The Numbs

I wandered into the living room and sat cross-legged on the floor, my back against the filing cabinet with our TV on it. We had gotten the TV for free, but neither of us watched it much, except for in-home movie nights. Em was crashed out on our couch, listening to podcasts and booping at a game on her phone.

“It’s been so weird,” I said, as Cleo wandered up and batted curiously at the strings on my hoodie. “Ever since last Thursday, I’ve just felt so numb. Like I’m stuck in a bubble and floating through the world.”

Em paused for a minute and thought. “You know how the Stages of Grief can apply to more than just people dying? Like they can apply to any sudden change in life? It sounds like you’re in the denial stage.”

Cleo has given up trying to eat my clothing and instead curls up in my lap, presenting her chin for scratches. I oblige and raise an eyebrow toward Em. “Okay… What am I grieving over then?”

”The fact that, as healthy as you have lived, and as much care as you’ve taken of your body- all the effort to get healthy and fit- you can still get sick from something you never saw coming.”

Young man on a park bench   Seated with his head in his hands, face down.

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

– Friedrich Neitzsche

This is not the first time a health problem took the wind out of my sails.

Some time after I reached my goal weight and Emily and I had been dating a while, we went out to Indian food. Out of nowhere, a bizarre stomach cramp left me without an appetite. Emily feared food poisoning or an upset stomach and took me home. I spent the rest of the day in bed- moaning and clutching my guts against the pain, alternating between sweating through the sheets and freezing when I kicked them off.

I insisted on trying to go to work the next morning- because of course I did. I hated the job, but the job had to be done. I’ve since learned that about myself- in any given employment situation, my first duty seems to be to The Work, rather than whoever is providing it.

A call to my father (a surgeon) for advice resulted in a short chuckle and a ride to the hospital. I was suffering from acute appendicitis- the surgery put me in the hospital for two days, out of work for nearly a month, and homebound for nearly as long.

All the muscle I had gained getting fit atrophied. At 5’11, I weighed 156 lbs. As soon as I was able, I tried going running and doing my card deck again. The results were predictably pathetic. I couldn’t manage my old workouts, and short runs left me winded.

“I lost it all.” I thought. “Everything I worked for, everything I gained, is gone because of this stupid illness. It’s not fucking right. It’s not fair.”

Emily, as usual, consoled me. “It’s a setback- but you’re the same person who did it in the first place. You can do it again. You’re not done- you’ll get it all back.”
It took months of recuperation and training, but I eventually got back to my goal weight in time for us to move to Portland. It happened again when I switched jobs and started dealing depression.

And again now in the face of losing a kidney.

Selfie of the author and his wife. Matt is in a hospital bed and gown, his wife sitting beside him in a chair with  mask on.
Granted, having an ultra-supportive wifey like Emily helps.

It hurts every time, I can’t lie. It always feels true and real- “This is it. I’ve hit my stride. It’s all over.” That history means nothing, my inspirations mean nothing- all that matters is what I can see and feel staring me in the face, and that is me “losing it all over again.” Sometimes that knowledge makes it worse. “I’m not the same guy I was. I’m not that stupidly confident anymore (hahahahaha), I can’t keep gathering everything back again.”

Of course, this time is a bit different. There’s already a pandemic on in my country, it seems like every interaction is tinged with social unrest, and I’m already exhausted from a job that has felt like bad chaos for the last few months.

The last two days were my first back in the kitchen after getting the stent put in. They were supposed to be half-shifts, according to my manager… but The Work needed to be done, and there is never enough people to do it. I was exhausted at the end of each day, of course, and part of me wondered why in heavens name I wanted to be back here so badly.

But in the kitchen, it was ok to be Numb. It was good to be Numb.

A busy line in a restaurant kitchen. Five cooks working with their backs to the camera.

The kitchen is where I feel in control. It’s where I’m in charge. I know where everything goes, what needs to happen and how. As Jacques Pepin says, I “know the skills in my hands,” and I can just shut everything else off and work. The only tough times are when I’m called back by a new hire to explain some task for them, or walk them through a recipe.

Now it’s my Saturday. I am healthy enough to re-attempt my old routines while I can- though after a sudden detox from both alcohol and energy drinks. I have my “Monkey Monk” practice, and I take a long walk through Mt. Tabor listening to podcasts to clear my head… but the Numbness is still there. Like a fog around my head, making me want to close my eyes, but unable to fall asleep.

Not a rest as much as willfully “losing time.” Shutting down on the porch on a sunny day.

For all I know, this is probably necessary. My friends give me a metaphorical slap to the head and say “Matt, you’ve been pushing yourself balls to the walls for the last four years. Just take it easy.”
But, as the meme goes, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being ordered to calm down.”

I think I’m about managing it right now, though. Sitting on the porch with a cup of tea, and just a little bit of The Work to keep me focused (this blog post.) The hot day has wound down to “hoodie and shorts” cool, with Neuromancer waiting on the table for me after I hit “Publish.”

The next month or so is going to be stressful. I will almost definitely feel like I have “lost it all” again- but there’s books to read, tea to drink, and a different kind of Work that badly needs doing.

It’s not in the kitchen- I probably won’t be able to return to that chaotic “sanctuary” for a while. It’s Work I know and can control though, and I’ll probably have a story at the end of it.

And it won’t involve reminding a trainee of the difference between baking soda and baking powder.

Stay Classy,

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