My aunt, Barbara, a long-time colon cancer survivor, sent me some issues of a magazine for colostomy patients filled with fun-in-the-sun-even-though articles and colostomy bag fashion spreads. Honest. Al Geiberger, it turns out, played the PGA tour wearing a colostomy bag, giving new meaning to the phrase "hole in one," something I truly did not want to know. I believed my doctors when they told me this was temporary for me, not a life-style change, and I was helped by the reporter's syndrome: disassociation. Every reporter I know has done things he or she would never do in real life because when you're reporting you're the perfect observer. You watch, you make notes, but the real you isn't there, it's just watching. That's how reporters can ask ridiculous questions of people in obvious pain, and insult world leaders and would-be Presidents. I once spent half-an hour sitting on a foot-wide ledge, thirty stories above Times Square. In real life I'm afraid of heights but Joel Siegel, reporter, fears nothing.
Shrinks call this "denial." My shrink, Olga Silverstein, said to me "No wonder you're doing so well, you're in complete denial."
I answered so quickly I stepped on her last word, "No, I'm not."
OK, I was, probably still am, but it works. I learned to change the bag, of course. You're supposed to pull off the ring that holds the bag and clean the stoma once every two weeks. That I wouldn't do. I went back to New York Hospital and had the colostomy nurse do it. I hired private duty nurses to do it. In Connecticut, where we have a weekend home in a town called Lakeville, I hired the visiting nurse service. I didn't want to look at it, I didn't want to know from it, and that went on for months.
I learned two old friends had gone through similar experiences — both because of diverticulitis and not cancer — two friends I'd known since Louis Pasteur Junior High in West LA. Bill Ginsberg, yes, that Bill Ginsberg, Monica Lewinsky's lawyer. And Chuck Plotkin who's work you know even if you don't know his name; he's Bruce Springsteen's record producer. Both had had colostomies, both had had them reversed, both had survived.
(Chuck is one of the calmest, most centered, most competent people I know — he always was, even when he was 11 — and he, just by being himself, gave me the confidence to know I could live with this thing. Bill, it turned out, knew an awful lot about s---ing in a bag perhaps because his legal specialty is medical malpractice. (And whatever shenanigans he pulled during the Clinton scandal, he did keep his client out of jail and succeeded in making us believe she was the aggrieved party, certainly against the White House's best wishes and most fantastic spins.) What helped most, though, was having friends I could laugh with. The worst, we agreed, was changing your bag in an airplane. You become a member of a very different kind of "Mile high club." That was the worst. We also agreed there was no best.
There's no feeling in the stoma, there aren't any nerve-endings there, so the only way you can tell if you're going is by feeling the bag. I developed a nervous habit, my right hand would brush against the bag to see how full it was, the way my left hand tends, unconsciously, to brush against the bridge of my nose to make sure my glasses haven't slipped. If I hadn't become a movie critic I could've been a hell of a third-base coach.