19. Porcelain God

19. Porcelain God

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Porcelain God

Warning: Humor may be hazardous to your illness.

~Ellie Katz

Although my grandmother lacked professional medical training, spending time with her resulted in a weekly diagnosis. She labeled unsavory behaviors an illness by simply adding the suffix “-itis.”

“Why can’t you just sit still in church?” she asked. “You must have fidgetitis.”

The next weekend, while baking cookies, I suffered from impatientitis when I repeatedly opened the oven door. She claimed I had blatheritis when she tried to take a nap, and I had an interesting story to tell. With all of my afflictions, I swore I’d be dead by ten. Of course, the teenage years brought about dangerous complications such as flirtitis and disrepectitis, which required an immediate, life-saving treatment called grounding. This treatment possessed long-lasting, beneficial properties and cured me of many high school ailments.

My grandmother’s earlier childhood diagnoses, coupled with adult bouts of bronchitis, laryngitis, and gastroenteritis, undercut my sense of panic when the doctor diagnosed me with interstitial cystitis or IC. It couldn’t be that bad, I thought. It’s just one of those “-itis” words.

Then I logged onto the Internet. Reading page after page of terrifying bladder symptoms and treatments, I developed Googleitis, which only heightened my anxiety.

My husband Michael asked, “What good is research going to do? You’ll only worry more.”

An admitted germaphobe, I faced an incurable illness that centered on, of all things, the use of a bathroom. I constantly darted to the restroom. The ladies room. The facilities. No matter the term, the environment in which the illness demanded I spend most of my time remained a dirty place, bathed in humiliation. I imagined hearing a flushing sound as IC sucked my life, as I once knew it, down the toilet.

I prayed the condition wouldn’t be as bad as the medical journals portrayed. Maybe I wouldn’t have to urinate every ten minutes. Besides, with a full-time job, a husband, two kids, and three dogs, I didn’t have the energy to unzip my pants forty-five times a day, let alone get through the entire bathroom routine. I fought the urge to wear sweatpants. No, I’d continue to march to the bathroom looking stylish.

The illness whittled away at my self-esteem, and the constant pain affected my mood. Could I learn to ignore the searing pain and razor blade sensations in my bladder, which brought me to tears? I loathed the dietary restrictions even though they could help ease the unbearable pains. I called up a positive attitude. Coffee? Who needs it? Wine? Overrated. Give up soda? No problem.

Unfortunately, as with most people with chronic illnesses, I had to venture from the privacy and safety of my home every day. When using public restrooms, I closed my eyes and envisioned them sparkling with cleanliness. I noted the most sanitary restrooms en route to work, the kids’ schools and other places I frequented, even charting new routes based upon their locations. Using various aliases, I filled out suggestion cards at gas stations and eating establishments, complimenting the cleanliness of their restroom facilities in order to reward positive behavior. I couldn’t afford for them to become lackadaisical.

My husband knew my illness was serious when I named our toilet Raphael, something attractive and sexy, since we seemed to be having a love affair, albeit a one-sided relationship. But I loved Raphael all the same. He was mine. A porcelain god.

Amidst my suffering, an unexpected bonus surfaced: Michael stopped leaving the seat up for fear it would maim me in the middle of the night. Another perk—I uttered the I-need-to-use-the-bathroom excuse to score a little time away from the kids. I celebrated any benefits, regardless of how small, to offset the ugly reality.

I discovered potty talk made others nervous. When colleagues and acquaintances inquired about my health, at the mention of the word “bladder,” they excused themselves and fled anywhere but the restroom for fear that I might follow them. On the flipside, if I wanted to avoid talking to someone, I merely said, “Whew, my bladder is on fire today. Don’t you hate that?”

Dinner parties grew awkward with my third trip to the bathroom in quick succession. I felt like I should reassure my hostess, but the fear of drawing more attention to my problem kept me from saying, “It’s not your cooking,” or “No, I’m not peeking inside your medicine cabinet.” After the fifth trip, I noticed some people refusing to shake my hand goodbye.

Obviously, staying home decreases my stress, but becoming reclusive won’t make the problem vanish. It only provides more time to dwell on it. I’ve learned to ignore people’s glances when rising for the third time during a movie to scurry to the restroom. Not their bladder, nor their pain, I tell myself as I knock their knees about like a human pinball. Sometimes I luck out and sit next to an older person or a pregnant woman, and they offer me a sympathy nod. I was once tempted to take food and beverage orders as a thank you for the moviegoers who quickly swiveled their legs to the side for me as I made a hasty exit. When I returned to my seat, my husband leaned in to catch me up on the plot, which sent another ripple of nasty glares our way from those less empathetic. There was a time when I’d turn around and leave the theater if an aisle seat wasn’t available.

But I now accept that the illness doles out inconveniences to me and those around me and, to put it simply, I can’t control what others think for the next forty-plus years. Besides, they should be thankful that I didn’t choose to see a comedy since I’ve had issues whenever I laugh, with or without IC.

While IC is certainly no laughing matter, finding humor in the throes of adversity helps stave off some of the negativity. Yes, IC is agonizing. Messy. Embarrassing. Inconvenient. Life-changing. It’s something we’re not supposed to talk about. But I don’t hesitate when I say the word “bladder” any more than I would when I say the word “leg.” I’m honest about my problem, so my friends understand my need to excuse myself in the middle of a conversation. My family shows patience during the used-to-be-ten-but-now-thirteen-hour drive to the Smoky Mountains for our annual vacation.

People with chronic illnesses know life’s challenges, and each condition carries its own agenda, with or without the sufferer’s approval. Since my diagnosis, I view the world differently: I’m more patient and compassionate. The man walking slowly and holding me up from my destination may have a circulatory problem. The woman having difficulty ordering at the fast food counter may have a processing delay or residual effects from a stroke. Who knows? Disabilities or illnesses don’t announce themselves to others, and people who live with such struggles try their best to avoid inconveniencing those around them. But we have to live our lives nonetheless. With IC, I don’t want sympathy. I merely ask that people step aside and let me dash to the bathroom. A porcelain god awaits me.

~Cathi LaMarche

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