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My mid-life crisis with added ulcerative colitis

Thursday, 05 December 2013 Written by // Matt Levine Categories // General Health, Health, Living with HIV, Matt Levine

Matt Levine finds that added stress leads to stomach troubles of the rumbling kind - and that’s just the start. How does he cope with it? Read on.

My mid-life crisis with added ulcerative colitis

These days answering “how are you?”  I often think of Dickens A Tale of Two Cities.  At the risk of sounding like a drama queen that “best of times, worst of times” conundrum rings true even without any regular beheadings at the guillotine or revolutionaries in the streets.  Said another way, my feelings about things are as varied as the 31 flavors at Baskin Robbins. swinging all over the place, sometimes like a sturdy tree swaying in the face of a strong wind;  sometimes like an empty noose waiting for its next embrace. 

But even with my recession-induced fears and lack of income, it’s not hard to find reasons for gratitude. Even when morose brooding about how I ended up in cater-waiter black, nearly twenty years after giving it up for the best job of my life, the grace of living with HIV for more than 25 years is a powerful antidote to my most existential moments of self-pity. Like Raymond Carver’s poem of the same name I’ve been blessed with gravy. 


Sure, there are times when catering seems like a Food Network version of Lord of the Flies.  Or moments when, running food, I panic because I can’t remember if table 25 had four fish, four chicken and three beef or four beef, three chicken, three fish. But I’ve got much better eyesight than poor Piggy and unlike him I’m not overweight or all that vulnerable. Yet the stresses of a job that has a highly erratic schedule and pays too much to whine about but not enough to cover my bills has caused some issues.  

Time To Get a New Whine 

Of course I’ve got a good problem.  If I was dead I wouldn’t have to worry about paying the rent, eating fiber or hiding the personal lubricant before my sister comes over. Since I’m lucky enough to be living with HIV for 25 years, its time for me to heed the same advice I offer people who complain about getting older.  “Shut the fuck up. There’s no other options unless you’d rather be dead.” 

But of course it’s not that simple. Life happens. Expectations litter the road  And while I try to avoid dwelling on things is the past, moments when I took the wrong fork in the road and things turned out badly, like an endless loop of horrible family movies I sometimes can’t help myself. --  Why did i ever think freelance was a good idea;  if only I hadn’t quit that job.  Why didn’t I call him back?   

This past October I worked every day, sometimes double-shifts, when suddenly I started limping with severe pain in my left legI thought it was a shin splint. Five days later my ankle was swollen too. It was a busy time of year and I was panicked that I might need to stay off my feet for weeks. Luck was on my side.  Turned out the pain was from a spider bite and my swollen foot healed literally in a day.  While some pain lasted for weeks I never missed a day of work.  

About the same time I noticed some blood in my stool. I knew from past problems with my GI tract that since It was bright red something I knew from past GI problems was a good sign.  it was’nt internal bleeding. I thought it was a hemorrhoid.  Caused by hours on working on my feet, eating too much wedding cake after the guests left the party and worrying about how my upper middle-class, over-educated Semitic self ended up celebrating the fact that when I worked a banquet as a captain I made an extra two bucks an hour. 

I got lucky with my leg but less so with my bowels.  My gut now matched my mood --irritable!   As in  “irritable bowel syndrome”.  If you don’t know what that is I’m thinking about buying some adult diapers in case my dash to the outhouse takes too long, my stomach gurgles more than a creek full of bullfrogs; much of the day it feels like there are rocks in my stomach. 

While various websites state that IBS is chronic I’m certain it won’t be for me. Why? Because I’ve had it twice before when I was extremely stressed out.  My first bout was in 1989 after arriving in San Francisco, a place where the only people I knew were my Aunt and Uncle. One colonoscopy later and two bottles (or were they canisters) of a steroid foam that I injected into my butthole, me and my GI tract were back on peaceful terms. 

The second time my GI tract declared war was in 2006, another stressful time, and it was far more debilitating.  After 17 years of living in San Francisco I moved east to be closer to my Mom, bought an untouched 1927 Sears Bungalow in Matamoras, Pennsylvania  as a home and an investment (before giving it back to the bank in 2009) and opened an art gallery in nearby Milford. Three months after arriving, I lost my steady freelance work and realized that, unlike Henry David Thoreau, my love for the rural life was limited to the occasional long weekend.   

After losing nearly twenty pounds I reluctantly went to the Emergency Room where I was told I needed to see a gastroenterologist. I had no insurance so I tried to heal my gut in all sorts of ways before finally returning to SF where I knew how to get the care that I needed.  Steroidal ass foam to the rescue. 

I vividly driving two hours to my Mom’s, stopping four, five or six times a trip because I had to sit on a toilet. I drove a Ford F-150 with a three on the column manual transmission.  It had no heat, no radio, very little power and a bench seat with springs that hurt,. People in Milford thought I drove it because I thought it looked hip. They didn’t know it was the only car I could afford.  My brother-in-law gave it to me for $500 to be paid whenever I could afford to. 


I’d sit on the toilet for five sometimes ten minutes or more, waiting for my gut to relax, while worried that people might think I was cruising for sex because I took spent so much time in the stall.. Middletown, Fishkill and Newburg, New York, Danbury and Seymour, Connecticut were all part of my gastric routine. I’d pray no one else was in the restroom when I sat downbecause the I was noisy and often groaned in pain.  If I couldn’t wait to be alone, I’d wait for the other person to leave before emerging from the stall.  

Many in Pennsyvlania didn’t know I was HIV-positive and when my I lost all that weight thought I had cancer.  These days, when I go back,, some folks are so happy to see me I sure that they are thrilled I did so well with my chemotherapy. 

On the surface I understand that right-brained,, pot-smoking, edgy but friendly me lives best outside of the box. Yet day to day this insight gets  lost, replaced by worry, anxiety and fear.  I’ve taken classes, listened to lectures and read books about reducing stress, embracing life’s gifts, living in the moment, enjoying the now. Yet my skills in being present and embracing the moment are all too reminiscent of how I play basketball.  I miss the easy shots.  Under the hoop, an unguarded layup and I miss.  “Jesus Christ,” I yell groaning while taunts from my friends fill the air. My head and body mutter too. My nerves get in the way.  What might be easy and obvious becomes hard and obscure. 

So here’s to the moment. The joy that comes with it. The terror that precedes it. The simple path, the in and out, breathing and eating and shitting too.  And if things seem bad its not hard to put them in perspective and remember to give thanks for the gifts I have.  

Among the things you can discover on the web is the fact that 18,000 children die every single day.  Diarhhea is one of the leading causes of these young deaths.   

So if tomorrow I’m shopping for adult diapers and stressing out about whether the Walgreen’s brand is as good as Depends I’ll try and remember my own advice and shut the fuck up.  After all like the saying goes, shit happens.