April 21st, 2011 - Philip Sherrod


This is a story of threes. There are three characters: the Student, the Patient, and the Memoirist. The three characters share three things: a name, a death sentence likely to be carried out sooner rather than later, and a talent for self-deception. Even now the Memoirist is fooling himself in pretending the Student’s part of this story occurred exactly ten years ago to the day. The simple fact is that the Student’s event, as with so many things from this period, feels like a memory lifted piecemeal from another brain. And the Patient is no help sorting through the details because he is unconscious and bleeding out in an ICU room.


*


It’s just before finals, spring 2011 semester—ten years ago exactly. The Student is set to receive the annual award given by his university’s English department to its outstanding fiction writer. It’s just one of dozens of awards that will be handed out today, but it’s not nothing, and, for a moment, the Student can entertain the idea that he may not be the fraud he suspects himself to be. Since childhood, his life has been structured around the perpetual, gut-shredding fear of someone discovering he is nothing but a con, a no-good phony unworthy of praise, affection, or any other human kindness. The Student has not heard of imposter syndrome, but the Memoirist will discuss it at length with his therapist.


The Student is perpetually out of step. Just as he was late in learning to drive, he is late in pursuing his higher education. Most of his fellow graduates are a decade younger than he is. This award, though—it feels like it legitimizes him in some small but important way. The Student’s mom is in attendance, and he has dressed up for the occasion. The Memoirist has pictures from the event, and the Student looks awful. His navy suit jacket is too tight across his stomach. The flesh of his neck bunches up around the collar of his shirt. His cheeks and nose are radish-colored, and his entire face is shiny with grease and sweat even though the ceremony is indoors, the air conditioner humming. The bloat and bad color have nothing to do with temperature or excitement, but the Student doesn’t like to think about that.


*


As the Memoirist examines the pictures, he can’t help but wonder why no one bothered to tell the Student he looked terrible. Politeness, most likely, but perhaps something else, too. Perhaps acknowledging his drastic change in appearance would, even indirectly, mean acknowledging that something is badly wrong.


*


The Patient goes into the hospital on April 20, 2020, which is also his birthday. He had stayed up late the night before, celebrating, and when he woke up past noon, he was seized by dry heaves so violent they rattled his entire body. The nausea was expected. Unexpected was the swirl of bright red in his pale yellow bile, an Expressionist work of art in his toilet bowl. Within an hour, the pale yellow is gone, replaced entirely by the bright red. His mom and stepdad drive him to the emergency room. There’s a pandemic, and he has to go in alone.


*


The awards ceremony goes longer than expected, and the Student is growing increasingly fidgety and claustrophobic. This sensation is common by now, and it grows more common by the week. Finally, he hears his name called. He collects his award, hugs his mom, and rushes to his car. The award comes with a $500 check, so, on the way home, he buys a fifth of Maker’s—a step above his usual Early Times or Benchmark. Why not? He has something to celebrate.


*


Now blood is coming from both ends of the Patient, though it no longer looks like any blood he has ever seen. It is brown, clumpy, partially digested. He is attached to so many wires and tubes he can’t make it to the bathroom, and he has just shit all over the floor of his ICU room. In his drug-fogged state, the Patient feels like a bad, filthy baby. But he couldn’t control it. He has torn two veins in his esophagus, and they are spilling blood into his stomach. The veins were under too much pressure because his liver had hardened. If the surgeon can’t repair the damage, the Patient will bleed to death.


*


The Memoirist has a meeting this afternoon at 5:30.


*


The Student finds the Maker’s bottle empty when he awakens. He feels a slash of panic—that was a lot of booze—but it quickly subsides. He’s simply wired to be able to drink more than most people, that’s all. Like his father before him. He doesn’t have a problem; he’s been able to stop for weeks at a time. So now he turns his attention toward securing enough Early Times to make it through the weekend. Liquor stores aren’t open on Sundays in his state, and if the house is dry by then, he’ll have to drop sixty bucks on tequila at the Mexican restaurant. Even if it comes to that, though, he should be okay. He has a $500 check, after all.


*


The Patient is in and out of consciousness. Mostly out. The surgeon slowed the bleeding, but couldn’t stop it. The Memoirist has since learned a call was made to the Patient’s mom, informing her there was a good chance her son would not make it. Even though she wasn’t on speaker, her desperation and panic were audible to everyone in the vicinity, and the Memoirist is glad the Patient wasn’t awake to overhear it. Now, the surgeon says, if the Patient is to have any chance, he must be moved to a larger hospital right away. Oddly, even during moments of lucidity when he can overhear his nurses whispering about a seizure and blood “like a geyser,” it never occurs to the Patient to think, I could die here, alone.


*


It never occurs to the Student, through nine years of diminishing achievements and declining health, nine years of burned friendships and sabotaged intimacies, to listen to the emptiness in his apartment and think, I could die here, alone.


*


The Patient, obviously, does not die. But he will never fully recover. In the next year alone, he will undergo half a dozen procedures to secure the bands holding his damaged veins together and keeping him alive. The patient will go to rehab for three months. There he will learn the Twelve Steps, Step Four of which involves a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself. It is here that the Patient will give way to the Memoirist, for if the Patient is to ever inhabit a newer, healthier skin, he must investigate all the aspects of himself, and the aspect that interests him most particularly is the Student. His fear. His doubt. The Memoirist learns something the Student never grasped: Until his addiction turned it sour, that stint in college was the most successful and gratifying period of his life. Even so, he let it slip away, fear made manifest, until, finally, the Patient—the opposite of accomplishment and happiness—limped onto the scene. Then, from their collision, the Memoirist was born.


I was born.


And now the Memoirist waits, both hopeful and trepidatious. What shape will his own antithesis take? And when it shows itself, what will be the end result, the new thesis?


Who will I become?



Philip Sherrod is a recovering alcoholic who, before his addiction got the better of him, managed to graduate with honors from the University of Arkansas—Little Rock. His sobriety birthday is April 20, 2020. This piece was written to commemorate the first year of his new life. He encourages you to visit To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit organization providing resources for those struggling with addiction, self-harm, and the mental health issues that often go hand-in-hand with these behaviors. Perhaps, if you're so inclined, you could maybe even shoot a little cash their way.


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