I was born in Bryan, Texas to my mother Roberta Ann Pugh and my father James Richard Pugh on August 14th, 1984. My father died when I was just three years old. My mother raised both my younger brother Jameson and I with the help of both families. I was stubborn as a child. I refused to learn to read until the third grade, where by chance I happened upon a fantastic teacher who made reading fun. By the time I reached the eighth grade my reading skills surpassed that of most high school juniors. Some said I spoke far too much as a child and when I stopped speaking, people said I spoke barely enough. This created an anxiety around speaking that I struggle with to this day.
At the young age of thirteen, I earned the rank of Eagle Scout from the Boy Scouts of America. Computers had become an integral part of my life. By the age of fourteen I was creating three-dimensional digital art, motion graphics and was designing and coding my personal website. In 2001, my programming work for a complementary iTunes program, titled iTunes Associator, saw my name and software published in the German book Das MP3-Kochbuch and magazines in the United States, France and Japan. It was also a featured download on Download.com. In its lifetime the application garnered over 100,000 downloads. From 2001-2002, I designed, coded and maintained the website for Fisher The Band. In 2000, their hit song "I Will Love You" was named the most downloaded song in internet history. The band’s singer Kathy Fisher went on to work with Paul Van Dyk, The Thrillseekers and George Acosta.
In the fall of 2002, at the age of eighteen, I began my quixotic studies at Texas A&M University as a philosophy major. I adored my core coursework and how it stretched my mind and expanded my limited view of reality. It was in my freshman year that I found myself socially for the first time. I met a girl whom I would one day call my sister. As I began to question what I was doing, I questioned the validity of the degree I was pursuing and decided it was nothing more than a very expensive piece of paper. I dropped out. I then found myself without direction. My aunt Mary convinced me to join the U.S. Army where I learned the trade of a photographer and videographer.
I spent just over five years, from 2005-2010, as a broadcast journalist and eventually as an anchor for the American Forces Network Korea. I covered Kunsan Air Base, Seoul, the Demilitarized Zone and many other locations around the peninsula. I filmed, wrote, edited and delivered award-winning news reports broadcasted on four continents to an audience of millions. I interviewed celebrities and high-ranking military personnel from across the globe. I produced motion graphics and commercials for both radio and television. Some of the footage I filmed appeared on the BBC in Britain and Fuji TV in Japan.
My time in the Army provided me with the opportunity to meet some of the most amazing individuals I’ve encountered in this life. I discovered within myself one of the greatest joys I’ve come to know found within a camera and a lens. I developed my skills as a photographer in Korea and saw my work exhibited in Barcelona and included in an online travel guide. In 2007, I traveled to India with the goal of publishing a book and to satisfy my desire to photograph the holy city of Varanasi and its people. I contracted dysentery from an unpasteurized lassi, which subsequently dismantled my immune system in no time at all. I lost about 20 pounds in four days and nearly died from dehydration. It took me nearly six months after returning to Korea to recover from the emotional toll the trauma took on my psyche to finally complete my book.
In 2009, I yet again faced a close encounter with death. I sustained dozens of lacerations on my arms, torso and legs, and the loss of some muscle tissue in my left hand while filming on Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia. My naïveté of ocean tides lead me to being interviewed for the reality TV show Bondi Rescue. In late 2009, Texas A&M University's Spirit magazine published an article I wrote as a foray into the world of print journalism, which told the story of alumni in Seoul observing the tradition of Aggie Muster.
In January 2010, I left active duty and returned to the States. In the months that followed, I traveled with my brother, exploring seventeen national parks and visiting family and friends along the way. In the fall, I decided to return to the military part-time with the Texas Army National Guard. The 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment in Austin, Texas employed me as a photojournalist and public affairs specialist. By 2011, I began to freelance as a photographer while working towards finishing my bachelor’s degree. Some of my more notable clients included the Texas A&M Foundation, Scion, the Eagle (a local Bryan-College Station newspaper), the Texas A&M University Office of International Outreach and AggieSports.com - where I was lucky enough to get to film the 2010 A&M home football games.
On February 27, 2013, I died.
I do not remember dying. I merely slipped from one consciousness to another, unknown, state of existence. I can still vividly recall my euphoric near-death experience before more than twenty doctors reunited my spirit and body. The twisted, terrifying and unexplainable lucid consciousness that followed my resurrection during my two-week coma continues to haunt me to this day. When I awoke, I had sustained more muscle cell death than my doctors had ever witnessed anyone survive. I had lost one-fourth of my body mass. I was so weak that I could not open an ordinary bottle of water. I had to relearn how to sit, how to stand and how to walk all over again.
My death was the culmination of a toxic and abusive three-year relationship in which I was entangled prior to my demise. If I shared with you the intimate details of what transpired during those three years, few of you would point the blame squarely at me. But, in the fullness of time, I’ve come to recognize how my actions ultimately created and perpetuated my own suffering. In my blind obsession to make the relationship work at any cost, I found myself bound in a cycle of attachment and aversion which I did not understand how to break. I had not learned, as I now have, how to let go.
In spite of being told I would be reliant on an array of machines for the remainder of my life, I recovered. My journey towards independence happened far faster than anyone could have expected. I left the hospital seven weeks later on April 16th. By the middle of August, I was able to run an entire mile. In September, I could leg press 500 pounds. Before the year was finished I ran a half marathon in two hours and thirty eight minutes. When I became acutely aware of the burden my belongings placed on me, I purged approximately ninety percent of my everything I owned in favor of a simpler and less cluttered life. In February 2014, I finally graduated from the American Military University with a Bachelor of Arts in General Studies.
Looking from afar, I seemed victorious. It seemed as though I had made a complete recovery. But under the surface, in my digestive system, trouble was brewing at an alarming rate. I could feel the emerging problem long before I ever left of the hospital, but for a long time I just assumed my gut’s recovery was simply lagging behind the rest of my body. As time marched on, I slipped further and further into poorer and poorer health and into an increasingly distressed state of mind.
In the second year of my new life, I sought out the expert advice of doctors who specialized in gut health only to discover the arrogance and ignorance that modern medicine wielded. I was told that there was nothing wrong with me or I received incorrect diagnoses. I even encountered doctors who understood there was indeed a problem but could only shrug and say, “We’re sorry, but we simply can’t help you.”
Incensed, I vowed to resolve for myself what had become a debilitating illness and to never again step foot in those doctors’ offices. I devoted myself, like I had never done so before in the entirety of my life, towards understanding the source of the mysterious illness that plagued me and once uncovered, realize a solution. I poured through countless academic research papers, parsed various clinical trails and read book after book. I tested all the various hypotheses of what potentially could be wrong by conducting experiments on myself that frequently proved to be excruciatingly painful failures. But, with either failure or with success, each experiment slowly offered a piece of the puzzle and revealed clues as to what was really going on within my bowels.
Eventually, it all came together and I understood fully what was wrong. Although the doctors had kept me from the grave, the six-weeks course of antibiotics they administered during my hospital stay laid a foundation paved with much misery. People often equate bacteria with ‘bad’ and antibiotics with ‘good’. But nothing could be further from the truth. I recognize that antibiotics were critical for my survival, but they had seemingly devestated my life. But, to quote one of my favorite books, “Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.”
We are interconnected and interdependent with our microbes. Health and disease is a matter of their balance or imbalance in our guts. Antibiotics only destroy that balance and frequently cause life-long problems or fatal diseases. It’s such a simple truth but one that so few people understand. Much in the same way that death shook my core understanding of life, seeing the relationship we have with our microbes has irreversibly altered the way I view health.
In August, 2016, I moved to Baton Rouge to be with the one I love and to seek out a fresh start in life. Understanding that the relationship I have with my microbes is not an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ scenario but rather that our lives are inextricably linked has shown me a new way to live and restored the majority of my health. I’m currently still working to remedy the comparatively small portion of symptoms that still remain.
Dying and being so ill for such a long time has changed me in a number of ways for which I’m incredibly grateful. I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be ‘me’ and what’s truly important in my life. When in college, I always felt that I never understood life very well because I felt that I had never truly suffered. Now, I can say that I genuinely have suffered my fair share. I sought out an end to suffering and found a path that leads to it’s eventual extinction. This path has taught me to live honestly for the first time and helped me see the world for what it is. All of this turmoil has proved to serve as the basis for a great sea change in me. I don’t recognize the person that I used to be - and I’m glad of it.
Photography: Pugh Photography.com and Flickr
Videography: AFN Korea work and film work
Book: Culture Shock
Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2016 Josiah Pugh. All rights reserved.