The Strength To Overcome Challenges Can Come From Peculiar Places
By Jay Lieberman
“You never know what’s under someone’s shirt.”
Michelle said these words to me when I got home from the hospital. A meaningless sentence to most.
To me – it meant everything.
Back in early April 2017 I ended up in the emergency room. It was around 3:00am and the doctors had just told me I was going into something like septic shock.
It started just before noon the previous day. I suddenly felt like a bomb went off inside my body. Like a river of acid rising up toward my chest. I doubled over in pain, crawled to the family room couch on my hands and knees. Thinking this has to be it. I’ve never felt pain like that in my life. My first thought was heart attack.
I tried to take deep breaths, get up. Walk around. Stretch. Attempts to mystically rid the pain.
But it built. I sat in a bathtub for hours. Made my way to my bed where I laid, awake, suffering in pain. I didn’t want to face the reality this could be something serious. I was in shock. I couldn’t catch my breath.
My body was now screaming at me to get my ass to the hospital.
Upon arriving they rushed me into some tests and scans. Within an hour, the doctor was telling me the magnitude of the situation. My mind was in a white haze. I was awake, eyes open, pain gone now from the drugs, but couldn’t quite grasp what he was telling me.
He said I had severe diverticulitis; my colon had perforated and leaked out into my body.
At least now I could understand the reason for the pain. They needed to get me into surgery as soon as possible to remove a section of my colon and clean everything out.
‘How can this be happening to me? I take care of myself. Yeah I could lose a few pounds, but I eat decently and exercise regularly.’
A couple hours later, I was lying in a sterile hospital room, alone, waiting for surgery, when a nurse came in with a bunch of ‘stuff” in her hands, a smile on her face.
She was there to prepare me for what was to come after the surgery. I’ve never had surgery before. I assumed they put you to sleep, cut you open, you wake up in your room, and go home in a few days. You get a little weak. Need to take things slow for a couple weeks and that’s that. Back to life.
I started to have my doubts about my simplistic view of recovery as I looked down and saw her drawing a two-inch circle with a black marker on the left side of my belly. I asked her what she was doing. More curious than concerned.
Then she said it.
I guess I didn’t understand what was really wrong with me. And what was coming after this type of surgery.
“The area I drew on you here is where your colostomy will be,” she said casually in her Russian accent.
I remember thinking, through the calming drugs, what the hell is she talking about? I’ve heard the word colostomy before. Michelle mentioned it many years ago, that her aunt had something like that. But, why was it part of my deal?
I told the nurse she had to be in the wrong room. Wrong patient.
But, I was mistaken.
Then…I cried. Pretty hard.
She held my shaking hand. She told me it would be ok. She said I’m young, healthy and it should be easy for me to get used to.
I felt so alone as she was showing me medical devices, supplies, plastic things, adhesives. Things I never thought I would need to know.
I was scared to death.
Then they wheeled me in.
After the surgery, I ended up spending 5 days in the hospital.
I found myself aimlessly walking down hallways with IV bags of who knows what constantly being spilled into my bloodstream.
Like a zombie. Shuffling along in my light blue hospital socks. Trying to get away from something. I had my favorite spot near the elevator where I would stand for an hour at a time trying to get some sun on my ashen, malnutritioned face.
I was in a complete haze of what was happening to me. Pain riddling my body, watching the IV pump in morphine at a rapid clip.
And…some big lump on the left side of my body.
At day two in the hospital I mustered up the resolve to look at myself in the mirror. I slowly lifted up my gown to reveal an image that will be forever burned into my brain.
Nothing like normal Jay from a couple days ago. This was another guy. Someone looking back at me that had no resemblance to Jay Lieberman. Face grey in color. Gaunt with 40 pounds missing.
Staples up and down my stomach. Cuts. Stitches. Holes. And a weird looking bag pasted to my left side.
I was deformed.
I looked like the Elephant Man.
It took my breath away.
There was so much to learn. So much I didn’t know. An incredible amount to get used to.
As the third day in the hospital arrived, I completely shut down. I wouldn’t allow anyone in the room. Not Michelle, not my parents. No one. I told the nurses to get out, even though they didn’t. I felt completely overwhelmed and outside myself. I disappeared that day. I lost time.
I remember putting a towel over my head – my attempt to be invisible. Sitting in a chair next to my bed, my headphones in, listening to classical music. I can’t remember having any thoughts.
Just dread and depression I’ve never felt before.
The nurses were concerned. I heard them talking outside my door off and on. There was one particularly sweet nurse, who on a few occasions that day, knelt down in front of me, stroked my back a bit. Held the top of my hand.
At one point, she called in a social worker to help, but I wouldn’t let him in the room.
Then a tornado of thoughts came rushing through my mind.
How was I going to take care of myself when I got home? What is this bag and all of the parts to it? How do I go to work? Be with friends and family. Simply be in a quiet room with other people as this bag is making uncontrollable noises and causing me to have weird feelings.
Will Michelle be attracted to me? Will she still love me? Will my kids be grossed out and avoid me? Can I muster up the same confidence and lack of fear that I had before?
My mind was swirling at a dizzying pace.
Then something happened, like a snap of a finger, from an unexpected visitor.
It was now about 5:30pm. I was just staring into nothingness when a guy came in with a tray of food from the hospital kitchen. Purportedly dinner. Nothing could be further from my mind than green jello and chicken broth.
He glanced over at me a few times. I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He was smiling. Arranging my dinner with the same care as if he was setting a table at a 5-star restaurant.
He then said something to me that forever changed the way I view struggles and challenges.
“Sir. Are you ok?”
He repeated in a strong Spanish accent, “Sir. Is everything ok?”
I noticed his name tag said Frances.
I managed a tiny smile. He then slowly came up to my chair, knelt down and told me, “Whatever you’re going through is part of the Lord’s plan.”
He patted my shoulder as he left the room.
I’ve never prayed a lot.
But there was something angelic about this Frances from the kitchen. Was he real? A ghost.
The memory of Frances actually didn’t come to me until I sat down to write this piece. Like most things that day, I seemed to push it way down in my mind.
It may sound utterly cliché, but after Frances touched my shoulder, I felt changed. Touched by something.
It’s hard to describe. Like trying to define what love is. You only know it when you feel it.
After he left I was overcome with a rush of emotion that exploded out of me in a massive release. The terrible empty thoughts of pain and depression were suddenly lifted. I was getting filled with gratitude and strength.
I was lucky. I was young. This terrible colostomy bag will be temporary. Things will suck for a while, but will get back to normal. I have healthy happy children. A beautiful compassionate wife. Wonderful parents and family.
Incredible friends. My rescue dog, Phoebe.
Positive words and thoughts that had been so foreign to me that day were finding space in my head.
After a couple more days, I left the hospital. I had climbed out of my despair, but still had a lot of work to do. I had to learn how to deal with my new temporary lifestyle with this bag.
How to change it. Put in on. Take it off. I had to learn what all of these parts and pieces were and what they did. A whole new world to me.
How to be around people, with confidence. How to wear my clothes so it didn’t show through my shirt.
A month went by and the nurses stopped coming to my house to help with this thing. I was on my own. Scared to death. Someone just pushed me down the black diamond ski slope.
But, something inside me broke down the wall of fear and worry.
Frances invisibly stuck with me. Still giving me strength.
There was a particular moment while changing my bag, a not so fun task every few days, that I started laughing my ass off. For no reason at all.
Alone in my home office where I usually did it, I was uncontrollably laughing. Then I cried. Then I laughed. Then I cried some more. And laughed again. Then some more. I kept laughing until the crying stopped and didn’t return.
I said to myself I don’t have two options here. I have to figure out a way to deal with it. Period.
Others have it far worse than me.
So, I became intent on making fun of this thing. I began making jokes about it to those people who knew what I was dealing with. I began chasing Michelle and the kids around the house trying to make them touch it or look at it.
It was funny. Like a cruel joke type funny.
It had to be. Otherwise I would’ve been cowering in a corner wishing I was dead. I wasn’t going to let that happen.
My kids needed to physically see that no matter how terrible a situation may be, how negative things seem, you can always flip the switch. What I did not know is where the strength comes from to flip it.
I started to see everything around me as a source of strength. The long calls with my mother. The daily texts from my brother. The talks with my dad.
The cruel but loving insults from a handful of my “dirt bag” friends that made fun of my condition.
This went on for 6 months as I was willing the clocks of the world to fast forward to arrive at the day I could have the second surgery to correct my condition. And the chance to get this bag off my body.
At the beginning of October this year I had the reversal surgery, reconnecting things and thankfully removing the colostomy. Things are so much better. Getting back to normal.
I’ve had some friends and family tell me how impressed they were by how I handled this whole thing. How I got through it with strength and lightness. Someone even mentioned the word grace.
While I appreciate that, I don’t take pride in any of those compliments.
I am more fascinated with how we humans learn to adapt to painful struggles. How we are able to find the fortitude to push the bad out and replace it with good.
Where does that come from?
I believe we have something or someone we can point to that changed the direction of how we deal with struggle and challenge. Mine was the guy from the kitchen. Yours could be something you saw on a walk one day. A word you overheard. A look from your dog. It could come from anywhere and anyone.
I’m oddly thankful for what happened for a couple of reasons.
First, it was the most pivotal time in my life for personal and professional change and growth. This situation woke me up to remove things and people from my life that bring me no value and only serve to bring me down.
Second, it made me realize everyone has a struggle of some sort. Some are deep inside the mind, invisible to those around them. Others are right up front for all to see. And still, some are hidden beneath a t-shirt, as in my case. That guy who cut me off in my car could be racing to get home to his child that is suffering with cancer. The lady who cut in line at the supermarket could have just lost her job and can’t pay her rent.
My lens of how I view people and the things around me has changed.
Everyone has something under their shirt, like Michelle said. Something they are hiding away. Something that is the source of personal daily struggle.
Thanks to Frances, I learned this at the very beginning of my journey this year.
And thanks to Frances, I will carry his message of strength into whatever comes next for me.
But, I still wouldn’t touch that green jello, buddy.
ABOUT THEM – Jay & Michelle Lieberman have been called “provocative and entertaining,” but also “committed philanthropists”. Entrepreneurs and relentless innovators of the real estate industry, creators of the “Value-Driven Approach to Sell Real Estate”, founders of the Conejo Valley Teacher Only Program, hosts of the Conejo Valley Advice Givers Podcast Show, and attorneys and real estate brokers at Keller Williams World Class in Southern California. They feel honored and blessed every day they are able to serve their clients, their family, friends and their community. You can reach them at info@TeamJayMichelle.com.