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Life Without Charley

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the removal of my cancerous prostate, and I'm not sure if I should celebrate it with a special cake or a good cry.

The operation itself went well enough.  The doctor opened me up with some sort of robot, but then compensated me with some really  good pain medication.  True, I also awakened with a catheter installed (which turned out not to be as pleasant a thing as I had been led to believe).  But after the catheter came out in a couple of weeks, it was time to get to work on the side effects of the operation.

The first of these was that my bladder leaked like a sieve and I had to wear an adult diaper.  "Without a prostate you will have to learn to hold your bladder like a woman" said the urologist.  "But most women manage it and you will learn how to also."  And he was right.

The second of these side effects involved the utility of something I shall call "Charley" to protect his real identity.  Charley could no longer perform certain duties related to his matrimonial function.  "Will he ever come back to life again?" I asked the urologist.  "Well, I carefully performed a "nerve sparing" operation to preserve all functionality.  So the answer is, maybe."

Charley would need rehabilitation.  The doctor started with an array of common enhancement pills, but in doses so large that it caused the eyes of middle aged friends of mine who were using the same drugs recreationally to start from their heads.  The drugs had no effect, other than many unwanted side effects.  Next, I was presented with a humiliating pump-like device that I was to use in conjunction with certain manual exercises that are frowned upon by the Catholic Church.  But sin as I might, this didn't help either.

As the months rolled by, I was offered a box of home syringes that I could inject directly into Charley in order to get his attention.  I'm afraid that I passed on these, despite the countless number of souls I could have rescued from Purgatory if I had used them.  Nothing works.  And as we come upon the first year anniversary, I know that the next discussion will be about permanent implants that would change Charley into some sort of balloon animal.

So Charley seems to be in a permanent coma.  This has been more than just a little physical inconvenience in my marriage as you can imagine.  But I never dreamed that this sort of thing would also pose a spiritual problem.


Being impotent has kept within me a sort of undefinable anger that began when I read the pathologist's report.  The report began with describing the weight, color, and overall condition of my prostate gland and the "two attached seminal vesicles".  I found the idea of my seminal vesicles lying on some stranger's table to be very disturbing.  As time went on and my attempts at a humiliating recovery failed over and over again, I became depressed.  I blamed God.

It's not like I was some sort of athlete before the operation or that I was constantly checking all the women out.  But with the loss of Charley there have been other changes to my sexuality.  I don't see or feel things like I used to.  The way the world and my physical place in it has changed.  And I wasn't even aware before that I had this now missing self image.

My anger and frustration has seriously eroded my prayer life, again in ways that I never would have expected.  Six months ago, when I had a heart attack (yes, when it rains it pours) and I was being rushed by ambulance to the hospital I was quite lucid, but even though I knew that I might be dying, I could not pray at all.

Am I just making a big thing out of nothing?  What I suspect is that this isn't about some sort of broken concept of my manliness on my part, but that my impotence is my first personal, concrete experience of death, and this is what I am having trouble facing.  In our over sexualized society, having Charley fall asleep is an entirely different thing from, say, losing an arm.  But the fact is, I feel as though I have begun to die, and I am having trouble keeping my faith robust enough to deal with it.

Poor Charley.

Poor me.



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Impotency, or erectile dysfunction as it is more commonly called today, is a heavy burden to bear.  I suffered from it for a number of years in my youth and it had devastating consequences in my life.  I have now been married for 36 years and have fathered four children.  In my mid-sixities, I am more responsive than I was in my early twenties and I thank the Lord for being able to engage in the marital embrace today.  Anyone who understands the pain that impotency can have not only for the man but for his wife as well would never criticize the use of cialis, viagra or similar drugs.  


"my impotence is my first personal concrete experince of death."  Indeed.  It is a slap in the face.  When I had a miscarriage at 27, I felt the same way,and I already had 3 children and went on to have 3 more. It wasn't about losing a pregnancy.  It was that awareness that I wasn't totally in charge of my life that scared, depressed and humbled me.  I stress "depressed" here.  After a couple of months, the depression, with a little medication help,lifted.  But  I have not forgotten the sad lesson that I was not immortal.  However, where there is life there is hope.  In your situation, I can say with some experence that with a loving, willing partner, there are other ways and all is not lost. 

I was so happy to read another story by you, but now that I have read it I am so sorry for Charley. I hope he wakes up, still.

Losing a knee ligament made me realize that my body has a finite lifespan. What's gone is gone.  But so far it's abstract enough that I can rejoice at the idea that each passing day brings me one day closer to seeing Jesus Christ. Losing my earthly body is a small loss in comparison. But that much depends, I think, on people's relationship to their body: whether they view it more as a part of themselves or as a mere convenient envelope.


For many men, Charley has come to be an adjunct aspect of these men's retirement as have many of the rest of their functions.  Some are still like a Timex watch and just keep on ticking.  Charley may indeed have gone on a long sabbatical.  That's particularly true for many diabetics who are on oral medications.

After I got my pacemaker two years ago, whether or not I had to call my doctor after experiencing 4 hours or more of the resurrection of Charles was of little consolation.

(Actually, I wouldn't call my doctor but all my friends, but that's just me).

If it makes you feel any better, you have lots of company.  Many couples of mature years have to deal with this issue, at least sometimes. If I may, I will say a few things to guys from the viewpoint of wives.  One thing is, we wish you would believe us when we say, "It's okay. We'll deal with it; things could be worse."  We know it is how you show you love us.  But you also show love in so many other ways. And if the blue pill doesn't work, we wish you wouldn't try painful, embarrassing remedies that probably won't work either.  We still enjoy physical closeness and cuddling. It doesn't have to end in "the act". We wish you wouldn't talk about "performance", or lack of it; sports cars and trained seals perform.  You don't have to peform to earn our love.

I think you are right that these things make one think about death.  I think about death a lot more than I used to. I had a 45th year class reunion a couple of weeks ago. About 16% of our class has died.  Considering our average age is only 63, that was sobering. Not everyone lives to their 80's or 90's.  I was all bummed that I don't look a bit like my yearbook picture anymore.  But nobody else did either. We had a good time; people had finally grown out of all the high school cliquey pettiness. In some ways we do get better as we get older.  Just not in every way.

Whether with the disciples cowering in the boat, or with Peter sinking beneath the waves, we all cry out with common voice: "Lord, save us – we are perishing!"

I remember your wonderful posts about praying the rosary.

I think I read somewhere that it is important to pray in good times so that our past prayer may still support us at times when prayer is difficult or impossible. Maybe it was in Cardinal Bernardin's little book about his experience with cancer, and about finding himself unable to pray during certain periods.



You have it. Page 67 of The Gift of Peace: "Pray while you are well because if you wait until you are sick you may not be able to do it."


Hang in there. The rest of us will do some of your praying for you until this, too, passes.

Many thanks for the post and for the comments.

This is a common problem that few people talk about, and I thank unagidon for writing about it.

Equally common is the way wives often feel they have to soothe, coddle, and somehow "make it up" to their raging spouses for what nature has taken away. Women understand that a period of mourning goes on (and they usually have their own mourning to do privately). 

Everyone responds differently to these types of things (Winifred and I have very different responses to our miscarriages). But the rage and anger over being handed any type of setback can sometimes get to be a habit such that it blinds one to the joys and solaces of other aspects of life. Ultimately, that's worse than the original problem.

My guess is that all of us who've read this have said a prayer for you to receive the grace to accept what is. Many of us will keep praying until you can do so yourself. And even if we didn't, the saints in heaven would. You're a Catholic, man; you're never alone. 

Hi, Unagidon:

I read something many years ago by Norman Podhoretz that I filed away in my memory for future reference.  

I forget what ailment had stricken him, but his recommendation for getting through it was humor.  He rented funny movies and read funny books.  

Humor lasts, even when looks go and bits of the body fail.  



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