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May 25, 2020 Nonfiction

Me Wrapped Up, In 25 Feet

Jeanene Harlick

Me Wrapped Up, In 25 Feet photo

All combined, the small and large intestines stretch, on average, twenty-five feet. That’s four times the length of a Queen-size bed, half the height of the “HOLLYWOOD” sign. That’s almost the length of a double decker bus - a 25-foot, mucus-lined hose curling and unfurling inside me that’s been, almost all my life, the bane of my existence.

If there was a “HOLLYWOOD” sign marking the geography of my colons it’d read: “GNARLYWOOD”. Or maybe, more directly: “FU#%ED UP”. Some benevolent little cell would swim over to the sign and stick a waterproof post-it on it that would wave amid the weak contractions, like a meak surrender flag: “Seeking intestine-sized plumber’s snake for this permanently backed-up tract. No price too high. Call 342-2824 ASAP.”

When I started to think how much my stomach has literally controlled my life, I mean, like, its entire trajectory, I couldn’t think about it anymore.

The sigmoid flexure — that’s where the large intestine curves right, heading toward the anus. That’s where all my shit seems to get stuck. I literally feel it, piling up. Can I blame that vexing crook?

Please, let me blame it.

If I could allow myself to blame something besides my own cowardice, besides my lack of true grit, for the state of my sad, hollow life — that’s what I’d blame: the sigmoid flexure.

The first time I remember getting constipated:  It was high school, right after a Cross Country race. I was in so much pain my mother took me to the emergency room. To my utter horror, doctors administered an enema. I didn’t know the word “enema”; I just knew intimidating adults in long, white, pressed coats were doing something invasive and disgusting.

And that meant I was disgusting. That I was Weird. I was the only person in my family this level of depravity happened to.

I was still in my team uniform, dried sweat covered me physically, and dark brown shame was slathered on top of that.

The second layer’s still there.

I missed a shift at the Double Rainbow thanks to the ER visit. So the owner fired me, even though she knew — she knew I’d been at the hospital. So she dumped a big, cardboard, ice-cream crock’s worth of shit over me, too.

After that first charming date with constipation, it kept happening. But I stopped telling family. You see, I had discovered something called laxatives. God almighty what a miracle! And I had my driver’s license now. I snuck over to Lucky’s in the wee hours of the morning, before the house was awake, chewing a piece of the chalky, “chocolate” Ex-Lax in the car. Nobody need know my shame. Maybe, that way, it didn’t exist.

Back then, I was a long-distance runner. That was a legitimate source of pride; later I ran for UCLA, I’m still on the university’s Top 10 lists. At invitationals, I’d race a 10k in 35 minutes on Saturday, and then a 5k in 17 minutes Sunday. The shot-putters would gawk.

Now, I’m just a long-distance anorectic. That’s a legitimate source of shame.

The problem is, when I was young, nobody dispensed laxatives for emotions. Then when stuff started happening, the pounds coming off too fast, the family — they threw me to the PhDs, they told me to talk there.

It’s not the same thing. You can’t shit in unfamiliar stalls.

The problem is — particularly when I got older — people started pathologizing my temperament.

Science is now, circa 2020, saying there’s a strong gut-brain connection. Here’s the key thing: Not only can your feelings impact your GI tract, your GI tract can impact your feelings.

Sort of a chicken-egg thing?

I mean, think about it: It makes sense, right? The interlocking nature of Brain/Gut. There’s a reason for the idiom “gut-wrenching,” after all; there’s a reason some people vomit before public speaking; there’s a reason I always had to shit my brains out before a PAC-10 track meet.

If I could demarcate the geography of human feeling, I would have never chosen the human heart, that now-popular symbol. No, my arrow would point right at the colon, the sigmoid — somewhere thereabouts. Isn’t that area, really, “the heart of things”?

Or is it just like that for me, for those of us told, growing up, that we were “too sensitive,” and so we shut up — while our emotions slowly inscribed their character on the slippery walls of our intestines, like the growth rings of a cedar, deforming my GI tract into the jumbled, shell-shocked mess that is now my scourge.

Since apparently this gut-brain thing is true, since my intestines have served as a feedback loop for my “heart,” since my GI tract is unusually “sensitive” — can I blame it, at least in part, for all the neuroses that now define me?

Let me blame it. Please.

Because the DSM badges now adorning me, the ones doctors and therapy and Culture blithely pierced to me, like a fun! game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, the tags now embedded for all to see — they hurt. And disgrace. 24/7. 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: F42.9. Anorexia: F50.00. Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent: F33.41.

Suicidal Ideation: R45.851, Including roof-top jump from four-story building. That was five years ago.

There’s no code for that specific act, The Jump, even though it broke, literally, everything — in my body and mind. Today all that walks around is a skeletal frame held together physically by titanium and emotionally by —

By what, I’m not sure.

You see, I’m still constipated, on all levels. And it’s been for so many years, I can’t reach behind the damn of shit.

Once, not long after my first-ever round of inpatient treatment, when I was back in the Bay area and living with an irritated and married twin sister, the constipation attacks became particularly severe. I’d wake up at 3 a.m., covered in sweat — from the pain and the nausea of laxative-propulsed cramps, cramps that wouldn’t eject all my shame. I’d crawl down the stairs to the bathroom and cling to the toilet, as I writhed on the floor and silently pled for relief.

It never came, so I drove myself to the county ER, barely able to walk in. Hours later, after a stomach X-ray and blood tests, I looked hopefully up at the older doctor. 

He’d give me a reason for the constant back-up, for the pain, I thought, and a solution for it… Wouldn’t he?

We were sitting face-to-face but he still managed to peer down at me with derision, resting his authority on the weight of his wrinkles, his M.D.

“You’ve got enough feces in you to clog a toilet three times over,” he said, in a voice that was bored and hurried all at once. “Oh, and your sodium’s dangerously low. Eat something salty, like a bag of pretzels, and drink a bottle of Magnesium Citrate.”

He’d read my history. He knew the years behind this build-up, he knew the diagnoses. He also knew low sodium could cause seizures (I didn’t, at the time). He didn’t care.

I went home, sunk in shame and embarrassment. I drank salt water to avoid calories, and then the Magnesium Citrate, which tasted vile. I lay down in the borrowed bed and waited for artificial relief.  

That’s the only kind of relief I’d ever continue to have.

I’ve never rid the image of that X-ray — my brimming, shit-filled intestines — from my mind. 

Did you know: For most of civilization’s history, dating back to at least the Ancient Greeks, the study of the mind and human behavior was considered part of philosophy, a field which looks at questions for which “no definite answer can be given,” (as B. Russell put it). Then in the mid-19th century a bunch of men, mostly German, came along — Meynert, Wundt, Kraepelin, for example. Some dissected “diseased,” post-mortem brains while others catalogued the symptoms of distressed persons. Labs and research hospitals popped up as an alternative to the failing “lunatic” asylums. All of a sudden — POOF! — psychiatry and psychology joined the realm of “Science.”

[Gavel bangs.]

The Judge of All Things intones:                “BAD MOVE”

[Gavel bangs, again.]

Hear ye, Here ye! —

Question: Why, when we accept as normal the fact that human skin color varies (that’s a byproduct of evolution, after all) — why, then, do we not accept the fact that human minds and temperaments vary? Why, for the love of God, do privileged people with powerful pedigrees get to be the arbiters of “sanity.”

In the excommunicated world I live in, people like me aren’t measured by things like IQ, job performance, the size of our house, the number of kids. These things are constructs to me; I no longer understand them. They belong to the realm of dreams, the realm of my childhood, the realm of my two flourishing and oblivious sisters, the realm of all the peers who’ve left me behind.

No, people like me are judged by things like F42.9 and my 35 ⁄40 Y-BOCS score. People like me are judged, far more, by acronyms like SSDI. SNAP. BMI. Tx. Rx. Tx and Rx.

Tx. Tx. Tx. Failed Tx.

Flatline ------------------------

Did you know: This year, 2019, there’s a rebellious little book called Mind Fixers that’s all the rage in certain circles of mental health. The book, which explores “psychiatry’s troubled search for the biology of mental illness,” describes things like the dearth of evidence supporting the notion that mental disorders are rooted in neurological abnormalities.

Explains, basically, how our minds have been pimped out and marked up to make pharmaceuticals rich; to legitimize psychiatrists’ M.D.s; to fund their paychecks.

Anne Harrington, the author and a historian of science, writes that today’s psychiatry, where the biomedical model reigns, is “A vision of psychiatry’s identity and destiny that was summoned rhetorically into existence…

Back when I was young, younger than high school, we’d see my father mixing something called “Metamucil” into a glass of water, his bulky frame standing by the kitchen counter. Ashen brown flakes mixing with water, like a snowglobe’s dystopia.

It looked gross, it looked Weird. We asked dad what he was doing, he said it was for his stomach.

I don’t know why, but I understood there was something shameful attached to this.

My father was overweight, he had us three kids at his apartment every other weekend. When we went to school functions I was embarrassed by him, sometimes.

(I’m not proud of this).

I would never get fat.

I never realized, until now, that I thought that, back in my youth — but not consciously. It was  sort of an unstated, internal fact of my existence: Just as I had green eyes, I would not get fat.

Now that I’m an adult, I see that my father was hardly “fat.” He was merely a little overweight. The problem, in actuality, of course, was:

Keeping up with the Joneses. All the many ways I felt my father, my self, my family, how we differed from the happy, undivorced, pretty, middle class families of our neighborhood, our schools. How the young mind, and mine in particular, fixated on these differences. Because that’s what we’re silently taught: Despite what that poster hanging on my classroom wall said, nobody wanted to be the fish swimming against the tide.

Did you know: A respected study published in April found that 86 percent of people observed for 40 years in Dunedin, New Zealand — this was a population-representative sample — met the criteria for “mentally ill,” when DSM criteria were applied to them. Nearly three-quarters of the 1,037 people studied met criteria for multiple disorders. 

Which disorder do you think you'd be diagnosed with?

Later, in my 30’s, my father had depression. He was unemployed. He threatened suicide. He’d call and his consonants slurred, his vowels were long diphthongs; my mind cuts to when I was a kid, suddenly I remember a thin, silver, rectangle on the living room table, lines of white powder, my father with friends —  something happening that I didn't understand.

He was The Problem before I became The Problem.

I remember sitting in my parked car one sweltering, St. Louis, summer day. Just out of a graduate class, circa 2007 — part of my second go at life following residential treatment: This was — Ta-Dah!: “Recovered Jeanene.” [Cape whips in the wind, superhero music plays in the background.] — Then - just off my cell phone with Dad — terrible, dire — me at the wheel of the stuck car, staring into the waves of heat, terrified I’d become him despite all the things I’d fought so hard for.

The prophecy came true, of course.

Now — the scales are reversed, he’s more up, I’m just down (and down); I’m more him than he ever was.

Did I inherit my 25 feet of gnarled intestines from my father? Or his emotional labyrinth? Was it one, or both, or neither?

In my heart I know: It’s all just — ME.

Stop looking for things to blame, a voice is always whispering. 

Particularly since there was that day, in the nursing home, after The Jump. The day I can’t think about. Me in the bed, my father sitting crumpled on the bare floor. My father — tears — words like “my fault… my fu--ing genes…”

My father uttering shame he had no right to feel.

My fault, dad, it’s my fault. (Please hear me).

Did you know: Foucault wrote of a “zero point” in history when “madness” wasn’t viewed as undifferentiated experience, as something opposed to “normal.” He explained how when leprosy was cured, at the end of the Middle Ages, society needed a new moral scapegoat: The “madman” conveniently fit that role. Foucault spoke of power, costumed as doctors, working to mute the truths of people labeled crazy.

Today, in the UK, there’s a framework gaining precedence, an alternative to the DSM (Google it!: PTMF). The paradigm — published by the British Psychological Society — doesn’t dish out diagnoses; instead behavioral distress is viewed within a context of power distribution and social injustice, as this vanguard warns against . turning “‘people with problems’ into ‘patients with illnesses’.... constitut[ing] the first step in a lifelong career as a psychiatric patient,” as UK psychologist  Lucy Johnstone put it.

I used to have a career as a journalist. Now, I’m an alphanumeric code oft-forced to wear ugly socks with skid-resistant treads. 

The rest of the time, I’m a 46-year-old shut-in. 

What’s the chicken, what’s the egg, and why — why, all you takers — did my shell break so soon? There was no time to hatch, a hazy scrim of albumen now hangs in the air; when people pass me by, all they see is a blur they mistake for rheum.

They rub their eyes and move on; they’re busy.   

image: Aaron Burch


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