“Oh no, not again.”
Two bites into the main course and the all-too-familiar sensation punched my stomach. Like how we rehearsed it, I commanded my muscles to tense and suppress the abdominal simmer. No use. The fizzling was violent like seismic activity inside me; the invisible fist, now an unclenched paw, was scraping against my gut inner lining. The containment strategy was failing fast.
Wishing not to cause a scene – even though I was the lone patron in the hotel restaurant, with the Romanian wait staff watching Mexican telenovela in the backdrop – I stood up and crept away to the toilet.
Just another “episode”, as I’d come to call the bowel incidents un-fondly.
This latest series premiered without much warning or even the slightest indication. I was hiking up a less-than-strenuous gradient of Bicaz Gorge, on my press trip to the Neamt County of Romania; every body part felt normal enough.
Then, my steps halting as I reached the top of the slope, at the parked car, the very instance I transitioned from motion to stationary: it ambushed me from within. Huddling my tummy and clambering into the front seat, I lasted ten-ish minutes – before declaring it a bowel emergency. The following routine enacted like the same script set in different time periods: the frantic toilet hunt – and the rest, unsavoury details.
And a day later, the agony still hadn’t loosen its grip.
As I slouched on the epitomic throne of my existence, a dialogue resonated in my dizzied mind; it came from Dr Lim, the health consultant at the wellness and rehabilitation retreat in The Philippines that I visited a few weeks prior, to whom I divulged my chronic suffering:
“You can’t keep having diarrhea for the rest of your life – it’s no way to live.”
Much of my earliest living memories were scenes of toilets.
Growing up, my imaginary nemesis was also my tummy.
As an adult, I’m still terrorised by its sensitivity. Unpredictability, too, since there’s little knowing when it’d strike: I’ve learned that any odd combination of lactose, gluten, acidity, protein, stress, movement, exercise, irregular mealtime would trigger a landslide – thus, considerably, I have learned nothing at all.
And in the aftermath of each sporadic calamity, I plunge into the rabbit hole of mishap. The episodes leave me with a devoid belly, my gastric organs and bowel shrivelled like a scrunched lemon; energy levels drain faster than I can replenish it, which isn’t helped by a distressed appetite wanting to starve out the discomfort before eating again. I feel depressed, antisocial, entitled to every disgruntlement, fatigued and demotivated – dysfunctional.
I’m camera-shy; not because of a narcissistic displeasure of my appearance or unkemptness, but because of the unhealthy radiance I tend to imprint on photographs.
No matter how much I try to regulate my body mass, I may well remain perpetually underweight: partly due to subpar absorption capabilities of my digestive system, partly my shedding sustenance on my rear end, but mostly the fluctuations of my volatile appetite that’s, frankly, beyond my control.
Worse yet, I had no idea what I was dealing with – until I finally had it medically examined last year.
I couldn’t have known they are all connected.
Irritable bowel. Joint aches on nippier days. Finger-twisting party tricks. Heartburn. Shortsighted. Feeling faint standing up. Fatigue. Dislike of exercise. Flat-ish feet. Bouts of depression. These are all symptoms of joint hypermobility.
Is that really a thing? I questioned my doctor: certainly according to the blood test and how I yanked my thumb to touch the arm – not even the slightest tensile resistance – which pretty much backed her verdict.
And it isn’t a disease or sickness, but a condition.
It may be more colloquially known as double-jointedness, but while its common occurrence can only bring advantageous stretchiness, in numbered cases – mine certainly – where it is considered a syndrome, the elasticity of tissues affects and hampers bodily functions beyond locomotion. It is this very laxity – medical term for easily-moved tissues – that leaves me with a string of physical and mental issues, but none has corroded my wellbeing more so than my sorry-ass digestive system.
So could I begin treatment now?
There aren’t many. And no cure. I may attend physiotherapy. My diet may be more restricted, more regulated, to relief irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Heck, the IBS Network can even give me a “Can’t Wait” card in multiple languages (I just found out about this while researching for this article – even I’m mildly amused).
But what more can I do? It’s as though my flesh and bones were a construction site, whereupon only had it been completed and occupied for 26 years that faults in its foundations were discovered – just so I would shrug off and patch up the leaky bits, massage the crooked pillars back to shape only momentarily? It would take routines; a recurring, patterned, predictable lifestyle.
Which my life as a constantly-travelling writer is anything but.
The greatest irony yet isn’t wasted on me, either. The utmost passion of my life, the all-things-culinary, the very things I ingest and nourish my body and food-crazed spirit, is and will remain to be my most likely cause of pain.
At least what I eat I make sure is spot-on delectable, especially with this strict palate of mine – why wouldn’t I, when the roulette spins every meal and there’s a likelihood I could go dashing to the loo?
But, on the road, my meal times can be unpredictable, sometimes missed; I can’t dictate what “resistant starch”, “insoluble fibre” or bowel-irritating substances I must eliminate, not when I’m exposed to new and unfamiliar foods and curious enough to gobble it all. It’s impractical, it’s irresistible, and – my mangled food-related philosophy is kind of paradoxical isn’t it?
And the rest is in the mind: trying to be at peace with the beast inside me, between my palatal desires and fears of IBS, coping with the overflux of adrenaline and congestion of words and sentiments, all happening inside my head, wears me down.
Back in Romania, the conversation with brain-me was getting stoic. Funny what one can get up to while relinquishing half of one’s body mass.
The first thoughts that occurred were flashbacks. Some past “episodes”. One stood out: how, hitchhiking in Canada, I made the driver pull up beside the Ontario wilderness only minutes after I persuaded him to take me, then to take comfort in the bush and a roll of toilet paper salvaged from the car boot. Others, similarly graphic.
Then, another quote:
“Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
Not that I felt a particular entitlement to others’ kindness. But if spending hours scouring the internet for reading material about my condition and the its pitfalls for a habitual traveller, would then not lead me to empathise with those travelling with their respective sufferings, I should perhaps question my own morality.
I have encountered people and fellow world-seekers confessing their disabilities. Some, vocal about their anxiety and mental affliction; some, sensory hindrances like hearing loss. Others, like myself but altogether more acutely, digestive problems such as coeliac disease and peanut allergy. Many more, internal or extrinsic feature, keep theirs to themselves. But there’s little denial: there are infinite ways to inflict agony on our fragile, mortal shells – and the psychological selves that dwell within, and we’ll all afflicted somehow.
We may never truly understand suffering on someone else’s behalf, since one may never live another’s life. But we can appreciate that under every laminated porcelain is a surface fracturing: where the crack originated we may not know, but we must acknowledge the imperfection; everyone’s vases won’t eventually break, but are in the process of breaking, from the moment they were sculpted.
So just keep putting flowers in yours. Keep travelling, exploring – as long as you know your limits. Meet people, because they teach you about life more than you can learn by yourself. Restricting your movement may it be, but don’t let illness stop your curiosity from wandering off.
Have empathy for others, because while the pains can’t the same, pain is categorically what you have in common.
And while you’re at it, understand this: you’re not alone in your suffering, short-term or chronic – because all of us are trying to fill our broken jars.