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Seeing Stars: A 'Jeopardy!' Story

I went to Los Angeles to appear on Jeopardy!. My invisible illness came with me.
(Photo: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)

TUESDAY morning I ride the shuttle from the hotel to the studio lot. There are 13 of us, sizing one another up like drag racers at a red light. Here is what the others see when they look at me: a burgundy sweater, crisp black pants, and tall pumps swaddled in black silk. A clean face. A bright smile. Here is what is underneath: thick beige compression stockings and a sense of dread. Terror of forgetting my own name, of becoming The Girl Who Fainted on Jeopardy!.

Our names and life stories go onto index cards. Two index cards—two new players—will be selected at random before each episode to challenge the previous episode’s champion. We are coached through personalized five-second commercials: Hi! I'm Kate Horowitz, a science writer from Washington, D.C. Watch me write off the competition this week on Jeopardy! The black high heels are giving me a blister. I swap them for flip-flops. The make-up artist calls me Angel and paints my ashen face into a rosy picture of health. Someone finds a Band-Aid for my foot. Hours and episodes go by. The contestant wrangler calls my name.

I step back into my black heels and climb onto the stage. A gentle, bear-like man checks the placement of my lapel microphone while another elevates the platform under my feet so that all three contestants will appear roughly the same height. The make-up artist daubs fresh powder across my nose. I sign my name on the electronic pad in readable, looping script. The theme song begins.

* * *

The trip to the Jeopardy! studio had begun decades earlier. Like matzoh ball soup, a penchant for bad jokes, and the New York Times crossword, Jeopardy! is part of the Horowitz family fabric. My grandparents’ split-level home smelled like chicken broth and old books. Every weeknight their den filled with announcer Johnny Gilbert’s polished chrome voice: “This! Is! Jeopardy!

“You can call us any time, day or night,” my grandma used to say, “But call while Jeopardy! is on and we’ll write you out of the will.”

I sat in silence for a moment, letting it sink in, then sprang to my feet and kangaroo-hopped around the house, making a noise like a large, leaky balloon.

I would not describe myself as an ambitious person; my list of life goals is short. But “appear on Jeopardy!” is definitely on there. I’ve taken the online contestant test every year since I graduated college. This year, on my eighth try, I passed. I got an email invitation to an in-person audition and screen test four months later.

One month after the audition, at the end of June, my phone rang. The woman on the other end of the line identified herself as Lori From Jeopardy!. She asked if I were free the last week of July. "No," I heard myself say. "I'm sorry, but I’ll be away on vacation then."

Lori From Jeopardy! let my dumb words hang in the air.

"Wait," I said. "No. I take that back."

I wrote down the pertinent details and hung up the phone. I sat in silence for a moment, letting it sink in, then sprang to my feet and kangaroo-hopped around the house, making a noise like a large, leaky balloon. After a few minutes I got dizzy and had to sit down.

I called my boyfriend. "Are our vacation plans flexible?"

"Yeah, mostly. Why?"

I couldn't contain myself. "JEOPARDY!" I shouted into the phone. "I'M GOING TO BE ON JEOPARDY!." I heard wild whoops and hollers on his side.

"Great," Jared said, when he’d finished cheering. He was slightly out of breath. "When do we leave?"

"You want to come with me?" I had just assumed I’d be going alone.

"Of course! This is something you've dreamed of your whole life. I wouldn't miss it."

So Jared canceled our reservations for the lakeside cabin in Minnesota and switched our flights to Los Angeles. We agreed that we would try to squeeze as much vacation as we possibly could out of our four days in California.

* * *

The thing about Jeopardy! is that you have to know everything. I know a little about a lot of things: literature, art history, natural history, dance, folklore, obscure holidays, bizarre mammals, Elizabeth I, fashion, anatomy, mythology, sea creatures, Japanese culture, psychology, circus arts, cartoons.... My weak points were fewer, but they were big ones: history, geography, chemistry, and sports. With only four weeks to train, I decided to cover just the absolute fundamentals: the periodic table, U.S. state capitals, world capitals, U.S. presidents, and Super Bowl winners. I made hundreds of flash cards and kept them in my purse. By the time we left for California I'd learned everything except sports, and decided I'd just have to take my chances. Football hardly ever comes up on the show, anyway.

MONDAY early, so early, the plane reared on the runway. Thirty-seven thousand feet above the Earth, I gulped down a whole bottle of water and gave myself the hiccups. We touched down in Los Angeles, checked in to the hotel, and drove to the beach. I stood knee-deep and disbelieving in the glacier-green Pacific. I was there—fully dressed and bound to the shade of my silver umbrella, but there—in the ocean, on my own two feet.

* * *

When Jared and I first met, I was at the top of my game, running a few miles every night, cooking simple but sophisticated meals for us, loving my life. As we got to know one another, I told him about the dark years in my past, about my divorce, and about the years I spent too sick to get out of bed. I told him those days were behind me. At 27, I was healthy and happy.

The things we wanted for ourselves hung like thick clouds above the bed where I lay. We watched them float away.

But what felt like invincible health was just a period of remission. In the second year of our relationship, my illness returned. Jared had to learn how to be with sick me. I had to learn how to be with sick me. I had to learn all over again how to say, "I'm sorry, but I can't," not because I'm a quitter, but because I care enough about myself to know my limits.

Jared learned that, without warning, illness could take away our date nights and our hiking and our brunches with friends, that it could take away my ability to commute to work and do my own laundry. That sometimes I had to rest all day just to have enough energy to take a shower. The things we wanted for ourselves hung like thick clouds above the bed where I lay. We watched them float away.

* * *

Back on the set, Johnny Gilbert is saying my name. Before I can even begin to geek out, the camera zooms in on my face, on my artificially rosy cheeks, my extra-large eyes. Alex Trebek strides onto the stage. I heft the buzzer in my left hand and turn my face to the bank of blue screens to see the first six categories lighting up like premonitions of the next 10 minutes:

and, of course,

* * *

When I was 29, after a lifetime of intermittent medical mysteries, I finally got the correct diagnosis. Well, diagnoses.

Nobody's quite sure what causes the illnesses I have, how they all fit together, or where one stops and the next begins, but here's the current hypothesis: I was born with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that weakens and erodes my collagen, causes my joints to slip in and out of their sockets, and slackens my veins. The slack veins lead to Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS, which basically translates to dangerously low blood pressure, fainting spells, blacking out after standing up, nausea, brain fog, and crushing fatigue. That fatigue has, at times, left me too weak to leave my bed or stand on my own two feet.

And then it happens: Brain fog descends. Large swaths of my mental landscape go blank.

My doctors don't know yet where the Mast Cell Activation Disorder fits in, but I’ve got that, too. Mast cells, found in every organ of the body, including the skin, serve as the body's alarm system, clanging at the first sign of a dangerous intruder to rally the troops for a defense. Overeager mast cells cause allergic reactions like hives, facial and tongue swelling, trouble breathing, and, in severe cases, unconsciousness and shock. For someone with MCAD, anything can be a trigger—for me it's sunlight, sweating, alcohol, some foods, some medications, hot weather, and cold—and any trigger can set off a cascade of POTS symptoms. On top of that, the triggers are inconsistent. I might happily have a piece of pizza one day and swell up or get dizzy after eating dairy or gluten or tomatoes a week later. Every new stimulus, from a new prescription to a new climate, finds me walking on eggshells, wondering if this drug, this weather, this meal, will send me back to bed or to the hospital.

From the outside, I look just like everybody else.

* * *

I can’t believe these categories. Casinos? The NFL? At one point I actually set down my buzzer and watch Josh, the reigning champion, answer every question in the football category. I manage to ring in one time before the commercial break: “What is influenza?”

It figures.

During the break, the contestant wrangler sprints onstage to give me a pep talk (“The next round will be better! You’ll get ’em!”) and the stage manager checks to make sure my buzzer is still working.

* * *

Once I had diagnoses, treatments followed. For the POTS I was prescribed a regimen of compression stockings to keep the blood from pooling in my legs, a high-sodium diet to increase blood volume, and liters of water mixed with electrolyte supplements each day. For the MCAD, I got a cocktail of medications and another wardrobe change: long pants and long sleeves, and a reflective UV-blocking umbrella whenever I went outside.

It wasn’t fun, but it worked. After a few weeks on the new drugs, I could take a shower and make dinner in the same day. I could go back to the office. I could carry my own laundry. I wasn’t cured, but I was functional.

It was in this wonderingly coltish freedom that we planned our trip to Los Angeles. It was in this state of incredulous recovery that I packed a pair of shorts.

* * *

The pep talk works. I come back. I fight well.

ALEX: The Shema, recited morning and night. Kate?
KATE: What is Judaism?
ALEX: That’s it.

That one’s for you, Grandma.

ALEX: Visible exhalations like steam, or an old-fashioned, medically imprecise depressed condition. Shawn?
SHAWN: What is exhaust?
ALEX: No. Kate?
KATE: What are vapors?
ALEX: Vapors.

I know diseases.

“Who is Willy Wonka?”
“What is the kitchen?”
“What is Reykjavik?”
“What is France?”
“What is Rio de Janeiro?”
“What is Cape Town?”

Thank you, flash cards.

I’m in second place.

And then it happens: Brain fog descends. Large swaths of my mental landscape go blank. I say “Asimov” but mean “Nabokov.” Answers from the easy pile of flash cards fly from my grasp (Dakar, Kate! Dakar!). I forget the word for “handcar” and pantomime pumping the car’s handle, Wile E. Coyote-style. But I do not faint on stage. I do not sweat or collapse. I smile. I banter. I play my part. I wish my grandparents were alive to see me.

* * *

WEDNESDAY saw Jared and me vacation-clad, parking at the Santa Monica pier. The sea air bathed us in salt mist. We stood against a railing, watching clouds of dark kelp bloom in the bright shallows below. My white legs, in shorts and out of the umbrella's octagonal shade, began to itch. A red rash bloomed on my thighs and behind my knees. "I'm sorry," I said to Jared. "I'm sorry." We hurried to the darkness of the arcade and played Skee-Ball until the hives had quieted.

Jared wanted to go back in the water. At the top of splintering wooden stairs I stepped out of my sandals and gasped: The sand scattered on the steps was blistering hot. Sandals back on, we climbed down to the beach, and made straight for the ocean. "Let's go for a walk," he said. I shook my head. No. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”


The writer at the beach in Los Angeles. (Photo: Jared Gottlieb)

Over the next few hours of beach, pizza, and bookstore, Jared's face gradually darkened and his muscles clenched.

The storm hit before dinner. "Everything I want to do seems to hurt you," he exploded, pummeling the hotel bed. "Every second I'm out with you I hear this ticking clock in my head! How long will it be until we have to go back inside? How long will we get?"

We’d had this conversation a half-dozen times before, at home, on our own bed. It was a sign we both needed some time to ourselves. That night he went back to the beach, and I stayed in the hotel room. A few hours later he returned with dessert and a cup of milk to find me lounging contentedly on the bed, eating leftover pizza, absorbed in my book. I looked up. His face was transformed.

"I'm sorry," he said. He sat down beside me. “I hate feeling like I’m hurting you. I don’t know how to do this.” I put my hand in his. “Me neither,” I said.

We broke the beach-town bakery black-and-white cookie in half and watched television until it was time to sleep.

* * *

The Final Jeopardy category appears: 2014 NEWSMAKERS. I smile: I don't follow the news, which means that wagering will be easy—the odds are good that I don’t know this one. I write down my token $200 and wait through the commercial break, through the question, through the music.

The winner of each episode keeps the money that he or she has won and goes on to compete again the next day. The contestant who comes in second gets a check for $2,000, and third place wins $1,000.

This question is impossible. Nobody gets it. Josh, the reigning champion, had wagered all his money and ends the game with nothing. Shawn finishes with $7,200 dollars—just enough to beat me. He gets to keep his money, but he also has to come back and fight another day. I don’t envy him. I’m done here.

I’ve taken second place, which, for me, is perfect. After California and D.C. taxes are taken out, the second-prize check will just about cover the cost of our flights, our rental car, and our hotel stay. I exit the stage, quietly triumphant.

Later Jared will tell me how the audience remarked on my poise, my cool confidence. A few hours after that, the adrenaline will wear off, and the bargains I made with my body will expire. I will rush to a public toilet and kneel, dry heaving, in spasms over the bowl.

* * *

THURSDAY means one plane to another, cocktail napkins and earbuds. In the air over a dark mountain range, I break an electrolyte tablet in two and drop each pink half-moon into my bottle of water. When we change planes in the Midwest, I buy a salty sandwich in the terminal.

By the time we land at Reagan the sky is nearly dark. We drag my bag from the plane to the shuttle to the Metro. We come up from the underground, acclimating to the District's smothering summer heat.

I rise too quickly, step off the escalator too quickly, turn my head too quickly. An inky sheet obscures my vision. "Hang on," I say. Jared waits patiently beside me. I lean on my luggage, waiting for the stars to fade and my eyes to return. They do. They always do. We go home.