I call my brother on a Saturday while I’m cleaning the bathroom to say hello and see how he’s doing. He talks about himself for close to an hour without pausing to breathe.
I wasn’t going to mention what’s going on with me, but I’m anxious and ready to change the subject.
As I start to scrub under the lip of the toilet bowl, I interrupt his monologue with vague references to my health: weird digestive issues, ruling out something more serious…
He finally pauses. “Wait, what? What kind of issues?”
“Nothing life threatening,” I say quickly, swerving to avoid talking in detail about my BMs with my brother. The bleach in the bowl burns my eyes. “Probably not, anyways. Just got to rule out cancer or whatever, so, yeah. Colonoscopy next Friday!”
Once I’ve been through colonoscopy prep—which entails chugging a salty solution that leads to a violent, hours-long evacuation of the bowels—I can’t stop imagining ways it could have been more undignified.
A week after the procedure, my husband and I will take a road trip to northern Wisconsin. At every pit stop, my brain will swirl with horrible, hilarious scenarios.
WOULD YOU RATHER DO COLONOSCOPY PREP…
in an empty highway rest area bathroom with one-ply toilet paper?
at a busy McDonald’s during the lunch rush, but the toilet paper is pretty good?
My husband will say he’d take the McDonald’s with the soft TP. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about; he’s never spent 24 hours uncontrollably shitting his brains out until the stool runs clear.
The American Cancer Society recently decreased the recommended screening age for colon cancer from 50 to 45. Still, I was nearly 15 years ahead of the curve when I scheduled my first colonoscopy. “I’ve always been advanced for my age,” I said to my mom on the phone. She laughed flaccidly.
Before I received my irritable bowel syndrome diagnosis, I assumed IBS was a product of bad lifestyle choices—shame on you if your daily habits are so lousy that they irritate your bowels. I believed I was inoculated by virtue of my virtue: lots of leafy greens, a daily gallon (at least) of water, borderline obsessive exercise habits. Then came the abdominal pain, the constipation, and the stomach so distended I started taking pregnancy tests to make sure I wasn’t secretly six months along. After that, no amount of green smoothies and wellness virtue signaling would keep my gut in check. Shame on me for ever believing IBS was self-inflicted.
After my diagnosis, I cycled through a thyroid test, abdominal CT scan, assorted diets (high fiber, low fiber, low FODMAP, gluten free, dairy free), laxatives, supplements, probiotics, SSRIs, meditation, mindfulness, CBT, special forms of yoga, industrial-size cartons of chia seeds, a Squatty Potty. Still, my symptoms kept morphing into the kind of red flags that lead to “colon cancer” no matter how many different ways you Google them.
The changes were frightening but also embarrassing—is poop supposed to look like that?—so I started playing phone tag with the nurses from my gastroenterologist’s office. On each call, they passed along the doctor’s latest instructions, which were always different iterations of things I had already tried. I tweaked the levels on my medications and powders. I read medical studies on .gov sites to remind myself that statistically, it was highly unlikely that I had cancer. How egotistical to even let my mind go there. What made me so special? I was just a 30-something lady with uncooperative bowels, probably caused by something nebulous and gendered like “stress” or “hormones.”
But after the fourth or fifth call with the nurses, the doctor said she wanted me to come in for a colonoscopy. I scheduled it for the following Friday.
I must have spooked my brother on the phone. After we talk, he sends me roses out of nowhere, pink and yellow and red blooms arranged around baby’s breath, saying what he’s probably thinking: “SORRY ABOUT YOUR COLON!”
The roses are the third floral delivery I’ve received in the past 24 hours. Last night, my phone buzzed with a call from a delivery person bearing not one but two bouquets, both bursting with lilies and pink glitter. My friend Hazel accidentally placed a double order for Galentine’s Day. By the time the flowers from my brother show up, I’m running out of room for the foliage. My house smells like a funeral parlor.
When Hazel’s flowers arrived, I texted to thank her. She’s not squeamish, so I added: “I just made an appointment for a fucking colonoscopy and I’ve been having a real garbage week, so your timing is [kiss emoji, chef’s hand emoji].”
“Oof fun times,” she wrote back. “Glad I could brighten a shitty day. See what I did there?”
I texted back the crying-laughing emoji.
The IBS Reddit community has a decent sense of humor. I’m a lurker, and I browse the threads in an incognito window after I finish combing for the answers to my specific problems. Some of the scatological jokes are not my favorite, but I laugh when I scroll past a meme showing a Lego guy talking to his doctor (also a Lego guy). The patient says, “My stomach hurts.” The Lego doctor responds, “You’re lying,” and hands the patient a $60,000 bill.
Memes are peppered between threads titled “Extremely worried right now” and “Scared to death that I have bowel cancer.” No bathroom relief, but at least we have comic relief. Heyo!
I shut my laptop after a Saturday morning of IBS doomscrolling and call my mom. I tell her about the upcoming colonoscopy.
“You know, when you were a baby, you had really bad constipation,” she says.
“I don’t remember,” I say.
“You wouldn’t, you were a newborn,” she says, impatient. “But after you mentioned the colonoscopy, I started to worry maybe we did something wrong when you were a baby, something that messed up your colon…”
It’s not clear why she waited until now to divulge this memory, nearly a year after I first told her about my symptoms and after I finally planned to get a camera up my butt. It’s also not clear what she possibly could have done to irreparably damage a baby’s large intestine. Still, it is kind of funny to think about.
“We tried baby suppositories,” mom tells me. “We switched your formula a lot, and it was finally the Carnation that worked.”
She urges me to let my GI know these crucial details. Especially the Carnation.
“Got it,” I say.
After I hang up, I tell my husband about my mom’s concerns dating back to my infancy.
“What even were your parents doing up there?” he wonders in horror. I think of the scene in Sula when Eva users her fingers to break up baby Plum’s impacted stools, but I doubt I was ever that sick, and I know my parents didn’t have the stomach for that kind of maneuver.
But sure. Carnation baby formula, 1989. I’ll have them add it to my chart.
In therapy one week before my colonoscopy, I take a note and underline it twice: “Don’t turn humor against myself.”
Then on the next line: “Treat yourself like someone you love.”
It’s not that I don’t love myself, per se. It’s just that my default coping mechanism for this particular health scare is to make poop jokes. Is it so bad that my brain turns a cancer screening into a game of would you rather?
What’s the alternative? Tell my family with a straight face that this has been going on longer than I’m willing to admit, that I’m scared, and oh by the way, this is all related to poop? Ha ha. Yeah, right.
The most embarrassing part of the colonoscopy has nothing to do with explosive diarrhea or strangers diving into my anus while I sleep. No, that’s all fine. It’s when I’m left alone in a hospital bed waiting for my procedure for nearly an hour, hooked up to an IV and a heart rate monitor, and a migraine ravages my entire brain. I start crying from the pain. I can’t move without ripping off the IV, and I need a tissue to soak up the snot on my face. I forfeit pride and use the bedside buzzer to summon a nurse.
The nurse sees me crying and I see my heart rate on the monitor spike from 50-something to 80-something, even though I haven’t moved a muscle. How embarrassing—my tears, my anxiety on display with my rising heart rate. I ask how much longer until it’s my turn—so desperate. The nurse hands me a Kleenex and says there’s just one person before me finishing up. I wipe at my eyes and sniffle a thanks.
The funniest part of the procedure is when the nurse anesthetist comes in to introduce herself: “I’m Roxy, and I’m the one who’s going to be making you sleepy today.”
Roxy is a hearty Wisconsin woman whose hair is cropped short with piecey blonde highlights. She seems fun; I bet she plays pull tabs at the bar. She probably drinks fruit wine in the summer and Miller Lite year-round.
I like her, and she’s not stingy with the propofol. There is no counting backwards in the procedure room, just Roxy shouting, “Okay, see you later, Lauren!” and then I disappear.
Afterwards, I wake up in the room where I cried from the migraine. Pretty soon I can blow this popsicle stand and get a donut, I think. Yes—a dense, sugary brick of a cruller! Minutes ago, I had a camera roving around my innards via door number two, but now all I can think about is where to find fried dough.
I want to text my husband who is waiting downstairs and put him on the cruller case. I open my phone and I’m greeted by a new text from Hazel. “Made you a card,” she says. I am groggy and strain my eyes to read scrolling pastel font over a stock image of a blue-eyed kitten in a field of daisies: “HOPE YOUR BUTTHOLE IS OKAY.” I laugh a real laugh for the first time all week.
My butthole is okay. Nothing illuminating, nothing damning. I get home and sit on the couch with my cruller, still dazed from the anesthesia and overwhelmed by solid food for the first time in two days.
No polyps: The best possible outcome. But this outcome also abandons me on the island of misfit sick people. The doctor’s instructions after the procedure amount to a shrug—keep taking the same powders, call back if your symptoms take a turn.
The colonoscopy was supposed to provide answers. Instead, it confirmed nothing. I’m still sick in the nebulous, gendered way that women so often are. Soon, I’ll start googling next steps for someone in my shoes, and I’ll learn about all the non-malignant diagnoses that could still be lurking beyond the purview of the colonoscopy—maladies caused by some mix of intestinal issues and bad luck. And maybe Carnation baby formula.
My head starts hurting again when I think of restarting the home remedies. Are there any diets I haven’t already tried? Any promising new probiotics with unique cocktails of bacteria? What’s left aside from multi-level marketing schemes peddling essential oils?
Inevitably, my sense of humor—that perennial coping mechanism—will return. In a few hours, after the propofol haze wears off, I’ll announce “NO POLYPS, NO PROBLEM!” to my husband in a jaunty voice. I’ll perform a raspy reenactment of Roxy, the nurse anesthetist who likes to party: “See you later, Lauren!”
But for now, I don’t talk. I don’t text my brother. I don’t update my parents. I don’t think up new would you rather scenarios involving the colonoscopy prep drink. I take small, slow bites of a stale cruller that spent all morning in the bakery window and let my mouth fill with chalkiness. I sit between the bouquets in my living room like a woman at her own wake, even though I’m not dying—not from anything immediately obvious, anyway. I’m not yet able to see the absurdity in this scene.
Right now, I’m all out of jokes.