On Running To and From Dismal.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the strong urge to leave town. It had been a rough summer, and it was the week before the first anniversary of my Dad’s death, and all the blech and sadness and ick was making me quite dismal. I haven’t felt like writing, photographing, staging roadkill, or even running – and it’s not good when I don’t have something I feel like doing.

I don’t like to be dismal. I cannot sit in dismalness. I have to escape dismal.

Chris’ work schedule has been hectic for a few months, so I knew he couldn’t join me in this particular juncture for my need of escapism, but he’s always supportive of me, or me and the kids, taking adventures. We had just started school, so I couldn’t leave my students behind. And I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to do escapism with one-on-two-parenting. So I needed a Daddy Fill-In. My friend Kelly is always up for adventure (she has been fully auditioned, audited, and approved as one of the World’s Best Last Minute Adventure Friends), so even though she was literally in the airport returning from being gone for a week, I texted her and told her I needed to escape and could she please come along as my second adult, and without hesitation she agreed.

Hence why she is the WBLMAF.

I keep a list of places in Alabama that I want to visit when I have the chance, so I perused the list and chose one.

Ironically.

I swear I didn’t even think about the name of the place in regards to what I was escaping until I sat down to write this blog post…

I chose Dismals Canyon.

…Because I guess my subconscious thought there’s nowhere like Dismals Canyon to get away from some serious dismalness.

I didn’t really know much about Dismals Canyon, except that they had really cool moss-covered rock walls and some sort of glowing worm that is very rare and only in a couple places on earth.

They have two cabins for rent, but the park is only open on the weekends. I got kind of confused, so I called to get clarification: if you’re staying at the cabins, you have full access to the canyon, even though the park is closed – and no one was renting the other cabin, so we would have the entire park to ourselves if we came.

That sounded like what I was looking for.

So I rented the cabin for two nights, and told them I might like it for a third but I didn’t know yet. We packed our schoolbooks, our food, our Kelly, and headed for northwest Alabama.

It was quite in the middle of nowhere, and we’d already been told that there was no cell phone service (except for one spot with one bar of coverage in the parking lot that’s about two-tenths of a mile uphill from the cabins), so I wasn’t sure exactly how it would *feel* to be completely alone at this place.

When we arrived, we quickly discovered that we’d be…quite safe.

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We were considerably sure that when we were granted entrance, we would definitely be entering Hogwarts or Narnia or maybe The Gate of Mordor.

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We met the worker who let us in at 4pm, check-in time. She explained to us that we couldn’t go into the canyon that day – we’d have to wait until tomorrow.

“But why? I made sure that we had access to the canyon and trails if we stayed in the cabin…”

“Well yes, but the Canyon is a two hour hike and we don’t let anyone down after 4pm because it gets dark down there early and we don’t want you to get lost or not be able to get out of the canyon before nightfall.”

Okay…

Instead, we explored the creek that was below our cabin, which we presumed led to the canyon but we didn’t dare go that far to find out. Though Kelly and I are rule-breakers at heart (Although Ali and Noah are decidedly rule-loyalists to their core), but we didn’t want to get kicked out the first day there. And anyway, the creek had an eeriness all on its own…we could imagine that we were already on our grand adventure.

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Meanwhile, Noah discovered a giant fluffy friendly cat. He came running and squealing “Mom!! This place is the BEST EVER!!! It COMES with PETS!!!”

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He named her Dismal Cat and was completely in love. She was on the other cabin’s porch, however, and he really wanted her on our porch.

So I said, “Well, pick her up and take her over to our cabin, then.”

His eyes got wide. “I can PICK HER UP??”

Poor kid hasn’t had enough experience with pets.

But pick her up he did, despite her significant girth.

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She was quite content to go limp in his arms and let him tote her around like a reusable grocery bag (filled with bricks) to wherever his heart desired.

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Dismal Cat, whom we later learned was named Tick (to go along with the other cat, named Flea,) was absolutely Noah’s favorite part of the trip. And I think he was her favorite, too, for the first 24 hours. Then she might have needed more alone time.

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The next morning bright and early, we set off on our two hour hike of the Canyon. We were ready to get our adventure on.

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The day before. as part of their on-trip school assignments, I made the kids study the map and read all the history about each area, so they were ready to see this stuff in person.

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Noah was most thrilled about an area not on the map, for obvious reasons.

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Alas, no snakes were seen. But plenty of gorgeous Leopard Frogs were annoyed at our mid-week disturbance of their quiet time. You could nearly hear the intonation in their croaks… “Ugh. There are CABIN RENTERS this week, Karen.”

The Canyon floor was pretty spectacular. There were multiple extremely tight squeezes,

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Leaning walls looking ready to attack,

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Upper and Lower paths,

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Delightful bridges into dark caverns,

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Waterfalls,

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And some really fun historical spots (did you know that Aaron Burr, a sitting Vice President, was caught in Alabama after he became a fugitive for killing Alexander Hamilton in their duel? Although they later discovered this wasn’t actually his hideout, but another criminal with a similar name, my kids, who have recently fallen in love with the soundtrack to Hamilton, were pretty excited to hide out in Burr’s Hideout anyway.)

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There were, of course, plenty of the promised paths through green mossy rocks.

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We did indeed take two hours on our first canyon visit, but that included a lot of stops, significant exploration, the checking out of every meandering path, and in general taking our time in this glorious natural wonder.

After we got back out of the canyon, Ali, Kelly, and I put on our swimsuits to check out the swimming hole at the top of the waterfall. Despite the temperature being the mid-90s, the swimming hole was extraordinarily cold (I believe it is spring-fed), yet quite refreshing. I definitely screamed when I finally got the courage to jump all the way in.

Noah, not one to be pushed into anything by anyone, was sitting onshore watching. I never even asked him if he wanted to swim because he’s Noah and if was going to, he was going to have to be the decider, not me.

Shockingly, he decided he did indeed want to swim, so he walked all the way back to the cabin, put on his swimsuit, and came back.

His high-pitched never-ending squeal when the water hit the midsection of his shorts was a high point of the trip.

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He was so “touched” by the frigidity that his sister got her first brotherly hug in at least a year – all in an attempt to steal a degree or two of her heat.

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But he braved up and swam across the swimming hole to the diving platform, where he was happy to grumpily watch his sister jump in with all the glee that her heart could conjure.

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After cooling down in the icy water, Kelly and I were discussing our puzzlement over the supposed perilousness of the two hour hike of the canyon floor and its strict closing time. The path was very clearly marked, never difficult (other than some tight squeezes), and seemed less than a mile and a half.

So because we’re cynical rebels, we decided that we needed to know how quickly we could run the entire canyon. So we put on our trail shoes and took off – still in our wet swimsuits – with a stopwatch timing us from the top of the stairs.

Fourteen minutes and fifteen seconds later, we were back.

We could not have been more victorious and prideful in our achievements. We were CERTAIN we’d just set a new Canyon Record. The kids were pretty impressed, too. So impressed that when the store clerk came by to do some paperwork and Noah begged her to let him in the gift shop because he was just DYING to spend some money, he bragged to her about our record-setting canyon time.

Oops.

For that confidentiality overstep (and actually because I value the safety of our family), I did not let Noah buy the Cobra-headed walking stick that’s actually a sword in disguise that he really really wanted.

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At 0ur times in the cabin, we dug out a 500 piece puzzle from the games shelf and set to work.

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I found the escape from my phone and the ability to delve into things like puzzles without beeps or nudges (or internal nudges) to check the outside world was FABULOUS. I mean, we finished a 500 piece puzzle in two days (except for the ONE PIECE THAT WAS MISSING and the one piece that appeared to be chewed up by a former house guest.) I began pondering strategies for taking more breaks from the digital world that so easily fills all the cracks of my life.

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We did do the night tour of the Dismalites, as the glow worms are called, and it was uniquely interesting. The Dismalites, though neat to see, were not bright enough for photography. I was loaded down with camera equipment and UV flashlights and regular flashlights, but ended up not taking any pictures except for this glowing Scorpion (did you know that scorpions glow under UV light? I’m constantly shocked at how many there are in Alabama, yet I’ve never seen a single one without my UV flashlight.)

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The kids both wanted to stay, and we were all having a wonderful escape from reality, so I booked the extra night. Seeing as how we had the entire place to ourselves, it was no problem at all.

A small storm came the next day, which did have the effect of ramping up the waterfalls to the canyon nicely.

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We enjoyed several more adventures down into the canyon, exploring all the quirky walkways and bridges.

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And Kelly and I made sure that we gave the canyon a full introduction to trail runners, which we were pretty sure was its first.

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None of us were ready to leave when the time came, which left us feeling rather, well, dismal.

Because you can only run from dismal to Dismal for so long.

On The Consideration of Being a Pet Owner.

You know how kids go through that stubborn phase where they will absolutely not try anything you want them to, for no other reason than because you want them to?

“Seriously, son. You will LOVE this dessert, made with all the things you love – chocolate, marshmallows, graham crackers, and more chocolate.”

“NO. I WILL NOT TRY IT.”

Whatever kid. I’m not going to shove sugar down your throat. 

And then, a month later, completely out of the blue and in no way related to any recent opportunities, the kid says “You know what I’d really love right now? A s’more. Mom when can we get s’mores? Can we have a s’more now? Hey do you think you could go to the store and get the ingredients for s’mores? I’m super craving a s’more.”

And you’re all like WHAT THE WHAT YOU ILLOGICAL BEING I TRIED TO OFFER YOU ONE OF THOSE A MONTH AGO AND YOU ACTED LIKE I WAS GIVING YOU MONKEY BRAINS SERVED ON AN ARMADILLO HALF SHELL.

That’s exactly how it went down with Noah, and I, and snakes.

I guess most of you don’t revere snakes on the level with s’mores, but we all know that I do. I’ve long held a great fascination and bordering-on-obsession with the species. And last year, we found snakes on almost every hike we went on – it was The Year of The Snake. Multiple times I was able to identify the snakes with 100% certainty so that I could pick them up and hold them, and I let the other children we hiked with hold them as well, and in some cases experience the delight of allowing said snake to wrap around their arm (all while I kept tight hold on the head.)

But my kids? No way. They wanted to have nothing to do with it. They didn’t scream and run away but they were NOT going to be touching, observing closely, or  experiencing a snake’s immensely cuddly qualities.

Fast forward a year. We haven’t seen hardly any snakes on hikes. And so it makes perfect sense that this year, Noah would decide, entirely unprovoked and without any experience whatsoever, that he
a.) Loved snakes,
b.) Desperately wanted to hold a snake (and regularly got irritable when I couldn’t locate said snake on a hike,) and
c.) Wanted his very own pet snake. AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

WHAT. THE. WHAT.

Why do children have to be so freaking weird.

But because of my own personal love for snakes, my enthusiasm over having someone to share my feelings with trumped my frustration and his craptasmic timing.

So we began by visiting our local quirky pet shop that specializes in reptiles, the only place in Birmingham where you can walk in without an appointment or a plan and end up with a large snake wrapped around your neck in ten minute’s time.

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When we arrived, the rickety screen door was open, and sitting a foot from the entryway was a teenage girl with a very obese skink on her shoulder. A giant tortoise was free-roaming one room over – the room that held the collectible toys. Yes, this was where we wanted to be.

We were there for an hour. In that hour, Noah held four different snakes, was fully educated on all sorts of things about pet snakes and snakes in the wild, and fell head over heels. As I watched his eyes, I saw them gain an amount of LoveLight that I’d never witnessed before in my son.

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A week later, after Noah having talked about his experience incessantly for said week, we took Chris back with us. This was the kind of decision that needed to be Father-Approved WAY in advance. Because I love snakes. Noah loves snakes. Ali likes snakes enough to say that she’s fine with Noah having one as a pet as long as it doesn’t keep her friends from wanting to come over. But what about Chris? He’s never really been on the snakey bandwagon. One could only hope that our obsession somehow softened the scaly blow for him.

We started out by asking to see The Big Snake – we’d heard of it on our last visit, but his cage was being cleaned on our last visit, so we couldn’t lay eyes on him.

As an aside, my own obsession with snakes started 21 years ago with a massive snake – a snake as big around as a large child. I met this snake when I was in Cyprus. He was in a rickety cage with a screen door latch and a crack in the opening. The whole thing looked like he could huff and puff and blow it right over any old time he wanted to. The thrill of seeing such a magnificent, gigantic creature so close to me and so able to squeeze me to death was oddly addictive. Perhaps I’m a Reptile-Specific Adrenaline Junkie.

So walking into a closet in Birmingham with no lightbulb (“The snake got in a fit and knocked the lights out the other day”) to see a snake the width of a telephone pole was right up my alley. We turned on our cell phone flashlights to see the cage at the back of the closet – or rather, the cage that was the entire back wall of the closet. Sure enough, he was delightfully huge. When inquired as to what he ate, they said “Oh, you know. Rabbits or Gerbils.”

…which explained the small furry animal section in the back of the pet shop. What a brilliant recycling program.

Then we went to the baby Ball Pythons, which is the kind that Noah wants. The employee handing him to Noah said that this particular snake was the only one that hadn’t eaten that day, so don’t worry if he was a little nippy.

(Noah: “I wanna be bitten by a snake!!”)

(Seriously. What happened to my son.)

As we held him, I inquired as to how many snakes the salesman personally owned.

“Oh I have 53 in my bedroom alone.”

“Umm…exactly why does one need 53 snakes in ones bedroom??”

“Because I’m working up to having 3,000. Because then I’ll have enough to breed them and make $150,000-200,000 a year. That’s what I’m going to do when I retire from here.”

I was then distracted entirely by the practicalities and the math involved here…

3,000 snakes means 3,000 mice a week. Except that he told Noah when you’re raising breeding snakes, you feed them every 5 days. So that’s 3,000 mice every five days. How do you keep up with who has had their mouse? Don’t you spend all day every day putting mice in tanks? And how do you possibly get that many mice? Is there a bulk mouse superstore somewhere that I don’t know about? Does CostCo have a Mouse Room in the back? Or is a mouse delivery service? Can you get 3,000 mice via Prime Shipping? That would be a fun overturned truck to see.

Now.

As for the explanation as to why one would do so well breeding Ball Pythons….

Ball Pythons are really popular right now – the most popular pet snake. They’re docile, they’re easy, they don’t grow too big (2-5 feet at full size), and breeders are creating some really wild and wacky colored and patterned Ball Pythons by breeding them with albinos and playing with genetic mutations. While a plain old Ball Python can be $50, a Morph can be $6,000 or more.

If you want to see all these bizarre creatures (there are ones that look like rotten bananas, ones that look like orange sherbet, ones that look like calico cats…), I recommend browsing the Morph Market. Careful – it might take the rest of your evening. They are FASCINATING. (At least to me.)

The thing is, though, I just have a bad feeling about the market for Ball Python morphs. What if it tanks like the Beanie Baby market? What do you do with 3,000 Ball Pythons in your bedroom alone at that point? I mean sure, it really makes for an interesting bullet point on your online dating profile, but…

Back to The Pet Shop.

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We moved on to a “teenage” Ball Python, to experience how they feel once they’re nearly full-size. This was the one I insisted Chris get his feet wet with. And I don’t mean by peeing on them in complete fear, but he might have come close.

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Actually he handled it all very well and said he was open with having such a creature live in our house.

Finally, Noah really wanted to hold the larger Python he’d held last time – one that gets bigger than his Ball Python ever would. 

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The first thing the snake did was wrap around Noah’s neck and give it a little love squeeze. Noah’s reaction – one of a calm statement – “Ouch. He’s squeezing my neck.” and quiet “yeah.” when I asked if he wanted him moved – sealed the deal for me. This kid was ready for ownership.

He doesn’t have one yet – we’re making him wait until a little closer to his birthday to make sure the obsession sticks. But we’ve pretty much decided. Even though we’re a staunch no-pet family, snakes are easier than fish. You only have to feed them once a week (which we’ve practice with Not-Crazy-Renee’s snake), and if you leave home for vacation, you just leave them and they’re perfectly happy to be left alone to digest last week’s mouse. They don’t shed (except for their skin, that is), they don’t pee on furniture, you don’t have to let them outside, and they cuddle really well.

But for now, it seems like True Love.


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Ali just needs reassurance that it won’t keep her friends away.

The Definition of Mild Soreness.

“You might feel some mild soreness for the rest of the day. Resume your normal activities tomorrow.”

That’s what I was told on Wednesday, after having my Endoscopy with multiple biopsies and double dilation of my throat. Before the procedure, I wasn’t told anything – I just assumed that surely such a procedure would make me sore and planned accordingly for “mild soreness.”

I did not, however, plan for such extreme throat and chest pain as to leave me speechless, breathless, and trying all the old labor positions to find some relief for pain.

(Note: I’ve had a tonsillectomy,  well known as the most painful surgery for an adult on the planet, and found it to be not as bad as I’d been told. So when I say this pain was bad, know I’m saying it was worse than my tonsillectomy and bordering on Noah’s adventurous labor and delivery.)

Apparently they left an extra special amount of air in my stomach, air that they were supposed to suck out when they finished the procedure. Somebody forgot to suck on that straw. So I had an intensely bursting chest full of air – that pain was a 9.

And then there was my throat, which felt like it had been ravaged by killer wasps, and was burning and swollen beyond belief – to the point that I could not swallow my own spit, let alone water or medicine. I did attempt to swallow half a lortab, but it got stuck in my throat and just had to dissolve there.

Furthermore, due to the extreme swelling and narrowing of my throat (ironic since I had this procedure because my throat was too narrow and I choked a lot), the air trapped in my chest could not find any way out. I could feel giant painful bubbles make their way up, knock heavily on the door, then turn around and go back down, elbowing and grumbling as they reversed course. Every time I felt one of those bubbles approaching the doorbell, I braced myself for the worst pain of all.

So here I was, for hours, a spit spitting, doubled over, full of unwanted air, in horrific pain mess of a human.

I texted Chris at 12:30 and told him of my extreme pain (he’d dropped me off at home after the procedure and had gone to work, as I was only supposed to experience a little discomfort.) I told him I couldn’t talk to call the doctor. I needed him to do it.

He called, he left a message. He got irate and called again, then left another message. He got more irate and called and pressed all the buttons until he got the wrong human, explained my emergency situation to her, and she promised to contact the right human for him and tell her to call. Three hours in, no one had called back and he was sure his wife was dying.

So he called back, got the wrong human again, and said “I’m bringing my wife back right now.” 

“Um, hold on sir. Let me see if I can get Right Human on the phone.”

She found Right Human.

Right Human told him in no uncertain terms that you can’t go back. If you have a problem, go to the ER. Once you leave the Endoscopy center, you are dead to them. (Which was nearly true in my case.)

So my steamingly furious husband came and got me and took me to the ER.

We got to the waiting room, noting the four police cars surrounding it (comforting), and entered into a quiet place of moroseness.

One lady was holding her chest to make sure the front desk realized she was having chest pains.

Another woman had a big nasty looking bandage covering up part of her leg, but not the entirety of the purple swelling.

They shortly wheeled a wheelchair from the back with a hoarsely, phlegmily, and continuously hacking woman in it – and parked it directly across from me.

The Chest Pain woman’s husband inquired as to how long it would be.

“Well, they have an emergency back there, so it may be a while.”

The entire room murmured at the same time… “Of course they do because this is the…emergency room.”

An officer came through the door. His hat said SBI – assumably State Bureau of Investigation. He had a gun on his hip and rubber gloves and an empty paper sack in his hands. She nodded him back.

I whispered to Chris between air bubbles, “What do you think he’s going to put in the sack??”

“A gun? A hand? Lunch?”

They came to get Chest Pains lady. She tried to stand up.

“Do you need a wheelchair?”

“Well yes, I’ve been having chest pains for two hours.”

“Oh. Hmm. I’m not sure if we have one available.”

Phlegmy lady offered, “You can have mine, honey.”

She hacked a few more times and removed herself to the chair six inches away from me. I wouldn’t have sat in her wheelchair without a thorough Lysol dousing, but Chest Pains Lady must have been desperate because she gladly plopped in her sweet new ride, a late model Germ10x 4WD. I could feel the phlegm definitely reaching my airspace now.

Chris whispered, “I’m sorry. I know this is miserable. But it was our only option.”

They called me back to triage. Asked me what was going on. I explained that I couldn’t even swallow my own spit. The observant nurse chuckled and said “Sounds like exactly what you went in to get help for.” 

Pithy.

We walked down the hallway. SBI Guy was headed back our way – except that now, his sack was decidedly not empty. The room on the end of the hall was being guarded by three policemen. But I was still processing what all could be housed inside that paper sack.

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At least it wasn’t dripping. 

They put me in a room. I got all the usual visits. Questions. Repeating of my information to half a dozen people. Finally, their biggest shot of morphine mixed with Zofran, because morphine and I don’t get along. Then a CT scan to make sure I hadn’t had a perforation that allowed air into my chest cavity. They wheeled me and my gurney out of the scan room, down a hallway, and into a dark, abandoned hallway and put on the brakes. 

“They’ll come back and get you when they’re ready for you.”

I hope the police are guarding that doorway well. 

The morphine was really starting to kick in and the room definitely had an eerie horror movie glow. The lights were surely flickering. I expected the paper bag to come tip-toeing toward me at any minute, a dismembered thumb looking for its body.

A few minutes and/or a morphine nightmare nap later, someone was asking me, “Do you belong in the ER?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll get you back to your room.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t the murdurous criminal posing as a nurse. 

Epilogue:

…I didn’t have a perforation. I stayed in significant pain for the next 72 hours. My doctor said that my throat was the narrowest ever, and was narrow all the way down (the pain taught me how long esophoguses actually are), so he’d had to use some heavy duty tools on me. (Read: It’s all my fault. #ThroatShaming) 

…My diagnosis is EoE, an allergic sensitivity that creates a rigid and constantly narrowing throat due to food allergies that I didn’t know I have. So now I get to do food allergy testing and eliminate all the things from my diet. 

…After I finally quit hurting, I of course got an infection from all the medications he put me on post-procedure. Ironically, as that happened on Sunday, I called the office, got the after-hours answering service, and they guaranteed me a callback from a *doctor* within 20 minutes. If only Wednesday’s issues had been after hours, they might have actually called us back.

…It is now Monday, 6 days post-procedure, and I am starting to feel nearly normal. Which means it’s time to get my back pricked with 80 allergens to see what my problem is.

…And finally, somebody always asks if they should or says they feel guilty for doing so, so let me clarify: if there is anything humorously worthwhile in this post, please laugh. It makes it have some value, and makes me happy.