For Christmas a few years back, my parents gave me a netbook, one of those weird little contraptions that look like a laptop computer, but aren’t quite full-featured enough to really qualify as one. (The biggest difference, as far as I can tell, is that netbooks have no optical-disc drive, so there’s no ripping or recording of CDs and DVDs with them. And yes, I know nobody does that anymore, and I just dated myself and reinforced my reputation as a late adopter of the latest and greatest, to which I say Good.) It’s come in handy a few times — for example, I took it with me to California to cover the 25 Hours of Thunderhill endurance race for The Daily Derbi — but the truth is, I rarely use it, in large part because I can’t figure out what, exactly, I ought to be using it for. And also because it’s annoyingly slow and kinda clunky. Which means it mostly gathers dust on a shelf in my Inner Sanctum.
So imagine my surprise and delight when I opened it up the other day and discovered, stashed away in the Recycle Bin for who knows how long, a text file called “43.” If you’ll recall, “Forty-Three” was one of the lengthy blog entries I was unable to recover following last year’s server crash, the one I wrote on the occasion of my forty-third birthday, which recounted the big medical adventure I’d undergone in the previous nine months. I’d thought it was gone forever, evaporated, and I literally felt my heartbeat speed up at the thought of finding a copy of it.
Now, it’s not unusual for me to begin an entry in Notepad and finish it here on the blog platform, so I briefly threw the brakes on my enthusiasm, figuring that whatever was in that file was probably incomplete and I shouldn’t get my hopes up. At best, I’d be able to get back a few more paragraphs than I’d had before.
Well… I got lucky. Astoundingly lucky. As it turned out, the forgotten file contained the whole thing. The complete entry, beginning to end, and even a couple of random notes I’d jotted down as I was planning out what to say on the subject.
I was overjoyed. I mean, in the long run, it’s not that big a deal; it’s not like this one entry is the most beautiful piece of writing I’ve ever created or anything. But it is the only complete accounting I’ve ever made of my diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes and my subsequent journey to get my health back in order. I’m sure you’ll understand how that’s a story I’d kind of like to hang on to.
I’m going to repost that story here, if you’ll forgive my self-indulgence; I thought about just dropping it back into the original entry, but I’ve decided instead to keep the record of what was lost, and what’s now been found again.
Sadly, the Girl with the Grey Eyes and my lament for the passing of analog movies remain MIA, as do all the other lost entries. But beggars can’t be choosers, can we? I’m happy to have rescued even this one piece.
And now… “Forty-Three,” originally published on October 29, 2012:
Just to bring you all up to date, I turned 43 a little over a month ago.
Friends and long-time readers know that I don’t especially enjoy my birthdays. Not anymore. I used to. My old photo albums are full of pics of me holding up the latest cake designs for the camera and looking happy. I used to anticipate the landmark rite-of-passage-type birthdays as eagerly as any kid ever followed an advent-calendar countdown to Christmas: becoming a teenager at 13, getting my driver’s license at 16, adulthood at 18, finally able to buy booze — legally, that is — at 21. For some reason, I recall 25 was kind of a big deal too… my silver anniversary, I guess. I had a quarter-century behind me and the main engines were still burning, all systems nominal.
Then something changed. I started having a problem with birthdays when I reached my thirties. And they got to be really difficult for me when I hit 40. Other people tell me they see birthdays a chance to celebrate life, or at least a good excuse to have a party. But for me they have become depressing reminders of time lost… no, time wasted… and dreams unfulfilled. As I wrote on the occasion of last year’s birthday, “there’s just too much baggage now, too many disappointments and regrets. Too much understanding that a single lifetime isn’t enough for all the things you want to do, and if you avoid making tough choices when you’re young — as I did — you might not get the chance to do some of them.” Since turning 40, I’ve also realized, as I further elaborated at the beginning of this year, “that while there may always be possibilities — as Mr. Spock so frequently counseled us back in the days when Star Trek was relevant — the probabilities of a great many things are shrinking for me.” Pretty hard to party hearty with that sobering truth lingering in the back of your head, isn’t it?
It probably doesn’t help that my birthday falls around back-to-school time, with all the bittersweet memories and melancholic feelings that stirs up, and the waning sensations of summer to amplify the sensation of time slipping away.
And yet, strangely enough given all the discontent and self-loathing that usually accompanies this annual observance of my failure to live up to my potential, this year’s birthday… wasn’t bad. Certainly it arrived with considerably less sense of utter defeat than in years past. Maybe I’m just becoming resigned to middle age, irrelevance, and mediocrity. But it’s also entirely possible that my forty-third trip around the sun was so traumatic that the formal demarcation of its end might have come as more of a relief than a reckoning. Seriously, the past 12 months have been… well, they’ve been something, that’s for sure.
For starters, there was my dad’s emergency gall-bladder surgery, an unexpected, frightening, and difficult-to-accept demonstration of parental mortality. Then there was The Girlfriend moving in with me. Don’t misunderstand my intentions for including that event on this list. It’s been a good thing, and it certainly was a long overdue thing, but it also turned out to be a much bigger adjustment than I expected when we first started talking about it a year ago. We’ve been a couple for so very long, I guess I just figured that cohabiting wouldn’t be that much of a change. Kind of nice to know I can still be so naive at my advanced age, isn’t it?
However, the big news in Year 43, the thing that’s loomed over every other event of the past nine months, is an adventure that began around the end of January when I learned that something I’ve long taken for granted — my good health — wasn’t quite as good as I’d believed.
Don’t worry, I’m okay. But circumstances have required some major lifestyle changes.
I should probably note that up until 2012, I hadn’t been to a doctor in, oh, somewhere between 15 and 20 years. Why? Well, that’s somewhat difficult to explain. Or at least difficult to explain in any way that doesn’t sound completely asinine in hindsight. A major factor, to be certain, was that I spent a considerable number of years without any insurance, and, in a cruel twist of all-too-common fate, I also wasn’t earning enough during those years to feel like I could afford the out-of-pocket expense for routine visits. I gambled — or rationalized, I suppose — that it wasn’t too important at that stage of my life, because I was relatively young, so surely nothing major could be wrong, right? Later, when I finally landed a decent job that offered some reasonably priced coverage, I was frankly out of the habit of going for yearly check-ups, and I felt just fine and anyway I really didn’t have the time to take a day off to go sit around in a waiting room with a bunch of sick kids. And besides it had been so long since I’d seen the last doctor, I was sure I would need to find a new one, and that was likely to be a total hassle and how the hell do you go about finding a doctor you like, anyhow? You get the picture. The bottom line is that I didn’t go to the doctor for a very long time. Eventually, it got to be something I just didn’t think much about, and when I did… well, I’ll be honest, I was afraid of hearing bad news, or at least of getting a lecture on how I shouldn’t have put things off for so long, and if there’s anything I hate, it’s having someone wagging their finger in my face and telling me how I’ve screwed up. Stupid, I know — damn foolish pride. And probably pretty damn childish, too. But that’s how it was.
Then, one afternoon following his gall-bladder surgery, my dad brought home an automatic blood-pressure cuff, one of the simple, do-it-yourself variety you can buy at Costco. We were sitting around the kitchen table admiring the new gadget, and Dad handed it to me and said, “Here, boy, give it a try.” So I did, and the results were… unexpected. If Dad’s new toy had been equipped with flashing lights and sirens, it would’ve been announcing DefCon 1. So, you may be wondering, just how high was it? Do the numbers “212 over 126” mean anything to you? If not, let me explain that both of those are supposed to be roughly half of that.
I don’t know what my expression was like, but Mom and Dad both looked as if Godzilla was coming down street, incinerating the neighbors’ houses with impunity. Then Dad — who was diagnosed with type II diabetes about a decade ago — thought it might be wise to see what else about me might be… sub-optimal. He got out his glucometer, pricked my finger, and that result was… also alarming.
Mom and Dad immediately started haranguing me about getting into a doctor’s office. I was hesitant. Not because I wasn’t taking the situation seriously — believe me, I was; I was crapping my pants, to be honest — but given I didn’t have a regular doctor anymore, I wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed. And to further complicate matters, I was due to leave in exactly one week for a Hawaiian cruise with The Girlfriend and her parents. I promised my folks I’d deal with this immediately after the cruise, but that wasn’t good enough for them. (And I have to grudgingly acknowledge they were right not to let me procrastinate… but don’t ever tell them that.) So my mom called her and Dad’s doctor and begged him to take a look at me. He had a full docket and wasn’t accepting new patients, but under the circumstances, and given Mom and Dad’s long relationship with him, he agreed to give me five minutes. And it really was just about five minutes, at the end of which I left his office with a prescription for blood-pressure medication and an appointment for a full physical when I got back from Hawaii.
It wasn’t exactly the most restful vacation, let me tell you… especially since I’d elected to keep this news between Anne and myself, so her parents had no idea what was up. I wasn’t ashamed or anything — not exactly — but I wasn’t prepared to talk about it much. Especially not until I knew exactly what I was dealing with.
Well, to make a long story somewhat shorter, I had my physical in February, as well as a couple of elective tests, and was ultimatley diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type II diabetes, just like my dad. I could no longer ignore the obvious: that I am a middle-aged man with some serious problems. Or, as my new doctor so charmingly put it (in a misbegotten attempt to lighten the mood, I think), I was a walking time bomb. I had a lot to think about in the coming weeks, and a lot of work to do to try and salvage the situation, all coming on top of the challenges of learning to live with someone (Anne moved in mere days before the cruise).
To again condense the narrative a bit, I’m doing fine now. I’ve made a lot of changes to my diet and my lifestyle, I take six pills a day (the doc even threw in something to help with my gout, as long as he had the prescription pad out), I bought my own Costco blood-pressure cuff and glucometer, and my various metrics are all right where they ought to be. I wasn’t aware of how bad I used to feel — if you’d asked me a year ago, I honestly wouldn’t have believed anything was wrong — but I can’t deny that I feel better now than I did last Halloween. I used to get frequent headaches, which I blamed on eyestrain because my job involves so much reading. I don’t anymore. I no longer feel my heartbeat throbbing in my head when I get stressed out. And you know the expression “seeing red” when somebody gets angry? I used to literally do that. It was like somebody dropped a colored filter over my eyes. No longer.
Those symptoms were all due to the high blood pressure, of course. The diabetes, on the other hand, didn’t really come with any symptoms, at least not any I took notice of. I didn’t have any of the classic warning signs like unquenchable thirst or blurry vision. I was urinating frequently, but I’ve always done that, as far back as I can remember, so that wasn’t anything alarming. My completely uninformed guess is that maybe I’d only recently crossed the threshold into diabetes shortly before we caught it, and my glucose numbers never got high enough to trigger the usual problems. But that may be wishful thinking; I really don’t know. In any event, my glucometer tells me it’s under control now. And honestly, I know I’ve been lucky in how easily I brought it under control, at least compared to what some people have to endure. None of the changes I’ve had to make have been terribly onerous. Diet-wise, I mostly just cut out candy and desserts and switched to Diet Coke instead of the fully leaded stuff. I choose whole-wheat bread and pasta when I can get it, and I no longer eat potatoes or white rice. And I try to take a good long walk every afternoon. As I said, nothing too difficult, and so far at least, these measures seem to be sufficient.
There have been some definite positives to come out of all this, too. The most obvious is that I’ve lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 pounds. I can’t say for certain how much I’ve lost, because I started dropping last fall before I was aware of the diabetes and I failed to take note of my starting weight. (Unexplained weight loss is another warning sign, but I didn’t know that then, and was simply pleased to think I had dropped a few pounds.) But I do know I’m back to about what I weighed when I graduated from college 20 years ago. Needless to say, I feel pretty good about that. It’s done wonders for my ego, actually, and I’ve had a lot of fun trying on old clothes that I’ve saved essentially as souvenirs, never imagining that I’d someday be able to wear them again. (Of course, the flip side is that a lot of more recent favorites are now too big for me to continue wearing. It’s always something!) Also, on a less tangible level, I find I’m generally a lot less irritable than I used to be. Things just don’t seem to piss me off the way they did, although I can’t say if that’s a physiological thing or just some hard-won perspective about what’s really important and what’s not. And my dilemma — and what I’ve had to do to cope with it — has inspired Anne to do something about her own weight and health as well. So in a weird kind of way, the ‘betes and the high BP have resulted in a lot of good for the both of us.
Even so, I’ve had a very rough time coming to terms with this. Before now, I haven’t wanted anyone outside my immediate circle of loved ones to know about it, and I don’t know why. Diabetes and hypertension are hardly uncommon, after all, and there’s no good reason why I should be embarassed about having them. It’s not like I caught the clap from a two-dollar hooker. But even though everyone I’ve confided in has been quick to remind me diabetes runs in my family, and most forty-something people have some kind of medical issues to face, I can’t help feeling like I really screwed myself hard. I spent a lot of years living on Ding Dongs and Red Vines, and telling myself I really wasn’t fat because I wasn’t Jabba-the-Hutt fat like some of the poor folks you see shuffling around out there. I did what I’ve always done: I procrastinated and looked the other way and tried to pretend I was still an immortal nineteen-year-old, and it finally caught up with me. And these problems are never, ever going to go away. I’m going to be taking these damn pills and watching what I eat until the day I die. Which I worry may be a lot sooner now that I have these problems. As I said, the diet isn’t really all that bad. But the psychology of having to follow it anyhow really gets me down: the knowledge that I now have to be vigilant and make choices and weigh the consequences of my actions, and be prepared to make up for the occasional splurge. I no longer have the luxury of being carefree about what I put in my mouth. And I fucking hate that. My numbers are stable enough I can get away with having a slice of pie or something once in a while… but I always feel guilty and worried after I do. And that well and truly sucks. I can’t tell you how I’d love to just mindlessly shovel down a package of Oreos while watching a movie, the way I used to… but of course, that’s how I got myself into this mess. One Oreo, one Hershey bar, one piece of cake, one fistful of M&Ms, one bottle of Coke Classic, one pint of beer, one mound of white-flour spaghetti at a time.
So, yeah… getting back, at long last, to the subject of my birthday, I suppose it shouldn’t seem at all strange that I had an easier time getting through it than in years past. After all, how could any single day of self-reflection possibly be any worse than months and months of that?