Everything you've ever wanted to know about my colonoscopy (but never dared...

Everything you've ever wanted to know about my colonoscopy (but never dared to ask)


The thing about writers – the thing that makes us hated and occasionally liked – is that very often we have our heads up our asses. There are two ways that people in my profession can address this.

We could develop a deeper sense of humility, looking beyond ourselves and try to use our voices to amplify the experiences of other people in this cruel, cruel world.

Or: we could bring you into our asses with us.

It’s January, a month where we tend to fall short of our ambitions, so I’m going to opt for the more realistic choice here. But before I invite you on a guided tour of my colon, there’s something you should know about it – it is not a happy place. It has not been happy for a very long time.

From the age of about 20, I’ve had inexplicable stomach aches accompanied by a red liquid that would dye a clear bowl of water or a bundle of white tissue. But I ignored it. Even when there was a lot of it. Even when I started to feel faint. The only person that could witness this was me, alone in the toilet stall and after a while, the only witness stopped noticing. For 10 years, I ignored it.

But early last year, something strange happened. My stomach started to hurt more than usual. The next day I had to take painkillers. A week later it hurt to sit down, it hurt to stand up and I had to go home early from work.

When I realized it was affecting my job, I started to see what I had been ignoring.

The first thing I did was research prevalence. About 16% of all adults experience some blood loss from the bum according to a survey of 1,643 adults published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

Source: American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2017

Source: American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2017 Illustration: Mona Chalabi

Another study found that that 59% of people who experience rectal bleeding have never sought any medical advice.

The contrarian in me decided to book an appointment with a gastroenterologist. To find one, like any good New Yorker, I turned to Yelp.

People have a lot to say about being sedated and probed. People like Nancy C in Manhattan, who issued a one-star review about her “south of the border colonoscopy” (what other kind is there?). She was infuriated, in part, that when she woke up she was greeted by orange juice rather than a cookie. Nancy seemed like a smart woman. I heeded her advice and booked an appointment elsewhere.

The night before the procedure you have to drink a liquid designed to “clean your system”, which is a gentle way of putting it. The drink makes you shit and shit and shit and shit until you’re shitting water so clear that your bum could be an Evian volcano. By the time you arrive for the procedure, you haven’t eaten anything for 24 hours, you haven’t slept and your stomach aches from the constant fart-clenching.

After getting changed, a nurse wheeled me into a small room with two huge TV screens where a camera inching through my colon would be projected like an episode of Blue Planet. The anesthetist came in and injected me with something. I got halfway through a sentence explaining that the injection wasn’t working and then woke up wondering where the hell my cookies were.

A week later, the doctor called to discuss my results with me.

On her desk lay five pages stapled together with photos of me on them. Specifically, photos of my colon. Using the tip of her pen, she gently pointed to different areas and explained that I had a slight tear to my rectum, but the pain didn’t quite seem to match up to the injury. She suggested eating more fiber and gave me a prescription for a suppository (which is currently tucked behind some sunscreen on a shelf in my bathroom).

On the train home, I took out her report and studied the pictures a little closer to see if she had missed something. I wondered if a string of veins might have been turned from blue to a wine-purple after Donald Trump was sworn in. A little smooth area that glowed white from the camera’s flash suddenly struck me as a chunk of my stomach lining that might have worn away as I watched the news in the days that followed.

The truth is, we really do have “gut-wrenching” experiences because our brains and our stomachs are closely related. In a review of 13 studies, patients who tried a psychological approach saw greater improvements in their digestive issues than those who didn’t.

Maybe the doctor who had inspected my inner workings had missed something important. We use euphemisms even when we’re talking to ourselves. Our bodies are even capable of this linguistic device. My stomach hurt because my brain couldn’t speak my anxiety to me about a new political reality.

Euphemisms make our world more comfortable. We say bathroom even when there’s no bath in sight, and we generally stay away from words like shit and blood though they are the substances of life. These are little gentle sidesteps from the truth. Tiny verbal hugs in a scary world. The scarier the world becomes, the more tempting it is to deal in them. But I think now, more than ever we need to speak the truth as plainly as we can to ourselves and to each other.

This piece was first performed at Chris Duffy’s You Get A Spoon in December 2017

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