We sat across the table from each other in a local restaurant, enjoying gazing into each other’s eyes during the few moments we shared in reality, because for the most part, while we waited for our meal, we were absorbed in a trivia game on a tablet. Shortly, our meals were presented to us, and I was elated when the steaming aromas of fresh ribs and French fries wafted into my nares, stimulating my cranial nerve I (I’m still getting over the whole Anatomy thing).
I wasn’t particularly hungry, but not any less than the usual. It was an early dinner and we had had a late lunch just a couple of hours prior. When I finished swallowing the last bite of my meal, I felt cramping in my lower abdomen and excused myself to the restroom thinking I would have a lovely post-meal bowel movement.
As I exited the stall after finishing my dirty duty, I stood over the sink, staring at my uncertain reflection, feeling a sense of nausea come upon me. “Maybe I ate more than I should have, being that I wasn’t particularly starved to begin with,” I thought as I gazed at my face, now contorted into a sense of panic. “You’re fine. You always panic when you feel nausea. You look good. You are good. Now go out there and smile and distract yourself from it, B.”
Nausea, to me, is like the intense rhythms of violins in a horror movie leading up to something terrifying. In my case, that terrifying “something” is vomiting. Any time I have a wave of nausea, be it from seeing vomit on a movie, hearing about an illness from a friend, reading about it in a book, listening to an instructor talk about the brain stem and projectile vomiting, whatever it is, it causes me to think, “I feel nauseated. Am I going to throw up?” Panic, then, inevitably rises up in me, and I am taken back to an illness I had in my early childhood.
I envision a younger version of my dad carrying the bazillionth bucket of vomit out of my childhood bedroom, my mom by my bedside holding a new bucket, the gurgling in my stomach, laying back on my pillow looking at my hammock of stuffed animals hung in the corner of my room and thinking, “It’s going to happen again.” The memory stops there, after I lean over the bucket my mom is holding for me. That is the first distinct memory of vomit that I have, and unfortunately, it was a case where I threw up countless times, over and over and over again. Every time I think of it, I cringe.
Things coming up the reverse direction they went down, exiting in a far less pleasant form than they entered, there is something about that which seems innately wrong to me. If you think of a fart, it exits the body, but it is going down, as things often do in this world, and it is exiting as a non-visible form (gas), and while it may have an unpleasant smell, it is not always associated with things that are negative (maybe you just had a tasty burrito). Plus, farting isn’t really all that uncomfortable. It can also be controlled thanks to a handy little device we are hopefully all born into this world with: an external anal sphincter. Vomiting, on the other hand, cannot be controlled for the most part. You can’t control the rate at which it exits, the noise you make while it happens, when it happens, etc. It just…happens. While many might feel better afterwards, I feel like I would rather, well…just keep reading and you’ll find out what I would rather do.
I returned to the table where my boyfriend sat, finishing his typical “Thanks” on the check. “Can we go now?” I asked, another wave of nausea passing over me. The last thing I wanted to do was throw up, let alone throw up in front of other people. Where they were eating. Where I might potentially cause other people who are just as disgusted by vomit as me begin throwing up.
“Sure thing! We’re all set. Ready to go to the store?”
“I…Can we talk about it outside?” I asked, hesitant.
“No problem. Is something wrong?”
The man at the table next to me looked up at me. He had a delicious looking meal in front of him. I didn’t dare ruin his appetite.
“Nothing is,” I smiled reassuringly.
The doorman opened the glass door for me, and I knew I was a step away from where it would be more socially acceptable to release the contents of my bowels in the reverse direction, as horrid as that might be. Another wave of nausea hit me before I could move, and for a brief moment, I thought I was going to lose it.
“Hold it together,” I told myself, “Stay calm.” I swallowed hard.
In the parking lot, I was debating whether or not I was psyching myself out or if there was a genuine problem. When I was a child, I definitely convinced myself I was on my death bed one afternoon when my heart skipped a beat. I spent the rest of the afternoon in my bed with a damp cloth over my head convinced I would die there and that my parents (who didn’t believe me) would grieve after I had died because they did not take me to a hospital in time. They would forever regret not hearing my complaints.
Being totally aware that I had the ability to convince myself of a physical ailment, I was hesitant. Another wave of nausea passed over me so strongly that I stopped dead in my tracks, grabbed my boyfriend’s arm, and leaned forward in case it happened.
“What’s wrong?” he asked me suddenly, concerned.
“I think…I think I may throw up. I think I am sick. Could I have gotten food poisoning that quickly?”
“I don’t know, but let’s get you home just in case.”
He drove me to his house and abdominal cramping like I experienced in the restaurant began again. I was convinced this wasn’t just a little indigestion. I was definitely sick.
“I am going to be sick, and it feels kind of like last summer when I had the stomach flu,” I told him. “I am going to need Pedialyte, ginger ale, tums, pepto bismol, gas x, maloxx, any stomach med you can find, and some soup with crackers. Before I am dying on the bathroom floor, can you run to the store and get all that? I can handle whatever comes for a little bit longer.”
As soon as he left, I took the Dramamine he left me and plopped myself onto the toilet because thankfully, it decided to come out the lower end first. After about an hour making friends with the pot, I finally got a break and I sat on the floor shivering, I think from fear since I wasn’t running a fever, wrapped in a towel with tissues and mouthwash next to me just in case my worst nightmare became a reality.
Fortunately, it didn’t happen. Adam returned home to find me curled up in a towel on the bathroom floor.
“Did you throw up?” He asked me.
“No. Thankfully. Not yet. I am so terrified I will.”
“What do you feel now?”
“Just abdominal pain. It hurts so much.”
Probably convinced I had some awful communicable disease, he encouraged me to get into his car so he could take me home where I could spread my disease there with my family if I ended up upchucking the contents of my stomach.
Doubled over, I waddled out to his car where he helped me in. I stayed in that familiar doubled-over position for the next several hours on the couch at my house where I finally told my mom I couldn’t stand the pain any more. I needed relief.
It was two am when I caved.
We arrived in the ER at 2:30 am and I got a room by 3 am. They took about forty-five minutes to even come and greet me, and in that time, it took me doubled over a trash can waiting, just waiting for what I believed was the inevitable. A nurse passed my room and saw me and called somebody into the room to get me into the bed properly with an official “vomit bag” which I loathed from the moment they set it on my bedside table.
I curled up on my left side, lying in the fetal position. How long until somebody came to help me?
Finally, a nurse came in. “I’ll get you set up with an IV.”
“Do I need it? I only had an hour of diarrhea and I never threw up. I don’t think I’m dehydrated. I’ve been drinking fluids all night.”
“Yes, because we can deliver meds that way.”
I nodded and extended my arm. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t thought of the prospect of intravenous medication as a reason for an IV. I couldn’t think clearly because of the pain.
He began a saline drip and then injected an anti-emetic. I could feel it as the cool solution entered my vein. I finally sighed with relief. Now I knew I wouldn’t throw up. I relaxed with this new fact and was able to focus on the next problem at hand which was relieving the pain.
“The doctor has ordered a low dose of morphine for pain relief,” the nurse informed me.
This time I nodded without argument.
As he was injecting it, may I emphasize AS, as in, “in the process of injecting the medication,” he informed me that side effects might be light-headedness and increased abdominal pain for a few minutes until it kicked in, AND possibly nausea and vomiting.
I felt anger rise up in me. An anger which to this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever really experienced except for the time I bit my brother on the way to school because he was pestering me relentlessly and wasn’t listening to my polite pleas for him to stop. And as it had played out back then, for several moments I contained the anger until it had built up so much pressure inside of me that it burst out like lava out of a volcano.
Who gives somebody medication that could make them throw up after they just told the nurse they were trying to avoid that very thing? I was livid. In my head, I was screaming that rhetorical question, but then out loud (very much unlike myself, if you know me at all), I yelled,
“Why would you do this to me??? I told you I didn’t want to throw up!” For a moment, I think the nurse may have been taken aback, but at the time, I didn’t care.
“Throwing up might actually be good for you,” he replied politely. “It might make you feel better.”
“I don’t want to throw-” My sentence was cut short by the severe pain increasing in my abdomen. It was just like he said and I swallowed hard, drawing my knees up to my chest. It hurt in a different way than before, more like in the way it feels when you get hit with a ball or punched in the abdomen. I felt the nausea and the urge to vomit but resisted. I was so focused on that that it took me a moment to notice the pressure that began to press down on my chest. It felt like an elephant was sitting on me. I opened my eyes in alarm and grasped at my chest to make sure nothing was there. When I found it to be clear, I panicked.
The pressure in my chest followed a red flushing of my skin down my left arm where the constricting feeling manifested itself as well.
“Chest pain. Left arm pain,” I registered it with several videos I had watched in my nursing assistant program. “This is what it feels like to have a heart attack,” I realized, screaming out, “My HEART! I’m having a heart attack! I can’t die here! I’m too young!”
I was aware of my actions and words, but unable to stop them. It was like another being had taken over my body. I was trying to rip out the IV. “What have you done to me?” I screamed at the nurse.
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” my mom was whispering in hushed tones into my ear. “I’m taking your pulse. Your heart is fine,” she said.
“Why don’t you have me hooked up to vital signs???” I screamed again, bursting into tears. “I don’t want to die! What is happening???”
“This is normal. You’re okay.”
I could read the look on his face which overrode his reassuring words. What I was experiencing was not the norm. It wasn’t expected. He was placating me, and I resented it. Who was this beast inside of me?
I began hyperventilating after the nurse left the room.
“Where did he go???” I begged an answer in between shallow breaths. My scalp began tingling and my ring and pinky finger curled up into a small tight fist on my left arm. I was grabbing at my hair when the nurse re-entered.
“I can’t feel my scalp!” I was yelling at my mom, who was trying to bring my arm back down.
“Leave it alone, Rebecca,” My mom warned me, though behind the “mother-tone” I could also hear uncertainty in her voice.
The doctor entered. “Having a funny response? Good thing I only gave you the lowest dose!” He seemed far too cheerful for the moment. This was the first time he even came into the room to see me. I resented him as he placed his hands on my lower right side and pressed down. I palm-striked his hand away.
His gentle voiced disappeared as he said firmly, “Don’t touch me. I need to do this exam.” I moved my arm away without apologizing, again, being startled at such rude responses coming out of me without feeling a willingness to express regret or guilt. “
Does that hurt?” he asked, again, pressing n my abdomen. I didn’t even have time to comprehend. Everything hurt. Then before I answered, he said, “Or does this hurt?” He quickly drew his hand away, as though somebody had taken a slap and put it on rewind. It startled me, but it didn’t hurt. “Your appendix is fine,” he told me. “I’ll take blood to confirm.” He left the room.
“My fingers! Why are they curled?” I managed to ask, breathlessly.
The nurse turned to me, “You’re hyperventilating. Try to breathe.”
“I can’t!” but as I said it, I felt the pressure on my chest beginning to let up and the pain in my abdomen beginning to diminish.
I tried forcing deep inhales and long exhales, but it was too little too late, because the nurse left and reentered with a syringe. “The doctor has ordered Ativan.”
Ativan was the exact opposite of what I wanted to hear. Just like my childhood vomiting episode, I watched a family member use the same class of medications as Ativan and I struggled profusely with that throughout my childhood swearing I would never allow anything like it into my body. If I couldn’t control my actions, I wouldn’t take it.
“You have to,” the nurse said firmly.
“No! I don’t want it! I’ll calm myself down without it!” I argued back.
“The doctor has ordered it. You need this.”
“I don’t want it!” I raised my voice.
“Becca, this will help you. Just this once. You can’t get dependent from one dose. Let him do it,” My mom was sounding so reassuring beside me.
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
“Fine,” I informed the nurse, clearly still unhappy with it. I was too exhausted to argue any further and he showed no signs of budging.
I felt my whole body relax. The morphine had taken the pain away but I had still been rigid. But this new medication let me lay back and let go of every worry I had been clinging to with a tight fist just moments earlier. In fact, I no longer even cared I was on the drug I swore I would never let into my body. It was just sheer bliss.
“I like this,” I told my mom with a smile.
“Close your eyes,” she told me as the nurse left the room.
I did, and behind my eyelids, I had this image of a young man twirling pizza into the air, and another man using the same dough to make breadsticks. What was I seeing? Oh right. I remembered a pizza place I used to go to with my parents as a child. I turned to my mom and asked her, “Do they make those sticks with the same dough as the pizza?”
“Breadsticks?” she asked.
I felt too lazy to explain. I opened my eyes and looked at her “Yeah.”
“I think they do. Why?”
I didn’t answer. It was too much work. When I closed my eyes again, the image of a cobra’s head came into view and it had its forked tongue slithering out between its teeth and a friendly smile on its face.
“There is a friendly snake,” I told my mom, again, not bothering with an explanation.
“Oh? What kind of snake?” She asked.
“I see a camel in a desert ocean,” I told her, referencing what I saw behind the snake when it dropped below my view. I camel was walking on unsteady sand which undulated like an uneasy ocean’s surface.
“These drugs are funny,” I told her laughing half-heartedly.
The desert scene faded and was replaced with my childhood gymnasium, emptied of all of its equipment and lined with purple egg-crate foam that enveloped me and floated me through the air. It was basically an antigravity room.
“Purple foam now,” I told her, vowing to not say any more about my delusions for fear that I was going to make her think I was crazy.
The discharge nurse came in, thankfully, yanking me momentarily back to reality.
“Viral Gastroenteritis” I am pretty sure the doctor had said at one point, but in the middle of my delusions, I forgot when that occurred.
The nurse had me dangle my feet above the floor. “Your legs might feel a little funny on this medication, so be careful when you stand up,” she warned me, holding my arm as I stood. They buckled beneath me when I put my weight on them. I laughed with the nurse. I was totally tripping out and I knew it. It was the first time I have ever experienced that in my life. I have never had a drink, never tried drugs, and that encounter was the closest I hope to get to experiencing the lack of willingness to control my words and actions. I was aware I was being annoying, loud, and delusional, but I lacked the will to rein it in. It was so strange.
When I got home I have been told I had numerous repetitious conversations, although I have absolutely no recollection of anything until about twelve pm the next day. I sent an email apologizing to the ER doctor for my behavior which then told me was nothing to worry about.
“In most people, morphine causes euphoria. It isn’t uncommon (but not so common that we stop giving the medication) for people to experience a phenomena called dysphoria. It involves anxiety, confusion, nausea, stomach pain, chest pain, flushing of the skin. Many of the symptoms you experienced. The anxiety attack you had caused you to hyperventilate which explains why your fingers curled and your scalp tingled. In more severe cases of hyperventilation, some people lose all feeling in their faces.”
That was 39 days ago.
I still have the same set of symptoms.
Clearly, I didn’t have viral gastroenteritis. I have seen three doctors, had several appointments, a LOT of lab work done, and am waiting for an appointment for some scope tests. I have been living on baby food, Ensure plus, Gatorade, plain chicken, plain pasta, chicken nuggets, applesauce, bananas, and prunes, all of which cause mild pain, but not nearly as bad as if I had eaten a regular meal.
But in the meantime, the word “dysphoria” seems to have stuck, because it seems to be the motto of the new semblance of living I have tried to string together where bouts of severe pain lurk at every dark corner, sometimes pouncing, sometimes just crouching there, waiting, watching, but never striking. I have been unable to detect a consistent pattern, besides pain after ingestion of solid food. Sometimes, though, hours after eating or having not eaten at all, the gas will randomly appear and get trapped in my abdomen causing the pain to appear again,and in that case, recent ingestion of a meal can’t be the culprit.
Dysphoria came to mind one recent evening while I lay curled up in the back seat of my car in an abandoned parking lot. It was about nine-thirty. At first, I felt calm, feeling as though the pain was routine, and after about ten minutes of lying on my side waiting for the GasX to kick in, I expected it would follow its normal pattern; it would dissipate and then I could drive myself the short distance home. After thirty minutes of lying there on my side with my knees drawn up to my chest, relief began seeming to be as distant as the light of the morning sun above the horizon. I pulled out my phone to call my boyfriend to see if he was close by and could pick me up and drive me home. I figured I could walk to the parking lot and get my car the next morning.
My old slider phone flickered a moment before the blue screen lit up. My heart sunk: no bars. I could tell right away it had nothing to do with my location. My phone does this thing periodically where it refuses to pick up a signal at all, sometimes for minutes, sometimes for days. Then finally, one day, it will work normally again. Of course, with my luck, it happened when I was alone at night in a parking lot in severe pain. Panic set in. My breathing became shallow. “Why now?” I screamed at it, tears streaming down my face. “Why won’t you work? I need you!”
It was the last straw. I had been doing life aikido all day. It seemed like every person I loved, cared about, and at times, depended upon, had chosen that day to pick me to be the one they needed to depend on, to pick that day to be the day they fell apart on, and at the end of it all, I felt as though a tornado had just ransacked my semblance of peace and order that I have been desperately trying to maintain in order to control stress in case that was related to my condition. My abdomen was in shambles. I listened to it gurgle, felt the painful bubbles relocated. I tightened my arms around my waist.
I could hear my own panic and imagined the ER doctor telling me to take deep breaths. I tried. Panicking was only going to make my stomach worse. I began with long, conscious inhales, followed by long relaxed exhales. A vehicle pulled up near my car and I heard voices. Maybe somebody had come looking for me! I sat up immediately, feeling hopeful. Instead, I was disappointed to see it was just the janitor’s family exiting a vehicle with cleaning supplies. The tears had calmed, though, in that moment, and I laid my head back down on my seat in defeat. I turned on my phone again and gazed at the empty bar symbol.
I held down the power button, turned it off, and turned it back on again. Expectantly, I fixed my stare on the screen. To my elation, it had a symbol of two bars. I quickly dialed my boyfriend’s number again and when I clicked the call button, all the bars disappeared and a notification with the message, “service unavailable” appeared on my screen. I began tensing my whole body unintentionally, listening as the car with the janitor’s family in it turned over the engine and then roared off into the night. I was left alone again, with a cricket singing a cheerful song outside my car door.
My iPod! I suddenly remembered it was in my purse. I could text from it if I could connect to a local Wi-Fi. I happened to know that from the inside of a building about five hundred feet from me, I was able to connect to free Wi-Fi. If I could just do that now from my car, I could reach help. I turned on my iPod, went into the settings, searched for networks, and to my dismay, I could find none. I was too far away from the building for it to pick up a signal. I looked at the distance and it looked so exhausting. I hurt so much and I had only had six chicken nuggets and an Ensure Plus that day. I was so hungry and weak. I lay back down and closed my eyes. Maybe I could just fall asleep, and when I woke back up, the pain would be gone. I could drive home then and maybe nobody would have even noticed I was gone and started worrying.
After about five minutes of resting my eyes, a large pick-up truck roared by my vehicle and the cricket stopped chirping. It was me and a pickup truck alone in the parking lot. I lay still, flattening into my back seat even more, holding my breath as though this stranger that I could not see could hear my breathing through my locked car doors. Soon, the large vehicle roared to life again and took off into the night, just as the janitor’s car had done earlier.
My shallow breathing resumed with vigor as I shakily and clumsily disassembled my cell phone, hoping if I removed the SIM card and the battery, it would begin to work. I searched my purse for my pepper spray and realized it was sitting beside my bed at home. Pain seared through my abdomen again and I shifted until I could find a more comfortable position. My fingers wobbled as I clicked the parts of my phone back together and pressed the power button. “Please work, please work,” I pleaded to it, as though it could be reasoned with. “Oh, God,” I prayed. “Please let it work.”
When I saw the familiar blue screen, I let my gaze skip to the top corner with the service bars and was not surprised when I saw there were none. My jaw and hands were shaking now, and my stomach hurt. I felt two big bubbles that felt like baseballs in my abdomen move and then, I kid you not, “PHFFFFFFFFfffffff!”
I was able to fart.
The best far ever.
The most hopeful fart this planet has probably ever had.
Farts, my friends, in these most recent times, have become more cherished by me than the feeling of first sinking into a warm hot tub, or the satisfaction of the first bite of a tasty dessert. Farts = relief in my newfound way of living, and if I am able to pass one, it means about ten minutes of being pain free before the pain builds back up again.
I stretched out with relief. I glanced down at my phone with a sense of triumph, and I swear, as I did, all the bars appeared again.
“Oh my gosh,” I whispered. I didn’t know how long the bars would last, so I quickly sent a text to my dad, asking if he was still up.
He replied almost immediately, “I’m up. Reading. Heading to bed soon.” I had figured him already asleep since he had an early day the next morning.
“I am in the back seat of my car, because my stomach hurt, but it has started to ease up, so I am going to drive home now.”
“Okay, see you soon. I love you.”
I climbed into my driver’s seat and began sobbing with relief and despair. I am so disappointed sometimes, by the way things have been.
Being afraid to go out of my house and do things has become so exhausting. I feel fear that I will get trapped in a frightening situation like tonight, when I am alone, in pain, and have no way of getting help. That, or the alternative, getting into a situation where I am with people, but become a burden on those who have to stay with my while the pain passes or drive me home if I get stuck. It is a sick person’s worst nightmare. You become absolutely trapped in an impossible social situation: you burden others or burden yourself. It is this delicate balancing act of carefully choosing when to cave in, show weakness, and ask for help, but you can’t pull that card too often. That way on nights when you are trapped in a metaphorical car you have somebody to turn to. If you play that card too often, then the people who love you themselves become worn down by your condition and aren’t there for you when you need them. So you learn to balance when to fake the strength so that others around you don’t get tired, and when to cave in and let them take care of you.
What makes the concept of leaving home and getting trapped even scarier yet is because I don’t have a diagnosis yet, I don’t know how to treat it. I can only try to manage my symptoms when they hit, and continue my seemingly futile search to observe and note what triggers the onset of those symptoms.
While I drove home, I began to breathe normally again, and in a shaky and pathetic sounding voice, I sang a simple melodic hymn that was spiritually very dear to me as a child, a song that made me feel closer to my God than any other musical composition: “All in All,” I believe it was called. The words came back to me, even though I haven’t sung it in years, “You are my strength when I am weak, you are the treasure that I seek, you are my all in all,” I managed to make out, thinking about how, amidst many of the atrocities life threw at me that day, one of them was another medical miscommunication at my doctor’s office regarding my upcoming tests. Miscommunications have been occurring left and right while I continue to fight for my strength, my calories, and my hope that soon, not long from now, I can return to not living in fear of pain.
The song brought me back to a time in my young life when I sang it with genuine enthusiasm and passion at a very dear childhood summer camp of mine where I first connected with God in what seemed like such a real way. It was as though I met him for the first time there. For years after that night, I fell asleep talking to him, pouring my heart out to him, praising him in the midst of various bumps in the road that were sure to follow.
The sound of the tune brought me back to those special evenings that followed both at camp and at home, tucked away in my bed feeling as though nothing in the world hurt me anymore, like the only thing that mattered was worshiping my God. It felt like an escape from the endless burdens that seem to have come my way since I was young.
“You are my strength when I am weak,” I repeated in that same shaky voice. My whole body was quivering. I think it was from tensing up for so many minutes in panic. That sensation of being totally alone and trapped is terrifying. Not so much the idea of being alone, but the idea of something happening to you while being alone.
“I am weak,” I whispered in a prayer, “But you are strong. Carry me through this time. Thank you for carrying me through my life so far. I am empty now, so please, God, be that which I do not have anymore. I feel so tired.” I sang the chorus of the song, “Jesus, Lamb of God, worthy is your name.” Worship to me, is one of those absolutely selfless things, where we have the chance to take a moment and remove our eyes from our temporary burdens and praise the one who is eternal for who He is. Praising God for His greatness somehow seems to heal the moments of temporary pain I may be experiencing. It’s like I am admitting to Him, “God, you are bigger and better than any problem I might be facing, as big as they might feel to me, I am setting aside this time to trust that you can take care of these things. It can’t hurt for me to take my mind off of them for just a moment and to give you praise and adoration, my precious King, for who you are and what you have done for me. It can’t hurt for me to remember that you have the big picture in mind, and I can only see what is two feet in front of me. You are sovereign.”
To let go, to praise, it is freeing. And it is in this act that I release the burden from my shoulders and allow Him to carry it for me. I admit my weakness and ask for help. Letting go is the best thing I did all day. Instead of just watching all the chaos swirl around me, people panicking, people getting stressed out, trying to pacify all of them, trying to not get myself externally worked up, all I had done was internalize, internalize, internalize. I was emotionally worn down. Physically exhausted. Spiritually ready to be refilled.
I made it home. I held onto my grandmother’s stainless steel bar that we have installed into our shower, and held myself up under the warm water. I was safe again. In the shower, the pain returned (as I expected it would after my lovely ten minute pain hiatus), but at least I was home. I laid on the couch afterwards, fresh and clean, nibbling on my Gerber baby food, thinking about the good things I had in my life. I tried to think about the positive things my health condition might be doing for me.
That afternoon, I had driven to an acquaintance house to drop off some soft food groceries I picked up for her after she had all four wisdom teeth removed. I had had mine removed the previous summer, and sure, I felt sympathy when I heard she was having her teeth removed, as I generally do with each person in the last year who has told me their teeth were being removed. It can be kind of a painful recovery.
But you know what I thought of immediately when she told me? The reason I felt so passionately inspired to take action and buy her food and go sit with her at her house all afternoon?
This particular friend of mine is similar to me in that both of us are driven, quietly competitive, high-achievers, and stillness, boy, that is oftentimes a foreign concept in our lives.
I remember how lonely it first felt and even to this day sometimes feels when I came down with this condition. I spent two weeks straight laying on the couch night and day with my medicine, while I stared at my Instagram feed with photos of my friends at the beach, with their dates, having dinners, playing with their children, and meanwhile, I was too weak and in too much pain to even leave my own house. It is easy to fall into self-pity, panic, and loneliness when you are in that situation. It is even easier for people in your life to send you a get well message on Facebook, or when you finally drag your ever-flattening rear-end to the store to get some more Ensure to conveniently ask how you are doing.
But coming over to your house voluntary and sitting with you all afternoon just to keep you company? That is a dream, but nobody ever seems to do it because they have their own lives to deal with and it is simply too inconvenient to waste an afternoon sitting and keeping somebody company while they lie on the couch.
When my friend told me she was having her teeth removed, I pictured her on the couch for the next week, alone, the sun moving through the sky as the bright day waned, her friends doing the exciting things friends tend to do in the summer, and I know how despairing that feeling can be, how disengaged from life you can feel.
So I went to her house with the excuse of bringing food, and I curled up on the couch across from her. I sat with her in her big, beautiful, quiet home, with her mom working busily away in a nearby room. We sometimes just lay there quietly and other times chatted a little, but either way, I could tell she was relieved to have somebody there. I was reaffirmed about an hour into our visit when she told me that it was surprising how it felt so lonely being on the couch doing nothing. In one way, she was relieved to have an excuse to rest, and in another way, she felt like everybody was busy and doing things with their days except her. I could relate to that feeling 100%.
I have a best friend who has battled with brain cancer since I first met her, and this GI condition of mine has brought me to tears more than once thinking about how she must have felt all those times she went through chemo, when day in and day out she was forced to be at home, away from friends at school, being entirely aware of every ache and pain in her body, and being helpless to do anything about it except to continue to muster up the willpower to fight it and to try to stay strong in spite of opposition. I can’t imagine how long and hard some of those days felt, how lonely they felt. And I regret, when I think of those times, having not entirely understood what it meant to be so sick, that I failed to go see her more than once every month or two. I realize now I could have been so much more of a strong and reassuring presence in her life during those times, a comfort, a solace.
In my own illness, I have been grateful for the friends who have reached out and taken action. One woman made me soup I could eat and some bread I could eat. It was my meal for three days straight, and coming from such a great cook, it felt like a loving and tasty reminder that I wasn’t alone. It was that beautiful reminder each time I took a bite. My boyfriend’s brother visited a couple weeks ago and the three of us played games, watched movies, and joked around, and when my symptoms hit, never once did either one act annoyed when I had to lay down on my side or take medicine or just tamper down my usual level of enthusiasm to try to cope with the pain without falling to pieces. I felt engaged in life again for the first time since I got sick. I went to a barbecue with some ladies I train with, and they made me plain chicken and pasta and we all sat in the hot tub and chatted, all of which were things I could do with my pain. They offered me medicine and heating pads, whatever I needed to get through the night, just so I could be able to be with them. Another friend came by my place and spent her work night staying up far too late watching two Kill Bill movies with me. I’m generally not social in that way. I usually get my social fix through seeing those people at the gym or on Facebook. I get enough social interaction through school and work that I am generally socialed-out when my free time comes. But when I got sick and dropped off my hours at work and barely make my minimum hours at school, the loneliness set in and those extra social activities have become a real spirit and energy booster. I’ve become the barbecue queen! I am growing more and more convinced that laughter is truly the best medicine.
Those people all showed me acts of love, and they speak louder than good wishes or sorry you feel the same’s. Keeping me feeling engaged has been the greatest lifter of my spirits, and when I feel alone, dysphoric, trapped in a metaphorical car, I have clung to those memories and the hope that soon, I will have answers, and that after that, I can get better.
What I do know is that when I become a nurse and a nurse practitioner one day, this experience will be a potent reminder of what it feels like to be a patient. It will be an important reminder of how needed compassion is from a doctor, how frustrating it can be to feel like the medical team isn’t listening or taking symptoms seriously, how scary it can be to be undiagnosed, how intimidating it can be to stand facing several tests, and what a lonely journey it can be on the path to diagnosis.
In the meantime, I wait. This cloud of dysphoria will soon lift.