The Chicken and the Egg

When I was in Senegal, I came down with my first bout of chronic gastritis. I am able to name that mystery ailment of stomach cramps and perpetual nausea only in hindsight. When I was there – not to the discredit of the fine Senegalese doctors I saw – I had no idea what was causing me everyday distress in my bowels. From the moment I woke up until I glided into sleep that night, I bore discomfort in my chest, my stomach and my throat. The first few weeks were awkward for me. I was the only boy in the program, but was no longer able to perform the quintessentially masculine mastery over my body. I was distraught, constantly uncomfortable, belching slow, endless burps from an empty stomach, all as I gripped my stomach and responded to questions in my practiced, if a bit inflexible, French. The other students in the cohort pitied me and would offer me anything they had that might soothe my problem. Before the first week was through, my parents and I were discussing the possibility of me withdrawing from my program in Dakar. “I’m not mentally present,” I told them, almost crying as I clutched my distended belly on the red leather coach in the back of our school building. “I don’t think I can do this.”

As you may know, I didn’t withdraw from SIT Senegal. Rather, I sank into a paranoiac life. I began hoarding spicy ginger candies that I could buy for 15 CFA at a little stand around the corner from our school. I would eat at least five or six of these everyday, at any moment when I began to feel queasy and uneasy. I never didn’t have one with me, and I knew exactly which ones I liked (I did not care for the pineapple ones). I wasn’t as adventurous as I would have liked to have been, mainly because I was young, anxious and undeniably foreign, but also because I didn’t know when my body would suddenly turn on me and start calling the shots. I often lived vicariously through the freer women in my program, half-wanting to go with them to eat sandwiches prepared at the dodgy sidewalk café, but always content, nevertheless, in my croque monsieur, my dried mango and my digestive cookies. 

There was a girl in my program who left Senegal. Unlike me, she came down with something while we were there. Perhaps it was from food she’d eaten; an apple or orange she hadn’t properly sanitized with eau de javel or an ill-placed, ill-sipped glass of local water served at a restaurant, or her own body rebelling against her because it could. Needless to say, this girl had the fortitude to leave Senegal in the middle of the program, much to the shock of the employees of our program. The director shook his head in disbelief when he told us that no one had ever left the program, not even years prior when the ebola outbreak struck West Africa and stalled study abroad applications. I won’t go into the details about this girl, but I will note that nearly everyone had grown tired of her literal belly-aching by the time she actually departed. She complained ceaselessly about her perpetual nausea, her inability to name and thus fix her problem, and her unending fear of eating anything. She wanted, desperately, to be home with her parents, not because they could fix the problem (her parents, if I recall, were therapists) but because home is where comfort lies. Being sick abroad is absolutely terrible. You can take my word for it, as someone who felt they would vomit any minute while sulking about the Panthéon.  

I bring up this anecdote for a couple of reasons: 1) to give some context for what I’m currently dealing with (or trying to deal with) 2) to underline a key point which I’ll make in this post 3) to draw a picture of what it feels like to be in this body.

I bring up this anecdote – of Senegal and the girl who left – because I remember being asked by one of the students after the girl left halfway through our program, whether or not I had overcome my own gastric woes. The question was posed to me after everyone (myself included, I must concede) ragged on the girl [in an admittedly harsh manner] about her endless complaining. I told my friend that my condition hadn’t improved, a response she undoubtedly wasn’t expected. Her face lit up with shock and pity, but I did not accept it. 

“My condition hasn’t improved much at all. I just stopped talking about it.”

When I got back from Dakar, I spent a week at home before I had to go down to North Carolina for a summer research program. During that week, I enjoyed my time at home, preparing for my summer away. Most importantly, I felt almost instantly better. Sure, there were some days when I would feel a bit queasy. I still had my store of ginger candies I brought back with me, and I would snack on them from time to time, my eyes twitching and puckering from the sourness, my throat burning from the caustic gingerol. But in general, I felt almost, miraculously, cured. Part of me always feels a bit better when I am home and around family. The reason for this? Home is comfort, and family is home. Even if I don’t feel the warm sunny feeling that some people feel when they are surrounded by siblings and cousins, I nevertheless can feel something loosen and slacken in me when I am home. 

But I was only home for a week. Then I was off to North Carolina, and I stayed there for two months. During that time, I experienced one of the worst episodes of anxiety in my life and generally was shaken by my interactions with a friend group that turned out not to be my friends. Four years later, it all seems really trivial, stupid and banal. It’s not worth reopening old, scabbed over wounds. At least, not this one.

During my time in North Carolina, I began to pick up my old lifestyle. I am mildly self-destructive, like any young person. I’d often forego breakfast, drink loads of iced coffee on an empty stomach, smoke too much weed, drink too much alcohol, etc. But I’m also a deeply paranoid and skeptical person. There’s always another me in the room, telling me “nah, that’s your last shot” or “you don’t need to hit that again.” I tend to listen to this smooth, soothing me with the voice a bit too similar to my father’s. I practice moderation, mainly because I know my body can and will revolt when I step too far.

The next few years would be marked by a kind of accord between me and my body. At least, between me and my digestive track. It’s weird, though – when I think of the years 21-23, I think mainly of a deep and incorrigible self-loathing about my body. I was thin, the thinnest I’d ever been with my adult body, but I was self-conscious and afraid I was secretly ugly. I was eating well, cooking my own food, working out – doing everything to maintain my body while my mind went through storm after storm of anxiety and depression. I was under a tremendous amount of stress as a very young, very impressionable and very confused man in a graduate program at a school which was, at best, ambivalent towards his work. I was beginning to develop my phenomenological approach to race in a vacuum and felt entirely disconnected from my peers and out of touch with what was going on in my field. I was sitting in Old French, spot translating La Mort le roi Artus shittily in a room full of French PhDs who actually knew what these archaic verb forms were… and I was just guessing. I felt like a failure, but I had yet to fail anything. I felt like an imposter, but I also knew that my work had value. I convinced myself that other people just didn’t see my worth and that they must be convinced. 

All of it was very bad, and at a certain point in February 2018 I fell, and in May 2018, I fell again. The next few months I dedicated to focusing on myself. I noticed a change in my anxiety as I started a wave of medication, where it became an ongoing and endless background hum, just barely audible, in the psychic noise of my life. I found this acceptable, mainly because I was convinced – and still am convinced – that anxiety disorders can’t really be ‘cured.’ I still had my moments of gastric uneasiness, mainly as a kind of confusion between heartburn and hunger, but it was manageable and I was living my life. 

My second year was better than my first year, but not great either. By the end of it, I was excited to never have to take another course again. I was tired of the competitiveness of the classroom, the performance of students, the posturing of teachers — this is very funny, given that I’m in school to be an academic.  Part of me wonders if I can be one of those professors who finally succeeds in truly a “horizontal” learning environment. I doubt it. If I’ve learned anything from my first year of teaching, it’s that I’m a pretty good instructor and nothing more. 

In around April of 2019, I began to have the familiar pangs, cramps and churns of my Senegal days. It wasn’t the first time I’d had a bout of gastritis, but it was indeed sharper and more uncomfortable than anything that had happened during that interbellum. I remember calling my parents to ask for a bit of money so I could afford medication, as I was moving that following month and strapped for cash. They obliged and I went to CVS and bought something I knew wouldn’t work because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I had gotten so many diagnoses during my time in Senegal (GERD, a suspected HIV infection that was attacking my GI track, even a persistent and presumably chronic infection of salmonella) and taken so many different medications that I was at a loss as I stood there in the CVS with my stomach in my hand.

And just like Senegal, the bout of gastritis persisted. Some days were better, some days were terrible. But each day I felt entirely at the whim of my digestive system. My body was revolting against me, and at one point, I described it in my journal as “feeling like I’m rotting from the inside out.”  It was a terrible time, those early months of summer 2019. I was alone, I had just moved into my new apartment – an apartment I hated and have since moved out of – and I was beginning the stressful process of reading for my comprehensive oral exams. I thought “you must be really stressed. That’s got to be what this all is about. Stress.”

So I went back to therapy. “Back” because I had procrastinated finding an independent therapist after my first year, when I decided to suspend my on-campus mental healthcare for a therapist in or around New Haven. It had been a year since I talked to someone and I assumed that my tummy troubles were just some weird psychosomatic manifestation of my displaced turmoil. So I went back and have been seeing someone ever since.

But the problem is still here.

The point of this post, and this has been a really sinuous post indeed, is the question of stress: is it the Chicken or the Egg? Has putting myself in stressful situations pushed me to displace my distress as an everlasting stomachache, or does my inability to solve the issue or find a diagnosis only contribute to the stress churning the acid in my stomach? Is this some latent psychic superpower? Can I truly conjure pain out of nothingness?

I talked about this with my therapist last week. She’s never felt uncomfortable telling me what she thinks of my situation. This is a quirk I’ve found increasingly annoying as I’ve worked with her, even if her opinions do come in handy. Nevertheless, she told me that I ought to find better techniques for managing my stress levels, and that only when I do that will I be able to see if these troubled seas are stress-induced or stress-assisted or something entirely different. In general, I agree, but I also can’t bare the slow process of sitting with myself anymore. If stress or anxiety are the culprit, there are days when I wouldn’t mind a pill that just blisses me out so I can do a little bit of living. I haven’t been living much these past few weeks as I take this medication which I’m not sure ifs working. I haven’t lived in a long time.

In the beginning of this year, I wrote that I wanted all the colors of my life’s experience. And I still do. But now I’m barely able to distinguish one color from another. When you’re chronically ill, every color looks vaguely sallow and dingy. 

I’ll stop now, as I’ve already made you feel pitiful. And one thing I dislike is other people’s pity. I’m doing as best I can, trying to stay true to my medication regimen and hoping that with some patience, we’ll figure out what’s been ailing me so. I fear I’ll have to get an endoscopy – the idea frightened me months ago, but now it’s not so terrible an idea. Being sick will do that to you. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel normal again. As much as I’d love to just down an americano or make a quick dinner of spaghetti like the old times, I know now that my body can’t sustain that. I’ve known it for years, but I never listened. Now my body’s taken the microphone and I’m not sure when he’ll give it back.

Updates: 

I wrote this blog post in early July. It is now August 11. I underwent an endoscopy a few weeks after writing this and have since received a diagnosis I won’t disclose. Since first writing this, I have been put on a different set of medications which seem to be working, albeit very slowly. I’ve moved from that shitty apartment and am in a space which will be more accommodating for our new “W/H” lifestyle. I love this new space; it feels like home. I still think about these questions, but I now have some answers to help me stay grounded. I’m posting this because I think it will resonate with people who also deal with nameless chronic ailments or stress disorders, who struggle with what to do when nothing seems to be working, or who simply stop talking about an ongoing problem in an attempt to will the problem away.

Image: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Skull with Blue)

Leave a Reply