Despite my hangover, it had been a pleasantly typical July Saturday: I slept late, picked through City Liquidators, and planned to see 28 Days Later after a vegan cookout. However, somewhere between buying a laundry basket and downing daiquiris in a backyard, I ended up in the hospital--so fucked up even a mere shrug induced bawling. Waking up, I asked Brian if I had eaten some rancid potato salad. What else, I figured (besides zombies), could decimate a 28-year-old in good health, relegating him to a hospital bed, and unconscious for three days?
After learning I had experienced four seizures in 14 hours, I started to remember the first. Brian and I were in his car, en route to vegan bratwurst and mojitos (we're fags, okay?), when I started to stammer loudly--my neck felt like it was being lightly tazed repeatedly. It felt like having the power switch on my spine flipped on and off for fifteen seconds, settling ultimately on "off." (Considering a seizure is a result of abnormal electrical activity in the brain, this analogy isn't too far off the mark). Fortunately we were still parked; Brian phoned 911 while I slumped in the front seat, out cold.
According to the doctors, the seizure wasn't "tonic-clonic" (which is characterized by flailing limbs) but rather "tonic" (my muscles stiffened to their maximum tension). Indeed, my spine got totally worked, compressed to the point where I lost two inches in height. Apparently, as far as bodily-damage goes, a seizure's effects are tantamount to those from a car wreck--or, in my case, 14 car wrecks. Why did I have the seizures, considering I'd never had one before? The MRI revealed the reviled culprit--a goddamn tumor on the left frontal lobe of my brain.
My neurologist, however, was encouraging. For every bit of "good" news she spouted, I had a snide, internal, morphine-induced response.
"The mass seems to be slow-growing..."
[Oh, call it a tumor, for fuck's sake!]
"Operability-wise, it's in the best possible spot for surgery..."
[Better than downtown Boise?]
"It doesn't seem to be cancerous..."
[Is "operability" even a word?]
The news was the same, though--I had a motherfucking brain tumor. And, as much as I tried to deny it, and as mawkish as it sounds, my life would never again be the same.
MEET SIMONE GANTENBEIN
While the word "tumor" carries a frighteningly negative connotation, "brain tumor" is exponentially more terrifying. Naturally, I bugged out for a day or so after finding out, and even reserved a flight to Lagos (seriously). Soon, however, I decided I'd been a lucky fucking bastard during the course of my life--getting to do and getting away with all sorts o' shit. I even made a mental list of my major transgressions--from bribing my way out of a prison sentence in Zambia (again, seriously) to ignoring Girl Scouts at Fred Meyer--reckoning I had it coming. Since malaria hadn't taken me down in 1999, I figured it was now my time.
This makeshift explanation only calmed me temporarily, though. I simply ignored my situation--even when I talked about it, it seemed like I was discussing my sister's or my boyfriend's health--until the daily seizures began in earnest, precluding any further denial. Naming my tumor, quite honestly, helped a great deal. I christened it "Simone Gantenbein"--after the highly-esteemed slut from my high school swim team and my favorite street in NoPo. Attaching a name to the tumor made my situation no less grave, but it did seem less serious. Simone, personalized, became like that backstabbing bitch in homeroom--annoying and infuriating, but not fatal. Now that I was officially in "acceptance mode," I began to read up on neurological disorders and brain tumor facts.
FUN BRAIN TUMOR FACTS
Annually, the number of new brain tumors diagnosed in the U.S. hovers near 40,000. I had long presumed brain tumors were a Baby Boomer kind of thing, which would explain my fruitless frequent whining: "This isn't supposed to happen to me--I'm only 28!" In fact, the 65 and older set reports the highest number of occurrences among the age groups; the 25-34 year-olds, the lowest--about 10% of all recorded brain tumors.
Certainly, the types of brain tumors and their symptoms differ. The small amount of space between the brain and skull facilitates increased cranial pressure from even the smallest "mass," often causing headaches, speech disturbances, seizures. Not all patients experience seizures (though near 75% do) nor exhibit the same reactions (95% face some sort of depression). Not all tumors are cancerous; some of them grow hair; some, teeth.
Very few patients, I discovered, name their tumors.
Though cell-phone usage (and low-carb diets?) has recently been identified as a possible cause, the true reasons for the appearance of brain tumors are unknown. One definite, however, is that brain tumor activity is highly unpredictable. A side effect can befall us at any time--whether during a pedicure or while being crowned Miss City of Roses.
CELEBRITY BRAIN TUMORS
My mother reminded me I was in good company--Liz Taylor and Lance Armstrong both survived brain tumors. As far as celebrities are concerned, I identify most with Mark Ruffalo, who had been diagnosed with a tumor above his right ear in 2001, shortly after the release of You Can Count on Me, at age 33. The March edition of New York Metro features a particularly resonating quote of Ruffalo's: "There's a point when you're listening to your doctor and, as smart as he is, you realize, 'He just doesn't fucking know. He doesn't know what's going to happen to me.'"
Reading this--and the fact that he's a total hunk--spurred my decision to phone him up so we could... talk tumors. I envisioned discussing our respective surgeries, our respective recoveries, our respective thoughts on Playing it Straight. After all I'd been through, a phone conversation with Mark Ruffalo was the least I deserved. So, after getting a number through his agent, I left a message with his publicist.
Apparently I had misdialed--damn tumor!--because a New-Agey woman from San Diego returned my phone call. She (Julie) didn't know Ruffalo personally, but was surprisingly well-versed on his condition.
"Oh, I've read so many of his interviews."
And well-versed on brain tumors.
"I dabble in natural medicine."
Julie and I spoke for about 20 minutes about Simone and me. And Mark. She urged me to "keep on trying" to contact Ruffalo.
"You two have a real connection. You are meant to speak to one another."
She was positive he would be willing to answer my questions.
"He seemed so nice on Ellen."
Despite our "real connection," I still hadn't reached him by press time. So, since this is an account of my experiences with Simone and her extraction, I'll simply answer the questions I intended Mark to answer (anybody seen 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould lately?). Apparently I resemble Mark Ruffalo physically... so it's all the same, eh?
SPEAKING FOR MARK RUFFALO
Hi, Mark. Love your work. So. What were your seizures like? How often did you have them?
From December until March, I had at least one seizure daily. Three or four times (including an instance on the MAX), they rendered me unconscious. Most, however, were "partial seizures," lasting only ten seconds or so. During these it felt and sounded like I was choking--on a syllable. I never suffered any severe memory-lapses or pain, and always remained standing throughout. I was always conscious. And, admittedly, self-conscious. They occurred anywhere--in class, in Target, at the cinema, at the gym, even during intercourse. After a number of them, I became accustomed to it and they were no longer embarrassing--but it was still pretty dreadful, waiting each day for one to hit.
Did you notice any personality changes caused by the tumor?
I started finding myself crying uncontrollably, inexplicably, unpredictably--often in public (the staff at Looking Glass Books are particularly accommodating). I had never been so emo in my life. My doctors identified this "sudden sadness" as a typical side effect of my medication and the pressure Simone was exerting on my cerebral cortex. Likewise, I sometimes had difficulty maintaining concentration and articulating myself--which was frustrating for both me and my friends... another typical side effect. Other than that, I have developed an odd attachment to a Britney Spears song ("Toxic"), which is unusual for me. But I haven't sworn off Sesame Donuts nor have I started buying McGriddles.
What was surgery like?
All I remember is being gurneyed to the OR before passing out from the anesthesia. I woke up whimpering, but with no real pain. Ostensibly, they hacked a three to four-inch incision just above my forehead, extracted a Sacajawea-dollar-sized portion of my skull, and then, according to my surgeon, "scooped Simone out." Sacajawea was replaced, and my incision was held together with 15 staples and a strip of coagulated blood. My recovery took about two weeks, during which time I was on steroids (to reduce swelling) and painkillers (hydrocodone). My head throbbed quite a bit (duh), and I had such a bitchin' scar--it was all I could do not to pick the scab. I attended a party three days after the surgery.
Did you get to keep your tumor?
No, but not for lack of trying. Simone had to be julienned, then set onto slides for pathologists to study. I did keep my staples, though.
Have you decided to live your life any differently as a result?
I don't see any need to. I mean, I still want to visit Madagascar, but I won't accelerate my plans. Tomorrow the streetcar may clock me, you know? I realize this could be an argument to get the hell out and maybe fuck a bunch of people, but I've had a lot of experiences, so I don't think it matters. I just want to keep keying SUVs regularly, shopping at Food Fight, and remaining loyal to my friends. I guess I've realized that it's not all about me anymore.
What is Jennifer Garner (Mark's 13 Going on 30 co-star) like?
I don't know her, but she seems so nice on Ellen.
My reasons for wanting to speak to Mark Ruffalo were twofold: 1) because I'm a star-fucker, and 2) I really wanted to speak to someone who had "been there." Despite tremendous support from my friends, no one could genuinely empathize. As a result, I felt inescapably lonely at times. I wondered if Ruffalo had suffered in a similar way, if he had minimized his illness so that he wouldn't burden anybody? Or, conversely, had he capitalized on his "invalid-ness" (like I did sometimes) to get Dippin' Dots (with an Orange Julius chaser) or rides to the coast?
Mainly I wanted Mark Ruffalo to endorse the feelings of arrogance I'd had since the operation. "Arrogance" probably isn't fitting, but I don't how else to describe nine months of restored confidence mixed with glee and extreme relief, possibly bordering on obnoxiousness. Look at me--I interviewed myself, for fuck's sake!
For months, I used to envy the strangers I passed. I envied that they didn't wake up with feelings of dread each day, that their relationships weren't strained, that I was once a carefree motherfucker just like they were. I missed when I was young, dumb, and full of cum... when I didn't have to sit by the exit at the movies, and when I could make out without worrying if I'd wig out (and suddenly bite the boy's tongue off).
Now things are different. Now I feel somewhat sorry for those same carefree people. I'm not invincible, but I feel like I know a secret they don't and, quite possibly, won't ever know. I feel more secure now, and essentially, I got my swerve on.
It's my friend Grant's fault. In a lovely handmade get-well card, he wrote, "You've been tough during this, and I admire you." Others had expressed this sentiment, but he was the first to use the word "admire." What a dif'rence a word makes. I guess it made me see that it wasn't an ordeal I'd been through, but an accomplishment I'd, um, accomplished. Having felt debilitatingly vulnerable for nine months made me forget how resilient I can be. I've endured dysentery, malaria, severe frostbite (in the inner Mongolian desert, no less), and now a brain tumor. Rickets... I'm ready for you!
This doesn't mean I'll start requiring my suitors to have survived a life-threatening ailment to take me to the movies. Hopefully, after this paragraph, my arrogance will no longer be apparent, but internal. Thus, you have permission to donkey-punch me should I succumb to a particularly nasty fit of self-indulgence. But in the meantime, who's to say I shouldn't screenprint a few "Will G. Rawks" T-shirts? After all, I rule the school. And Mark Ruffalo does, too.