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) almost 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 heartbeat 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

Friday, October 9, 2015

Depression Sucks

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site under the same title: "Depression Sucks.")

Depression sucks.

If I had a dollar for every time I thought that or said it out loud, I'd be sitting on my own private beach somewhere sipping ice cold root beer from a glass with an umbrella in it.

As I've told you before, depression runs in my family. Relatives and siblings have struggled with it. I've struggled with it. My boys have struggled with it.

Right now, my oldest son, whose depression was in remission for a good three years or so, is suffering again. His depression has been almost debilitating for the last couple of months. It's making it difficult for him to get up in the morning, let alone go to work and live any kind of normal life. His confidence and self-esteem are super low. And I'm incredibly worried about him.

My son's been on the same antidepressant (Cymbalta) for a few years, but my wife and I fear that it's just not working anymore. Some people can develop a tolerance to such medications, and when they do, it's like someone flips a switch. Goodbye, happiness...welcome back, depression.

Yesterday, my wife called the University of Michigan Depression Center, an esteemed facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that offers some of the most respected assessment and treatment options in the country. Their website offered a ray of hope when we perused it prior to calling about having our son evaluated there.

Unfortunately, getting quality treatment for depression seems to be just as challenging as getting treatment for addiction. The person my wife talked to told her that they weren't seeing any new patients until next year, and that appointments couldn't be scheduled until November. Hardly the kind of thing you want to hear when you have a loved one battling a mental illness that makes you wonder about their well-being. Oh, one more thing: Unless the patient's primary care physician is in the University of Michigan--our son's isn't--you can only meet with the Depression Center people once. And nothing can be done about medications in that one meeting.

Really? So much for the Depression Center idea.

And here's a thought: Getting help for a mental illness shouldn't be akin to winning a damn lottery.

Thankfully, I reached out to some people I know and got a recommendation for a top-notch psychiatrist. (Based at--ironically--the University of Michigan.) So today we wanted to call and get things in motion so our son could see this new doctor. But one thing prevented us from doing so: Our son wouldn't get on the phone and talk to the doctor's office. You see, along with depression, he's also frequently paralyzed by anxiety, which makes talking on the phone agonizing for him.

My wife and I talked to our son for a long time today. He was at our house, and we did our best to comfort him and tell him that we understand he has an illness. We also told him that he had to be the one to seek out help. That no matter how much we wanted him to get help, he was the only one who could actually do it. (Damn, depression and addiction are so similar, aren't they?)

I hope my son's anxiety will ease up a bit so he'll be able to call the doctor's office later today. Or at least early next week. With the way he's feeling, I don't think we can afford a lengthy delay. If for some reason he can't call the doctor, I'm not sure what my wife and I will do, because our hands are kind of tied.

The fact that I'm having trouble getting help for my own son isn't lost on me. Believe me, I think about it often. I'm allegedly some sort of plainclothes "expert" at helping people who are struggling with addiction or mental illness, but when faced with my own family crisis, I have to sit back and twiddle my thumbs while I wait for my son to take action.

What is wrong with that picture?

Of course, I do realize that even as a parent there's only so much I can do. (My mom actually reiterated that to me this morning, bless her heart.) Parenting isn't easy, and when you're dealing with a child who's combatting mental illness, it's exponentially tougher. The one thing we absolutely must remember is that depression is an illness.

When my son left our house a little while ago, he hugged me and, in tears, said, "I'm sorry." I told him he didn't have to apologize. "You're not a bad person," I told him. "You have an illness. If you had cancer or diabetes, you wouldn't be apologizing for it. So don't apologize because you have depression. But if you had cancer or diabetes, you would do everything you could to get it treated. So you have to do the same for your depression."

I'm hoping what I said got through to him.

I'm hoping he makes that phone call soon.

I'm hoping he can return to being happy.

Today, it's all about hope.

"Gravity and sadness yank us down, and hope gives us a nudge to help one another get back up or to sit with the fallen on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity." --Anne Lamott

Friday, October 2, 2015

"I didn't choose this business, it chose me."

I was presented with an award this past Monday at the Moments of Change conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, and it still kind of feels like a dream.

Winning the Heroes in Recovery Award is something I never could have imagined ten years ago, when my wife and I first started dealing with our son's addiction. Ten years ago I was lost, wondering where in the world I would find enough strength to help my son. Today I am actually helping others, and have the great pleasure of knowing and working with so many amazing people. It's all kind of surreal, but in the best way possible.
My Heroes in Recovery Award

I heard someone say something during a presentation at Moments of Change that really resonated with me:

"I didn't choose this business, it chose me."

Like so many others who go through a loved one's addiction, I was thrown into a situation I was completely unfamiliar with, one that scared the hell out of me every single day and made me question my parenting skills for the longest time. But somehow I managed to navigate through the storm, and now helping others do the same is my passion. I hope to make it my full-time job someday.

I want to thank everyone at Heroes in Recovery and Foundations Recovery Network, not only for the award but for the opportunity to come to West Palm Beach and accept it in person. What you all do is amazing, and I'm honored to be a teeny tiny part of it.

I will cherish my Heroes in Recovery Award forever.

"We only have what we give." --Isabel Allende

Me with my wife and Foundations Recovery Network CEO Rob Waggener

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Support SLAM and Win a Trip to NYC

Kristen Johnston is a badass.

Not only is she a person in recovery and the author of a brutally honest and funny memoir--Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster--she's also co-founder of SLAM NYC, an organization committed to starting the first sober high school in New York City.

And oh, yeah. She's an Emmy Award-winning actress, too.

Last month, Kristen's sober high school dream began to come true. The John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School on Staten Island became the first school in New York City to begin active development of a dedicated program for students in recovery. SLAM (Sobriety Learning and Motivation) has created an alliance with Lavelle Prep to get students supported as soon as possible with SLAM’s vision.

To celebrate this monumental event, Kristen and SLAM are hosting a free event on Thursday, November 12, at the St. George Theatre on Staten Island. In addition to a screening of the powerful documentary The Anonymous People, there will also be a Q & A session with recovery experts, celebrities, and Borough President James Oddo.

Sounds like a great time, doesn't it? Well, maybe you can go!

Because so many people have expressed an interest in attending this SLAM celebration, Kristen has decided to donate two round-trip plane tickets to NYC, as well as a two-night stay at the Wythe Hotel, a stunning new hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. To top it all off, the lucky winner and their guest will be Kristen's dates for the evening.

So, how do you enter to win this fabulous prize?

To enter "The Lottery," all you have to do is go to SLAM NYC website and donate $25.00. After making your donation, either tweet Kristen (@kjothesmartass) or direct message her (if you follow each other on Twitter). Include one word--"Lottery"--and your first name and last initial only (or your Twitter handle). If you've already donated to SLAM and want to enter the contest, you can. Note that all entries have to be submitted by noon EDT on October 12th, and the contest is only open to folks in the continental United States. The winner will be chosen on the afternoon of the 12th. (For more details about the contest, please visit Kristen's blog.)

After almost a decade of relentless determination and hard work, Kristen Johnston and SLAM have achieved an amazing goal that will help countless young people live better lives. I can't even begin to tell you how important this is. By donating $25.00 and entering K-Jo's cool contest, you can help SLAM continue their incredible work--and maybe win a fun trip to the Big Apple in the process.

So, what are you waiting for?

"There’s nothing as unstoppable as a freight train full of fuck-yeah." --Jen Sincero