I alluded to TB in Isolation Room but the stigma I perceive still haunts me. When I was diagnosed I felt a vacuum enshroud my senses. Attempting to focus on what I was being told I immediately envisaged dying from a Victorian disease. Isolation is terrifying because it detaches your connection and interaction with people. I learnt there was treatment, a course of antibiotics that would take six months to eradicate the disease but I should be grateful it’s the standard issue and drug resistant TB. the terror, bewilderment, fear somehow diminished any gratitude I tried to muster but every cloud has a silver lining right?
I felt persecuted with the questions, have you ever been to any of the following countries? Have you ever been an IV drug user? Are you promiscuous? Indignantly responding with ‘no’ each time, I wondered myself where this affliction had struck from. Answers would evade me for a long time I was satisfied.
A chest drain is typically inserted under the armpit and above the nipple, unless it’s a cardiovascular surgeon doing the honours. After the initial incision my first chest drain went in like a straw into a carton drink. Hydro-pnuemothorax, fluid and air filling the pleural cavity. Following the tube from my chest to the pot filled with water on the floor I coughed and waited for the bubbles to appear. Getting the air out of my chest was critical.
My condition worsened and the chest drain had to be replaced by a larger one, 10mm in diameter. I was complacent, the oramorph didn’t touch the pain I envisaged in my mind. I asked for more, warranting a stern comment that another dose was out of the question as it would cause an overdose. My alcoholic disease had been awakened by the buzz of morphine. The pain from the procedure was excruciating. I understand why people pass out in the movies and how the brain can become so overwhelmed with the visceral severity of the whole experience it just malfunctions.
My immediate environment was contained before I was taken to the isolation room, an opaque nylon curtain briskly pulled around the circumference of the bed I was propped up in. “We think you have a bug, but don’t worry, there’s a treatment”. I accepted the luminous plastic bag, box of tissues and instruction to cough anything up into the tissue and place the tissue in the bag. A bio-hazard bag. I am a bio hazard. I can only describe those moments as transcendent, accompanied by very little emotional response. ‘Lost’ would be a good way of describing it, vulnerable to the unknown.
Proceeding the diagnosis I overcame added complications including the superbug MRSA and an effusion; a build up of fluid in the plueral cavity between the lung and the ribcage. I lived at home for a few months as the medication slowly eradicated the disease from my body. Vanity had been eclipsed by survival and my hair had grown ragged. I’ll never forget the gentleman who visited my home to give me a haircut. This simple gesture meant I received my dignity and self respect through gratitude and humility. After months of feeling wretched and ravished by disease and consequence I had built up many resentments and indignant feelings. I would confront these many years down the line when I was granted the opportunity to work the 12 Step program.
Some time prior to the operation I needed I was visited by a Catholic nun. I was raised in the Catholic faith but I don’t practice the religion. I’m surprised I didn’t cling to religion when I was so desperately ill. The African nun appeared at the door and asked in her distinct accent if I would like to pray. I remember feeling agitated but it wasn’t the nun’s presence, it was the humidity of the room, the re-emergence of acute pain, the cold sweat I felt when I moved to sit up and change my posture. I declined the offer, however I was left with a prayer card. I looked at the picture, St Joseph holding the baby Jesus and a lily. I began to read the reverse and in a moment of perplexed surprise I thought “she thinks I’m at deaths door!”. The Patron Saint of Departing Souls was looking after me that day to this one.
My TB was resolved by having an operation to de-cauterise, remove a lobe and re-attach the lung. There’s three lobes belonging to the left lung and two on the right. My left lung was peeled like an onion and put back in place brand new. A doctor who was present at my operation told me he saw my heart beating. It’s easy to forget we have a heart beating away inside even when we’re asleep. I also had the other kind of heart, the heart to survive and cling to life.
You’re probably thinking how all this relates to alcoholism? When I recovered from having TB I was determined to stay sober. I didn’t realise that this was ‘white knuckling’ and hoping for the best with absolutely no defense against the first drink. Approximately three months after my operation I got a few bottles of alcohol free lager. I’m convinced that alcoholism is a progressive disease because I got a thrill from taking the bottle from the fridge, cold glass, chilled beads of moisture, clink sound pinging off another bottle and the clasped alloy crown about to be leveraged. The smoky vapour dispersing as the aroma of hops hits the nostrils. It was a year before the drinking inevitably manifested into chronic dependence once again but it started when I decided to get 0% beer.
I drank cheap strong white cider for a year after surviving pulmonary Tuberculosis. This is the reason I say it’s not a choice to drink if your an alcoholic. Nobody in their right mind would jeopardise their health further by consuming alcohol through any means necessary, a perpetual obsession fed by fear.
The stigma particular disease’s carry is something I have pondered and struggled with because they reflect the person in a negative light according to social constructs. My latent pulmonary TB became active due to my abuse of alcohol and subsequent lowered immune system. I often wished that the disease of alcoholism and tuberculosis were other afflictions deemed acceptable by society and therefore worthy of compassion. I feel guilty for surviving TB then drinking. I feel deep shame because I thought TB was a dirty disease contracted by unhygienic, irresponsible people. I feel isolated emotionally, mentally and physically whilst being bereft of any empathic understanding. I tell myself I felt this way and things are different now, and that’s true to a certain extent. Belonging to AA, sponsorship, the Program and meetings have enabled me to overcome some of the post traumatic stress I have endured as well as Person Centered counselling sessions and family bonds. I guess this is my way of letting go of the stigma and talking about it openly. The ultimate vulnerability is counter balanced by the return of self worth & humility through gratitude and forgiveness. This blog has empowered me to confront trauma and suffering by shining the light of kindness and compassion on it, lighting the candle, feeding the spirit.
(Note: I am not a physician, if you’re experiencing difficulties regarding alcohol abuse or respiratory problems please consult your doctor.)