Where I Was Once Immortal
February 1, 2012 Leave a comment
This is the first essay in the book that I just suddenly decided to start writing earlier today. I’ve been working on a novel, and I feel like I might be better off working and shifting back and forth between the two. Like when I get stuck on one, I jump to the other, and back. Who knows, maybe it’ll work right? And so here’s the essay:
Thirty and the years around it are usually the beginning of exposure to health issues. Of course there will be certain complications before it, but it’s at thirty when those things that our parents usually suffered from suddenly become our concerns. The diabetes, the hypertension, the gout, and the fatty liver, and all those other things that we don’t want to hear about when we have to get that Executive Check-Up. Oh, the Executive Check-Up.
I was with a friend and we were driving to pick up his fiancee, idea being we were all headed to a party together. This friend and I, we hadn’t seen or spent time with each other in years (apart from a couple of wakes a year ago), though in high school we were inseparable. I can’t even remember what we talked about in high school, but our talk that night veered to our both having gained weight. Look at our pictures from back in the day and you’d see two sticks. We had ballooned. He was worrying about Uric Acid and I was worrying about the possibility of hypertension, and I could not believe that this was the kind of thing I would be talking to people about.
Do any of us, really, ever imagine having this kind of conversation when we are in our late teens or early twenties, yelling, “Whoooooo partyyyyyyyyy! (or whatever your thing is, that’s mine anyway) and then swigging hard liquor straight out of a bottle? I doubt it, and even if I did, waking up drunk the following morning (as I did most mornings in that period of my life) would have left me with no recollection of my thoughts from the night before.
But now I know the betrayals of the body. One of my closest friends just underwent spinal surgery at 32. She’s struggling to get her life back to a semblance of what it was. She can’t drive, can’t go out much, can’t stay sitting or standing too long, can’t walk around a lot, and has a limited range of movement. We plan dinners and meet-ups around her, of course we’re willing to adjust to her limitations, but you can see how it all frustrates her, and how she just wants to get up and get back to her old self.
Another friend fought hard, probably to his own detriment. One of my best friends from high school suffered an aneurysm. I witnessed how strong this guy was. In high school he had rushed someone who was maybe 5’8” and big and round; he opened with a flying kick, and then he stepped back, waited for the guy to get up, then gave him a roundhouse kick right across his face. He brought that same kind of fight when he was in the hospital for a week trying to recover from the aneurysm. But no matter how strong he was physically, he could not combat the damage that had been done to his body. Though he would show a strength and power similar to those flying kicks by struggling to pull the respirator, tubes and needles out of him every chance he got, to the point that he had to be restrained, he succumbed because that wasn’t the kind of fight he was in. He tried to power his way out of it, but it was the failures of various organs, due to an excessive lifestyle that took him before he could hit thirty.
I personally did not expect to live to see thirty. At fifteen I was taken by the notion that I would become a rock star. The rock aspirations coupled with adolescent rebellion and a romanticizing of living fast, dying young, sex, drugs, and alcohol, and all those cliches led me to think that I would be joining the 27-Club, those rock stars who died at that age.
I began a daily regimen of Gin Bulag and a pack a day of Marlboro Reds. I would learn to consume all kinds of alcohol, as well as other recreational substances meant to either enhance my artistry, expand my mind, or just make me more like the rock stars who did that stuff. I could down long neck bottles of rum in a night, swig whiskey shots ‘til the sun came up (and going into a recollection of this suddenly has my mouth watering). I was friggin’ immortal.
It helped that my fallback in case I didn’t make it as a rock star was writer, which also allowed for the hard drinking, body-wrecking lifestyle. I’d point to hard drinkers like Hemingway and Poe (surely, two early literary influences), and my favorite poet at the time, Dylan Thomas who had supposedly been told by a bartender that if he drank the tower of whiskey shots that the bartender had set up, he would die, and which in response to the warning, Thomas drank said tower of whiskey shots and died. I imagined a death just like that, taken from this world by artistry and its excesses.
I would drink ‘til the wee hours of the morning or ‘til the sun came up. The general rule was that as long as there was liquor on the table, I wasn’t leaving it. Often, I did not know how I managed to get home. I would later learn that certain cognitive functions we have get offloaded to specific synapses devoted to that. As a result, for example, sometimes we leave home and can’t recall if we locked the door, but we have; we don’t remember because the cognitive load of doing that is already taken care of, we don’t think about it because it’s automatic. That’s how I think I get home all those times.
I would wake near noon still drunk. Not hungover, still drunk. Limited recollections of the night before. At the height of things I would suffer from regular memory lapses, making me paranoid that I might have done something terrible the night before but could not remember it (the paranoia was not always unfounded). I’d open up my closet to make the first decision of the day: gin or rum? I’d have two long-necked bottles and cups in there and I would begin the day by making sure that I maintain my drunkenness with a bit of hair of the dog to ward off the possible hangover. I’d do some writing while sweating out the night’s alcohol, wolf down fatty foods (I could never turn down a serving of sisig), and in a few hours be off to start drinking just as the sun dipped into the evening.
Again, there was this sense of immortality. I went unfazed by all of the ravages that I had been doing to my body, and I could sense no reason to stop.
The problem was that as I struggled to be a rock star, going from one band to another, spending days working and nights drinking myself into a drunken stupor, the whole rock star dream wasn’t happening. And I had to delay my dying. And I figured out that I wasn’t much of a musician, nor much of a star.
At 26 I took my first teaching job and I had to stop being drunk every night. I was expected to conform to a specific role, which was high school English teacher, respectable, role model to students. This meant no looking like I rocked out, coming to school well before seven in the morning (I had a homeroom class), and making real life changes to conform to a more rigid, disciplined system.
Around this time, the hangovers started to come. While I had spent the majority of the previous years free from hangovers, I learned that getting bombed out of my mind would now cost me. And not only would they cost me a few hours or a morning, but the hangovers got so bad that sometimes if I was sloshed on a Friday night I would only be able to recover on Sunday afternoons.
Old injuries from playing junior high football began to plague me and I would suffer from sprains and soreness, sometimes after basketball games or other running around, one of the two dislocated knees I have would act up. Even worse, there were times when just walking wrong, or other, uh, vigorous activity (okay, I’ll say it since we’re all thinking it anyway, during sex the knee would dislocate and I would bite my lip and work through the pain because, hey, I ain’t stopping for nothing) would pop my knee out of place and I’d be left limping for days to a week
I knew that things were going wrong when, one morning instead of just jumping up out of bed, I rolled across the bed, then let out a groan. It began low and built up, and it was the kind of sound I would have expected a troll to make if his bridge had suddenly been disturbed by a flurry of horses passing over. It was a long groan that attempted to express the accumulated pain of the universe via an ache in my back and an uncontrolled utterance through groggy vocal cords and lips. It was an old man groan.
The problem really was that I decided not to take care of myself. I decided to be a rock star and abuse my body, because heck, it was only good for 27 years anyway. Might as well get all the living you got in those years right? But then at 30, it’s like there’s a sense of revenge at play here. I don’t think it’s the kind of betrayal that my friends suffered, where suddenly their bodies stopped working with them. On my end, I understand how after the decade and a half of constant abuse, my body would now exact its own toll on me. Just because we are one entity does not mean that it cannot punish me for the things I have done.
I daresay that I might have even called it upon myself. Aside from the years of abuse living the rock and roll lifestyle, I ate like there was no tomorrow and did not exercise. I was with friends at Kanin Club, and we had ordered the most sinful of foods, everything crispy and deep fried and dashed in some kind of high cholesterol sauce, it was just the kind of feast that, if you were hypertensive and you saw the spread the back of your neck would go crazy by instinct. In the middle of chomping down on Crisy Dinuguan, someone said that, man, this was sinful, and I replied, “Oh yeah, you guys all know that we’re going to pay for this right? It’s all going to catch up with us. But hell, I prefer this. I will choose my death by deep fried pork, rather than live to be old but munch on rabbit food for decades. If I’m going to get sick anyway, I will make the most out of it by eating as much as I can now.”
A week later I found myself in the doctor’s office. Despite iffy readings regarding the blood pressure, he believed that I could benefit from losing some weight. Obviously I knew that, but like many of us, it takes a doctor’s saying so before we move on something like this. And so he put me on a low salt diet and told me to lose 60 pounds. 60 pounds, which is like, an elementary school kid, or more than one-third of my weight.
And a little while after that, I find myself exchanging texts with literary partner-in-crime Adam David over our purchasing of various insurance plans. It was among the most grown-up things that either of us had done. I also acquired a PhilHealth card, which seemed to me a terribly adult thing to carry around in my wallet.
So I’ve traded in my rock stars dreams in for medical and life insurance and the knowledge that I will not be joining any club for artists who burned up instead of fading away. I’m suddenly concerned with my health and am making active steps to get healthy (more about this in upcoming essays). I am no longer immortal, no longer able to withstand whatever the world has to throw at me. I know I must contend with the world. But I also know that I have no plans of fading away. Heck, if I’m growing old, I am going to try to grow older relevant, active still in artistic production. Knowing that the body cannot withstand all these things, it forces me to acknowledge the limitations. And in turn, it pushes me to be even more productive. Let’s be honest, I wasn’t the most productive writer, musician, or any of that when I was under a constant drunken stupor. So maybe, just maybe, this whole turn might mean that in the coming years, as I miss the every-night drunkenness and the crispy skin of the crispy pata and all of that good stuff, it will make me something better than that rock star wannabe, someone who can produce literature that will lead to some extended mortality, if not immortality.