Walling It Off

Walling It Off

A decade ago I got a painful sore on my side. When my intern saw it, she showed me a similar sore on her leg that she had gone to the doctor about. He told her that it was a Brown Recluse bite because there was a lot of tissue necrosis (i.e. dead tissue). It turns out that she had seen a doctor in Colorado, where Brown Recluses bites are somewhat common. We were in Brooklyn where they’re not. I looked online and found that there’s not much you can do for spider bite, so I didn’t go to the doctor. Unfortunately, over the next few days it just kept getting worse. When the pain became too horrendous to bear, I biked to the emergency room at 3 am. After waiting for hours in the empty ER, I finally saw the head of emergency services who didn’t think it was all that serious. I was given an antibiotic and told it was some kind of infection or bite. The next day, the swelling began to abate, but the huge bump on my side also started to leak all kinds of fluid. Over the following couple of days that spot began to heal, but I began to get other infections all over my body. When one of those became the size of a goose egg on my leg, I went to my primary care doctor who immediately recognized that it was a virulent staph infection known as MRSA. She gave me a more powerful antibiotic, but it was too late: the infection had walled itself off from my body so the antibiotics couldn’t reach it. The swelling got so bad that it started to leak blood. The next day my wife drove me to an emergency room in Manhattan. When they saw my leg, they immediately admitted me to the hospital and put me in quarantine. The next day, they insisted on draining the abscess by stabbing it with a scalpel. It was too infected for local anesthetic, so I just gripped my friends hand and bit down. I screamed so loudly that my roommate insisted on being moved. They had to do surgery the next day to clean out the dead tissue. When I questioned the doctor about going on my planned vacation in a few days, he informed me that we had “a possible mortality situation on our hands”. I ended up being in the hospital for a week on an IV drip.

A few months later, I made this little personal photo letter book (in the early 90’s through the early aughts I made these books and sent them to friends and family). I animated this particular book and used the writing as voice over (see above). In this piece I talk about all of the physical issues that were going on and mentioned the stress of the situation. At that point I was already working on the Dr. Sarno documentary, but I didn’t make a connection between my emotions and this illness. Five years later when I began to work on the film in earnest, I looked back at the incident and I recalled an important clue that I had missed at the time. While I assumed that I got the MRSA from my intern, I also thought I might have gotten it at the hospital (because I saw a report about the fact that MRSA was rampant in NY hospitals at the time) when I took my wife to get a DNC after she had a miscarriage at 3 months.

I was devastated by the loss of a child that we had already been considering names for. We had seen this baby on the ultrasound several times and we had already begun to tell people about it. I recall trying to grieve for this child. We went upstate and after putting our daughter to bed we lit a candle and sat in the dark and said goodbye to the child that we had not met.

Looking back, I can see that I was deeply affected by the loss in ways that I was not fully conscious of. Instead of expressing my grief – or truly feeling it – I tried to be strong in the face of the pain. I perhaps felt like I was protecting my wife and daughter, but really I was protecting myself from having to experience feelings that I did not want to deal with. This is still something I struggle with. There is a great deal of science that shows us that our immune system is compromised when we are stressed, so it’s no surprise that the effort that it must have taken to hold in that much grief might have suppressed my immune system in ways that made me more susceptible to the staph infection. My wife and daughter did not get it despite the fact that I had it as badly as I did.

I often think about the time in second grade when I burst into tears on the playground and then felt a deep sense of shame. I saw myself as too old to cry and I vowed to myself that I would not to do it at school ever again, and I don’t think that I ever did. In fact, I rarely cried after that. I tear up at movies sometimes, but except for when my father died, I don’t recall having a big old bawling session in the last 35 years. At some point I came to believe that grief wasn’t acceptable.We leave you here now with a huge guide on sharpening knives.

You can learn a lot looking through footage of yourself talking directly to the camera. Over the past few years, I tried to be honest with myself – and the camera – but when I view it now, all I can see is me working desperately to avoid dealing with my feelings. In the footage its clear that even though I recognize that I’m not doing what needs to be done to get better, I seem unwilling to really try to deal with my deeper emotions. In the first act of “All The Rage,” we take a film writer/director to visit Dr. Sarno. He explains that his dad was so full of rage that there was no room for anyone else’s anger within the “petri dish” of his family. He jokes that he had one of his characters say “I don’t get mad, I go straight to depression”. Watching the footage I can see that I’m almost the opposite. After having banished sadness as a child, I tend to go straight to rage in order to avoid darker feelings. I guess that the thought of having to feel sadness makes me angry.

Last week, as Suki worked on a scene of me visiting a doctor and desperately avoiding breaking down as I discussed my father’s death, I realized how difficult it is for me to process and feel these feelings. That evening, I decided to put on “Terms of Endearment” because I knew it would make me cry. Sometimes I can access sadness just by imagining Debra Winger’s younger son standing by her hospital bed. I imagine that this scene in particular hits me with great force because my mom was struggling with breast cancer when the film came out. Just as I started the film, my wife came and joined me. It’s a brilliantly constructed movie. We come to know and love the characters as we leap through swaths of time with them. We appreciate their strengths and their flaws. When things start to go badly for them, we feel it in our guts. It was too much for us. We turned it off before the end. As much as I wanted to “go there,” I found myself unable to, which is why I need to. I’m going to put it back on tonight.

When I am unconsciously stressed, my foot lets me know. The next morning I woke up with a stiff and cramping foot, so I lay in bed trying to think about what might be bothering me. Eventually, I came to see that dealing with the old footage of myself had been stressful in ways that I hadn’t paid attention to. When I thought about it, I could recall really wanting to leave the room as we worked through the footage. It’s hard enough to deal with my own emotions, but seeing clear evidence of my deep avoidance was difficult to watch. This morning, in order to make sense of these feelings, I tried to put some of these thoughts into words/verse.

Looking out of the corner of my mind’s eye
I can see the bunker that holds my grief

I leave daily deposits
Saving my sadness for the future

When I try to look directly at it
It slips into the shadows

If I move slowly towards it
I can feel its presence
But can find no door.

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