Apart from being born dying, my first experience of terminal illness came when I was 5. I lay on the sofa, bandy legged and nauseous after a school medical, feeling for whatt had been described as “an irregular heartbeat”. I heard that expression over and over again, and with each repetition the face of the school nurse became more drained and more concerned. Soon, in my young head, she had straightened up after listening to my chest, absolutely speechless and horrified. My future was so terrible, I was so damned, that it was unutterable. It must have been, as she sent me packing with a smile and without a word to anyone. I was only five, yet already I was preparing for the hospice... I was dying.
As neither of my parents were informed of my condition, I battled it alone, understanding what I could from my step-fathers thick volumes of medical encyclopedias. I never did leave those books with an exact diagnosis, but I did leave them with enough medical knowledge and facts about disease to fuel a 30 year long panic attack... and that’s exactly what I’ve had. I can barely remember a time when I was not bound to my bed by straps of irrational fears... imaginary pains shooting up my arms. And it really was that... I didn’t just imagine the symptoms, I felt them.
In the years following that first taste of phobia, I went down with the lot... every fatal disease imaginable. I had tuberculosis, yellow fever and jaundice. I succumbed to the plague, legionnaires, polio and parrots disease. With the winter came bird flu, pneumonia, bronchitis and meningitis. And survival done nothing to brighten my days, all it meant was I was alive to catch rabies, scabies and lockjaw through tetanus. At 10 I made the self diagnosis of HIV, and in the same year came down with diabetes and gangrene. When my brother whacked me in the head with a pair of swinging binoculars I collapsed with brain hemorrhaging. Three stitches later and a short taxi ride home I learnt it was more probably a slow build up of fluid in the skull cavity and that my death would be postponed until at least Friday. When my math’s teacher talked of cubic feet or square foot I looked down worryingly. And as for cancer... well. I’ve had tumours and growths of all sizes on every part of my body. I’ve had cancer of the lung, liver and stomach... I’ve even had cervical cancer and I don’t have any cervix. And that’s not all... oh no, because to top it all off, I worried endlessly that I was a hypochondriac. I certainly had all the symptoms.
But though I can laugh about this, there is a serious side, as it was due to these irrational fears that I first sought an escape from the world... that I first sought an immediate emergency exit. It wasn’t drugs at that young age but rather TV and books. In order to free my mind off a skipping heartbeat and shortness of breath, I’d curl up with a pillow and blanket close to the TV and watch fantasy films and cartoons. I’d become so enwrapped in them that I was lost to the world, lost to disease and lost to death. And it’s here that it is interesting... that it has a relevant place on this blog. Because there began a history of escapism... an early clue as to how I would handle future torment. From that very tender age I was already self-diagnosing and (in a way) self medicating... it was just a small hint of things to come.
As to how I first acquired this fear of disease is not clear, but there are two things from my early years that I can link this behaviour to:
1) my drunken mother feigning terminal illness for attention
2) my step-fathers tales of death, decay and our days out together - spent exploring he local cemetery.
This first point I’ve touched on in a previous post, so will not revisit here, though the second I will expand upon a little.
My stepfather was a bizarre man obsessed by the paranormal, magic and the afterlife. He would often predict the death of family members and explain in minute details all the macabre and grisly details. He would make pendulums and dowse the city maps for gold or lost money... he believed in fate, luck and chance. It will come as no surprise to hear that he was a compulsive gambler. Anyway, along with stories of gruesome deaths, ghosts and rotting bodies, he would take me for dark days out around the local cemetery. There, he’d clear the top stones off old tombs, and holding my little legs would allow me to lean far in... staring down into the blackness. Before a young boy should even know what death is I was looking at it. But death isn’t attractive or clever to a small boy... it’s frightening and scary, and I think my fear of disease (mortality) has more to do with these days passed with my stepfather than with my mothers declarations of having a terminal cancer.
I don’t know for sure, but whatever brought this into my life it exists and continues to this day. What is more bizarre and probably what many of you are wondering is: How can a person suffering with hypochondria become an injecting heroin addict? How can one with an irrational fear of disease take daily injections of street drugs from unsterilized equipment... leaving himself wide open to two of the worst diseases we know of? Well, I cannot answer that, and I do not understand it myself. All I can say is that it’s another one of the many contradictions that hold me together. It's all a balancing act...a calculation. If the the gain from the exit seems worth the loss of the entry, I do it. Actually, we all do that... it's called living.
Still, In relation to heroin and the needle, my hypochondria has served me well. My fears and paranoia of disease have ruled out any sharing of equipment or group use. In my ten years of heroin addiction only a handful of people have ever witnessed me inject... Of those, 3 were addicts. For me, even injecting in the same room is too close for comfort... it's asking for trouble. Instead, I score, sneak off alone and put up with the suspicions and accusations of being the police... the rat amongst the pack. And maybe I am a rat, but you'd better get used to it, because after surviving 35+ fatal illnesses I've got the feeling I'm going to be around for quite some time to come.
Wishing everyone the best of health, Shane.