The Golden Girls Make Me Sick

I was in my late twenties and cancer took a great deal from me – mountains of money I didn’t have, a year of my life, some body parts, several friends, and “The Golden Girls.”

“The Golden Girls” ran for seven years on NBC, a whopping 180 episodes in total. By any standards, that’s an impressive run. The star power of the cast was undeniable. Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty delivered adult but family-friendly comedy, occasionally with a touch of drama to mix things up. The show’s staying power is impressive, its reruns are still available on streaming services and on demand via Hulu.

And to this day I cannot watch an episode without feeling a near overwhelming desire to vomit. This condition has improved over the years, but beginning in late 1991, a few years before the show ended, I could not so much as hear the show’s opening theme music without violent gastric distress. 

In 1991 I had cancer. Bad enough on its own, but add in a hospital wing being actively remodeled and a wall-mounted TV that got exactly one channel (NBC), the unfortunate timing of my chemotherapy, and the heavy rotation of  “The Golden Girls” reruns in the afternoon, and you’ve got yourself a witches brew, a confluence of ingredients ready made to create lasting associations.

I was in my late twenties and cancer took a great deal from me – mountains of money I didn’t have, a year of my life, some body parts, several friends, and “The Golden Girls.” The financial impact of cancer and the year of illness and recovery, these were temporary impacts compared to the Golden Girls-adjacent nausea. The body parts (I’ll spare you the gory details) while permanent losses, were manageable and sustainable losses, necessary for my survival.

The friends who walked away because they couldn’t handle the fact I might die or because, in at least one case, they thought I had AIDS, these too were sustainable losses – other friends rose to the occasion and remained steadfast during my illness and beyond.

But cancer has destroyed my enjoyment of “The Golden Girls.” My inpatient chemo was perfectly timed to run through the lunch hour. A nurse would hook up the IV bag, dial up the dose, then head off for their lunch break, a set-it-and-forget-it process, interrupted by the arrival of my hospital lunch. The quality of my meals, and I’m just being honest here, was rarely good on the way down and did not improve on the way up. 

But I had to eat and couldn’t always count on a visitor to bring me my favorite “I’m too sick to eat” meal of a baked potato and Frosty from Wendy’s. It was a struggle that dropped my weight from an unhealthy 275 pounds down to an even unhealthier 175. Although, on the upside, I had a 34 waist again for the first time since high school and could once again fit into my old American-made Levi’s. Nevertheless, it is not a weight loss strategy I can recommend.

There I would be, stuck in my hospital bed, a remote control for the TV that had two big and noisy buttons, On and Off, because there were no channels to change, and a few hours after starting my chemo both the nausea and the Golden Girls would arrive. “Thank You for Being a Friend” became the theme music for both the TV series and my episodes of retching. 

One might ask, “Why not turn the TV off?” and I would answer because I was stuck in a hospital bed, unable to sit up to read and desperate for any distraction that would help the time pass and simultaneously drown out the sounds of construction reverberating through the walls and floors. Also, the association between the sitcom and the sickness didn’t become apparent to me until the first time I watched the show at home after my treatment was complete and I was on my way to recovery.

I remember with absolute clarity the first time this complex relationship made itself manifest. It was one month after my last hospital stay. I was at home, alone, making dinner. I turned the TV on and by coincidence it was the top of the hour and “The Golden Girls” theme started playing. I was in the kitchen, the TV was on in living room – I couldn’t see the screen. Within seconds, I was making a beeline for the bathroom. Once I’d ejected everything I’d manage to eat that day, I entered the living room and plunked myself down on the sofa.

And I felt worse. Much worse. I decided to turn off the TV and put aside the meal I was making. The moment I shut off the television I started to feel better. Soon after I felt like I could get up, make dinner and go for a walk. Without thinking about it, I turned the TV back on and within seconds of Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan exchanging a couple of snarky lines, I was ill again. 

Shut the TV off, and I felt better. That’s when I knew, “The Golden Girls” makes me sick. I know the title of this essay does not use proper grammar. Proper would be to say “The Golden Girls Makes Me Sick” because we’re talking about a singular TV series, but I like my title the way it is, there’s a better flow to it. At any rate, there’s one positive to this, which is the original Andrew Gold version of “Thank You for Being a Friend” is not now, nor has it ever been, a part of my medical oddity.

I’ve never been a big fan of the song, but it’s also never made me puke. I’ll put that in the plus column. Regarding “The Golden Girls,” as part of the writing of this essay I started an episode on YouTube, to see if the connection was still there. Sadly, it is safe to say, “The Golden Girls” still makes me sick.

In the grand scheme of things this problem is small and unimportant. But it’s an unusual remnant of a long-ago period of my life, one that reminds me more than anything else that I survived cancer and have now lived more years since I was diagnosed than I had lived before I fell ill. That’s at the very top of my plus column. You might say I’m durable, like a beloved sitcom, albeit not nearly as funny and hopefully never as nauseating.

One final note. After I recovered I spoke with a lawyer. I had been misdiagnosed by an ER doc who refused to listen to my symptoms and wrote my condition up as “stress induced gastritis.” He gave me a shot and sent me on my way. A few months later, the cancer had spread into my lungs and was making a forced march toward my brain. The lawyer told me, and I’m not sure he was right about this, but he told me I didn’t have a case for medical malpractice because I hadn’t suffer any permanent harm. I could debate this on any number of points, but from my current perspective, I’d say losing out on what was arguably one of the greatest sitcoms of all time represents a significant loss. There’s also that bit about the money and the body parts, but like I said, those were survivable. This Golden Girls issue is not going away.