As many of you know, Neal and I used to run a trivia night on Capitol Hill. Its original incarnation was at the Pour House, a Pittsburgh-themed bar that was a very doable half mile walk from our home. A dear friend was in town visiting, and I was thrilled to share my local celebrity status with her (oh how they used to cheer when Neal said, “Helping me, as always, is the lovely and talented Score Babe, Rebecca!”). We delighted our guest with music selections and trivia tailored to her interests. The three of us stuck around for an extra round of Yuengling after the game was done. A good time was had by all.

Initially.

There were blessings to count. 1) I was with two people who had proven their unconditional love for me many times over and would be nothing but kind about the incident for years to come. 2) No one else was around. 3)  We were a short walk away from a hot bath and a change of clothes.

There is no need to go into detail about the physical horrors of the experience. We are all familiar with excrement and its qualities. I hope you are not and never will be familiar with being an adult who has lost control of her bowels in a public place. For all of the physical unpleasantness, the mental toll is much, much worse. When the last, increasingly uncomfortable steps brought us to the house, I rushed straight to our downstairs half bath, locked myself in, and sobbed uncontrollably. Was this my life now? Was I going to live in constant fear of the next pants-shitting? Would I need to limit my diet to cheese and other binding agents to ensure this never, ever happened again?*

Pajamas were brought from upstairs; soiled clothes were bagged and put in the trash outside. My sweet husband was convinced we could save the jeans, but I was having none of it. My well-meaning house guest told me about the time the same thing happened to her when she was younger and had the stomach flu. In spite of the impulse to do so, I did not scream, “STOMACH FLU DOESN’T COUNT!!!” I was too demoralized to do much but sniffle and nod. When I eventually shared my experience with other close friends, they too were empathetic and a little tone deaf, sharing stories of drunken GI mishaps. Didn’t they understand? A drunk college kid shitting their pants is hilarious. A moderately tipsy young woman doing so is tragic.

The bad news: incontinence has visited me multiple times since that Tuesday a decade ago, and it sucks every time. The good news: I have a great gastroenterologist with a sense of humor, which is even more valuable  than a funny name. He taught me about Runner’s Diarrhea (apparently it’s not just for runners anymore!) and strategies for avoiding such embarrassments. While I’m not sure that this particular hardship that hasn’t killed me has made me stronger, it definitely has made me more resilient, and resilience is key to surviving chronic illness. So I’ve got that going for me.
 

*This joke did NOT occur to me until many years later. Tragedy + time = comedy.

3 thoughts on “Oh Shit: In Which We Learn That Fecal Incontinence Will Not Kill You (No Matter How You May Wish for Death’s Sweet Release in the Moment)

  1. Reading these, I feel the desire to respond, because of course I do–\”A conversation? Let me just–one side, coming through, out of the way–insert myself into it with witty commentary.\”But equally of course I don't want to do that, because being a glib dick about this is not an option, and that's my comfort zone.So I've held off (for two whole posts–how DOES he do it?!) until I had something unglib and undickish (both not words according to Spellcheck, but what does IT know?) to say.And also, too, even more equally of course, I can't speak from the position of you, the one on your side of this experience. How that makes you feel is something that exceeds empathy–you really do gotta be there to get it.But I think I can speak to something that surely must have occurred to you, about those of us on the other side–the people around you: \”What must they think of me as a result of this?–Does it change me in their eyes?–Does it lessen me?–Does this–DO I–embarrass them?\” Shut up, you KNOW you've worried about this.So here it is, what I have to say: As you know, I spent last summer giving late-stage dementia care to my mother.Part of that stage involves incontinence.And knowing this–going into it–I was afraid it would change the way I saw her, felt about her, respected her.It didn't.Not just because I loved her. Not just because I clicked into the heroic \”Oh, I'm not going to let this bother me, OF COURSE I still love and respect you!\”–all the things I know that people around you have said (and MEANT, goddammit.)No: It didn't because, when it happens, you–on my side of this thing–realize something that I'll vaguely express: \”This is just a thing that happens.\” And that's all it is. \”Just a thing that happens.\” Emotional responses–shame, pity, concern–these follow, of course. But at the moment it happens–that's it. It's just a thing that happens. And when that realization hits you–those emotional responses that seem as if they're part of it–they fall away. They become alterable, even discardable. (Also not a word.) It's not good, of course. But it's \”bad\” only in the sense that we decide–or not–for it to be bad.That's the thing: It really is up to all of us to decide how much, or how little, we're going to be affected by it. Because of course it's not going to be \”none\”–but the \”some\” is, really, very, very little. Like \”sneezed before she could grab a tissue\” little. That little. And when it's that little–well, it's nothing.So believe people when we say \”It's nothing.\” We're not protecting your feelings because we love you. We're not being outwardly stoic and inwardly squicked out. We're not patronizing you. We really do think that it's nothing. It's just a thing that happens.You sound as if you're handling things (I almost said \”handling your shit,\” but dammit, I'm trying to be sincere) on your side just fine.Which can't be easy. Which has to be hard.So you do that. You do that not-easy handling.Because you can trust that, on our side of things, we're handling it, too.

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  2. It's nice to have confirmation. Thank you.And you're absolutely right about its being \”just a thing that happens.\” It took nearly a year — hell, maybe longer — to get there, but it's absolutely the attitude I have now. Shit happens. I have learned to deal with it.Damn, I should have run this by you first. You inspired some good material.

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  3. Hello my friend. I'm loving reading you–thank you so much for writing. I'm noticing the ways illness gets us closer to those parts of life we've considered hidden or private–even shameful. Suddenly life is more, well, real. Less veiled. I think that sucks, but I wonder if there's also something helpful about it too. It makes me wonder about what would happen if some of these more private, shameful parts of being human were more open. Every time I have found my way towards making something that is generally hidden (even like cancer) and unhiding it, I somehow feel easier (joining the making-up-words-bandwagon). Does that happen for you?I love you a lot. And I HATE that MS came to you. I wept when I got your news. And yet you have been living this illness with grace and courage and humour–utterly Rebecca.

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