Facing My Fears: Hospitals and Fake Eyelashes
Being sober in AA helped me show up for my stepdad—and not freak out—when a scary mishap during surgery landed him in the ICU.
Trauma is the worst because you keep re-living it. After 9/11, I thought about the loud thud of the plane hitting the World Trade Center, the campfire smell in the air, and the tanks near my school. The same thing happened after my dad died. I constantly thought about the phone call from the doctor, and seeing his sneakers in a plastic bag with his toe tag tucked inside.
Another annoying thing is that the stuff associated with trauma also makes you scared and PTSD-y for a long time. For me, it was hospitals. They used to freak me out because they meant sickness and death. I couldn’t set foot inside them without having a very visceral, panicked response.
While my stepdad was in surgery, under anesthesia, he aspirated into his lungs, which is very bad.
Nine years ago, my dad passed away very suddenly of an aneurysm. I’d found out the day before that he was in the hospital and, since he had always been sick with something, I didn’t drop everything and travel the 400 miles home to be with him. I felt guilty for not being there for years afterward.
I was angry with God for putting me through such a traumatic experience, and that self-pity caused me to drink and do self-destructive stuff to try to get rid of the feelings. (Lowlights: coke, vomit, jail.)
Cut to last week. My stepdad had had a routine procedure. But while he was under anesthesia, he aspirated into his lungs, which is very bad. It means you throw up into your lungs and all the weird stomach fluid and stuff gets in there and burns your organs. (Think about when you were real drunk and threw up bile. Now imagine that in your lungs.)
I was at work when my mom called me. I ignored her call at first, but because she called twice (the international symbol for danger), I stepped outside and called her back.
Raised on a farm by German parents, my mom is not an emotionally vulnerable woman—so when she said something was wrong and that the outlook wasn’t looking good, I knew I needed to go immediately to the hospital in Youngstown, Ohio, to be with my family. There was no way I was going to let another dad die on me when I wasn’t there.
I get so wrapped up in my schedule, my little plans, what I think I’m going to do with my life. I thought, “Well, I have a meeting with my editor on Thursday and I have to get my six-year coin at the meeting on Friday. Non-negotiable.” But it’s funny how everything gets put into perspective in life-or-death situations. You strip away the bullshit and realize what really matters.
See, I live this artistic life where I try to force things to happen. When I’m at my best, I can internalize AA’s Third Step—turning my will and life over to the care of power greater than myself. But in these moments of pain and trauma, you realize it really is not up to you. And your stupid audition is NBD (no big deal) in the grand scheme of things.
People were telling us crazy stuff about my stepdad. He was on this amazing machine that takes all your blood out of your body, adds oxygen, then puts it back in so that your lungs don’t have to do any work at all. My stepsister-in-law, a nurse, said that only 5% of people on an ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machine ever come off of it. No one thought he would make it through the night. But I knew, as we were making the long drive to Youngstown, that it wasn’t my stepdad’s time to go. He had too much living to do.
If you’ve never felt pain or sadness before, then I suggest hanging out in an ICU waiting room, because there’s plenty of it. It’s not a fun place. In fact, it’s possibly the grimmest place ever, next to being at a funeral itself. But even that would be better because at least there’s certainty to a funeral. You know the person is dead.
We spent three days in the waiting room with a woman named Kimmie and her family. Kimmie’s daughter, Jessica, had sustained critical injuries from hanging herself while her boyfriend went out to buy beer. They weren’t sure if she had done it herself or the boyfriend had actually done it, so there were several cops in the waiting room with us.
The dad didn’t want to pull the plug, but the mom did. I heard her say that Jessica had been miserable and this would be a better option for her than living every day as an alcoholic and drug addict. I couldn’t help but think that this was what the Big Book means by “alcoholic death.” They made me grateful for my sobriety because I could have easily made my family suffer like that if I were still drinking and using.
Hospitals are still gross and smelly and emotionally raw, but I can sit in that emotion and not let it get the best of me.
That first night, I went to a meeting in Youngstown. The speaker asked my stepfather’s name and then offered to pray for him, as did a few of the other attendees. I found it a little Jesus-y, but they served chili dogs so I didn’t mind too much. And, wouldn’t you know it? They gave out coins, and I was able to get my six-year one after all.
But wait: Wasn’t I afraid of hospitals? How could I sleep in an ICU waiting room given my past history of panic attacks?
I’ve learned in sobriety that when I’m scared of something, I just walk through my fear. Here’s an somewhat less life-or-death example, but still: I wanted eyelash extensions for a year because I’m self-conscious about my small eyes. But I was terrified to have my eyelids taped down for an hour while the lashes were being applied.
On my birthday, I finally got the balls to do it. I didn’t feel a thing and they looked great! So, usually, if I have a fear, what I need to do is just walk through it so the thing I was afraid of can enrich my life. And the fear gets smaller and less intense than it was before, until it eventually is NBD and you can’t even believe you were scared in the first place.
That’s how it was for me with hospitals. I had some medical stuff where I had to be cool with having my blood drawn and going under general anesthesia. And now they’re fine. Don’t get me wrong: Hospitals are still gross and smelly and emotionally raw, but I can sit in that emotion and not let it get the best of me. I don’t have a visceral reaction anymore, and—more importantly—I don’t have to drink or use to make those feelings go away. I know I can make it through all of those things. I mean, if doctors and nurses can do it every day of their lives, then I can at least put a few hours in here and there.
Once I put that fear behind me, I was able to show up and be of service to the rest of my family. Fear and self-pity are about me. “Poor me, poor me, too bad I have to go through all this. Everyone feel bad for me.” The fact is, I’d do anything for my mom. And that means not just when it’s convenient for me.
Another thing is that you never know why you are experiencing certain things until later. My sponsee called me on our drive back to New York to say that her sponsee’s dad was in a similar situation and she needed to know how to handle it. It just goes to show that there is always a larger plan for what’s going on than what I can see.
Finally: That prayer shit works. My stepdad has now been released from the ICU. The doctor says he's a miracle. That makes two of us.