What happens when your body and your psyche are each doing the work of the other?
I have been struggling with gastrointestinal issues for three or four months now. It began suddenly, in the beginning of July, with horrible diarrhea, just when my husband had gone for the weekend to see his parents in Arizona. I have taken a variety of drugs, from Imodium and Lomotil to stop up my stool, to several antibiotics, including a new (and very expensive) drug called Xifaxin which is aimed specifically at gut problems. (And who names these drugs? I’m not a big phonetic reader, but even for those who sound out words better than I do, how would you pronounce this? The answer: zi’fack’zin.) These treatments have given me some relief, but nothing lasting. A colonoscopy in September came back clean; blood work and samples have likewise offered no clue as to the reason for my problem. Some days, I am mostly fine. Other days, I spend the morning or evening or both in the bathroom, trying desperately to not soil my sheets or myself.
Enough with that, the explicit details of my GI tract. I am interested in the timing of all this. Just as things are pouring out of me physically, so, too, are feelings overwhelming me. And I find both these things, the disruption of my bodily functions and the turbulence in my soul, to be most unpleasant.
In my family, growing up, my sister and I had very different bathroom experiences. Lynn, my older sibling, had a small bladder. My mother would joke that, especially when Lynn was young, they would visit the bathroom in everyplace they went: the grocery store, the mall, school, other people’s home, even the gas station. I, on the other hand, never needed to go. I would use the bathroom before I left for school, and then again when I came home – and rarely in between. She had a pea-sized bladder, while mine, apparently, was the size of Lake Calhoun, a beautiful body of water near our home in Minneapolis.
This has changed, a bit, as I have grown older. In just the past few years, I have gone from using a bathroom a couple of time a day to needing to go virtually whenever I stand up. Age. Menopause. Whatever. No big deal.
But now, I feel as though I am in a bad novel – one about a woman in therapy whose body is the objective correlative of her uncomfortable, extreme emotions. I cannot stop pooing. And at this point in my work with my therapist, I cannot stop raging.
Oddly enough, I find both to be really uncomfortable I have always been on the on constipated side of things; likewise, my identity has always been to be a “good girl.” Anger in general makes me uneasy. It’s not that I don’t like to take up space in the world (although only in certain contexts: on the bima, when I am teaching, and so on. Even there, I question myself. Am I leaving space for questions and comments? Is it acceptable to enjoy people listening to me and giving me compliments?). But rage does not come easily. I push it down, pretend it isn’t there, even act more kindly and closely to those who invoke my anger. “What’s the point of yelling,” I think. And, also, “who am I to make trouble.” As my parents used to say, “Why be difficult? With a little effort, you can be impossible.”
But I am afraid to be difficult I do not want people to stop loving me because I take up too much energy, too much space.
Most of the time, I really do have the positive feelings I project. I love my family, adore my friends. (Really. This is not about you!)
On the other hand, I am experiencing the rage I could not express as a baby, a child, even a teen. Suddenly, things that used to slide off my back get stuck in, well, my craw. I want to use profanity, which I rarely do. I want to throw things, smash things, destroy and kill.
And I am so afraid of those feelings. No wonder I held it all in as a child. I was afraid. It did not feel safe to express my bodily needs, much less my difficult emotions.
What changed this summer?
The easy answer is, I have no idea.
The more complicated answer is. . . I have no idea, but here I am.
I have discovered that, instead of pretending the emotion doesn’t exist, or that I can say it once to my therapist and be done – I have learned that the best question for me is “Is there more?” Because, right now, there is always more. Another story, another memory, another feeling. Need. Then Shame. Then anger. All wrapped up with one another.
I push it down, squeezing my mental (and physical) muscles so that I can stop it from coming out.
But now, that no longer works. I sit on the toilet, and wait for it to come out, to be done. So, too, I sit in my therapist’s office and reach deep inside of me, to find the words that must come out.
I once approached a rabbi who has done some supervision and coaching of me over the past 20 years. I had been with her at a conference, and I was afraid I had, once again, talked too much, taken up too much space. “Am I being difficult? Do you hate me now?” And, as I remember this story, she took a moment and looked at me. “Why do you assume that you being difficult would make me not love you?” A revolutionary thought.
I think back to the days of teaching my daughter to use the toilet. As we would get ready to leave the house, I would say to her, “why don’t you use the bathroom before we leave?” And she would, reasonably, say, “I don’t have to go now.”
And so entered my years of graduate work: “Yes, but you might need to go later. Why don’t you do a ‘just in case’ pee?” You know: you don’t have to go now, but you might need to later, so. . . just in case. Followed by the question girded by my rabbinic training: “Who is the boss – you or your pee?”
But eventually it worked.
How would that play out here? Currently, I am not, in fact, the boss of my bowels. Or of my anger in therapy. I guess the idea is to have the feelings in the appropriate place – not pretend I never need to rage, nor bring my anger to every interaction in the real world. Who is the boss of my feelings? Can I become that person?
So, how long will I be angry? How long will I say the same things over and over again, to myself, to my therapist, to my friends? I really do believe the only way out is through. . . but I am in the muck and I feel stuck here. How many times until I don’t feel this way?
A wise rabbi/teacher/therapist told me, “ You will say it over and over again until one day, you no longer need to say it.” A wonderful summary of the process, a validation of my feelings and. . . when will that day come? Can I force it?
Well, no. As in other contexts, I am beholden to others for their point of view, their sense that this is going somewhere, that the process works if I just hang in there. I’m not certain I believe that — but knowledgeable people who care about me do. So, they have faith in the journey, and I have faith in them.