I have always been socially awkward. For most of my life, there has seemed to be this set of universally applicable rules that I don’t understand. In particular, I find that I am generally neither embarrassed by not impressed with a variety of circumstances that seem extraordinary to the general population. I am not the kind of person who is upset by immodesty or esoteric ideas or the rending of social rules. I never have been. I don’t know why.
The day before my colostomy surgery, I was lying on my couch, trying to take a nap. My phone rang and it was a woman from an ostomy group. I remembered vaguely telling my ostomy nurse that it was okay to be contacted by this support group. I always say yes to stuff like that because I figure it can’t hurt.
The woman on the other end was very sweet. She asked if I was upset. I told her I wasn’t. She was gentle, but she persisted. She didn’t believe me.
“No, I really just want to be able to shit,” I told her, laying my arm over my eyes to block out the sun. “Honestly, I’m a lot more afraid of the damage from my mast cell disease if I don’t get this out than I am of shitting into a bag.” She was quiet for a while. “What?” I asked.
“Nothing, it’s just….You really aren’t upset,” she said finally.
“No, I’m really not,” I answered. And I wasn’t.
She offered me her many good tips on how to hide your ostomy bag. She clearly cared a lot (and felt badly – I was the youngest person her group had worked with) so I listened. She talked about girdles and pregnancy bands and tank tops and belt things with pouches and bathing suits. It was interesting, in a sort of voyeuristic way. I thought about her when I went swimming a couple of months later. My preparation consisted of putting on my normal two piece bathing suit and going in the pool. I didn’t see any reason to hide it. I wasn’t ashamed of it.
When I found out I was getting a PICC line, several people asked me how I would cover it. “With an occlusive dressing,” I answered automatically every time.
“No, like so people won’t be uncomfortable,” they sometimes followed up.
“It’s not my problem if they’re uncomfortable,” I said with increasing irritation every time I responded. “It’s not my fault I need the line.”
Someone asked me how I covered my port a few days after I got it. “I don’t.,” I said, thoroughly tired of this line of questioning. “It’s just not who I am.”
Modifying my body doesn’t upset me, even in the ways I just described. My hair has been in turns purple, blue, red, pink and red again. I had numerous piercings, all over my body, until once, after a surgery, when I just didn’t want to put the jewelry back in. It didn’t feel right anymore.
I am sure to many people, it must seem like my disease doesn’t upset me. That’s not the case. My relative resignation about the state of my illness is a survival mechanism. It looks a lot like not caring sometimes, but that’s not what it is. The pain shows, but it’s harder to see if you’re not watching carefully. It shows in the moments when I am unable to find even a shred of dignity.
Monday morning, I started anaphylaxing at work. I had a little bit of a cold and was overtired and sore and generally sort of walking the line anyway. I walked up to the nurse’s office and gave myself IV meds while she took my blood pressure. “It’s 88/60,” she told me with wide eyes. I didn’t want to epi at work because then they would have to call an ambulance. I knew the IV Benadryl and steroids would keep me stable for a bit so I called my mother. At the age of 30, I called my mother to come get me at work because I was too sick to get home safely. The nurse emailed my boss to tell him I went home sick, which was for some reason a lot more mortifying than it should have been. My father and cousin had to go pick up my car later. It was embarrassing. It felt undignified.
Then, later on that night, my dog threw up. I completely lost it. I throw up most days, often multiple times. If it doesn’t all get into its intended receptacle, I just clean it up. No big deal. But these last few weeks have been grosser than usual as pertains to my GI tract and I am so sick of cleaning up shit. I couldn’t deal with it. I just hit a limit of grossness and indignity in my life sometimes and it’s like I can feel my self worth just leeching away from my soul into the air around me. It’s a perception thing and it’s so individual. I know how strange it is to some people that I don’t mind being transparent about my life, the external signs of my internal illness visible to the world, but sometimes am upset about needing help. I know people think it’s strange. But it’s not my problem, and it’s not my responsibility to behave in a way that makes people comfortable with my illness.
Someone posted this week about a “friend” who was upset that they joked about their illness. My response was something like, “That guy’s an asshat, it’s not your job to act how he thinks sick people should act.” And it’s not. I don’t keep my central lines uncovered because it makes some statement about illness. I keep them uncovered because I genuinely can’t be bothered. It’s just not who I am to care.
But I care about my disease, and I care about the life I can’t have because of it, and sometimes, it’s too much. Some days I am tired of cleaning up vomit and emptying bags of my own waste and cleaning blood stains out of my clothes. Do not mistake my resoluteness for apathy.
This ability to move forward, to not be upset about mundane things – it is a learned skill, not a natural acceptance of the terrible reality of chronic disease. We are just trying to find grace in life. We are just hoping to navigate through the rough pockets with some autonomy and a little bit of dignity.