Editor’s note: This article is filled with spoilers of the documentary the author directed, produced, edited, and starred in titled Live or Failure.
Say it quickly: Live or Failure. That’s what was happening to me. Liver failure.
When I started making this film, I didn’t intend to explore the escalation of a drinking problem I had been in denial about for years mostly because I was largely unaware I even had a problem. But I quickly learned in the post-production process that’s how addiction works sometimes.
After spending just shy of a year at CNN during the height of the 2016 election, I landed a job at the ABC 7 affiliate in Washington, D.C. producing investigative stories for reporters and a weekly show. But it was only a few months in that I started to physically deteriorate. I lost 20 lbs in a month, turned jaundice as hell, and became a regular in MedStar Georgetown’s emergency room. Severe pain in my upper abdominal started to feel as normal as the long stay alone at the hospital. No amount of lotion could relieve my skin from the itchiness. All of my scratches eventually turned to scabs. I stopped looking in the mirror when the whites of my eyes turned yellow. These symptoms, including the cholangitis and pancreatitis that plagued my body, were all classic signs of liver failure. I was 23.
Over the course of a few weeks, talk of a liver transplant became more frequent. Somehow, this didn’t stop me from fulfilling my job requirements on a work laptop from hospital beds, telling the medical staff who had come to inform me about my worsening condition to “hold that thought” so I could finish writing whatever script I was working on.
These symptoms, including the cholangitis and pancreatitis that plagued my body, were all classic signs of liver failure. I was 23.
Despite my best efforts to ignore the possibility of undergoing an invasive and risky procedure, it started to seem inevitable. Doctors attributed the failure of one of my major vital organs to a pre-existing condition, a rare autoimmune disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis that causes a narrowing of the bile ducts within the liver. And because transplant is not a casual surgery, it was clear I should go wherever I had the most support, which happened to be with my parents back in Michigan.
So I did what any rational person would do in this situation: I made a dramatic post on Facebook explaining why I needed to abruptly leave Washington. A former professor from the University of Missouri saw it, reached out saying he’d be in D.C., and that we should talk before I left.
It was the night of October 21, 2017, in a bar at an alumni happy hour event where this man told me I should document my own liver transplant. It was an intriguing idea, but I didn’t know what form this project should take. Was it a blog? A vlog? Perhaps a podcast? He said, no, this was a documentary about transplant from the first-person perspective. I had already come to this venue a very sick person but hearing this idea made me feel like I was going to pass out. I excused myself to go to the bathroom where I sat in a stall trying to process what was happening. To say I was terrified would be an understatement. Not only was I physically ill, I had never created such a large project before nor had I made anything independently. I thought I was a no one without a name like CNN or ABC behind me.
I eventually left the toilet seat I had gotten very comfortable on and explained all of this to him. To which he replied, “If you film what’s about to happen, I’ll help you put it together in post-production.” And that was enough for me to feel supported and get started. I boarded a one-way flight to Michigan the next morning.
In less than a week, I resigned from my impressive job, left my beautiful apartment, packed up all my things, said goodbye to the friends I could and departed a city where I had spent years building my life. Suddenly, I was back in my childhood bedroom, sick, depressed, and filming all of it.
I thought, “Sure, if I’m going to lose a body part and gain some scars, I might as well win an Emmy for it.”
Because I had nothing else going for me, I clung to the idea of making this film for every person who might ever need a new liver. I thought, “Sure, if I’m going to lose a body part and gain some scars, I might as well win an Emmy for it.” If I sound like a crazy person to you, I agree. In retrospect, I sound like a crazy person to me, too. But seeking a transplant had become my life because that’s what I thought was going to save it.
I became a devout patient of the University of Michigan Health System and a candidate for transplant undergoing an extensive evaluation process. My body underwent so many tests that I felt like a human science experiment.
A team of doctors assessed my physical and mental state. I sat in classroom-type settings with other people who also needed new livers listening to medical professionals explain the risks, challenges, and benefits of before, during, and after transplant. Risks included potentially contracting a disease like HIV from the new organ that went undetected prior or the body just simply rejecting the organ. Their PowerPoint presentations explained once a candidate is approved by the board, said candidate will be put on a waiting list ranked by a calculation that reflects just how dire the state of the person’s liver, which is called a MELD score. A person on the medical team would eventually call once an organ became available. If a patient doesn’t respond within an hour, they’d move on to the next person on the list.
Again, I was 23 and hadn’t quite figured out how I felt about marriage, let alone children. Everything felt overwhelming.
Doctors mentioned it might be a good idea to freeze my eggs if I ever wanted to have kids. They said getting pregnant after having a transplant is not only difficult but dangerous. And the anti-rejection medicine that I would have to take for the rest of my life could be quite disfiguring to a fetus in utero.
Again, I was 23 and hadn’t quite figured out how I felt about marriage, let alone children. Everything felt overwhelming.
It was at this time, something else was happening. I slept a lot. I ate only the healthiest food that my mom spent hours every week preparing. I went to a lot of yoga classes at a local studio that let me attend for free. I found a good therapist and saw her often. I never turned on the news. I went inward.
On December 14, 2017, I got a call from a nurse that changed everything. She said my liver had returned to near normal function and that I no longer needed a transplant. She explained it wasn’t my pre-existing condition that caused my liver to nearly fail. It was just the alcohol that exacerbated it.
When I heard this, I cried.
Not because I was overcome with joy that I would be okay or filled with relief that I wouldn’t need to go through surgery. But because I realized this thing I had been doing rebelliously for fun since I was 14 had taken over my life. And yes, I caught this moment on camera.
By that time, I was about three months sober and could finally look back on my actions with clarity.
The last few months I was in D.C., I was blacking out almost every night. I was using a breakup as an excuse to drink more but my problems started long before then. I began going to out-patient rehab on September 13, 2017. Even though I was being tested for alcohol and drugs on a near daily basis, I still said things like, “I don’t have an addiction problem. I just love alcohol.” And I truly believed that. I thought I was a normal 23-year-old and that anyone my age would have to go to rehab to stop drinking. I’d spend my subway rides home with headaches, shakes, and cravings. These were all classic signs of withdrawal symptoms.
“Even better! We now have a plot twist. Just go with it.”
The days after this phone call with the nurse were confusing. Mostly because I didn’t know if I had a film anymore or how a person continues living after realizing they’d been in a state of constant denial for years. I reached out to my former professor, who turned into my co-producer, to tell him the documentary we were planning was not going to happen.
His response: “Even better! We now have a plot twist. Just go with it.”
So there I was — a trained journalist who investigated everything except herself. This led me to books like David Carr’s memoir The Night of the Gun and others in this very niche genre of journalists with drinking problems for inspiration.
I also educated myself on what addiction is, why it happens, and different ways to recover. I then started searching for answers in places like Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and listening to a lot of Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday Podcast.
As soon as I felt healthy and stable in my sobriety, I left Michigan and headed to Columbia, Missouri, a town with a few bars I spent a lot of time in while earning a bachelor’s degree, to be closer to my co-producer. This worried the people closest to me but I had a strong sense that I needed to finish what I started. So I drove myself, a suitcase, and some camera equipment to a place where I felt like I could create.
Every aspect of my life I didn’t want to talk about was where the story lived.
A pattern soon started to emerge in my filmmaking process: Every aspect of my life I didn’t want to talk about was where the story lived. If my first thought was to resist something, my second became “why?”
The things that made me cringe — understanding my autoimmune disease, exploring my alcohol use, interviewing my family, hearing from my friends, talking to former co-workers, reaching out to ex-partners — were all things I had to confront if I wanted to make this film. And at the time, I didn’t realize just how healing digging into all of this would be.
It was there that I was Filmmaker Andrea looking at Character In The Movie Andrea. I, as the filmmaker, had to figure out the story arc of the person in the documentary. And by doing this, I was able to better understand myself and what happened through a new, more empathetic lens. I began unpacking years of negative thought processes that turned into behaviors that turned into addictions, all stemming from messages I received as a girl who desperately just wanted to feel a sense of belonging.
It was on September 13, 2018, I finished editing my film on a broken laptop that was jerry-rigged up to a large flatscreen TV while sitting on the hardwood floor of a living room in a town I thought I’d never return to.
I celebrated my one year-sobriety birthday submitting that film to festivals. It was on that day I realized even if no one ever watched this 50-minute movie I made about me, the act of throwing myself into this project served its purpose. It kept me sober for the first year, which I hear is often the hardest. While the idea of relapsing is scary for any person recovering from an addiction problem, I still have a progressive autoimmune disease and the state of my liver remains fragile. Even if I never drink again, I still might need a liver transplant.
Today, I’m thankful I had something to pour myself into, to obsess over, to keep my overactive brain busy while simultaneously processing and healing the broken parts of me for the time I did. I now have a piece of art that exemplifies getting sober at exactly the right time to have a film exist about it that I can turn to in moments of self-doubt.
In other words, I find the idea of relapsing especially terrifying.
Because of this project, I had the opportunity to start anew. During my time in Missouri, I continued doing a lot of self-work, held a few jobs working in journalism, made a lot of new friends, and found myself in a healthy relationship. All of which I left (minus the continuation of self-work; that now comes with me everywhere) when it was clear I needed to pursue my next opportunity, which included pre-production on another documentary (that’s not about me).
Making Live or Failure gave me a purpose to wake up in the morning when I didn’t feel like I had a reason to live. It became a coping mechanism when I realized I had done this all to myself.
Making Live or Failure gave me a purpose to wake up in the morning when I didn’t feel like I had a reason to live. It became a coping mechanism when I realized I had done this all to myself. It was then a vehicle to ask questions I wouldn’t have otherwise and a way to explore what actually happened. I proved to myself that I could make a large scale project without a brand name behind me. It was through this experience I not only learned to embrace my story but to give it the same respect I had given to every single other one I had told.
This film was the rope I used to climb out of a very dark hole that I had dug myself into. Along the way, I discovered a sense of belonging I had always been searching for was within myself. And for that, I am forever grateful to my former professor who not only encouraged me to try to film my own liver transplant but then supported me in telling the story of my addiction problem.
Live or Failure premiered at Kansas City FilmFestival International in April. It will be featured in the REEL Recovery Film Festival & Symposium® in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo from October 11-17 and New York at the Village East Cinema from November 1-7. The Addiction Policy Forum will also use my story in an upcoming education campaign. I also just celebrated my 25th birthday (a milestone I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to make it to).
I directed, produced, edited, and starred in this movie to save myself. Because of this, I think it might be able to help someone else. To set up a screening in your community, visit liveorfailure.com.