When I was in my late 30s, I was given the career opportunity of a lifetime.
I was hired to manage the public policy efforts of a global organization that had a major presence across the entire planet. Trillions of dollars and the lives of billions of people depended on this company doing its job, and I was going to be a key part of that effort. But I never imaged how this job would damage my health, but inspire me to write “The Witch of Washington.”
Of course, not just anybody could lead this company’s public policy division. My immediate boss (who I renamed “Barb Guano” in the book, for appropriate reasons) was a very powerful woman, a person who once served for years as a Special Assistant to a Republican President of the United States.
This woman had been a close, personal adviser to the most powerful man in the world. Whenever you see a picture of this Republican president, know that this woman is standing just out of view of the camera. Even in Washington, D.C., she stood out as a true political elite.
Naturally, I started this job filled with excitement. It would give my career in public policy a real bounce. I was going to network with the presidents, CEOs, and board of directors of the largest corporations in the world. But like many things in life, this hardly turned out to be the way I expected.
You see, like everybody else on the planet, I held a secret. My struggle with ulcerative colitis as a teenager led to me having to receive a permanent colostomy bag when I was 18.
Believe it or not, wearing a bag of poop as a teenager was the easy part. To shorten a very long story, a series of unfortunate complications meant I would have to survive three major life-threatening diseases before I turned 25 years old.
Here’s a hint of how bad things got: I ended up with an infection that’s only found in dead bodies. Were immediate medical attention not available, I would have died 23 times. I lost count after that.
But things got better.
By age 26, I was physically well enough to hold down a full time job and live on my own. However, what I didn’t realize was that mentally, I was a complete mess. Yep, it turns out a person simply can’t be severely traumatized for an entire decade in his youth and expect the rest of his life to be lived happily ever after inside a white picket fence.
I had deep rooted fears that had been driven into me by years of living so close to death, and it took Barb Guano to help me understand just how deep some of these fears were.
Of course, let me not mislead you. This woman – the powerful former special assistant to a Republican president – did not care to sit down with a middle class rat such like me and lovingly impart hours of gentle therapy to button up my loose mental ends. Nope, she was completely evil.
She’d scream at me for infractions such as not answering the phone while I was on the toilet, or not driving into Washington during a blizzard, or for daring to copy and paste between Excel spreadsheets.
The funny thing is that after years of having to figure out how I was going to live from one day to the next, Barb couldn’t get a reaction out of me when she’d insult me. I’d sit there completely unaffected and stone faced during her tirades… except when she held my job over my head.
For some reason, this scared me. My wife (a licensed therapist) helped me understand that after years of not being able to hold down a job in my youth because I was always so close to death, my subconscious had associated unemployment with being seriously ill.
Thus, every time Barb would threaten to fire me, it brought back the life and death fears that had been buried deep inside my mind for decades. Once Barb figured out that she could get a reaction from me if she held my job over my head, my nightmares started again.
At night I would dream that I was sick again, young and completely incontinent and in terrible pain, and struggling to stay alive. During the day, I would suffer from stress-induced ostomy prolapses and blockages. My doctor placed me on Xanax, and I placed myself on Guinness.
After a rough seven months, I managed to get away from Barb and into a much better situation. But looking back on the experience, I never would have guessed that the medical problems I had as a kid would be such a strong driver of my happiness when I was in my 40s.
In fact, to my very great surprise, my urge to drink alcohol ceased right when I finished writing “The Witch of Washington.” It was as if everything I had ever suffered had been locked into a little box where it couldn’t get to me anymore.
The human mind is a strange, complicated thing.
Words by Cole Collins