"How to Digest Trouble"
I remember pacing the hallways, my third hospital stay, no surgery this time, but unable to eat, throwing up incessantly, just unable to kick the habit.
Dr. Sirk ordered a small bowel follow through. I had to drink some vile chalky stuff and pace around, getting probed and scanned every twenty minutes or so. In my sluggish, food-ejecting system, it took quite a while. I couldn’t let myself throw up until the test was done. I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, willing myself to hold it together, gasping in deep breaths.
I remember Dr. Sirk standing over my bed, calmly explaining that there was nothing wrong with me. I just needed to learn to eat again. I nodded reasonably. Everything he said sounded so wise.
“But,” I asked hesitantly, “how do I do that?”
He shook his head. “You’ll have to figure it out.”
I frowned. I knew I had to, and I knew I could if Dr. Sirk said I could, but I really didn’t see how. I had trouble watching TV because there were so many commercials for food, and even within the shows and movies, people often ate. I had to close my eyes during those parts and try not to listen. I shut my eyes when I sensed a food commercial beginning—the zoomed in steaks and pizzas that made my stomach turn. Even letting myself imagine food for an instant was enough to make me reach for the green vomit basin. The smell of food was repellent—any kind of food, even foods I used to like. Now there was no like and dislike—it was all bad. The thought of it in my mouth was like the thought of trying to eat live insects.
I knew I used to like to eat—I used to eat too much. But all that was done now. I couldn’t even brush my teeth anymore due to my supercharged gag reflex.
I don’t remember what else he said, but Mom and I looked up at him like worshippers at the Buddha’s feet. He had saved my life, and everyone in the hospital—residents, nurses, other doctors—revered him.
One time the chief resident asked if I wanted a few staples to close the wound on my abdomen. Because of the rampant, uncontrolled infection, they had left the outer layer of skin unclosed. It was just a gaping wound, a deep, oozy divot in my belly. I stared at the resident. How should I know? He went over the pros and cons and seemed to have talked himself around to a pro-staple position by the time he was done. Eventually he told me to think about it and dashed off again. I discussed it with my parents, and I decided to say yes—it seemed better than a gaping wound, even though I dreaded the procedure.
But when the resident reappeared that evening, he was resolute. Dr. Sirk had said it was a bad idea, and suddenly it was as if the resident had never seen any sense in it at all. He was warmly enthusiastic as he explained Dr. Sirk’s reasoning. The resident complimented me on making the right choice. I raised my eyebrows, knowing I would have gone the other way, but I was never one to turn down praise.
Mom and I marveled later at the power of Dr. Sirk, as this had happened more than once—the residents all had their own opinions until Dr. Sirk spoke, and then everyone agreed completely with what he said. It was like Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine, only Dr. Sirk had clearly earned the high regard in which he was held, and I was just grateful my gastroenterologist had said I must have Dr. Sirk as my surgeon and no one else. I, too, entrusted myself entirely to his care.
That important afternoon, Dr. Sirk said more things that helped me see how I could eat again, but I can’t remember what they were. I felt determined, I remember that. I was not convinced I could do it, and I didn’t see a clear path to get there, but I believed I must.
Another big motivator was the threat of the SNF, or “sniff” as the residents called it. Dr. Sirk never brought this up, but the residents told me more than once that I couldn’t stay in the hospital if nothing was really wrong with me, and if I couldn’t start eating again on my own, they would have to move me to a sniff—a Skilled Nursing Facility. I guessed it was something like a nursing home, and I was panicky. Whatever a SNF was, I didn’t want to go there.
I remember after Dr. Sirk left, I asked Mom why she liked to eat. She found it hard to articulate her feelings about such a primal instinct. I nodded, considering her words.
It seems strange even to me, when I now struggle with the opposite problem—trying to keep my weight under control. I hate the way I look in profile, especially in summer clothes, even though part of me knows it’s only logical that after sawing through my stomach muscles and rearranging my bag of guts three times, things are bound to get a little untidy. But still. I’m as vain as the next American—and as food-obsessed. Yet making myself learn to eat again was once of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Most people can’t understand it. “I could never go two months without eating!” As if it were an exercise of will. Hunger was beside the point. When you’re as sick as I was, hunger is no longer a relevant sensation.
I also think it’s funny—it took two surgeries, dozens of IV medicines and intravenous nutrients, a staff of hospital workers and doctors, and weeks to get my digestive system working again—yet I still couldn’t eat. I was too scared of food by that point, and that distrust had to be healed, too, before my body could work again. That’s why I continue to write about this, even years after the fact. I’m still re-learning the basics—how to trust my body, how to live with fear, how to digest trouble.