“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”
-Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.
In November 2009, my family and I boarded an Air France Boeing 777 at LAX for a transatlantic flight to Paris. For me, it meant the end of a combined 16 years in the United States, which had seen me through University, marriage, becoming a father…twice, and five years of running my own businesses. I weighed 130kg (285lbs), had high blood pressure, three severely abscessed teeth, chronic low back pain, and a rather fatalistic outlook on life. I was beyond spent. Completely burnt out… I’m going to deviate here from my normal blogging, and tell you about how my physical and mental health got to a crisis point and about the nearly two year journey it took to regain my overall balance.
I suppose the beginnings of the downward spiral started in 2004 when I had to take a medical leave of absence from my work at JPMorgan Chase. I was needed at home to help my wife, who was now unable to take care of our son. In one sense, this was the push that I needed to finally become fully self-employed. On the flip side though, this meant my benefits package ceased to exist, and I had now joined the 40 million+ Americans without medical insurance. The state of California provided rudimentary coverage for our son, but adults generally didn’t qualify. In addition to taking on most parenting duties, I had to continue building my music teaching business (until then I had only taught students during weekends). Rent still needed to be paid and we had to eat… In other words, the pressure was on.
Things went well for a year, but then I caught a particularly heavy cold that wouldn’t go away. It rapidly turned into bronchitis and then pneumonia. I remember going in to teach on a Saturday morning, and the effort of carrying my instruments into the studio left me wheezing and gasping for air for 20 minutes. During my first lesson, I was demonstrating a Bach Partita on clarinet to my student Michael when I nearly collapsed. There was a deep rumble in my breathing, and it was obvious there was water in my lungs. He jokingly called it the Partita that nearly killed Wout! I needed medical attention, but visiting a doctor without insurance would have cost in excess of $300, not including any prescription medication. At the time, that $300 was needed for food and rent. I could in theory go to the ER, but there’d be a long wait, and it wouldn’t have been safe to leave my wife alone for that long. Luckily, JP, the voice coach at the music school was very knowledgeable about natural remedies and suggested I take a very high dose of garlic. It would kill any sort of bug in my system. After my lessons, I drove over to Target (a popular American retail chain) and bought a bottle of (supposedly odorless…) garlic pills.
That night to my wife’s chagrin, (there is no such thing as odorless garlic pills…) I took half the bottle, 50 pills in total and went to sleep. After an hour or two, I woke up in a cold sweat and with a tingling sensation in my chest. I fell back asleep, and by morning I felt much better. I repeated the 50 garlic pill binge the following night, and after that all symptoms were gone. I stank to high heaven and people turned up their noses at me for a week, but the pneumonia was gone. Impressive for $4,99 worth of garlic pills. I had dodged a bullet.
My next ‘incident’ happened as we were driving home from that same Target store two years later. I was eating a chocolate bar which suddenly became a little too crunchy for comfort. Half a tooth had broken off. The other half, including most of the root, was still stuck in my jawbone. It didn’t hurt as the nerve was long gone. The tooth had cracked and rotted away from the inside, until inevitably bits started falling off. I went to the dentist who charged me $75 for an x-ray. The tooth needed surgical extraction which would cost another $375… This was again beyond my meager means at the time, and I decided to take a wait and see approach. Eventually, the root became infected, forming an abscess. Now it did hurt, and the left side of my face including my upper lip was swelling up. Part of that lip had gone completely numb. This was right on my flute playing embouchure. There were mild episodes of panic, as playing and teaching flute was how I made a living now.
My parents were visiting from Belgium when the swelling was at its worst. Dropping them off at the airport on their last day, my dad pretty much ordered me to go straight to a dentist. I was very glad I listened to him because if I had waited another day, the abscess could have gone into my brain. The dentist wanted to extract immediately. It is impossible however, to administer a local anesthetic into infected tissue. But the dopey bastard dentist decided to try it anyway. All this did was create even more pressure inside the abscess, which was now a ridiculously painful bubble of pus and lidocaine.
By now it was obvious that this tooth was not going to get pulled that day, so he sent me on my way with a prescription for antibiotics. After paying $30 for Penicillin, it promptly gave me an allergic reaction and I went back in for advice. He (as well as everyone in the waiting room) was rather shocked to see me as I could have now modeled for one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Grotesques’. I got a prescription for Keflex which did the trick, and the swelling subsided. A week later the tooth was extracted, and the source of the infection was gone. The damage however, had been done… The abscess had invaded my upper lip and messed up a nerve. The flute embouchure I had worked on for years was gone. It was impossible to play, and panic really started to set in.
It was time for some solid advice. Not a friendly chat, a shoulder to cry on or a bottle of bourbon, but solid information from a reputable source. Was it possible to recover from something like this and play again? And if it was, how the hell do I do it? There’s a place online where the greatest bunch of flute players on the planet hangs out. It’s called ‘Galway Flute Chat’, on Yahoo groups, which is organized by Sir James Galway. I posted my predicament on there, and a short while later, Sir James himself responded. He told me not to worry and that I was probably onto a ‘very good thing’. Some years back he had pulled one of his own teeth out while eating a crusty piece of Swiss bread. It had been impossible for him to play too, and as he was scheduled to go on tour, he had a dentist install a temporary bridge. He advised me to rebuild my embouchure in a different part of my lips, and if I worked diligently, I would probably end up sounding better than before. I took his advice and moved my embouchure. It felt weird at first, and it was quite uncomfortable, but I gave it a chance and with many hours in the company of three French gentlemen named Moyse, Taffanel, and Gaubert, I could play again, with a bigger sound and more projection power. I still have a copy of that email and will never forget Sir James’ support and kindness.
My bliss was short lived. Another abscess was right around the corner, this time in my lower jaw. A root canal would have fixed it, but this was a cheap emergency dentist. If you were an adult he would only do extractions. He estimated that to be completely pain free, I’d need several root canals, two bridges and an implant which would run me a whopping $35,000. I was both shocked and skeptical. I started to have serious thoughts about spending some time in Belgium (my official home country), where a dentist asking this sort of money would under normal circumstances be lynched. I was given a prescription for antibiotics and told to come back in a week. This time the drug did absolutely nothing at all. Whatever bug was causing this infection, it was resistant to Keflex.
I didn’t want to go back to this dentist yet again, because I frankly couldn’t stand his face anymore. Thinking back to the pneumonia incident, I started wondering about natural remedies again. Because of the smell, my wife forbade the use of any more garlic. I went online and researched herbs with natural antibiotic properties. Eventually, I stumbled upon oregano oil which supposedly is 18 times stronger than Vancomycin (the strongest antibiotic known to modern medicine). I found some at a store called Henry’s Market. As soon as I’d bought it, I pipetted a full squirt right on top of the offending molar, and instantly realized I should have read the instructions first. I had a flashback to that fateful ‘summer of sushi’ in New York in 1996, where what looked like guacamole, turned out to be wasabi…
When my eyes had stopped watering and my heart rate & breathing had returned to within serviceable parameters, I went back into the store for a bag of empty capsules. At the end of the day, the experience was no less effective than the garlic. As recommended online, I took 4 drops of oregano oil 4 times a day in a capsule. Within three days the abscess was gone, and I do mean gone. Dodging bullets was becoming the fashionable thing to do. These natural remedies were seriously effective, but I couldn’t help but think that perhaps there might be something to this whole ‘socialized health care’ debate after all… Several other teeth and molars had begun to hurt, and it had become virtually impossible for me to chew anything tougher than burgers and pasta.
In addition to physical ailments, my mental sanity was at that point put to the test as well. Enter a recurring theme in the domestic misery that was my life in Southern California, my mother-in-law… I had a very special ‘secret name’ for her, but for the sake of keeping this article suitable for more ‘choice-word-conscious’ readers, I will refer to her as ‘Major Stress Factor 1’. I endured the manic and sociopathic tendencies of ‘Major Stress Factor 1’ for a full seven years. She is one of those manipulators who will get your guard down before going in for the kill… She had my wits seriously weakened, and hammered it into my mind that I was basically this horrible loser of a person, who didn’t deserve her daughter, and who certainly didn’t deserve to be a parent. The problem with long term exposure to a career manipulator is that eventually you start believing the lies. She was a huge financial drain on us as well, always needing more money. It’s insane really, the magnitude of funding that got funneled into her little schemes and demands. And all that time, I was too weak to put my foot down and put a stop to it. Then, in early 2009 she tried to take something that really wasn’t hers to take and we ended up in court for the next several months. This was a horrifying, and at the same time a very ‘therapeutic’ experience as it allowed me to excise this stress factor from my life once and for all. It was one of those situations where the term ‘failure is not an option’ ceases to be a Hollywood catchphrase and becomes brutal reality. She had to be stopped. Enough was enough…
Even with the income from my two businesses, $300/hr. for an attorney was out of the question, so I had to act as my own. This is never recommended, but there was no time to think about that. I had to get the job done, the alternative being too depressing to consider. After many sleepless nights, endless research, and some brilliant assistance from the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, I found the paragraph that would ultimately sink her case like the Bismarck. What I read to the judge during the trial’s closing arguments, was the ‘plural unisex legal’ version of Molly Weasley’s words before she dispatched Bellatrix Lestrange in the final Harry Potter book. The judge actually grinned at me when I read it to him…this was the precise bit of textbook legalese he needed to rule in our favor. If in the future I get into another long term relationship, I might just ask my partner to provide me with a notarized certificate signed in triplicate by two independent psychiatrists verifying that her mother is not a sociopath, psychopath, multiple personality, or any other form of bug nuts bat shit crazy!!! Until you’ve experienced it first hand, it is impossible to understand the sort of damage a toxic ‘in-law’ (or partner) can inflict on your life.
The way I have traditionally coped with stress is by eating. Between our house and my music studio was a McDonalds, which in the USA is a dirt cheap place to eat, especially if you order from the ‘dollar menu’. At the time, that menu included the double cheeseburger, which was one of the few things I was still able to chew without being in too much pain. For my afternoon snack on my way to the music school I’d usually get a large fries, 4 double cheeseburgers, and a big cup of Coke. In between students I’d go to 7-11 to get a few hot dogs. After teaching it was back to McDonald’s for more double cheeseburgers. I conservatively estimate that during my last two years in California, I consumed around 1700 of these… Once home, there was more stress and therefore more eating. Food was only half the story however, as I still had to be able to unwind at night.
Enter several large gin & tonics, a bottle of wine, and several glasses of absinthe. Right before bed I had a swig of Pepto Bismol to control the heartburn… In the morning I resurrected myself with ludicrous amounts of coffee, flavored with equally ludicrous amounts of Coffee Mate. I was now 34, weighed 130kg, and had stage 1 hypertension. I was completely apathetic. I figured, ‘you know what, I’m fat and it doesn’t matter’. I had mentally gone on autopilot and into combat/survival mode. I was focused on the court case, and little else mattered. I was comfortable with my weight and I had accepted that I was fat. By this time, the US economy had started to unravel. My two music businesses were tanking and it was time to pull the plug. They had supported a family of four (plus parasitic relatives) for five years and it had been a good run. Three weeks after winning the trial, we packed up and moved to Belgium, where one of the first things I did, was go to the dentist…
He took x rays of my jaws, and concluded that there were a few root canals to be done, some holes to be patched, but that it was unlikely that I would lose too many more teeth. Over the course of a week, my left side was fixed. Some say much happiness lies in the ‘simple things’. One of my best ever memories is coming home from the dentist and being able to bite into an apple again! I ended up losing the molar that had the abscess. A specialist in Ostend did his best to save it, but it had a crack across two roots and became re-infected. I had it removed, along with a wisdom tooth that was also behaving badly. Teeth fixed, I still weighed 130 kilos and with my shoulder length hair, I looked like a pixie frog with a pony tail.
In April 2010, ‘Major Stress Factor 2’ stepped out of my daily life. It was painful for less than two weeks, and after that some interesting things started to happen. Firstly, seven years of chronic heartburn spontaneously disappeared. The medication I took for it went in the bin. Also, my desire for alcohol went away, completely. For the first time in years, I was able to fall asleep the ‘normal’ way, without needing booze to knock myself out. For the next year I stopped drinking completely, and to be honest, it wasn’t very difficult. I had just lost the taste for it. My mom encouraged me to start going outside after taking the kids to school, and go for walks. Breathing the crisp morning air was fantastic. I enjoyed these moments of peace so much that I began to walk multiple times a day.
When I was confident that my knees could take it, I began to jog. First short distances, then eight months later, I was averaging 30k a week. I was losing weight, and dropping pant sizes. I went from a size 38 down to a 32 and had to buy a shorter belt. Having to go into the store to buy smaller clothes was fun! Curious to see where I was at, I hopped on the scale. When I did, it was quite a shock, and my first thought was that these numbers couldn’t possibly be right. But surreal as it seemed, it wasn’t a lie. The scale read 93kg! In just under a year I had lost 37 kilos (82 pounds). Encouraged, I joined the local gym to tone up my muscles. I was determined to take this all the way and to have that coveted six-pack of abs. This went well in the beginning, but it didn’t last long. I was finally starting to feel those abs under the last bit of remaining belly flab when disaster struck.
One early morning in June of 2011, I was sitting on my son’s bed, putting on a sock when this electrical jolt shot down my right leg. This was immediately followed by the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. My L5-S1 intervertebral disc had ruptured, and its contents were now wrapped around my sciatic nerve. All those years of being fat had taken its toll on my back. It’s difficult to describe the pain, other than that it was so intense that it was impossible to think of anything else. My mind was completely focused it, and in the most perverted sense of Zen, it was oddly meditative… I was taken to the AZ Damiaan Hospital in Ostend by ambulance to see to their neurosurgeon. Awaiting further tests, they gave me an epidural injection with an anesthetic which sort of took the edge off the pain, but nothing more. I then got a strong narcotic injected into my right butt cheek. Again, it helped take the edge off, but that was about it…
The annoying thing about nerve pain is that other than surgically removing the source, there really isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. An MRI scan was done to map out the damage, and I was scheduled for surgery. In the meantime, I met some interesting fellow patients in the Neurosurgery ward. One gentleman was being rebuilt after the electrical platform he was working on got hit by a city train, plunging him 20ft down into traffic below. Another chap was there to have a blood clot removed from his brain after being struck on the head by a crane cabin. I’m telling you, socks should come with safety instructions…
Surgery itself was (from my perspective at least) quick and painless. In the operating room, a nurse came with three syringes that were hooked up to my IV line. Two smaller ones containing clear liquids (one of which was the paralytic, curare), and a large one that contained the thick white propofol which two years earlier had helped Michael Jackson ‘cross over’ to the spirit World. When I woke up from surgery, the pain was completely gone. Unfortunately, so was about half of the feeling in my right leg… The surgeon told me that the disc fragment had been jammed so tightly against the nerve, that it was bright purple from bruising. This was not a good sign, and it could take a year until it was clear how much of this damage was going to be permanent.
The following day I practiced walking for the first time with the hospital physical therapist, and I nearly fell on my ass. I had virtually no power in my leg, especially in the calf. I had to lock my knee to balance myself. This was another panic moment. Back in high school, I had gotten involved with mountaineering and eventually did some climbing in the Himalayas. As my health was returning, I’d started hatching plans. Perhaps in a year or two, with intense training (and winning the lottery perhaps to fund these plans) I might be able to drag my previously fat posterior up Cho Oyu or Broad Peak. In my current state though, it looked like that would very likely be a pipe dream. Even basic walking was a struggle now, and climbing seemed as elusive now as flute playing was right after that first dental abscess. But I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel quite yet. A healthy mind resides in a healthy body, and on a positive note, it was clear that my brain was once again capable of generating eccentric thoughts. My sense of ‘self’ was starting to come back.
I was prescribed physical therapy and ordered to strictly avoid anything even remotely resembling a gym or a piece of exercise equipment. That was the worst part for me. I was getting used to being active again, and the thought of taking it easy for several months was sheer torture. For climbing (and in the more immediate future, learning to walk again), I realized the key to my recovery would be regaining full use of my calf muscle. I figured that if there were some viable nerves & muscles left, I could work on strengthening those to compensate for the ones that had joined the Belgian railroad Union. Every time I walked up the stairs I did it slowly, and with every step of my right foot, I would put it on the tippy toe, and then slowly put weight on it until my foot was flat. At first it just seemed silly. But I stuck to the routine, and slowly strength started building up. It was nothing compared to my normal leg, but it was a start.
I began talking to one of my physical therapists about my climbing aspirations, as well as the fact that I had serious cabin fever. I had not done any form of exercise in three months, and I had re-gained about 20 pounds. Because of the stress it places on the lower spine, I was not allowed to go jogging anymore (ever) and he suggested stair climbing as an alternative. Lucky for me, my current home town of Diksmuide is home to a peace monument & museum called the Ijzertoren. It is an 84m (275ft) high tower and has stairs all the way to the top. I drove over right after my session ended and explained my situation. This being Belgium, they don’t generally make a big stink about ‘insurance issues’, and they gave me full use of the tower facilities during opening hours. I was still in sports attire, so I gave it a go right there and then. It took me 9 ½ minutes to get to the top, and about that much to get back down. I felt pretty good so I went up and down 2 more times before calling it a day.
I really liked it and started going multiple times a week. I would drop my kids off at summer camp & then go climb ‘The Tower’. On August 22nd I decided to give myself a birthday present in the form of an endurance test (yes I’m odd at times, but it really felt like a ‘gift’ to be able to do this). I brought a small backpack and several liters of drinking water. Over the course of 3hrs, 55min I went up and down the tower 12 times. Total vertical height gained was 1008m. Afterward I put on a dry t-shirt, went to a restaurant and ordered spaghetti Bolognese. I figured I had earned it. All this exercise meant that the weight was once again coming off, and my leg (as hoped) was gaining strength.
Fast forward another four months to the present time. I can stand on the toes of my right foot again. Some areas are still completely numb, but overall strength is about 95% of what it is in my ‘normal’ leg and I can live with that. My ‘op-site’ has healed and I’ve been back in the gym doing mild to moderate weight training. I was at ‘The Tower’ a week and a half ago and went up & down 8 times in 1hr, 47 min. This stair climbing feels like an obsession, but it’s a relatively healthy one and damned good preparation for climbing. They’ve offered to let me try and climb a full 8 hour day as another endurance test. What would really be neat would be to do a 17 hour ‘marathon’ climb. 17 hours is the average roundtrip time from the South Col of Mt Everest to the summit and back. I wouldn’t get the effect of the altitude, but again, it’s a start, as well as completely & utterly barking mad, which for me is half the fun. I’m unlikely to ever forget the support from the staff at the Ijzertoren either.
So is this the end of my struggles? I seriously doubt it. I’m due for another MRI in March to look at a disc in my neck which is in danger of the same thing happening. Part of my routine in the gym is strengthening my neck muscles to support it. It needs to be perfectly stable before my neurosurgeon will sign off on me for a return to Himalayan climbing. I found out it’s possible to safely climb again after a hernia. Through Facebook I contacted former NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski, who summited Everest after having recovered from the exact same injury that I had. His advice was ‘spin classes’ and loads of them…
If in March the disc turns out to be toast, it means more surgery and at least another six month setback. But to be honest, it really isn’t that big of a deal. Absolutely everyone is at some point in their life exposed to hardship, whether it be financial struggles, tormentors, accidents, illnesses, or death of friends and relatives. I’ve come to the conclusion that happiness and inner peace are not determined by how much, or how little of it you endure, but by how you eventually make the decision to focus, keep going, and are able to get through these experiences with your sense of humor still intact.