The phlegm that says "I love you"

pen & ink self-portrait of the author's large intestine Back in September of 2002, I started drawing my colon.

I first drew it on the day after my second-ever colonoscopy, the day I was finally told how bad off I really was in unequivocal, Western-medical terms ("aggressive onset," white-cell count, colostomy, etc.). I continued drawing it once per day, every day, for months afterward, well after I was out of the hospital and back to work.

drawing of the author's colon

It's nowhere in the journal entries that precede the drawing itself, but I am fairly sure of the genesis of the sketching-as-therapy endeavor: several years earlier, during her first bout with cancer, my mother shared with me her own hoo-doo sicky-sick ritual. She did not draw, but she regularly visualized the diseased parts of herself1 slowly getting better as cancer cells were politely escorted out by the contents of the chemical drip in her arm. This image was easier and more pleasant for her to fix on, she said, than the war-like one some people favor: This radiation is KILLING my cancer! This chemo is KICKING THE SHIT out of those mutant cells!2

I had no better ideas, so I did the same.

The first drawing is hastily done; my intestines look more like a really poorly rendered black-and-white sketch of the Yellow Brick Road cover than actual human organs, and there is nothing as specific and action-oriented as escorting going on. The next day, however, features a fair approximation of a colon, along with some very dynamic-looking action lines. By Day 6 (see above), the drawings are not only more specifically rendered, but more lovingly. The joint is lousy with hearts, for cryin' out loud! And on Day 11, I have the whole exit/recovery strategy meticulously mapped out: the meds and SCD-legal food, rendered as hearts, are waving at the mischievous buggies on their way out.3 To an actual toilet. (God is in the details, amirite?)

Whether or not you hew to the woo, there are some useful aspects to the practice of embracing an illness in this way.

drawing of the author's colon

First, it gives you something to do besides fret, nap, and watch Murder, She Wrote on an endless loop. I am way too good at fretting, way too bad at napping and even I can't watch TV forever. There was something very calming and focusing about drawing my colon every day. I'd reflect on the shape of it, add nuances to the exit strategy, draw a few more "good" bugs and a few less "teacher" bugs with each rendering. Plus, you know, super-nifty illustrated journal after the fact.

Second, reframing the illness made it much easier to get down with the slow pace of returning to wellness.4 Rather than looking at the whole thing as a "woe be me!" experience, I was able to look at it like a class, albeit a really tedious one with an unusual number of bathroom breaks.

Third, drawing every day helped to keep me in a state of gratitude. Because making the bugs my teachers made it impossible to feel completely angry with my disease. And because I chose to render the medicine as little hearts, I remained grateful to my I/V drip, my medical team, my health insurance, my amazing bed with the remote control that made it go up and down, up and down.

I bring all of this up because I'm sick right now. Not with Crohn's, but with an annoyingly trenchant and inconveniently timed cold. At least, for now it's a cold; one person I know had this whatever-it-is morph into bronchitis. I am not a fan of bronchitis. I quit smoking, some 23 years ago, because of incipient bronchitis.5 Not to mention I don't have the margin for error with antibiotics I did pre-Crohn's, in my blissfully sturdy 20s.

I am no saint. I can piss and moan and resist acting in my best interests with the best of them, even though the consequences of not doing so are intimately known to me.

drawing of the author's colon

And yet it is getting harder and harder to stay there. Hooray, middle age! Hooray for you, too, hundreds of hours of therapy, reading and purposeful self-reflection! I finally get that it's more useful, not to mention delightful, to treat myself with a little consideration, and to turn my attention to the nifty side of things. If I can't do my usual long, power walk, I am treated to a the beauty of my neighborhood in super-slow motion. If I cannot be out and dashing about in my usual can-do fashion, well, for the short stretches I do get out, I'm even more aware and appreciative of the fine weather we enjoy in Los Angeles. And slowed down thusly, when I am home I'm even more grateful for the serene snugness of my little apartment and its, no, really, insanely luxurious appointments.

I've written long ago and at length about illness being a useful, if painful, way to slow things down. I've spoken more recently (and far more briefly) about rotten things being a gateway to big love. But I still need reminding; maybe I always will need reminding. Slow is not a factory-default setting.

And so I move too fast and I curse before I remember to say "Thank you!" and slow down for a bit.

But I do slow down for a bit. Which is what we call a start.

Oh, and for the duration? Posting will be light...

xxx c

1As the primary site was her cervix, there was also some kind of radioactive tampon she got to wear. Get your pap, ladies!

2Mom died just 18 months after diagnosis, but far, far past what the doctors had initially predicted for someone with Stage 4 cervical cancer that had metastasized to her lungs. She even went into full remission for a time, fooling us into thinking she'd be around for a good, long time. Alas, the cancer came back fast and aggressively, and in her weakened state, a state not at all enhanced by her alcohol intake, except from a relaxation point of view, I can't see how she could have fought it off. Watch the drinking, ladies!

3Western medicine is finally coming around to embrace the theory Dr. Sidney Valentine Haas and Elaine Gottschall put forth a heckuva lot earlier: that the source of the irritation that causes Crohn's is bacterial: a crazy, unchecked proliferation of "bad" bacteria that the guts of Crohn's and ulcerative colitis patients can't handle, which irritates the intestinal wall and triggers the immune response (your body attacking itself).

4I was very fortunate, I realize, to be returned to a state of wellness. I get that this is not the case with all illnesses, and I'm the last one to point the manifesting finger. You know, that creepy part of new-agey-ness that wonders, in the most inappropriately passive-aggressive, outrageously fake-compassionate way, what you did to bring this illness into your life. Uuuuuuuup yours, you "Namaste!" motherfucker. (One of these days, I really do need to write up that essay on the "Namaste!" Motherfuckers. I have far more contempt for them than I do other fringe groups one could name on the other end of the socio-political spectrum because seriously, they should know better.

5And I really, really liked smoking, so you know I must have really, really hated the idea of this bronchitis thing happening again.