Every spring, I fly to Rochester, Minn., for what I jokingly refer to as my Colonoscopy Spa Week. I joke because I’m terrified, because I hate all the things I’m about to pay someone to do to me, because I just want to be diseased in all the normal ways people steadily approaching 40 are diseased. This terror is 18 years old now, as old as I was when it began. I should be over it, but I’m not.
It starts with the colonoscopy prep, humiliating under any circumstances, worse when the pharmacy gives me the wrong prep solution and I sob because I just cannot drink four liters of that heinous stuff, no matter how admirably I’ve performed during natural childbirth or half-marathons. I’m ashamed that I scream obscenities at doctors while under conscious sedation. I wish I weren’t the youngest person, by decades, in the packed laboratory waiting room. I apologize for the flat, difficult state of my normally juicy veins, because I am dehydrated and scrawny from the prep and so, so tired. I’m terrified that what I know to be true — that, despite the colitis and liver disease, I am an exceedingly healthy near-middle-aged woman — will prove false. And that’s the worse thing, the thought of being wrong about me, of discovering I’m sicker than I feel. Because I’ve always been a good student, and I hate to fail a test. Also, for reasons I don’t wish to contemplate, failing these tests is not a mere fluke of nature, it’s a moral collapse; and I like to think of myself as a good girl.
I came well-prepared this year: My cholesterol levels are superhuman; I exercise regularly and have finally reacquainted myself with the six-pack abs I had before my babies tore them apart; my blood pressure and resting heart rate are suitably low; and I subsist on a more-than-reasonable diet of fruits, veggies, lean meats and dark chocolate. And yet … I will always be a ticking time bomb. I live in fear of the bleeding, the itching, the yellow skin, the steroids and stents. I can avoid stress and certain foods. I can run 20 to 30 miles a week, drink moderately, and wash my hands after every trip to the bathroom. I can, will, and do bow down in the Great Temple of My Healing Divorce. But, eventually, some little thing will lead to some other little thing, and my body will attack itself with violent passion. There will be sores up and down my gut, swelling and blockage in my bile ducts, and I’ll be reading 19th-century novels on the toilet all day before scratching the skin off my legs all night.
Unlike other chronic diseases — diabetes, say, or asthma — I cannot discuss mine in polite conversation. I cannot tell a potential boyfriend: “Oh, by the way, sometimes I will spend weeks or months at a time shitting blood, all day long. The drugs I take to stop the incessant, bloody crap-fest will make my cheeks puff to three times their normal size, and my hair will fall out. Also, yellow really isn’t my color, but it’s especially unattractive on the whites of my eyes. On the bright side, I’m not catching!” That’s not even a third- or fourth-date conversation. My family can sing the old Salad Shooter jingle in reference to all those years I lived in fear of lettuce, but it’s not like I can mention that to a new friend over lunch. What happens in one’s gut is quite private, and also very icky.
So I thrive on denial, compensating by exaggerating the imperfections I can handle — the various social inadequacies, a whole mess of terrible decisions, that little slip-up that led to my second child, my inability to remember names, and the occasional subterranean zit.
Except, that is, for a few days each spring when I am reminded, shamefully, that I am not normally flawed, that I am a grossly imperfect human specimen. When I submit, fingers crossed, to various humiliations in the interest of science and medical record-keeping. When I am as kind as I can be — kinder even, because kindness and humility are a sort of test, too — toward people who poke me with needles and snake cameras up my rear end. When I hallucinate in the MRI machine, believing I am hunkered down in tall grass, perfectly still, evading enemy fire under a flawless French sky.
This year, again, I dodged all the bullets. My body offered up a list of numbers well within statistical normal ranges and images of my insides not indicative of anything more spectacular and ugly than you’d find in your average housewife. The kind woman in charge of my care said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” In other words, keep pretending there is nothing wrong. Because there is really nothing wrong, not now, not yet.
So I took a deep breath. I headed outside. And I ran and ran and ran until I convinced myself that I am as good as I can be — as good as normal, which is plenty good enough.
It only took six miles.