Broken, and Broke: My History of Self Abuse (It’s Not What You Think)


I’m ready to get out of this body.

I can’t claim that my afflictions are any worse than those suffered by others. An accident or other misfortune has not left me wheelchair-bound. I can still bathe and dress myself (though it’d be nice if someone else wanted to bathe me every now and then). My various mental issues are pretty stubbornly controlled with alcohol and silence, at least for now.

But I’m injured, and have been so for some years now. I’m growing tired of the pain, tired of the uncertainty, and tired of carrying the expectation that someday I can make it all better.

In high school, I worked at an Italian restaurant in the downtown area of our bustling little metropolis here on the outskirts of Atlanta. I did a little of everything, but one of the things I enjoyed the most, believe it or not, was washing dishes.

Crazy, right? Well, that’s why I drink.

Anyway, it was mindless. Like Dori in that movies about the fish, the mantra of “just keep washing, just keep washing” was all I needed to get through a night. We would drag those big, gray, ubiquitous trashcans over by the sink, beat the plates against the inside of them to knock off the food, and dunk the dishes into a steaming cocktail of hot water and chemicals – including soap, bleach and something called “Special” that we found jugs of behind the water heater in the back – and if there was still some food on the plate, we took the soaked entrée and raked it off into the trash. By the end of the night, we had a 55-gallon drum of soaked food ready to be hoisted into the dumpster outside.

It was at least a two man job, lifting the trashcan up to the lip of the dumpster and turning it up. But that particular night, I alone was on trash duty. I took the trashcan out, dragging it across the parking lot. I tied off the top of the massive trash bag, studied the odds of dumping it successfully, determined the odds were slim and went ahead and lifted it anyway.

It was sort of a modified jerk-and-clear; I snatched the can up, guided it to the top of the dumpster, and as I turned it up, I heard the pop. My insides immediately glowed with pain. I felt I’d been gutshot. I dropped the can, grabbed my abdomen and laid down on the pavement, curled up in a ball alongside Church Street, waiting for better days.

My employers, ever concerned about the safety and health of those of us in their employment, told me not to go to the emergency room. Rather, I was to go sometime the next day to an urgent care clinic in town. Pay for it myself, and bring them the receipt and they’d pay me back out of the register. Real stand-up folks, right?

I tried not to go at all. I did. I didn’t have the money to pay a doctor’s bill myself. If for some reason they decided not to pay me back – and that was always a possibility – then two weeks’ pay would be gone. But the next day, the pain was so terrible that I could barely stand it. In front of the bathroom mirror with my shirt off, I could see something bulging against my skin, like an alien was about to explode from my gut. I pushed it back in. I lifted my arms. It popped back out. I drove to the doctor.

I’d pulled a hernia, was the diagnosis, which the provider made by sticking a finger through the tear in my muscles and into my gut. You’d probably need surgery, they said. Do you have a surgeon, they asked. I told them I had no surgeon. I also mentioned that I had no money. So they wrote a note telling me to do light duty for two weeks. Back at the restaurant, light duty evidently meant carrying stacks of the heavy clean plates from the dishwasher and putting them away.

I’ve lived with it ever since. Sometimes it’s worse than others. But if I move the wrong way – lean back in my chair at work to stretch, say, or bend down to grab a pot from a kitchen cabinet – the little fucker reminds me that it’s still there.

Then there’s the ankle. Christ, I’ve had a ballad with that thing.

The first time I remember injuring it was playing on a 10-and-under recreational soccer team. A ball shot by me, I stuck out my foot to stop it, the ball glanced off my toe, my foot bent weird, and the coach took me out of the game. (This is the only time I exited a game for injury. I’ve played through concussions and whiplash. I’m not bragging; I’m simply illustrating my history of ignoring the bodily harm I’ve suffered.)

After that, I enjoyed a long history of rolling and twisting and generally learning not to trust the damned thing. Covering a high school football game not long after graduating high school myself, I was rushing down the bleachers of my old high school from the press box to grab a couple of quotes from the coaches after the game. The bleachers, made of concrete, were set on a hillside, and had begun to slide apart in sections. In an area where the stairs had begun to separate, I stepped in a whole. The night turned a beautiful, lingering white as my body twisted in unnatural ways. I whimpered, and fell. My ex-girlfriend watched. She was unconcerned. The ankle was hurt pretty bad. The pride was wounded a bit worse.

The next day, my foot was blue. The whole thing. Then it turned black. I half hoped it’d just fall off; at least then it’d quit hurting. A little more than a week later, it was back to a healthy pink, and I decided to keep on going with life. For now.

Years pass. I’m driving home from work in my Pontiac Bonneville. I’m almost home – within a mile or two of the house, within the range when people say most car accidents happen – and a car accident happened. It wasn’t an accident, of course. They never are. Accidents can’t be helped. This was a case of a kid in his mom’s minivan, driving by himself for the first time, thinking that a green light meant he could take a left turn in front of me, and totalling my Bonneville when I T-boned him. I used to drive a stick, so I’m not one of these who uses one foot for the gas and one for the brake. My left foot – the bad one – is for the clutch. If there’s no clutch, it just sits there and looks pretty. I braced for impact as the kid WAITED UNTIL I GOT THERE TO TURN and shot out in front of me. It wasn’t an accident – if the kid had known what he was doing, this never would’ve happened. Momma should’ve have given the shithead her van.

Anyway, as I braced for impact, I drew my left leg up, away from the floorboard. I was afraid of hurting it. I hit, and it went sideways into the emergency brake pedal. It cracked. The world turned white with pain again. I went to the emergency room, and got an X-ray. They said I’d broken it and put me in an awful, ill-fitting plaster cast. I went to the orthopedic doctor. They put a more comfortable fiberglass cast (I picked a dark blue) and told me that they’d need to go in surgically and take out some bone shards and tighten the ligaments. Then they sent me to physical therapy, which cost $20 a visit, which I had to pay three times a week. I couldn’t afford it, and they wouldn’t let me take therapy if I didn’t pay up front, and the insurance company wouldn’t pay until treatment was complete, and the doctor wouldn’t do anything until I finished physical therapy, and so I quit worrying about it.

Years passed. I turned it and rolled it some more. Then, carrying a box from work one day down the elegantly twisting sidewalk from the office to the parking lot, I stepped on the edge of the pavement – the edge I couldn’t see around the box – and fell down. All I could see was the bright white, visiting me again like an old friend.

I went to the company’s occupational health treatment center. They were very nice. They took X-rays and told me that I had an old break. But it was an old break, and they weren’t going to pay to have it fixed. So they gave me an ankle brace, some crutches and sent me to physical therapy, much of which I missed because of deadlines at the office. They finally said I looked like I was limping along as well as I was before and discharged me from treatment.

A year or two passes. I roll it and turn it a bit more, and it starts happening a bit more frequently. Getting the mail last night at the top of the driveway, I fail to notice a small stone – but a little fleck of gray granite – against the asphalt as I flip through the envelopes and postcards of junk. I step, my ankle rolls. I collapse in a shapeless, angry heap by the road. I cry a little, because tears help wash the white away. And because it hurts. And because I’m so fucking tired of being hurt.

If I had to pick one thing about me to fix, it would unquestionably be my hiatal hernia and acid reflux (the hiatal hernia, which I’ve had since birth, being different than the regular old hernia I pulled lifting a trash can). That, thank God, is managed now with medication. I take it religiously. My Protonix is the prayer I say at bedtime.

But it’s depressing that I can choose just the one thing to fix. I need to get my stomach sewed up, or a bit of mesh stapled in there to help hold my insides in. I need to get the ligaments around my ankle tightened so the joint doesn’t turn as easy, and the bits of bone taken out so they don’t keep jabbing at the soft tissue around them. (The ligaments may actually have to be replaced at this point, based on what I’ve read; the frequency with which the turned ankle keeps happening indicates that the ligaments that are there can’t be salvaged. Replacing them is a much more invasive procedure, with a much longer recovery.)

Though it makes me sound like an angry young man not willing to take responsibility for himself, it’s nonetheless true that the health insurance available to my generation is a joke. After having an MRI done to see what was wrong with my shoulder a couple of years ago, I couldn’t afford treatment. Hell, it still hurts. The thought of the bills coming in from the X-rays and MRIs and doctor visits I’d need, not to mention the cost of surgery and rehabilitation after, is more than I can take or afford. It’d bury me. Worse, it’d bury my family. It’d take away money from my little girl, from my wife. I don’t want that. It’s not their fault I’m hurt. I see my wife fret over bills. I know I can’t.

Still, I hurt. I live with hurt, and I don’t want to live with hurt. I don’t want to feel limited. I was given a body that was whole, and through time, neglect and necessity, it’s sustained some damage. I’m a used car with a new Maaco paintjob and bad transmission and head gasket. I’m OK to get to and from work, but you wouldn’t want to try driving me to the beach.

I wish I could step outside myself sometimes. I wish I could leave my shell slumbering and stretch out my soul. It longs for so much more than my banged-up body can give it. I should’ve been more careful through the years. I shouldn’t have assumed I was indestructible just because I was young and strong. I’ve made mistakes. A lot of them.

And I can’t even walk down to the end of the driveway to get the mail without a staggering reminder of the many mistakes I’ve made.

I may be looking at this wrong. Maybe the solution is right in front of my face. Surely there’s a YouTube video showing you how to stitch up a hernia. They show you how to do your own dentistry, don’t they? What’s the worse that could happen?

I don’t hurt anymore?



4 responses »

  1. I can’t say that I feel your physical pain, but I can say I feel the pain of not having insurance and even if I did, not being able to afford my portion of the fees. Not being able to afford a mammogram, pap, help for my spouses fading vision or the growing lump on the back of his head, all terrify me. If I could afford it, I’d move to Canada to take advantage of their universal healthcare. Crazy world we live in, where healthcare costs are so high that we can’t take care of our health.

  2. Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thank you so much, However I am encountering issues with your RSS.

    I don’t understand why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody else getting the same RSS issues?
    Anyone who knows the answer can you kindly respond?

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