Of Birthdays, Bums and Black Licorice

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“What do you want for your birthday?”

Despite my perhaps atypical childhood, what with losing a parent and gaining a disease by the tender age of 13 before I’d even sprouted boobs, my mum always wanted to know the answer to that question.

In this respect, I was not atypical. I wish I could say I asked for cool and selfless things like taking my birthday money and donating it to a struggling art instillation, but I wanted things like Barbie’s Dream House with the Elevator, books and oh, a certain pop star doll with purple socks.

For the last 25 years, my husband Kevin has picked up where Mum left off.

“What do you want for your birthday?”

“Nothing. Well, maybe some black licorice.”

This has been my standard reply for some time now, because after your man gives you a kidney, there’s just no topping that. Also, once I got those boobs (Insert flat-chested joke here), I never really wanted things.

Yesterday was my 4th trip to see my new Derm, Dr. A. For those of you not in the itchy-scratchy loop, my body has endured a 19-month periodic and painful skin condition that has the great medical minds of Los Angeles scratching their heads unironically. In this piece I may sound glib, but it has been and remains no fun. So despite Dr. A’s valiant attempt with Capzacin (chili pepper oil), DermaSmoothe (peanut / steroid oil) and an unsuccessful round of Gabapentin, I was back down at USC. Reining in my inner Aurora Greenway, I asked for a steroid shot politely like a good Canadian girl does.

The steroid shot (Kenalog 40 mg) is a temporary measure, and if overused this treatment can backfire, but even as I post this I can barely stand the discomfort, so Dr. A went for it. There was one magical Sunday 10 days ago when I felt like the pain had finally disappeared, and my heart was ready to burst with gratitude. Angels sung, birds twittered. I thought, “Thank you, oh, thank you, skin gods. I no longer feel the need to fantasize about swimming with penguins through the frigid waters of Antarctica anymore.”

And then it came back.

“And you haven’t been doing anything different?” Dr. A. asked.

“No. I lead a simple life. I write. I take care of myself and my husband. I go to meetings.”

And then she stopped, eyes sparkling from a most youthful face. And when I write youthful, I’m not talking the kind of youth that comes in an injection—starting with “B” and ending in “X”. I’m talking age. The doc’s just young. She’s easily 15 years younger than me, and seeing as today I’m 48 that makes her… Anyway, back to me.

“I just want to tell you how heroic that is,” referencing my sobriety.

There was a story here, something besides a genuine appreciation for my recovery. I, in turn, appreciate a doctor even acknowledging the disease of addiction exists. In 2010, after an overdose on pills, I was sent home with Xanax and Ambien—two highly addictive medications. How does that happen? Well, it happens when the medical world does not understand addiction. For those not up on this story, stay tuned for my award-winning, memoir-in-progress, “In Pillness and in Health.” But, I digress.

(Is digressing even a thing anymore?)

In he came, the cutest little pocket nurse, C. He also orbits the Universe of the Young. You could take every cute trending hashtag and apply it to him and he would never know. Yes, because it was my 4th appointment, I now know that C. does not use social media. Nope. Not Facebook. Says Nada to Instagram and “No, thanks” to Waze. (Calm down, Angelenos, he uses Google Maps.)

C. asked me to lie on my abdomen on the table as I apologized for my lack of undergarments. Which is weird, because those who know me know I am a die-hard commando girl.

“We’re all pros, here,” C. reminded me. “That’s for sure,” I thought to myself. Henriette Inc. Celebrating 35 years of professional patient-ism.

As he prepared the area, C. asked me what I was up to that evening. I hoped he was as deep into this distraction technique as I was. I mean, I didn’t want him looking at my 48-year old ass anymore than I’m sure he wanted to.

“I’m going to a meeting with one of my dear friends.” And, Wham-O! Hello, steroid shot.

After it was over, I could tell it wasn’t over. It was in the way he leaned against the medical cabinets. The way the light in his eyes dimmed. The way his shoulders slumped with an unidentified weight.

“So…when did you know…” he began.

“That I was an addict?”

The weight on his shoulders was his younger brother.

I told him in a way, the disease took me down quick—from dabbling to dependency in a few short years. That I lost the power of choice at age 40, and by 42 I was in rehab. I told him there was nothing they could do to make his brother want it. You cannot give anyone the gift of willingness, but that by not enabling him, he might get there quicker. C. should not take how his brother behaves personally. That I lied many, many times straight into my sweet husband’s face when he stood in the way of my addiction.

“I drank vodka on my husband’s kidney.”

“Your husband gave you a kidney?”

“YES!” And I yanked my hospital gown high for him to see. I pointed to my abdomen, showing him my two scars. “This is my husband’s kidney and this one is my mum’s.”

Cue: Soft intake of breath.

“Woah! You’re like…the million…the…”

“The bionic woman?”

“Yes!”

“You’re too young to know that reference.”

“I’m up on my pop culture!” And we laughed. Two strangers in pain finding joy.

(As an aside, I had totally forgotten about my major Lindsay Wagner crush.)

Turns out, Dr. A. was not the one with the sobriety story. It was her nurse, C.

I told him to above all, get help for himself and his family, including his brother if he ever got willing enough. Then his eyes brightened just a bit.

“Thank you, Henriette.”

“What’s your brother’s name? I will say a prayer for him tonight.”

“Kevin.”

Cue: Soft intake of breath. And maybe some welling of the eyes.

"Kevin. That’s my husband’s name.”

“What do you want for your birthday?”

I still don’t want things, unless health is a thing. It’s probably all I’ve ever wanted since I was 13, and it’s the only thing I’ll never really get.

It has been sung, you can’t always get what you want, and that includes birthdays. But pain—physical, emotional, spiritual, what is to be made of pain? Once upon a time, I did not know what to do with pain. I kept it to myself and it nearly killed me. Now, I believe the more we talk, write, sing and share our pain, it can be transformed into joy. It will be joy.

That’s all I want.

Oh, and black licorice.

I’m sitting at Caroline’s swim meet with tears rolling down my cheeks. I so understand your overall experience, from the pain to finding the bright side of a shitty situation, to laughing in the face of fear. I love it when you write. It makes me happy. — Amy Maguire
Wow such a powerful piece of writing. Such a gift!!! — Karin Sharav-Zalkind
This post, like you, is shatteringly glorious!!!! — Thom Allison
Henriette, this is just beautiful. — Donna Fletcher
I’ve missed these beautiful stories on my timeline! —Fredericka Meek
“It happens when the medical world does not understand addiction...” Cannot wait to read your memoir. — Suzanne Hodges