I didn’t poop for sixteen days. Sixteen days. More than two weeks with nary a movement from within my bowels.
Yes, I understand that you may well be thinking, “Oh, Michael! Really?! This is all you’ve got left to recount for us? The inner workings of your ass?!”
Fear not, gentle readers. There is a point. I’m going somewhere with this. I can’t promise that my particular skill set will get us there, but I assure you that I speak of my sphincter as a means to an end. Hopefully it will serve as a metaphor for some larger, more overarching issues. That may or may not work out. The metaphor thing, I mean. We’ll see. In the meantime, though, I assure you that the constipation I presently speak of was not metaphorical. It was very real. Very real poop not coming out of my very real backside for sixteen very real days.
Honestly, I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t going for the first four days or so. My mind had been pre-occupied with other things. I had been intensely depressed over the last couple of weeks for reasons beyond my understanding. My back had been killing me. Everything had been feeling immensely difficult. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Spiritually. I was running on far few cylinders than were required for me to achieve something close to competence in my many relationships. As a practitioner; as a daddy; as a sponsor; as a husband; as a friend- I was falling short. Hanging on by my fingernails. Desperate for a pause button. A safe respite from the deafening expectations. Suffices to say, my bathroom patterns had not been at the forefront of my mind.
But then it was five days.
Then it was six.
Then my stomach began to make curious noises. On day seven, I asked Lorri if she had any recent recollection of my spending more than two or three minutes in the bathroom. Because she has been married to me for twelve years, very few questions ever resonate as odd or unexpected- so she simply offered up that she hadn’t. She asked what was going on.
I said, “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve pooped in like a week.”
She responded, “What do you mean like a week? You have not had a bowel movement in seven days?”
We didn’t do anything right away, but now there was a genuine day count. On day eight, we both started paying close attention to the hours streaming by without progress. By day nine, she made me call the doctor.
I got a call back from the nurse with some specific instructions. She told me to go to the drugstore and buy a bottle of Magnesium Citrate. I was to take two Dulcolax pills, drink the entire bottle of Magnesium, follow it with a sixteen ounce glass of water, and stay within 10 feet of a bathroom. She sounded quite sure that a veritable volcano of relief would be assured.
She was wrong. Nothing.
The morning of day ten, the nurse and I were chatting once again. She was fairly surprised at my lack of excretion. Her exact words were, “Okay. Now it’s time to bring out the big guns. I’ll fax through the prescription to your pharmacy. Just follow the directions on the bottle.” I had no idea what I was in for and felt a curious mix of fascination and terror pulling up to the drive-through window at Wal-greens. The pharmacy worker called my name up on the computer and said, “I can’t get this through the slot. You’ll have to come in.”
Well, this was a first. What did they prescribe me, a water buffalo?! At the counter I was handed a gallon jug with approximately a cupful of ominous white powder lining the bottom. The directions said to fill the jug to the very top with water, shake well, and then glug down eight ounces every ten minutes until it was finished. Apparently this is what they give patients the night before a colonoscopy to clean out their insides. Go Lightly, they call it. At this point, I was not looking to go lightly; I was looking to go violently.
I sat in my bedroom for two and a half hours, watching the clock and becoming increasingly waterlogged with a beverage that made me pine for the prune juice I was forced down the previous week. It was heinous; repugnant. About three-quarters of the way through, I was no closer to taking a crap- though quite sure I would soon be vomiting.
But I made it. The final eight ounces went down like arsenic but they came with a sweeping sense of relief and a deep feeling of pride. Now it was just a matter of time. The nurse promised that within an hour, I should be prepared to spend several hours dropping the kids off at the pool. An hour later, I hadn’t even passed gas. Two hours later, I finally peed. Three hours later, I was asleep.
On the morning of day eleven, the nurse told me to come in.
The doctor did a quickie examination and told me he could feel that I was full of stool.
It was all I could do to not answer, “Ya think?!”
He asked me if I was in pain. I said that the combination of my bowels going freaking bananas and my back being out were pretty damned challenging. He asked me to rate it on a one to ten scale with ten being the worst pain you have ever felt.
This, by the way, annoys the piss out of me. First, it seems so stupidly remedial for a medical professional. One to ten? Really? What do we do next; play rock paper scissors to pick the course of treatment? Second, compared to the very worst pain I had ever felt, it was probably a four. But I was in a world of discomfort and four makes it sound like I am just being a baby. I went with six. Six was enough for him to offer me up some painkillers. And with the month I had been having, that sounded just fine and dandy.
In addition to the pretty off-white pills, the doctor also told me to put a full bottle of Miralax into a half-gallon of Gatorade every night and drink it within about thirty minutes. In addition, I was to stick two suppositories up my back side per day. He said that if this course of treatment had no impact in about three days, he’d have to admit me to the hospital.
Day twelve, nothing.
Day thirteen, nothing.
On the morning of day fourteen, I was instructed to head for the emergency room to receive a full work up.
Five hours later, after multiple blood draws and a CAT scan, they had ruled out rectal cancer, polyps, twisted intestines and a myriad of other such horrible possibilities. The official diagnosis was that I was really really backed up.
They didn’t know exactly why. Two different surgeries over the past three years which involved being cut down the middle might well have been a factor. My nutrition could have played a part. Age, in general, often brings on a greater propensity for constipation.
And then there were the painkillers.
There was no doubt that the drugs were, at least, complicit in “slowing me down.”
Although the doctor’s concerns didn’t seem to be intense enough to keep him from giving me two more day’s worth.
The rest of day fourteen and all of day fifteen were uneventful. No pooping. A lot of bed rest. A little doped up.
In the early morning of day sixteen, four A.M. or so, I took my last painkiller.
Day sixteen, the bottom fell out.
I can tell you that I cried more tears on day sixteen than I had ever cried in a single day in my thirty-eight years on this planet. The majority of them into my dear wife’s shoulder.
Yes, a part of it was quite certainly coming off the pain pills. But not all of it. Not by a long shot. Remember, I’m a stone cold junkie. I have been through detox. This was something more. Something larger. Something indefinable.
And crying does not properly describe the experience. It was wailing. The noises coming out of me were gutteral; primal; pre-verbal. It sounded, and felt, like I was going to begin coughing up my innards. And it went on and on and on and on and on and on. The liquids just kept pouring from my facial orifices without an end in sight.
In my two and half weeks of constipation, more than a few friends who work in the world of mind/body correlation asked the question, “What are you holding on to?”
Whatever it was seemed to have been jarred loose. Pandora’s box was ajar. And the pain was magnificent; enormous; seemingly untenable. It was well beyond words.
And that’s the place that scares me the most. When it’s beyond words. When I can’t make sense of it. When my ability to process vanishes. When my big old brain, my extensive vocabulary and my writing ability fail pigeonhole the experience. For me, that’s when the walls really start to cave in.
There were no answers.
And from acceptance of that reality came the answer.
The answer was that I always had the answers.
And not just for myself, for everyone. For my clients. For my sponsees. For my friends. For my children. I had answers. I had insights. I had wisdom. And with these assets came authority. Lots of authority.
Much of it appropriate. Appropriate in that the authority was necessary for some of the relationships in question to function properly. I am a practitioner. I need to accept my authority and hold the boundary for my clients. I am a father. I need to understand and utilize my authority to effectively parent my children.
But in recovery… in recovery it is different.
In the book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the second tradition reads, “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”
Yes, God is the “ultimate authority.” What’s tricky, though, is that there are other kinds of authority offered in the 12-step world. Being someone’s sponsor is a position of authority. Speaking at a meeting is a role of authority. Leading a group is a role of authority. Those who frequent the rooms are given myriad opportunities to hold authority. We pick it up and we put it down. We take up authority in the group for ourselves and we grant it to others. But some are granted more authority than others. Much like in society at large- the group members who are more confident, more talkative, more involved, more well-spoken, more attractive, more charismatic, more charming, more powerful, more endearing, more likable, tend to be granted more authority.
As the years of my recovery have passed, the amount of authority placed in me had steadily risen. The frequency with which I was asked to speak at meetings and sponsor others increased. Authority. Then I began to start meetings up myself. More authority. Then I got heavily involved in a movement within the 12-step world called Back to Basics (a recreation of the original beginner’s meetings started by Dr. Bob Smith in the 1930’s). Scads of authority.
The insidiousness of it all is that I never overtly felt like any of it was about ego. I wanted to serve. I wanted to help my fellow man. My life had been saved by the selflessness of others and I truly believed I had a debt to pay.
Allow me to share a story:
It was November of 1997 in New York City. I had been sober about three weeks. It had been a confusing and magical time. With no alcohol or controlled chemicals to cloud my view, the world was new. Scary, but new. Each day felt like a year unto itself. I would slip between suicidal and reborn multiple times an hour. And I wasn’t doing it alone. I had this incredible army of strangers who, seemingly, had been waiting to love me primarily for what was wrong with me.
And I had God
And I had a sponso.
My sherpa for this spiritual overhauling was a simple, quiet man named Tom. Tom was a brilliant though unassuming middle aged gentleman from Pittsburgh. He had been the prototypical suburban husband and father working a nice corporate job who had been undone by alcoholism; landing him a three-year bid in prison for a crime he had not committed. When I met him, Tom was living in a men’s shelter, six months out of the slammer, having lost everything. He was on probation, had no money, no home, and was still fighting to be free of a crime whose mounting legal fees were sure to put him in a financial hole deep enough that three lifetimes would be insufficient to climb out of.
But Tom was not bitter. Tom was not angry. Tom was sober and Tom was serene. Tom was Obi Won Kenobi. I trusted him and had every intention of following him to the light.
I wasn’t working. I was broke and nearly unemployable. Tom, also without a job, spent hours with me every day- sitting next to me in meetings and taking me to coffee shops and on long walks where we would talk about life and God and The 12 Steps. The day in question had us strolling slowly along the water near Gracie Mansion on the upper east side of Manhattan. It was a gloomy day and the rain was falling with a benign spray. We had covered a few miles and sat down on a park bench for a rest. We shared a few moments of silence which I then broke:
Tom: Yes Michael?
Me: I need to do something for you.
Tom: I’m sorry. You need to what?
Me: I need to do something for you. I need to. Something. What can I do for you?
Tom: Why exactly do you sense that you need to do something for me?
Me: Tom, no one has ever done anything like this for me. You have changed my life. You have saved my life. In a million years, I could not repay your kindness. But I have to do something. Please. Tell me what I can do.
Tom: Okay Michael. You can do something for me. Here’s what you can do for me. You can complete your step work and spiritually awaken. Once you have done that, you can find others who suffer as you have and carry to them the same message I have carried to you.
And that is exactly what I had have spent the last thirteen years trying to accomplish. I have given my all to trying to carry this message of hope with every drop of passion and commitment that I could muster to as many people who would listen.
Turned out that there were a lot of them. Lots of people who wanted to not only to listen to the message- but wanted to listen to ME carry the message. See, the thing is, I’m quite good at it. That is, I am a powerful public speaker. I have always had a rather magnetic quality which makes people want to speak to me, confide in me, trust me. These are skills I have used mostly for the good. But it’s a slippery slope.
There was this Episcopal priest I used to play racquetball with. He had been a member of the cloth for a quarter century or so. One day, we were enjoying a cup of coffee and some nice conversation after a few games.
He asked, “What do you think is the most difficult part of my job?”
“I’m quite sure I don’t know,” I answered.
“Ego,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I queried.
“When hundreds of people continually tell you how fabulous you are, how powerful you are, how they’re lives have changed as a product of knowing you, it is quite difficult to keep perspective. One can quickly go from understanding themselves as a conduit for God and start to think they are God.”
I got lost. In the midst of all the service, all the helping- I got lost. I spent so much time assisting others in shaping their recovery that I forgot to tend to my own. And I didn’t see it happening. Oh, the signs were there. Sponsees would call in throughout the day and I would often feel burdened and put upon. I would sometimes fail to call back and then resent them when they mentioned feeling let down. I became less and less inclined to go to meetings and even the ones I led, I would find myself wanting others to cover for me. But I somehow felt incapable of extracting myself form under the weight of all it all.
And so came the painkillers. I can see now that there was a very real call for help in my use of the pills. I think it was a covert way of accomplishing what I unconsciously had begun to fantasize.
“Burn it all down. That’s how I’ll get them to leave me alone. That’s how I’ll escape all the desires and needs and expectations.”
My wife will tell you that a few days before the pills were put down I began to talk about wanting to drink some wine. It never happened. Thank goodness. I didn’t need to drink to find these truths. I didn’t need to wander out to the west side of Chicago and buy some crack to break the denial. God raised the bottom.
And when the bottom came, you know who I called? I called Tom.
We had never really lost touch completely, but it had been nearly ten years since we had shared anything close to regular contact- with no more than three or four “How ya doin ‘/Merry Christmas” type messages left in the last half a decade. But his number hadn’t changed. And, thank God, neither had Tom.
He said he would be happy to become my sponsor once again and that he understood well what I was wrestling with. He asked that I call him that evening and we would get to work. Get back to the basics, as it were. About an hour later, I found the following message waiting for me in my email inbox:
The first step in the process of healing is to accept that there has been no failure on your part. Your own example of AA working combined with your natural charisma and good looks made you a prime example of what AA means by attraction to the program.
You have dealt with many, many people- with their problems and pain. As part of dealing with all of these people you have at times carried their burdens and absorbed their pain. I suspect as part of your service you have done many 5th Steps and experienced many spontaneous mini 5th Steps by people you barely have known. What I believe you have experienced is spiritual and emotional exhaustion.
AA is an experiment in recovery based on suggestions and personal experience. While helping another person by listening and being there always seems like the next right thing (and it usually is) it requires different types of intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy. The intellectual part of this is easy for you and has been for years. You know how to listen, what to listen for and what to say. What you have not been keeping track of is whether you have the emotional and spiritual energy to do the task.
From my own experience with this- accept the exhaustion for what it is. You have done God’s work and are tired. Priests every few years take long retreats. You have helped many people and need a rest. Therapists take several weeks off a year. What has been the longest time that you have gone not dealing with 12th Step work these past many years? You need to sit under a metaphorical shade tree on you spiritual path of recovery. When you are rested, you will start again. How long will it take? How tired are you?
Recovery is not for pussies. No joke. This is a warrior business. This is a “knee-deep in the muck and mire, scraping leeches off your elbows while bullets whiz past your head” business. Not everyday, of course. Yes, it is the way to happy, joyous and free. Yes, it is the path to serenity and peace. Yes, it is the road to salvation. It’s just that many parts of the road are strewn with potholes, blown tires and jagged shards of glass.
Within twenty-four hours, I had let go of every 12 step commitment and planned commitment on my agenda.
I then sent the following message to all of my sponsees:
I’ve been going through an intense emotional bottom in my own recovery and have come, through no small amount of intense pain, to see that perhaps my most intense addiction of all is helping others- often as a smokescreen to ignore my own needs and desires. I have spoken with my sponsor and have come to the conclusion that, for the time being, I need to let go of any positions of authority in the recovery community. I would very much like the opportunity to continue to be in each others lives and share friendship and mutual support. Quite simply, I am aware that I am not presently capable of holding the role of sponsor in the way that I wish to.
I turned over every ounce of authority I had.
Now I work on finding my way back to anonymous. Reaching out to others for help, sitting in the back of meetings and keeping my mouth shut. You know what? I fucking hate it. I also find it a relief. And I feel quite sure it is the road back to myself.
The bible tells us, “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Oh, by the way: day seventeen?
I shit three times.