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In a very roundabout way, this journey begins in a remote, exotic setting on a small island off the coast of Mexico. And you know the saying: What happens in Mexico doesn't stay in Mexico. Or is it the other way around?
Anyway, there I was in Cozumel, Mexico, with my family just for the day. When you're on a cruise you can do that -- hop off at a port in one country, spend the day buying monkey heads made out of coconut shells, hop to the next country, spend the day buying pocketbooks made from coconut shells, hop to the next and -- well, you get the picture.
We were in Cozumel with a gaggle of other Christian artists like Rebecca St. James, Mark Shultz, the guys and gals from FFH and Avalon, and various agents and promoters. Someone had the great idea that instead of shopping for coconut clothing, coconut furniture, and coconut lamps, we could ride mopeds across the island, have a quaint lunch at a secluded café -- away from all the tourists -- and then moped back.
"Wow!" my husband and children said. "That sounds like fun!"
Me? I had my heart set on the coconut salt and pepper shakers. But I got outvoted, and off we went on our rented mopeds.
The trip started out just like I'd imagine the brochure would promise (had there been a brochure). Sunny, sandy, tropical. A gorgeous shoreline thatwould take your breath away (but then again, so would an errant bug down the windpipe). What no one told us, however -- and the reason there probably was no brochure -- is that for most of the trip, we were going to have to share the road with all the normal traffic. All the normal, speeding traffic.
Jeff Allen is a fellow comedian who hates to shop, so he'd talked his wife into the moped jaunt (is that the right word?). At the halfway point she careened into a ravine and nearly broke her leg. Another woman did -- break her leg, that is. And another woman, one who was putt-putt-putting along just ahead of me, simply drove off into the swamp. It was like she never even tried to turn. I was afraid I'd just witnessed suicide-by-moped.
My husband and son stopped and helped pull her out of the muck. She was scratched up a bit, but otherwise fine. I still don't know her name. To this day I call her "the-lady-who-almost-died-on-a-moped." But then, there is a busload of people who probably know me only by that name as well. Yes, I too nearly got creamed on a moped.
Mopeds are strange animals. Ours were so old and rickety that you had to aim to the left to make the front wheels go in a straight line. Therefore, a right-hand turn was almost impossible. I know because I risked it. And I risked it because a city bus was coming at me head-on. I needed to turn and turn fast. I'd take a swamp over a city bus any day!
Now, I was no stranger to "the hog." I'd driven a motorcycle in high school. I know what it feels like to hop on 80cc's of raw power. I'd also learned in high school (besides the fact that it's totally impossible to miss a chicken that decides to cross the road in front of you) that if you jerk the front wheel of a motorcycle with all your might, something will happen.
So I turned hard, just as I felt city-bus metal brush against the sleeve of my jacket. So this is how it ends, I remember thinking. Smashed by the Ocho Nueve in Cozumel, Mexico. (That's Bus Number 89 for those of you who don't speak Spanish. And for those of you who do, I won't repeat what I heard coming from the people inside the bus.)
I yanked the moped onto the grass and came to a dusty halt. And then I cried. Hard. When I finished, I slowly putt-putted myself back to town and spent the rest of the day buying coconut souvenirs for people I hadn't thought about in years. A near-death experience will do that to you.
So thanks to my motorcycle expertise and, no doubt, a whole host of guardian angels, I avoided a nasty crash in a faraway land. What I didn't know at the time was that wiping out on a moped in Cozumel was a breeze compared to the big crash that awaited me in Miami a couple of weeks later.
I told you my almost-got-killed-on-a-moped story so that when I explain how I left the cruise ship (it was work, mind you), raced home, did some laundry, and headed back out to a swanky hotel and spa in Miami, you won't hate me. The Miami thing had been planned for a while. You see, I'd held a contest months earlier for my Turbo Host of the Year. (The contestants were the volunteers who helped organize my concerts in each of the towns I visited.) The winner was a sweet young woman named Melanie. The prize? My girlfriends and I took her to be pampered, because that's what girlfriends do when there's a trip to a spa in Miami on the schedule! We chose Super Bowl Sunday for our trip because we knew there'd be no pampering at home; most of our husbands would be too engrossed in the Big Game.
I was especially tired that weekend. And I had an upset stomach -- but hey, I had almost been killed in Mexico. Which was another reason to sign up for the Pamper Package: massage, facial, pedicure, manicure, and half a dozen other things that end in cure or massage.
Our luxurious beachside accommodations were on the fifteenth floor of the hotel, overlooking the beautiful Atlantic. The little soaps and shampoos in the basket in the bathroom were some kind of high-class rosemary mint stuff -- not your generic soap bars that never lather. Not here! Every liquid or gel at this place had a bit of "oo-la-la" mixed in -- the oils and the perfumes and the moisturizers and even the shoe polish. I didn't want to miss a single amenity. I tried a dab of every bottle, tube, bar, and squeeze pack in the place. (It gave me the same kind of excited feeling I used to get as a kid whenever the government cheese truck would roll through the neighborhood.) I used it all and smelled like a bouquet. Then I washed most of it off, scrubbing especially hard to remove the shoe polish from my wrists and behind my ears.
And then there was the spa! That first day we plopped into the hot tub, cooked in the sauna, and boiled in the Jacuzzi. We didn't miss a single body of water. I'm not sure if we were supposed to soak in that cute fountain thing in the foyer or not. (Don't worry, we didn't.) What made it all even better was that back home in Tennessee, it was snowing. Could we have asked for a more perfect weekend?
Well, maybe perfect isn't the best word. Like I told you, there was a big crash coming; I just didn't know it. And if you haven't guessed yet, it took place in mid-spa...
WHERE ARE THE PILLOW MINTS?
Late Saturday night, nearly two days into our fancy-schmancy pampering weekend, I got a sharp pain in my chest, and I couldn't take a deep breath. "That's okay," one of my friends said. "Just take lots of little breaths." That sounded like good, solid math to me. So I did. I took lots of short, shallow breaths, while my heart raced and panic tried to creep in.
"I know what we can do," someone else said. "Let's go to a fancy restaurant." And so we did, because that's what girlfriends do when they're on a fancy-schmancy pampering weekend. And that seemed to take care of the problem -- at least for a while.
The next morning I was still having a hard time breathing. I wondered if I was allergic to shoe polish. My girlfriends tried to get to the root of the problem. Someone started a list. Was it the Italian food from the night before? No it started before that. What about the donuts? No, donuts love me. The little mints on the pillows? ("Those were mints, weren't they, girls?" I remember asking.) How about the bag of bagels from the Mexican restaurant across the street? (I know, bagels at a Mexican restaurant? Don't ask!)
Meanwhile, someone fired up the laptop and began surfing the Internet. We had seaweed wraps and moon-rock massages lined up for the afternoon, so we had to find a cure quick. You know, I have a feeling the Internet will soon be the number one "reason to see a doctor." Somewhere between beyourowndoctor.com and homeremedies-R-us.net (they're not real Web site names, but they'd be great ones, don't you think?), a girl could get killed. I sat on the couch, barely breathing, while the Spa Brigade asked me a battery of questions. After each question someone would move the mouse, and I'd hear a click. After about twenty minutes of pointing and clicking, my friends determined that either (1) I was having a heart attack, (2) I had developed a gallstone, or (3) I needed a lung transplant.
After two more point-and-clicks, someone offered another possibility. "Could be that you just crashed into menopause," she said. If it weren't for the fact that I couldn't breathe already, that would have taken my breath away. "You mean, I'm not going to be able to breathe again until I'm sixty-five?"
Another sharp pain hit me in the chest, and I began to feel faint. I fell back deeper into the sofa. The plush cushions of the fancy-schmancy hotel felt nice, but the pain in my chest was killing me. I prayed for gallstones.
One of the girls on our trip was my friend Alison. I call her Alison the Angel now. She's known me since before high school. She's seen me when I've been healthy and happy and when I've been tired and ill. She's seen me when I've been cranky and irritable and when I've been happy-go-lucky. She's even seen me skinny -- that's how far back we go. But she'd never seen me clutch my chest and fall back on a sofa.
"Okay, that's it," she said, moving to the center of the room and pointing a hairbrush as if she were a conductor with a baton. "Nicole, call the front desk and get a cab. Melanie, get Chonda's purse and find her driver's license and medical card. Michelle, dig out the Yellow Pages and find the nearest emergency room."
Everything was a blur after that -- that is, until we got to the emergency room. Then everything turned into a slow crawl. I waited for a few hours before finally settling into a bed in the ER (no pillow mints). I waited some more, and then someone wheeled me to x-ray so the doctors could get a look at my lungs. At some point I had an EKG, and a number of times the nurses showed up to draw blood. They told me that each new vial was for a different test, and all the tests had letters for names: BMP, QLT, ABC, and LMNOP. I figured the last test would tell them that I was a little low on blood.
At one point a nurse came by and said, "The doctors want to keep you overnight and run more tests." My imagination kicked in, and I pictured a group of hurried and harried doctors gathering in the hall just out of earshot and taking a vote:
"What do you think we ought to do with Chonda?"
"I say we keep her overnight."
"Yeah, that way we can take more blood and run more tests. There are still lots of letters in the alphabet. But we're definitely going to need more needles."
The nurse tried to comfort me by promising me a bed upstairs in a private room as soon as it became available. "With little soaps and oils?" I asked. She looked at me, as if maybe I were joking. I get that all the time.
Apparently the bed never came open, because I stayed in the emergency room the rest of that day, all night, and most of the next morning. Alison never left my side. The other girls kept vigil too. When Monday came, however, the Spa Brigade had to head for the airport, because most of them had real jobs to get back to. The longer I was in the ER, it seemed, the more I was running out of company -- and blood.
Just when I was beginning to feel really sorry for myself, my husband, David, came walking in. If ever there was time for theme music to start playing, that was it! David had never been to Miami in his life; but he and Ken, Alison's husband, had been scuba diving that weekend in the Dominican Republic and happened to be changing planes in Miami. (They may have been the only two men in America who had chosen not to devote the weekend to football.) Knowing that I was in the city somewhere, he called my cell phone. Alison answered, and when she told him what had been going on, he hopped in a cab and came straight to the hospital. In no time at all he was playing Twenty Questions with the doctors.
One doctor thought there could be a problem with my lungs, so he gave me a pill that was supposed to relax my breathing. Another doctor was suspicious of the soaps and oils at the spa, so he ordered allergy tests. Another wanted to know more about the trip I'd taken to Mexico a couple of weeks earlier -- if I'd touched any farm animals, things like that. Part of me was afraid I had a strange and rare disease, maybe the first case ever; and from then on it would simply be known as the Chonda Disease, which would mean doctors all over the world would be in search of the Chonda vaccine. That couldn't be good for a career in comedy.
By this time I was so tired and weak, all I really wanted to do was go home. After convincing the kind ER doctor that this was a good idea (it wasn't easy, because his accent was strong, and my Spanish is pathetic -- I was worried that what little Spanish I did know was sounding like the phrases I'd heard coming from the bus windows back in Cozumel), I collected my things and headed for the airport with David.
PILLS, PASTORS, AND A HOT SHOWER
I slept through most of the flight home and vaguely remember crawling into my bed. Two days passed and all I could manage to do was sleep. Each time I woke, I planned to take a hot shower, have a bite to eat, and snap out of it.
Six weeks later I finally took that shower. I'm certain I took a bath -- or washed my face, at least -- in the meantime. But only after six weeks, three hospital stays, four trips to the emergency room, three pastoral visits (four, if you count a Billy Graham Crusade rerun from 1974), seventeen prescriptions, and every diagnostic test known to man, was I finally able to stand for a few minutes under the warm flow of water without falling apart.
In those six weeks the doctors considered every possible diagnosis, from an inner ear infection to leukemia, from intestinal parasites to a bleeding ulcer -- and I had all the medicines on my coffee table to prove it. I had an antibiotic just in case I had picked up something in Mexico, another drug just in case I was experiencing vertigo, a steroid of some sort that the doctor told me "ought to kill just about anything you've got," and a decongestant just in case my nagging cough got worse. In other words, I had a lot of drugs given to me "just in case." I washed down the pills like clockwork with cans of Ensure, because food was not doing it for me.
But instead of getting stronger, all I wanted to do was sleep -- or cry. I wanted to hang onto things -- solid things like the sofa, the coffee table, the door jamb -- anything to keep me from spinning into the strong downward spiral that seemed to be tugging at me with all its might.
I called my pastor and his wife twelve times. They came over four. That last time, when I was still not feeling any better, I figured I needed something more than your average prayer. I told Pastor Allen that I needed deliverance.
"From what?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "Must be something I can't remember. Don't you have a prayer for that?"
So we prayed. But it didn't work. At least not the way I had imagined it would -- you know, with a burst of light, a rumble, maybe a loud, clashing cymbal or two. My apologies to Pastor Allen, but I was afraid that maybe he just wasn't connected. So I asked others over, searching for the one devout soul whose prayers could reach heaven. I had the Bible-study ladies over, my mother, my brother, my sister-in-law, my cousins -- I even asked my husband to flag down the mailman and try to determine what sort of spiritual fellow he was, if at all. I was desperate to hear from God!
That evening Pastor Allen came back, this time with Dr. Wayne Westmoreland, a prominent surgeon in our community. A surgeon! So it's come to this, I thought. Dr. Wayne has a kind smile, and that evening he sat on the edge of the couch where I had been crashed for weeks and pressed and poked around my stomach. The Ensure sloshed with each poke.
"What do you think?" I asked him.
He pursed his lips and said, "I'm a surgeon. So I'm looking for something I can cut out."
"Take what you need, Doc," I said. Couldn't be worse!
The truth was, Dr. Wayne was in a better position to evaluate my condition than anyone else at that point. Each emergency room visit over the previous six weeks had resulted in one more doctor adding one more medicine to battle one more symptom. By the time Dr. Wayne found me on the sofa sloshing with Ensure, I was smack-dab in the middle of one nasty fight. I had lost fifteen pounds (now there's a silver lining for you!), and I was so severely dehydrated that I don't think I could have worked up a good spit if I'd wanted to. Pinch my skin, and it stood straight up. Every tear was a miracle.
After more poking and prodding, Dr. Wayne said, "First, let's pray." Then, over the next few moments, he asked the Lord for healing, for wisdom, and for direction. These were probably the most soothing moments I had experienced in weeks. When the prayer was over, he looked at the bottles of medicines on the coffee table next to me and said, "First of all, we can cut this out." He waved his surgeon's hand over the prescriptions and said, "Let's start all over, Chonda. Let's get all the drugs out of your system and begin again. Your body has failed you. Your system has taken a jolt, and we need to find out why. We've got to get you back on your feet."
Then, with tears in his eyes, he said, "You make too many people laugh to be lying here any longer."
At that, I sobbed -- which made him cry too. Not the kind of response I'm used to. I'm a comedian, remember?
A BAD KNOCK-KNOCK JOKE
Because I passed out at some point the next day, I went back to the emergency room. My girlfriend, Alison, had flown in from her home in South Carolina to relieve Doris, my sister-in-law, who had been with me nonstop for three weeks. Alison and David packed me into the car, and I found myself for a fifth time looking up at all the familiar faces in the ER. I tried to smile whenever I could.
The IV that pumped fluids into my system made me feel better physically, but an overwhelming sense of darkness seemed to hang over me, like a low ceiling that was cold and poorly lit. I met a really nice specialist, who poked and prodded my stomach a few more times and then listened to my insides with his stethoscope. "I've never heard intestines talk so much," he commented.
My sweet husband, standing at my side, took my hand and said, "Is that what they mean by 'inside voice'?"
The doctor told me that he wanted to put a camera down my throat and take a video of what was going on in there. It would be the first video I'd ever done without having to worry about buying a new outfit. A nurse came by a few minutes later and gave me a shot that made the gurney ride back to Surgery as fun as a Disney World ride. I swallowed the camera, and in a few minutes the video was complete. And shortly after that, the doctor had a diagnosis: "Looks like you have a hiatal hernia."
"That's it?" I said.
"Well, that's one thing," he said. "Honestly? We may never know how you got to this point -- what made you so physically sick. By the time you got here, you had so many different medications in your system that your esophagus and tummy had had enough. Frankly, your insides are a nervous wreck."
He wrote me prescriptions for Nexium and Zelnorm. I knew what they were because I'd seen the commercials on TV. I knew they would soothe my nervous insides. Then he wrote another prescription for Zoloft. I hadn't heard of that one. "What's this one for?" I asked.
"Depression," he said, as if he answered that question every day. "You are depressed. This will help until you get back on your feet."
Me, depressed? But I'm a comedian. "How long do I have to take it?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe six months. Maybe a year."
But I have to get back to work! I have jokes to write. How can I write a joke when I'm depressed? Will it sound like this: "Knock-knock. Go away!"?
"Or you may have to take it the rest of your life," he added -- as if that would be a routine thing. "I'm also going to recommend that you see a therapist or counselor. That'll do wonders for your insides too."
He had barely left the room when, what did I do? I told Alison to call her husband, Ken. Did I mention Ken is a doctor?
"Ken will set things straight," I told her. "No way do I need Zoloft! I'll be fine. It's just a bad case of heartburn. A supreme pizza makes me feel the same way."
But Alison had that look on her face. Alison, my friend of twenty-five years who -- did I mention? -- also happens to have a doctorate in psychology, who also happens to chair the Mental Health Commission for the State of South Carolina, was giving me her look. It's the expression she uses whenever she thinks someone is wrong: she tilts her head to one side, flashes her eyes, and draws her lips tight and thin.
Alison knows all about Zoloft. So she took the time to tell me about it. She also told me about serotonin -- the stuff manufactured somewhere in the brain that's supposed to flow into your central nervous system and tell the body that everything's just fine. Too much serotonin, and you can get stuck in laugh-mode. Too little, and you can slip into depression.
Yes, Alison knows all about Zoloft. More than once she even used it and the word miracle in the same sentence.
As I listened to what she had to say, my "inside voice" reluctantly concurred. Alison and the doctor were right. I was depressed. Deeply, darkly depressed. My world had been losing color for weeks, if not months. Now I was living in a thick, cold grayness that seemed to have no end.
I folded the little white prescription notes in half and handed them to my husband.
"Here, honey," I said. "Better get these filled."
Text copyright 2007 by Chonda Pierce
Excerpted from Laughing in the Dark by Chonda Pierce Copyright © 2007 by Chonda Pierce. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
prologue: MY WINTER BREAKDOWN
chapter 1: THE BIG CRASH
chapter 2: NOT SO WELL WITH MY SOUL
chapter 3: REHEARSE IN THE DARK WHAT YOU LEARNED IN THE LIGHT
chapter 4: I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW — NOT!
chapter 5: FRIEND DON'T LET FRIENDS TALK TO THEMSELVES
chapter 6: WHAT DO YOU THINK SHE'S GOING TO SAY?
chapter 7: ARE WE THERE YET?
chapter 8: ENOUGH BALONEY!
chapter 9: PERI-NORMAL, PERI-MENTAL, OR PERI-MENOPAUSE?
chapter 10: MAINTAIN, MAINTAIN, MAINTAIN!
chapter 11: THE MASTER PUZZLER
epilogue: I'M BACK!
Posted December 31, 2011
This is one of the best most helpful and insightful books I have ever read about depression. Its very easy to read and hard to put down. I love this book and plan to read it again and again.
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Posted June 20, 2010
I bought this book several years ago and put it aside. I found it recently two days before my husband was hospitalize for depression. I picked it up and started reading and could not put it down. So much sounded like my husband's life. Other parts truly helped me to understand this awful illness and the effects on everyone involved. Told with truth, humor and love this is a must read for anyone dealing with depression.
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Posted March 9, 2012
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