Level 3: Pepto-Bismol


“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.”

—Bilbo Baggins

Although it was strange, there was nothing new about CRA. Healing through applied forces like touch, thought and breath had been practiced for as long as man had roamed the earth. To the Hindus the centers of the human body were represented as Chakras, in England the signs of the zodiac dominated one organ or part of the body and for the Chinese there were acupuncture points. Massage therapists would tell you that by rubbing the left buttock you were actually releasing the lower back, which was connected to a sense of loss. There was little evidence to back up their claims, but these beliefs had been around for a long time.

In Renaissance times white witches grew gardens choked with plants others shunned. They harvested them by moonlight and prepared balms, salves and dried bunches of herbs to be applied during rituals while they invoked the name of Christ. These traditions had been passed down through the ages, mostly by word of mouth, mostly from mother to daughter, until the forbidden lore emerged in the modern era as a reaction to the failed promises of traditional medicine.

And so it was that I was raised to semi-adulthood by a Jesus-worshiping white witch who unwittingly continued to practice the customs of the matronly seers of old. I downed supplements and drank filtered water while canning green beans in the heart of suburban Colorado. I had almost never received a vaccination, taken an antibiotic or even gone in for a physical. The only time I’d seen a doctor was when I broke a bone or went to the dentist, tore out a knee or had some kind of hernia or other. The doctors handled the big stuff – windshields, fenders, paint jobs – but when it came to fine tuning, my mom was in charge. If I got sick, which I almost never did, my mom would tell me to stand like broken Jesus and with a few touches, some supplements and a little time, I got better. My mom hated doctors. She would tell them I was deathly allergic (deathly allergic!) to every sulfa drug. I didn’t know what sulfa drugs were, but over time I began to suspect she knew enough about what happened in hospitals to purposefully axe the nastiest tools in the doctor’s arsenal. Not because I was allergic, but because she didn’t want her precious little baby going anywhere near the poisons of modern medicine. My mother, the nurse.

In me, her loathing of traditional medicine with its quick fix, minimize the consequences and move on attitude translated into a sort of medicinal indifference. On May 12, the night the Nuggets lost to the Lakers, I was a 32-year-old man-boy who had never once in his life had anything remotely approaching a headache. This was not poetic storytelling math, I was not making the stew tastier, this was as precise as an engineering student could be. Thirty-two years old. Zero headaches. If only the Nuggets had that record.

To me headaches were something for other people. When a friend complained about her migraines and downed a pill, I cringed inside and thought, “Just drink some filtered water and take a nap, you don’t need that stuff.” In my mind, medicine was a crutch weak people took because they couldn’t handle the pain. I used to be a bit of a jock, something of a rising star in a little game the Europeans called football, you might have heard of it. It was the most popular sport in the world. No big deal.

I played right wing for the premier team in the state in my age category, which was whatever age kids were when they were in 6th grade. I had no ball handling skills, but I was fast as greased lightning. If you weren’t already dropping back before they passed the ball, I’d blow past you and there was nothing you could do about it. I couldn’t score to save my life but the coach loved to see me run past those defenders, then whiff my shot on goal, so he kept me on the team and I always started. After practice, when my friends popped open a bottle of Aspirin, swallowed a few, then offered some to me, I would shrug and ask, “Why?” I didn’t mind a little soreness. It was good for you. It made you tough. Pills were crutches and if you relied on them too much your body got lazy and stopped taking care of itself. You would recover more slowly from soreness and get headaches more frequently.

This was my mindset on May 12 when the Nuggets lost to the Lakers, and at 32 and 0, I had the record to back it up.

Three days later things had changed. Something was wrong. I was hurt and the usual methods weren’t bringing me back. My mom was a nurse and a holistic healer and to date her methods had always worked, but it wasn’t working anymore. The pain was increasing; the nightmare had become more powerful. Something was growing inside me and it knew the game better than I did. But I was smart. I was a thinker. I could figure this out.

My stomach and intestines hurt and they were a part of the digestive system. What you put in your mouth went through your digestive system, which was how you brought healing to your body. But I couldn’t keep water down – even if I took tiny sips, even if I sucked on ice. Eventually a critical mass built up and I began vomitting. There was something down there blocking every move. Were there other moves? What if I introduced something new into the system? What if I gave it something it hadn’t seen before? Like a calming reagent, something that could lull it to sleep. The bastard couldn’t stay awake forever and he had been pounding me for three days. He had to be tired. Even assholes needed to sleep.

Pepto-Bismol is the medicine of pop-culture. Its realms are youth and fame. If Pepto cures your sickness you were not really all that sick to begin with. Pepto wizards worship youth and money, they know that their strength and brilliance will win the day!

What about medicine? Medicine was a crutch for weak people and after three days of lying naked on a bed in a dark apartment in Denver – I was pretty weak. Maybe I needed a crutch. Just a little one to get over the hump so I could drink some water. What about Imodium AD? Was that for upset stomachs or heartburn? Probably heartburn. What about Pepto-Bismol?

I hobbled over to my computer and turned on the screen.

Did You Know? During the 1920s, Pepto-Bismol was sold at drugstore soda fountains.

OK.

The medicine we now call Pepto-Bismol was originally developed more than 100 years ago by a doctor in his home.

That seemed holistic.

Pepto-Bismol once treated a disease called “cholera infantum,” which caused severe diarrhea, vomiting or even death among infants.

Once treated it? As in the pink liquid had eradicated a disease all on its own? Severe diarrhea and vomiting on a level so bad it could kill a baby? There was no way I was as sick as a dying baby, plus I hadn’t pooped in days, I just needed the vomiting part and I’d be good to go. This Pepto stuff was fucking amazing!

This was how little I understood the marvels of modern medicine. An ignorant, naked Gollum, shriveled and decrepit, painted pink by the glow of the Pepto-Bismol website. Hunched over a keyboard in a dark apartment, searching for a way to get back his Precious, searching for a way to drink some water.

I was a shade of my former self. Three days spent desperate and alone, forgotten in an apartment downtown. Like a wretched old man, I dressed myself and hobbled to my car. I found that my skinny jeans, the ones that had always fit a little too tight, now fell off me like the fat man pants kids tried on at Goodwill when they wanted to crack each other up. Even the pressure from the elastic band of my boxers was painful. A belt was out of the question. I shuffled along holding my pants up like a suspender-less grandpa, trying to look cool, trying to look like someone who was not in pain.

My car was parked half a block away. I made it, but paid for the effort with some nasty dry heaves. This was going to be harder than I thought.

Open the door.

I could do this.

Open the door.

Got it! Yeah man, yeah!

Started the car. There it went, easy as pie. Halfway there. Soon this would all be over.

I drove to the neighborhood grocery store and sat in the parking lot, catching my breath. I waited for a gurgle, which signaled a break in the pain. I had five minutes in poetic time until it started up again and at least 15 before I was moaning in the aisles of King Soopers. I didn’t want that, so in and out, quick as you pleased. Plenty of time. Easy as pie. And once I’d gotten the Pepto, this would all be over.

Unfortunately, I had this thing about parking. I almost always took the first space I saw, even when there were  closer spots directly ahead of me. I liked to walk. I was impatient. I’m not really sure why, but I’d never been a fan of close parking. The lot at my local store was small, crammed in between a school and two coffee shops. Just four rows of parking.

I pulled into the third row from the entrance and got out. The effort made something to snap. I doubled over and held back a groan, then reeled against it and stood up straight so no one would think I was weird. Strangely, the pain subsided. Shell-shocked, I stood next to my car and judged the distance to the entrance.

My car, another row of cars, the driving lane in front of the store, a row of parking and then the entrance. Not far, but there was parking in front of the store, maybe it would be OK to use the handicapped spot for a minute? I had a decision to make. Would I get back in my car, secure a closer spot and risk that snapping thing again, or gingerly close the door and go for it? I had always been the go for it kind of guy so I went for it. This proved to be my first mistake.

Grandmas with ball canes moved faster than I did as I shuffled that inconsequential distance across the parking lot. I must have looked ridiculous holding my pants up and trying to stand straight. I made it into the store and grabbed a hand basket. Then I realized my second error. I had come in through the wrong door. I was in the produce section.  The Pepto was on the other side.

OK, no big deal, maybe I could turn this mistake into an opportunity. The clock was ticking but there was time. After the Pepto-Bismol had cured my vomiting, I would be able to drink water, but I still hadn’t eaten in three days. Food seemed like a long way off but I could get a Naked Juice or something. Then, once I was downing water like no tomorrow, I could follow it up with something tasty that had calories. That way I could stay in my apartment and heal instead of making another trip to the grocery store. This was my third mistake. There would be three more before I collapsed at the self checkout and a stranger would help me to my car.

I made it to the cooler section in the produce department without incident and realized I had struck gold. They had these new containers of Naked Juice and they were enormous. A full 64 ounces! That 64 ounces was a scientifically accurate number. I know because when I wrote this, the bulk of the container was sitting in my fridge waiting for Zach and Samantha to come over on June 4 and guzzle it down before they went to watch Oklahoma City beat San Antonio in game five of the Western Finals.

Aside:

In our story we are in the past tense and it is Wednesday, May 16, but I am writing about something that happened (Zach and Samantha coming over to drink my juice) less than an hour ago.

Aside to the aside:

When I wrote this, writing in the past tense about things that had just happened seemed amazing to me. In reality there was nothing special about what I was doing. I was writing about the past in the past tense, just like every author since the beginning of time, but the medications the doctors had given me made everything seem profound.

It is now just after Christmas of the same year I got sick and I’m going back and editing my pages in preparation for self-publication. It’s hard not to laugh at the crazy person I became that summer. He was an idiot, but he meant well. I hope you’re enjoying his less than profound insights as much as I am.

Back to the aside.

Right now I am writing Chapter 3 of a memoir that began as a Facebook post to let my friends, family and boss know why I disappeared, but under the influence of sleep deprivation and Prednisone Madness, it turned into a book. I have only slept 17.5 hours (Scientific Time. I’ve been keeping track of everything with crazy, scribbled notes) in the past 6 days (5.5 of them this morning, baby!) My writing has always been plagued with tense errors but now I am writing about present events in the past tense while tripped out on some of the most powerful medications known to man. I have to look carefully at every “was” to make sure it’s not an “is.”

Elizabeth is an editor who works for the Sweeney Empire which I introduce in Chapter 5. She is unstoppable. One time she was editing a 30 page document written in legalese for one of my clients. This was the densest, most horrifying kind of boredom imaginable and she rooted out every error including a double space between the end of one sentence and the beginning of another. I had to turn on Show Hidden Characters just to see what she was talking about, but she had noticed the slightly wider gap on a piece of paper! Elizabeth, like all of my invincible weapons, is amazing.

I’ve begun to identify with Gollum on such a deep level that I keep typing “We” instead of “I,” and have to go back and change it through bleary, tear-soaked eyes. I’m currently trying to hire my friend Elizabeth to edit my pages before I post them to Facebook just in case I’ve gone insane and what I’m writing isn’t as good as the imaginary people keep telling me and I’m actually stuck in a padded room somewhere and this is all in my mind. And it’s going to keep happening because I sit in my chair and write furiously for hours at a time and when my googley eyes can’t focus anymore, I lay down and wait in darkness for them to heal while I plan out my next move. Crazy shit, man.

Back to the story.

But at the time I was delighted. Once the Pepto cured me I would feast like a king. I had to decide what kind of Naked Juice to serve at my banquet. Blueberry? Holistic folks were nuts about blueberries and I had been schooled in their healing properties since childhood. The jug was 10 bucks but that was OK, I had been through a lot in the past three days.

I put the bottle in my basket. A twinge of pain tingled my gut. This was tactical error No. 4: carrying a heavy thing. At the time I didn’t know if the weight of the delicious juice had set me off or if this was the keychain-sized Swiss Army knife again, but either way, I was on a timer and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by moaning in front of everyone at King Soopers.

On the way to the other side of the tiny grocery store I had plenty of time to think up new ways of slowing myself down. Naked Juice was kind of thick, pretty substantial if you thought about it. I probably wouldn’t be able to go straight from water to Naked Juice. I would need an intermediary. But what?

Orange Juice?

No.

Lemonade?

Yikes.

Apple?

Apple seemed like a good idea. One a day kept the doctor away. The juice was on the same side of the store as the Pepto, a nice two-for-one. I was back on track.

I wondered if anyone took notice of my tiny steps. If they could tell I had lost weight. Were they in any way concerned by the specter of a man who passed them in the aisle on his way to impending salvation? Probably not. Everyone had problems of their own and a skinny guy walking slowly wasn’t anything special.

In and out. Quiet as you please.

I worked my way through the floor displays and shoppers and eventually reached the medicine aisle. The pain was back but it was manageable. I just had to get the Pepto.

Snag! Easy as that! We had our cure.

I shuffled three aisles south to the juice where I greedily snapped up two more 64-ounce apple juices (a feast fit for a king) and put them in my basket. Mistake No. 5, baby. Get ready.

That snapping thing happened again but I’d felt it before after I climbed out of my car. I was beginning to learn my opponent’s tactics. He had watched and studied me for years, recording and waiting while he gathered his strength, he had to know I wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice.

Instead of doubling over, I arched my back immediately with a sort of twisting bend to the right. The pain was there, waiting to strike, but as long as I kept my back stiff and twisted and didn’t bend, the pain was stuck. It couldn’t go anywhere.

With one hand I gripped my skinny jeans and in the other I clutched a basket full of juice (162 ounces) and Pepto (8 ounces). With a groan and a lurch I began the back-arched twisty shuffle across the neighborhood grocery store to the other side where the self-checkouts and exits were. I had given up all semblance of looking cool. I was a broken, walking, fool of a wretch, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t still be awesome, right?

Life Lesson No. 1

Anything Can Be Cool or Show Your Hand

People get embarrassed about many things, but they don’t need to. The secret to being cool is to own what you have, whatever that may be.

Let’s say there’s a nasty goiter thing on your nose and it’s so big with a hair growing out of it that when people meet you they do a double take and then won’t look you in the face. You could play the game and pretend with them that it wasn’t there, or you could introduce yourself, “Hello, my name is Jane, and this thing on my nose is Tarzan.” Then you could give a quick description of why you hadn’t already removed it and move on. It puts both parties at ease when the elephant is out of the room. It also applies to less extreme examples like farting, downed zippers and Coca Cola stains on your shirt. You see, people are afraid of pain and most kindhearted types are as scared to inflict it as they are of receiving it. They don’t want to hurt you by staring. But Anything Can Be Cool is not just about being cool. There’s a deeper truth here. Acknowledging a situation relieves the tension.

Why?

Imagine you’re playing a hand of Magic: the Gathering down at the Wizard’s Chest some Friday night. The board is played out and you want to swing in with all your creatures. Your move will be for lethal so long as your opponent doesn’t have a combat trick like Terrifying Presence to prevent all that damage. You’re two games in on a best of three and going into this you were both undefeated. Whoever wins this game takes first place and so earns the first pick of the night. Some kid opened a Tamiyo, so you’ll be grabbing a card you can sell back to the store for $20, which pays your entrance fee for tonight and the next night. Your opponent  is playing a Moonsilver Spear and you don’t have any fliers, so if this goes on for another turn, you’re dead unless you miracle Thunderous Wrath from the top of your deck.

Intense, right? You don’t even know what’s going on and you’re sweating. It all comes down to this: does he have Terrifying Presence in his hand? Alternatively, is the next card you draw the one you need?

Now. What if you knew what he had in his hand? The situation would be very different. Win or loose, there would be no butterflies in your stomach, only triumph or acceptance. That tension is fear, and it is an important instinct. We need it in order to survive. Without it, the animals would eat us. The thing is, this fear is irrational within the context of a complex social situation.

In the natural world, a false negative costs you nothing. A loud bang goes off, you think it’s a gun and turn excitedly only to realize it was just a door slamming in the wind. You turn back to what you were doing and move on. You spent nothing but a little adrenaline and some time.

In a different scenario, a loud bang goes off and it is a thug in an alley with a bat who is running at you and slamming dumpsters along the way. He’s cracked out on meth and wants to bash your head in from behind, but you’re right in the middle of sending a text to your grandma to thank her for the box of wild rice that arrived in the mail that day and you don’t turn around until it’s too late. This is a true negative and because you failed to identify it, you lost your life.

For living things it is better to be afraid of everything than nothing, (squirrels practice this all the time) but this principle doesn’t work in complex social situations. This is because complex social situations can’t kill you.

We’re hard-wired for fear and that’s a good thing, but somewhere along the line the circuitry got mixed up. Some people have figured it out and overcome it. Others live lives of seclusion.

A life of quiet seclusion is not a bad thing unless you wish you were living a different kind of life. Are you a teenager living in fear of the popular table? Are you a middle-aged man whom whishes he had a girlfriend? You can change these things if you want to.

What is it that’s holding you back? This will take boatloads of honesty, but think about it. What are you afraid of? Acknowledge it. Being cool isn’t about having perfect clothes, it’s about helping other people feel comfortable around the clothes you do have. If you want to dress outlandishly that’s fine, but know that some people might need a little help coming to terms with your fashion choices. So dress crazy (I do) and then help people understand.

If you feel your peer group is rejecting you, know that it is probably because there is tension and that this tension is probably fear that got mixed up in the survival instinct. It might be something as simple as them being mean to you because they’re afraid you’ll be mean to them. If this happens, show your cards. Let them see you’re not sitting on a Terrifying Presence.

Back to the story.

I began the zombie-shuffle-juice-bottle-pants-clinched walk across the store and smiled and winked at people, “Hi. Don’t worry, it’s not AIDS. Sick man, coming through! Don’t worry, I’ve got my Pepto!”

I yucked it up and waited for that impending pain thing to fade. It was still there when I got to the self-checkout and as I approached an open scanner, I realized I had a new problem. The bottom of the basket with its 170 ounces of healing tinctures was lower than the ledge one placed the basket on. I had figured out my enemies’ tactic and countered with the one position where he couldn’t harm me, but now that position was the problem. I was pretty sure the basket was too heavy to lift without shifting something out of whack, thereby unleashing another cracking pain. Was my enemy holding a Thunderous Wrath or was this a bluff? Fear crept into my heart.

Brilliant move, dickhead. You’ve been watching me a long time, haven’t you?

I had two options, test his hand or ask for help.

I was a master of Anything Can Be Cool, believe me, I did not mind asking people for help, but after almost three days of constant vomiting and pain in a dark studio apartment where even changing positions in bed was a chore, I was worn out. The thought of turning around, catching someone’s eye, explaining my hilarious and terrifying situation and then standing there while they gingerly unloaded my juices from the basket was too much. I made my final mistake and lifted the basket. I tested his hand.

Bang. Check and mate. No $20 card this time. See you next week.

The pain surged and I let out a muffled moan. The basket clatter-bounced to the ground with a dull thud and I let go of my pants, holding them up by spreading my knees so that I could steady myself on the self-checkout’s screen. Someone came up to me. I didn’t want to see who it was. She asked me if I was alright, “Please help me.” I whispered back. She did, but I couldn’t look at her.

My opponent wasn’t done. He decided not to take the $20 card with his first round pick. Instead, he grabbed Life Lesson No. 1: Anything Can Be Cool. The Gentle Angel who helped me to my car, who scanned my groceries and swiped my card; I never saw her face. I was too ashamed to look at the person who was helping me.

Somehow I made it home. Or, more accurately, to a parking spot on a shady street half a block from my apartment. I should have driven around the block to the front of my building and seen whether or not there was a closer spot with fewer shuffles, but I had this thing about parking…

I sat in the car and moaned and cried and listened to talk radio for at least three commercial spots. I waited for a gurgle to release me from the pain then grabbed my elixirs and shuffled back to my dark apartment, which still glowed softly in the pink light of the Pepto-Bismol website.

I had made it.

The Cracks of Doom loomed ahead of me. I approached, existing simultaneously as Frodo and Gollum. The Precious was near, we could tastes it.

I contemplated whether or not to down the whole bottle or take the recommended dose. I settled on a big shot that drained the taper to the spot where the fat part curved into the narrower body. I hadn’t planned such a perfect pour, but I knew it had happened because the unfinished bottle was sitting in my fridge when I wrote that sentence. I made a plan to paint that bottle and put it on the cover of the book if I ever finished it.

I thought about the soothing graphic of pink healing pouring down my creamy esophagus, it coated the gentle bulge and taper of my wonderful stomach, then trickled, bit by bit, into my lower intestine.

Relieved, I took off my oppressive clothes and shuffled into bed. I had done it. The armies at Morannon would have to fend for themselves; I had gone as far as I could. I lay down and waited for my eagle.

Violent, explosive, eruptive pain.

I ran to the bathroom. Pink slime erupted from my mouth like water balloons fired out of a defective launcher. I lurched and heaved and hurled and gasped.

But the ring! We brought the ring!

The first blasts were pink, the next green and finally those dreaded coffee-ground blood explosions of death burst out of me in wave upon dreadful wave.

My enemy revealed himself at last. Mighty Sauron rose from my guts, a red, all-seeing eye finally in possession of the one thing it craved the most: Pepto-Bismol. We had been tricked. We were not Frodo, we were Gollum, only Gollum. We had hurt and sacrificed, strategized and endured the trek across countless miles, fought through unimaginable pain and gut wrenching loss, only to find that we were never meant to bear the ring, our destiny was to act as courier for another, greater being – to bring it everything and be destroyed.

to be continued

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These songs appear at the beginning and end of the podcast. How ‘Bout the World? is by my friend and cohort, Jordan and Joseph is by yours truly. Enjoy!

How ‘Bout the World?

Joseph


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