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Love in the Time of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

By Caitlin Meissner

Mid-April, the air was gray but growing steadily warmer. We were two months into dating and still in the beginning phases of romantic enchantment, though now beginning to feel familiar with the texture of one another’s skin. Brunch was becoming a Sunday ritual, our favorite restaurant at the bottom of a sharp hill in Inwood, where the rest of the city felt far away, where we could take in endless coffee and speak our dreams a little easier. 

In early moments of all relationships, I’d watch my spirit spread out without abandon. Nights with little sleep, the richest food I could offer my mouth, blue smoke, black coffee, wine as luminous as blood. Every moment was a full sensory celebration, with no heed paid to the toll these grand gestures took on the body. That morning, we littered the table with appetizers, food blossoming and taunting over every inch of space, most of it involving treasures of the hardest to digest variety. And I didn’t care. I was falling in love.

Less than a few months earlier we’d met at a decidedly greasier diner for our very first brunch date, off West 4th Street, half way between our Brooklyn and uptown dwellings. Later, I’d be told I named-dropped too many creative people into his lap, fumbling to maintain all shreds of coolness in the face of someone who’s own cool caught me off guard. I blushed in embarrassment and recognition when this moment was recounted, though it seemed despite my desperate slip up, I had still gloriously maintained a shred of mystery, some measure of my own kind of sincere “coolness.” 

Sitting at the decadent spread uptown, after we polished off each plate, leaving only a few lonely loose grinds at the bottom of our cups, I was aware that starry aura of mystery I’d wrapped over me in protection like a shawl… it was all over. As my belly rumbled, I shifted towards the bathroom to find the single restroom backed up ten people long. As we walked to the park, the toilets were packed with women. I just couldn’t. A strong no was given to my not-yet-boyfriend’s obvious offer to use his bathroom, five train stops away, but that wouldn’t do either.

Instead, we rode the train an anxious hour and a half to my rat hole apartment in Brooklyn where I knew exactly how far sounds traveled and I could siphon him off into my narrow bedroom. Unaware of the lifestyle he was about to enter, he sat on the couch just outside the bathroom door, pretending he’d gone, as promised, onto the bed to wait for me. If it weren’t for the dead give away of newspapers rustling as he read The Times, or yelping through the door, banishing him, he would have sat there for the entire forty minutes. And lord have mercy, by that time, we would surely be over. No longer would my coolness, cuteness, intelligence or creativity matter. I’d be reduced to this simple experience of the most unlady-like moment I was sure he’d ever bore witness to.

While sick, I flashed back to all the times in my dating life I’d cancelled plans due to this gift of a rotten tummy bestowed upon me. Anxiety, staying at a lover’s house when the rumbles reared their hideous head. Anxiety when they’d stay at my place. Anxiety, looking for a restroom post meal and praying it would be a quick and harmless visit. How many times I wished it was migraines I’d been cursed with instead, where the worst anyone can picture you with is an angelic face buried in a stack of pillows. The words Irritable Bowel Syndrome have to be the three most unappetizing words in the English language. Especially when strung together in an attempt to explain why you seem to disappear so often. I imagined the perfect women who he dated before me and their lithe bodies healthy, without bloated bellies or any embarrassing bodily functions to contend with. How could I measure up the these imaginary women?

I thought about playing it off as a bout of food poisoning that magically only seemed to affect me, though we’d indulged in each other’s plates. A stomach bug would scare him off for days until I had made a case for recovery. How long could I keep up the charade until he was so enchanted with me I had nothing left to worry over?

I emerged depleted from the windowless restroom wishing for cautionary tape to cover the door. I remembered back to my mother’s attempts to comfort me as a child when Psoriasis, my other incredibly sexy autoimmune skin disorder, left my body an eruption of red scaly patches, and a ripe canvas for the other children to pick on. “I wear glasses!” She’d said, “Everyone has their own things they wish they could change.” (Of course, just three years later I’d be saddled with a pair of my own prescription lenses.) Even as a child I knew glasses were far more socially acceptable than looking like a human pizza. But one thing was right about her dialogue. We are who we are, and people either accept us, or they don’t. 

And so came the explanations. The interconnections between the greasy ointment I rubbed into the small red patches on my limbs in the morning before pulling on clothes, and this weak stomach that reduces me to unspeakable actions. Carefully, I explained these things would never go away, there is no cure. Flinching, I promised this would be the first of many experiences dealing with my unruly immune system and its side effects. Then I braced myself for the response and subsequent pulling away, maybe not at first, but slowly, surely over time. A slow dwindling of texts and calls and visits until it was just me, alone in a bathroom, doubled over in pain and no one to love me.

But instead he said, “is that all? Okay.” And we continued on with our day. And then we continued on with the day after that.  

Three years later we are married, living Uptown in the same apartment I was deathly afraid to use the bathroom in. He is beside me as I write this. Many times this husband of mine has rubbed my belly, ran a hot bath to soak in, brought tea in bed when my body is ravaged with the other effects of my IBS, which include extreme exhaustion, a fuzzy brain and achy limbs. Every few weeks he blends a new concoction of coconut oil and Shea butter and when I’m lucky, massages it into my skin when the weather turns and the dry patches flare. My health has given him ways to give to me, and has brought us close as partners, and best friends. We still eat brunch out, still share stories and dreams aloud, wake up to each other’s faces and laugh a whole lot. In fact, as I’m searching for a title for this piece he jokes, “shitty relationship?” Mystery is overrated. People either accept you, or they don’t. And as it turns out, I am still cool to him, after all. 

Caits Meissner –  Writer/Educator –  Age 27 – IBS and Psoriasis 

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Pulp Nature Contributor New York, NY Age 27

View all Caitlin Meissner posts.

(2) Readers Comments

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