dejected. Exercise is part of my routine, a routine that keeps me somewhat sane.
Nine and a half years ago I quit using drugs. And my depression, anxiety, anorexia, low self-esteem, and all around fucking insanity took hold of me with a vengeance. I couldn’t take it. I saw a doctor. I got on meds. I took the Prozac express. I got all happy. Shit just didn’t matter any more. And it helped me stay off heroin. I came to realize there was a difference between sadness and depression. I recognized the two, and didn’t dwell in the later. Everything was going all right. And then one day in downtown San Francisco I walked by a dead guy in a pool of blood that the cops had just shot and I didn’t feel anything. I was more concerned with what I was going to eat for dinner – take out, or stop by the grocery store – I got home and realized I should a felt something.
So I took inventory of myself. I had a few years clean. I wasn’t that fragile. I was okay with being alone. I didn’t need anybody. I didn’t feel anything. I couldn’t sympathize. I couldn’t empathize. The Prozac was numbing me like a motherfucker. I started thinking that maybe that wasn’t cool. It was good I wasn’t depressed or strung-out on drugs, but I didn’t want to be a sociopath.
I decided I should try living without anti-depressants. But I knew without them I would have to be extra vigilant in how I took care of myself. Because if I didn’t I’d be right back where I’d been and that wasn’t a fun place to be.
I changed my diet. I went all the way vegetarian. I stopped eating tons of sugar. I quit smoking. I started exercising. I hit more meetings. I started meditating with a bunch of crazy wannabe Buddhists. This allowed me to get off the Zac. I tapered off and then went cold turkey. I got a little weird. I got a little introverted. I joined a gym. I exercised with angry Asian lesbians and buff gay guys. I looked none of them in the eye and kept lifting weights. At night I jogged through my shit-hole South of Market neighborhood. Crackheads and winos stared out from behind dumpsters as I ran through dark alleys in a black Adidas running suit. I hit the organic food store. I ate healthier. I stopped eating wheat. I cut gluten from my diet. I gulped down vitamins supplements with filtered water.
I started seeing my doctor on a regular basis. He dug my routine. He ran hella tests. My numbers were good. I lost some weight. I had muscle tone. The hepatitis C I’ve had since I’d first stuck a needle in my arm way back in the late 70’s was practically undetectable.
My doctor said, “You’ve done an amazing turn around. I’m proud of you. But there’s a problem. You got high cholesterol.”
I said, “High cholesterol? Me? I eat twigs. I haven’t had a slab of fatty meat in years. I don’t eat fried chicken. I don’t do fast food. I exercise like mo-fo. What gives doc?”
“It’s probably hereditary,” he said. “There’s only so much diet and exercise can do.”
“What’s the answer?”
“There’s a new medication called Zocor,” he said. “It’s better than that old stuff.”
“Okay doc,” I said. “If you think so.”
I pull into the medical center’s parking lot. Take a ticket from the automated booth and park in the first available slot. I fucking love Los Angeles for its parking. San Francisco was so lacking in space. Crammed onto a peninsula there’s no more room and never anywhere to park. Businesses don’t have parking garages. Stores rely on street parking. Meters cost twenty-five cents for five minutes. It’s a fucking nightmare.
A tall Latina steps out of the car next to me. She’s dressed in black peg leg jeans, a black t-shirt, black converses, and carrying a black bag with a white skull on it. Her beautiful face is cadaver pale, black mascara lines frame her eyes, and her lips are a deep magenta. I get out of my car. I’m wearing the usual: black peg leg jeans, black t-shirt, converse all-stars, which are black, and a black bag with a white skull on a red star. My face isn’t too pasty white. My lips are whatever color my lips are. She looks at me. I look at her. We both laugh and she throws me a high-five.
“Looking good,” I tell her.
She leans into the car’s side mirror and checks her makeup. An old lady in a black dress and shawl with gray hair who I’m thinking is her mother comes around the car and grabs her by the arm. She starts talking in Spanish and I don’t understand the words, but I get the meaning of her gestures. The goth-girl looks over her shoulder and waves goodbye as her mother pulls her towards the exit never stopping her incessant chatter.
When I couldn’t exercise because of my tendonitis I started getting depressed. My routine was interrupted. It’s a routine I’ve kept up for the last six years. It’s a routine that works. At the same time there was all this uncertainty in my life. Some of the shit I was dealing with, but most I couldn’t do much to change. I had just moved to Los Angeles and really didn’t know anybody. My first book was done, and out there looking for a publisher. I was working a new job assistant teaching English Comp at a community college, and I wasn’t that sure of myself as a competent teacher. I’d left my NA support group in SF and was slacking getting one here in LA. I no longer had a crazy Buddhist group to meditate with. Members of my family were having health issues. Money was scarce. And ultimately I was alone.
For months I’d been feeling crummy and it was getting worse. My body ached, which I thought was due to not exercising. I had headaches. I couldn’t sleep. I was binge eating and freaking out about it. I started to have anxiety attacks. I couldn’t catch my breath. Even when I was breathing normally I felt like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. My last vice was coffee. I got a four shot latte jones. I thought, that’s okay, I’m not shooting heroin. What’s a little coffee? But lately it was setting off the anxiety.
I went to the doctor again. He asked me what was going on in my life. I told him. He said you’re stressed. You have to relax. I said that’s easy for you to say. He said here’s some pills. They were fucking low level benzos. Like baby Valiums. I freaked out. I got more stressed. I was having an anxiety attack over worrying about the medication the doctor was prescribing for my anxiety attacks. I’m a recovering drug addict. I can’t take pills like that. It felt like a relapse.
I called a bunch of people. I explained the situation. I talked about my fears and reservations. The more I talked, the more I understood what I was afraid of. It was old shit. It was the past catching up and sitting on my shoulders like the monkey that used to live there. My friends talked me down. They helped me out. I got a little insight. I worked through it.
One of my best friends said, “Come out to the desert. Hang out, relax by the pool.” I split LA. I hit Desert Hot Springs. I chilled with my friends. And for one of the first times in my life I took prescription medication as it was prescribed.
The anxiety slowed down. I caught my breath. The sun rose in the morning, and set at night. The sky was clear. The wind blew across the foothills smelling of sage and rustling the lemon trees. Bunnies and quails with goofy looking headdresses ran around the backyard in a feeding frenzy. The pool was warm, the water embracing. My friends were there for me, supportive and unobtrusive. It was all so damn serene I didn’t know what to do with myself. But LA – my life, my writing – was calling. So I hit the I-10 west at a 100 mph heading home feeling almost like a new man.
The doctor’s waiting room is crowded and claustrophobic. The nurse looks at me through the glass window and lifts her hand gesturing me to wait. In the corner a mother holds her screaming child and stares up at a soap opera that’s playing on the flat screen TV that’s attached to the wall. Two ancient looking geezers talk rapidly in a strange language. A Ritalin kid runs in circles. Three large black women laugh and carry on like they’re at home in their living room. I take the only vacant seat between a morose family of four, and a dorky looking dude who’s reading a IT textbook.
Feeling uncomfortable I take out my phone and check my email. The dork leans over. I look at him. He looks at me.
“3G, or a 3GS?” he asks.
“3G,” I answer.
“8 gigs, or 16?”
“What, you taking a fuckin survey?” I say and go back to my email.
“Mr. O’Neil,” yells the nurse. She’s standing in the doorway beckoning me to into the nurse’s station. I get up and follow her. She tells me to put my bag down and stand on the scale. I stare at the digital readout as the numbers flicker and come to a stop. I weigh ten pounds less than I did a month ago. The nurse writes this down on a chart and then sips from a liter of “Code Red” Mountain Dew. She’s short and rather rotund. Usually after I get weighed she points to the height/weight ratio chart on the wall and tells me I’m fat. This time she has nothing to say.
“What’s the reason for your visit Mr. O’Neil?”
“I’m dying,” I say.
Whenever I did anything even remotely physical my body ached. I’d work on my car, replacing the valve cover gasket, or change spark plugs, nothing that strenuous, and I was in pain for two days. Every time I moved I involuntarily groaned. I was developing a smoker’s cough, and I don’t smoke. My back and neck ached from sitting at my desk writing. My muscles were either tense or fatigued and twitchy. My hands were always stiff like with arthritis.
“Am I getting old?” I asked myself one morning as I sipped my latte and read the newspaper. An offshore oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was leaking. The oil company’s response was that it wasn’t that bad and they’d have it fixed and cleaned up before it became a problem. Of course, this being the L.A. Times, it was overshadowed by an article on whether indoor tanning was addictive. Crowded into a short half column below the fold in the Health section was a reprint of a Consumer Report article on Simvastatins – a widely prescribed medication for combating high cholesterol. Reports were coming in that the drug was causing major problems in 1 out of 10 people. These problems were anywhere from mild muscle atrophy, to a total breakdown of muscles, including the heart, and kidney failure. The symptoms listed were eerily similar to my own: chronic muscle pain, fatigue, headaches, insomnia.
I got up and checked my medicine cabinet. My medication, Zocor, was a Simvastatin and listed in the article as one of the worst. I’d been taking it for almost two years. I called my doctor. He wasn’t in. I emailed him. I mentioned the article, I told him about my symptoms. I asked him if this had anything to do with why my tendonitis hadn’t healed. I said I have a suspicion this medication is killing me. I read the article again. I stressed out. My neck hurt. My abdomen ached.
The next day my doctor sent me an emailed. He said, “Stop taking Zocor immediately.” I threw the shit in the trash, and then spent the next few days feeling worse than I had in a long time. It felt like withdrawal. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t hold down food. I couldn’t sleep. I was sweating buckets like I had the flu.
“What do you mean you’re dying?” asks the nurse.
“First you guys try to kill with your pills. Now I got pain in my lower abdomen. If I eat it hurts. I haven’t taken a shit in days. I’m gonna explode.”
“When’s the last time you ate?”
“About three days ago,” I say and glance at the bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on her desk.
The nurse looks horrified. I don’t think she’s worried about me. It’s more the prospect of going without food for three days that scares her. “I’ll get you into the doctor right away,” she says and pats my shoulder.
After I kicked the Zocor, I started feeling better. Better than I’d felt in a long time. My muscles didn’t hurt and I was sleeping. But I had no appetite. The only thing that was the least bit appealing was white rice and avocado, maybe with a little tamari sauce. I ate a small bowl in the afternoon and drank a lot of water all day long. A week later I felt great. I still wasn’t eating but I felt good. I went out to a movie with a friend and then we went to dinner. It was an organic vegan restaurant. I ordered salad and brown rice pasta with a little soy Parmesan. I figured it was simple enough. It tasted good. I felt I was finally going to be okay. That night I woke up in pain. My guts were on fire. The area where my tendonitis was supposed to be was inflamed, tender to the touch, and there was a pain running up and down the back of my leg. I started freaking out. I drank some water and went to back to bed expecting to die.
The next day was Sunday. My doctor’s office wasn’t open. I moped around through the day and the next morning I called and made an appointment.
The examination room is small, bland, and noncommittal in its efficiency. There’s notices taped to the walls about flu shots and frequent check-ups for diabetes and breast cancer. On a shelf are those old-fashioned glass jars with chrome lids, filled with wooden tongue depressors and cotton balls. Does anybody even use those any more? I’m sitting on the examination table. My legs don’t touch the floor. I swing my feet like a kid and wait for the doctor. It’s not going to be my primary care doctor because he’s not available. It’s going to be yet another doctor I’ve never seen.
I used to love being left alone in examination rooms. I’d riffle the cabinets and steal handfuls of syringes and those little packets of alcohol wipes. I once took a vaginal speculum. I didn’t know what it was. I just thought it looked fearsome and cool. But these days there’s nothing here for me. I just wait for it to be over so that I can leave. Hospitals and medical buildings seem so rampant with disease. Everyone is dying, or sick. There’s hand sanitizers everywhere you look. An older man in the waiting room had a surgical mask over his nose and mouth. I don’t want to touch anything. I just want to go home.
The doctor comes in. We look to be about the same age. I tell him my tale of woe. He nods in all the appropriate places. I take my shirt off and lay back on the examination table. He presses down on my abdomen and asks if it hurts. I tell him it does. He says he’ll be right back. He’s got to consult my charts and check a few things. I say okay and lay there looking up at the florescent light on the ceiling. I’m thinking I have a hernia. I’m thinking I have cancer. Or maybe appendicitis, ulcers, kidney failure, pancreatitis, or a gastrointestinal carcinoid tumors. They’re going to put me in the hospital. I’m gonna fucking die a slow painful death. Who’s gonna water my goddamn plants?
The doctor comes back and sits in a chair by the door. He looks overworked. He looks tired. “You didn’t tell me you had Hep C,” he says.
“Old news,” I say.
“I’d like to draw some blood and take some x-rays,” says the doctor. “But I’m pretty sure you’ve got diverticulitis.”
“Diverta-what?” I say.
“It’s a common digestive disease, usually in the large intestine,” he says while taking off his glasses and cleaning them on his shirtsleeve. “Small pockets, or pouches form on the colon. They get infected and then inflamed. It hurts a lot.”
“What kinda medication do you prescribe for this vertalitus thing?” I say as visions of unlimited scripts of Dilaudids dance through my brain.
“Antibiotics, lots of water, and then a high fiber diet,” he says. “But first we need to get you x-rayed and have blood drawn to make sure.”
I’m in the basement pharmacy looking at the prescriptions the woman is showing me. “Do you want a pharmacist to go over the instructions with you?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I take the pills, what else is there?”
The pharmacy is crowded. There’s no windows, no air, and the overhead lights glows a weird yellow. I grab my pills and head to the elevator. I want out of here. I want to breath air. The elevator is slow. I jostle a little old lady on crutches and step over two kids who won’t get out of the way when the door opens.
The x-rays didn’t show anything. There’s no cancerous tumors, no hernia. The results from the blood tests, whatever they were for, won’t be back until later. My “tendonitis” was actually an acute case of diverticulitis. The side effects from the Zocor were adding to the symptoms, making it difficult for the doctor to diagnose. But I can’t help thinking it has somehow caused this problem as well. I buy a bottle of water from a vending machine in the lobby and take the antibiotics. There’s two different scripts. Both pills are big, white, and chalky. They taste like shit and my stomach immediately turns.
I walk outside into the hot sun. The entrance to the parking garage is in the shade and there’s a cool damp cement smell when I enter. I walk across the ground floor, then get in my car and pull out of the parking space. At the booth I pay the attendant and then the gate rises and I slip into the afternoon traffic on Sunset Boulevard. The 99¢ store, 7-11, a dozen gas stations, a million liquors stores, Home Depot, sixteen and a half Thai restaurants, one Arby’s Roast Beef, The Palladium, The Arclight, Amoeba Records – I pass through Hollywood heading towards home. At Cahuenga I stop for a red light and watch a woman in a short halter-top dress and high heels flounce across the street. The dress is so tiny it looks like she’s naked and I catch myself staring. Studies have suggested that most addicts stop maturing when they start using drugs, and that when they quit their maturing process begins again. I feel like I’m twenty-one going on a hundred. I have never considered myself old until a doctor said I was. I have never tried to kill myself with a medication that didn’t at least get me high. But a doctor prescribed me a medication that was tearing me apart. What the fuck do doctors know?
The body is supposed to be the temple of my soul. I’m not talking religious shit here. I’m just saying that since I got clean off drugs I have tried to treat myself, and my body, with care and respect. Which is a total new concept for me. But somewhere along the way I lost sight. I bought into the ideals of Western medicine. Take a pill. Treat the symptoms. Don’t look at the cause. Ignore the root of the problem. I had begun to reverse this process when I stopped the antidepressants. Yet, when faced with more ills the concept once again seemed so inviting. In reality it is such a dope fiend maneuver. What do I need to do to fix it? Nothing, just take some pills. Ooooh that’s so easy, gimme.
I park the car behind my building, get out and lock it. I got a pain in my abdomen, a pocket full of antibiotics. I may go for a run. I may just go inside and lie down. I got the rest of my life to live, and I have a pretty good idea how I’m going to start doing it.