Smoke or Die

For as long as I could remember using the bathroom was associated with a stomach ache. Honestly, I thought it was normal, until one day I turned to flush the toilet and saw the water in the bowl was bright red.  My mom was aware of the stomach aches, but this escalation was beyond the medical prowess of a thirteen-year-old. I had to have that uncomfortable “stuff that happens in the bathroom” conversation.

She immediately scheduled an appointment with the family pediatrician for the following day despite me having a basketball practice that I couldn’t miss. This was the beginning of the awkward, embarrassing vernacular that would continue for years. “How are your bowel movements?”  “Do you have pain around your anus?  “Let's describe your stools in explicit detail, using adjectives like formed, sticky, and loose. These conversations were mortifying, especially in front of your mom, and once “Pandora's Box” had been opened, my mom was determined to continue to take me to doctors until we got to the bottom of it, (no pun intended) despite how much it was fucking up my social life. 

Every doctor I saw wanted to feel my stomach or worse. They all basically said the same thing, yes there's blood, yes there’s pain, and yes the frequency in which I’m visiting the bathroom and the immediacy of having to get there, was not a good sign.

After months of painful and humiliating tests, I finally saw a badass gastroenterologist. (damn another pun, also not intended) I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis and immediately given dietary restrictions and told what physical activities to avoid. I was prescribed mind-boggling doses of steroids by today's standards and a myriad of other drugs that turned my piss dayglow yellow. 

My mom's mantra; Be careful or you’ll end up in the hospital.  

What I really needed was to ride my bike through the hills of Encino, smoke weed with my friends, and lie about how “far I had gone” with this girl from school. Okay, I had a fuckedup gut, but I wanted to live like a normal teenager, but every week I was back at the doctor.

One time I leaned so hard towards the door to hear what the doctor and my mom were saying about me that I almost fell off of the examining table.  She looked worried, and when they noticed I was listening they moved deeper into the hallway. The fact was, the disease was starting to interfere with my life, despite me trying to ignore it. There were times at school that I’d be forced to bolt from my classroom making it to the bathroom just in time. 

Things didn't seem to be getting much better with the drug therapy so they'd scheduled me for another colonoscopy.  I’m not sure if you've ever had one of those before,  but it's kind of like having a motion picture camera crew travel up your ass to take a peek at the inside of your intestines. The anesthesiologist gets you pretty high, so it's not as bad as it sounds but it still falls under the category of unpleasant and slightly humiliating. 

After my first colonoscopy, I always wondered what kind of person would want to marry somebody who does that for a living?  Oddly, I can tell you. Years later I was on a commercial set working with a supermodel, and yep, she had married a Proctologist. True story. I said, “ That’s interesting” and she said, “all his patients are assholes,” and then she proceeded to laugh hysterically.  I don’t think I’ll ever get over it, and I’m sure it was an anomaly, but that proctologist got to marry a bikini model on the cover of Sports Illustrated. 

I was just too young to completely understand the severity of what potentially could have been the outcome of my first trip to the hospital. I was in the hospital for a month, and the goal was to save my colon. I was fed intravenously giving my digestive system a break from its daily responsibilities. You don’t ever really give much thought to digestion unless you’re in excruciating pain every time you eat. My doctor was good, I was blessed, and I walked out of that hospital with my colon happily still inside my body.   I think as time went on I came to the realization that I would be living the rest of my life as an Ulcerative Colitis patient. I didn’t want to talk about it, I wanted to pretend it didn’t exist, and that was what I did.

When I was in college I began dating or wanted to be dating a girl who smoked cigarettes. For whatever reason (come on, we all know the reason) I became a smoker. I smoked for the next few years and without giving it much thought, my Colitis went into remission. 

I never put A and B together. When I stopped smoking my Colitis would flair up and when I went back to smoking the symptoms would subside and eventually I’d go into remission. This pattern went on for decades. 

One day on set it got so bad I left the shoot and drove straight to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where they admitted me immediately. This time I only had to stay for ten days, but my girlfriend came to visit and we did stuff I didn’t think you could do in a hospital with an I.V. in your arm!

Working as a freelancer in the commercial television industry you took the work when it was there, so when I got a call for a job, even though I had this cough-cold thing, of course, I accepted it. The hours are so long, that you would never get better while on a job, so I decided to go into a nearby health clinic and score some antibiotics before we started shooting. I sat waiting on the examination table on that weird overly crinkly paper waiting for the doctor. The clinic was fast, but you never got the same doctor twice. The doctor looked in my ears and listened to my chest and then noticed a pack of Marlboros in my top pocket. Lifting one eyebrow the doctor looked at me and said, “You smoke?” and before I could answer he had pulled those cigarettes out of my pocket and threw them in the trash. 

At that time Nicotine patches were all the rage. He smiled as he slapped one on my arm and said, you're now a non-smoker! I half-smiled because everyone who smokes outwardly wants to quit but convincing the dopamine inside your brain that right now is a perfect time can be an uncomfortable conversation. Fuck it. I’m a non-smoker and I walked out. 

I had become a professional at recognizing when something was going south with my gut and as the job finished I began to experience symptoms, so I went in to see my gastro. 

The traditional exam consists of him prodding my stomach while staring off into space. It’s like when a dog humps your leg but won’t look you in the eye while he’s doing it.  My job is to let him know what hurts and then we discuss that in his office.  I sit across from him at his large wooden desk and admire how large my file is.  “Do other patients have files that are eight inches thick?” The questions were always the same. He was always trying to determine if “anything” had changed because studies had indicated there might be a connection between colitis and stress. I answered these same questions for twenty years, but that day I added, “I quit smoking a couple of weeks ago.” He froze in his chair as if he were Scooby-Doo and had just seen a ghost. It felt like everything went into slow motion and the air was violently sucked out of the room leaving an awkward silence. “Wait, are you telling me that there is a connection between cigarette smoking and Ulcerative Colitis?” Another long awkward pause ensued. 

He quietly said, “I’m a doctor and it’s an ethical dilemma?” 

I stared through him as the history of my cigarette smoking flashed before my eyes. I couldn’t find the words and neither could he.

“I can’t tell you to smoke, we know the dangers associated with cigarette smoking, right?”

Did that sound condescending? Why not just finish the sentence with “buddy?” I felt a bit betrayed. He wasn’t the guy waking up in cold sweats having to run to the bathroom. I was pissed,  “Is there a connection between smoking and Colitis?” I asked again.

He looked me in the eye and slowly said, “yes.”

I’m not sure if he felt he was softening the blow by adding, “There’s not much known about it and it has the opposite effect on Crohn's disease. We’re trying to figure it out.”

That was over thirty years ago. I became the poster boy for getting sick fourteen days after quitting. I participated in case studies looking for answers, but when I’d see a doctor they flat out didn’t believe me when I told them I was smoking kept my Ulcerative Colitis in remission. Today most medical professionals are aware that there is a connection and I can’t even count the number of times I quit using different techniques, each ending up with me bleeding internally. 

I don’t think many people know what it’s like living with Ulcerative Colitis and I think there's a good reason for that. The symptoms can include excruciating pain and long periods of time spent in the bathroom. It's fucking embarrassing, gross, and makes it difficult to fit into society. Not really something you wanted to explain to a new friend or on a first date. So for many years, I continued to smoke cigarettes, knowing what my life would be like just a few weeks after quitting.  

One night I was watching TV with my wife. I was just about to hit the mute button on one of those long-winded drug commercials with all the horrible side effects when someone running in slow-motion with a golden retriever began to talk about Ulcerative Colitis. 

“Wait, could I go on this drug Vedolizumab, which I can’t even pronounce, and be able to quit smoking?”  “That would be a Christmas Miracle!” 

The next morning I called my doctor. The drug I saw on TV was called Entyvio. My doctor calmly agreed that I should give it a try. It’s a monoclonal antibody medication that would be infused every six weeks for, well, I am not really sure how long I will be on it. I was told that after taking the drug for three months I could start to quit smoking. I was excited and nervous at the same time. 

In 2019 my journey began to quit smoking cigarettes once and for all. I tried vaping but soon became addicted to nicotine. I knew that replacing one nicotine device with another was not the answer. For those of you who smoke, everyone knows that quitting nicotine is no walk in the park. I gradually cut back on the cigarettes until I was down to three a day. I was looking for something to chew on and discovered chewing on licorice root really helped me with the oral fixation. When I Googled licorice root I found that “chewing on licorice sticks can also be a useful substitute for smoking cigarettes.” 

Perfect! When I felt the urge to smoke or vape I’d chew on a piece of licorice root. Cravings generally only last 10 minutes. My problem was that the bark would come off in my mouth, which then I would have to spit out. My wife reminded me regularly that spitting licorice root bark everywhere was almost as disgusting as smoking. 

There was nothing on the market without bark so I continued to look for ways to remove it. I knew other people could benefit from a refined, handcrafted,100% natural chew stick, so I created the KICSTICK company. They're made from licorice root, but refined to the same diameter, and length of a cigarette, so they simply feel comfortable in your hand or rather your mouth. The heavy bark has been peeled away, which creates an easy and more enjoyable chewing experience. My goal was to bring a healthy alternative to the marketplace that did not contain nicotine, which for many people, prolongs the addiction. To date, Kicsticks have helped thousands of people and I hope they continue to help even more people on their quitting journey. 

The dopamine in my brain continued to try to convince me that I really still missed smoking. I had heard about a book called Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking which has helped people create a paradigm shift in how they think about cigarettes. It was all I needed to push me into understanding, believing, and being comfortable with the notion that I would never be a smoker again. 

I still enjoy a Kicstick every now and again when I feel the urge.

So join me and - Kic the Nic and Chew a Stick!