I remember being a little kid, and learning what happiness was. Sure, most people know what happiness feels like, and I'm no exception. But I'm talking about that blissful happiness you see in the movies, too. The kind where tears of joy stream down the face of the happy person, because they're just so overwhelmingly pleased about something. I recall trying to make myself feel as happy as the people in those movies, and as happy as I assumed others were, but I could never be that joyous.
I would sit up, at 3am and onwards, staring into the TV, wondering why I couldn't be as happy as other people were. Wondering why things had to be so difficult, every day, while other people got to be happy. Pondering whether the only tears I'd ever cry would be sad ones.
Anxiety was my respite from sadness. Not anxiety like somebody gets before a date, or during an exam, but a fear so intense that it literally made me collapse. My oasis in a desert of depression was a crippling surge of terror that would come at unpredictable and frequent times.
But then I found a way to get some of that happiness for myself. No, it wasn't religion, nor was it from a bunch of platitudes like "True happiness is inside us all." No, it was a real solution. A solution that worked, and was known to work because of the science behind it. Some of it came from maturity, but a lot of my newfound ability to feel joy came from drugs. Antidepressants, and other medicine, to be precise.
Yes, beautiful, magnificent, trialled, tested, and approved by science drugs. Some may say "But drugs aren't the answer. They're unnatural, and true happiness comes from learning to listen to what your body and mind need." But those people are deluded. Now I can be joyful, from time to time. I can have days where I'm not afraid to leave my room, and days where I can go to school, and I can do many things I could never have done before.
I'm not cured. I may never be cured. I may never be able to do everything that regular people can do, but that's ok. Because compared to how I was, and how horrible life seemed, now I feel free.
I take you back to a Friday in August of 2007. My half yearly exams for the HSC start on Monday, three days away. I’m at the gym, doing a regular workout and talking to my friends. I feel good. A little sick in the stomach, but I’d upped the weight on a few exercises, today, so I figured I was just worn out.
As I’m walking on the treadmill, doing my cool down, I start to feel more nauseous. Having an intense fear of vomiting, I panic a little bit. I walk home, still living less than 100 metres from the gym, at this time.
Over the next two days, up until Sunday, I don’t remember much. I have little pieces of memories. I do recall kneeling next to my bed, resting my head on the mattress. My knees hurt. I look down at them, and they’re bleeding a little, like they’ve been grazed. I find out much later that they were bleeding because I’d been in this position for over 24 hours, possibly without sleeping.
It’s now Sunday. My family are pretty worried about me, so they tell me that we’re going to the hospital. Despite how nervous hospitals make me, I figure that this is a good time to go to one, so I eventually agree.
We’re now in the car, on the way to the hospital. My step dad is driving. Each little bump in the road results in intense abdominal pain, like my innards are being torn out, and there are a lot of bumps on this journey. I ask if we can slow down, and try to avoid going so quickly over the rough patches in the road, but my parents insist that we need to get to the hospital quickly. There’s concern on their faces. Concern and fear.
We arrive at the hospital. It’s night time, now, and the waiting room is busy. I feel weak, and it’s difficult to walk. As we make our way in, everyone in the waiting room stares at me. They look shocked. It’s because, although I didn’t know it, I looked like a corpse. My sister tells me that I was thin and that my skin was grey.
We’re told that we’ll have to wait to see a doctor, so we all take a seat. I start to feel really hot. That’s not unusual for me when I’m feeling anxious, so I assume that I’m just really nervous, because I’m sick and in a hospital.
My step dad helps me outside. It’s a cold night, and sitting in the cold usually helps me to feel better. I’m so weak at this point that he is almost carrying me. He helps me to sit down against the hospital wall. I ask him what’s wrong with me, even though I know that he has no clue, either. What I’m thinking is “Am I gonna be ok?” I don’t remember what his reply was, but I don’t think it cheered me up.
After some time passed, I try to stand up. I can’t do it. My legs just won’t move enough to even try, and they feel kind of numb. Now I’m scared. I rub my legs, hoping that they’re just asleep or something, but I finally have to say to my step dad that I can’t walk.
I’m now in a smaller room, talking with somebody who works for the hospital. I don’t remember how I got from outside to in here, and it’s hot. The hospital employee is asking questions about what symptoms I have, how I’m feeling, and other standard stuff like that. But it’s too hot. I tell them that I can’t stay in this room, because I’m about to pass out from the heat. They tell me that it’s actually chilly in the room, but that I can go to the bathroom to wash my face with water.
I’m in the bathroom, splashing water over my head. I don’t remember how I got in here, but I don’t care. It’s so damn hot. I’m told that I need to come back and answer more questions. Now I’m back in the hot little room. I try to sit there, but I can’t. I need to go back to the cold water. Now I’m at the bathroom sink again. Now I’m outside the little room, sitting on a movable hospital bed. They’re trying to give me an examination, but I keep trying to go back to the bathroom. I feel like I’m in an oven.
Eventually, after I’m noticed spending too much time in this bathroom, a nurse starts rebuking me. I’m told that other people need to use the bathroom, and that I need to stay out of there. I apologise, but explain how hot I’m feeling. After trying to reason with the nurse, and having my parents yell at her for abusing the sick kid, she says that if I don’t stay out of the bathroom, she’ll have security escort me out of the hospital.
At around this time, a doctor notices me, probably because of all the commotion. I’m not very aware at this point, but I’m told that the doctor had seen my swollen abdomen, and said that I needed surgery right away. At this time, I though that I’d been waiting about 30 minutes. It had actually been around five hours.
I was put onto a hospital bed, and wheeled away toward the operating theatre for surgery. I’m terrified of needles, and even more terrified of general anaesthetics, but I was in no condition to argue when they told me that I’d be having them. Meanwhile, my mother was told to sign a form, because if she didn’t sign it, giving the doctor permission to do surgery, then I’d probably be dead by the following day.
The surgeons performed exploratory surgery, making a large incision down my linea alba (basically the middle of the abdomen, because it’s a safe place to make a cut). This is the first cut, leaving with me the largest of my scars. This scar would have been even larger had they not found the problem before having to do more cutting.
The problem that had caused all this trouble was an intestinal ischemia and infarction caused by a volvulus. Or, in simpler terms, part of my small intestine has gotten twisted in a bad kind of way, which blocked off its blood supply, causing it to die. This meant that most of my small intestine (around 80%) had to be removed. Then a smaller incision was made on the left side of my abdomen, because an ileostomy would be performed. Meaning my small intestine would poke through my abdomen, instead of draining into my large intestine.
I wake up. I’ve been in a medically induced coma for four days. At this time, I don’t remember where I am, why I’m here, or what’s happened. I’m told by a nurse that I’ve had surgery, and that I’m in the hospital. She says that there are tubes in my throat that need to come out. At this point I notice the tubes.
She tells me to look straight ahead and brace myself, since the tube coming out will make me feel like vomiting. I panic, but can’t talk, because of the tubes. I motion that I’m ready for the tubes to come out. The first to come out is the one in my mouth. As she pulls it out, I feel like a vacuum cleaner is cleaning my oesophagus, and I now understand why she warned me about the vomiting-like feeling. The next tube is the one in my nose. This one is less unpleasant to have removed, but I’m left with throat mucus in my nose, and it tastes like shit. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
I’m in the intensive care unit, an unknown time after having the tubes removed. I’m hallucinating, and delusional. When the lights turn off, I’m transported to another world. Sometimes I’m on a wooden pirate ship, other times I’m a mountain range, and can change my snowy mountains to whatever shape I wish. Later I figured out that it was just my legs under a white sheet, which looks like snowy mountains to someone using a large amount of morphine. I did have some adventures in there. The strangest part was being given a blood test on that wooden ship. I’m usually afraid of needles, but that thing was a fucking harpoon when I was high out of my mind. I also hadn’t slept in three days.
At a similar time, maybe before, maybe after, I get very thirsty. But I’m told I can’t have any water yet, for some reason. This is the most thirsty I’ve been in my entire life. My friends come in to visit me, and are parched after their long walk, so I see one of them guzzling some Gatorade near my bed. They don’t know that I’m not allowed to have any water, and I do have a drip in, so I’m not angry with them. All I can think about is how many people I’d murder just to have that drink. When I complain enough about being thirsty, I’m given some ice the suck on. I could have had sex with that ice. It was the best ice I’ve ever had.
The next few weeks are blurry. Both because I don’t remember much of them, and because my vision was literally blurred, since I was being given morphine. During this time, I try to deal with how disgusting my own body looks to me, now. I also recall having a morphine button to press if I needed more, which directly controlled the dosage I was given through a drip, but the control would beep and light up when I’d reached the maximum dosage I could get from it. It was never enough. I was told by a woman who’d had a minor version of my problem that the pain was worse than labour, and this woman had given birth a few times. And I had it for weeks.
I wasn’t allowed to eat for a while. My body just couldn’t deal with digesting food, so I was given nutrients via a drip. I didn’t know if I’d have to be attached to these machines my whole life, and if I were, I doubt I’d be able to work out. I was losing weight, not gaining it. I was wasting away, and I was terrified that I’d never be able to go to the gym again. I know to other people that’s not a big deal, but it was and is important to me.
Coughing was something I tried to avoid, despite how dry my throat would get. I was now being given food and drinks, but if I coughed, I’d immediately vomit. That’s a hard association to forget. And I couldn’t eat a lot. Being given all your nutrition intravenously for about a week will reduce your appetite somewhat.
I was moved to a private hospital in Sydney when I’d recovered from the surgery enough to be moved. This was to better treat my condition, since there was a particular surgeon there who was more knowledgeable than most about my problem. I was told that I’d be having a second surgery, in order to reverse the ileostomy, reattaching my small intestine to my large intestine. Quite obviously I was afraid of having second surgery, but it was eventually agreed upon that the surgery would take place in several days.
Despite knowing that I would no longer need it in a few days, a nurse took it upon herself to teach me how to change my ileostomy bag. This had been done a few times by nurses over the previous days, but this time I wasn’t being given high doses of morphine. So I had the post-surgery pain to deal with, plus now a heavy handed nurse removing something essentially glued onto my abdomen around a recently added surgical incision. It felt like she was peeling off my skin. My mum yelled at her, saying that I didn’t even need to learn this, but the nurse wouldn’t listen. If I ever see that nurse again, I’m gonna punch her in the fucking face.
They cut through my linea alba once more, though this was a smaller cut, since they knew where to cut to get the job done. My intestines were rejoined, and there was no more surgery to be done. I was days away from being allowed to go home, and I was optimistic. I had gone from weighing 85kg to weighing 65kg. But after six weeks of rest, I could safely begin working out again.
When the day finally came to be released from hospital, I was nervous. I’d been in a hospital room for about a month, and although I’d been walked around the corridors for physiotherapy, I hadn’t left the hospital. As I was wheeled out of the hospital in a wheelchair, still not able to walk more than a few metres, I panicked. I didn’t like being outside. I wanted to go back to the hospital room. But my parents kept reminding me of what I couldn’t do if I gave up and went back. How I couldn’t go back to school, how I couldn’t have a normal life, and how I couldn’t go to the gym. So I got in the damn car.
The road back to my house wasn’t as bumpy as it had seemed on the way to the hospital, all those weeks ago. And when I actually got home and was able to be in my own room again, I felt pretty happy. I walked more that day than I had in the past week put together. I had to actually be told to sit down. I felt better than I had in a month.
After waiting the minimum several weeks, I had a new goal. I was gonna put back on 20 kilograms of muscle. And I was gonna go back to school. Obviously, I first got back to school, after about two months of sitting at home. Many people thought that I’d died, and were very shocked to see me suddenly reappear in class. Nobody had the story of what happened to me right, so I had to tell it a few hundred times, sometimes adding a circular saw or knife fight in for fun. But their ideas were even crazier. A few people thought I’d gotten sick by eating tuna.
In case you’re wondering, yes. I did accomplish my second goal. It took one or two years, but I got back up to where I was regarding my fitness. I now weigh around 85kg again, and I work out regularly. Unfortunately, I have stretch marks on my arms because of just how quickly I did it. And no, I didn’t use steroids or anything.
My eating habits are pretty normal. I’m not on a special diet or anything, though I try to eat well. I don’t have any regular problems with my intestines, either, even though I have about four metres of them, and the average adult has around 8-11 metres. So things turned out ok for me. I got my HSC (though not with spectacular marks), I got to keep on exercising like I wanted to, and the whole experience has given me more confidence in my ability to do things.
I still don’t love the way my body looks, what with being heavily scarred, but at least I’m alive. At least I don’t have to be attached to machines for most of the day in order to stay alive. And now more than ever, when somebody says to me that I can’t do something, I’m just a little more inclined to disagree with them.