The pain in my abdomen was so intense, I was sure I was having appendicitis.
My husband, who is a doctor, asked, “Is it worse on the right side?” Um. Yeah. Sure. I think so. He brought me to the ER.
It was Halloween, and outside there was a blue full moon. The ER was having one of its busiest nights of the year, and its computer system had just crashed. Yet I appeared in such pathetic shape that I got a room anyway and then finally, blissfully, an injection of liquid morphine.
I was so certain it was appendicitis that I debated with a nurse whether I even needed a CT scan to confirm the diagnosis before surgery. The scan could delay the process by several hours, and I was desperate to get home. My grandmother, who had lived upstairs from us the last two and a half years, was dying, and I wanted to be there to hold her hand. My kids, then ages 4 and 6, were spending the night with my sister, who had organized a rooftop candy hunt; they were due back in the morning.
But the hospital had protocol. While waiting for a sleeping technician to rouse, I filled out Bubbi’s cremation paperwork on my phone, in case it was needed while I was under anesthesia.
And then the scan showed that my appendix was just fine. The actual problem: I was full of shit. Backed up all the way through my large intestine into my small intestine, where stool is not supposed to be. I had just learned from my son’s pre-kindergarten curriculum that the large intestine is about five feet long. Yikes. I looked incredulously at the doctor asking how much I’d defecated that week. I hadn’t a clue.
These were, of course, extenuating circumstances, but the pattern that led me to this moment of humiliation was years in the making. Since my mother died and her mother came to live in my building, I scrambled to meet the needs of the fledglings below and the matriarch above. Bubbi spent 20 months receiving hospice services for presumed pancreatic cancer. Even with aides lovingly attending to her, the load on me was daunting to say the least, especially with the arrival of COVID and yet another mammoth responsibility in overseeing the kids’ remote learning.
In a constant state of caregiving overwhelm, I made time to exercise because that was my sanity, and getting stronger helped with what was once debilitating postpartum back pain. I sometimes set aside a few minutes to meditate. But feeling guilty about giving the kids too much screen time, I often skimped on showers lasting longer than a minute, earning the nickname “Earth Mama” from my husband. And I only sat on the toilet if what was there could come out in 30 seconds or less. “The mom ninja shit,” I’d heard other mothers of young children call it while lamenting how long the husbands luxuriate in there. Once, when my boys were toddlers, I tracked how many days it took for me to use the bathroom without company. Seven. I went to various doctors trying to unravel the mystery of my “mummy tummy,” persistently bloated and distended after two C-sections despite surgery for an umbilical hernia and diastasis recti. I chose to believe the infectious disease specialist who said I had a parasite over the gastroenterologist who said I was full of crap.
In the ER, I was given a prescription for laxatives and sent home to do the equivalent of a colonoscopy prep. That, it turned out, was getting off easy. A few months later, a friend who also had two C-sections went to the same ER with the same problem. She was admitted to the hospital with a decompression tube down her esophagus for five days, only to end up in surgery for an intestinal blockage. Both of us were told a buildup of abdominal scar tissue could have been the culprit. But after follow-up evaluations that included swallowing a capsule-sized camera and carrying around a tracking device with a button labeled “event” to press whenever I went number two, doctors gave me an official diagnosis of stress.
Upon my return from the ER, I rushed up to Bubbi’s apartment, kissed her and said I was going to rest; it was a tough night. She perked up instantly.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded.
“Sympathy pains,” I said.
She died two days later.
At my first follow-up visit with the gastroenterologist, I said I was taking my dead grandmother’s Miralax. Might as well finish the bottle. She empathized but wanted me on something stronger. In the year and a half since, I have been able to wean the regimen down as my stress level has returned to a somewhat more normal baseline. The kids are back in a school building, Bubbi’s apartment has been emptied and sold, and I’m meditating twice a day. I told the gastroenterologist that I’m actually taking the time to chew my food now. That makes a difference, she said. So does five minutes sitting on the toilet.
Sara Pam Neufeld, a writer and yoga teacher in Queens, is working on a memoir. Her Instagram is @sarapamneufeld.