Year 2010: snapshot #1

I spent most of the holidays of 2009 laying on whatever couch was in sight, a heating pad pressed against my stomach. The pain began right before Thanksgiving, a sort of burning pressure that started in my stomach and ended under my breastbone. At this point, I had been struggling with digestive issues that went beyond a random stomachache for over a year.

2009 was a blur of toilets. Some times I was face first, watching the remnants of whatever my stomach decided to reject that day float and dip in the bowl: bits of half-digested toast, the bright purple skin of blueberries, forest green scallion pieces mixed in with traces of peanut butter Puffins—a bit of dinner from the night before accenting the morning’s breakfast. I would try to inhale through my nose fast enough to catch my breath before my body lurched again, trying not to let my face get too close to the stench in front of me—trying to register the distance through blurry eyes.

I’m not sure if this true for everyone, but I don’t know how to throw up without crying. I’m pretty certain they go hand-in-hand. I can’t remember a single time I threw up in the last 3 years that I wasn’t crying through all of it. Even times when I knew I would feel better after—that the pain would subside if everything was out—I never looked into that bowl through clear eyes. I never realized I was crying until the end, because I never remembered when the crying started. It just always happened.

Throwing up was rare for me, even in 2009. It happened every once in a while, but never enough for me to make any serious connections. Rather, I often thought I just had a stomach bug and because I’m a PhD student and take classes with hundreds of teachers, administrators, and students from all over the Western NY area (each bringing with them the germs and bugs and colds in their own schools) this seemed normal. A majority of my friends (and professors) were sick with colds and bugs every 1-2 months. I didn’t feel like I was any exception to that rule: My stomach hurt a lot. Sometimes it hurt enough that I couldn’t keep it down. (This is denial working.)

What I did notice was how much time I spent having anxiety while sitting on toilets. By spring 2009, it was difficult for me to get through a single day without getting sick. By May, I dreaded my own bathroom in the morning. I would sit there, listening to my insides churn and gurgle, knowing something was happening, but scared to admit to myself that I should expect the worse. I would run through everything I ate in the last 24 hours, searching for reasons. My heart beat would start to quicken until it felt like a hammer against my chest and I would feel the prinking of sweat start to burst all over my body: first in my palms and on my forehead, right below my hairline. Then, over the back of my skull and down my neck. At that point, I would start talking out loud in an urgent whisper “please let it be okay…please let it be okay…everything is okay…everything is okay. Deep breaths…”

I would repeat that out loud until it happened. Sometimes it burned. Most of the time it hurt. It never felt “right.”

And then I’d realize that I was crying. That the rest of my body was covered with tiny pin-pricks of sweat. That I was gripping the toilet seat with both hands. That I had stopped whispering. That the whispering hadn’t made anything stop. That I was alone in my yet-to-be-renovated, 2-toned lilac purple bathroom and the walls felt too close, too hot, too hideously purple.

I realize now that my physical and psychological reaction in these moments had become mini panic attacks in their own right. But back then, I had no other way to understand what was happening except what my doctors told me: stress + burnout = IBS. Do your best and take care of yourself. It happens to a lot of graduate students. Eat healthy and you’ll be fine.

There was a big part of me that wanted to believe this. I had grown up trusting doctors. Hell: if they believed that pooping once a month for the first 11 years of my life was normal, who was I to question it? Maybe I just grew out of it. Maybe if it was biological, like my dad wanted to believe during those 11 years, it would figure itself out over time.

But it didn’t. It never got better. It just got worse. The holidays of 2009 are snapshots of tiny plates of food—whatever I could force down of my mother’s Christmas dinner. My favorite cookie, Russian Teacakes, called me from the kitchen countertop, although with peppermint candy canes, peanut butter buckeyes, cutouts, pistachio lemon drops, homemade donuts, apple & pumpkin pie, and on and on. I’d eat one tiny Russian Teacake and wait. 30 minutes later, I was on the couch, heating pad pressed against my belly, my mother, sister, and sister-in-law bringing me herbal tea and asking me how the pain could be so intense. I didn’t know. I just knew that I was loosing weight, that my insides burned and ached, and that consuming food was starting to scare me. Really scare me.



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