Oct 3 • 14M

My Lowest Moment

Newsletter 2022-10-03

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James Breakwell
Family comedy one disaster at a time.
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I’m a liar.

Through the skillful art of hyperbole, I make a life that’s barely interesting enough for one person seem exciting enough for two. By day, I’m a mild mannered office worker and father of four. By night, I’m the same mild mannered office worker and father of four, but I also write stupid jokes on the internet. See the difference? In the beginning, when I spent huge chunks of my life banging together words for free, I came up with a pen name so that my employer wouldn’t find out what I was up to. I didn’t want them to make me choose between a day job that paid actual money and a dream job that, at that moment, only paid likes, retweets, and the occasional comment that I was a terrible parent and my kids were going to die. Thank goodness for the block button.

These days, I make some money writing, and my employer knows about my online activities, although they pretend they don’t. Plausible deniability means less paperwork and fewer headaches for everybody. I don’t need my pen name for its original purpose, but it turned out to be handy for putting a modest buffer between my family and the occasional weirdo in cyberspace. It’s for the best if people can’t Google my real name to find out where I live or where my kids go to school. My actual name I’m John Smith. Not really, but it’s about that underwhelming. By either moniker, that’s my face on the internet, and these are my daughters. These are our stories, slightly exaggerated for comedic effect. We’re real people doing real things who just happen to use fake names so we’re slightly harder to find and murder. Since most people aren’t murderers, though, getting recognized in public isn’t a big deal. It just seldom happens because I’m the nobody-est of nobodies and no one in real life cares what I do for a day job or on the side. The best defense against having your secret identity revealed is to fail at your dreams.

I’ve been in John Smith mode a lot more lately. Too much, in fact. It’s hard to pretend to be a bigshot internet guy when my own body is actively trying to kill me. Within the span of a month, my appendix exploded, I got C. diff—a serious intestinal infection—and I had wrist surgery. I’m not exactly on a roll. All three of those things were uniquely awful in their own ways, but the C. diff was particularly bad. It strikes when antibiotics nuke all the good bacteria in your digestive system and only the bad bacteria sticks around. The result is explosive diarrhea that ejects not just whatever you’ve eaten but also your very soul. Oh, and it happens around the clock. Eating scrambled eggs in the morning somehow led to urgent bathroom visits every two hours for the next three days. I had nothing left to expel, and yet I was still running to the toilet. It defied the law of conservation of mass. I should have run out of atoms and simply ceased to exist. Honestly, that would have been preferable.

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After two weeks of that, it finally occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t normal and I should seek medical attention. Too bad I don’t have a primary care doctor. I tried to do the adult thing and get one right after college. I had a bad round of the flu that lasted for two days, instead of the usual one. I called a local practice. They told me that, because I was a new patient, they couldn’t get me in for two weeks for my initial consultation. By that point, I would either be better or dead, so I hung up. This time, with intense intestinal convulsions that were ruining my life, I decided to finally complete that process. I called a local practice that had half a dozen doctors on the roster. Surely one of them could work me in. I called in September. The receptionist said the earliest they could see me was next March. I hung up again. I have no idea why anyone has a primary care doctor. Maybe other patients have the foresight to schedule their illnesses six months in advance.

Out of other options, I called my appendix surgeon. Since my digestive distress was likely a direct result of surgery, there was a chance he wouldn’t make me wait six months before he would help me. After all, it would be bad for his stats if one of his patients died a few weeks after an operation. I called his office and described my symptoms to a nurse. She checked with the surgeon and got back to me an hour later. Before the surgeon would prescribe anything, he wanted me to provide a stool sample. Here’s where I hit the limits of comedy writing. Some things are too awful and too gross to be funny. I had to pick up a kit from the lab at the hospital, go home, and, through a series of steps that should never be described in text, put a large helping of my own waste material into a plastic bottle. Then I had to drive it back to the lab. How do you transport something like that? I couldn’t just set it on the floor of the van on the off chance that it would tip over and leak. I also couldn’t bear holding it. It was still warm. Ultimately, I wrapped the bottle in two plastic bags and stuck it in a cup holder. Now I have to throw away my van and buy a new one. When I got to the hospital, I had to walk through the lobby to the lab and hand my sample to an unsuspecting person on the other side of the window. Despite everything I’d gone through up to that point, that was still the worst part. In all your days on this earth, I hope that you never have to go up to another human being and say, “Hello, here is a jar of my poop.”

At least there was a good outcome. The surgeon prescribed a ten-day course of antibiotics. By day five, I felt back to normal, but I took every single pill over the full ten days to make sure the infection never, ever came back. Life was good again. Until a week and a half later.

At first, I was in denial. Monday morning, I had one questionable experience in the bathroom. That could have been caused by anything. Maybe I ate something that didn’t agree with me. People don’t like me. Why should food be any different? Twelve hours later, it happened again. No need to panic. Two times do not a pattern make. Tuesday was worse, but I was still lying to myself. The situation might straighten out on its own. I couldn’t run to the doctor every time I had a little tummy trouble. It kept getting worse. By Wednesday evening, I was right back where I had started before I took antibiotics. This was definitely full blown C. diff. Sadly, by the time I accepted reality, the surgeon had gone home for the day. I’d have to wait until the next morning to reach him. It was not a good night.

I called his office as soon as it opened Thursday morning. I described my symptoms to the nurse. There was no way it was anything other than C. diff. I just wanted the surgeon to prescribe a different antibiotic or the same one as last time but for longer and then I would leave him alone forever. But when the nurse called me back an hour later, she did not have good news. Instead of prescribing anything, the surgeon was going to punt. Since his first treatment hadn’t fixed the problem, it was “beyond the scope of his expertise.” Really, he just realized I was going to be an ongoing problem and decided to dump me on someone else. Rather than simply calling in the prescription I obviously needed, the nurse told me to go see the primary care physician I didn’t have or, barring that, go to immediate care. The day was off to a great start.

I went to immediate care. I had to wait for an hour before anyone could see me, but I didn’t mind. I was so close to treatment. I just didn’t want them to make me give another stool sample. This was obviously C. diff again. What were the odds that two completely different conditions gave me the same symptoms a week and a half apart? When I finally got back to see the nurse practitioner, she also had bad news. Yes, it was probably C. diff, but she had to be sure. She couldn’t just go prescribing medicine willy-nilly for a condition I might not have. After all, I could be a junkie hooked on non-addictive antibiotics that don’t get you high. I’d probably just crush them up and snort them. The nurse practitioner said she would prescribe some medicine for me, but only after I went through ritual humiliation to prove I really needed them. I had to give another stool sample.

I was in particularly low spirits when I went home to do the unfortunate deed just before noon Thursday. It had now been nearly eighteen hours since I realized I had C. diff and I had yet to receive any kind of treatment. The silver lining was that, as unpleasant as it was, it was really easy to produce a stool sample. I could basically generate an infinite supply of the stuff. Good thing I was home alone. The last thing I needed was an audience of children lurking around the house and asking me what was in the bottle. Once again, I wrapped the still-warm container in two plastic bags and stuck it in the cup holder of the van I hadn’t gotten around to throwing away yet. It was time for one final delivery. It was awful and demeaning, but it was the only way I was going to get treatment. If I wanted antibiotics, I had to walk through the Valley of Shame alone.

I put on the required covid mask and entered the hospital. I stood in front of the window at the lab. The nurse on the other side opened the glass. I explained why I was there. She was less than thrilled, but, as a true professional, did her best to hide her disgust as she put on rubber gloves. Even through the plastic bottle and two plastic bags, now was no time to take chances.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know this is unpleasant for both of us.”

Before accepting the sample, she had to identify me. She couldn’t grab just anyone’s poop. I assured her that I was John Smith with the correct date of birth. In fact, it was the most John Smith moment of my life. I was as far from being an internet pseudo-celebrity as I could possibly be. And for once, I was grateful. It was a good time to be nobody from nowhere. If I could have, I would have curled up into a ball and disappeared. I never wanted anyone to know about this moment.

And that’s when I heard someone say, “Are you James Breakwell?”

Oh, God. Please, no.

I turned. To the side of the nurse holding my poop, a second nurse had entered the area on the other side of the window. She was looking right at me. I was pale and disheveled after days of earth-shaking bowel movements and had a mask covering most of my face, yet somehow she still recognized me from the internet.

My mind went blank. It was the most awkward pause of my life.

“Yes,” I finally said, too dumbfounded to lie. “It’s me.”

“I love your books,” she said. “I bought two of them.”

Ever since I first decided I wanted to be an author, I’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming. Not about book ideas, which would actually be productive, but about the fruits of selling those books. I imagined speaking to auditoriums full of kids and hosting packed book signings. I visualized what I would do when I heard the news that I’d made the New York Times bestseller list or that one of my books was being turned into a movie. I mentally walked through what I’d say at prestigious award ceremonies or when bigger, more successful authors who refused to blurb my books apologized to me and admitted they were wrong. But in all of those mental exercises, I never once imagined being recognized in a hospital lobby while handing over a bottle of my own poop.

“You’ve caught me at a rather awkward moment,” I said.

“I have no idea what’s in the bottle,” the nurse who recognized me quickly clarified.

That was concerning. What other things were people turning in at this window? I could only think of three bodily substances someone might collect on their own, and none of them painted me in a good light.

“Now I’m curious about who you are,” the nurse holding my poop said. She was obviously in possession of the diseased fecal matter of someone very important. That was my opening. I was supposed to swoop and sell my books. And I just… couldn’t. I like meeting people and shilling my back catalog. I enjoy pretending I’ve accomplished something and that I somehow matter. But I have to be in James Breakwell mode for that to work. I need some warning to put my best foot forward and hide my many, many faults. This was not that moment. This was me at my worst, thinking slowly and trying not to poop my pants. I made my excuses and backed away toward the door.

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I got the test results five hours later. To the surprise of no one, I had C. diff again. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I still had C. diff since I didn’t get rid of it completely in the first place. The nurse practitioner at immediate care prescribed the same antibiotic as the first time, but for longer. Thanks to a mix-up with calling in the prescription, I didn’t take the first pill till that night, twelve hours after I started calling around for help and twenty-four hours after I realized I definitely had an infection. I guess that counts as a happy ending. I got my medicine, and two nurses got a story about a local social media star who’s not allowed to share a bathroom with other human beings for the next fourteen days. Somebody shoot me.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.

James