I laid on the tile of the bathroom floor letting my cold sweat bind me to the icy ceramic. I didn’t care enough to try to get up. I closed my eyes and gave into the waves of pain that were rolling through my abdomen. It was two a.m. and my visiting friend was sleeping on an air mattress just outside the bathroom door. “Don’t cry out,” I thought, “you might wake her up.” With that I heaved myself back onto the toilet and bit my lip to fight through the pain for another hour.
In the morning we woke up and went to breakfast. I had tea. She had some kind of delicious looking potato, sausage, egg bowl topped with melted cheese. I usually can’t eat very well after a flare up so I just smiled and sipped, trying not to be angry with my mutinous body, trying to remember that it could always be worse.
I’ve had Irritable Bowel Syndrome since I was born, a diagnosis of exclusion that Activia commercials have made to seem like a manageable inconvenience, solvable with a few spoonfuls of strawberry probiotic yogurt. This has not been my experience. My earliest intelligible communication was holding my stomach and saying “ow.” This pain is well known to me. We grew up together, and I don’t know how or what it would be like to live without it. Someday I hope to know that freedom.
Chronic pain changes people, and I have often wondered if it was the almost constant pain that made me the serious child I was, one who was always attentive to the gravity of life and of the precarious nature of happiness. I am certain that it contributed to my independence. After all, even while my mom could hold my hand, no one could fight through that pain for me—I had to find it in myself to keep breathing through each excruciating hour. The exception to that solitude was my prayer, which I realize I learned on the toilet—in those moments of absolute fear and vulnerability, I reached, childlike, for God.
As I’ve grown into adulthood, I have had to learn how to speak my pain to others. I have had to explain it to strangers, as doubled over, I cut lines for public restrooms. I have had to explain it to bosses as I excuse myself from yet another meeting. I have had to explain it to friends as I cancel another evening plan. And I have had to explain it to doctors, who sometimes hear me and sometimes don’t. Maybe they sometimes don’t understand because I use cute little euphemisms for the pain—words like “discomfort” or “cramping.” Our inadequate language for pain makes it all the more isolating. I have texted coworkers, telling them that I would be late because of “tummy trouble” while I was laying on the floor of a rest area bathroom, wondering if I was close enough to passing out to call 911. Tummy trouble.
Why is it so hard to speak our pain? Why do we tuck it away and try to manage it all alone? Why do we do this even with doctors, who have to see it and hear it in order to solve it? I think we are most afraid that our experience will be invalidated—that it won’t stack up to someone else’s pain, and that somehow, someone else’s judgement can make our pain not real. It’s ludicrous that we don’t trust our perception of our bodies enough to say “I have pain!” And of course physical pain is only one piece, extra mercy when the pain is literally in our heads. It’s no small irony that SSRI drugs are often used in the treatment of IBS.
It feels good to speak my pain. It feels good to share it with others who may now understand my fervent glance as I head to the bathroom. I hope that as we speak our pain and claim it that we might be more attentive to the pain of others—of our friends and of strangers. We are good at hiding it, but not always at bearing it—we need help to get off of the floor, or maybe just someone to lie there next to us while we moan.
“Night pierces my bones. My gnawing pains never rest.” Job 30:17
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2