Eddy Got Your Back

Back when I was living in New York City and studying for my MFA, I nearly lost my grip on reality. It was nuts; I was basically insane with anxiety. I was living on the verge of a panic attack and suffering from what they call agoraphobia–a fear of leaving my apartment. I know it sounds crazy, but I had this irrational dread of just “upping and dying”–of a brain aneurysm or heart attack–while out in public. Sure I was afraid of the actual dying process and all, but what really bugged me was the thought of croaking in front of a bunch of gawkers and causing a big, embarrassing scene.

One evening, early in my glorious, two-year stint in the Apple, I got a preview of this humiliation after fainting in public from a panic attack. It was a perfect finale to a terrible day. It happened right in front of my apartment building while I was out smoking my nightly cig with my boy Ed the doorman. Ed was a good conversationalist–kind of opinionated, but not too bad. He really did want to be your friend. He was honest and well read and not the least bit afraid to throw out the deep shit. Ed was straight off the boat from Russia and lived like 2 hours away in rural New York state where he fished every day. He had a brother who was a great photographer but also a wicked heroin addict. Which was painful for him to talk about.

Anyway, Ed and I were just ripping a few butts, kind of shooting the breeze, as usual. Ed was doing pretty much all the talking as I really wasn’t feeling well. He had gotten on the topic of Eastern European women, and was explaining why they are the sexiest women in the world. It was too bad that I was in such a shamble, because I probably would’ve had some fun with Eddy on this subject–playing devil’s advocate and such. Anyway, I’m sure he was making a compelling argument as usual, but I was pretty preoccupied. Earlier that day I’d given a forceful presentation on Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That which had consisted of two words–“I’m blanking”–before briefly apologizing and sitting right back down. And I couldn’t stop reliving the scene–the embarrassment my peers felt for me, and my professor’s response: “How about a little more intellectual rigor next time?” (“Gee, thanks professor. I appreciate you pointing that out, because I totally thought I just hit a homerun. How about you chug my cock and like it next time? Go write another dry, boring-ass piece for the New Yorker, you absent-minded fuck.”)

Anyway, that whole incident was fueling the toxic thoughts that seemed to suffocate my mind all the time in those days. Like how I would never amount to anything as a writer because writing was too hard for me. Like how I was destined for failure. Like there was no guarantee that I would end up successful or even just all right. That there was no God or force out there to keep me company, let alone safe. And that, despite what the doctors were telling me (that I was okay), I was sick and dying. How could I not be? I couldn’t stop shaking and twitching, and all that weird cramping and the fatigue–it couldn’t possibly be purely mental… It was all too perfect: Andrew White–a golden boy athlete from a respectable family–struck down by Parkinson’s or ALS or some other horrifying malady in his prime. Once his health left him, his looks went, and before long he became an obscure, wheelchair-bound object of pity. His life really ended when he split with Annie.

I fully expected that by the time Annie returned to the Northeast from her yearlong, service commitment abroad, I would have received whatever terrible diagnosis I had coming. I could picture her eyes welling up with tears as I told her the news (terminal cancer, maybe, or at least MS). She wouldn’t cry too badly at first, but as soon as she was alone, away from me, the floodgates would open and she would become hysterical. And because, for my sake, she wouldn’t want me to see her that way, I wouldn’t be there to hold her. I would try my best to break up with her right then and there, to free her from this sinking ship. I would tell her to go on without me, to have children. And I would never see her again, though I would never stop dreaming about her, either.

Anyway. As my brain marinated in this all-too familiar cloud of uplifting thoughts, I began to feel sick to my stomach. Ed’s voice began to irritate me. Why was he talking so loudly? Ed, I don’t give a shit that the Eastern European woman’s foot tends to run a full size below the average American’s. Boom–my nausea escalated from 7 to 60 in about 2.2 milliseconds. I seriously chucked my cigarette and started to book it toward the street so as to not puke right in front of Ed and my apartment building where it would make a nasty scene. My last thought was, “I’m not going to make it.”

Seconds later, I woke up, feeling incredibly rested, as if I’d been out a full night’s sleep. As I came to, though, I heard Ed wiggin’ out: “Andrew, Andrew, are you okay? Are you epileptic?” My head began to throb, and my eye socket hurt like a bitch. Blood was really pouring out pretty good from a gash above my eye. Holy shit, I just fainted! About a dozen other tenants were now huddled around me, too. Squawking like chickens, half of them. One of them said she was calling 911. But I really didn’t want that, and I begged her not to call an ambulance. I was mortified enough and couldn’t deal with being the center of any more spectacle–even if it meant dying.

Ed understood what I was thinking, I think. He had my back. The cool bastard that he was, he listened to me. I’m pretty sure of it, anyway. And I’ll never forget it. Had I died or something that night, he probably could’ve been sued or at least fired. But he listened to me and told the other folks that I was going to be fine and to put their cell phones away. Then he basically carried me to the elevator and helped me to my apartment.

I’d write more about that night–like what happened next and everything. But to be honest, it really didn’t end up being all that interesting from that point on. Basically I just rested a bit, drank some water, then took a cab to the hospital and got an IV.

“Dehydration,” they said.

The Big Bald Wolf

Unfortunately, I’m going bald, and it really sucks. No one has really noticed yet, because I’m on Propecia, but I’m telling you, it’s only a matter of time… While the “receding” nature of my appearance bothers me way too much, what has—and will continue to—really set me apart has little to do with my looks, and lots to do with my neurosis. I have one of the most absurdly ferocious cases of hypochondriasis this side of the Mississippi. And this is why my friends laugh in my face when I tell them I have cancer (again (only a different type this time)) or that I’m losing my hair.

“Andrew, have you ever heard of the placebo effect?” a friend recently teased after I entrusted him with the sensitive information that my head would look like George Costanza’s were it not for my popping pills.

“Yeah, but I’m telling you, man, it doesn’t apply here. I really am going bald.” I usually try not to offend people, so I opted not to put the second part of my thought to words: WebMD is my fucking homepage, you condescending prick; of course I’ve heard of the fucking placebo effect.

But, really, I have no one to blame but myself for others not believing me anymore about any of my various health issues—even those, such as male pattern baldness, with mere cosmetic consequences. After all, over the last decade or so, I have miraculously survived about 37 terminal illnesses.

I guess I’m like the boy who cried wolf, only not a bastard like him, because I really do think I see the wolf each time. Or at least I hear him, er… Maybe I just sense his presence or something. But I swear, he’s there. And, I’m sorry, but he’s scary. I’m too young to die, and, I don’t know, I just don’t want to be maimed or anything. It’s bad enough that I’m going bald.

As petrified as I am of the wolf pack lurking in the dark corners of my body and mind, waiting to sink their fangs into my jugular, I really do see the humor in my neurosis when I’m with my friends. They get such a kick out of it, and we laugh about it all the time. It’s therapeutic for me, it really is. Which isn’t to say, though, that even in the throes of our belly laughter, I don’t forget about the fact for one instant that any fun we’re having is a mere band aid—not a cure—for that faulty valve in my heart or those rapidly multiplying cancer cells in my pancreas.

Only God knows how many years I’ve pissed away (and taken off the end of my life) for worrying about afflictions. I’m 33 and so far I’ve had Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease* (that was a tough 3 years), MS, ALS, various cancers (of the penis, testicles, lungs, brain, and throat), Liver Disease, exercise-induced asthma, a mysterious heart condition (manifest in palpitations and an array of other sensations), Lyme’s Disease** and, most recently, Sarcoidosis.

My battle with Sarcoidosis wasn’t quite as tough as the others because I was wise enough to limit my research into the malady***. And although it was a paralyzing fear (not disciplined restraint) of a devastating prognosis that prevented me from learning more about what I was up against there, it was a brilliant move not to study up on this illness as I have on countless others. My lack of knowledge on Sarcoidosis helped me keep my fear of it in check (And while ignorance wasn’t even close to bliss, it at least enabled me to hold out hope for that slight chance that the illness would at least give me a few more years to tidy things up in this life and make preparations for the next.).

Thanks be to God, my fear of Parkinson’s and a few of the cancers I’ve claimed have been put to rest by the fact that I’m still alive and don’t yet seem to be incapacitated (though, like my first neurologist (who I fired) infamously said: “I see no evidence of Parkinson’s. But… Everything starts somewhere****.). With my Sarcoidosis scare, though, I actually caught a bit of break. Five or so months into my bout with this obscure ailment, my fear of it was mercifully stopped in its tracks by a few young MDs in Boston.

The docs were pals with my brother, who I was visiting in Beantown. The four of us went out to dinner one night. The plan was to get a bite to eat and then hit a few clubs. I was psyched; (I’d rather club myself in the face with a nine iron than go clubbing, but) I love hanging with docs. I could pick their brains until the cows come home.

Anyway, before we entered the restaurant, my brother stopped me outside the front door and made me promise not to get all weird again. I don’t know, I guess one time when he was in law school and living with a med student I got really drunk and pulled down my pants because I had this little freckle on the head of my rod that I thought might be something serious. (But that’s neither here nor there.) I promised my bro I’d behave and we headed inside.

An hour or so into dinner, once the docs were good and liquored up, to a point where I figured they might not notice how crazy I am, I made my move. And I have to give myself credit; it was pretty subtle.

We were on the topic of football, and I smoothly inserted the following remark: “Hey—by the way, did you guys hear that Reggie White’s fatal cardiac arrhythmia was induced by his Sarcoidosis? D’you hear anything about that? That’s a pretty rough disease, eh? Sarcoidosis, I mean?” I took a deep breath and waited to hear how much longer I had to live.

The docs looked at one another, baffled, and then at me (like I had three heads).

“How the fuck have you heard about Sarcoidosis? Are you studying for Med School?” one of docs asked.

“Oh, no, I just um, I don’t know, I—”

Then my brother sold me out. “Andrew’s a bit of hypochondriac, and he’s convinced he has Sarcoidosis, among other things.”

The other doc chimed in: “That’s pretty impressive that you’ve even heard of Sarcoidosis. But I can all but guarantee you don’t have it, because…”

He went on to list about 10 reasons why I don’t have Sarcoidosis, but I can’t remember what they are. I was too elated to hear anything he was saying. But I did catch the cherry on top.

“And even in the highly unlikey event you do have Sarcoidosis, all you’d have to do is go on steroids and you’d be just fine.”

A miracle. I could not believe it. I took a deep breath, and all the stress left my body. My muscles limbered right up as a wave of relief massaged me from head to toe. And then, just as I was flagging down the waiter to order a celebratory round of shots, the doc continued: “But you really need to chill out, my man. All that worrying is going to make you lose your hair.”

Epilogue: If after reading this piece you don’t believe me that I’m going bald, you are as insane as I am. Some people look great bald. Heck, they look better bald. But the shape of my head is ridiculous—not to mention I have moles, birthmarks, and scars galore. The scars, by the way, are from pre-cancerous growths removed by one of my first dermatologists (and, really, Lord knows if he got it all).

*Michael J. Fox remains a hero and inspiration to this day.

**I was actually hoping for a positive diagnosis on this one as it could’ve helped explain away various symptoms that are also associated with serious neurological disorders. Unfortunately, not one of my Lyme’s tests has ever come back positive.

***Upon my inaugural visit to the official Sarcoidosis website, I was greeted by the imposing figure of the great Bill Russell, arguably one of the best basketball players of all time. Frankly, it scared the shit out of me. Bill Russell is a legit dude who wouldn’t be wasting his time advocating for just any pansy disease. So I slammed my laptop shut and chucked it out the window before reading another word.

****Really, guy? Why not just leave it at “I see no evidence of Parkinson’s?” Why even mention the second part? It’s called “bedside manner,” you numbnut.