Warning: This post contains graphic images not suitable for some readers
I almost died.
It’s been 5 years since I had the surgery that saved my life but it still haunts me every day. Actually, it’s not the surgery that haunts me, it’s the 5+ years I spent sick and dying without anyone but Ashley believing me.
Ashley always believed me and supported me but she didn’t enter my life until 2010. By that point, I had been sick for at least 4 years. It was her belief in me that ultimately saved my life. She’s the true definition of standing by those “in sickness and health” vows.
Let’s go back to the beginning…to 2006…when it all started in Alabama
In 2006 I was living and working in Alabama. It wasn’t anything special but it was a reliable job and it paid the bills. Everything was fine until I went to leave work one night and found the tires on my Ford Explorer had been slashed. Slashed tires is a pretty good indication that something is about to go down and before I even processed what was happening I was assaulted by 3 men hellbent on killing me and taking everything I had.
One of the men was the boyfriend of a woman I worked with. I can only presume the other two were friends of his because I didn’t recognize them. I defended myself the best I could but I didn’t stand a chance against the three of them. The last thing I (vaguely) remember is being picked up and dropped headfirst against the pavement…repeatedly. My head was smashed open.
I don’t remember a lot of what else happened that night and the details have been filled in via witnesses and security footage leaving me unclear about what else occurred. I only know I woke up in a hospital room surrounded my people shocked to see me open my eyes. I think they expected me to be dead.
I was fortunate to survive and was told by my doctor’s that I may struggle with headaches and short-term memory loss for the rest of my life. He prescribed me Vicodin for pain management and eventually sent me on my way. As it turned out, the physical effects of the assault healed and my head is mostly fine (I struggle with short-term memory loss at times) but the Vicodin was a mistake.
I was prescribed Vicodin to manage the pain that lingered from the assault. I took it 3x a day for approximately one year.
I was prescribed Vicodin to manage the pain that lingered from the assault. I took it 3x a day for approximately one year. At the time I didn’t think anything of it. Why would I? I was taking medication as prescribed by a physician to treat injuries resulting from a criminal attack. It never crossed my mind that I would be at risk for something worse.
When my prescription refills ran out I thought I’d just stop taking the medication. The doctor never spoke to me about the risk of addiction or having to adjust your dosage in order to taper off of the drug. All I knew was I was suddenly and violently ill. I consulted my doctor about my severe sickness and his response was simply, “You’re going through withdrawals. You shouldn’t have become addicted to them.”
With my melancholy, I accepted his reasoning. It made no sense to accept that it was my fault that I became addicted to a prescription I was taking while under the care of a doctor but I didn’t question it. I only knew I couldn’t handle being this sick and I needed help. I found help from a few people I met who sold Lortab (Vicodin) for $5 – $7 per pill. I rationalized I was self-medicating. I rationalized that it was fine.
I was working, going to college, and taking family vacations. Obviously it wasn’t a problem, right?
It was definitely a problem but I was in denial about it. I convinced myself I needed it and it would be 5+ years before I realized I was right. I didn’t realize it at the time but my body was already fighting something that would almost take my life.
As soon as I disclosed that I took Lortab to self-medicate I was dismissed by the medical community. I was told my pain and illness was due to stress and anxiety. I was told it was all in my head.
While I was taking the Lortab, I started struggling with health problems. I was having severe stomach pains, bloating, bleeding, and digestive troubles. I was in pain every day and when I consulted a doctor about it I was given a variety of diagnoses without any actual exams. As soon as I disclosed that I took Lortab to self-medicate I was dismissed by the medical community. I was told my pain and illness was due to stress and anxiety. I was told it was all in my head. I was told that if I stopped taking the Lortab I would feel better but no one was able or willing to help me stop taking it. I turned to family and friends but no one helped. They responded as though it wasn’t that bad, if I wanted it I would do it on my own, and that I was simply suffering from stress.
I was stuck in an endless loop that felt like it would never end. Meanwhile, Ashley and I were falling in love.
I didn’t tell Ashley about my addiction. I had convinced myself that I could hide it from her and that I would beat it before I asked her to live with me or marry me. There is a lot of shame that comes with addiction and I was sure that if I confessed the truth to her she’d leave me. I didn’t want to lose her so I kept it a secret. I invited her to live with me and still kept it a secret. She meant the world to me but addiction meant secrets, even from her. At least, it did until the day came when I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
I’ll never forget the look on her face when I told her or the words that came from her lips. She stood there in our living room, quietly, watching me as I told her about my struggle. I could see the wheels in her head turning as she stood there in front of me not saying a word. After what felt like forever she said, “One day you’ll have to make a choice. It will be me or them. You don’t have to choose today, but one day you will.”
She stood there in our living room, quietly, watching me as I told her about my struggle. I could see the wheels in her head turning as she stood there in front of me not saying a word.
That was it. That was all she said, then she hugged me. As we stood there in our living room, I thought to myself, “I’ll choose you Ashley.” I knew I wasn’t going to let her go and I knew I had someone in my corner that was going to help me. We thought it would be simple and that we only had to overcome an addiction. We didn’t realize that there was a far more severe health issue lingering inside and that my Lortab addiction had been hiding it from us.
I told Ashley that I chose her and I asked her to please help me. I didn’t want to take Lortab. I didn’t want to be sick. I wanted to be sober, clean, healthy, and build a long and happy life with her. I knew I couldn’t do it alone and Ashley is a fighter. It felt good to have her in my corner.
Before I beat my addiction, before I was healthy again, I asked Ashley to be my wife and she said yes. We were married two days after my proposal; it was May 2011. We held a wedding ceremony for family and friends 7 months later, December 2011, in Florida.
In the 7 months that passed between the day we married and the day we held a ceremony for family and friends, Ashley held my hand as we beat my addiction. She was a warrior for me. She never accepted “no” or “I don’t know” as an answer. She called doctor’s offices, addiction specialists, treatment facilities, and demanded help or at least guidance in finding the right places to get help. She eventually succeeded in convincing my primary care physician to help me.
She called doctor’s offices, addiction specialists, treatment facilities, and demanded help or at least guidance in finding the right places to get help.
He prescribed me a cocktail of prescriptions that would lower my blood pressure and keep me sedated for a few days. It was just long enough to get the drugs out of my system. He told Ashley what to expect while I was withdrawing and reminded us he was only going to do this dance with us once. We were sure it was all we needed.
Ashley stood by my side throughout the next few days. She kept me hydrated and fed (soup / broth) and continually adjusted the temperature to handle either the cold sweats or the hot flashes I was suffering. It was miserable, but she was a champ! A few days later, I was through the worst of the withdrawals but still in severe pain, particularly in my lower left quadrant. It was evident to us both that there was something else going on. At this point I was unable to work or go to school and, unfortunately, Ashley lost her job as well. At the end of 2011, we moved back to Florida where Ashley had family and a job offer with her previous employer. I’d been off of Lortab for at least 6 months before we moved to Florida and we looked at it like a second chance and a new start. We also prayed we’d have better luck with the doctor’s there in our search to resolve the last the last medical question – what was causing my stomach pain?
I was losing a tremendous amount of weight and everything I ate seemed to make me sick. I ate a banana and passed out in the hallway of our apartment. I ate a saltine cracker and would start violently vomiting in our bathroom. Ashley started calling doctors again, obviously this was something very serious.
At one point I had 38 doctor’s appointments in 30 days. I was continually being referred to this doctor or that specialist and prescribed a variety of different medications to try to treat something no one seemed to be able to diagnose.
I practically lived in the doctor’s office for the next two years. At one point I had 38 doctor’s appointments in 30 days. I was continually being referred to this doctor or that specialist and prescribed a variety of different medications to try to treat something no one seemed to be able to diagnose. I insisted I had severe crippling pain radiating from the lower left quadrant of my abdomen and they insisted the issue was digestive. I asked about my appendix, my spleen, my kidneys, but the doctors always said those issues would show up on a scope, scan, or medical test and I was fine.
Over that time Ashley and I were told that I had:
and, of course, there were the doctors that insisted there was nothing wrong with me and the family that insisted it was all in my head, a result of stress and anxiety. As it turns out, I didn’t have any of those things but when a doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong with you they tend to default to “It’s IBS.” We knew there was something wrong, but we couldn’t prove it. Ashley wouldn’t admit it, but I knew I was dying.
I knew I was going to leave Ashley a widow before she turned 30 but it wasn’t going to be for lack of trying. The cycle of doctor – misdiagnosis – prescriptions – doctor continued for years. During this time Ashley bought a million cookbooks and tried a ton of different diets. We tried eating high-protein, low-carb, gluten-free, dairy-free, and a ton of other things but nothing made a difference. I was existing on chicken soup and applesauce. Still, every doctor insisted I was fine other than having a sensitive stomach.
We tried eating high-protein, low-carb, gluten-free, dairy-free, and a ton of other things but nothing made a difference.
By the middle of 2012, we both knew it was over even if we never spoke it aloud. We stopped going to the doctor’s offices or the ERs. We quit trying new diets, food options, prescriptions, or holistic natural healing options. We were finally accepting that it was hopeless and that one morning I simply wouldn’t wake up. I was dying and I knew it. I could feel it. It’s a haunting feeling to know you’re dying and that there isn’t a single person that can tell you why.
Then, one night in June, 2012, Ashley and I went to the movies. I could barely stand up or walk but I knew I didn’t have many days left. I wanted to be around her as much as I could and give her as many happy memories as possible. We went to see Prometheus.
I barely made it through the movie. Ashley tells me I seemed to be shivering and I was clutching the arm of the theater chair so hard my knuckles were white. When we sat down in the car after the movie Ashley was quiet before turning to me and saying, “We need to go to the ER.” I tried to protest but she insisted.
When we sat down in the car after the movie Ashley was quiet before turning to me and saying, “We need to go to the ER.” I tried to protest but she insisted.
She said that there was something telling her we had to go to the hospital. She couldn’t explain it then and she struggles to explain it now but she says that it felt like God simply took over and drove. To this day she can’t remember driving me to the ER but she can recall the overwhelming feel that we had to go and we had to go right now.
When we arrived at the hospital, Ashley knew the triage nurse who agreed to take me back to see the doctor right away. The ER doctor knew Ashley’s mother (she was a paramedic). He ran all of the same tests as every other doctor (blood, urine, etc) and scans (x-ray, cat scan, etc) and said the same words as every other doctor, “There’s nothing medically wrong with you.” but then he said something no other doctor had ever said, “But it’s doesn’t take a genius to look at you and know something’s wrong. I’m going to admit you and call in a specialist.” I think we were both near tears, this was the first doctor in 6 years to admit me to the hospital despite all of my pain, weight loss, vomiting, bleeding, bloating, and other symptoms. Ashley stayed with me for as late as she was allowed then returned the next morning to meet the specialist. I was overwhelmingly stressed and Ashley tried to stay calm for me but I could see it in her too – stress, worry, fear – it was all over her face.
The specialist mentioned that my appendix looked “slightly enlarged” but that it wasn’t the source of my problem. He wanted to do an exploratory surgery to look around inside and see if he could figure out what was wrong. Ashley and I quickly agreed to the surgery. It was the greatest hope we’d ever had.
He wanted to do an exploratory surgery to look around inside and see if he could figure out what was wrong. Ashley and I quickly agreed to the surgery.
We had already discussed a lot of end-of-life things and she knew my wishes should something happen. We said a little prayer and they took me into surgery. They expected it to take about 2 hours, it took just over 6 hours. Ashley tells me that no one spoke to her for the entire 6 hours but when the doctor finally emerged to speak to her, his first words were, “He’s going to be okay but I don’t know how he’s still alive.” She cried.
They had me in surgery for so long because what they had expected to be an exploratory surgery turned into an emergency appendectomy with a blood bank on standby. The diagnosis everyone had missed for 6 years was chronic appendicitis and the reason everyone missed it is because chronic appendicitis is so rare that many medical professionals refuse to believe it even exists. Whether they believe in it or not, I suffered from it for the better part of a decade and the surgical findings don’t lie – my appendix was nearly three times its normal size, with a 1/4″ perforation, and full of decomposed rot. The surgeon also told Ashley that I likely had mere hours remaining and they were fortunate I came to the hospital when I did. If my appendix had ruptured, it would have overwhelmed my intestines resulting in my death by sepsis. I had been living in a state of constant infection and pain for years, yet somehow managed to survive.
It was months before I believed that chronic appendicitis was the actual culprit behind my 6-year battle for my life. It seemed like such a simple thing. I worried that they took my appendix for no reason and stressed that there was still something wrong with my body. Every twinge of pain, every little ache, every irritant in my lower left quadrant triggered pain, anxiety, and fear. It took months for me to accept that my appendix had been the reason for my suffering.
Every twinge of pain, every little ache, every irritant in my lower left quadrant triggered pain, anxiety, and fear.
I started seeing a mental health doctor after my surgery who told me I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the years of physical pain. He told me that, on average, people struggle with PTSD for at least half of the amount of time as the offending situation. Since I had been sick for 6 years I should expect to dedicate at least 3 years to recovery.
I switched to a dairy-free vegetarian diet in order to minimize any food that may cause digestive upset and trigger abdominal pain and anxiety. I slowly started eating again, gaining weight, and working out. Over the next few years, with my beautiful wife by my side, we started to build the life we had put on hold for the first couple of years of our marriage.
Now, whenever I hear anyone talk about “in sickness and health” in their marriage vows I find myself hoping that they truly understand what that means. It’s not just standing beside someone through an illness; it’s being a warrior for them. It’s about fighting for answers, demanding tests, trying and seeking results, and holding on to a steadfast belief in your partner even when the world around them tries to say it’s “in their head.” I wouldn’t be here today if not for Ashley. She saved my life and I thank God every day for sending her to me.
For more about chronic appendicitis, see here.
Note: Most appendix-related pain appears on the lower right quadrant but mine was actually the lower left quadrant. The doctors advised it was due the swelling and inflammation in my digestive tract due to the infected appendix.