I Have … Irritable Bowel Syndrome
It will never get worse than this.
I’m thinking that to myself as I rock back and forth on a toilet in a noisy bar. It’s Saturday night, a table full of my friends is wondering where I ran off to, and I have a potential date/booty call in a couple of hours. I’m sweating, I’m shaking and I’m trying to figure out what did it this time.
It, of course, is another horrific bout of diarrhea, one of the charming effects of irritable bowel syndrome. I felt it coming on as we walked to the bar, and made a beeline to the gas station across the street. I had to wait while the cashier bullshitted with a cabbie, shifting weight from one foot to another while cramps amped their way up my abdomen.
“Pepto Bismol?” I barked at him through the inches-thick bulletproof glass. “Do you have Pepto?”
I was pulling out my debit card, ready to pay six bucks, eight bucks, whatever this bottle of pink off-brand liquid chalk is going to cost me.
“Cash only!” the cashier says, annoyed. My eyes bugged. I used my last $20 to pay for dinner. There is no restroom here. I ran from the gas station, barely flashed the doorman my ID and bolted for the bathrooms.
I don’t remember a time before my “nervous stomach.” I missed countless bus rides to first grade, spent half of my ice skating lessons on the toilet. As a newspaper reporter in Northern Michigan, I ran out of a dozen interviews due to an episode of IBS. I kept a portable toilet seat (basically the seat attached to a walker) in the back of my car, and on at least one occasion, used it on the side of the road. I should probably be embarrassed by all of this, but once you’ve pooped yourself as an adult, your sense of shame is pretty much destroyed forever.
It took a really good nurse practitioner and a colonoscopy at 24 to finally get a diagnosis, but by that time I had become a champion of controlled uncontrollable poopin’. (IBS comes in three varieties: the constipated kind, the diarrhea kind and what I imagine is the world’s least fun grab bag — both).
A prescription for gut muscle relaxers was helpful, but I rarely have to use them. I’m a well-oiled machine, with a well-lubricated colon. I changed my diet, eliminating some fatty foods and caffeine. I reduced stress by completing a couple of big projects at work and leaning on my ladyfriends.
But still, I’m almost always prepared for an emergency. Everywhere I go, I map out the floor plan. Where are the restrooms and where is the door in relation to where I am? Do I need a key from the staff to get in? Will I have to buy something before I can get in?
The bar we’re at, Duffy’s, is an old standby. My friends, like it because it’s close to the action on U Street, across the street from the 9:30 Club and provides generously priced pitchers of crappy beer. I like it because the bathrooms are all the way in the back, and the women’s room is almost always empty.
But not tonight. A large group of coed kickballers is standing in front of the door. I give it a tug. No dice. I’m standing next to the door, slapping the wall next to it and trying to ignore the movement I can feel in my gut. A girl a few years younger than me, probably an intern or a Hill staffer, comes out.
“Sorry,” she says as I push past her. I notice the knob doesn’t lock, and so throw the hook from the doorframe into the eye on the door, and barely get my skinny jeans to my knees before a deluge erupts from my butt. Classy lady!
So I’m sitting here, sweating and shaky in this dirty bathroom, in a sorry excuse for an Irish bar. I need to distract myself. I realize I brought a book to loan a friend tonight –- “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” in honor of his work trip to Wichita later this month. I pull it out of my bag and scope out my surroundings and — oh, shit. As my gut rumbles and another burst comes out of my ass, I realize with horror: There is no toilet paper in this bathroom.
Normally I carry a pack of baby wipes in my purse for this very occasion, but I swapped purses before I went out tonight. I frantically look around and breathe a sigh of relief; there’s a paper towel dispenser on the far wall, the kind that you wave your hand in front of to get a square of gritty brown paper. I lift my butt off the seat and tentatively wave my hand in front of the machine. Success! It spits out about a foot of the paper towel.
Then there’s a knock on the door. “Just a minute!” I lie. The truth is I have no idea how long I’m going to be in this awful place. My IBS bouts usually come in threes. When I’m at home or in a workplace, usually I try to ride out all three poop sessions, puttering back and forth from my desk to the bathroom when it’s time for the next round. When I’m in a public place, though, and I don’t know how long it will take to get me home, I try to ride it out as best I can. This is still just round one.
Whoever’s knocking on the door doesn’t hear me, because she’s knocking again and turning the handle.
“Occupied!” I yell, louder.
It doesn’t matter. The door gets yanked open, the hook and eye lock flying from the doorjamb and into the bar. Another kickballer, maybe 22, 23, stands at the door. Her back is to me, as she’s laughing at something someone in her group said. Everyone else in the group can see in: this chubby woman with pants at her knees, mid-crap, political book in one hand and industrial-strength brown paper towel in the other.
“CLOSE THE FUCKING DOOR!” I scream. Twice. Then she inhales, turns around and goes, “Oh shit! Sorrysorrysorry–“ as she slams the door back shut.
From the other side, I can hear her go, “Oh my god.” Then, “It SMELLED!” My face goes hot with shame.
If I could flush myself out of there at this very moment, I absolutely would. But I know I have to walk past those people and get myself home. Riding this out isn’t an option anymore, so I weigh my choices: Can I take the Metro back? No, even though it’s only one stop, it’s a weekend night — no telling how long I might have to wait for a train.
I’m not going to walk up the hill back home in the dark by myself. Then I remember there’s an ATM in the middle of the bar, near the jukebox and a Big Buck Hunter video game. I can take out cash if I hurry, and with any luck, hail a cab back home.
I take a deep breath and finish as best I can. I look at myself in the mirror. I’m pale, save for the dark circles under my eyes now. My hair’s frizzed out with sweat, the curl at my right temple standing out horizontally from my head. But I have my ATM card in hand. I can walk straight there, wave to my friends and be on my way home, where my own toilet and sweatpants wait for me. I straighten my shoulders and open the door.
“Oh my god–“ the girl who revealed my grossness to the world starts to say but I tell her, “Don’t worry” as I breeze past. She’s probably almost as embarrassed as I am, but I can’t think of that right now. Instead, I’m thinking, Bitch, you’re going to have to sit there in my stink. Serves you right. I hit the ATM quickly, toss the book to my friend and say, “I’m gonna go.”
The night air hits the back of my neck and I breathe a sigh of relief. I have at least 10, 15 minutes before the next round hits.
I walk to the corner and flag down the first cab I see, telling him where we’re headed before the door’s closed. I slide down the pleather backseat and try to calm my breath. I hadn’t realized I was shaking. The mortification of the night hits me and I try to hold back tears until the driver gets me home.
Lindsey Wahowiak is a DC-based health journalist and competitive baker, not necessarily in that order. When she’s not in the throes of a great kitchen experiment, she’s writing for magazines and blogs. Learn more about Lindsey and her predilections for Muppets, baked goods and embarrassing stories at on her blog. This piece was originally published on xoJane.com.