Transcript

476:

What Doesn't Kill You
Transcript

Originally aired 10.05.2012

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/476

Prologue.

Ira Glass

So Tig Notaro, you're coming onto the radio show today to talk about the last year of your life. Is this going to be an uplifting story?

Tig Notaro

[LAUGHS]. Well, it's not even a year. It's four months-- and no.

Ira Glass

Tig Notaro is a comedian. She was on our show this past spring telling the story-- maybe you heard this-- about Taylor Dayne. But in just four months she went through a series of terrible things, life changing things, including finally, two months after she was on our show this past May, she was diagnosed with cancer.

Her doctor called her with the test results on a Wednesday. Eight days later she was told that it was stage two and that it might be spreading throughout her body. And then the next night she did something that you don't see a lot of cancer patients do. She went on stage and did a stand-up set about it, about everything she was going through. She felt like she had to.

Tig Notaro

I really had the fear that if I walked away from this opportunity to perform that I would never be able to again.

Ira Glass

Oh, wow. I didn't understand that.

Tig Notaro

Yeah. You know, my life could just start changing very quickly. I could immediately be on chemo. I could be ill. My past four months had shown me that who knows what's coming up.

Ira Glass

The set she did at a club called Largo in Los Angeles became notorious in comedy circles immediately after it happened because another comedian, Louis CK, tweeted that it was one of the best sets he ever saw. It's not the kind of set that kills with joke after joke after joke. What makes it special is listening to it you can feel Tig figuring out how she's even going to talk about these things on stage as she's making her way through it.

Tig Notaro

It was scary. I picture myself walking and just kind of putting my tip-toe in front of me slowly, just, oh, I have no idea what this next line is going to be. I don't have any reference here.

Ira Glass

You mean, what it's going to be, like how they're going to react.

Tig Notaro

How they're going to react, and is this funny? I didn't know.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio show, "What Doesn't Kill You," we have stories of people who nearly die. Some of them nearly die more than once. And we see what it turns them into, who they are when they come back to the rest of us.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Too Soon?

Ira Glass

Act One, "Too Soon?" So we're going to start with that set that Tig Notaro performed the day after she heard that she had stage two cancer back in August. It's never been broadcast or released anywhere from now. This is going to be excerpt of the much longer half hour set.

[CROWD CHEERING]

Tig Notaro

Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer. How are you? Ah, it's a good time. Diagnosed with cancer. [SIGHS]. It feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer. Oh, God.

Oh, it's fine. Here's what happened. It's very personal. Found a lump. Guys, relax. Everything's fine. I have cancer.

[LAUGHTER]

Found a lump, got a mammogram. I ended up getting biopsies, which is painful. It feels like being stabbed. I felt like I'd been rear-ended all day, and then just dropped off back at my house. I couldn't move or anything.

And it was so intrusive and horrible. And I was just like, God. After all of these like ice pick, stabbing feelings, I'd better have cancer.

Somebody over here just keeps going, oh. Oh, I think she might really have cancer. Who's taking this really bad? Oh. It's OK.

[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]

It's OK. It's going to be OK. It might not be OK. But I'm just saying, it's OK. You're going to be OK. I don't know what's going on with me.

I literally got diagnosed just a few days ago. And this friend of mine, she was like, oh my gosh. I'm sure you've heard about these funny cancer greeting cards. And I go, whoa, whoa, whoa. You're sure I've heard about funny cancer greeting cards? I was like, I just got diagnosed.

I didn't just go out and learn all about the subculture, and start buying knickknacks, and like, no. I don't know about the funny cancer greeting cards. I just don't know. I just got diagnosed.

And so my friend texted me one of the cards. The outside of the card says-- oh, what is it? So you have cancer. Sad face. Then you open the card. And it says, thank goodness. I've been looking for a reason to shave my head.

[HESITANT LAUGHTER]

I can't believe that's what you guys haven't laughed at tonight. That was straight from the funny cancer greeting cards.

[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]

What's odd, though, is having this diagnosis, it's such a weird time because I have so many amazing things going on in my life. Like, all of the best and all of the worst is exactly at the same time. In fact, at the end of March I had this-- basically a bacteria was eating my digestive system. So I had this bacteria eating my digestive tract. So I lost 20 pounds. I've put five back on.

And just please bear with me. It's so hard, because right now in my life, when I have a show I don't feel like, oh, I want to go talk about how funny it is that a bee was taking the 405 freeway. Like all the jokes that I've written, I just am like, I can't even bring myself to talk about it.

Because-- and just, everyone relax-- my mother just died. Should I leave? My mother just died-- tragically, too. She was 65, she tripped, hit her head, and died, a week after I got out of the hospital.

What happened was after we buried her in our hometown in Mississippi, we drove back to Texas. And I was checking the mail. And the hospital sent my mother a questionnaire to see how her stay at the hospital went.

[LAUGHTER]

Hm-- not great. Did not go great. The questionnaire asked things such as, number one, during this hospital stay, did nurses explain things in a way you could understand? I mean, considering you had zero brain activity.

Number two, was the area around your room quiet at night? Or could you hear the 12 hours of your daughter alone at your bedside sobbing and telling you things she wished she was brave enough to tell you when you were conscious? Number four, suggestions for improvements. Such as, should we stop sending questionnaires to dead people?

When I was-- I'm jumping around a lot-- I'm going back to the cancer. I'm bailing on the mother thing. After I got the biopsies, they did another mammogram. And I had to have my shirt off. And I was standing there at the machine. And the technician said, oh my gosh, you have such a flat stomach. What is your secret? And I was like, oh, I'm dying.

[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]

The condition I had in the hospital is called C diff. And so I just refer to it as the C diff diet. You just sit there and watch the pounds melt away. Don't like exercising? Who does, girlfriend? This diet does all the work for you. Just clear all the bacteria from your intestines and let the C diff whittle way at your waistline.

So basically, the events-- I got pneumonia. I was in the hospital for a week for C diff. Got out. A week later, my mother died. I know, it's hilarious. Then I went through a break up, right in the middle of it all. It's tough times. You can't stick around for that. Got to get out before the cancer comes. Went through a break up.

Audience Member 1

Seems legit.

Tig Notaro

Seems totally legitimate. Who here is just wishing I would tell bees going down the 405?

[LAUGHTER]

I just can't. I'm sorry. [SIGHS]. But you know what's nice about all of this is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. Never. Never. When you've had it, God goes, all right, that's it. I just keep picturing God going, you know what? I think she can take a little more.

[LAUGHTER]

And then the angels are standing back going, God, what are you doing? You are out of your mind. And God was like, no, no, no. I really think she can handle this. But why, God? Like, why? Why? I don't know. I just, you know. Just trust me on this.

I heard another little sad [INAUDIBLE]. May you just should have stayed home. You know, what if I just transitioned right now into silly jokes right now?

Audience Members

No! No!

Tig Notaro

No. I want to hear more bad news. No!

[LAUGHTER]

Where are you?

Audience Member 1

Right here.

Audience Member 2

Right here.

Audience Member 3

Right here.

Tig Notaro

Now I feel bad that I don't have more tragedy to share.

[LAUGHTER]

I'm honestly tapped out. Like that's all that happened to me. That's it.

Ira Glass

OK, it's me again jumping in here. So after about half an hour of this, trying all kinds of stuff. Some that gets huge laughs, some stuff she's just kind of trying out and seeing. For example, she talks about getting a double mastectomy. She talks about her friends not knowing how to talk to her normally now that she has this diagnosis. There's a whole bit about will I date with cancer? And as the set is winding down, the audience requests the bee joke that she's been mentioning.

Audience Member 4

Tell the bee joke.

Tig Notaro

Tell the bee joke? OK.

Ira Glass

And hearing her do the bee joke is like hearing her perform a version of herself which she knows doesn't even exist anymore.

Tig Notaro

I was driving here.

[LAUGHTER AND CHEERS]

And ugh, just a lot of traffic.

[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]

And my car hadn't moved in several minutes. I was just sitting there. And my window was down. And a bee flew past me. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is when a bee passes you in 5 o'clock traffic? And PS, what was the bee doing taking the 405 in the first place?

Anyway, thanks so much for coming.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Tig Notaro. What you just heard was less than half of what she did that night. The full thing is available, can be downloaded at Louis CK's website, louisck.net.

Tig Notaro

Yay, cancer! That's the best response I've ever gotten.

Act Two. Just Keep Breathing.

Ira Glass

Act Two, "Just Keep Breathing." So this 13-year-old get bit by a shark. And it's harrowing, but not as harrowing as what happens after the attack. Because sharks are dangerous, but so are grown-ups.

The 13-year-old is now a grown-up herself. And she agreed to tell her story here on the radio. But she asked that I not give out her name. She was raised in this small town in New Zealand where everyone knew the shark story. And the last few years, she's been enjoying a life in America where that is not the very first thing that every single person she meets knows about her. And she wanted to try to keep that going by not outing herself on the radio.

The attack happened when her family was out on a camping trip at the beach. She went for a swim with her friend.

Anonymous

It was beautiful. It was about dusk. We were walking out. The tide was really, really far out. And I wasn't even completely wet, slightly more than waist deep. And essentially, I walked straight into it. And they're incredibly powerful. It was like being hit by a freight train.

It goes in. It got its teeth into me. And then I couldn't get out.

Ira Glass

She says the feeling of this was like the shark was trying to get inside her. It grabbed her on her right side, a few inches above the hip. The shark, as best as she could tell anyway, was about five feet long. She was just over five feet tall.

Anonymous

The best analogy I can think of is that it's like a dog. It got its teeth in. And then it's shaking. It's like using that.

Ira Glass

Oh, it's shaking you, like a dog shakes its head back and forth.

Anonymous

But it's trying to shake me to get me under the water. And so I'm trying to stand on my feet, like really trying to stand on my feet. And I want whatever it is inside of me out. So I want to win. I want to stand up.

Ultimately, it dragged me under three times. The first two times I got back up. But the third time I started taking in a lot of water. So I thought I was going to drown. And when it started to drown me, that's when I really hit it, scratched it, everything. It was just full-on-- your animal instincts come out. It's like hand-to-hand combat, kind of.

But whatever happened, whatever I did, gave it enough of a fright that it stopped trying to drown me, and disengaged from my stomach.

Ira Glass

She hobbled towards shore, sent her friend for help. A small chunk of skin was torn off. She had two big puncture wounds. Her swimsuit was half tattered.

Anonymous

And I know I'm losing blood. And I'm worried that that's going to attract either that shark back, or some other sharks. And then I get to a certain point where I'm in quite shallow water. And I just can't walk anymore.

So I lie down. And it's shallow enough that I can lie down. And I can feel blood everywhere. And these fishermen come along. Are you all right? And I'm patently not all right.

But the other issue is that I'm exposed, like I'm quite naked. And I'm 13. So I'm like, oh, I'm fine. I'm fine. And they're like, hm, you don't look fine. I'm like, I'm OK. I'm OK, you carry on.

Like, well, we'd like to take you out of the water. I'm like, hm. And then at a certain point, they just stop trying to negotiate and just pick me up. And I'm dying of shame. I am just dying of shame.

Ira Glass

On the beach, a small crowd starts to form. Of course, to her horror. Her parents show up and drive her to the nearest town, which she remembers as 30 minutes away. Though her mom remembers it as 15 to 20.

It's such a tiny town in a remote part of New Zealand that there's no hospital there. It's Friday night. So they have to call the local doctor to come in to open up this little medical office.

Anonymous

The doctor and my dad-- everyone's sort of quite jovial, they're kind of relieved. And I remember them talking-- my dad and the doctor-- talking about the cricket.

Ira Glass

Did they not seem like they were in a big hurry? The way you describe it--

Anonymous

No. So I just remember him cleaning up the wound, and immediately pulling all this skin I'd lost together, and then stitching that. He gave me a tetanus shot. He said to my parents, I might act a little bit strange that night, a little bit odd, because I might be in shock. They should ignore me. I'd be fine.

Ira Glass

Now these instructions from the doctor play a big part in what is about to follow. They've become part of family lore. So I just want to hold on this point for one more moment. The doctor said-- or anyway, they remember him saying--

Anonymous

I can't remember the exact words. But it was essentially, she'll be fine. You know, she'll be dramatic about this. Kids can get a little extreme about this stuff. But everything's OK. Ignore it.

Then we leave. And we go back. So we're in a caravan camping.

Ira Glass

The caravan's like an RV?

Anonymous

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Remember, they're on vacation. It's her parents and her three siblings, all younger. She's in pain. But the doctor said she'd be in pain.

Anonymous

And normally I have to sleep on a top bunk in an awning outside. But I was allowed to stay in the caravan that night. And it's kind of hard to describe how painful it was. But essentially, very quickly I start vomiting up blood and stomach lining. Or I assume it's stomach lining. Like, it's sort of a jelly-like substance. I don't know what it is at the time.

And so I just go and get a plastic cup out of the cupboard and start to collect it. Because I didn't want to get the caravan dirty. And in the midst of this, everyone else goes to bed. And it just keeps getting worse and worse. It feels like I'm on fire. Like every atom in my body is in an inferno.

And so I go and tell my parents. I wake them up. And I say, I'm on fire. I'm burning up. And they were-- go back to sleep. Come on, you'll be fine.

Ira Glass

This, after all, was what the doctor told them was going to happen. She'd be uncomfortable, that was normal, nothing to worry about. This continues all night. She throws up blood into a cup, feels feverish.

What's actually happening, everybody's going to learn later, is that the shark has bitten through her bowel in several places. So the contents of her bowels are slowly leaking into her gut, basically poisoning her. She's developing sepsis and peritonitis. She is bleeding internally. One side effect of all this is that her lungs start filling with liquids, making it increasingly difficult for her to breathe.

Anonymous

And at that point, my mother-- this is during the night-- and I was saying, I can't breathe. I can't breath. And she said, mind over matter-- stop that hyperventilating. Which has become a family joke. Where now any time someone says, I've got a cold, we're like, mind over matter-- stop that hyperventilating.

And it gets a lot worse. I am incredibly weak. I can't breathe. And then eventually I could just feel I was losing my ability to keep going. And again, during the night I try again. And I wake them up. And I say, I'm dying. And again, they're just like, come on.

For me, I was like, come on. I've made this pretty clear. I have done everything I can to communicate this to you.

Ira Glass

I love how this is like exactly what it's like to be 13, is that you have urgent things that you're telling people around you, and adults just kind of shrug it off. But in this case, it's completely real. And you need them to actually pay attention to this one.

Anonymous

Right. And there isn't an alternative. Like, I live on or die based on convincing them.

Ira Glass

And it's not working.

Anonymous

There's no plan B. There's no taking my dad's car keys and driving. I can't drive. It's before I had a phone. I can't ring anyone.

Ira Glass

Now I talked to her parents to answer the question that might be forming in your head right this second. They do not seem like terrible people, or the worst parents I have ever met. They both understand how they screwed up that night.

Her mom told me, yes, she knows this all looks very bad in retrospect. And they should have listened to their kid. Yes, her dad said. She woke them up. She said she was dying. They didn't do anything. It all looked very different later.

In their defense, they both pointed out that, at the time, the liquid that she was throwing up looked more brown to them than blood-red. They both assumed that it was Coca-Cola, which she had been drinking. And not to excuse their actions, but simply as context for the "stop hyperventilating" remark, her mom pointed out that, at that age, her daughter did hyperventilate when she was nervous about all kinds of things, like a music performance at school.

When the sun came up the next morning, their daughter was pale, having a terrible time getting in enough air to breathe. And then her eyes rolled back in her head. Her mom saw the whites of her eyes. And she said she felt like she was falling through the surface of the Earth. She had somebody call the doctor's office. They were coming in. Her daughter picks up the story.

Anonymous

The problem is my dad's taken the car to visit various fishermen with the scraps of my swimming suit. Because he's trying to find out what happened. Because it's still out there.

Ira Glass

Actually, whether it was a shark or some other creature is still in some dispute. Her dad says that the town listed it officially as a stingray attack, so it wouldn't hurt tourism. A New Zealand shark expert told us that if it were not a shark it could either be a stingray or a fur seal. But it would be impossible to tell that without a photograph of the wound, which we were unable to locate in time for our broadcast. Anyway, back to our story.

Ira Glass

So he comes back. Then you get in the car?

Anonymous

Get in the car, back to the backseat. And that was a really long journey.

Ira Glass

A long journey, because by this point, there is so much fluid in her lungs that it's taking all of her concentration to keep enough air going in and out. It's exhausting.

Anonymous

And I knew it was a long way away. And I knew-- at that point, I started to doubt whether I would be able to keep doing what I'd been doing for a long time.

Ira Glass

And so what do you remember of that trip?

Anonymous

We're making reasonable progress. But at a certain point, we hit a bridge. And there's a farmer moving his sheep across the bridge. So we're blocked. And I hadn't factored that into my-- this is how long I can keep myself going. And at that point, I really felt I lost it.

Ira Glass

She started losing consciousness. But she describes it as lifting off in an airplane. It felt good. Though she fought it.

Anonymous

Any time I felt myself losing consciousness, I wanted to come back. I remember, like, willing myself. And that was tough. Because when you're drifting off into unconsciousness there's no pain. And I've been in pain for so long now, in such extreme pain. So it, each time, took a lot of effort to be like, actually, I'm coming back.

Ira Glass

Her mom was in the back seat with her. And her mom told me that when they stopped on the bridge, there was a noticeable change. Her daughter's body seemed to get very light. She told her husband to hurry.

Finally, they arrived at the medical office. She can't speak, can't move. But she's still conscious. There are now either three or four doctors, depending on whose memory you rely on.

She's put on a table. And she hears the doctor say something to her parents that she can't quite make out, but that seems to be either she's dying, or possibly, she's dead.

Anonymous

I remember them reacting very badly. So I remember my dad saying, she was my favorite daughter. And at the time, I was like, yes. Because I have two sisters.

[LAUGHTER]

Anonymous

And at the other end of the scale, I remember my mom saying, just like the cat. Because our cat, Winkles, had recently made an untimely end. And so that was a bad situation.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Just like the cat?

Anonymous

It's brutal.

Ira Glass

The parents do confirm these quotes. Her dad remembers saying, that was my favorite daughter. He said it was obvious that she might die. He was haranguing the doctor to do something now. Her mom does not remember, but says that it is very possible she declared, just like the cat. Because Winkles had died of internal injuries after its stomach was perforated, very similar to their daughter.

Anonymous

And I do remember my dad getting angry. And then there's an exchange between him and the doctor. And then the next thing I know is the doctor comes back, gets out a blade. I didn't see it. I felt it. And just slices into my arm. It wasn't like they gave me anesthetic. They just took out a blade and hacked into my arm.

Ira Glass

And what do you think happened?

Anonymous

I don't know. I think they're performing an autopsy on me. Because no one's talking to me. I am so irrelevant in this whole situation because I can't communicate. And they're in the middle of an autopsy. And I can't say anything to anyone.

Ira Glass

Oh my God.

Anonymous

And I can't communicate. I don't have control over my body.

Ira Glass

Doctors slice into her arms and ankles. She still had inch-long scars that she showed me. She says it's hard to believe that when they sliced into your ankles with no anesthesia, it hurt worse than being attacked in the water.

Anonymous

I'm worried that the next thing he's going to do is cut my throat. Because I don't understand. I don't understand why they're cutting my ankles. There was no shark attack on my ankles. My feet are fine.

Ira Glass

The way she remembers it, when they cut into her ankles, she jolted. And they realized at that point that she was alive. And they called the helicopter to fly her to a proper hospital.

At least, that's how she saw it at the time. The reality was different. I reached one of the doctors who worked on her that day, Dr. Vic Eastman. He was trained in emergency room medicine. And he says that they definitely were not performing an autopsy. He said that she was in such a state of shock, she lost so much blood. They believed that if they didn't get IVs into her immediately, she would die.

Cutting into the arms and ankles is what doctors do to find a vein in that situation when there is so little blood pressure. This is a standard ER procedure. And they didn't feel like they had the time to stop and anesthetized her.

They did call in helicopters. She was flown to a hospital in the city of Nelson, where she was operated on. For a while, it didn't seem like she was going to survive. She went into a coma, and woke up days later.

Anonymous

And I was in an intensive care unit. And the male nurse was saying, Mom, get in her eye sight. He's coming around. She's coming around. And my mom looked over, and she said, aren't you lucky the doctors saved you?

And I couldn't talk, because I was on life support ventilator for my lungs so that I could breathe. And I indicated for paper and pencil. And I wrote, I saved myself. Underline, underline, underline.

Ira Glass

When somebody asks her to tell this story, what happened the day after she was bit by the shark-- or whatever it was-- it's possible for her to get mad all over again. But it usually doesn't come up. She doesn't think about it.

And she's fine with her parents. Her relationship with them is pretty much like anybody's. And she understands their actions that day. Everybody moved on.

Anonymous

I mean, they subsequently bought a house just along from where the whole thing happened. And I was very anti that plan.

Ira Glass

Wait, they bought a house right near where it happened?

Anonymous

Right.

Ira Glass

Like a vacation house?

Anonymous

Yeah, in this very remote community. And I was like, I'm going to boycott that. But you can't. We went back the next year to the same camping spot.

Ira Glass

It was a family with four kids. Nobody was inclined to dwell on the past, including her. Within a year, her dad had started buying joke presents about it-- a necklace with a shark, and a swimmer coming out of its mouth. Or a t-shirt with a cartoon shark bite, fake blood splatters, and a hole-- a real hole in the shirt-- coincidentally, right where her actual bite was.

The fact that she nearly died, that was the past. She wore the shirt and the necklace. And then quietly, after a while, she had enough of it.

Coming up, when you're little, you learn that you are supposed to be careful with sharp, dangerous objects. You learn that you are not supposed to put dangerous things into your mouth. In a minute, somebody who ignores both those rules-- really, really ignores them. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. A Real Nail Biter.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "What Doesn't Kill You." We have stories of people surviving all kinds of things, and where they end up on the other side of that. We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, "A Real Nail Biter."

This story is amazing. Because the woman that it's about, I think more than anybody else on today's show, probably should not be around to tell the story. Reporter Jessica Benko tells what happened.

Jessica Benko

The woman's name is Cathy. And the thing that almost killed her over and over was a thought. It first appeared one day when she was 12 or 13 years old. She was in a psychiatric institution at the time.

Cathy asked that I not use her full name on the radio. And she didn't want to discuss certain events of her childhood. She hopes it's enough to describe it as troubled. But she threw violent tantrums as a kid, assaulted her teachers, and even began cutting herself. So Cathy's doctors had convinced her parents an institution might help her. But it was there that the thought first came to her.

Cathy

I was in the quiet room. Quiet rooms are a room that's smaller than the size of a bathroom-- a good-sized bathroom. And it's all concrete. And they have this mattress on the floor that has no springs in it. It's a safety mattress.

And I found a nail. At first, I wanted to use it on my arm to cut myself. So I hid it, because I knew if I got caught with it they would take it. And then I got the thought to swallow it.

I wanted to feel it go down my throat and go into my stomach.

Jessica Benko

Out of anger and frustration, or something else?

Cathy

Nope.

Jessica Benko

Curiosity?

Cathy

Out of a compulsion, like the thought. The thought wouldn't leave me alone. And I just did it.

Jessica Benko

Cathy says it felt good to swallow the nail. And once it was in her stomach, she felt intense relief. The thought was no longer nagging her. Doctors put her in the hospital and waited for the nail to pass. But once it was gone, the thought returned with increasing frequency, again and again.

Cathy

It was horrible. I was tortured. I literally was tortured in my mind. I've swallowed pencils, hundreds of pencils, multiple toothbrushes, nails, a plastic fork, knives, two antennas-- radio antennas. I swallowed a chess piece, a book bracket. I don't know what it's called, the thing that goes on a shelf, it holds the shelf. Oh, yeah, battery and glass.

Jessica Benko

All of this sounds intolerably painful. But for Cathy, it was even more agonizing when she wasn't able to swallow something, when she wasn't able to appease the thought. Cathy told my producer Brian Reed and me about one day when she snatched a straw from the common area of the psych ward. She hid it in her bra, hoping to swallow it the next chance she got. But the staff strip-searched her before she could do it.

Cathy

And they found it on me. And I flipped. I just lost control. I started banging my head on the mirror in the bathroom where they strip-searched me, saying, please don't take it. You're going to kill me. You don't understand how much this-- I got to have it. And they ended up restraining me, and putting me in restraints, and giving me injections until I fell asleep.

Brian Reed

Why were you so upset?

Cathy

Because I thought I was going to die. I thought my mother was going to die.

Jessica Benko

Cathy isn't using metaphor here. She genuinely believed this irrational thought that if she didn't swallow the object she had fixated on, she or her mother would die. She says having the object inside her felt like a protection.

Cathy was given a lot of diagnoses over the years. But doctors believe her swallowing was a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is the same disorder that causes people who are afraid of germs to wash their hands incessantly, or others who are worried about a fire to check the stove dozens of times before they can leave the house. Cathy's fear about her or her mother's safety was a more extreme and illogical version of this.

Doctors didn't have a good cure. No matter what they tried-- therapy, drugs, repeated electroshock treatments-- they could not stop the thought from torturing Cathy. All they could do was try to stop Cathy from hurting herself. She couldn't be trusted on her own, so she was permanently institutionalized and put in four-point restraints.

Cathy

Four-point restraints is when they tie leather down to the bed, and they have handcuffs on the feet, and on the legs, on the arms.

Jessica Benko

On top of this, Cathy was constantly supervised by one, and sometimes even two staff members. But that didn't stop her from swallowing things. By law, every eight hours staff had to let her walk around for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes were Cathy's chance to act.

Cathy

And this is where I would scout things. So I would see what I wanted. And then I wouldn't sleep that night. I'd plan it to a T. It's like playing Stratego, but playing for, like, 24 hours without winning or without losing, but in the end knowing you're going to win.

Jessica Benko

She had to win. Because every time she focused in on a new object, the fear that something horrible might happen was reignited.

Brian Reed

Can you tell us about the time you swallowed a knife?

Cathy

Which one?

Brian Reed

Uh, I don't know.

Cathy

Just pick one?

Brian Reed

How many times have you swallowed knives?

Cathy

Four.

Jessica Benko

Cathy never got her hands on a real metal knife, just the plastic ones they used in the hospital. But the results weren't so different. A quick warning, what Cathy describes in the next minute or so is graphic. You might want to turn down the volume if you're sensitive.

Cathy

I took a knife out of the kitchen. And I put it in my bra. And I asked if I could go to the bathroom. They let me go to the bathroom by myself. I went in, and I went to the bathroom. I swallowed the knife.

I started bleeding out of my mouth. Well, my throat was bleeding. And I couldn't breathe right. I was going [GASPING]. I couldn't get a deep breath in.

Jessica Benko

Did it hurt right away when it was cutting your esophagus?

Cathy

Yeah. I had a hard time getting it down, because it was cutting me as I was putting it down.

Jessica Benko

And you didn't think, oh, my gosh, I might die?

Cathy

No, it's not my thought at all. I kept thinking I had to get it down.

Brian Reed

And you didn't think, OK, I just can't? I need to pull it out.

Cathy

No. I never thought that. Nope.

I got a fever of 106. And they saw the hole in my throat. And then they immediately did surgery. And I was in ICU for three weeks. And I couldn't eat because the hole was in my-- it needed repair. And I almost died then.

Jessica Benko

This wasn't even the closest Cathy came to dying. Once-- I'm sorry this is a little graphic-- she sneezed while swallowing a radio antenna. And it became lodged dangerously close to her brain stem. Doctors had to put her in a medically induced coma while they figured out how to extract it.

Over the years, Cathy had more than 500 endoscopies, where surgeons inserted a tube down her throat and pulled the item out through it. She had more than a dozen invasive surgeries to remove objects and repair tears and holes in her stomach, intestines, and esophagus. One of Cathy's doctors told us she almost single-handedly trained an entire generation of surgical residents at his hospital's ER. Things got so bad that after Cathy turned 18, hospital staff went in front of a judge to get permission to put her in a straitjacket.

Cathy

No hospital wanted to keep me longer than they had to. So they shipped me around every six months, because I was a liability.

Jessica Benko

Did you have any thoughts at that time about what your future was looking like?

Cathy

I didn't have a future. I didn't see a future. I wanted to die. I didn't have a way to die. I was in a straitjacket. I laid in a bed.

Jessica Benko

What did you think about when you were in a straitjacket, laying in bed day after day?

Cathy

If I didn't have something on my mind to swallow, I don't remember thinking anything. I would just exist.

Jessica Benko

When Cathy was 21, she was transferred to yet another new facility-- Taunton State Hospital. She was so heavily drugged when she arrived, she didn't wake up for about a week. And when she did, her muscles were so atrophied from being restrained she couldn't hold up her head or lift her arms.

But Cathy says this hospital, Taunton, was different. The doctors and staff were willing to give her a chance. They set up a system of rewards she could work toward. Each day she went without swallowing something, she was allowed one hour out of the straitjacket.

They helped her build muscle tone back in her arms by walking her hands up and down the walls. They showed her a bit of kindness. After a winter storm, they brought her a snowball, something she hadn't felt in about 10 years.

And it was at Taunton that Cathy had a chance encounter that changed her life. Her regular psychiatrist went on vacation, and another doctor filled in for him. He was familiar with a relatively unknown surgery for extreme cases of OCD that he thought might help Cathy. It was a controversial procedure, mostly because when people hear about brain surgery on mentally ill patients, they immediately think of a lobotomy.

This wasn't a lobotomy. It was much more high-tech and precise than that. But it would mean destroying a small section of Cathy's brain. The idea was that surgeons could burn out a piece of the circuit they believed was malfunctioning-- the circuit that communicated between the emotional and logical parts of Cathy's brain.

Only one hospital in the country offered the procedure regularly. And it happened to be near Cathy-- Massachusetts General. They had been doing it for decades. And they had found that the risks were low. More than half of the OCD patients who got the surgery improved. And for those that didn't, the side effects were minor.

So Cathy agreed to try it. It took about two hours. And amazingly, after she got out of the surgery, she immediately felt different. Her urge to swallow had vanished completely.

Cathy

In the beginning I was weary. I'm like, is it really gone? And then I swallowed something, like, two months after I had the procedure. It wasn't that I had the urge. I was so used to swallowing that it was so odd that I didn't feel the urge to swallow. And I'm like, well, maybe I should just swallow something.

I'm like, something's missing in my life, you know? It was like an old friend. But after I did it, I'm like, this isn't me. I don't want this.

Jessica Benko

That feeling lasted almost a year, until Cathy relapsed. The obsession came back. And she started swallowing again. So doctors did a second surgery and destroyed a little more of her brain. Again, Cathy woke up and the thought was gone. Again, she moved forward warily, not sure if it would last.

As the months passed, she began earning more freedom in the psych hospital. She was out of the straitjacket for good. Staff let her walk around the grounds of the hospital freely.

But recovery wasn't easy. Even moments that should have been exciting were challenging instead. Like when she went home for the first time. After spending 10 years confined, mostly in restraints, to mental institutions, she was allowed to go to her mom's house for dinner.

Cathy

It was odd because there were knives. There were all these things that I saw that I'm not used to seeing. Because we had filet mignon and rice pilaf. And it was an odd feeling to cut my steak with a steak knife.

Jessica Benko

Did it make you nervous?

Cathy

Yeah. Yeah. I don't know how to explain it. I'm like, a sharp knife. Then I'm like, oh my God.

[DOOR CLOSING]

Cathy

This is a little messy, if you don't mind mess.

Jessica Benko

More than a decade later, Cathy's showing us around her apartment. When she first moved out on her own, she was 28. Though she essentially had the life skills of a 13-year-old. She had to learn how to cook, how to clean. Her doctor sent someone to teach her how to shower by herself.

Cathy

For like the first month, I probably didn't sleep during the night at all because I had the freedom. I wasn't told to go to bed. So I was just basking in the glory of smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee all night. For like a month I did that. And I would sleep during the day, just because I could.

Jessica Benko

Did the world feel foreign to you?

Cathy

It felt big, enormous.

Jessica Benko

Since then, Cathy's earned her GED and has taken a few classes at community college. These days, she checks in with her therapist every six months or so. She has a good life. She's funny, easy to talk to.

Cathy

You really don't want to see my bedroom.

Jessica Benko

She shares this apartment with her boyfriend of eight years. There's an extra bedroom for her nieces and nephews to stay in when they visit. It's also where Cathy and her boyfriend keep the fishing rods they use on their boat each weekend. There are framed pictures of her family and friends, toys for the kids, and of course, toothbrushes, and forks, and knives.

Cathy

Every single one of these things that are my house I cherish-- every single one of them. I collect pens now.

Brian Reed

Pens?

Cathy

Pens. I have a whole jar of pens over there because they wouldn't allow me to have them for so many years. And now I can have them. And they don't torture me. So I collect them just to say where I've been and where I am now.

Jessica Benko

We went over to the desk in the corner of her living room. Cathy picked up a mug filled with pens.

Cathy

They're just different kinds of pens.

Jessica Benko

One came from TD Bank, one from the Institution for Savings. A friend gave her another. Now she can take one out of her collection and jot down a grocery list or a note to her boyfriend.

Ira Glass

Jessica Benko in New York.

Act Four. The Year After.

Ira Glass

Act Four, "The Sweet Year After." In the aftermath of some terrible incident that nearly kills you, turns out things can be kind of great. Tim Kreider explains how.

Tim Kreidor

17 years ago, I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story, and less interesting than it sounds. Except for the 10 or 15 minutes during which it looked like I was about to die, which I would prefer not to relive, getting stabbed wasn't even among the worst experiences of my life. In fact, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

After my unsuccessful murder, I wasn't unhappy for an entire year. Winston Churchill's description of the exhilaration of being shot at without result is verifiably true. I'm not claiming to have been continuously euphoric the whole time. It's just that during that grace period, nothing much could bother me or get me down.

The horrible thing I'd always dreaded was going to happen to me had finally happened. I figured I was off the hook for a while. In a parallel universe only two millimeters away, the distance between my carotid and the stiletto, I would have been flown home in the cargo hold instead of in coach.

I started brewing my own dandelion wine in a big Amish crock. I listened to old one hit wonders, much too embarrassing to name in public. And I developed a strange new laugh that's stayed with me to this day-- a loud, raucous barking thing. It makes people in bars or restaurants look over for a second to make sure I'm not about to open up on the crowd with a weapon.

Not for one passing moment did it occur to me that God must have spared my life for some purpose. Even if I had been the type who was prone to such notions, I would have been disabused of it by the heavy-handed coincidence of the Oklahoma City bombing occurring on the same day I spent in a recuperative coma. If there is some divine plan that requires my survival and the deaths of all those children in daycare, I respectfully decline to participate.

What I had been was not blessed or chosen, but lucky. Which is not to turn my nose up at luck. It's better to be lucky than just about anything else in life. And if you're hearing this now, you're among the lucky, too.

You'd like to think that nearly getting killed would be a permanently life-altering experience. But getting stabbed was like a lightning strike-- over almost as soon as it happened, and the illumination didn't last. You can't feel crazily grateful to be alive your whole life anymore than you can stay passionately in love forever, or grieve forever for that matter. Time makes us all betray ourselves and get back to the busy work of living.

It's easy now to dismiss that year as nothing more than the same sort of shaky, hysterical high you'd feel after being clipped by a taxi. But you could also try to think of it as a rare glimpse of reality, being jolted out of a lifelong stupor. I can't recapture that feeling of euphoric gratitude any more than I can really remember the mortal terror I felt when I was pretty sure I had about four minutes to live. But I know that it really happened, that that state of grace is accessible to us, even if I only blundered across it once and never find my way back.

At my cabin on the Chesapeake Bay, I'll sometimes see bald eagles swoop up from the water with wriggling little fish in their talons. And whenever they accidentally drop their catch, I like to imagine that fish trying to tell his friends about his own near-death experience, a perspective so unprecedented there are no words in the fish language to describe it. For a short time, he was outside the world. He could see forever. There's so much more than they knew. But he's glad to be back.

Ira Glass

Tim Kreidor reading an excerpt from his book of essays and cartoons with the really wonderful name We Learn Nothing.

[MUSIC-- "SURVIVAL SONG," BY ANDREW JACKSON JIHAD]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Brian Reed with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike.

Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Tarek Fouda. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our office manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Our new film, Sleepwalk With Me is still in tons of theaters. Like any comedy, it's always more fun to see in a movie theater with a crowd of people.

But if you are one of the many, many people who actually comprise the majority of people in our country, maybe you've got kids, maybe you stay at home, you don't get out to movies much, I'm excited to announce that our film is available now on VOD-- Video On Demand-- through most cable operators and satellite providers. You can watch it right now, tonight. Or we are encouraging everybody-- we have this idea to throw pizza parties this coming Friday night, October 12, Friday night. Invite over friends, order some pizzas, watch the film.

Mike Birbiglia, who stars in the film, and I will be Skyping and video chatting into as many parties as we can. To sign up for that and to let us know how to reach you on Friday, go to our website-- thisamericanlife.org.

WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. His reaction to the presidential debate this week-- he turns it on, and I guess, I don't know, he was really put off by the president's performance.

Anonymous

I'm on fire. I'm burning up.

Ira Glass

Well, understandable, I guess. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC-- "SURVIVAL SONG," BY ANDREW JACKSON JIHAD]

Announcer

PRI-- Public Radio International.