Thursday, July 14, 2005

My shame

Warning: This post contains detailed descriptions of abnormal bowel function. If you're not up for that, you might want to skip it.

It's the biggest, and longest-running secret of my life. The only person I've ever told is my lovely wife. Now it's your turn. It's really a very trivial, mechanistic thing, but the effect was shameful.

As I have mentioned in this blog, I am lactose intolerant. Lactose is the sugar found in milk. You may have heard of glucose and fructose. I have no problem with those. In our bodies, an enzyme known as lactase is supposed to break down the lactose and make it digestible.

If I ingest lactose (e.g. whole milk), I feel cramps and twisting in my bowels. Then I get constipated.

I have many clear memories of being a baby, toddler, and small child. You may be doubtful, but to my satisfaction, the accuracy of these memories has been verified. Once, for example, my mother broke into tears as I recalled a tune my grandfather used to whistle while he pushed me in a pram as an infant.

I remember sitting naked on a potty as a toddler, straining and struggling with a bowel movement. My father walked past and observed me. "You don't have to push so hard," he said gently.

In fact, I did have to push so hard. My initial successes with potty training had been welcomed and heralded in our household. I remember that. I felt the pride and honor of being potty trained. But this success was short-lived. I do not know for certain, but my theory is that the trouble in my bowels began when they switched me off of the modern, 1960s infant formula the doctors recommended to my mother rather than breast feeding, and onto milk.

But then again, the formula may have been based on milk, and may have contained lactose. In that case it may be that infants and babies are capable of digesting milk, but lose that capacity at some later point. This stands to reason, else there would be no lactose intolerant people in the world. Since newborns and infants are entirely dependent on mothers' milk, the gene would likely have been eliminated.

In any case, my potty-trained status was reversed. I grew unable to defecate. It hurt. It hurt a lot. I sat on the toilet for hours, trying. Maybe you have been constipated in a bad way? I don't just mean that tough poop you got rid of after struggling with it for one day. I mean the huge, painful masonry brick that builds up over a week and hurts so dramatically when it threatens to come out, and yet which, despite your efforts, and whatever level of pain you are willing to bear, just will not come out. I mean the thing that gets stuck part way, leaving you in that state of pain without relief, so that your only hope is to try to back off. I mean so dry and huge that when it starts to surge, the pain shoots laterally, with a ripping feeling, and also up and down your legs, and the blood drains out of your cheeks, and you break out in cold sweats, tremble, think you might throw up. So convulsive and yet so dry that finally you cross your legs to try to prevent the surges, to avoid being suspended in that painful state of fruitless suffering.

As a man, I cannot know what childbirth is like, so being badly constipated is my only reference point. Only, you don't get a miraculous child to love at the end of it. You don't get anything, you're trying to get rid of something.

This happened to me as a small child. I sat on the toilet dutifully. The pain was frightening. Nothing would come out. I felt like a failure.

It started leaking out in my underpants during the day.

There was some badgering from my father. He was relentless. The things he and my mother said made perfect sense: When you feel the pressure, then sit on the toilet and let it come out. It made perfect sense but it was impossible. My father grew impatient and badgered me every single day. I agreed with him every time. He grew more impatient and harsh. The questions and demands flew. It was a police interrogation. Finally one day I broke into tears and said, "But Daddy, it hurts!"

My mother, who had no doubt been suffering with me, later told me, "Thank you for telling your daddy that it hurts."


"That was a good thing. I don't think he really understood. But because you told him, now he does." She was almost in tears.

The surges in my bowels could happen at any time. It usually happened several times a day. I had to fight to keep them back. I would stand with my legs crossed.

You contemporary parents are thinking: How About A Trip To The Pediatrician?

Well, there was one. And a doctor hit on the exact problem. I was three or four when my mother told me that the doctor had an idea that milk was the problem, and that as an experiment, I was to avoid all milk and milk-bearing products like graham crackers and milk chocolate. I agreed to the plan.

She tried to keep these things from me, but I was a child, and these were some of my favorite things, and I snuck them without her knowledge. They tasted good.

So, though they apparently tried the lactose experiment, it failed.

What they thought after that is a mystery to me. Maybe they decided that it was psychological.

And that was it in terms of medical intervention until I was 14. My parents were raised in 1930s rural America, and though very intelligent (each being the first in their family to go to college), they came from a culture in which you avoided doctors. My father told me to stay away from doctors, because they'll always find something wrong (kind of like a car dealer will always try to sell you a car).

Once when I was perhaps seven, a tiny piece of mica sparkle from our spray-on ceiling fell into my eye. It hurt, worse than having an eyelash in there. My parents told me that it would wash out by itself. It stayed in there for days. They kept coaching me to hang my head and let the tears wash it out. I tried this, for hours at a time. After a week of this (maybe it was only five days), my father took me to an ophthalmologist. The doctor had me look into a scope while he maneuvered an instrument up to my eye. He said "Got it," and instantly I felt better.

"That's it?" I said.

"That's it."

He had suctioned it out with a tiny tube. I had been prepared for excruciating pain, blood, bandages.

Accordingly, when I proved unable to defecate normally, they didn't take me to doctor after doctor like contemporary parents would. And I spent 11 or 12 years in shame, with crap in my pants, feeling like a failure. My mother and father knew I was soiling myself, there was no hiding the laundry. My sisters knew too.

I developed an appetite for water which stayed with me throughout my entire childhood. I wasn't thirsty so much as I really enjoyed drinking lots of water, three or four tall glasses with every meal. Probably, in total, half a gallon. I think this was my body's way of getting rid of the feces.

I was continually constipated, and yet my body had to get rid of the poop, so my system watered some of it down so it could ooze around the side of the block. To this day I still don't know quite when it came out. I think it must have leaked out very gradually at all times. Once in a while, it oozed just a bit during the attacks, which I tried to hold back by crossing my legs and squeezing. This was a frequent posture for me, and there is even a picture of me doing it during a photo my mom took of us. Everyone thinks that smile on my face is cute, and that I look so mature and relaxed for six. But I still remember posing for that photo, and the queasy pain I was feeling. I look very composed, next to my sisters, leaning against a wall with my legs casually crossed, but my arms open. I was in a moment of crisis right then. Judging by the photo, I was good at masking the problem. To my knowledge, no one ever caught me trying to hold back an attack, and I think it was only once that some kid asked me if I was feeling OK.

Keep in mind that I am unable to digest milk, and I was drinking lots of milk and eating lots of chocolate all the time. Each morning at breakfast, I had a big bowl of cereal with lots of milk. By the time breakfast was over, and I would go downstairs to brush my teeth, my stomach would be hurting. I told me parents this.

"Don't swallow the toothpaste," they said.

After that I was very careful not to swallow any toothpaste. The stomach ache after breakfast kept happening. I kept telling them about it.

"Don't swallow the toothpaste," they said.

"I don't," I said. "I know I don't. I made extra sure to not swallow--"

"Well you must be," they said. "That's why your stomach is hurting." Both my mother and my father said this, at almost the exact same time.

Now before you all go and get outraged, keep in mind that kids -- myself in particular -- put out a lot of bunk, and often -- as I did -- try to alarm and confuse parents with all sorts of verbal tricks. My kids are good kids, and I know it, but I am awed and amazed by how much conflicting information and how many misleading signals they can emit. They're not evil, they're just experimenting.

I myself would have taken the kid to the doctor repeatedly until the problem was solved. But my parents didn't.

I was an abnormally short and skinny child. It runs in the family. But I had a big belly, like a victim of childhood malnutrition. Which, when you think about it, I was. Sort of. At one point when I may have been about nine, a doctor took an X-Ray and reported that my intestines were the size of a full-grown adult's. I attribute this to the fact that my guts were trying to hold so much inside.

So I wound up leaving the house in the morning in clean underwear, and at bedtime peeling off underwear with a sizable amount of flattened feces in it, on average, about the equivalent of one normal daily poop for a child. It was on the dry side, like a tar, or a chewy baked cookie. It must have oozed out in tiny amounts over the course of the day.

At one point my mother conducted a campaign of trying to find out at what time of day it came out. With complete common sense, she said I should figure out when it was happening, and go then to sit on the toilet at that time. When I said I didn't know when it happened, she decided to take the empirical approach. Every hour or so she would pull open the back of my pants and look in there. That must have gone on for a week or several weeks.

They apparently didn't know that I was fighting against painful surges all the time. They must have assumed that the pain I had told them about initially was real, but ultimately based in a psychological problem such as an anal retentive tendency. The theory would be: For some reason, the kid holds it in, and then the snowball effect takes over and he gets himself into a real, genuine problem.

To my knowledge, no one outside my family ever knew my secret, nor even suspected. I was never teased. There were almost no incidents of kids wondering where that smell was coming from. Only once -- in the first grade -- did I come close to being exposed. Some kid behind me in line, who I think was partially learning disabled ("retarded" was the word we used), bent over to pick up something he'd dropped, and must have stuck his nose close to my rear on the return trip. Fortunately, he didn't make an announcement, but just shook his finger at me and said, in a mock parental voice: "Uh uh-uh! Bad boy, messing your pants."

I ignored him. That moment terrified me.

As I said, the wad in my pants was mostly dry, though it must have come out in tiny wet squirts. I assume that dry poop doesn't smell as much. I often noticed my own smell, and I was good at holding still, or retreating to a well-ventilated space. I spent a lot of time sensing the motion of the air and placing myself downwind.

My grandmother would visit from time to time and subject me to enemas. I recall her doing this twice. That did not clear the block. It was just a case of a lot of uncomfortable water going in, and then later draining out. I do recall that, a couple of times in those years, I would manage to excrete the whole block. Then my underwear would be clean for a few days. But the cycle would later resume.

The reason that I conclude that no one outside the family suspected is that I was never teased. The prospect of such a tease is just too delicious -- imagine the riotous fun that could be had making fun of that kid in room 12 who still poops his pants! Hey! Maybe we can get him to do it if we scare him!

"What you got in your pants today, Mr. Poopie? Did you bring a little present for the teacher? Haw haw haw!"

None of that happened.

But imagine my shame. And my fear. I was an intelligent kid, and a voracious reader. And I was from a family where every fault was mercilessly picked on. That was my father's way. He was in so much psychic pain that he tried to export it to everyone else, by attacking, tearing down, and just being hateful. He used words, not blows.

My mother, for her part, tried to construct a wishful reality where nothing was wrong and no one had a cause to complain. She was so adept with language, as we all were, and I remember her soft, gentle approaches, like the waves of the ocean, relentless, coming at me again and again to smooth over anything definite I had said, trying to rework it by herself, or get me to retract it. One of her major tactics was to try to put her words in our mouths.

My father, to my knowledge, only used the trump card once or twice. As a teen (I think) I was talking about young kids learning to read with my mom, and he walked by and said something cutting about them being potty trained by then. Oddly enough, the exact same kind of quip happened later, after my own son was born, and I was discussing kids with my mom. Again, he walked by and made this cutting remark. He looked at me with red-faced contempt. I think, though, that at that time he might have been still demented somewhat by the chemo drugs. He is still a hateful person, but old age has taken a lot of the fire out of him.

With the exception of my mother my family, with myself included, busily attacked each other about everything. I was as contentious and hateful as any of them. But they didn't razz me about the crap in my pants. I think it must have been too constant for them to take aim at it. A given.

Of my sisters, only my oldest sister ever said anything to shame me before the family. I must have been about five, six or seven, and we were eating. I was about to get up to go get something and she said "No! I'll get it. You stay seated!" She exchanged glances with my mother and said that she wanted to avoid the smell. Though I loved her dearly, I for years remembered that moment with pure hate.

My middle sister was much more hostile to me, but I don't recall her ever teasing me about it, even once. She belittled me and attacked me about everything else, but not that. Maybe she thought that some of the shame rubbed off on her. Maybe she dreaded being known at school as the girl whose brother poops his pants.

My father once playfully decided to make up family nicknames. The one he came up with for me with "Stinky." It was meant to be a gentle ribbing. I looked the other way and pretended I hadn't heard him, though I was right next to him at the time.

He used to loom right over us with his fists drawn back, and bellow. He never did hit us, and I suppose that by his standards that made him a good father. But when he drew back his fists, I always thought he was just about to hit me. That was the threat.

One day he got sick of my mother cleaning up my bottom each day when I came home from kindergarten. She would have me stand on a stool and she would wipe me clean, even going so far, in what I assume was motherly zeal to help, that she would dig in my anus and try to scoop stuff out. Once she touched the prostate and it felt good. The next day, I asked her to do it again. I was five.

Soon my father loomed over me in the hall, his fists drawn back, yelling. "Your mother is not going to clean up your shit anymore! From now on, you're going to have to clean yourself! You got that!?"

He didn't mind swearing in front of us. "OK Dad," I said quickly, as I always did when he seemed about ready to kill.

I think what made him angry was the ongoing shame of my incontinence, the Oedipal implications of my request to my mother, and the rage it must have induced in him to detect homosexual tendencies in his son. He never did understand me, as he was an insecure, angry man with a flair for business math, and I was a goofy, artistic dreamer. He may have been afraid that I might turn out homosexual. I turned out to be a poet instead, which is almost as bad.

The way this rather long story ends is that when I was 14, just before I entered high school, they took me to a doctor. He reached into my underwear and palpated my testicles. I was smart enough and well-informed enough to know that he was checking to see if they had descended, if that might explain my lack of any boyish qualities. Maybe I was some freak of nature, sexless.

Then they had me drink a radioactive marker fluid, and took X-Rays. They determined that there was nothing wrong with my bowels, and said I might be lactose intolerant. I don't know if there is now, or was then, a chemical test for it.

But I was 14 and mature enough that when my mother explained it to me, I was able to avoid milk and check packaging of processed foods to see if they listed lactose as an ingredient. We began putting special lactase enzyme drops in milk bought for me, and letting that sit in the fridge for a day while the enzyme broke down the lactose. I can eat cheese, and yogurt, because the bacteria have already processed the lactose.

I don't recall if they gave me a laxative, but they must have. I then had one very massive poop, and lay on the couch feeling weird and empty, in a good way. "Mom, it feels weird to be so empty," I said, as she walked by. She said something brief and neutral, probably exhausted by years of hoping and hoping for a solution.

After that my bowel function was completely normal. I remember that first year in high school, using the toilet with gratitude, yet fearing that the problem might come back. Then after about two years I stopped worrying.

As I've said, my family atmosphere was very antagonistic, with people picking apart everything you said, had said, might say or might think. It was a viper pit, and that made me paranoid and controlling about every situation, always ready to defend myself in case I might be attacked. But the secret shame did add to that paranoia. One day in high school I was walking past the office and toward English class with my friend who I'll call Android. He and I often talked about Jung and psychology. We had just passed out of the covered building and into the open, covered area when I suddenly made a connection.

"Oh!" I said, "I just figured out why I'm so paranoid!"

"Yeah?" he said. "Why?"

"Never mind," I said.


For decades, I had my secret. It was something I had grown so used to hiding as a child that deep within my mind it was still a shameful thing. It's certainly not something anyone needs to know who has not suffered from it. Once in a while it would occur to me that maybe I could help some other little kid, and prevent their suffering, if I shared my own story. But it's not like there's a national organization of pants shitters with thousands of people wanting to join up and have picnics.

It was only when we started caring for our own kids and their health that I got a proper perspective in this. For over 10 years, as a child, I went through needless physical pain and emotional suffering because my parents failed to address my medical problem. Period. There has never been an apology from my parents. We've never talked about it since, except in terms of avoiding lactose. I'm not looking for an apology, but I now realize that if I ever put my own kids through something like that due to my ignorance or negligence, I will owe them an apology.

These days you can buy acidophilus milk. We do that for our kids. I don't think they're lactose intolerant, but when my son started getting constipated after we switched him to whole milk as a toddler, I insisted on it. And on those occasions when I have seen them pushing and straining on the potty, their faces red, the signs of struggle on their faces, my heart has gone out to them in the fullest wave of sympathy you can imagine. And I hurt for them and want them to emerge victorious. And thankfully they have.

I remember when one of my own kids was sitting naked on the potty as a toddler, straining and struggling with a bowel movement. I walked past and said, "Don't push so hard, just let it come out." I remember being a little toddler and my own father saying the same to me.

The lesson is: When your kids have a physical problem, take them to the doctor.
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