As frustrating as it may have been hearing doctor after doctor tell me for years that my health problems were all in my head and nothing more than symptoms of stress, I still believe everything I've read about SIBO that lists stress as one of its main causes. In fact, a large majority of my treatment "protocol" (more on that later) to heal my condition has centered around lowering stress more than anything else. As I mentioned in my last post, I still don't know how or why I ended up with SIBO when I did and what were its exact causes. If these things were easier to figure out, the condition wouldn't be so hard to treat. What I do know is that one of the most stressful times in my life occurred not long before my SIBO diagnosis, and I can't help but wonder if it had something to do with it, if life really can be that neat sometimes.
It took three years of living in New York for me to find a place that felt like home. When a friend of a friend posted on Facebook in the fall of 2012 that the apartment next door to him and his wife in Red Hook was opening up and promised a full sized backyard, fresh eggs from their pet chickens, and built-in friends, I couldn't break the lease on my tiny windowless room in Williamsburg fast enough. When I brought up the idea to my mother and she started googling “Red Hook,” what she found worried her so much she enlisted one of her oldest friends—whose family happened to grow up in the area—to give me a tour of the neighborhood in her giant SUV to see if I was sure I could picture myself living there. When we drove around after dark, it did look potentially seedy and possibly less safe than what a straight laced girl from a very small town upstate was ready for (at that point my rental history in New York consisted of a doorman building on Roosevelt Island and an apartment on the same block as the Graham L stop in the center of North Williamsburg), but then we had dinner at one of the most charming restaurants I had ever been to. And when I met up with my potential new neighbor after dinner, he introduced me to what would become my favorite bar in New York to this day.
I moved into 30 Huntington Street on the east end of Red Hook near the BQE a few weeks later, days before I had to move right back out again to stay with a friend for a week to avoid what would prove to be the very real threat of Hurricane Sandy. I was as far away from the water as you could get while still living in Red Hook, but the whole neighborhood was an evacuation zone, and while my neighbors stayed put through the storm, I didn't want to to take any chances. Unlike most Red Hook residents, I was lucky. The only thing that happened to my apartment didn't actually happen—an unfulfilled robbery marked by a dusty handprint on our front window. Most of the rest of the neighborhood was shut down in varying degrees for over a year, but the way the neighborhood picked itself back up and dusted itself off with scrappy togetherness and mostly hand built parts was one of the many things that made me fall in love with the place almost immediately.
One of the most memorable nights of my life occurred a few weeks after the storm, when my roommate took me to a bar called Sunny's for the first time when it was only open occasionally and you had to enter through a falling down back hallway. Even though it was about as far away from the subway as you could get in Brooklyn and felt like another world entirely separate from New York City, the place was so packed you could barely walk through it. And in the center of the back room, framed by a piano and walls lined with stringed instruments, I was amazed to find a circle of fifteen or so musicians with banjos and mandolins and guitars and violins (fiddles, actually, if you know what you're talking about, but I didn't at the time), playing folk and bluegrass music both haunting and hopeful without stopping for hours and hours. For years after I moved to Red Hook, I shuddered to think how differently my life would have turned out if fear had kept me from moving to what turned out to be such a magical place.
My early memories of Red Hook are full of live music—in that back room at Sunny's, in the old timey theater of Jalopy, in friends’ living rooms and strangers’ kitchens. There were more nights than I can count spent drinking High Lifes and smoking cigarettes around the fire pit in the backyard of Ice House, of endless backyard barbecues at 30 Huntington, pop up dance parties attended by the likes of Aziz Ansari and James Murphy, DJ sets inside the giant warehouse of Pioneer Works, old movies on Valentino Pier, climbs to the top of the broken down New York Dock building (now made into shiny new condos) to see stars and views of the city for miles, impromptu play and poetry readings in the middle of the night in my next door neighbor’s apartment, Bloody Marys in my sweatpants both noon and night at Brooklyn Crab, hungover brunches at the old school diner tables of Hope and Anchor, Italian sandwiches the size of my abnormally large head at Defonte’s, Irish coffees that actually melted in your mouth at Fort Defiance, morning runs along the Columbia Street waterfront to the Brooklyn Bridge, bike rides to Prospect Park for free outdoor concerts and picnics and all those beach trips to the Rockaways. I was often at home but never alone—everything and everyone came to me. My friends would arrive for Saturday afternoon barbecues and stay until Monday morning, eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch before work in the backyard. My neighbor and I became inseparable, and I started seeing a dreamy friend of his who happened to live down the street. I even fulfilled a secret lifelong dream by landing a "DJ" gig for a short time at Lowlands, a bar in the next neighborhood over. I learned how to drive stick and play guitar and go to bars by myself and talk to strangers while living in Red Hook. Every single night was fun like I had never known it before, but more than that, the neighborhood felt like a secret so well preserved it didn't require upkeep, something only a select lucky few knew about and understood, and somehow, miraculously, I had ended up becoming one of those people. Most people went to Red Hook to go to IKEA. Red Hook was my whole, thrilling life.
For years I only saw what sparkled about Red Hook, what made everyday feel like something I had never experienced before and would never experience again. What I didn't want to see, but what was undoubtedly there, decaying around the edges of my vision, were the lines of ants winding their way along the walls of my apartment and into my bedcovers, the cockroaches and house centipedes scuttling over the floors, the leaking windows, radiators and bathroom ceiling, the chicken shit covering every inch of my precious backyard and the cigarette butts covering every inch of the chicken shit, the backyard mosquitoes that bit up my legs so badly in the summer that my colleagues at the time would stop me in the hallways at work to ask if I was okay. I thought that the mouse that ended up in my hair in the middle of the night and the leak through my upstairs neighbor's apartment that destroyed my bed and rug were funny anecdotes—just part of my wild life in Red Hook—that the constant six month rotation of roommates was just the way it was in Brooklyn. I knew but didn't want to accept that the guy I was "seeing" from down the block would never want me for anything more than a conveniently located 4 AM hook up no matter how much I tried to convince him otherwise, that my married next door neighbors were not going to be married much longer.
At some point, the most blatantly toxic elements started to remove themselves from my world one by one, and my life in Red Hook started to stabilize. My neighbor finally left his wife after cheating on her for months. The guy who was never going to date me moved out of the neighborhood and brought with him his friend who had been stringing along another of my friends. I started seeing a therapist. I got a job that was important enough that it wouldn't allow for Monday morning hangovers. And not long after that, I met the man with whom I now live (in Washington Heights, about as far from Red Hook as you can get) and hope to spend the rest of my life. For a while, it seemed as if I could live in my beloved neighborhood, have the start of something I could actually call a career and a healthy relationship all at the same time. I "had it all" in Red Hook again, in the total opposite way I had thought I had it before. Until Red Hook itself finally turned on me too.
I can't remember exactly which plague came first or when, but sometime after my next door neighbor left his wife and moved out, the raccoons and possums of Red Hook moved in. I think my neighbor's wife couldn't manage care of all those chickens herself (at one point, there were eight of them), and it became a regular occurrence to hear their awful, strangled cries in the middle of the night as one by one they became food for these new inhabitants. Then one of those raccoons or possums—I'll never know which one—took up permanent residence in the ceiling directly above my bed. The scratching and dragging noises that went back and forth above my head woke me on the nights the dying chickens didn't. At around the same time, a hoard of paper wasps made a nest directly outside my bedroom window. Live bees flying around my room became a daily occurrence, and their carcasses filled my window sill to a comical degree. But what's most unbelievable of all, even to me, is that the most dangerous plague of all arrived at the exact same time as the bees and the ceiling animal—a new landlord who was willing to do anything and everything but help. As I mentioned, I had had plenty of issues with my apartment before, but as one would expect, my landlord for the previous two years and ten months of living in Red Hook sent exterminators and handymen when problems arose. This new landlord cut down all the trees in the backyard to "resolve" the ceiling animal and told me to close my window to keep out the bees.
I continued to live with my plagues in Red Hook for two more months, sleeping in my tiny living room most of the time or at my boyfriend's apartment in Harlem, thinking my new landlord might eventually come through. I don't remember exactly what made me get up on a Saturday morning and walk over fifteen miles going back and forth between Bushwick and Bed Stuy to look at apartments, but suddenly, I had to get out of Red Hook as soon as possible and for good. A week after I looked at all those apartments, I found a single dead mouse exactly where I put my feet to get out of bed every morning. I moved to Bushwick a few weeks later. Six months after that, I was diagnosed with SIBO.
Of course, it probably doesn't really work like that. Maybe the timing of everything is pure coincidence. All I know is, those last few months living in Red Hook comprised the second most stressful time of my entire life (the top spot, of course, belongs to the time I've spent dealing with SIBO itself), and the downturn in my health occurred suspiciously soon after. I will say, however, that even ending up with this condition and the varied issues that have come along with it or the fact that I haven’t been able to eat an apple or an avocado without incurring pain for years now, I don’t regret my time living in Red Hook. Maybe I wouldn't have smoked a few of those cigarettes or drank on a few of those weeknights, but I wouldn't take back a moment of that once beautiful life even if I could. And with that, let's all remember it together fondly one last time, with yes, a little playlist. To Red Hook, my first true home in New York. May I never live there again.