In Killer Graces, Steve Melen shares his journey of adoption, cancer, addiction, and breakthrough living.
By Kelsey Allen
This is not the worst year Steve Melen has had by far. In 2008, the then 38-year-old had a new baby, a new job at a new company — and Stage IIIB stomach cancer. With a 15% chance of survival, Melen had his stomach, spleen, half his pancreas, and a third of his esophagus removed. He spent a month recovering at the hospital — and developing an addiction to painkillers. Six weeks of chemo and radiation didn’t help. When his wife threatened to leave him, taking their 1-year-old daughter, Melen detoxed off the pills. But he was still in pain.
Adopted when he was 2 1/2, Melen struggled with feelings of isolation and abandonment. Although he’d survived cancer treatment, he still suffered from “scanxiety” — the apprehension felt by people with cancer as they wait for their next scan. This time, he turned to alcohol. And this time, his wife did leave with their daughter.
In 2013, Melen checked himself into rehab. Motivated by his daughter, he had his last drink on May 2. Today, Melen works as a financial adviser at LPL Financial. He serves on the board for Debbie’s Dream Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about stomach cancer, and is a PREP mentor, helping newly diagnosed patients navigate the early stages of stomach cancer. Now married to his high school sweetheart, Melen has published a book about his years navigating life’s biggest challenges, COVID not included. In Killer Graces, written with Matthew Hose, Melen shares his story of recovering from cancer and addiction.
“It was very insightful to get inside the author’s head to hear about the real and uncensored challenges he had to deal with throughout his life,” writes one reviewer on Amazon. “From his early successes to his struggles with cancer that led to substance abuse and in the end breaking through stronger than ever was truly motivating. An excellent example of how perseverance can pay off when times are tough.”
Melen sat down with Renew to talk about his path from pain to power,
Renew: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Steve Melen: I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in an unwed mother’s home. My mom brought me to California nine months later, and I lived in San Jose until I was 2 1/2. At that point, I was adopted and moved to Saratoga.
I did not know what I wanted to do or be. I was an only child, and I was adopted. I had this need and desire to be liked and wanted. I was very outgoing and more of an extrovert. My adopted family was definitely not that way. I was different from them. You wonder about nature and nurture: How did I get to be who I am now, and how much of the influence came from biology and how much came from my family that adopted me?
When I hit high school, I was looking for that persona of who I wanted to be. I ended up finding reggae. That was my music. That coincided with me wanting to become a surfer. My now-wife knew me in high school and she always thought I’d be a CEO of a surf company because I was a surfer in high school and smoked a lot of pot. That’s what I did — surfing, sports, getting by in school, enjoying high school. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I was in Saratoga with my adopted parents until I went off to college at the University of San Diego. I graduated with a business degree. I still didn’t even really know what I wanted to do when I graduated from college.
Renew: The book opens with you hungover on the Great Wall of China. What was your relationship to drugs and alcohol growing up?
SM: My adoptive parents didn’t drink. There wasn’t alcohol around. They weren’t drinkers. Now, I knew that my biological father was an alcoholic. I had heard through my parents that my biological mom had told them that he had problems that that’s why she had to leave. The point was laid into me that it’s in my family and I’ve got to be careful.
I was influenced by older people when I got into high school. I was in the advanced classes with juniors and seniors when I was a freshman in high school. I just wanted to be liked and thought I wanted to be “cool.” They were all drinking and smoking pot. The surfer guys were doing it, and it was part of the reggae culture. I got into smoking pot when I was a freshman in high school. It started out being once a month, then once a week, then multiple times a week by the end of high school. Drinking started out being once a month, then it was every weekend by the end of high school. I liked how it made me more outgoing. I thought I was funnier and thought I was happier and thought that everything was cool. I could deal with it back then. It was all fun, of course, until it wasn’t 27 years later.
Renew: What do you remember about the days leading up to your stomach cancer diagnosis?
SM: I was drinking but didn’t think it was as big of an issue. My now ex-wife and I were traveling all over the world. We went to South Africa, China, South America. My friends and I would go to Vegas and Cabo and LA. I ran with the bulls in Spain. I went to Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. I went to all the big parties around the world. To me, I was just having a great time living life to the fullest.
But I wasn’t happy in my marriage. We were married for three years or so. We had just had a baby. I was at a new job with a new company. I had to get serious.
Cancer wasn’t on your mind.
SM: Not at all! What was happening in the couple months prior to the diagnosis was I was getting a pain in my upper esophagus. I would drink a glass or two of wine to soften it up, to loosen up the pain that was there so I could actually eat and not feel pain. I was self-medicating for the pain I was feeling.
I had already been to the doctor twice. The doctor had taken blood tests for ulcers. They were negative. They thought it was stress, so they gave me Protonix. The final time I went to my local emergency room. That’s where they did blood tests, found out I was anemic, did a scan, saw something, did an endoscopy, saw a mass. Two weeks later, I’m having my stomach and spleen and half my pancreas and a third of my esophagus removed followed by chemo and radiation.
Renew: Killer Graces is about your “path from pain.” Are you talking about more than the pain of the tumor, surgery, chemo, and radiation?
SM: Oh, there was so much pain across the board — mental and physical. The physical pain and the mental pain from that surgery date on was enormous. I wanted to die. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I didn’t know if I could take much more. It’s easy for me to say I was in pain for a long time, so I ended up getting addicted to pain meds. I was taking 20 OxyContins a day. But if you rewind, there was pain before that I was medicating, like anxiety, discomfort, just things I was trying to relieve myself of. When I was in high school, the anxiety started to build. In college, I went to therapists trying to figure out why I had such social anxiety. I was numbing it then with more alcohol. I didn’t realize it until after the fact that getting rid of alcohol got rid of 98% of my anxiety. I mean, I spent 17 years in therapy.
Renew: At one point, you go to a medical marijuana dispensary and the doctor asks you what has made you smile that day. You struggled to think of something. What were those days like after the surgery and during chemo and radiation?
SM: It was faking it, faking that I was going to be OK. I left the hospital after a month, because of the complications, basically addicted to pain meds. I was taking Dilaudid, Ativan, fentanyl patch, OxyContin, OxyCodone. I lost so much weight that I was down to 95 pounds — I’m 6-foot-1 — So I had to get a PICC line in my arm to get nutrients. I’m sitting on my couch or lying in my bed for months, and every time I get up, I try to put a smile on my face and pretend that things are somewhat OK. What people don’t see is that it’s like 24-hour pain and suffering. I was not telling anybody that I was going to die, but there was a lot of crying behind doors. I didn’t know how much more I could take.
A wall went up between me and my wife. I think she thought I wasn’t going to make it. Same with pretty much everyone else, including the doctors. They pumped me up with pain meds because they didn’t think I’d survive. The odds were against me. When the wall gets up, next thing you know, I’m living in my house and I’m medicating heavily with the pain meds. I wasn’t even drinking alcohol. But the isolation in my own house was getting to be greater and greater. My wife and my daughter were pulling away from me, and I was just by myself in a house with a wife and a daughter and all these things — but I felt super lonely. I was by myself. ‘How are you married with a child, yet you feel as lonely as you do?’ So, what do you do? You continue to medicate. At that time, I didn’t realize the pill problem was as bad as it was. I went to go see a friend of mine who was also the anesthesiologist during my surgery. He goes, ‘It’s not if but when these pills are going to get you. You’re going to have to ween off these things.’ And it started to get worse. For the last six months, I went from five pills a day to 10 pills a day to 20 pills a day. That’s enough to kill a horse. At that time, my wife said she’d have to leave me if I didn’t stop. With a pill, it’s different from alcohol. With alcohol, you know you’re a freaking disaster. You know you’re a mess. With pills, you’re not so sure. You think you need them. You feel like you need them and people don’t get it. You get that chronic pain.
When I ran out of pills, I said I was going to stop. You can’t stop immediately, but I tried. Then 48 hours later, I’m getting wheeled into the emergency room. I’m sure I’m dying. They check everything. They ask me if I want a Dilaudid shot. I say yes. I was able to get up and walk out of there immediately. From getting wheeled in a wheelchair to being able to walk out and go eat a burrito, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so addicted.’ That’s when I realized I had a problem with pills. Then I detoxed off the pills for over 30 days and gained 20 pounds.
Renew: Tell me more about your road to recovery.
SM: So I detox off of the pills for a month. Now I’m feeling better — so I went back to having wine. I have a thousand-bottle wine cellar. ‘Let’s go back to living this life,’ I thought. So I was starting to slowly have wine and drinks — and that escalated over the next couple years. The wine turned into more wine turned into cocktails and parties and behavior that was unacceptable. I wasn’t necessarily too bad out in public. It was more working my way up through the day and getting back home and being a mess at home. It got to a point where my wife was like, ‘I’m not going to watch you continue to kill yourself when you survived cancer. We’re getting divorced.’
So it was on the table that we were getting divorced, but it wasn’t official. We were supposed to do it in June. I went to rehab in December and spent two weeks in rehab. In those two weeks, I felt better. I thought I was fine. So after those two weeks, I went back home thinking I’d had it all figured out. I was just going to have a glass of wine. Well, I didn’t. I thought I could control it still — the alcohol — and I couldn’t. So over the next few months, I proceeded to really go downhill fast, which led me to May 2, 2013, just praying out loud on the floor of my kitchen: ‘I need help. I can’t do this anymore. I have to go back to rehab.’ When my wife woke up, I begged her to take me to rehab. She drove me — and that was the last time we were together.
I spent 30 days there in rehab and then I spent five months in sober living. At first, it was two or three AA meetings a day. I did more than 90 in 90. I did like 300 in the first 90. Finally, after five months, I checked out of the sober living complex and went and lived in an apartment and was fighting to get visitation rights with my daughter back. Everything now is awesome, but damn, that was a brutal period of more isolation and loneliness. I had three roommates die. It was really hard. I’ve been in recovery since May 2, 2013.
Renew: Your book is dedicated to your daughter, who you say helped you transform into a better version of yourself. Can you say more about that?
SM: She was my inspiration. I had had people leave me: My wife left me. My biological mom left me. I had this daughter who was my angel, who was keeping me strong. I felt like she was the one thing I had to live for at that particular time. When I was living in sober living and would go visit her for an hour or two with my mother-in-law or with the nanny, I was sober, but I was treated like I was not safe still. She was just this little innocent girl that needed her dad. I had to be there for her. We all need some sort of inspiration, and at that point, if I didn’t have her, I don’t know where I would have gone to. Now my daughter is 14. We get along really well.
Renew: When do you move from pain to power?
SM: When I started to hear feedback from all my friends that are still partying and all my fellow cancer friends who were going through treatment the same time I was. Having them see me and every single time I saw them, they would say how much better I look and how much healthier I am and how great I’m doing. It started to turn into this cycle of power that I was feeding on. I could use that. Now, I’m no longer the partying Steve guy. I have a story of an ex-partying life, an ex-cancer life and now I’m living in the present and mentoring people for cancer and addiction and I have enough time behind me now with both of these things that people call me. It’s weird to even say that I would be an inspiration or that I would be a role model. Even my doctor tells me I’m a miracle. I keep on hearing that from so many people, and that’s what gives me the power to keep on doing this. I’m getting such positive feedback. I remarried my high school sweetheart. She loves me more than anything. My daughter and I have a great relationship. My ex-wife and I can communicate. My friends all respect me significantly. My clients — I’m a financial adviser — never left me through this whole process. My reputation isn’t destroyed around town. There can be another side! That continues to give me power.
Renew: When does the idea for a book come to you?
SM: During my last couple months of drinking. I was in a bar for happy hour sitting with this older gentleman. He was an author and had written multiple books. We started talking, and I was doing what I typically do — my song and dance story of travel, of cancer recovery, and how incredible it was. He said I should write a book. And at that point, like 50 people had told me I should write a book. But I’d never really come across someone who could actually do it. So he and I met for the next year and started doing outlines, taking notes, writing chapters. But then he got very sick with Parkinson’s and could no longer do it. So I restarted this project with four different authors. Finally at the end, the one who wrote the book, Matthew Hose, was a writer at my local newspaper in Marin County. He heard my story and wanted to share it with the local community. He wrote an article about me that won an award, but he’d never written a book. So we then spent the next two years. So it took me seven years to write the book.
Renew: Can you talk about the writing process? Were you journaling throughout this experience?
SM: I had stacks of interviews and papers from the first and second and third writers. When I got to Matthew, we did hourlong sit-down interviews at my house, at his place, at coffee shops for the next year. We went over all these stories and were trying to figure out what sequence to put them in, what I had in mind, what I wanted to get out of it. And, of course, with a new book author, it took twice as long as expected. I mean, none of this is going to be profitable. This is not for profit. The benefit I’m getting out of this is really that people’s response to this has been so positive and that they love it and it gives them hope.
Renew: What did you learn through writing this book?
SM: I have a lot more respect for people who write books. I hope that it gets out to people and helps people. I mean, I have a friend who is in recovery for 20 years. He heard that I wrote this book, and he wanted to do the audiobook. And after two months of recording, we just finished my audiobook, which I just submitted to Amazon. The book is being read by a first-time audio reader who happens to be a 20-year sober friend of mine that had a dream of doing an audiobook. He is the narrator of my audiobook. What I’m getting out of this is something that money can’t necessarily buy.
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Kelsey Allen is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. To see more of her work, visit kelseydallen.com