I have never been to the emergency room in my life. I have come out of one once—when I was born. But that’s it. Sure I’ve had plenty of doctor visits for this and that, but never the hospital. So, there I found myself in Collingwood General & Marine Hospital patiently sitting among a dozen others waiting to be called, instinctively eyeballing the others to see who was here before me and who arrived after me. Everyone looked fairly normal, no visible deformities, no hacked off limbs, no wailing. It was eerily silent until a young girl came in and started eating a box of Nerds, restlessly tottering around the waiting room looking at the vending machines.
One grizzled, older guy was wearing a dark blue auto shop uniform with his name stitched calligraphically onto his breast: “Robert.” He had white gauze wrapped around his hand. Seemed like he had a cut of some kind. He was a dead ringer for Jeff Bridges and I wanted to ask him if anyone had ever told him that before. He must get it all the time.
I stuck my nose back into to my copy of Moby-Dick and waited some more. The book is over six-hundred pages, full of digressions, and I was in the mid two-fifties. It was at once a well-crafted book with sparkling prose, and a long trek through molasses. The book was released in 1852 when turgid, maximal sentences were de rigeur, when books were a primary form of entertainment, so Melville takes a long time to explain things which could easily be summed up in a few words, yet therein lies the beauty of the writing—it’s bloated and stretches on forever like yanking a huge piece of chewed gum, but it’s full of richness and meaning, so it’s worth the effort in the end.
There’s a huge difference reading Moby Dick in 2017 versus 1852. Reading about a whaling adventure and the anatomy of these leviathans in minute detail late at night while the whale oil lamp burned must have been exhilarating. To a reader in 1852, a sperm whale could very well be Godzilla: A humongous monster lurking in the depths willing to unleash destruction upon mankind. Even with the elucidating descriptions of Sperm Whales by Melville, the mind runs away with itself because whales are ultimately unfathomable mythical beasts.
Many men were lost to the powerful flukes of the Sperm Whale smashing against whaling boats. You may drown if the boat is damaged; or if the whale was hit with one or more harpoons, sharks would swarm the area and you could be attacked. Imagine being flung into the open ocean with no land for hundreds of miles in all directions, only an endless flat horizon, resting your arms on a piece of floatsom to stay afloat, some shattered, jagged wooden plank. Sharks are all over, right below, circling around, too many to keep track of.
After about an hour, an obese young woman, who was the only person in the ER before me, was called and she disappeared through a door into the bowels of the hospital. The uppermost section of her butt crack was visible, peaking out of the waistband of her jogging pants. A woman who walks around with her crack showing is like a guy who walks around with the bottom of his rotund gut eclipsing the bottom of his shirt.
“Douglas?” a voice called out, and I looked around, somewhat confused. “Uh, that’s my middle name,” I called out. “Sorry . . . Taylor? The disembodied voice called out again.
I got up and walked towards the door that was held open by some administrative assistant. “Sorry, I have to go slow,” I said, limping horribly. “That’s okay, take your time, honey.” Ah, small town Ontario, where at the hospital they still call you ‘honey.’
“Okay, we’re going to go down this corridor.” She slowed her gait down so as not to get too far ahead of me. The place was a maze of hallways. We proceeded under a sign that read ‘X-Ray’ and I thought to myself, I don’t need a goddamn X-Ray, I didn’t break anything. It might feel like my foot is broken, but it’s not like that. We turned another corner, and then into another waiting room where most of the people from the previous waiting room were seated. They all glanced up at me with the same stares—like ha!, you’re just one of us again—and went back to looking at their phones, except for rural Jeff Bridges, who sat silently listening to his thoughts.
We all went through the rigmarole until it was, again, my turn.
I found myself in a tiny room, with lots of gadgets pinned against the wall, and a yellow medical waste receptical. There was a bevelled examination chair with translucent parchment paper draped over it, and what appeared to be an eye examination station. Fifteen minutes later the doc came in asked what he could do for me. He was a healthy looking middle-aged man with a slight Eastern European accent.
“Well . . . I know that self-diagnosing with Google is the bane of your existence,” I began, as a wry smile crept across his face, “but I’m pretty darn sure I have Gout.”
Like Scurvy, I always thought Gout was something that pirates got in the 1800s. I didn’t know it was a type of arthritis that makes your foot swell up causing intense pain. A Gout attack occurs when uric acid builds up in your extremities, typically your feet, and more specifically, the joint in your big toe. Uric acid flows through your blood and can build up in any joint . . . your fingers, elbows, knees, but it will usually hit you in the feet. If your kidneys are functioning properly, you will flush out the uric acid in your urine. But, for genetic and lifestyle reasons, if your body can’t clean out the acid, then it builds up and manifests itself as thousands of microscopic, needle-sharp crystals that cut into the nerves around your joints. The joint then swells up and the sufferer is in the midst of an attack, which can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It can disappear for months, even years, and then hit you again, or it can hit you again only days after the last attack. Aside from the debilitating pain, one lives in perpetual fear of an attack because it’s difficult to judge what will tip you over the edge, there’s a maddening arbitrariness to the affliction, and you never know just where the devil lurks waiting to sink his teeth into your foot. Now, certain things most certainly will precipitate an attack. Foods rich in purines, the precursor to uric acid, such as shellfish, pork, pop, desserts, and red meat are bad, as is alcohol. They call it the Rich Man’s Disease because years ago, only wealthy people could afford to eat and drink so gluttonously. Cheers Henry the VIII!
In modern society, even poor people can get Gout.
There is also a genetic component to Gout. My Dad gets the occasional flare up. My Mom has it really bad, too, where her foot almost doubles in size; and it’s rare for women to get Gout. Estrogen plays a role in clearing out uric acid, so it does affect older women in particular.
My Grandfather had it really bad. Apparently, he would be bed ridden for days with an attack in his feet and elbows. I think Grandpa liked his rum a little too much.
A lot of sufferers aren’t eating lobster and drinking twelve-packs of Keith’s every day—they actually lead healthy lives, they’re simply genetically predisposed to certain arthritic conditions like Gout. Their kidneys are defective in one important regard: they can’t process uric acid properly. And what an important function to malfunction! They have one rib-eye steak and a beer at a bachelor party, and they’re limping like a gimp for the next week. And that’s what really bothers me about Gout—besides the crippling pain— it’s the bad branding. If it was called ‘Osteoarthritis’ or ‘Inflammatory Arthritis’ people wouldn’t snicker at you as if you live like a decadent Tudor king. They wouldn’t think you’re a bloated troglodyte who doesn’t understand exercise and diet. Now, I drink like a Tudor king, but I’ll get to that shortly.
Gout is on the rise in many countries. As rates of obesity, hypertension, and high blood pressure increase, so does Gout. People are boozing like never before, too. Doctors are seeing double or more the rates of Gout patients than in previous decades. It is now the most common form of inflammatory arthritis. It’s not just a few indulgent men in the annals of history like Leonardo Da Vinci, Beethoven, and that commie Karl Marx. Must be nice writing about redistributing all that wealth while eating like a king! Nowadays, it’s regular people like Jared Leto, Kim Jong-Un, and myself who suffer from it. Gout even kept Benjamin Franklin from attending meetings while the Declaration of Independence was being drafted. Not even the birth of the United States of America could get in the way of a Gout attack. The affliction that charts world history! In fact, there is speculation that Kim Jong-Un received steroid injections to ease his Gout and that ‘roid rage’ is causing him to be so audacious with all the recent missile tests.
Gout: it delayed the birth of America, and perhaps will hasten its demise.
Indulge me for a moment while I attempt to describe the operatic cruelty that is an acute Gout attack. It is, by a wide margin, the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I would say that like most people, I have a normal pain threshold. I’m not like the guys in Jackass, but I’m not a wilting flower, either. When I stub my toe, I yell “Cocksucker motherfucker!” just like you, then rub it a bit and get on with things. But, dear reader, a Gout attack is something else entirely indeed! It’s like there are tiny shards of broken glass stuck in your foot. Like a ten ton Snapping Turtle has clamped down onto your toe and there’s no shaking him off. There is no relief from the sharp, burning pain. Remember when you were a kid and a friend would give you an Indian Burn on your arm? It’s like that, but ten times worse and it never stops. You lay there at night, unable to sleep—because that’s when the pain is the worse, as your body temperature drops—banging on your pillow, pleading with a non-existent God to make it stop. You fantasize about taking a chop saw and cutting your foot off. But then the uric acid in your blood would simply build up in your stump and you’d be like Captain Ahab . . . with Gout. Walking up the stairs is like climbing Mt. Everest. The tiniest amount of pressure on the foot carries with it the blow of a sledgehammer. Putting on a sock is like the NVA pulling off fingernails with pliers.
Don’t take it from me, though, take it from a war vet: “I’ve had crushed bones. I’ve shattered my ankles. I’ve torn out my knees. I’ve dislocated and torn my shoulder. I’ve been shot. I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been bitten by snake, dog, human, and cat. I’ve been sucker-punched. Tasered. I’ve been hit in the head with a beer bottle. I’ve been kicked in the junk. None of that pain . . . none of it . . . comes close to what Gout is like.” Amen, brother.
An 18th century cartoon by James Gillroy depicting a Gout attack
“I’d hate to be a tee-totaller. Imagine waking up in the morning and knowing that’s as good as you’re going to feel all day.”
As I mentioned, there are genetic and lifestyle causes for Gout. I’ve always been in fairly good shape: a lot of jogging and tennis, some light weightlifting. I like my poutine, but I also make sure to eat my greens. I’m at a healthy weight and I love to cook. Gout certainly runs in my family so I’m genetically predisposed to it. But the wrench in my spokes is alcohol. I’m an alcoholic. An inveterate booze-bag; a hooch-hound; an alkie; a beer guzzling gutter bum.
The Kool-Aid man—full of whiskey—busting through the wall: LCBOh yeah!
Every day I would drink beer and whiskey. It’s not like I’d get black-out drunk, only well and lit. Only drink enough to take me to that special place where you have a great buzz, and still have a couple shots and pint left to cap it off. OK, occasionally I’d watch a movie and not remember any of it. But then I’d watch it again the next night, so what’s the big deal? And sometimes I would try to lie down and read a few pages of whatever book I was reading and the words would be alive, replicating and whooshing about the page.
Who’d a thunk that years of that would take its toll!? The prospect of going a day without drinking terrified me. It was the sheer banality of it all. Cook dinner, play guitar, do some writing, watch some TV, cruise the internet. There is no banality with booze. All these aforementioned activities are worthwhile if booze is involved. I can watch paint dry all day if a few shots of whiskey and a few pints of Blue are involved.
I did go a week without the sauce after the emergency room visit. I took heed. I realized that I hit some kind of semi-bottom; my body sore as I hit a few large branches falling out of the addiction tree. How does one ever really know what the bottom is until they’re in the cold, cold ground?
To my surprise, it wasn’t as treacherous as I imagined it would be. I wasn’t in hell exactly . . . more like one of hell’s waiting rooms, where “Semi-Charmed Life” plays on repeat. The problem with sobriety is that it’s so goddamn boring. My hand reaches out to take a sip of something that makes you feel alive and it’s tea, or water. Where’s Jesus when you need him to turn water into wine?
You have vivid, intense dreams when you dry out, and I dreamt that Jesus’s penis was a hot, veiny, turgid tap, and I tilted it downwards and cold, delicious Moosehead flowed into my mouth. It was the closest I’ve ever felt to the lord. I’ve also had plenty of dreams where I have cocaine in a little baggie and I can’t open it, or the coke falls everywhere, or my hands don’t work to cut up the lines.
Now to add another wrinkle to the story: The doc told me years ago I’m most likely dysthymic. Dys—what now? was my reaction, too. It’s a low level, persistent depression. I don’t have bouts where I can’t get out of bed. It’s more of a monotonous background noise that is always there, like the buzzing of your fridge when you go for a midnight snack. Most of the time I don’t notice it, and then something will remind me it’s there. Oh, yeah, you, you’re always lurking around.
I’ve been taken the damn pills for the last seven years or so. Every day I swallow it and immediately put an ‘X’ on the calendar to quell any possible future doubts that I’d taken that day’s dose. They call it Cipralex. I think the same people who come up with the names for drugs come up with the names for cars. They must bounce around those two industries. Impressive sounding, vaguely medical and foreign, rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t mean much of anything relating to the product. Or if anything at all.
“What kind of car do I drive? Got me the new Chrysler Cipralex ’18. It’s a beauty.”
“What do I take? Ten milligrams of Qashqai every day. I’ll end the night with one shot of Integra and then off to bed.”
“The company gave me a brand new Zoloft Ranger to drive to work. Sure beats my 2006 Doxepin.
“I posted my Prozac trailer on Craigslist, it’s in perfect condition, and still haven’t heard back from anyone.”
“I used to take a heavy dose of Focus, but I felt too revved up, so I switched to Precis and I’m feeling a lot more even keel. Last month, someone thought it would be funny—probably Dan in sales—to spike my drink with Explorer at a party and I didn’t feel right for days. That X was freaking awful.”
“Yeah, I’m trying to wean off Sequoia but I keep getting these electrical jolts in the back of my brain.”
A lot of people have opinions on anti-depressants. All I will say at this point is that they help me not dwell in the dark recesses. I am free to roam in the semi-darkness. But I booze it up every evening to get my head back in the game. I don’t use alcohol so much to self-medicate—though that’s definitely a part—as to enhance life because I have a very difficult time enjoying things sober. It’s called anhedonia. It’s an inability to feel pleasure and I have a very difficult time enjoying anything while sober, or enjoying things if there won’t be the payoff of drinking booze in the near future. No single moment is unendurable, but whether it’s a BBQ at a friend’s place or staying in and watching TV, I use alcohol to help get me where I belong. Excuses, excuses. Perhaps. But that’s simply what addicts do; they lie and make excuses for their behaviour. They are duplicitous and shady. It’s in their nature—not in mine though. In mine it’s nowhere to be found. My nature is pure.
I’ve had a good life all things considered. My parents never even yelled at each other. Some passive aggressive comments at times, but that was it. There was plenty of food in the cupboards and I didn’t want for anything. The home was a solid, middle-class dwelling. We visited Disney World on multiple occasions when I was a child. The rides, the palm trees, the heat in the middle of January, it was like another world.
I was a Sega Genesis kid and all my friends had Super Nintendo, but that was about it.
I have overreacted to slights and have held grudges for far too long. But I haven’t been the victim of horrible traumas. I don’t drink to forget.
I listened to Jimi Hendrix and At The Drive-In mixtapes while driving Mom’s Oldsmobile around the neighbourhood. The reason for taking the car was always based on the flimsiest premise, delivering a CD or buying a pack of cigarettes. It doesn’t get any better than this! I thought, navigating the winding streets.
One time, I drunkenly stole the car in the middle of the night for no other purpose than to go for a joy ride. I was seventeen. I put the car in neutral and let it slide noiselessly down the sloped driveway. Once I was safely on even land, I turned the ignition.
After an hour of skirting around Toronto on the highways, I wanted to go home. I’ve always had a terrible sense of direction and throw some alcohol onto the fire, and I was hopelessly lost in the GTA highway system. I could have been in North York or Oakville. In a plight of desperation, I stopped at a Shell station and asked the guy behind the desk how to get back to Brampton. There was no one else in the store. The harsh lights shone down upon my weary eyes and the snacks. The guy claimed not to know how to get to Brampton but said I could buy a map, and pointed out the small cluster of Ontario maps near the counter. I left the store in a snit. And people think Canadians are all nice and polite! Ha!
I continued on, thinking that if I took enough turns, or went in the same direction for long enough, I’d eventually find my way home. It was at about 3 AM and the highway was deserted. I could see a cluster of cars and people milling about outside them. I couldn’t make out any specific shapes, just some people on each side of the highway and some parked cars. As my Mother’s white Oldsmobile approached it became clear that it was a checkpoint. It all computed as the car whooshed by the cops and I saw them scrambling in the rear-view mirror to get into their respective cars. “Oh, shit,” I muttered to myself. The lights started lighting up the night. My heart started thumping, at first I thought that they must be chasing someone else. Why me? I’m not doing anything wrong. I pulled over to the shoulder and the few cars behind me stopped as well. One officer emerged and I watched him become bigger and bigger in my side-view mirror. The gun. You can’t ignore the gun holstered on the cops’ hip. Sleek and lethal, it says, “I mean business.” My throat closed up and my heart started racing. I got a seatbelt ticket once when I was sixteen, but that was the only blemish on my young record. I had never been drunk, lost, with a semi-stolen car, plowing through a RIDE checkpoint before.
I didn’t even let the officer get the first word in. I switched into desperation mode. I was frantic, almost hysterical, telling the officer I’m so sorry, I’m lost and don’t know where I am. I didn’t see you guys back there. I mean, it was the shortest chase in Toronto Police history. As soon as the lights started flashing I was on the shoulder. I didn’t just knock over a bank or anything. I gave the cop some bull shit story about needing to get back to Brampton and to my eternal gratitude, he lapped it up and sent me on my way. Cocksucker didn’t tell me how to get back to Brampton, though!
I started the engine and began driving, acutely self-conscious of every move I made, the amount of pressure on the gas pedal, the constant eyeing of the speedometer. Just another guy driving down the highway I told myself, trying to keep it together. The booze was wearing off and I felt tired, barely able to keep the lids from snapping shut.
Then out of nowhere I saw a sign that said “HIGHWAY 410 BRAMPTON”. I couldn’t believe it. The night was almost gone, clouds like black inkblots against the dull blue of the early morning sky.
The thought of going out with friends, or playing guitar, or watching a movie, cooking dinner, doing regular life stuff while sober just doesn’t cut it for me. And lord knows I’ve tried.
I have the Gout real bad. I have been reduced to crawling across my room in screaming agony. So I’m trying to put down the bottle. In a way, the whole issue is absurd: a battle between alcohol and my feet.
A pill every day for the rest . . .
Rain or shine, summer or winter. There is no getting better or weaning off of the medication. It’s a terminal drug. Pill-popping my way to the promise land, baby.
As Tom Waits sang, the large print giveth and the small print taketh away. So it is with booze. When I signed the contract, I skipped the fine print, the part where it says Gout will torture you in the near future for the rest of your life.
Stick around in this world long enough, and life will punch you in the gut until all you can do is go down or cough up courage. I’m trying to muster up the courage to find meaning in sobriety; of being with my unaltered brain and being OK with life in all its messy glory.
Yet still, the barely perceptible hum of meh-amphetamine permeates my soul—Is that all there is? If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze and have a ball. If that’s all there is.