Sunday, November 22, 2015

Countdown to Causes and Effect

(Note: I wrote about this same subject back in January, but as December inches closer I wanted to write about it again. Maybe that's weird, but it's my blog, so I guess I can do whatever I want, right?)

On January 1, 2013, Melinda Newman, former West Coast Bureau Chief/Deputy Editor for Billboard Magazine and now a freelance writer, started a blog. The name of that blog was "Causes and Effect: My Year of Giving Daily," and the first sentence of Melinda's first post summed up the blog's purpose quite nicely:

"Join me on this journey as I commit to donating at least $10 every day of 2013."

The idea for the blog came to Melinda "in a flash of inspiration, or maybe desperation," after a friend asked her if she was working on a book. The idea stuck with Melinda for months, and she felt a responsibility to follow through, calling the blog "an experiment to see what happens to my heart and my spirit and my soul" over the year.

In 2014, Brian Mansfield took over the blog. Brian is a former USA Today music writer and currently works as the Content Director at Shore Fire Media. Like Melinda, Brian did an incredible job over his 365 days of giving and writing. But it was a monumental task.

So for 2015, Melinda decided to divide the Causes and Effect duties among 12 different writers, each of whom would be responsible for a different month. Thankfully, I was chosen to be one of those 12 writers.

December is my assigned month.

Over the last several weeks, I've been thinking about different charities and causes that mean a lot to me. I also asked my friends for suggestions. At first I thought coming up with 31 organizations to donate to would be difficult; now--surprise!--I have a list that exceeds 31. (Thank God there aren't any rules that say I can only give to one cause each day.)

Nine days from now, I will take over the reins of Causes and Effect. For my donations I plan to follow Melinda's original guidelines. As she wrote in her first post: "Some of the giving will be to recognized international charities, but others will be to Kickstarter campaigns that catch my eye, friends’ 5Ks, and maybe even to homeless people on the street. The only criteria is to give the money to some outlet that needs it that day more than I do."

I have to admit, I'm a little nervous about this gig, primarily because I've never written blog posts for 31 consecutive days. Hopefully I'll be able to live up to the high standards established by Melinda and Brian; and by the 11 bloggers who have preceded me in 2015.

I'm thinking I'll probably be posting links to my daily Causes and Effect posts on this blog, too. I figure the more exposure I can give the causes I donate to, the better. But just to be sure you don't miss anything, I urge you to follow the Causes and Effect blog. Here's the direct link:

You can also sign up to get the blog's daily posts emailed to you. If you go to the blog, you'll see a button at the top of the page that says, "Followmyyearofgivingdaily." If you click that, you can sign up.

This 31-day journey will definitely make doing my federal taxes a little more difficult this time around, but it will be totally worth it. I hope you'll join me.


"I don’t expect my $10 to change the world, but my hope is it will somehow change me." --Melinda Newman

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Goodbye, Klonopin

Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post entitled "Held Hostage by a RX Drug: My Klonopin Nightmare." In it, I talk about my horrific experience with Klonopin, a benzodiazepine (or "benzo") prescribed by my psychiatrist for anxiety. I took the drug--as prescribed--for years. Unfortunately, I also spent years trying to stop taking the drug because my body had grown so dependent on it.

Now for an update.

I'm happy to report that after years of weaning off of Klonopin, I finally stopped taking it entirely on August 7th. I've been Klonopin-free for more than three months, and I couldn't be happier.

The beast is finally out of my system.

Benzos are some of the hardest drugs--prescription or otherwise--to quit. So I'm pretty damn proud of my accomplishment. For a while, it was hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Klonopin was my ball and chain. But with the help of an awesome nurse practitioner, who helped me with the weaning process, I was able to break free from the nastiest medication I've ever ingested. (Thanks so much, Kim!)

If your doctor ever wants to prescribe a benzodiazepine for you, please be extremely cautious. These drugs--which include alprazolam (brand name: Xanax), diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), triazolam (Halcion), clonazepam (Klonopin), and several others--are not to be taken lightly. Yes, they can be beneficial; but they are seriously strong and can cause some nasty side effects that can really kick your ass.

Lastly, if you're taking a benzo and want to get off of it, never, ever quit "cold turkey." The results can not only be hellish, but dangerous as well. Always wean off of the drug under a medical professional's supervision.

Goodbye, Klonopin. You will not be missed.

"Klonopin is a horrible, dangerous drug." --Singer Stevie Nicks (who struggled with Klonopin addiction)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Hearts Can Be So Fickle

It's been a little over a week since my last post here, which was about my recent "outbreak" of atrial fibrillation (AFib) and the troubles it was causing me. Today I'm here to give you an update.

I ended up taking the new medication (sotalol) for three full days: last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. While I didn't have any more unexpected falls (thank God), I did have some side effects from the drug. To put it bluntly? It made me feel like shit.

The sotalol, like pretty much any drug designed to slow your heart rate down, made me feel incredibly tired. For three days I kind of felt like I was asleep even when I was awake, and that was no fun at all. I also had a few bad headaches. Not only that, but the medication didn't really slow my heart down that much. For the three days I was taking it, my heart rate pretty much hovered between 98 and 110. Prior to the AFib flare-ups, my heart rate was consistently between 55 and 65.

I could still feel the AFib coming and going, too. I would have little episodes, start feeling clammy, and find myself feeling out of breath after standing for long periods of time or going up stairs. Truth be told, I felt worse than I did when I was taking my old medication.

By late Sunday night, after three days' worth of the new medication, I had decided I had had enough and would go forward with the catheter ablation I had discussed with my electrophysiologist. I felt a great sense of relief and couldn't wait to call my doctor's office in the morning to let them know about my decision.

On Monday morning I called and talked to my doctor's nurse practitioner (NP). I explained how the sotalol had kicked my ass over the weekend and told her I wanted to schedule the ablation. She understood completely and we scheduled the procedure for Monday, November 16th.

The NP also told me to go back to my old meds--propafenone, along with a small nightly dose of digoxin--until the day of my procedure. Needless to say, I was more than happy to do that.

Then something strange happened. By late afternoon on Monday, I noticed that I was feeling better. Not just better because I wasn't experiencing the side effects from the sotalol anymore, but better because my heart felt like it was slowing back down to its normal rate again. And I didn't feel any AFib, either!

Tuesday morning I woke up feeling fine, and when my wife headed out to run some errands I asked her to pick up some prescriptions for me, including one for Xarelto, the blood thinner my doctor wanted me to take for the two weeks leading up to my ablation.

A short time later, my wife called me from the pharmacy. The Xarelto--a brand name drug with no generic available yet--was going to cost us $364.00. I was shocked. So shocked that I told my wife to hold off on picking that script up. I haven't had a full-time job in almost two years and money is kind of tight. Call me a cheapskate, but there was no way in hell I was going to pay that much for two weeks' worth of meds. I decided I'd call the doctor later on to see if there was a more economical substitute for the Xarelto.

But by Tuesday afternoon, I was still feeling better. In fact, I was feeling normal. So I held off on even calling the doctor's office. Instead, I figured I'd just see how I felt over the next few days.

Fast forward to today. More than a week after I went back to my old medication that didn't seem to be working anymore, I still feel normal. My heart rate is normal and I haven't had a single AFib flare-up.

Not one.

It's crazy.

So today I called my doctor's office, told them I was going to hold off on the ablation procedure for now, and made an appointment for a follow-up visit this Thursday. I don't know if my heart will continue to behave like it has been for the last eight days, but I'm more than willing to take a wait-and-see approach to find out.

The human heart is a complex machine, complete with an amazing electrical system that can, unfortunately, act up from time to time. I respect that and will keep a close eye on how my heart is doing over the next few days. I'm also anxious to hear what my doctor will have to say on Thursday.

It's nice to know that the catheter ablation procedure is in my back pocket in case I need it. But for now, I plan on sticking with the status quo until my body--or my cardiologist--tells me otherwise.

Things have been pretty normal around here lately.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Of Irregular Heart Beats and Vulnerability

Something happened last night that scared the hell out of me.

I woke up in the middle of the night and had to go to the bathroom. That, in and of itself, was not scary. As a slightly-beyond-middle-aged male, I've grown kind of accustomed to that annoying trip to the bathroom every night. But what happened once I got to the bathroom was something I'd never done before.

I fell.

When I had gotten out of bed moments earlier, I felt that rush of blood to the head one sometimes feels when getting up suddenly from a resting state. I didn't think much of it, but when I walked into the bathroom it felt like I was walking into a carnival funhouse. I lost my balance, my vision went fuzzy, and the next thing I knew I was falling. And I couldn't stop.

I ended up on the tile floor after bouncing off the bathroom vanity first, and in the process sent the bathroom scale flying. I think I screamed, too. In fact, I must have screamed, because before I knew it, my wife was in the bathroom asking me what had happened and offering her assistance.

I had fallen, and I couldn't get up.

Now, before you all start thinking to yourselves, "Damn, this guy is old," let me tell you that I believe last night's incident was the result of my having started taking a new heart medication yesterday. (Damn...I am old.)

I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib) a little over 18 years ago. After several episodes of a rapid, fluttering heartbeat--think fish flopping around in your chest--and a trip to the emergency room, doctors were finally able to figure out what was wrong with me. They put me under for 30 seconds (literally), used those cardioversion paddles you always see on TV to shock my heart back into a normal rhythm (CLEAR!!!), and all was good again. The same medication has kept my heart pretty normal ever since. But, unfortunately, sometimes meds stop working.

Almost three weeks ago, I started having AFib flare-ups with some regularity. In fact, I've probably had more flare-ups in the past three weeks than I'd had in the previous 18 years. And it kind of sucks.

For those of you who don't know, atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm characterized by rapid, skipping, quivering beats. While my normal heart rate is around 60 beats per minute, during an AFib episode that number can go up to 125, 140, or even higher. (During hospital stays early on, I saw my heart rate rise to 300 bpm and beyond.)

The crazy heart beat is caused by abnormal electrical signals in the heart. If you were to look at a handout in a cardiologist's office, it would probably say stuff like, "The top and bottom parts of the heart don't work together as they should"; "The heart beats very fast and irregularly"; and maybe "As a result, blood is not properly pumped to the bottom part of the heart and the rest of the body." All of this ends up causing some nasty symptoms--dizziness, light-headedness, shortness of breath, confusion, massive fatigue, chest pressure or pain, sweating, etc.--and, if not controlled, an increased risk of stroke and heart failure.

So thanks to AFib, I've had the best damn cardiologist you could ask for since the relatively young age of 36. (He's actually a "cardiac electrophysiologist," in case you want to get technical.) And yesterday I went to see him about my most recent flare-ups.

He told me he suspected that the drug I started taking 18 years ago (propafenone) had become ineffective, and gave me two options:

1.) I could try another drug (sotalol), and see how it worked for me.
2.) I could have a procedure known as a catheter ablation.

Basically, a catheter ablation involves a thin, flexible, tube with an electrode at the tip of it being inserted through a large vein in your groin and moved into your heart. The catheter is then directed to the precise location(s) in your heart that are producing the AFib. These points are then burned off by zapping them with the electrode. Fun stuff, huh?

As complicated as that procedure may sound, for someone who knows what they're doing, it's relatively simple. And the success rates are pretty high. Of course, there are the normal risks associated with someone putting you under anesthesia and burning off parts of your heart with a wire they stuck into one of your bigger veins. But, all in all, it's pretty straightforward.

To be perfectly honest, I went into my appointment yesterday ready to lobby hard for the ablation procedure. It's been a long time since AFib has kicked my ass like it has this month, and getting refamiliarized with everything the surprise flare-ups entail reminded me just how shitty the symptoms can be. Plus, I wanted nothing to do with trying any new medications. Why? Because the medications that help regulate abnormal heart rhythms come with side effects, the most annoying one being fatigue. When you slow down someone's heart with meds, they're going to be tired. Period.

After talking to my doctor for a bit, my wife and I finally asked him, "If it were you, what would you do?" His answer? Try the new medication first. Initially, I was disappointed to hear this, but his explanation made total sense. If the new meds work without making me feel awful, it's a win. And if they don't work--or if they work and make me feel miserable in the process--I can always go the ablation route.

So that's where I'm at. I took my first dose of the new medication last night, just a few hours before I ended up on the bathroom floor. I took my second dose this morning, and while I feel a little "off," at least I'm managing to stay relatively upright.

The last few weeks--especially last night--have really made me stop and realize just how vulnerable we are as human beings. Or at least how vulnerable I am. Life is a gift, there's no doubt about it. And the older I get, the more I understand that it's a gift with an expiration date.

Falling in the bathroom made me think of my dad, too.

In the months leading up to his death, my dad fell in his bathroom on two different occasions, and I was the person my mom called to come over and help him up. (I talk about one of those incidents here.) Both times, I was struck by how helpless my dad was in that moment. It was terrifying and sad. But you know what? That was me last night: sitting on the bathroom floor, in the dark, wondering what the fuck had just happened, as my wife stood over me asking how she could help. I am 32 years younger than my dad was, but still in the same scary, vulnerable position.

Sotalol and I are not off to a very good start, but I'll keep taking the new medication for the next couple of weeks and monitor how my body reacts to it. If everything goes splendidly, maybe I'll choose to continue with that course of treatment. But if there are any hiccups along the way--or any more unplanned trips to any floors--you can bet I'll be turning my abnormal heart beat over to my cardiologist and his heart zapping electrode.

"When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability....To be alive is to be vulnerable." --Madeleine L'Engle

Dr. Luis Pires: The best cardiologist on the planet and the best doctor I've
ever had.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

New Heroes in Recovery Blog: "Living in the Moment"

One of the most important changes I've made over the last few years has been how I live my day-to-day life. In fact, it might be the most important change I've made. I used to be so concerned with the future and worry so much that it would make my crazy. But now I just live in the moment, appreciating the here and now. And I feel so much better.

That's the subject of my latest blog on the Heroes in Recovery website. It's called "Living in the Moment," and I'd love it if you would take a few minutes to read it. Who knows? It might help you make a positive change in your life, too.

If you take the time to check out my Heroes blog, please consider giving it a "Like" and sharing it. I always like my message to reach as many people as possible. (Also, comments on the blog over at the Heroes site are always welcome.)

Here's a direct link to my blog:


Monday, October 19, 2015

We're Doing It Again (and You Can Help)

The first My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest was such a success, my wife and I have decided to do it again.

In August, we awarded two college scholarships to students who have been affected by a sibling's addiction. The author of the winning essay, Ryan Gruchala, received $1,200.00 to help pay his tuition at the University of Dayton; and the runner-up, Luke Moran, got $500.00 to help pay for his studies at the University of Delaware.

Those scholarships were funded in part through the generous donations of ordinary people. People who realize that addiction is a family disease, and that it eats away at families in every way possible: emotionally, physically, and financially. Addiction affects everyone in the family--mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.--but I don't think anyone is affected as much as siblings. Oftentimes they don't understand what's going on with the brother or sister who means so much to them, or why it's happening.

A sibling's addiction can also have a negative financial impact on a family. While trying to help an addicted child, parents burn through money at a tremendous rate. They spend thousands of dollars on rehab treatment, hospitals, therapy, intensive outpatient programs, sober living houses, special medications, etc. By the time another child is ready to go to college, parents are frequently struggling financially. So every little bit helps.

My wife and I have decided to do another My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest for 2016. We will once again put up $500.00 of our own money, and we would love to have others contribute to the cause. Our goal? To meet or exceed the amount of the scholarships awarded the first time around.

I've set up a fundraising page on the YouCaring website. (I chose YouCaring this time because their fees are lower than other crowdfunding sites.) Please consider making a donation to this cause, even if it's only a couple of dollars. It all adds up, and you will be helping someone who is very deserving.

This fundraiser will be open through March of 2016. The essay contest will be announced in my blog in April of 2016. The winners will be announced in August of 2016.

If anyone wants more information about how the first essay contest was set up and run, you can visit my blog post about it.

And just an FYI: The checks for the scholarship prizes are made out directly to the winners' schools, after their registration is verified.

So, who wants to help make a difference in a young person's life?

"We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." --Winston Churchill

Sunday, October 11, 2015

25 Years Smoke-Free

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site as "Breaking the Cigarette Habit: 25 Years Smoke-Free.")

October 11, 1990.

That date--25 years ago today--will always be significant to me. Why?

That's the day I quit smoking for good.

I started smoking in 1975, around the age of 14, because I thought it was cool. My dad smoked. So did my brother. And I'm pretty sure my sisters did, too, although my memory of that is a little cloudy. But I definitely grew up around smokers, even though my mom hated cigarettes with a passion.

I remember very vividly the first time I tried smoking. I had stolen a cigarette from my brother--I think it was a Salem--and kept it hidden in a dresser drawer until I thought the opportunity was just right to venture outside and light it up.

A few days later, on a Saturday afternoon, I was ready to cross over into coolsville by finally attempting an activity I had been exposed to all my life.

I took that single menthol cigarette and a book of matches with me as I snuck out the back door and walked to the furthest corner of my backyard. I huddled against a telephone pole that was planted where two fences came together, put the cigarette in my mouth, struck a match, and lit up.

When I first inhaled and the minty, tar-filled smoke entered my lungs, I coughed. How could anybody want to do this, I thought to myself as I took another puff. But that puff wasn't as bad as the first one. And the next one was even better than the first two. Maybe I was getting the hang of it. Maybe I was actually going to become a smoker. How fucking cool!

My euphoria was short-lived, though. About midway through my first cigarette, I turned around and looked back at my house as I exhaled smoke from my freshly soiled lungs. To my surprise, there was my mom, standing in my bedroom, looking out the window. Right. At. Me.

I was devastated. I knew how much my mother despised smoking. And here she was, looking at her baby in the backyard, puffing away. I immediately threw the cigarette down on the ground and stomped on it to extinguish it.

Then I froze.

I didn't know what to do. There was no way in hell I wanted to go back in the house, so I just stood there, for a good hour or so, wondering what my mom was thinking and what she would say to me.

Twenty-five years later, I can reflect on that moment and laugh about it. But back then, it was the most terrified I had ever been in my life. Surprisingly, my mom didn't yell at me. She expressed her disappointment, lectured me a bit, then continued on with her Saturday afternoon house cleaning.

Fast forward to late 1989. I had smoked pretty much non-stop from the age of 14. There were some stints of being smoke-free along the way, because I had tried to quit on a few different occasions. One time I went several months without smoking, only to be sucked back into the habit by a new girlfriend who smoked. Apparently I thought that love was better--or at least easier--when both participants smelled and tasted like an ashtray. Wrong.

It took the birth of my first son in December of 1989 for me to once again start seriously considering giving up cigarettes for good. As months went by, I noticed my little boy watching me intently. No matter what I did, he watched. Babies are so observant, and much of what they learn they learn by watching their parents. Smoking was not something I wanted my son to pick up from me.

Unfortunately, wanting to quit smoking and actually quitting are two different things. Almost ten months after my son was born, I was still a slave to my Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultra-Light Menthols.

But in early October of 1990, I came down with a nasty case of bronchitis and a sinus infection. I went to the doctor and he examined my nose and throat. "Do you smoke?" he asked (in a way that let me know he likely already knew the answer). When I told him I did, the next words out of his mouth were: "Quit. Not next week or next month. Today. NOW."

And that was it.

When I left the doctor's office, I went back to my office, went in the bathroom, took one last cigarette out of the pack I had, and smoked it. I flushed the rest of the cigarettes down the toilet. I was done.

I went back to my desk, pulled out a business card, and wrote on the back of it:

I put a piece of tape over what I had written so the ink wouldn't smear over time. Then I stuck the card in my wallet. Twenty-five years later, I still carry that card in my wallet.

Quitting smoking is right up there with the best things I've done in my lifetime. Smoking is dirty, dangerous, and expensive. The smoke-free me is healthier, will live longer, and has had a little more pocket change to spend during the last quarter of a century. (I think cigarettes were about $2.00 a pack back in 1990. If you figure an average of $4.00 per pack between then and today, giving up my pack-a-day habit has saved me around $36,500.00.)

To this day, I still get cravings for cigarettes. They don't come as often as they used to, but they do still come. Thankfully, I'm able to zap those cravings out of my mind almost as quickly as they show up.

It's been 9,132 days since I last touched a cigarette. And I don't plan on doing it ever again.

"Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times." --Mark Twain