I don’t know why but I have been looking forward to telling this story since the moment it started with a bang. Perhaps there is catharsis in the public airing of my literal dirty laundry. Perhaps I am a perverse exhibitionist. Perhaps I just like talking shit.
On that note, I plan to italicize every statement in this post that is both literally and figuratively true. Because if I’ve realized anything over the course of this very shitty time, it’s that the word “shit” is a stand-in for basically anything and everything in American culture. Why is that? Could it be that our culture is as obsessed with poop as I am? I’ll come back to that later. First I have to tell you how this shit started.
It was my last full day in Ghana. I was on the road trip to the coast. Over the past few days, I had tried a bunch of traditional Ghanaian food and to be honest, I did not like any of it. (If it makes you feel any better, it did not like me back.)
The groundnut soup (photo at the top) was so much worse than Senegalese mafe. Thinner, less peanuty, way more palm oily. The guinea fowl that came with it was a bunch of skin and bone. The fermented corn dumpling – kenkey – used to sop up the soup tasted like sticky, sweaty sourdough. I had the jollof rice (below, right) a few times and it was always too oily for my liking. And the garden egg stew (below, left) was a complete misnomer – there were barely any vegetables and no egg, just a bunch of fishy fish in some very spicy tomato-palm oil sauce with some eggplant.
But I had yet to try Ghana’s famous red red, which is a dish of plantains and beans in a palm oil-based sauce. In retrospect, the name seems foreboding. But I did not know then what I know now…
I did not know it even when I caught an acrid whiff of rancid palm oil drifting from the kitchen. To be fair, I did think, “Well, this isn’t going to make me feel good.” But I didn’t think, “This is going to ruin my life for the foreseeable future.” Plus it was after 2pm, I was very hungry, and there were no other restaurants in view.
So when the red red came, I scarfed it down. It didn’t taste nearly as bas as it had smelled, though I nevertheless daydreamed during that last meal about getting back to Dakar and more pleasant food.
That night, I didn’t feel particularly bad – no cramps or sweats – but when I went to the bathroom it was as though I’d taken a box of laxatives. Because my stomach didn’t hurt I figured it was a strange reaction to the palm oil and I’d be fine in the morning.
Oh how wrong I was. The next morning, again without any real discomfort, the entire contents of my body seemed to come pouring out of me in one fell swoop. But for some reason I wasn’t scared of getting on the plane. It felt like everything that I had ingested in the last 24 hours had made its way out of my system and if I just stopped eating for another 24 hours I’d be fine.
I took the plane back to Senegal without incident. I went to bed. The next morning, I ate rice cakes with goat cheese for breakfast, thinking that was relatively mild, but within a half hour I was back on the toilet, painlessly voiding my guts. Between the grossness of that incident, the heat and sweat of Ghana, and the grimy feeling of sitting in airports and on airplanes, I desperately wanted to get clean again. I took a shower so long that it made me feel guilty about wasting water, spent twenty minutes applying all the lotions and balms and other toiletries I hadn’t taken with me on vacation, and finally put on my nicest and freshest clothes.
Then I sat down on the bed to unpack. I pulled all my stuff out of my bag and arranged it in neat piles on the bed, ready to be put away, when I felt the sudden urge to fart. So I did. ONLY IT WASN’T A FART. For a second I sat motionless in stunned disbelief. Then I very accurately cried, “Shit!” and ran to the toilet, even though it was far too late for that.
The deed was done. I just shit my pants.
I have to admit, it seemed sort of funny even then. Like, are you shitting me? Why yes I am, said my body.
I got right back into the shower to wash both myself and my clothes. It reminded me of when my three month-old niece had a diaper blowout while sitting on my lap. That incident now seemed cute in comparison.
At this point it was 48 hours from the time I ate the suspicious food, so I figured it was a case of food poisoning that would clear up within another day or two. I implemented a strict all-rice diet, foregoing even coffee, which left me in a mental stupor but improved my stomach’s condition. Day by day, I added regular foods back in. After about a week I finally felt like I could go about my business somewhat normally, apart from running to the toilet at the slightest hint of an approaching fart. (More than three months later, I still feel fearful about this. I guess I’ve got PTSD – post traumatic shit disorder.)
There were a few days when I relapsed for seemingly no reason, but for the most part I got incrementally better, aside from a bothersome bloating that never went away. I blamed my wonky stomach for the slow recovery. (A brief digression: Since college, my digestive system has been screwed up. After many years and many tests, I received a diagnosis of IBS, which is actually the absence of a diagnosis. It means that there is no known reason you have “irritable bowels,” but you do. Giving up gluten five or six years ago helped tremendously, as does sticking to a rather bland diet with the acronym FODMAPS. Right before I flew to West Africa in January, I also took a round each of anti-bacterial and anti-fungal drugs to rebalance my microbiome, and in addition to FODMAPS, I followed a strict no-sugar diet for two months to starve any of the remaining bad stuff in my gut. I flew to Dakar on January 3, before my vacation, feeling better than I had in ages. For once in my life I had some good shit going on… and then Ghana fucked my shit up.)
More than two weeks after the sickness first hit, I stayed at a hotel downtown while attending a weeklong work conference. Thankfully I gave my presentation on a day when I felt somewhat alright. That night, I went to a restaurant where the only gluten-free option on the dinner menu was risotto. What I know now is that both bacterial and parasitic infections can render a person lactose intolerant. I didn’t know that then. I woke up to a body whose nerve endings had finally caught up with its intestines. Wracked with pain, I spent much of the morning on the toilet. The next day was similar. It was like a never-ending colonoscopy prep.
There was one particular conference session during which I thought I might actually shit myself, which seemed both impossible (shouldn’t this be a once in a lifetime occurrence?) and eminently possible at the same time. I did not want to confront all of the colleagues I had just met with my own personal shit-show, so I excused myself, went back to my room, spent a good deal of time in the bathroom experiencing what can only be described as a shitstorm, and then Skyped my travel doctor in New York. She said to take two days of the Zithromax she had prescribed me before going abroad. If it was a parasite or an antibiotic-resistant infection, it wouldn’t necessarily respond to antibiotics, and in that case I should go to the doctor in Dakar for follow-up testing. I thought about how ridiculous it would be if I showed up at the clinic downtown with yet another mystery malady. What would they think of a woman who not only has a hysterical pregnancy and a cockroach phobia but a pants-shitting problem to boot?
I slouched my way into a cab and went back to my house. That night, I felt too nauseous to eat the meal required to take with the pill. I went to bed, woke up the next morning, ate a few rice cakes, popped the meds, pooped out my guts, went back to bed, slept for like twenty hours straight, ate a few more rice cakes, took the remaining pill, went back to bed, slept another twelve hours, and woke up feeling… unsure. I mean, I wasn’t in pain anymore, but was I full of shit? Only time would tell. I cautiously added foods back into my diet, and waited for the shit to hit the fan. (That one is thankfully not literally true, so I won’t italicize it.) When I finally went to the bathroom the next day, things had improved. My body seemed to be dealing with its shit, and the bloating seemed to be less severe. Which, thank the fucking lord, because the very next day the water shut off and the toilets stopped running. Apparently the water company was doing work on the pipes. Had I still been sick, well, talk about what would make a shitty situation a million times worse.
But even though I was nominally better, something still felt way off. I mean, I won’t go into details but if I’m being honest, things have been pretty shitty since that first acute shit-storm. So when I got back to the States I lined up appointments with my G.I. and my integrated medicine doctor, both of whom really know their shit.
I knew what was coming: the dreaded poop test. This time it was even worse than the last, when I had to do the test once and then drop it off at a nearby lab. This time I had to do it three days in a row and then MAIL IT via FedEx to a lab in North Carolina.
The way you do a poop test: you stick a disposable plastic tub that I refer to as the “poop hat” in the toilet. You go to the bathroom in it. You take a wooden stick and scoop out pieces of poop – aiming for different bits and pieces for as much diversity as possible! – and smear it into plastic vials filled with chemicals. You then stir shit up until it is a uniform mixture. Then you put the cap on the vial, throw out the poop hat enclosed in six layers of plastic bags, and wash your hands for eight million years.
The test is bad enough when you’re healthy. Now imagine having to do it when you’ve got some bad shit going on.
So of course what does my body decide to do on the days of the poop test but not have to poop. I shit (you) not. I ate a bunch of yogurt, I drank extra coffee, to no avail. I just didn’t give a shit. The test had scared the shit out of me. I had to stay home from work each morning just waiting for my shit to arrive. (Etc. I could go on…)
Finally, after hours of holding out, my bowels would give in. Afterwards, I would give myself a pep talk, put on a plastic glove, stare resolutely at the contents of the poop hat, grab the wooden stick, take the plunge, and get into some deep shit.
The first two days, I had to store the samples in the refrigerator. THE REFRIGERATOR. The final day, I had not two vials to fill but five – the grand finale I suppose. When the final vial was filled, I got my shit together, dumped all my shit in a box, and carried my shit all over town looking for a FedEx that would accept a package specially marked with a “biological substance” warning on it. The first place wouldn’t accept it as it was only an authorized FedEx shipper, not an official FedEx store. I called FedEx and they told me that a FedEx Ship Center would accept it and refrigerate it until it was shipped. So I took a taxi to a FedEx Ship Center, where they told me that they couldn’t accept it at the counter, but that I could drop it into the very unrefrigerated box in the corner. I was like, why did I refrigerate my shit for two days only to now have it sit around in a FedEx for hours? Will that render the sample unusable? If I lose this shit, I am really going to lose my shit.
In the end I left it there; I had just gotten too sick of my own shit to do any more work on its behalf.
The test results are due at the end of this week, and I’m going to see both doctors at the beginning of next week. Hopefully they will help me to clear this shit up. Even if they do, I doubt it will be a long-term fix. During my last visit to the G.I., who has been my doctor for years, she told me what I already know: if I continue to travel to the places I do in the ways that I do, this shit will keep happening. My digestive system is just not built for my lifestyle. If I want to feel better physically, I have to give up the thing that makes me feel best psychically. Not a chance.
Due to my life choices, I’m lease-free and housesitting at the moment. My friend set up a profile for me on his computer. He left my password on a little post-it note: internationalbadasswoman. When I saw it I was really flattered, but then I realized it has a double and equally applicable meaning: in being an international badass woman I am also doomed to be an international bad ass woman.
That’s just the crap I have to deal with, I guess. When I look at it as an either / or, I’m willing to put up with all the bad shit for all the amazingness.
I should conclude with that, but I would like to return to where I started… Why do I talk so much shit, especially when this shit is no joke?
I am actually well-known for my shit-talking. I caught up with a friend recently and when she asked how my time in West Africa was, the first thing out of my mouth was, “Well, I shit my pants.” She started laughing not at the incident itself but at the memory of what her partner had said after the first time he met me: that I talk about poop a lot.
I do. I could talk about it day and night, night and day. It preoccupies me. Once, another friend went to an acupuncturist and naturopath who gave her a nutrition guide in which it said that if you’re healthy, you shouldn’t really need to fart. My friend and I were incredulous. This led me to google the average number of times a person farts per day: fourteen. So then my friend and I started counting up our farts and reporting back to each other. It made me think of a Sarah Silverman essay I had read back in 2001 that I adored. In it, she claims to be a special princess who has never pooped once. After telling my friend how funny and subversively feminist it was, I wanted to send it to her. I googled all the keywords I could remember, but it was no use. Sarah Silverman, like me, talks shit constantly, and there was too much material from the last twenty years that matched my search terms. The article I was looking for was buried underneath a sea of more recent shit.
But what I did find, and what I clicked on out of curiosity, was an article titled something like, “Why do Jews talk about shit so much?” The friend I exchanged fart counts with was also Jewish, so it was a pertinent and amusing question. I read with delight the descriptions of the Jewish history of potty mouths, the affinity of Jewish comedians for bathroom humor. I felt warm and fuzzy, like I was part of a grand tradition. And then I got a little further into the article and noticed the tone changing, slowly but surely, into something more sinister. There were words like “despicable” and “dirty.” I reread the name of the website: some riff on Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I realized I had gleefully eaten up Nazi-level anti-semitism while simultaneously illustrating the author’s horrid point. Oopsie.
But then I thought, of course Jews are obsessed with poop. People like you raped, murdered, and enslaved us throughout history and as recently as 75 years ago – thereby making us some of the most anxiety-ridden people alive – and then you blame us for the bowel conditions you caused with your oppression! It’s really no wonder we all have IBS and Crohn’s and colitis. Laughing about it instead of crying is an act of beauty and resistance.
But that’s some heavy shit, and I probably shouldn’t have brought the Holocaust into a discussion of my pooping problems. Then again, I probably shouldn’t be discussing my pooping problems, full stop.
So, just to wrap up: shit’s gotten crazy, and I’m trying to fix it, but we all know I won’t. Because then what would I have to talk about???
P.S. It is not just me! Here’s a disgusting yet thrilling Reddit thread, “What is your worst poop story? I am going to assume that among the many people who relished sharing their shit stories here were at least a few non-Jews. We all love a good shit story! It’s the stuff of life, in a way.
P.P.S. Without meaning to cause offense… the Ghanaian food pictured here all kind of looks going in very similar to the way it might look coming out, no? (You have to allow a person who was sabotaged by the food to make fun of it a little, okay??? I love Ghana, the people, the culture, the sights, the sounds, and the non-bathroom-related experiences – I just hate the food and the digestive apocalypse it wrought.)