“Drink does damage you can’t see.”
These words, from a government-issued health warning, echoed around my skull as I trudged out of the doctor’s surgery.
Drink does damage you can’t see. It’s true, you know. On the outside, I didn’t look too bad; my skin wasn’t yellow or shrivelled. Inside, however, one of my major organs was in a sorry state. My liver was inflamed, and certain enzyme levels were six times too high.
“Some parts can recover,” my GP had said. “But for other parts, unfortunately, the damage will have been done. You need to cut out alcohol, and try to bring those enzyme levels to as close to normal as possible.”
“As close to normal as possible” implies she doesn’t think they’ll ever be normal again, I thought, despairing.
There were only two options for me. One: Give up on life, continue to drink thirty units a day, die like George Best. Two: Recover, embrace life and try to achieve my potential, albeit with a clapped-out vital organ.
After some deliberation, I decided on the latter.
“This is your final wake-up call,” sang an inner voice, “so answer it, because there won’t be another one after this.”
As was usual for after a bender, I’d been “weaning off” alcohol by drinking beer instead of spirits, decreasing the amount by one unit each day. I’d drunk a pint of lager that morning to get me out of bed, and I could have drunk more upon my return from the surgery. But by some miracle, I chose not to. I was panicking about my liver.
Once home, I Googled “foods good for liver” and made lists entitled Eat and Don’t Eat. One doesn’t need a degree in Nutrition to create a liver-friendly diet, just a bit of common sense. My Eat list basically comprised fruit, veg and salad, with a few types of nut; my Don’t Eats were anything fatty or salty.
I cut out cheese, crisps and ice-cream. I replaced pork products with Quorn equivalents, and swapped semi-skimmed milk for skimmed. I also introduced a daily concoction of vitamins. This included Milk Thistle tablets, which are known to benefit the liver.
Getting back into a regular, diurnal sleep pattern took almost a week and required Zopiclone. Once that was sorted, I started going to the gym again. (Alcohol had sent my exercise habits out of the window, along with my sanity.)
Five weeks of this monkish lifestyle later, I had my GP on the phone to discuss the latest blood test and ultrasound.
“Well, I don’t know what you’ve been doing,” she said, “but you’ve reversed a lot of the damage. Your enzyme levels are back to what they should be, and your liver is a normal size. There’s some evidence of fatty infiltration, though. You’ll need to keep eating well and exercising, to make sure that doesn’t get any worse.”
And there was me, a few weeks before, practically making arrangements for my own funeral! I felt relieved, but I couldn’t get complacent. See, after fatty liver disease (which is probably what I had), the next step toward the demise of this vital organ is hepatitis. After hepatitis comes cirrhosis. And if a liver becomes cirrhotic, then it really is time to make funeral arrangements. I’ve seen pictures of cirrhotic livers. Compared to the healthy liver, which is smooth and pink, the cirrhotic liver is dark brown, shrunken and wrinkled, like something from a coral reef.
I still treat this as my final wake-up call. I’ve had plenty of other warnings in the past, which I ignored. There have been times when I drenched a laptop in Newcastle Brown Ale, melted a microwave, and of course, lost friends.
Replacement laptops and microwaves can be purchased, and new friends can be made. But you only get one liver. And unless you’re lucky enough to receive a successful transplant, this one liver cannot be replaced. So that is why I am still taking great care of mine.