It wasn’t exactly a tsunami of pain, more like incessant ripples of water washing over me, eroding my sense of control, one small wave at a time.
It was a kidney stone attack.
If you’ve had one before, you’re feeling a great deal of pity for your humble author. If you’re fortunate to have never experienced the excruciating hell of a foreign substance rattling against an organ, I hope you never do.
I was standing at the console of one of our on-air studios at 1633 Broadway, prepping another 90s-heavy VH1 music block to beam up to a satellite and back down to the car radios of people willing to pay a monthly charge.
It was a regular Friday afternoon…until it wasn’t.
My stomach roiled. My chest heaved.
There was an uncontrollable force within me, contorting my body, contracting muscles I never knew I had. How could I be feeling hot and cold at once? Is this what a cloud feels like during a thunderstorm?
Aside from a few broken bones, up to this point, I was fortunate to have never experienced a major medical “event.” But now something was happening, and I had no idea what to do. The hospital seemed to make sense. But even in my kidney-stone-induced haze, one thing was crystal clear: without health insurance, an ambulance would cost a fortune.
Welcome to the job status once known as PERMALANCE, a fucked up portmanteau combining “permanent” and “freelance” into one shitty term.
That’s right, even 18 months into a full-time job with Viacom, I was still permalance, code for working your ass off and putting in crazy hours without getting any major benefits. Even in my mid-twenties, I knew the system was flawed, a blatant effort to fleece full-time workers. And Viacom could get away with it because there was always some college graduate from Ohio waiting to take your MTV Networks job if you opted out.
So here I am, potentially dying as my body revolts against itself, terrified to end up in an ambulance; desperate not to get delivered to an unknown Manhattan hospital, straddled with an astronomical bill.
My body short-circuited my brain, taking complete control.
I charged into the bathroom, no time to prep a toilet seat. No time to see if I had any company.
And then it happened: I released from both ends simultaneously. You might tell me it’s anatomically impossible, but that’s what went down. Or should I say up?
The wrecked bathroom stall filled me with shame and sorrow.
I take great pride in some ridiculous things: the way I assemble groceries on the register conveyor belt to make the cashier’s life easier, how I make eye contact when I’m listening to someone so they know I care, and how I never use public restrooms for a #2–unless it’s an emergency. And if it is urgent, I leave the place as I found it.
But not this time.
I retreated into one of our sound studios and shut the door, pacing. Despite my lavatory ejections, I still felt like pure hell. Shaking, with sweat now dripping down my brow, I grabbed a blank piece of paper and a red sharpie.
I AM SO SORRY THAT YOU HAVE YOU TO CLEAN UP THIS MESS.
I’M REALLY SICK. 🙁
It wasn’t long until I was right back in the restroom–a different stall–making a second mess. I hung the sign on the back of the bathroom stall door and sheepishly returned to the studio.
Without 9-1-1 as an option, I had to call a true hero, my father.
Knowing that I am not the type to reach out for help unless I REALLY need it, my dad expressed no resistance. He’d leave his office in Long Island City, break company-car protocol, and pick me up in midtown. Even though there were less than 4 miles separating us, I knew that Manhattan traffic would delay his arrival.
“Please get here as fast as you can,” I pleaded.
The wait was torturous–another trip to the bathroom, sans note. I might have even laid on the floor and curled up into a ball at one point. No one noticed. No one was around; a truly rare occurrence.
When my dad finally arrived, I was white as a ghost, the rings under my eyes the only color on display. I went straight into the backseat and spent the ride rocking back and forth, alternating between laying down and sitting up,, unable to get comfortable.
The trip took FOREVER.
There was a Jewish holiday descending, and apparently, everyone and their mother was fleeing work early, clogging the L.I.E. to a grinding halt.
I eventually made it home.
But what followed was several weeks of uncomfortable wait-and-see, a nasty game of Russian roulette every time I urinated. Based on what I WebMD’d, I now knew I had experienced a kidney stone attack and would likely be passing The Stone in the near future.
Each morning started with the same depressing thought: ‘Will today be the day I terrifyingly pass a solid substance of unknown size through my urethra?”
I hyper-hydrated, drinking water every chance I got. The greater the force behind the stone, the easier to pass; at least that’s the story I told myself.
After a weekend of hanging around at home to be close to the bathroom in case another incident struck, I returned to work on Monday, the scene of the crime. I took the elevator to the 6th floor, soaked in the absurdity of the floor’s ship-like appearance –each MTV-occupied floor had a thematic feel–and went straight into the restroom. No surprise, it had been restored to a clean state, my note nowhere to be found. Did I expect a reply?
The next week or two at work unfolded as usual, I’d produce some music, script some copy for the DJs, and drink an obnoxious amount of water. With every bathroom visit, I braced, fully anticipating that I would pass The Stone.
Or worse yet, experience a blockage.
I was so preoccupied with my newly compromised position that I had forgotten that we had a special guest on the 6th floor that day, Big Head Todd and the Monsters. With a fairly robust musical lexicon and a penchant for bands with stupidly long names (see: Toad the Wet Sprocket, Sunny Day Real Estate, Jimmy Eat World), it amazes me that BHT had escaped my radar. Even though their 1993 album Sister Sweetly went platinum in the United States, I had never heard any of their songs before.
However, despite my lack of Big Head Todd knowledge both before and after their visit, they are a band forever intertwined with the Story of Me.
You see, as I scrambled to set up the audio equipment that was needed to capture their live performance, I had to take a leak. The band was already in the studio (a large closet-of-a-room) at the end of the hallway, and I excused myself and jogged down the hall to pee. As I looked down at my stream, I felt a tiny little pinch and saw what looked like a tiny brown rice crispy disappear into the bowl.
Was that it??!
Could I have passed it!?!?YES!
It was instant relief, and my body instantly felt ‘right’ again. I debated going on a fishing expedition for the stone, as I was told it would be great to capture the sucker for testing. But without health insurance (fuck you, again, permalance!) or time, Big Head was waiting , I opted to flush, wash up, and run back to the studio.
I hit record, gave the band the ‘thumbs up’, and leaned back as they launched into Bittersweet.
If only they knew, I thought, if only they knew.
“…It’s a bittersweet surrender” will always take me back to the Kidney Stone of 2002, when I learned that hydration is everything and the corporate machine never really gives any fucks. And, of course, you never know what someone is really going through. I think about that daily.
So thanks dad, and thanks Big Head Todd, you are both forever entangled with my urinary system, but I love ya anyway.