Once a Passive Passenger

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| This is the 421st story of Our Life Logs |


I had made a huge mistake. I knew it as I felt the Clonazepam taking effect. I was becoming tired, confused, and weak. I shouldn’t have taken all those pills, I didn’t want to die. I needed to get to a phone to call 911, but it was so hard to move. The world was swimming and unreal. I worked my way to the phone. I needed to call 911. Had I already thought that? If so, when? 30 seconds ago? Five minutes? 1,000 years? Time felt strange. I made it to the phone. Help was on its way, but for me, the next three days would be a blurry misremembered haze.

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My twin brother and I were born on December 12, 1975 in Detroit when I was still strong. I had two older brothers and we made five when my younger brother was born. Growing up, our mother was our rock as our father was an inconsistent presence in our life. She was hardworking, always there with love, guidance, and a firm hand. He was mercurial, a good enough father when sober and mostly absent when not, and he was rarely sober.

As the 1980s dawned and we grew older, crack began to spread throughout the nation, and with it came gangs. We did our best to avoid it all, finding refuge in sports. I loved playing football and basketball and dreamed of playing in college. Unfortunately, that dream didn’t happen, and after high school, I found myself working for Ford and going to school to study acting.

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Late in 2000, something began to go wrong with my body. I started to feel nauseous all the time and began to lose weight. At first, I figured it was no big deal and it would pass on its own. But over time I started to feel pain and discomfort along with the nausea and weight loss. Then in July 2001, I got out of bed and crumpled to the floor from the pain in my guts. It felt like a character in the movie Alien—like there was something writhing in my intestines trying to burst its way out. I found myself in the hospital unsure of all the tests they were running and worried about what it all meant.

I had never heard of ulcerative colitis, it sounded like a made-up disease from a movie: Doctor walks into the patient’s room, looks at his chart and says gravely, “It’s ulcerative colitis, you only have three months to live…I’m sorry.” Instead, it was abdominal pain and diarrhea, inflammation, and ulcers. They began to treat me, but they might as well have been giving me Skittles instead because it wasn’t having any effect. I went home from the hospital, they told me everything would be fine, but they had no real solutions.

As time went on, the new tides of my disease began to crash ashore, obliterating the sand castles of my life. When I first got sick, I had been in school, but I had to drop out because each time my colitis flared up, I would be bedridden and useless. I saw my life falling apart, and that brought with it a shroud of dark depression. With the medicine not working and the darkness filling my head, I found my own medication: alcohol.

Like my father before me, I had already had a bit of a problem with drinking. I first began drinking when I was 13. Over time, it became my favorite activity. My grades suffered and it became a fight to remain eligible to play the sports I loved, the sports I thought might be my road to a different life. I had a choice—I could quit drinking, get my grades right, and continue to play the sports I loved and chase my dreams; or, I could keep drinking, quit playing sports, and do just enough to graduate. The bottle won.

But by the time my ulcerative colitis began to be a problem, alcohol wasn’t a problem for me. I still drank, probably too much at times like a lot of young people, but it wasn’t affecting my life. Once I got sick, I wasn’t so sure. It was easy to make excuses for my own bad behavior. I’m sick, this helps me feel better. I’m a budding stand-up comic, of course I spend time in clubs, and since I’m there, I’m going to have a drink or two. No big deal. But it was, I was an alcoholic.

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By 2005, my life had been out of my control and I felt I needed a big, desperate act to regain the reigns. Where is the best place to make it big as an actor or standup comic? Michigan? Or California? So, in April 2005, a friend of mine and I moved to San Bernardino.

After a while, we went our separate ways, and in 2008, I made my way to Los Angeles to really try and make it. And for a while, I seemed to be doing it. I got an agent, I was going on auditions, I even booked a Car Max ad that never aired. I continued to work on stand up as well, honing my set, and there is no better place to do that than LA. Everything was great, but then ulcerative colitis reared its ugly head like the killer in a slasher film that refuses to stay dead.

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At an award night gala, 2013.

One of the worst things about ulcerative colitis is that there is no rhythm to it. It flares up and then goes into hibernation. But there is no timing to how long a flare-up will last or how much time you’ll get in between flare-ups. This time, it flared frequently and ferociously. As the pain and discomfort started to set in, there wasn’t much I could do beyond just struggle to exist. I began missing auditions. My agent called me and asked if I was on drugs. I tried to explain, and he tried to understand. But in the end, no one seemed to understand—not my agent who just moved on, not the doctors who couldn’t seem to help and did the same treatments over and over again with the same shitty results.

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By 2015, I was struggling to even hold down a job and keep a roof over my head. There were a few times I had to live out of my car. So, I found myself living in a spare room at a sober living house that a friend of mine had placed me in, just to have somewhere to stay. That’s when I met a woman. I’ll call her Destiny. Destiny had been a crack addict but was clean now. We hit it off, eventually finding an apartment together. Then she got some money from a settlement of some sort, like $16,000 or something. I was never sure. Wherever the money came from, she immediately ran out to spend it on making her wildest dreams come true. Unfortunately for me, her wildest dreams involved a lot of crack—like, all of it. Once she’d blown through the money, she began stealing and anything I brought into the apartment would immediately get snatched once my back was turned.

By August of 2015, I couldn’t take it anymore. My disease was getting worse and worse, and there was nothing doctors seemed to be able to do. My career and dreams were in shambles and I was stuck working whatever job I could just to get by.

Now the one good thing in my life that had been the buoy to cling to in a sea of despair became the thing that finally drug me beneath the waves. I found a bottle of Clonazepam and began taking as many as I could, forcing them down until I couldn’t swallow anymore. It wasn’t planned. I didn’t sit there and arrive at the decision to kill myself rationally. It was impulse; it was 16 years of shit breaking through a dam and engulfing me all at once. There just seemed to be no hope for a better life, no reason to think things would ever change, and no reason to keep trying. As soon as I paused, staring at the now empty bottle, I knew I’d made a mistake. I just had to hope it wasn’t too late.

I ended up in the hospital with a 72-hour hold for psychiatric evaluation. I knew right away I didn’t belong there. The people there had real issues, not a passing moment of weakness and despair, some were even violent. I knew once I got out, I was going to start making changes in my life. I was going to seek help because I didn’t want my life to be over; I just wanted it to be better.

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Me, 2015.

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After I was released from the hospital, I found a therapist I could start seeing. They helped retrain my mind, my way of thinking, and they helped me to start moving my life in a positive direction. And to help get in that direction, I decided to move back to Michigan not long after my girlfriend Destiny decided to move to Arizona with her mom. I had moved west to chase my dreams, but this time I decided to move back to Michigan to chase my life.

Once back in Michigan I began proactively working to improve not just my mental health, but also my physical health. I finally, after more than 15 years, got doctors to understand that the treatments they gave me weren’t helping. They began doing more tests and came back with a new result, Crohn’s disease. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are very similar and just from symptoms it can be hard to tell them apart, but they are treated very differently.

At first, I thought it was another dead end, more doctors giving me junk that does nothing to actually help me feel better or function. But then, the medicine started to take effect, and I started to feel better. It was such a relief. I had felt bad for so long that I didn’t even remember what feeling good was like. It didn’t cure everything, but it was the first positive sign in my treatment since I had been diagnosed.

One of the other things I learned with my new diagnosis was that alcohol made things worse. After reading that, I quit drinking cold turkey. That sentence makes it sound like it was a quick snap of my fingers and boom, I’m sober. Instead, it was a long, lonely journey. By this time, I wasn’t the level of alcoholic I had been when I was first diagnosed. Instead, I was now more of a social alcoholic. So, I ended having to go cold turkey from socializing as well. For a year, I mostly stayed home. I kept my mind occupied with writing and acting. I waited until I was sure, absolutely sure, that I could be around people and not have a drink. Even today, I’m still cautious.

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I am far from cured or better. I still have a long medical road ahead of me, and most days I still can’t do much at all. But today, I’m in a much better place mentally and that has helped me get to a better place physically. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s easy to become a passive passenger as events wash from shore to shore, but you can take control of your own life. You may not be able to avoid every obstacle, but everything ends up better than if you do nothing. Positive action helps more than you can imagine. By taking control of my life, I know my tomorrow is going to be better than my today and that’s all I’ve wanted for the past 19 years.

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This is the story of Ambrose Gibbs

Today, Ambrose lives in Inkster, Michigan, where he is rebuilding his life and reconnecting with family after years of being away. Ambrose appeared to have a typical life. That was, until he started experiencing enormous pain that kept him from standing up. After years of being misdiagnosed with no sign of improvement, Ambrose turned to alcohol, a toxic relationship, and attempted suicide as a result of feeling out of control of his life. After his suicide attempt, Ambrose chose to turn his life around and in doing so found a proper diagnosis and got sober.  Ambrose hasn’t tried standup in over two years because he isn’t sure if he could handle being in the clubs again, but he wants to get back to it at some point. He hopes he is ready to overcome that challenge just like he had to overcome so many others in recent years. In his free time, Ambrose likes spending time with his family. He hopes to one day get back into acting.

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Ambrose Gibbs.

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This story first touched our hearts on September 27, 2019.

| Writer: Adam Savage | Editor: Kristen Petronio |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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