John Armijo - PTSD, Keanu, and Me
I was officially 5 weeks out of BEP chemotherapy, 3 rounds. I expected the horrors of the experience to end the day they turned off the faucet they had installed in my chest. I rejoiced in my belief that instead of every day getting worse, it would get a little bit better. While I'm no fan of surgery, I can rest easily knowing that each day is generally an improvement as my body heals. No such luck with chemotherapy.
After the BEP ended, I went to bed a few days later and simply could not sleep. I found it odd, but my body would not 'turn off'. The next day I slept two hours. When I tried to nap during the day, any time I would nod off, I would jolt awake with a 'fight or flight' mental state. A day or so later, I was sure I was having a heart attack. We called my oncologist who told me I was experiencing a deeper, emotional issue, and while he could help with the cancer, he wasn't a therapist, and suggested I seek help. He also prescribed me Restoril to help me sleep, and Xanax to help the symptoms of the panic attacks.
It turned out I was experiencing PTSD. My body and mind were so completely under attack emotionally, mentally and physically, that it had gone into pure self defense mode, so powerful that any prescribed drugs had no effect, including Ambien. All the side effects seemed to work just fine however. From suicidal thoughts to restless leg syndrome (sounds SO made up), the side effects were in motion 24 hours a day. To make matters WORSE, chemobrain was in full effect, so I couldn't concentrate to read, listen to music, or watch TV to break the mental attacks. Hell, I was barely able to hold a conversation, and suffering from depression and anxiety the likes of which I never knew existed, let alone ever experienced.
In my quickly-going-insane mind, I had already died and was in Hell. I couldn't leave the house due to low immunities and had lost everything in my mind, from the ability to sleep and eat, and now my sanity was next on the checklist before I ultimately lost my life. A bit exaggerated in retrospect, but very real to me at the time
We moved about this time as we reorganized our life. I went from 5 weeks of 2-4 hours of horrible sleep a night, with suicidal and violent thoughts to SIX HOURS SLEEP the first night in our new house. For the next month I slept, and slept, and slept and slept. I had to force myself from bed each day, I was so mind boggling tired, and any attempt at physical labor was short lived, and ending in fatigue- a different kind of tired. I know all this sounds kind of strange... but unless you've been through it yourself, you have absolutely no idea how terrible, intense, draining, frightening and paralyzing all of this is. And so far, none of this is even about the chemotherapy itself.
So again, May, 2015.
I was defeated. I had so completely accepted my death as this point, I was simply waiting for it. I was sad, but it was an accepted fact - it was going to happen.
But then something happened that I didn't expect: I didn't die.
I didn't expect to live in my drug induced outlook so I really didn't have much of a plan. As I regained the ability to taste, I began to eat again. And to sleep again, and to regrow my hair. My muscle was completely wiped out and I'd lost about 30 pounds. Neuropathy was the latest side effect to take hold, so now I was dropping things as I couldn't feel the ends of my finger, and I couldn't judge pressure in my fingertips. Even texting and using my phone was now a challenge. My feet were worse than my hands because every step felt like I was walking on rocks, and my arms would cramp up below the elbows, and my calves would cramp up as well. And, for good measure I'd get dozens of electrical jolts in my hands, legs, fingers and feet several dozen times day to make sure I never got bored.
About this time I was talking with my pal Terry Dizard, who has been in a wheelchair for most of his life. He's been told he's on borrowed time for over 25 years. The man is self sufficient, runs websites, works in IT, drives and is as capable as anyone I know, and MORE capable that many non-handicapped people I know. What keeps him going is his acceptance of his situation, and he was able to win the mental battle . He began to share his thoughts with me, and reached into that dark pit and began to pull me out. Something for which I am forever in his debt.
I work in the film industry part time, and take roles that I enjoy. My parts typically revolve around cops, soldiers, thugs or other misc. 'tough guys'. Nearly every part includes running, shooting, and just being very physical- films such as Jurassic World, Planet of the Apes, GI JOE. When I started chemo, it was a hard pill to swallow that I would have to put that aspect of life on hold, for who knew how long. I had to turn down a couple gigs along the way, which was quite upsetting.
At one point a pal of mine had gone to the casting office, and told me he had seen my photo on the wall, with a Post-It, that said “John has cancer, don't bother him”, which sucked to hear. It was the casting office that REALLY took care of me, and always had my back. They were also the first to rehire me when I was ready to get back to the grind. Always had a great relationship, and still do to this day.
During one of my pep talks I mentioned that I missed my film work, but felt I wasn't ready to re-enter the world, because I didn't know where I fit into it anymore. I was a changed person -mentally AND physically. He insisted I take the next call that came, and accept the job. Sure enough a call came soon after for a TV show called “Hap and Leonard”, where I was offered a role as a Texas state trooper. I accepted.
My call time was 5pm, but we would not be shooting my parts till about midnight. I play a cop a lot, so I own my boots. I put them on for the first time in months, and while it was nice to be back on location, I was very self conscious about my appearance, having lost most of my muscle, my hair was pretty much back to appearing normal, but my feet hurt from the neuropathy, so I felt I was walking funny. Plus, I knew what I had gone through, and assumed the whole world did too. I arrived and put on my wardrobe and went to catering to sit and eat. Then the fatigue decided to kick in.
I hadn't done a single thing besides drive an hour, change clothes and eaten dinner, and the wave of fatigue hit me like a freight train. I tried reading and socializing a bit, but since our shooting time was getting pushed back a bit, the PA told me that if I wanted to pass out in the trailer, she'd come and get me when it was time to shoot. I took her up on the offer, and passed out for 4 hours in the trailer.
When it was time to shoot, she came and got me and after I propped up with my belt and gun, etc. we went to set where I ran into a cameraman pal of mine, and another actor buddy. Two guys that had followed me along my journey thus far, but I hadn't seen in months. We caught up, then we filmed my scenes and I wrapped and left. It was about 3am, and I was absolutely exhausted. I drove home in my socks because my feet hurt so bad, and when I got home I could barely walk up the driveway. BUT, for as difficult that task was, I was able to do it, so it was a huge mental victory.
I went home and continued to slowly work on my mental state. I wasn't functional at all in my opinion. The chemobrain would make me just “pause” several times a day. I would lose my train of thought, and rather than speak a word, I'd just sit and stare blankly until my brain kicked back in. During my chemo treatments, there was a an AMC TV show filming that I REALLY wanted to get on, called “Into the Badlands”. Because I was sick, it wasn't even a possibility. However, my son who has worked on a few TV shows and movies over the years got a call in early June asking if he could do three days on an episode. We agreed and I took him out. While he worked I managed to reconnect with my casting director who was able to see me in person and asked if I was ready to really jump back into things. I said yes, and for the next three days was able to hang out on set and just slowly start to work my way back into my old life -which I found very odd because I didn't realize it at the time, but I wasn't the same person anymore.
My son wrapped up his time on Into The Badlands and I went back to trying to heal my mind and body. I didn't know it at the time, but it would be close to 15 months before the fatigue would go away. This summer of 2015 was to be extremely hot as well, and even trying to do yard work which I could typically knock out in a day, was taking me three days to complete, with many, many, many breaks. Even with breaks I'd need three days to recover.
About midway through June I got a call to work on a movie called “Deepwater Horizon”, a Mark Whalberg production of the BP oil spill in Louisiana, starring John Malkovich and Kurt Russell. I'd worked with Whalberg before on a few different occasions over the years, and it's always a good experience, and this was a very easy day with NO physical parts, and since I was in poor physical condition anyway, I agreed. I went to my fitting, did my work for one day and it was extremely uneventful. In fact, I'd even call it boring. I still looked like Hell in my opinion with my peach fuzz hair, but judge for yourself:
On the way home from that shoot, my phone rang and I was asked if I was interested in coming back to Deepwater Horizon in July, for 10 days of filming in the water tank. During the film the oil rig workers would be floating in the ocean, covered in oil, and being pulled from the water onto boats and helicopters. Needlesss to say, it would be hot, and extremely physical. But, since it was a month away, I agreed. I hung up the phone not sure if I had made the right decision. I didn't know if I was going to be able to actually do it without hurting myself in the process. After I made this decision I put the phone down and continued to drive home. The phone rang again, and I was asked if I'd bail out on Deepwater Horizon and trade in for a movie called “Keanu”. I knew Keanu was filming, and that it was a comedy that SHOULDN'T be as intense as Deepwater Horizon was looking to be, also Keanu would be filming ten minutes from home as opposed to 90 minutes from home. It would also be a shoot out, and I like those and overall a much better role for me. I agreed and a month later, I was on set with Key & Peele for a rare gig on a comedy -something that just doesn't happen much for me.
I live in Mandeville, LA and Keanu was shooting in Covington, LA, about ten minutes away. A month later I rolled into our location and got into my first of two wardrobe. The shoot was to be three days total, and I would play two characters.
The first day was pretty uneventful. I met Cliff (Method Man), and Key and Peele and everyone else. It was a good team. Everyone was solid, friendly and we all worked well together. In this first scene I was to come out from a guarding position at my crime lord boss Luis Guzman's mansion, and meet a convoy of vehicles, who are delivering a bounty. We shot all day, about 12 hours. Extremely hot, but since I really wasn't doing anything extremely physical, I was holding up OK. After the days shot, Method Man invited everyone to his show, which I declined.
The next day I had to change outfits. Now I was to become a character that would be an armed, militia type bodyguard for Luis Guzman, and the scene would end in a massive shoot out. Now, while I was VERY excited to be in this scene, cause it's everything I love, I knew the challenges would be immense for my current state. First, I was still having a lot of trouble with my feet. I opted to wear my own boots again, for comfort. I was also having trouble with my hands and fingers, and thankfully the M4 I was assigned had a strap on it, so the couple of times I did lose my grip, it didn't fall to the ground. The heat index was about 120 degrees of Louisiana humidity. We had access to the mansion we were shooting at, so for the most part I tried to hang out inside to keep cool. Luis Guzman, who I worked with before was adamant that we all stay hydrated, and he was dead right, not long after Method Man collapsed from the heat. I was also asked if I would mind appearing shirtless as they tried a couple different looks for my outfit. I explained that I had some still fresh surgical scars, and my skin had been discolored due to the chemotherapy, and no audience wanted a look at that.
Over the next two days we completed our multiple scenes which included many, many, many takes of the same things over and over and over again. That's just how it works. We walked down 24 steps, in the 120 degree heat, holding a very heavy rifle, with bad hands, bad feet while battling fatigue. Over and over and over again. I was torturing myself, but at the same time challenging myself. I love doing this. This was my first gig BACK. First time since I thought I was going to die, and even though I was struggling, I was back in action. We knocked out several scenes, bodies flew, shell casings littered the ground, and Keanu the cat was saved.
More importantly, and perhaps more selfishly, I finally took another step in my recovery. See, starting in May I had begun to challenge myself: I tried to make each day better than the day before. In June, I expanded to a week... I would try to make each week before than before, and as July began, I challenged myself to make July better than June. And the plan was working. I didn't need to conquer the world, I just needed to know that I was progressing. And while there were plenty of challenges and plenty of steps backward, there was forward motion. Now, Keanu itself as a movie is silly. I thought it was silly when the premise was explained to me, and I thought it was silly when we filmed it. On any production I work on, I give it 150%, and this was no different. We hit a home run with it. And again, more importantly for me personally, it was a major victory. My confidence in myself was beginning to return.
While I love every production I work on for unique reasons, Keanu will always hold a VERY special place in my soul for the kick in the pants it gave my recovery journey. Watching a movie you've worked on is hard, because it's like watching a home movie: you were there and you know what efforts went into making that movie happen. It's frozen in time, and when I watch that movie, I can see myself from my current state of being, but it takes me back to that time, and I know where I was mentally and physically watching it. I can look back now and pat myself on the back for taking that step to move myself forward.