I got up to pee, squinting my eyes at the clock to see what time it was.
It was 3am on September 3rd, 2020.
Then it hit me.
It was now officially 11 years since my father had passed. It was 11 years since I went to sleep after my last phone conversation with him the night before — September 2nd, 2009 — hearing fear in his voice for the only time in my life.
Dad had emphysema and wasn’t feeling great, but had always hid his worst days from people. He’d get up, go to work at Sam’s Club, go run errands, and then sit in his room for a few hours with an oxygen mask hooked to his breathing machine while watching TV. He refused to carry a tank, even if he felt winded. He’d simply pause, catch his breath, and move on.
That night, back in 2009, I went to sleep worrying if Dad was going to be okay. He’d always been an unstoppable force. He never let anyone see him down. He was always the life of the party. But that night, he sounded tired and not like himself. I planned to ask my brother — who he lived with — how Dad was really doing.
I never got that chance. Instead, I got the dreaded 6am phone call from my then-sister-in-law, tears and hesitation in her voice. She didn’t have to say what had happened. I knew.
My brother found him in the morning, in between the bathroom and the kitchen. (Why so many houses insist on installing bathrooms right near the kitchen is beyond me. Isn’t the saying supposed to be, “Don’t shit where you eat?” Who does that?!) The coroner estimated he’d had a heart attack in the middle of the night. The heart tends to work overtime when you have emphysema, with your other organs overcompensating for the lack of lung power.
Flashback to the present and here in 2020, I looked at the date and time on the clock. 3am. Likely the time in the middle of the night when Dad himself got up to pee and died shortly thereafter.
Whenever I’d go to visit, Dad and I would both often wake up in the middle of the night at the same time and just hang out and chat in the kitchen for an hour or so before retiring back to our rooms. It was just like when I lived at home and we had similar fits of insomnia and matching pee schedules. I always wanted to be just like my father, and apparently, even my bladder acknowledged that.
Suddenly, I realized why I’d had one of my IBS attacks the day before. Ironically, I’d had very few of them in this festering fart of a calendar year, likely because my symptoms are triggered by anxiety. Now that I’ve been exclusively working from home and no longer have to contend with a SEPTA commute, it’s helped reduce those instances.
However, the other day, I had those familiar stomach pains, feeling like my stomach was being wrung out like a dishtowel. This feeling of discomfort invariably lead to finding myself camped on the toilet with diarrhea for an hour or so.
Nothing new if you deal with IBS and anxiety.
I’d initially thought that it was nervousness about an upcoming taping of a short story reading I was doing for an online horror convention. Despite the fact that I felt prepared, had practiced the story over and over again, and that I would be taping it from the comfort of my own home, I always find a way to get myself worked up about something that’s not a big deal. There was no reason to be so nervous… but I was. Get a grip, woman!
Another Uncomfortable Realization
As I stayed awake, staring at the ceiling, I realized that, while we sometimes train our brains to compartmentalize and suppress memories, sometimes our bodies don’t let us forget.
I started to think about the recent times I’d had some of these minor IBS attacks. They sometimes occurred after I’d finished a pressing deadline. My body tends to allow me to work through a crisis situation, then — literally — takes a shit after the danger (or deadline) has passed because it knows its safe to break down and I’ll be mentally present to tend to it.
These attacks only last for an hour or so. In most cases, I poop or vomit profusely. Sometimes I’ll get cold, clammy sweats and turn whiter than a sheet of Kleenex. Although these symptoms pass quickly, they’re often accompanied by a few hours of brain fog, where I don’t think as clearly as I normally do. But after a good night’s rest, the next morning I’m back to normal (or whatever passes for “normal” in my world), like nothing had ever happened.
In the past few years, I’d been keeping track of dates, times, and possible triggers for these attacks in order to get a better handle on them. The next morning, I got up and looked at my record book. Skimming over the dates, I observed that some IBS and anxiety attacks were standalone events that fell after a particularly stressful period of work. Other flare-ups, upon closer examination, reoccurred around specific times of the year — namely, around my birthday and the anniversaries of my parents’ deaths.
I’ve never been a stranger to stomach issues. I’d had my first round of stress-related hemorrhoids back in 8th and 9th grade — two particularly turbulent years filled with school transfers and all of the accoutrements of adolescent turmoil. (While we all have our periods of teen angst, Dear Reader, I hope you never have to juggle yours along with having to crap in what looks like a plastic margarine container because your family doctor wants to get to the root of why there’s blood in your stool… and that you have to store said margarine containers of poop in your locker because you frequently take a dump between classes and need to collect consecutive stool samples to present for lab analysis.)
Yet, apart from the occasional stress-triggered hemorrhoid flare-ups, I’d always been pretty healthy. It was after Dad died — when I was truly an “orphan” — that these intense “puke n’ poop” sessions began to occur with greater frequency.
Suddenly, it made sense: the mind forgets (or tries to), but the body remembers. It’s a Pavlovian response to negative emotional stimuli. It doesn’t happen instantly, but rather, it’s a response built up over time.
Even if you haven’t had a parent or loved one die, you’ve likely had a few traumatic events in your life. Maybe you were bullied. Maybe you had a bad breakup. Maybe you were betrayed by someone you trusted. Maybe you were in a car crash or were affected by a violent crime. These are all painful events that sometimes stick in your memory a whole helluva lot longer than you’d like.
Chances are, you try to push these uncomfortable memories out of your mind so you can step a little lighter, breathe a little easier, and get on with the good parts of living instead of dwelling on the shitty parts.
Maybe, in order to push a person out of your mind, you refuse to speak their name out loud. Maybe you’ve even replaced their government name with a more fitting epithet like “Cooze Face,” “Satchel Ass,” or “Barf Bag 2.0” instead. And, finally, the day comes when you forget this asshole’s name. Yet, you can’t stop the visceral reaction you may have when you see this person out-and-about, online, or if your mind conjures an image of their face. There are some people in this world who are so loathsome to you that you just want to hurl when you see them. Or there are events that hit you so hard that they ricochet off your psyche years down the line and impact you physically.
The mind forgets, but the body remembers.
Trying to Figure It Out
So, what can you do to stop that terrible, involuntary response? I wish I knew.
For me, keeping track of episodes and understanding what triggers those uncomfortable responses has helped. Keeping a record allows you to better correlate cause and effect. I’m not a therapist, or even anyone remotely qualified to give professional advice on the topic. However, I’ve been there and can at least offer you some friendly, non-professional advice.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to experiment with techniques that might work for you. Maybe it’s journaling. Maybe it’s deep breathing and meditation. Maybe it’s just sitting in your room screaming at a wall and finding some way to vent. Or maybe it’s seeking professional help. Honestly, it’s whatever works for you and what you feel most comfortable with. However, starting to pinpoint what it is that triggers your body’s response to emotional trauma is the first step to feeling better and easing the toll.