Jennifer Morrison of ‘Once Upon a Time, House’ shines spotlight on migraines

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Originally published April 25, 2016, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission.

By David Heitz

She’s Dr. Allison Cameron on “House” and plays the “Savior” as Emma Swan on the hit ABC fantasy series “Once Upon a Time.” But when a migraine comes on, it’s a reality check for actress Jennifer Morrison.

She is one of more than 37 million Americans who suffer from migraines, which are super-sized headaches. Scientists believe the headaches are brought on by the temporal artery enlarging in response to a variety of triggers.

For many people, like Morrison, certain flashes of light bring on the wicked, debilitating pain. For others, it can be food, or a certain smell.

“For me it’s almost always a bright flash of light, such as bright sunlight, or the light hitting the side view mirrors on a car, when you get that quick glare,” Morrison told me Monday during a telephone interview. “Strobe lights will do it, too. I was recently at a theater production, and there were these unannounced strobe lights, and I just had to leave.”

Read more: Why bacteria could be triggering your migraines

As one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses, she splits her time between Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver, where “Once Upon a Time” is filmed. Morrison said she suffers from migraines about twice a month, and sometimes they come on during a shoot.

The saying, “The show must go on” applies to recorded television, too. Production schedules are tight, especially when you’ve got as much work as Morrison, who in addition to her acting career recently began her own production company.

Migraine stigma and why you can’t just ‘Get Over It’

Morrison has teamed up with Teva Pharmaceuticals to promote its More to Migraine campaign. Teva has created a website featuring Morrison’s story as well as information for migraine sufferers.

While most of us have heard of migraines, the sad truth is that many people view them with a skeptical eye. How many of us have seen a co-worker who repeatedly complains of migraines being accused of “just faking it,” making a mountain of a molehill, or just being a hypochondriac.

What’s worse, many people who suffer from migraines don’t pay close enough attention to what’s triggering their headaches, leaving themselves confused about what’s going on. They are not sure whether they are just stressed out, dehydrated, or any of the other things that can bring on a “regular” headache.

One of my followers on social media, a parent, described to me the story of a teenage girl who regularly suffers from migraines at school. Her peers and other teachers aren’t always understanding, the David Heitz Health follower said, saying she often is just told to “Take (acetaminophen) and get over it.”

Morrison said that the young woman should get a note from her doctor explaining that migraines are a very real neurological condition.

Related Healthline Content: Migraines More than just a Headache

“She should tell her teachers also to go look at MoreToMigraine.com,” Morrison said. “The key is to communicate with your doctor. Be aware of your triggers.”

Bright lights a common trigger, followed by blurred vision, nausea

Morrison’s story of the headaches being brought on by bright light reminded me of a friend of mine who for years complained of her migraines. I never truly understood (or even bothered to look up) what migraines are all about until one day when I was driving her to meet her daughter at school.

We were in the midst of a mid-winter deep freeze. Snow and ice were everywhere you looked, and the bright sun reflecting off of it was so intense it made driving difficult. My friend told me she was about to get sick (nausea commonly comes along with migraines,) and she did, all over the side of my car as she stuck her head out the window.

I won’t soon forget it.

Another of my Facebook followers told me her migraines are brought on by chocolate or peanut butter. A Reese’s would cause her to be in pieces.

Related Healthline Content: 14 Common Migraine Triggers

“You need to be specific about your symptoms from which you are suffering when you discuss them with your doctor,” Morrison advised. “You may think, ‘Oh I don’t want to bring up this or that,’ but you have to.”

You may be uncomfortable discussing medication overuse, alcohol, lack of eating, or hormones with your doctor, for example, but all of those things can be triggers.

“Many people are not aware that was is happening is a migraine,” Morrison said. “The blurred vision, the nausea. But with more awareness, people are starting to get it.”

Morrison says prevention is often the best medicine when it comes to migraines. “Breathing helps. I do yoga and I try to take care of myself preventatively,” she said. “I drink tons of water, eat healthy, get enough sleep. Exhaustion is a big part of how sensitive I am to my triggers.”

On her new production company and playing Colin O’Donoghue’s love interest

Exhaustion would be a challenge for any television actor, but with as much work as Morrison has, she has to be really mindful not to overdo it.

Morrison’s latest venture is her own production company, Apartment 3C Productions.

She’s directing her first feature film, called “Sun Dogs.”

It’s part casino scandal, part terrorism, part overzealous misfit. And it’s a comedy.

The film is written by Anthony Tambakis, who also wrote “Warrior,” which Morrison starred in. “It’s magnificent, thoughtful, literary, and beautiful,” Morrison said of Tambakis’s writing. “This is an original story that he came up with that he had been sitting on for a long time, waiting for the right director. I was very lucky.”

She said Tambakis saw a short Morrison directed called “Warning Labels” that is currently airing aboard United Airlines flights and will be on iTunes later this year. “I was lucky. He wanted a certain tone and style that he saw with me. There are four great characters (in the film) looking to find purpose in life, and they have some fun adventures.”

So what does Morrison do when a migraine comes on when she’s on the set? You just have to push through as long as you can, and then seek rest.

“I find a dark room and lay down,” she said. “I’ve been lucky in that I am surrounded by friends and family who know I never exaggerate something. I’m a trooper who pushes through and finds a way. If I’m a man down, I’m really a man down.”

Speaking of men, I did ask her what it’s like having Colin ‘Donoghue, “Captain Hook” in “Once Upon a Time,” as a love interest on the show. Is he just as sexy as in person?

“The most amazing thing about Colin is that he is just as good of a person and as good of a man as he is good looking,” Morrison said. “I’m very close with his family, his wife and son. They have sort of taken me in since we are shooting so far way.”

(Photo courtesy of Teva Pharmaceuticals)

NCIS’ Shalita Grant: She’s not vegan. Read more in my meaty interview with her

 

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This piece originally was published April 15, 2016, on Healthline Contributors. That site no longer is live. Reprinted with permission.

By David Heitz

What’s not to like about Sonja Percy (Shalita Grant), the sexy special agent on “NCIS: New Orleans?”

She hasn’t even hit 30 yet and is quickly amassing a large following. Schooled at Julliard and having already appeared on Broadway, stardom came quick after a guest appearance as an undercover ATF agent when “NCIS New Orleans” debuted in 2014.

Now a regular cast member, it’s clear why America likes Grant. She’s smart, she’s fit, she’s down to earth, and she’s fearless.

In fact, she does everything you see on that show without a stunt double.

Healthy mind, healthy body, as they say. I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to speak with Grant when her publicist reached out to me a couple of weeks ago.

After getting sober two years ago, and after caring for my dad for many years before (and after) that, and then after going through some heavy trauma leading up to dad’s death from Pick’s Disease in September, I’m all about me now. From working out at the gym every day, to eating healthy, to seeing a therapist twice a week, I’ve been “work, work, work working on my sh*t,” as Iggy Azalea sings. And I knew Grant would have lots of tips for me.

“First of all, congratulations,” the bubbly but no-nonsense Grant told me when we began our 45-minute telephone conversation on Wednesday. “My manager has been sober 16 years, and I understand what she goes through and what that’s all about.”

What’s great about Grant is that she does not believe in one size fits all for getting fit (which is what I always say about getting sober). She readily admits that when she got to Hollywood, she wasn’t getting parts because she had a few extra pounds on her. It was so disheartening, she got rid of her television set. She didn’t want to see all the new shows premiering that had passed her over.

That said, she wasn’t going to go on some fad diet and become a bag of bones either. Grant is proud of the muscle in her body. “I wanted to be strong.”

Why ‘poor people food’ is now $5 a bag

Shalita let me in on a secret. “A lot of people, even people I work with, think that I’m a vegan because the character on the show is vegan, but I’m a serious carnivore,” Grant said. “I’m trying to do more vegetarian options, but my body craves beef, or meat, maybe the week before my period. And I really listen to my body.”

While she says she mainly eats a lot of fish and shrimp, she will eat red meat the week before her period. Otherwise, “Typical dinners include some salmon, with the skin nice and crispy, I love that.”

She stressed that when prepping meals, even when eating healthy, “You still want it to be delicious, flavorful and done well.”

One of her favorite dishes is kale. “It’s poor people food and immigrants have eaten it for years,” she said. “I didn’t grow up with any money. Collard greens, that’s the same thing. But people have found out how healthy it is. Now that stuff can cost $5 a bag!”

Read More: Why Kale is a Superfood

Grant likes her kale cooked in the oven at 350 degrees for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, or sautéed in the skillet with garlic and olive oil. “It’s so tender, it’s easy to prepare, but very hearty and fills you up.”

She said dandelion greens also are delicious and “not as spicy as arugula, which I think is just too much. It’s sort of a mix between that and Chinese broccoli. You can get it cheap at the Chinese market. A real bargain.”

Other nights she will have ground turkey, ground beef, with bits of tofu and onion, some pepper, and half of a sweet potato.

She likes to have two large eggs in the morning with sautéed mushrooms and Amy’s vegan chili, she said.

And when she craves carbs? Go with rice, she said, instead of bread. “Get Japanese brown rice, she said. It tastes a lot better.”

Working out: Beyond the BS and the asterisks

When it comes to working out, she said fad exercise trends need to be avoided as much as fad diets.

“My journey to fitness was plagued with trying a bunch of different things before finding what works,” she said.

“I’m black, so I already had a booty. But I don’t want it to sag! I want a booty that makes me proud of myself. I want hamstrings that go into a nice booty. So I did dead lifts. I wanted curvature in my legs, so I did weighted squats.”

She said she tries to strike a balance between cardio and weight lifting. “You can’t do just one exercise in one area and think you’re going to kill the fat, no, not even in the tummy area. It is scientifically proven that that is complete BS. That’s why people who advertise that always have to use an asterisk.”

Grant uses kettle bells for working out, which she describes as “the new rage in fitness,” adding, “It just keeps it interesting.”

Read More: Kettlebell workouts for men

For tracking what she eats, Grant finds My Fitness Pal useful, she said. “It’s great, because if you want to lose weight it tells you exactly how many calories you need to be taking in to lose weight. You can scan the barcode of different foods and it will give you all the calorie information. You also can connect with other people and publish a diary.”

She may be a 28-year-old actress with a hot body and a hot television show, but Grant likes to talk about more than just diet and fitness.

Think racism is a thing of the past? Think again, Grant says

Shalita is passionate about keeping the conversation going about racism. She wants to make it clear that racism is not a fringe issue, or a passé issue. Racism is alive and well.

“As a country we have crippled ourselves with even trying to grapple with it,” Grant said. “The explanation of what racism is has become so murky. We as a country are often shortsighted. When it comes to democracy, world peace, hunger, we will say, ‘This is what we need to do. This is what we have to do.’ With racism, it’s more dubious. It’s, ‘Well, I don’t know.’”

Grant describes racism as “prejudice plus power,” adding, “We’re only just now starting to understand the power element. Our brand of racism is wholly systemic: In the Constitution, in state legislatures, in health, we are stymied with racism.”

She said social media has given rise to voices on the fringe, voices that for years have been pushed to the margins but now are being heard. The voices of women of color, for instance.

“Our voices can be heard now and we can hold the mainstream accountable in terms of where we have failed our citizens,” Grant said, adding that she is a proud supporter of The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

The institute puts on anti-racism workshops and educational programs to teach people what racism is.

She said that our country needs only to look at its past to make sense of the present, including some of the ugly racial clashes that have been seen in the current environment of the presidential campaigns. “This isn’t new. Slavery was abolished, we went through reconstruction … and we heard the same rhetoric on both sides,” Grant said. “This is what we were talking about in 1865.”

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Why caregivers for people with dementia often die before the patient themselves

 

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This piece originally was published July 11, 2015, on Healthline Contributors. That site no longer is live, and the article is reprinted with permission here.

By David Heitz

Half of all family members who care for people with dementia die before the patient does, statistics show, or they become seriously ill due to self-neglect. The study was published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Why? Because caring for someone with dementia is hard work. Due to their illness, people with dementia can be almost impossible to communicate with without the proper training. They need to be watched constantly, like children. And they can become violent.

It’s why so many places that call themselves “memory care” assisted-living communities handle the situation by encouraging family members to ask doctors to heavily sedate the patient. That can be cruel, but sometimes it is necessary in places that are not properly staffed.

Diane Carbo wants to know why developing guidelines for true, standardized dementia care— and financial and respite support for family members who try to care for people with dementia in their homes — isn’t on the agenda for the White House Conference on Aging Monday.

“This is the conference where big public policy changes occur. This is the conference that Social Security and Medicare came out of,” Carbo said. “Paying the family caregiver some kind of stipend to provide care, or at least respite care … we have no funding for respite care in this country at all. The family caregiver is the invisible patient. They are so busy monitoring someone else for 24 hours that they neglect themselves.”

Carbo is a registered nurse with four decades of experience and the founder of Caregiver Relief. She is also the founder of My Vital Alert. My Vital Alert stores all kinds of vital records — medical, dental, even power of attorney and will information — on a pendant, bracelet or card. A provider can tap any of those items with his smartphone and have a patient’s vital information pop right up.

Many families choose to put their loved ones in assisted-living facilities that label themselves “memory care.” What that usually means is locked doors. Period. At best, it means the staff attended a two-week seminar on caring for people with dementia.

There are some true “memory care” communities, but they are few and far between.

“If it’s truly a dementia care unit, the staff would have training that would allow them to handle behaviors,” Carbo said. “You also need behavioral specialists and neuropsychiatrists on staff.”

Instead, they sedate the patient so they won’t become a problem. The patient essentially becomes mentally vegetative.

“There needs to be a totally different approach to handling dementia,” Carbo said. “There are no regulations, no standardized dementia care.”

The plus-90 group is the largest growing demographic by age in the U.S. As that group grows, so do the number of people in the U.S. with dementia.

“Everybody is so worried about a cure … I know that we want a cure, I get that,” Carbo said. “But the issues that are more serious are the caregivers, the lack of continuity of care, and caregiver support.”

Social isolation is the classic hallmark of a family caregiver. “I tell my caregivers, you are the most single important part of the equation. Without you, it all falls apart.”

She said caregivers need respect as well as financial support in some form or another for providing care.

“At the end of life, when this is all over, most (caregivers) end up financially devastated,” Carbo said. “They have lost their job, they were negatively impacted financially as a defenseless individual.”

Caregivers provide billions of dollars in free care every year, as I reported two years ago in this Healthline news story.

“So many of them become ill or die,” Carbo said. “Those are the issues that I see we are not addressing.”

(Photo Courtesy Diane Carbo)

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‘Lots of kinks to work out’ understated: One reporter’s Obamacare experience

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(Photo courtesy Pixabay)

There Obamacare goes again.

You may recall that I now have written twice about Obamacare blunders that I have experienced during the past couple of years – pretty significant ones, in fact.

Well, I’m sad to report, that despite repeated assurances (and even a personal phone call from one of the top brass from Blue Cross Blue Shield when this happened last year), that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois appears to be up to their same old tricks.

Not only that, but the exchange itself also is providing misleading, inaccurate information to callers. In fact, I think the bigger issue with the problems I’ve had have been the exchange (probably with the administration of it in the broke state of Illinois, specifically) than with the insurance companies themselves.

Let me explain.

Yesterday (on Thanksgiving Day, when the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois call center was closed) I received an email that read, “Your Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois application has been received.” The email even assigned me an application number (for 2017).

Funny thing is, I have not even signed on to the exchange to even begin looking for a policy for 2017. My current insurer is United Health Care (I did have the coveted Silver Compass policy until recently…more on that in a minute).

Last year, Blue Cross Blue Shield did this EXACT same thing – told me I had applied for 2016 (and in 2015 I did have Blue Cross Blue Shield, so such an error back then at least made at least a modicum of sense – I was already in their system). You can read my column last year about Blue Cross Blue Shield by clicking here. They even told me I had been approved in an email that arrived shortly thereafter. In fact, they sent both emails twice.

This morning, I spoke to an extremely courteous Blue Cross Blue Shield representative who assured me this is all going to get work, and he acknowledged my frustration, especially since this has happened twice. He could not have been more professional.

I’ll update this blog when and if I get an explanation.

Last year, someone at the exchange in the D.C. office explained to me that some insurers are attempting unscrupulous marketing tactics, and that maybe that was what was going on.

But they ain’t saints at the exchange either, let me tell ya!

A couple of months back, I got an email from the exchange (Healthcare.gov) saying, “Are you still on track to make $XX,XXX this year? If not, please call (such and such number) to avoid paying extra at the end of the year due to a higher than expected income.”

Well, I have been blessed with lots of good-paying work this year, and yes, I am on track to exceed the amount I listed when I signed up for insurance this time last year. So, I was honest about that, called Healthcare.gov, and the rep ASSURED ME, SEVERAL TIMES that nothing would change with the United Health Care Silver Compass policy that I already had except that my premium was going to nearly double (I pay just over $300 per month for my insurance, which I suppose is in line with people working jobs similar to mine in corporate America, so I don’t really have any complaints about that).

Well, the rep lied. Or had bad information, perhaps. Because I do NOT have the same Silver Compass policy that I had before.

I first found this out when I went to get a prescription filled. My co-pay used to be $5; now it’s $10. Then, when I went to the psychologist, I learned my co-pay had gone from $10 to $30. I see my psychologist (not to be confused with a psychiatrist, which prescribes medications) weekly due to my chronic PTSD diagnosis. I’m very grateful to UHC, actually managed by UBH, United Behavioral Health, for paying for weekly sessions. Of course, the magnitude of what I’ve been through and what led to the diagnosis is pretty heinous and unusual, to say the least.

Then there’s the time that instead of being charged my $5 co-pay, earlier this year during a trip to Walgreen’s (when I still had Silver Compass), I was charged $56 for a medication. I wrote about that several months back too. You can read that column by clicking here.

Be careful out there, folks, if you’re buying insurance off the exchange. It’s still a hot mess. No matter what, in all matters health care in the U.S., you MUST be your own advocate. Never settle when something doesn’t smell right. Ever.

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I’m enrolled for 2016? Really? Except open enrollment does not being until Nov. 1

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This piece originally was written on Oct. 27, 2015, for Healthline Contributors. That site is going dark on Dec. 6, so it is reprinted here with permission.

UPDATED 11:42 a.m. 10/27/15

I want to preface this column by saying I am extremely grateful for the affordable health insurance coverage I obtained for 2015 under the Affordable Care Act. Without the subsidy, as a self-employed person it would be extremely difficult for me to remain insured and be able to eat at the same time.

That said, there is a reason why health care in America is the butt of so many jokes. And as a health reporter, it’s my duty to share with you my own bad experience with the health care system this week.

The night before last, I received two sets of emails, two hours apart, from my current health insurer. Suffice it to say that I am insured by one of the giants.

The emails let me know me that, one, my application for health insurance had been received. And about 20 minutes later, I received emails telling me my application had been approved.

Here’s the rub: I didn’t apply for health insurance for 2016 with this provider. In fact, I have had an ongoing email and telephone dispute with them over some unpaid claims and I have made it very clear I won’t be signing up with them again in 2016.

Regardless of whether they had every right to deny my claims based on fine print I can’t find (and don’t understand), their customer service throughout the entire ordeal has been deplorable. And that’s putting it nicely. Every time I would call I would get a different answer. A time or two, frustrated reps flat-out admitted: “Now wait a second. I’m really confused.” And the phone tree and the transfers? It’s the stuff hilarious commercials about poor customer service are made of.

So when I saw these emails confirming my applications for health coverage for 2016 that I never made, followed by emails telling me my applications had been approved (even assigning me a card number and an explanation of how to pay my first premium), my blood pressure shot through the roof.

When I reached a customer service representative at said gigantic health insurer, she very matter-of-factly, confidently and insistently told me: “You were signed up through the marketplace. The marketplace signed you up.”

I said, “Oh really?”

She then proceeded to give me the 800 number for the marketplace, aka Healthcare.gov.

When I spoke with the agent at Healthcare.gov, she confirmed what I already knew: No application for health coverage for 2016 had been made through the marketplace (let alone two…obviously some sort of computer glitch). But it gets better:

Open enrollment does not even begin until Nov. 1.

She said that perhaps I was confused, that maybe the insurer just had used some misleading marketing practices and that I had received an advertisement. As you can see from the photo with the story, that’s not the case. In fact, they told me twice that I was signed up, and they even assigned a card number and let me know how to pay my premium.

But it gets even better. They signed me up for the same plan I had for 2015 – one they repeatedly had told me has been discontinued for 2016, and have alerted me several times that I would need to choose a different plan for 2016.

I reached out this morning to both representatives listed under “Media Center” for said gigantic insurer, but so far have heard nothing. I’ll give you an update and will be happy to share their explanation if I hear back.

In the end, I’m just going to ignore their emails, I’m not going to send them a dime (I’m already paid up through 2015), and I’ll choose a different provider off of Healthcare.gov when open enrollment begins Nov. 1.

Meanwhile, be careful out there. There obviously are pitfalls in the American health care system. Giant ones.

UPDATE: The senior director of media relations for the company has offered a very sincere apology at 11:36 a.m.: “We screwed up taking care of you, plain and simple. Sorry.”

He even shared with me the explanation he was given (see below). Honesty and transparency go a heck of a long way with me, so I may in fact consider re-enrolling with them come Nov. 1. I’ll keep you posted.

Background
An issue was identified in the App Tracker for renewal transactions for the state of IL. The issue caused welcome emails to be sent in error.

Action

When members call, apologize to the member for any inconvenience that this system error caused. Tell the member that they will receive a communication within the next few days that will give additional information on their 2016 plan and rate.

Resolution

The issue has been identified and a fix is being implemented shortly.

PBS Special: No Help Caring For Your Elderly Parents Until They’re Broke

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This piece originally was published April 26, 2015, on Healthline Contributors. That site no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission.

By David Heitz

Think your elderly parent won’t end up going completely broke before they die? Think again. It’s the reality facing a growing number of American families.

Maybe people finally will listen when Meryl Streep narrates “Caring for Mom & Dad” (#CaringForMomAndDad) airing May 7 on PBS. I just finished screening the documentary. Before sitting down to write this, I wiped away some tears – indeed, tears of affirmation – and took a long walk to work off some suppressed anger. Writing about these things never is easy.

You know what appears to be even harder? Hearing the blunt truth from someone like myself who is going (and hopefully growing) through it.

It’s really quite simple. Modern science has made it possible for people to live longer than ever before. While doctors can seemingly work miracles these days to keep a person’s body going, there isn’t much they can do for the mind when it starts to go.

And nobody is going to help you or your parent financially when your parent becomes unable to care for himself until he is broke. As in zero dollars. There is no help until the point your parent becomes penniless and qualifies for Medicaid.

Heaven forbid you find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure how to go about caring for your parent, but if it happens, I suggest not sharing too much on social media. People will give you advice that they pull right out of their behinds. Everyone’s an expert, and most people have no idea at all what they’re talking about. There are scams galore. There is no easy fix to this. You or your parent either pay for your parent’s care until they are totally broke, or you do it yourself along with the generous help of others. And good luck with that.

This is why you need to watch “Caring for Mom & Dad” May 7 on PBS. Check your local listings. If this trailer doesn’t grab your attention, nothing will – until you get that first bill from mom or dad’s facility. There also are wonderful tips and resources on the “Caring for Mom & Dad” site.

My Caregiving Story And the Path I Chose

I moved back to Illinois from Southern California in 2002. My brother already had placed my father (then 63) in a facility. Since I returned ravaged by crystal meth, it was easy to talk about what a mess David was and how the real reason he came home was to get help. From day one nobody really believed I came back to help my dad as well as myself. And that’s fine. At this point the proof is in the pudding.

When I came home, my brother took dad out of the facility and I assumed the caregiving role. Dad paid me $12 per day and also paid my $400 per month rent for many years. In exchange, I checked on him a few times a day and ran occasional errands. The role escalated through the years to me eventually being a live-in caregiver for one year.

I immediately was hired by a local newspaper when I moved back. It didn’t work out. It ended with a separation agreement. I cried at work a lot and they didn’t like it I guess.

I was unemployed for a couple of years, and during that time I spent quite a bit of time with my dad. I really grew to love the man I once despised. Dad seemed to improve after my first job ended and I began to spend more time with him. But my first go-round at freelancing wasn’t as lucrative as it is now, and after a few years, I yearned to go back to work.

So I went to work for another local newspaper a couple of years later. It was OK for maybe two or three years. But as my attention turned from dad, he got worse. He would call work confused. I would go to his apartment on my lunch hour and he wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. I would go back to work really stressed out most days. I’d bolt to the tavern from work every day at 4 p.m. when the tavern opened.

To make a long story short, work got tired of hearing about how stressed out I was caring for dad. I got tired of what I felt was a lack of understanding on their part. Substance abuse problem and all, I quit in November 2011. (I am one year sober in two weeks.)

 Reality Check: Caring for Dad Means No Career for You

“Caring for Mom & Dad” offers a glimpse into the lives of people like myself. People who tried to care for their parent so they could live independently as long as possible. Nobody wants to put their parent into a facility. The $4,000 to $8,000 per month is no fun for anyone either.

In the documentary, journalist Jane Gross explains how she and her brother pondered how mom had blown through $500,000 – her entire life savings – in four years. They didn’t even know their mom had $500,000 to spend. They joked she must have robbed a bank and they never knew about it.

The documentary also tells the story of two siblings who fought tooth and nail before finally seeking help. The sibling that controlled mom’s money would tell the one doing the hands-on caregiving (and by no means am I minimizing the role of managing finances) that she didn’t need any of her mom’s money for her own bills. He felt she needed to care for her mom out of a sense of duty.

But that sibling, like myself, wondered how she could support herself. What if this goes on forever? Will she not work during the prime of her career, during her prime earning years?

Many do make that sacrifice. I chose not to. Not only because I want a life, a future and to rebuild my career, but because I am not qualified to care for my dad. I don’t believe that any one person outside of a controlled facility would be in my dad’s case. It takes more than one person. You can learn about my dad’s frontotemporal dementia by clicking here.

Ignore the Misinformation on Social Media from Non-Experts

You will hear over and over, “You can get paid from the government to care for your parent!” Yes, if they are penniless and qualify for Medicaid. So don’t even listen to those people or any of the other bad advice that is out there, unless indeed your parent is totally broke. Most of our parents aren’t totally broke going into this. Don’t try to explain it to people who think they know everything. The know-it-alls have a rude awakening coming.

And don’t expect corporate America to be understanding while you care for mom or dad. Target is one exception. You can find out more about that in the movie.

While many managers in corporate America post delightful notes such as: “So and so is home caring for sick baby … we wish her all the best!” on online office schedules when staffers call in for that reason (although I realize it’s even rare these days that employees get cut a break for that), when you tell them you were late because you had to clean up dad’s poo?

“David, we need you here,” I was repeatedly told by both employers with a stern frown, even after lots and lots of “family first” lip service. That doesn’t last long and it’s not real.

There are ways this can be fixed. For example, in one southern Ohio county, voters approved a tax levy that funds services for the elderly so they can stay in their homes a little longer. But I’m skeptical. In my Illinois county, voters won’t even approve levies so that children can learn in modern schools. If they don’t care about their kids, I don’t think they’re going to care about the elderly.

Wake up, folks. You can watch this documentary or not. Meryl and I have both warned you of what’s coming.

Check out David Heitz’s news stories about caregiving such as “Caregivers are the New Working Moms,” “Millions of Caregivers Offer Billions in Support” and more at Healthline News.

 

Sibling v. Sibling: A Binding Caregiving Contract Can Keep Drama Out of Court

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Originally published July 11, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which is no longer live. Reprinted here with permission.

By David Heitz

My father’s dementia has turned out to be the ugliest thing I ever experienced in my entire life.

Worse than my parents’ horrible marriage. Worse than my mother’s death when I was only 24. Worse than being physically and sexually assaulted.

Not only has dad’s cognitive decline been heartbreaking – seeing him act like a child, and in recent months, seeing him cry – but what the disease has done to my family relationships may be beyond repair.

I’m not alone. As crazy as my family’s story is – and I’ll spare you the chilling details – it’s a scenario being played out every day, coast to coast, family to family.

For example, take radio superstar Casey Kasem. His children battled Kasem’s wife so they could be in control of their dad’s care. Country crooner Glen Campbell’s children did the same thing.

The story can go something like this: Dad begins to decline in his senior years, sometimes sooner rather than later. At some point, one of the siblings decides to take it upon themselves to begin checking in on the parent. What may start out as a daily visit to dad turns into three daily visits to dad.

Along the way, the caregiving sibling eventually ends up quitting his or her job. He or she becomes completely dependent on dad … for everything … even for his or her own medications, which the father forgets about and ultimately stops paying for. The sibling develops health problems of all kinds, possibly including psychological problems and/or substance abuse.

Meanwhile, the other sibling knows nothing about the verbal abuse the caregiving sibling is enduring, or the fear of dad falling down the stairs, the countless times the caregiver has to pick dad up off the floor, the mopping up of urine and feces, constantly putting out fires (sometimes literally, in the case of the parent with dementia being a smoker), corralling dad back inside when he begins to go outside to mow the grass at 2 a.m. … the nightmare goes on and on. Later on, the uninvolved sibling may come to know it all was true, but doesn’t want to acknowledge that. He still believes it must have all been his brother’s fault.

Often, the caregiving sibling is not the sibling in charge of the parent’s affairs. So when disaster strikes and the parent ends up in a facility, the uninvolved sibling with power of attorney launches threat after threat after threat at the sibling who already has been beaten down for years by the parent.

The resentment on both ends runs so deep, the battles often become legal. The non-caregiving sibling in charge of affairs feels the other sibling got a “free ride” for years and years. Depending on how much he or she believes the caregiving sibling got out of the deal, the deeper the resentment is.

The sibling who did the caregiving all those years is left shaking his or her head, picking up the pieces of his or her own life. Meanwhile, the caregiving services that he or she provided for so many years for $12 a day, plus free housing for many of those years, now costs dad $150 per day, possibly more.

Diane Carbo is the founder of CaregiverRelief.com. Diane is a registered nurse with almost four decades of experience. She specializes in elder care, including dementia care, as well as making the peace among feuding families.

“Some are told they lived in the house for free and shouldn’t have any of the estate,” Carbo told NBC News for a story about dementia ripping families apart. “Others are taken to court.”

I had my own conversation with Carbo on Friday. I asked her, “Can anything be done to avoid a court battle, even when it’s to the point of police involvement and siblings not speaking?”

She said yes, and it’s called a binding caregiving contract. At some point, the siblings can sit down and decide who is going to do what to maximize the best care for the parent at the lowest cost. It may involve one sibling making regular visits to the nursing home, maybe twice a day, and when emergencies arise (which happens a lot), in exchange for payment or rent-free housing in the parent’s home.

She said the most important thing when placing a loved one in a facility is to make sure they are getting true medical care, and that the family is able to visit the loved one as much as possible. Regardless of where a parent ends up, the way to ensure quality care is to make frequent, surprise visits.

She warned against assisted-living facilities.

“Here’s the problem with assisted living. Family members think they have coverage with all the medical needs, that somebody is going to be there all the time if something happens. That’s not the case,” Carbo told me.

Carbo said stories of injured patients lying in a pool of blood for several hours before being found are not unheard of. Certified nursing assistants sitting in the break room eating Laffy Taffy, fighting amongst one another or screaming at their boyfriend on their cellphone while one or more residents lie sprawled out on the floor — that’s not so unusual either. “People think assisted living is the end all be all, because then a parent doesn’t have to go into an (even more expensive) nursing home,” she said. “What they don’t understand is, it’s the most dangerous type of setting for anybody. It’s a social model, not a medical model. The type of care you’re getting is somebody who works at Burger King giving you your medicine.”

Of course, some places aren’t really that bad. But others are worse.

And the truth is, the same goes with nursing homes. She recalled visiting someone at a nursing home in Philadelphia. When she got to the man’s room, there was no soap, no towels and no wash pan. “The situation was so appalling I called the nursing supervisor. Their comment was that it wasn’t their problem.’”

Looks can be very, very deceiving when it comes to elder facilities, Carbo warned. “I don’t care what the facility looks like. It may have the reputation of being the very best. But unseemly things go on, and it’s not always the best of care.”

Ultimately, sometimes the state steps in and takes control when siblings can’t get along and there is proof of neglect. “Eventually, the nursing home goes after the (patient’s) house, so it’s good to hold on to it as long as possible as opposed to selling it. Once it’s sold, the money is easy to get.”

Coming up: Caregivers in America often die even before the person they’re caring for, statistics show. That’s because they stop taking care of themselves.

(Photo courtesy of Diane Carbo)

 

My Chat with Shawn Achor of Oprah Fame about Happiness, Gratitude and Sobriety

 

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This piece originally was published Aug. 8, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission.

By David Heitz

Oh. My. Gosh. What a terribly stressful week.

I have been so very crabby. So I’m glad I was lucky enough to land an interview recently with Shawn Achor. Shawn is nothing other than the happiness guru to O.

As in Oprah Winfrey! I’d be lying if I did not admit I enjoy speaking with celebs, and to me anyone who has appeared regularly with Oprah is a celeb.

So just as I almost had a complete and total meltdown this week, a few times, actually, including one just about an hour ago, and another a few hours before that, the tide turned once I decided to make it turn. And here I am writing about sobriety and gratitude.

 From the home office in Rock Island, Ill.

Let’s get started with a “Top Five” list. 

  1. I am grateful for getting to interview famous people like Shawn Achor and so many others, and to share what we talked about with others.
  1. I am grateful for my precious 20-year-old cat, LuLu, who is napping on the sofa in my office as I write this. (Editor’s note: Unfortunately, LuLu died last month).
  1. I am grateful for my sobriety. I’m always grateful for that.
  1. I am grateful to be living in the very house I grew up in, which brings tremendous comfort during even the most difficult of times.
  1. I am grateful for the DE-LISH ear of sweet corn I just had, smothered in butter, garlic salt and pepper.

One of Achor’s tips to staying positive, especially at times when it seems so terribly hard, is to list five things that happened in the past 24 hours that you’re thankful for.

Achor was “on the circuit” a couple of weeks back to promote Buick’s “24 Hours of Happiness Test Drive” campaign. When his people reached out to me and asked if I’d like to chat with him, I was very flattered and immediately said yes.

I asked him what tips he has for people struggling to stay sober, who find themselves without their old “friends” or their fix.

“When it comes to addiction and recovery, instead of thinking about what you’re giving up, turn that around,” Achor said. “Instead of letting your whole life become deficit thinking, things you’re not doing anymore, there is real power in seeing things you’re picking up.”

Read more: My interview with Shawn Achor for HIV Equal

For me that has meant more time to spend with my dad. (Editor’s note: My dad died in September 2015). More time to exercise. Above all, more time for my writing, which I love.

And I even am getting to the space of letting go of anger toward people who want to hurt me. I know what those people are going through. I’ve been there, and it’s not pretty.

I’m glad I no longer live in that space. (Update: I’m still angry as hell at those who tried to hurt me, especially a handful of dirty politicians who are just dripping with filth).

Hating yourself is a big downer

I really never was a very positive person before sobriety. Most people who hate themselves aren’t.

But today, even though my dad is dying a horrible death from a dementia-related illness, and even though I still struggle to make ends meet, and even though I don’t speak with hardly any of my relatives, I sometimes have to pinch myself about how good life is. (Update: My dad died well over a year ago, and his estate still is not settled, and the court battle between my brother, myself, and a third party also included in my dad’s will grows uglier and uglier by the week and by the month. I have spent about $5,000 with an attorney just to get what my dad left me in a very simply stated will. But I have a very successful career and no longer struggle to make ends meet).

Acknowledging life is better now that I am sober, even if it is much harder in some ways, really is what keeps me going.

While I’m not a fan of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to becoming a positive person was admitting I was powerless over alcohol.

Once I admitted that, I instantly was freed to envision a better life. My sponsor told me: “David, and I promise you, after one year, your life will be 10 times better.”

I believed him. I envisioned a better life. And today, 15 months later (update: now 30 months later), I have a better life.

I love my work. I have inner peace. I have good health.

That’s not to say I don’t get really stressed out. But with inner peace, I never blame myself for it anymore, because I know I am doing the best I can.

That’s not to say sober life has been easy. But it’s still better. And I’m grateful for that, and I know it will become less difficult over time.

How “I am an alcoholic” truly set me free

It didn’t take long after admitting I was an alcoholic before little signs of a better life began to sprout. Giving up the booze was like putting down top soil from which to sow new possibilities that come with living without drugs and booze.

I always have allowed my work to define me, for better or for worse. Many Americans are that way.

But when I was a drunk, I hardly could be proud of my work. When I was drinking, I didn’t show up for days on end. While my work always passed muster, I knew I wasn’t performing at even one-tenth of my ability.

Self-respect and good health are two things I never had when I was the town drunk. I spent each day feeling horrible about the dumb things I did the day before. So I drank to forget about it. It was an endless cycle.

In November 2010, I quit my job at the local newspaper. For three years, I tried to focus on caring full-time for my dad. But don’t kid yourself. I was drinking too.

But as I saw him decline and realized that he needed my help, I think I had purpose in life that I wasn’t getting from my job at the local newspaper.

Having purpose planted a seed for the sobriety. Suddenly life was about something bigger than myself, as they talk about in AA.

A fresh career start … so why not give up booze, too?

When dad went into a memory-care facility, I had the opportunity to start fresh in terms of my career. I lucked out when an acquaintance hooked me up with a freelance reporting gig for Healthline. Little did I know how much I would enjoy health reporting. I once again began to really feel like I was making a difference with my journalism.

I thought, “If I quit drinking, how much even better could things be?”

I was ready to quit. And after getting hammered and making an ass of myself in front of my neighbors and on social media Memorial Day 2014, I was ready to accept that booze made me do things I was ashamed of and that is was destroying my life, even as it was turning around after years of hopelessness.

So, to AA I went. A week went by without booze. Two weeks.  A month.

I worked hard to change my thinking to the positive from day one. It’s true that if you start each morning with prayer or meditation, or even list just three positive things about the past 24 hours, you can’t help but feel better about the direction your life is headed in.

The support you get from others when you become sober – friends on Facebook, professional contacts – is inspiring. After a while, though, the “attaboys” stop. And since I decided AA wasn’t for me, I don’t get any support “in the rooms,” as they say.

And my old crowd? I left them behind a few months even prior to getting sober and never looked back. Which, of course, is what everyone getting sober needs to do.

But more than a year (now 2 1/2 years) into it, I remain positive even if I operate as an island these days, at least physically. That’s because I have made friends with myself.

 

‘Killer Lesbians’ in PBS Movie Open Up About Trauma, PTSD, Mental Health

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Originally published June 19, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission.

By David Heitz

It was intended to be a fun night on the town for the seven Jersey women of color – an evening in the West Village of New York City.

They enjoyed being around other gay people while visiting the neighborhood of the historic Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of our nation’s gay rights movement. But as the POV documentary “Out in the Night” shows, it ended up being a night filled with harassment, violence and enduring trauma.

The PBS documentary by filmmaker Blair Dorosh-Walther will air Monday, June 22, at 10 p.m. EST on PBS. Check your local listings. The film will stream online for a month thereafter.

In my view, “Out in the Night” illuminates public health hazards that are getting worse every day.

As these women strolled along that summer night in 2007, the last thing they expected was for an older black man to get in their face and talk filthy – especially not in the West Village.

But that’s what happened. When the man first said, “I want that,” tiny Patreese Johnson thought he simply wanted a drink of her friend’s Pepsi. Sitting by a fire hydrant, he looked a little down and out.

Patreese had seen her share of struggle – her brother was caught up in a gang fight when she was 11, shot dead by police at the age of 17, caught in the crossfire.

But when the man pointed at her crotch and said, “I want THAT!” and followed with “D-ke b-tch-s” and “I’ll f— you straight and put my d— in your a—,” they had heard enough.

Renata Hill, another of the women, had been raped by her mom’s husband when she was a child. She wasn’t about to listen to all of that.

Ultimately, the man lunged at the women, struck them, and a fight ensued. In fact, he pulled out Renata’s dreadlocks, leaving her weaves on the concrete and her scalp a bloody mess.

And, ultimately, the women defended themselves. Patreese, who carried a small knife for protection at the plea of her brother Anthony, stabbed him.

Black, Female, Gay: Marginalized to The Edge of The Margins

Black. Female. Gay. Three demographics that in this country have been marginalized for years, all rolled into one. Even in New York City, many people still don’t get it.

“Lesbian Gang-Stab Shocker” screamed one tabloid headline. “Hated by Lez Gang” read another. “Killer Lesbians” yet another.

But the headline that really ticked off filmmaker Dorosh-Walther? “Man is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger” read an inside page of The New York Times.

To borrow a phrase from one of my dearest departed gay friends, the headline blew up her skirt. It wreaked of ignorance, and added insult to injury by appearing in a newspaper of authority such as The New York Times. That’s when Dorosh-Walther knew she wanted to tell these women’s story.

But as a white woman, she wanted to make sure she could tell it right. “You want to make sure you tell the story accurately through the lens of the person or people who experienced it,” she told me.

I spoke with Dorosh-Walther, Patreese, Renata, Venice Brown and Terrain Dandridge (the other two women who went to prison) on a conference call for about 45 minutes. Dorosh-Walther was excited to have the movie reviewed on a health website.

Some of the key takeaways from the film ought to be an understanding of what years of harassment and trauma can do to someone, or to a group of people. It’s also important to remember that being locked up in a penitentiary forever changes a person. Indeed, it leaves many prisoners with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

And then, what happens when the convicted gets out?

“When people are released from prison, they give you a bus pass to get on the bus, or the subway,” Dorosh-Walther said. “They have no support, no family, a one-way ticket … you’re going to put them on public transportation? You’re putting everybody else in jeopardy. This is a public health issue.”

Nuns Take in ‘Damaged Goods’ Ex-Felon

“After going through all of this, and you’re done with your time … you’re damaged goods, and you’re being thrown back into a brand-new world,” explained Renata. “You’re thrown into a cage. You’re separated from those you love and care about. You have no support system. You’re paid a few cents per hour. They control you, belittle you, verbally abuse you, some physically abuse you.”

When Renata was released, she was taken to a shelter in New York City run by Catholic nuns.

“I had to stay in New York, and I’m not from New York. I never went to New York unless it was to go to the village,” she explained. “I had no family support.”

Renata said she was grateful for the transitional housing provided by the nuns, because some people don’t get any housing support at all upon their release. On the other hand, being black and being a lesbian – a lesbian who speaks earlier in the film about wearing a dildo when she goes out into the Village – it’s not difficult to understand the discomfort she felt.

“Simple things, like going to the corner store … I couldn’t do that,” Renata said. “In some ways, I still felt stuck in the same place. I had to go to parole. I had to enlist in a drug program, even though I never did drugs. I had to pee in a cup while they watched me.”

When asked how she got past feelings of anger and self-pity that must have been going through her mind, not only in prison but afterward, too, Renata’s answer was simple: “What kept me going was knowing I had to get my son back.”

Renata missed several years of her young son’s life while she was a locked-up single mother. When she was released, she learned she had lost custody of T.J., who had been put into the hands of the state of New Jersey.

“I had to look for a job, and when I looked for a job with a felony … I never even was given a chance to explain my situation,” Renata said. “When you get out of prison, where is the help? Where is the toolbox?”

A Frightening Experience for a Femme

“In prison, you have to develop a certain type of thinking to survive,” Patreese said.

“Everything there works different.”

Tiny, femme and poetic, Patreese served more time than any of the women – almost eight years. She looks about as threatening as a church mouse, and she readily admits that being in prison messed with her head.

“I said, ‘Am I going to take these meds?’ Some of these people deserve to be in a mental health hospital,” Patreese recalled of being medicated in the prison. “But as I found out, they were giving the meds to me anyway, and I didn’t know it. They gave them to me because I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to talk to somebody. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should take the meds just to get through day to day.’”

Almost two years after her release, she still struggles to put the pieces of her life back together. “Our mental health should be a priority when we get out. It’s really hard when you’re trying to transition back to society. When I’m lost, I’m even scared to ask for directions. There are no resources for us.”

Dorosh-Walther agreed. “This is a public-health issue. Mental health is something we’ve never put enough resources into. Mental health, far down the line after release, is a lasting issue.”

When Patreese and the others were convicted, one headline read, “Guilty Gal Gang Weepy Women,” while another proclaimed, “Lesbian Wolf Pack Guilty.”

How to get Past Injustice? Baby Steps

“When you come out, you come out with ‘Institutionalized thinking,’” Patreese said. “It’s something similar to PTSD. You end up getting changed by the system.”

The fact that people in that condition often end up being sent out the door with no support network at all is “absurd,” Dorosh-Walther said. “If there is nothing to transition you to live in the outside world … or only a tiny fraction of services … how are you even supposed to get housing?”

As a journalist, I often get caught up whenever I see injustice.

How do you get past it, I asked the women again and again?

Finally, Dorosh-Walther answered for them.

“You don’t really have time to comprehend the injustice and the pain,” she said. “There are hoops to jump through over and over and over again. You’re court-ordered to a shelter, for example. They are not going to make anything easy. It’s just piled on, piled on and piled on, and at some level you’re in survival mode and you’ve got to keep moving forward.”

The women said being able to tell their story via the film has helped them heal a great deal.

“It’s baby steps,” Terrain said. “There are moments it feels good, like we can celebrate. Other moments, we’re still struggling.”

Not ‘A List’ yet, but two years (now almost four) without cigarettes feels awesome

 

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This was published Feb. 11, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission. (Editor’s note: Feb. 15, 2017 marks four years since I’ve had a cigarette).

By David Heitz

You could find me there every night, at the corner of 69th and Mary streets. Beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. On the weekends, sometimes you could find me there 12 hours a day, “pulling double shifts,” as I used to tell the bar owner.

Definitely NOT the corner of happy and healthy, at least not for me.

Today marks two years since I gave up cigarettes. The day after Memorial Day I’ll celebrate a year without alcohol.

It was tough finding a picture of me with a cigarette. I usually wouldn’t allow pictures of me smoking. I found this pic that a friend posted on Facebook in 2010 after Iowa’s no-smoking law went into effect.

Actually, I sort of like the picture. I do look happy, and I certainly had lots of great times at the bar where I used to hang out. But changing your life really does have to be all about changing faces and places sometimes, even if it means leaving behind the good memories as well as the bad.

Immediate disclosure: I still have a few vices, not the least of which is Willy Wonka candy. I’m sharing my story not to sound like Mary Poppins, but to relay how disgusted I became with myself. My sort of “rock bottom,” I guess.

The truth is, I gave up smoking because I always considered it “low class.” That’s right. It sounds horrible and arrogant, it makes me sound elitist and awful, but even as a child, I seemed to notice that people who smoked always had so many other darned problems.

It may be boiling it down to an extremely superficial level, and maybe there’s not always causation between a person’s problems and their smoking habit, but to a casual observer there certainly does appear to be correlation many times.

Do teenagers still say “smoking is for losers?”

When my generation was younger, we called the kids who smoked in high school “burnouts” or “lunch loggers,” because at my school they sat on a giant log adjacent to the student parking lot and puffed away during lunch.

At what point did it become OK for so many of us who should know better to smoke?

I say this even though my parents BOTH smoked. And they both had lots of problems, health-related and otherwise.

So I am just going to put out there that at a young age I noticed the happier, and, indeed, more successful people in life, seemed to be non-smokers. Of course, this was in the 1970s, when LOTS of people smoked. All I knew was that I associated cigarettes with “people with problems,” and non-smokers with success and happiness, and I wanted to be one of the happy and successful people.

And so I was a complete and, at times, very nasty, anti-cigarette snob all the way up until moving to Los Angeles. Then I added cigarettes to my beer. Then I began doing hard drugs, which can turn even a non-smoker into a pack-a-day person. Easily.

And I’ll skip all of the juicy stuff that happened in between, but two years ago I found myself fat, hung over, crying and depressed, wondering if life was even worth living, lying in the basement of the house I grew up in. I had moved back to Illinois in 2002 to escape a crystal meth addiction and to help take care of dad. While I was happy I had survived the meth and felt lucky to be alive, I hadn’t been living much of a life since the day I moved back.

In theory, I was taking care of my dad. But I wasn’t qualified for that job either, and after a hard day at the office, I’d spend a hard night at the tavern. Eventually I quit my job.

What a horrible mess my life had become.

I don’t advocate for any sort of religion, but the higher power thing has indeed brought some peace into my life. On that day that I woke up hung over, depressed, in the basement of the house I grew up in, I prayed to God for change, any kind of change. Something just had to change.

Because, man, did I have a lot of problems!

So I decided my part of the deal would be to stop smoking. That would be my first change. That’s the deal I made with God.

After all, how anyone could continue to smoke when we all know about how bad it is for you is…well…not congruent with being a smart person, which of course for years I have associated with happiness and success. So I knew that in terms of getting off the wrong path, I might want to start with giving up the deplorable cigarettes.

Things in my life did begin to change when I gave up cigarettes. Maybe it was just because I finally had at least some sense of self-worth after years of feeling like a louse. I was able to make decisions and stand up for myself, perhaps. I found that I believed in myself much more, and that my confidence really escalated very quickly the longer I went without a cigarette.

Honestly, it hasn’t even been too difficult giving up smoking. But it was harder for me to quit smoking than to quit drinking. Even when you know smoking is terrible and gross, the nicotine craving still nudges at you sometimes. Booze, on the other hand, almost never enters my consciousness anymore, even after only 9 months without it.

In the madness of giving up booze and cigarettes, somehow 70 pounds fell off during that two-year period, too. But 30 of them have come back on. With every challenge I face each day, I try a new approach to solving it. I’m doing everything in life differently. Something as simple as not answering the phone when I don’t want to, or not responding to an unpleasant email in a knee-jerk way…I’m getting so much more done by slowing down and doing less. Anything to keep the anxiety low.

People ask what the key has been to turning my life around in terms of getting rid of booze and cigarettes and losing weight. My advice is to just shake everything up, change every routine possible, find new, healthier addictions if you have to.

My new addiction is social media. Zuckerberg gets my money now, because I have turned my professional Facebook page, David Heitz Health, into a little hobby.

But it’s better than spending my dough on beer and cigarettes. And it certainly keeps me social in a place where it’s a lot easier to be me than a tavern.

I probably will be called “arrogant,” grand” and every other name in the book for this. But that’s OK. Maybe my story will ring true even with one other person and convince them to give up the poo-poo sticks, whatever their reason may be. Because there are a million of them.