— First-place Winner —
by Chris Burns
In the spring, I wasn't feeling well. I imagined a doctor saying, "Well, you need to start taking better care of yourself. Get some exercise, be more careful with your diet, and let's slow down on the drinking. Here's something to help you sleep." I never made it to the doctor's office. My girlfriend listed my symptoms over the phone and after a short pause the doctor said, "You need to call 911 or an ambulance. Now." My girlfriend drove me to the hospital.
In the ER waiting room, fatigue, shortness of breath, sleeplessness and an erratic heartbeat move you to the front of the line. I didn't have time to write my name.
The ER guys were young and loose and friendly. One of them was my next-door neighbor. They hooked me up to the relevant scanners, looked at the corresponding monitors and someone said, "You're a weed-whacker." My heart rate was almost 200 beats per minute. Still, the scene felt calm, and comments like "We just need to slow your rhythm down" and "You'll be done in a few hours" held the day. But then I was being admitted. Upstairs. Intensive care. Wait. What? This isn't going to be a day trip? They put the tubes in my arms, stuck the wires in my chest and plugged me into the wall. New words in the room: "arrhythmia," "cardiomyopathy," "congenital heart failure."
I was 35 years old.
The hospital staff made vague comments about a possible pre-existing condition or disease, but everyone in the room knew better. I was a drunk. I had been drinking way too hard, way too long. I had spent the last decade or so drinking, breathlessly anticipating my next drink or grimly recovering from my last one. But I'd done it all with such a pleasant demeanor, never missed a day or even arrived late for a shift at the undemanding job I loved and which loved me in return. I was compulsively careful about my driving habits, so while much more temperate friends than I were savaged by DUIs, I remained legally unscathed. My girlfriend was a smart and together girl, but her love for me and for us wouldn't allow her to fully admit just how scary I was.
So I probably could have gone on living in my perpetual binge forever, always a little exhausted, always a little too quick to grin, and with just one tipsy foot on the threshold of the actual world. But then my sick heart rolled me right under the bus.
In the first hours, torso-deep in denial, I told my girlfriend, "Look, we don't know how this is going to play out. Let's keep this away from my family." She smiled with understanding and said, "Of course, baby," then left the room and called my family. Good girl. Family ensued. But they were loving and fine. Nobody judged, and my mother was actually openly happy that my body had turned me in. The seriousness of my condition left me no wiggle room.
The five days in the hospital were frustrating and embarrassing. The night nurse was a mean woman who made it very clear that she felt I was too young to be in the state I was in (no shit). Vengefully, late at night I ripped all the cords out of my body, and this helped nothing. Once during my stay a priest stopped by to talk, an innocent and benign gesture. I asked him, "Is there something I can help you with?" He withdrew.
After a few days the drugs had done their work. I was sent away with prescriptions and appointments. Shortly after returning to our house, I told my girlfriend I wanted to have one last martini with my best friend. She smiled and said, "Nope." Good girl.
Drunks who have heart problems have certain obligations, most pressing being that they're not allowed to be drunks anymore. So empty hours became something of a hazard and time management a life-or-death thing. I started reading. I read 27 books in the last seven months of 2007. One of them was by Dostoevsky. I swear.
Also, my body started calling some shots. I started walking, then running. I'm up to five miles a day. Really. I've lost forty pounds. And my last echo indicated that the arrhythmia is gone and my heart rate is normal. Everyone is proud as hell. Everyone says I look great.
But in the waning days of the year, I find myself conflicted over all the praise heaped upon my new self. I'm not convinced my old self was all that bad of a guy. He never hurt anyone (besides himself), he wasn't nervous all the time, and he did a great job of finding the right girl.
I came home a few months back to discover my girlfriend had been crying. She had stumbled across a picture of the two of us just months before the hospital. The image choked her with guilty sobs. She couldn't believe she had let me get so sick. I looked at the picture. I could not deny the chubby red cheeks or vague, lost glint in the eyes of my drinking self. But I looked happy, and so did she.