What comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Obviously, this is the classic impossible question. Over the last year, I have been asking myself a different version of this question:
What comes first, anxiety or the stomachache?
Ever since I was a little girl, I have suffered from crippling stomach cramps and frequent trips to the bathroom.
It started in 3rd grade. I had been removed from a stable environment–the first stable environment I had had in my life, spanning a year and half–and placed back with my mother.
At this point in life, my anxiety flared. I became terrified of being alone.
I’ve been trying hard to trace why. I closed my eyes the other night, allowing my mind to wander to the memories of images long ago, and I suddenly had a memory of footsteps outside of my window, banging on the side of our trailer, and a ghostly howling.
My mother told me to hide in the closet, and I sat in the dark, alone and terrified.
As an adult, I know how this story ended. My mother’s ex-husband–my father–was angry at my mom for ??? and decided he would repay her by scaring the living daylights out of us.
Avoiding how generally fucked up my father must have been to do this to his own children, I can focus on my own childhood feelings in this memory.
Insecurity. Terror. Loneliness.
Not long after this event, my mother left my brother and I–he was in middle school–alone by ourselves, while she went to visit her boyfriend eight hours away. My grandma stopped by on the second night and discovered us by ourselves. She was livid–and she took us back to her house.
When my mom returned, my grandma took us back to the trailer park while my mom was still at work. This is when I had my very first panic attack–at the ripe age of 8. As my grandma began to leave, I started crying hysterically, begging her not leave us at the house, not to leave me. I was grabbing her, trying to drag her back into the house–absolutely hysterical. She was clearly flabbergasted by my behavior and kept yelling at me to calm down. She managed to free herself of me, and she stepped out on to the porch with my brother, closing the door and holding it shut.
Again, I was alone. I lost it, I couldn’t breathe. My whole body got hot and I started throwing my whole self against the door, desperate to get outside. As I pummeled the door with all of my weight, absolutely lost in my own panic, I pushed the door open with such force that it knocked my grandma down.
The memory, though long ago, is vivid with emotions–heavy, fearful. My breath quickens even as I write this.
This is when the stomachaches started.
Not long after, my mom decided to move us 8 hours away with her new boyfriend. In the span of two years, I lived in three new cities, attending multiple new schools. Every transition was marked with anxiety and, inextricably linked to that, my stomachaches and diarrhea.
When I was nine, my family purchased an “at home physician” book, full of symptoms and flow charts to give the reader an idea of when to go to the emergency room and what to do at home.
I became obsessed with this book. Obsessed. Every time I tried to tell my mom how sick I was, she told me I was a hypochondriac. There were times, when the pain was so bad and I was doubled over in the bathroom for an hour, that I was convinced I was dying. Sure–SURE–that there was something seriously wrong with me. This book, naturally, fed into that belief. It was the predecessor to Dr. Google…and I would consult it, following the chart, begging my mom to just take me to the hospital.
I was 9.
This is where it all started. It was not until I was 20, on my own at college, that I finally went to see a GI doctor for all of my symptoms. After a colonoscopy and a CT scan, I was given the news I had already suspected–I had IBS-D. The doctor was sympathetic, told me to consider cutting out certain foods, start taking probiotics (which HAVE been a godsend) and…
…manage my stress.
When my panic attacks started anew this year, my stomach went haywire. I would get anxious, and get sick, fueling more anxiety. One morning, wrapped in nothing but a towel, I sat, sobbing on the bathroom floor, telling my husband that there was something really, really wrong. I was sure I needed to go to the hospital. Sure I was dying.
I think of that moment, still, with tears in my eyes. My lowest of lows.
Everyday for a month after, I would wake up in bed, stomach grumbling, anxiety heightening. The physical toll that this took on my body was one thing–the emotional toll was entirely different.
What comes first–the anxiety or the stomachaches? Originally, the anxiety–that much is clear. As I have aged, and the lines between the two have blurred, it is often hard to determine. If I get a stomach virus, my anxiety goes through the roof. If I get anxious, I immediately get sick to my stomach. It is a cycle–a vicious, vicious cycle.