I recently learned (the hard way) that it takes only a single illness to erase your entire (usually unconscious) system of beliefs about your body’s invulnerability and tempt you to become anxiously fearful about potential future disease.
In the past, I always showed up for my annual physicals relaxed and confident. I left those appointments in a euphoric state. My reports, even after I turned 50, were always perfect. I was totally confident about my health. That is, until the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving when an unannounced, unexpected, and unnamable pain that felt as if a hot metal wire was tightening around the organs in my lower abdomen occurred. Though it brought me to my knees, it disappeared after a few barely tolerable minutes and sure that there was nothing seriously wrong, I went out to do my planned errands.
After lunch, though, I began shivering violently. Still wearing my outdoor clothes, I lay on the bed covered in blankets and my heaviest down coat, which went from my shoulders almost to my ankles. I called my husband Joe to come home from work.
I tried to text my friend, but was shaking so badly under my layers of coverings that I had to use the voice command to tell my phone: “Call Ava!” I described the earlier pain and the current shivering.
She said quickly, “I’ll call Steve.” He’s her internist brother-in-law who lives a thousand miles away from us, and the best diagnostician I’ve ever known.
Ava called back in a few minutes. “Steve says it’s diverticulitis. He wants you to go to the emergency room right away.”
Joe came home and sat on the bed beside me. I didn’t tell him what Steve had said. I was quite casual—even in light of the excruciating abdominal attack. Then another attack arrived. It lasted about two minutes—two long minutes. As I lay in the fetal position trying to breath, my husband patted my shoulder, which somehow soothed or at least distracted me, as I counted down to indicate my level of pain: “10 . . . . . . . . 9 . . . . . . . 8 . . . . .7 . . . .” I gasped out the numbers, until finally I sighed “1.”
Joe dialed Dr. Padro, our primary care physician. She could see me in an hour.
In a few minutes, I felt fine again. So fine that when we got to our HMO, I chose to walk up the three flights of stairs to Dr. Padro’s office, as I always did.
She poked my abdomen gently. “Does this hurt?”
“Well, you could have diverticulitis, although your stomach should hurt when I press it. Promise me you’ll go to the emergency room for a CT scan if you have another intense attack.”
I promised, but I didn’t expect another onslaught of that agony again. Joe, Drs. Padro and Steve, Ava’s brother-in-law, saw an urgency that eluded me. So, with this possible diverticulitis diagnosis, if I thought anything at all (my mind was still strangely absent) it was that this was just a more grotesque manifestation of my chronic irritable bowel syndrome, which the medical profession had no way of relieving. I’d never been sick before: Well, not with a bona fide illness, though I daily endure and manage more than my share of physical idiosyncrasies: persistent muscle pain, lately joint pain as well, digestive gas that stimulates intense body-wide itching, flu symptoms, including sore throat, headache, body aches, and so on, which disappear after a simple welcome burp.
The third attack came suddenly Thanksgiving morning. (The pain never arrived gradually.) Again Joe and I did the shoulder-patting countdown, as the pain slowly subsided. (I was so glad an attack didn’t fell me in public—or in the middle of the night.)
“You have to go to the ER,” Joe said firmly.
“No problem,” I answered, feeling completely well again.
Joe went out and made sure the interior of the car was warm for me. As it had been from the beginning of these episodes, my mind was strangely blank. I didn’t look ahead or think about anything except maybe where Joe would park when we got to the hospital.
My mind didn’t think I was really ill, and in any case, I didn’t have to figure out what was wrong or come up with a treatment. As I walked through the hospital’s sliding doors, I thought: “I’m your problem now!” I had no concern for the immediate or far future. I was as unworried as the “lilies of the field . . . .” After all, nothing had really ever been wrong with me before. But reluctantly, I would have to develop a new way of looking at my physical self.
A quick CT scan (don’t they call them CAT scans anymore?) determined I had diverticulitis. Normally an overly curious person, I didn’t ask what that was. A large ER doctor who looked like the genie in the old Thief of Bagdad movie smilingly asked, “Do you know why you got this?”
Chuckling softly, he answered his own question: “Bad luck.”
The three days in the hospital on antibiotics and pain relievers in a private room overlooking the Charles River were pleasant. I was fed through an IV. Before I could be released on Sunday, I had to show that I could eat solid food and take an oversized antibiotic pill. The nurse crushed the pill in some applesauce. I took a spoonful, which immediately came back up into two buckets. Promising to get the pills reconstituted into smaller ones that I could swallow whole, I was released.
Even in their smaller size, about the size of my thumb fingernail, the five daily pills I had to take for 21 days were disgusting. I told myself over and over, “I must take this medication to get well.” That, in itself, was a departure from my normal routine, since I never had to take any drugs except to end my 10-year-long bout with hot flashes.
While recovering, I found didn’t enjoy many foods I used to eat almost daily. Gone were the turkey kielbasa, the whole-wheat crackers, the granola bar with chocolate chips in it that used to calm my 11 a.m. IBS threats, and the nightly bowl of ice cream with my husband. All this signaled a different me. Three months later, I still don’t eat any of those foods. Coming down with diverticulitis was the easiest, if not the least painful, way to lose a quick 6 pounds.
Now my attitudes toward my body have changed. I found out that diverticulitis can recur. I’m trying to control my anxiety about an upcoming test that will tell the surgeon if I need surgery for the condition.
I’ve learned I’m not invincible. That was horrid awakening.
I developed apprehension about my health I never had before. And hard as it is to prevent it, I know worrying isn’t doing any good. In fact anxiety is harmful to my overall health. Instead of dwelling on what might come, I remind myself of all the times doctors didn’t give me bad news in my medical exams, but praised my health and vigor. So I refuse to go into the upcoming test cowering, with my chin dragging on the ground.
Resilience is a big deal for me. We can’t know what the future holds, but we have to do our best to appreciate all that’s good in our lives and bounce back from the unpleasant surprises life sometimes throws at us. The alternatives are unacceptable.
About the Author
Lynette Benton is a memoir, personal essay, family history, and creative writing instructor. Her essay, “No More Secrets and Silence” was awarded first prize in the contest sponsored by the National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection The Magic of Memoir.
Her work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications, such as Brevity; Women Writing Women’s Books; More Magazine Online, Skirt! Magazine, and local newspapers (the Arlington Advocate and the Lexington Minuteman).
She has guest posted on various literary web sites, and was a personal essay columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and InsideHighered.org, (the latter two under pseudonyms). An excerpt from her memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir-writing contest. Visit Lynette at Tools & Tactics for Writers and click on the word blog for tips on writing.
Lynette is prone to pain.