I am still fleeing my body. What this looks like: The gastroenterologist says I need a colonoscopy and I say no. The windowless examination room attempts to press in, but I won’t let it. The gastroenterologist says, “It’s my professional recommendation…” I shake my head. She looks at me for a second, and I can see she feels the second is wasted. She marks on her clipboard. For the following fifteen minutes, during which she explains the limitations of natural remedies and self-treatment, she looks at her pen, the poster enumerating pain on the wall, and the crinkled paper covering the examination table where I sit, but never meets my eyes.
I decide to eat Chipotle after the appointment. Chipotle is my favorite place to eat lunch, and it makes me feel the worst. It contains: onions, peppers, beans, cheese, high-fat meats, and avocado. I can set my watch by my stomach’s first strangled gasp a half-hour after the meal, and my calendar by the week it takes me to to try eating Chipotle again.
I buy a burrito bowl. I hardly chew it, which I know to be a problem, but there are so many problems it is hard to know which to pay attention to. Plus there is the relief of having already grasped the primary conflict; I know this meal will steer the rest of my day. The cold table, on which I rest my forearms as I hover over the bowl, reflects my image blurrily. I recognize that my choice of lunch is in large part a way of gaining control over my inevitable separation from myself. Still, I maintain hope that the food will settle and my stomach will integrate it into me, no questions asked.
Here is the process by which nourishing my body results in separation from my body:
1. After I eat I feel full but it is a false fullness, generated by the intestines’ misunderstanding of what has been put in them. My abdomen swells not with satisfaction but with air. The air and the food that generated it attempt incessantly to leave me. I am a bad host.
2. While my stomach churns, I can think of nothing but escaping to be alone.
3. Escaping means not only escaping to be alone but escaping the body that makes me want to escape to be alone. In wanting to escape the body I do escape it, because believing it is separate makes it not-me.
4. After I leave my body, I hope it will forgive my interference and simply digest. I imagine that what remains, an elemental physicality, will begin to help me heal.
My hope lasts for precisely half an hour after I finish the burrito bowl, at which time it gives way to certainty. I will suffer with this for hours, throughout and in place of the day.
Q: Who is responsible?
Q: How so?
A: I am anxious; I eat too much, too often, and incorrectly.
Q: But other people do these things and are healthy.
A: I believe everyone stores their pain somewhere.
Q: And you store it in digestion.
A: I want badly to hold everything in; I want badly not to need anything.
Q: This is not healthy.
A: You’re telling me.
Q: Don’t blame yourself. That is the first step.
A: I won’t take your steps. I’ll take mine.
On my counter at home is a glass bottle of Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar. That is one remedy.
Next to the Apple Cider Vinegar is a plastic canister of psyllium husks. That is one remedy.
Beside the psyllium husks is a blue jar of sole, a salt-water solution. That is one remedy.
Bone broth fills my cabinets. That is one remedy.
Old bananas crystallize in the freezer. I used to blend them into smoothies every morning—one remedy.
On the bookshelf in my apartment, between Be Here Now and John Cage’s Silence, is The Ultimate Guide to the Low-FODMAP Diet. All three are a remedy.
Oatmeal molders in a plastic bin. One remedy.
My meditation cushion hunches in the corner. One remedy.
Vitamin D, fish oil, magnesium, probiotics. Sun salutations. Acupuncture. Chinese herbal tea.
Every morning, I insert remedies into myself. Sometimes they take. A week hovers on the brink of good. Then I sit down to a plate of curry to test myself. My stomach bloats. When I return home the remedies glare at me, as if I have undone them.
They work for the exact length of time that I believe they work. Hope is powerful, but not powerful enough.
I have reasons for rejecting the gastroenterologist aside from my own stubbornness. When I was sixteen and sick, my doctors insisted I had nothing to do with it. After trying several medications, they put me on a chemotherapy pill originally developed to treat leukemia, the long-term side effects of which include an increased risk of lymphoma, pancreatitis, and liver injury.
I put these trapezoidal pills in my stomach for seven years. I moved to St. Louis. I moved to Taipei. I left Taipei to travel in Southeast Asia, where I spent fifty-five hours on a bus with no toilet. By the time I reached Auroville, a community of Western idealists in South India, I felt so healthy I could no longer believe that anyone was responsible for my health but me. The idealists I was staying with opposed the sins of the pharmaceutical industry. Inspired by my own robustness, I believed them. I stopped taking the trapezoidal pills.
For one year I was myself. I felt unsupported and alive. I couldn’t estimate the damage done by seven years of pharmaceutical treatment but I could see that I was finished with it, that the lifeline I carried with me all that time had only been an accessory to my inability to be a part of my own body.
My stomach started to go south the spring after I returned to the United States. The timing didn’t feel like coincidence. It felt like I had returned to the site of my severing, as if my body had been reminded that I was not supposed to be with it here.
Q: Do you want to be better or only get better?
A: I don’t remember what being better would be like.
Remedy, remedy, remedy. Three years later, I have been trying to heal myself for three years.
The remedies work and then they do not work. Sometimes I am sick enough that I am ready to give up hope, but how?
It’s not something you can simply let go of and watch break on the sidewalk. I toy with going to the gastroenterologist for months.
Then I give up. I go. She tells me I need a colonoscopy before we can move forward with my treatment. I almost say yes, but I say no.
I return to my apartment, where remedies are still lined up like eyes on the counters and shelves. I am going to have to find something I have not already found.
Then, one spring day, a solution arrives. An acute pain in my stomach leads me to stop eating for two days. When I return to eating, my stomach is miraculously untroubled.
Two weeks later, when I am sick again, I take another day off eating. Again I return to a stomach that suddenly and inexplicably works.
In early summer, a friend describes her strategy: intermittent fasting. She eats for a period of only four hours each day. It solved problems she didn’t know she had.
The evidence is starting to collect. I begin again to believe there is a remedy, and that the remedy could last.
On the first morning of fall, I skip breakfast with the intention of never eating breakfast again. I decide to accept hunger, to inhabit it. On that morning I am myself.
My apartment is cold and my limbs are cold but the hunger does not feel empty. And when I finally eat, eating does not scare me. It is only noon but I feel as if I haven’t touched food for years, like I am returning home.
For three days, I skip breakfast. When I eat I eat everything, ravenously. I am forced into existence by pangs of hunger. Panic surrounds me like a halo. It draws heat from my limbs into a protective shell.
I feel right where I am. I can’t eat materiality, but it can eat me. Wonder. The body casts no shadow. The walls make their own shadows, almost of ecstasy.
A: I hover above my living room as if gravity has loosened.
A: The stripes along my bed’s blanket are highways, bloodlines.
A: The chair I sit in when I eat lunch takes on a new and autonomous existence.
A: I could, I ought to, leave the house.
A: I throw on a long-sleeve against the gray day and spring into a run. I feel agile though deliriously hungry, as if instead of fleeing myself I am expanding inside of me.
A: It is not myself, exactly, that propels me forward but something in myself that has been waiting to run. That hidden force, the propulsion, is hope.
A: The bridge over the river clangs as if someone is on it.
A: I am surprised, on my return across the bridge, to understand that I am someone. The clanging is me.
On the third night, I arrive home after a potluck. I have eaten: Greek salad with feta cheese, menudo with beef and hominy, corn chips, home fries, apple cobbler. All items I should not eat. But my anxiety over eating disappeared behind the hunger and I feel only presence as I drive home, turn off the engine, step out of the car, open my apartment door.
After I close the door, something strikes me. I halt under the low ceiling, beside my rack of shoes.
No feeling of imminent separation. No pain to escape from. My body is absorbed in its business, and I am a part of my body.
There is nothing else to long for. I set my bowl of leftover Greek salad on the counter. Give thanks. Breathe.
Then the stomach clenches. The food catches up, if more slowly this time, the false swell presses my abdomen out, my breathing skips and halts. The old challenge is back. I know what to do and how. The singularity of abandonment, in which I once again leave the body alone.
This story, in its best incarnation, would be the story of a sickness defeated through self-actualization, a grand epiphany. But I can’t resist staring into the self’s divisions: at the shadow of a body that is unable to include me. The brief appearance of a united self throws into relief the loneliness in being unable to take the body as a given.
Across town, the gastroenterologist turns on her television. Fills a wine glass to the brim. She is helping, but helping what?
The winter approaches like a confirmation. Everything feels cold. Cover the skin. Protect what is or is not inside.
I keep fasting in the morning because it is the last remedy. I get better, worse, better. One day, I am not thinking about any of this when I notice I feel the same as before, except I am starving. I stop fasting.
For a few weeks, I return to another remedy: I eat oatmeal in the morning. It seems to work. It is adhesive; it draws me together, makes me whole.
A few weeks later, the oatmeal stops working. I decide to open my sacral chakra. I decide to drink dandelion tea. Next it is _____. Then _____. Then _____.
Stubbornness has nothing to do with it. The questions are me and the answers are me. I say yes over and over, and by a process I cannot comprehend but which takes place over and over again within me, yes comes to look exactly like no.
Every morning, I insert remedies into myself. Sometimes they take. Sometimes they wrinkle and disappear, and I am left.