ulcers and ice cream.

I had become so frazzled at work that I could no longer stand it.

I mean, the job was good.  I was learning a lot about the electronics business and the retail business, and I had a huge amount of responsibility for someone in his early 20s.  But the workload was unbearable, the pace was insane, and I was turning into an asshole.

One night I was talking to Sandy and I noticed that Buca was glaring at me, warily, as if she were afraid.  When I crouched down to pet her, she slunk away, tail between her legs, and hid behind Sandy.

“What the hell is wrong with the dog?” I asked, concerned.

“She’s afraid of you.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re yelling,” Sandy replied.

I wasn’t yelling.  Yelling had become my conversational tone.  My dog was afraid of me.

I had also developed a strange back pain.  It started on the right side of my upper back, a sort of stiffness that required me to twist my head all the way to the right, so that my neck would crack and I’d get some relief.  Eventually, the stiffness started to turn into pain, which radiated down the middle of my back and sometimes down my right arm.  

I consistently had butterflies in my stomach.  It felt like I was nervous, all the time, and I had a dull pain just below my sternum.  It felt like my back was all fucked up, and it was causing my entire frame to be misaligned.

At some point, Sandy had begun seeing a chiropractor for some issues she was having, and he was a big help to her.  So I paid him a visit myself.  He took some X-rays and let me know that I had some problems with my alignment that were causing small balls of muscle tension – he called them “trigger points” – that were wrecking my posture and generally fucking me all up.  I started going to his office twice a week; he’d start me off by smothering my back in hot towels until I was nice and loose (and warm and sleepy).  Then he’d loosen me up by massaging my back with hot oils.  Then, when I was nice and relaxed, BAM!  He’d snap my spine.  CRUNCH!  He’d yank my leg and my entire backbone would pop.  One time he grabbed my right foot and gave it a quick yank to one side, and my ankle snapped.  My ankle – and I’d never felt anything so exquisite.

But the back pain refused to go away, and it seemed to consistently get worse.

Early that fall, Sandy took some time away and visited her family on Cape Cod.  Due to my hectic work schedule, I needed to stay home.  And, as always, when Sandy goes away my diet deteriorates into something out of Animal House – beer, Spaghettios, nachos, fast food.

The second day she was gone, I broke away from the office and went to Burger King for lunch with one of the other product managers.  I had my typical BK lunch – a cheeseburger and a large order of fries, with a large Diet Coke.  We sat and ate, then bolted back to the office.

At around 2:00 or so, my back began hurting so badly that I actually started worrying about it, and by 3:00, the pain had progressed to my chest, settling in its normal place underneath my sternum where it actually became so sore that it hurt to breathe.  It became so acute that I began to panic, to the point where I nearly called company security.  It felt like I was having a heart attack.

At the end of the day, I virtually stumbled out to my car and began driving home.  

What the hell could be causing this to hurt so much?

I sat in my kitchen and wondered, eating a bowl of Spaghettios.  With tiny meatballs.

I’ve got it, I thought. Exercise.  I’m not getting enough exercise.  I’m stressed out as hell at work, and I’m all tense.  I’ve got no way to blow off steam.

At that moment, it suddenly became clear to me: I needed to go to the batting cages and beat the shit out of baseballs for a few hours.

Baseball has always been tremendously important in my life.  I enjoyed playing it as a kid and a young adult; I immersed myself in the history of the game; I followed it religiously, on-season and off.  But I had not picked up a baseball bat in years.

Physical fitness had also been fairly important; I was not a jock but I was sort of a “sports guy;” I grew up playing pickup ballgames in every sport, and enjoyed keeping myself reasonably fit.  But since moving to Boonton, I had not worked out at all.

Yet I took about $25 to a local batting cage and began pumping quarters into the pitching machine as if I were Reggie Jackson.  I stood in the batter’s box for hours, slugging balls into the net and admiring their trajectories as they sailed off the bat.  I was hammering the ball, swinging with every ounce of strength, trying to mash each ball.  And as I became tired and couldn’t get around on the faster pitches, I’d move to a slower machine.

Finally, I went home.

The next morning when the alarm went off, I felt as if I had been hit by a train.  My back ached, my sternum was on fire.  I could barely move my arms or legs.  From head to toe, I was in agony.  Even my hands hurt.

What the hell was I thinking? I wondered.  Batting cages?  Batting cages?! I am in excruciating pain, and I’m so fucking irrational about it that I had to go to the batting cages?  What would make me think that hitting baseballs would make me feel better?

I called in sick to work, and laid there in my bed.  All day.  I didn’t even get up to eat.  I could not believe the degree of pain, and I couldn’t differentiate between muscular pain from hitting baseballs, and medical pain from whatever was ailing my back.

I dragged myself out of bed and went to my chriopractor.

“You’re a mess,” he said. He gave me my adjustments and then put some sort of device on my back that delivered tiny electric shocks to my spine.  It felt awesome.  “That should fix you.”

It did fix me.  For all of a half hour.  By the time I got back to my house, the pain was much, much worse.  I got ready for bed, and then came to a realization.

Sandy’s gone for a week.  I am going to die in my sleep tonight, right here in my bed, and Sandy’s going to come home and find me lying here, half-decomposed, and she will never be able to get that out of her head.

I called my mother.

“Listen,” I said.  “I think something’s really wrong with me.  I might need to go to the hospital.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked.  

I couldn’t bear the thought of having to explain.  “Can I just come over there?  If it’s still bad when I get there, I’ll go to the hospital.  If not, I’ll go to Urgent Care in the morning.”

I didn’t have a doctor.  If I didn’t feel well, I’d just go to an Urgent Care center.  I didn’t need a doctor.

I drove to my mother’s house, dreading the feeling of being cooped up with their cats.  I was allergic to cat hair (still am), and couldn’t bear the thought of the wheezing, rasping cough and the itchiness that I knew was going to come.  At the same time, I couldn’t bear the thought of being riddled with maggots, lying dead in my bed for a week.

By the time I arrived, I felt a little better.  So I went to sleep, and visited Urgent Care in the morning.  The doctor examined me and, sure enough, found nothing wrong.  So he gave me a little test to take each day for the next week.

Essentially, with this test, I needed to, umm, provide a small gift each day for a week.  At the end of the week, I was to take these accumulated gifts – which were very disgusting and difficult to obtain – and mail them to a lab.  Which I did.

And a week after that, the doctor called me and said “I think you have an ulcer.”

I was going to the chiropractor and hitting baseballs as a remedy for an ulcer.  Meanwhile, I was chowing down on Burger King and Spaghettios.

The doctor put me on Zantac, which at the time was not available over the counter.

“Most prescribed medication in the country,” Bill from American Standard told me.

Whatever it was, it worked.  Almost instantly.  The back pain subsided, the chest pain went away entirely.

This is where my ridiculous love of ice cream began.  Ice cream made the butterflies in my stomach go away.  It eased the fluttery, acidy feeling in my chest.  And so I considered it to be a medical necessity to eat a bowl every night before bed.

But you get the point.  Work had me stressed out beyond belief.  And one night, I had a conversation with Sandy about it.

“You’re falling apart,” she said.  “What good is it to have a good job, if you’re dead by the time you’re 25?”

“What should I do?” I asked.

“You’ve got to give them an ultimatum.  This is not about getting more money, or a better title.  It’s about getting help.  Either they get you help, or you leave.”

I couldn’t imagine leaving.  But I wasn’t making much money, and I was being driven like a plow horse.

And finally, I got up the nerve to waltz into my boss’ office.

I made my case, as eloquently as possible.  I illustrated my role in the company, explained how overtaxed I was, and described how “our” assistant was being monopolized by boss.  And finally, I said “I need help.  I need an assistant product manager that I can assign tasks to – someone who can step into my shoes, help out with all the things I need to do each day.”

My boss was quiet for a minute, then looked up from his desk and said “We can’t afford it.”

I tried to make the case again.  

“You have no idea how this shit works, do you?” he asked.  “We can’t just hire people because we’re busy.  We have to hire people who can make us money.  I can’t just start throwing cash around because you have a lot of work to do.”

And that was it.  No help for me.

~ by Al on July 8, 2009.

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