A Lesson in Humility: Part II: How Amethyst Almost Killed Me
When I say that now, it sounds dramatic. The little devil on my shoulder goads me with ‘we’re all just slowly dying’, but just over a year ago I was actually pretty scared and totally unwilling to admit it. I’ve been thinking about sharing this experience for a long time, but always talked myself out of it. After reading this article (thanks Michelle Johnson) I decided that it’s time.
I’ve had eczema for as long as I can remember. Doctors constantly prescribed childhood me incredibly thick, sticky, ointment to slather on my legs and forearms. I couldn’t take baths because the rash would flare up. Winter was my favorite season, but also the bane of my existence because it would get so dry that my skin was red and scaly for months at a time. I would wake up constantly with bloody fingernails from raking my hands across my legs in my sleep. There were years that I thought my legs were permanently scarred, but I got lucky and a couple dips in the ocean and they always seemed to heal up (for the most part). As a child I had mild asthma that only flared up a few times, and I have a mild congenital heart disease called pulmonary stenosis. I tell you all of this because I’ve always been okay. I got itchy, my skin healed. I couldn’t breathe, I sat down and waited. I played sports, my heart continued beating. It wasn’t always fun, but I always managed to deal with it. My health problems were never big enough for me to talk much about, or be fixed with what I would later learn were topical steroids.
I moved to Colorado in the fall of 2013. That next summer (2014) I had a rash for a couple months that took over my abdomen, chest, and lower back; it crept up my neck, and managed to snake it’s way to the edge of my hairline. I felt scaly and puffy all the time; it was horrible. I sent my mom photos that made her cry. I took baths in bleach water, took a bunch of herbs, and eventually it subsided. I got checked for MRSA and a multitude of environmental allergies, all to no avail. As the rash went away, I stopped worrying about why it was around and how it got there. I was in the middle of managing a cafe and I had ‘too much work to do’ to take time to worry about my health. I had all but forgotten about it when the following summer (July 2015, 5 months after Amethyst opened) I noticed that my belly button, of all places, was unbearably itchy. I got home and checked it out, and sure enough the rash was back.
I panicked. I remember hyper-ventilating and sinking to the floor in my bathroom just crying and shaking. I immediately ran to the apothecary and gathered all of the things that had helped me last time. I took baths in epsom salts and took tinctures. It may have slowed the spread of the rash, but it certainly did not stop it. By August I was an actual disaster. I would wake up some days with my eyes swollen shut because my face was so puffy. I looked, and felt, like I had permanent sunburn. I couldn’t wear most clothes because it hurt too badly. It looked like I had lesions on my waist where my belt would rub, and all of my socks were too rough on my feet so they bled almost constantly. There were days at work where I bled through 3-4 pairs of socks. I wish I had better language to describe the intensity of the pain, but for some reason my prose always falls flat in comparison to what was actually happening to me.
I felt like it would get better, because I had always managed to not talk about it and it always managed to get better. I realize now I was being stubborn and idiotic and that I wasn’t going to just ‘get better’. I don't honestly remember much from this time, but a few specific days stand out:
It was a Saturday. I was late to work because I woke up crying from the excruciating pain of my sheets touching my skin, but I had a meeting with the fella who did the woodwork in Amethyst to talk about the design for some new shelves. I put on my bravest face, but when I showed up at Amethyst my best friend, and first employee, knew I wasn’t okay. The whole car ride over hurt so badly because every time I hit my brakes the seatbelt would rub against my collarbone and make me cry from the pain. I screamed blood curdling screams in my car the entire ride over while blasting music in a feeble attempt to emotionally deal with the physical pain. My eyes were red from crying and Annie told me to go home; that she’d work the rest of the day for me. I had never felt so defeated, so hurt, and so thankful that someone had validated my pain. I went home and immediately took some medicine to put me out and went to sleep.
Another beautiful, sunny day that summer I had a meeting with our insurance broker at Amethyst to sign some paperwork. I was wearing a coat in the middle of the summer because I had the fever chills and I didn’t want anyone to see my skin. My hair was reluctantly pulled back, revealing the terrible dandruff, because it was filthy and stringy. I couldn’t shower without wanting to scream; the water felt like tiny needles on quite literally every part of my body. People speak of muscles they didn’t even know they had being sore, and that’s sort of what this was like. Between my fingers, behind my knees, my eyelids, my armpits, the insides of my thighs, every part of my body that I never thought could hurt was unbearably swollen and red. I called my stepdad on my way to that meeting and told him I was going to the ER; that I was horribly sick and didn’t know why. My insurance broker could do nothing but apologize when he saw me, and he was one of the first people I didn’t know personally who addressed what was happening. He kept asking me if I was sure that I was okay, and I kept nodding, smiling, and choking back tears. I quickly signed papers, and then broke down crying in my landlord’s office telling him that I was going to the hospital and that he might not see me for a few days, but that my staff would hold it down. I went right to the ER, only to have them tell me that my vitals were fine and that I was fine. Not knowing what else to do I went home, took medicine to knock me out, slept, and went to work the next day.
I started seeing an acupuncturist who was a regular at Amethyst, and the work he did for me was and is unparalleled, but I needed something faster. He healed my insides, taught me how to value my emotional state with the gravity I needed to as a business owner, and in all of those months of pain the only real relief I found was in his office on his table. I don’t know how I’ll ever thank him.
The first Coffee Masters in the US happened in (I believe) September, 2015. I was overjoyed that I had been accepted to compete and I spent hours upon hours training with the other 2 Denver competitors. I don't remember which day of the competition it was, but I remember sitting at the kitchen table of our airbnb sobbing and sobbing and sobbing from hurting so much. My partner, Stuart, came in to comfort me and I just remember telling him how badly it hurt. My dear friend and the roaster behind Commonwealth Coffee, Jason, walked in and I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t even look at him.
The final day that really twisted the knife was the day I got my photo taken for Zagat Denver’s 30 Under 30 (see post photo). I woke up that day hoping that my skin would be okay enough for a photo, but it wasn’t. I wore a purple long sleeve shirt because a dark color seemed to make me look less red. I wore my glasses partly because my eyes were exhausted from me rubbing them because they were so itchy, and partly because I wanted them to hide my eyes. I wore my hair down to hide my flaking scalp. My face was so swollen that even smiling hurt and I wanted it to be over so badly. I remember I was working alone and after he left I locked the doors, turned off the lights, and sank to the floor in the bathroom and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. I then turned up the lights, unlocked the door, and worked my shift.
Sometime after that day I went back to the ER. They finally prescribed me some prednisone because I kind of lost it on the doctor who was examining me and wanted to tell me that nothing was wrong. As horrible as that drug made me feel, it also saved me. My skin started coming off in a fluffy, snow-like way. After the 3 days he prescribed me I was getting better, but nowhere near healed. I went to a doctor and tried to ask for more, but they wouldn’t do it (which I am now thankful for), however, they did prescribe me more of that thick, oily topical steroid of my childhood. I went through 2 GIANT containers of that and shed all of my skin like a snake. The redness slowly abated, my scalp healed, I could shower and wear my clothes without crying again. I threw away the majority of my wardrobe because it was covered in oily lotion, and held memories I couldn’t bear to keep with me. My new skin was soft and sensitive, and VERY prone to disaster. It took until about June of 2016 for me to feel like I was better, and until about September of 2016 to actually be fully healed. I stopped eating gluten (that comes with a whole new set of emotional insecurity and embarrassment in the service industry, so that’s an entirely different conversation) and was really conscious of my sugar intake. The medicine, the acupuncture, the herbs, the tea, changing my diet, all of it helped, but it was time for me to really look at the cause.
I worked 80-100 hour weeks for about 8 months. On paper, that doesn’t look so bad, but in reality it was. I was on my feet all the time. I would often skip meals and power through when I shouldn’t have. I barely slept, I was monumentally stressed. I lost a lot of my hair (still happening, but getting better), but luckily I had so much to begin with most people couldn’t really tell. My mentality of ‘be stronger, and when you’re not strong enough just keep going’ was really almost the death of me. Again, that sounds dramatic now, but I’m not sure that I was always going to make it out of that situation. I’m still not sure it wasn’t going to kill me, and my intuition is usually pretty solid.
Even with all of that said, the physical pain was not nearly the worst part. The worst part was letting my best friend send me home from my own business knowing that I was incredibly sick and wouldn't take care of myself. The worst part was texting Kal at 7:30 in the morning, asking him to go to work at 8am for me because I couldn’t get out of bed. The worst part was feeling so helpless and fragile, knowing that my partner knew I was hurting, and not ever having the words to tell him how badly.
The worst part was hearing all of the glowing reviews of Amethyst and hearing people tell me what a badass I was. The worst part was meeting people and hearing about how much they loved Amethyst while we struggled to pay our bills and I couldn’t pay people for enough hours to take 2 days in a row off and not panic about money. The worst part was creating something that I hated with every fiber of my being. The worst part was being willing to put my life in danger for something that, in the grand scheme of everything, doesn’t matter. I put my business before my health, and before my most meaningful relationships. After reading this, I don’t really understand why I didn’t just give it all up, but hindsight is 20/20, I suppose.
This is why my first three employees at Amethyst, Annie, Kal, and Cierra, are the people in my life I will never question and I would do unspeakable things for. I joke because that’s my nature, but, truly, there’s nothing they could ask of me that I could ever say no to. They not only made my business possible, but they quite possibly saved my life.
I don’t have a conclusion for this, because it’s not over. I still stress out ALL THE TIME. However, now I sleep. When my accountant tells me that our labor percentage is too high, I shrug. I understand I should be getting a higher ‘return on my investment’ in Amethyst. I understand I should make more money. I understand that sometimes I make decisions that feel ‘lazy’, but I can’t go back to that physical place, and I don’t doubt that it could happen again. I could easily work myself into the ground, but I won’t. Business owners aren’t super heroes, they aren’t other-worldly beings. They are people. They are flawed, some of us monumentally so. Stop glorifying owning a coffee shop. It’s not cute, it’s not precious, and most days it’s not even fucking fun. Here’s what my job is:
- Stress about money
- Fire people
- Tell people when they’re fucking up
- Pay everyone and everything else before I pay myself
- Clean all of the shit that no one else wants to clean
- Work when other people can’t, even at the last second
- Figure out everything to do with taxes, insurance, accounting, donation requests, etc.
- Field people’s complaints about my business
- Spend money on broken things that I didn’t break
Not to be a kill joy over here, but does that look glamorous to you? Does that sound fun? Does that sound quaint and provincial? It doesn’t sound that way because it is none of those things. Do I love it? Yes, I fucking do. I did some really real soul-searching about Amethyst after I got sick, and there were multiple times when I thought about calling it a day. I’m pretty great at what I do, and I’d be a great asset to a bigger company with more money. I’d get paid more, work less, and have less stress. I know that I wouldn't have responded very well to someone saying to me ‘don’t open your own coffee shop because of x,y,z’. In fact, that would have made me want to do it more, so I don't usually say all of this to people. However, I’ll say this now. Don't open a coffee shop. Save yourself the financial stress, the heartache, and the frustration (Unless you have a lot of money. If you have money to burn, sure, go ahead and open a coffee shop). Obviously, I didn’t go that route. I’ve figured out, for the most part, how to handle this stress and this life, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. The road was not pretty, it was not fun, it was not kind, and I strongly advise against it. I try not to be too discouraging, but I also try to be honest. This is maybe the most honest post I’ve written and I don’t relish reliving that part of my life. I’m sitting here crying as I let those memories back in, and I don’t intend to do that very often. There’s no way I’ll ever forget how that year felt, and there’s no way I’m going back to that place. Amethyst beat me out once, and it won’t happen again.
Photo by Adam Larkey (thanks for making me look good when I felt shitty, and thanks in advance for photographing our wedding <3)