There’s an old saying people love to quote, “That which doesn’t killing you only makes you stronger.” It sounds really cool, especially in an action movie, or as you mumble it to yourself after dealing with some sort of adversity or obstacle that life throws your way, but if we’re going to be honest, it’s kind of a bullshit statement. At least it can be a bullshit statement, depending on what you do with your life after something fails to kill you. And of course, please keep in mind that sooner or later something will kill you, no matter how strong you are. But getting back to the notion that whatever doesn’t kill you is going to somehow transform you into a stronger person, let me assure that this is not true unless you make it true.
For those of you that don’t know, I almost died back in 2010. To be honest, I don’t know what “almost died” actually means. I’m just repeating what all the doctors told me after a severe case of pneumonia infected my lungs and the muscles surrounding my heart, leading to what at first seemed like a heart attack. For several days I had it pounded in my head that I’d had a heart attack—which I actually did not have—and that I was “lucky to be alive” and had “almost died.” Again, I don’t know what “almost died” actually means, or if almost dying is something that can actually be measured, because if we’re all going to be honest, “almost” is pretty damn subjective. When the gas tank in my car is down to a quarter of a tank, I’m “almost out of gas,” though I’m sure some people would consider that to be extreme. The point I’m getting at is that I really don’t know how close I came to actually dying—though it felt pretty damn close.
In the days, weeks, and months following my “almost dying” my life spun out of control. One of my dearest friends died six weeks after I got out of the hospital. He didn’t almost die, he died for real. And not only did that make my “almost” dying seem trivial, and not only did it cause me to obsess over why I was “lucky to be alive” while he wasn’t, it pushed me over the edge into a dark abyss of depression the likes of which I honestly did not know existed. Today, more than a year later, I’m still stuck in that abyss—though I can now thankfully see some light shining in.
All of this is build up to where I’m at now, and my attempt to share with people some of what I’ve been doing to heal myself. Because of my illness, the death of my friend, and several other incidents that kicked my ass in 2010 and 2011, the neuropathic system of my brain became locked in a sympathetic mode—which is essentially the “fight or flight” part of the brain. To have you sympathetic mode activated is normal, but sometimes—as is the case with me—it has not shut down in any significant way in more than a year. Without getting into the science of all this—which is endlessly fascinating—I have been in a near-constant state of fight or flight for over 18 months. And let me tell you, it has not been fun.
One of the many problems I have been dealing with—which includes prolonged depression and anxiety—has been massive weight gain. I put on nearly 30 pounds in less than six months last year, and my doctors couldn’t come up with an explanation—they just wanted to give me more drugs for depression (which, ironically, tend to cause weight gain). I refused to take the drugs, modified my diet considerably, and tried to exercise as much as possible. The problem I’ve had with exercise is that it can lead to anxiety attacks for me. This never happened before I got sick, and it is a side effect of altered body chemistry that is a direct result of both being sick, and then being in a prolonged state of sympathetic brain activation. Basically, I start exercising, my heart rate picks up, my breathing becomes labored, and the primordial part of my brain that reacts on the most basic level reacts as if I’m having a heart attack, which sends me into a panic, which then increases my heart rate and breathing, which then causes me to become even more anxious. The great thing about when this happens—and I’m saying great with the heaviest of sarcasm—is that logically and intellectually I know what is going on—that I’m not really having a heart attack—and it still doesn’t matter.
So here I am, 18 months after almost dying, 30 pounds heavier, bordering on chronically depressed (in part because I’ve become so fat I’ve had to buy new clothes), changing my diet hasn’t helped much, and exercising can send me into an irrational panic. That which did not kill me hasn’t made me stronger; it’s made me fatter, sicker, weaker, more depressed, and all-around miserable. But I’ve finally started to turn things around.
In the last nine days I’ve lost 10 pounds, though it hasn’t been easy. Basically, I stopped eating food. Seriously. I now drink juice made of fresh fruits and vegetables multiple times a day, plus I drink smoothies made with fresh fruits, nonfat plain yogurt and some whey protein powder. As a treat, I have water served at room temperature. Yes, it has been difficult. Yes, I miss food. Yes, I am the guy who hates vegetables (except for potatoes and ketchup). But the fact of the matter is that I didn’t survive what I went through just so I could die from it at a later date. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices that go beyond giving up coffee and the occasional scone. Sometimes you have to shake the pillars of who you were in order to become who you want to be. For me this requires massive changes—not just in what I eat, but in how I think, act, and react—otherwise almost dying is no different than almost living.