The Amusement Park Incident
I was a big boy now, standing in line for the newest and most radically intense rollercoaster in the park, Top Gun. It was October 28, 1994, and I was celebrating my tenth birthday at the Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, California. I was surrounded by four of my best friends, and even though a light drizzle was coming down from the black, cloudy skies, I couldn’t have been happier. We ascended the winding staircase, watching in terror as the rollercoaster swung from side to side and catapulted into three loop-de-loops above our heads. We reached the top and stood, antsy and slightly panicky, in the final line before we would board the ride.
But as we walked farther down the line, however, I became antsy and panicky for an altogether different reason. We had just eaten a cheeseburger-and-fries lunch rich in fat and grease, and my stomach was starting to churn. Sweat seeped from my forehead, and my heart started pounding. I felt like I was going to be sick — and I hadn’t even boarded the ride yet. I reached the front of the line, and as my friends all found their seats, I stepped past them, toward the exit, and ran for the nearest bathroom. My stomach felt like it was going to explode — the pain was excruciating — and little did I know at the time that I was going to spend many more years battling debilitating stomach issues.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The Great America incident is the first memory I have of the disease I would be diagnosed with ten years later — irritable bowel syndrome. It’s a disease that affects fifteen percent of the population, with chronic abdominal pain and major disturbance of the bowel functioning. It won’t show up on any CAT scans or in any blood work, and a diagnosis of IBS is typically the last resort for a doctor who’s out of options.
Worst of all, it’s a disease many don’t feel comfortable talking about — who wants to discuss their stomach problems and bowel dysfunctions over lunch with friends? But irritable bowel syndrome is a serious disease, and one that can’t be ignored.
I’ve suffered from IBS for twenty-four years now, and over the years I’ve attempted all kinds of remedies, from healthy eating, to exercise, to herbal medications, to hypnosis, to acupuncture. I’ve endured two endoscopies as well. For so long I thought alternative medicine was the answer to my problems — it has been known to help IBS sufferers — but in the end it turned out to be a waste of time and money, never once ending my suffering.
In those early years of my chronic stomach pain, I thought the key to solving the problem was to have my appendix removed. My grandparents told me that my father had debilitating stomach aches leading up to the summer of his twelfth birthday. The family doctor, having exhausted every avenue of treatment, finally opened up my father’s stomach and performed an exploratory, finding an appendix that was inflamed and ready to burst. The doctor removed the appendix on site, and fifty years since, my dad has been pain free.
When my pain continued into my middle school years, I waited for that special day when I could have my appendix removed. I’d sit in Algebra class at Swope Middle School, trying to focus on my note taking, wishing deep down inside that the lower right side of my abdomen would start aching and allow me the pleasure of going to the hospital.
By the time freshman year of high school arrived, I was ready to have my appendix out — I just knew it was the instigator of all my health problems. One night in 1999 I went to see the movie The Bone Collector with my dad, and, starving, I ate one of those icky, lukewarm movie theater hot dogs. The food made me so sick that I spent most of the movie not in the theater, but in the bathroom. But most disconcerting on the drive home was the pain I felt down low, which was so sharp that I screamed for my dad take me to urgent care. I hoped and prayed the doctor would remove my appendix, and that all my problems would go away. But instead, the doctor gave me Pepto Bismol and told me to go home. I soon discovered that my pain went far deeper than this made-up appendix problem.
My first year of college was not a happy time. I was in a new city, on my own, trying to make friends, and still suffering from chronic stomach pain and bad bathroom trips. I tried everything that year — eating plain turkey sandwiches, running a few miles every morning, trying to get a good night’s sleep even when my partier of a roommate forbade it. I went to a doctor in L.A. who gave me a prescription for Prevacid, a medicine that specifically treats acid reflux.
But the product didn’t help me, and I still didn’t have any concrete answers as to what my problem could be. I met with a Reno gastroenterologist, told him my symptoms in detail, and prepared myself for multiple tests. An endless amount of blood samples were taken — all turned out normal. I endured a CAT scan, where I had to spend the morning drinking giant bottles of chalky liquid and spend the afternoon lying down in a giant machine that made me feel like a biology specimen — as expected, nothing out of the ordinary was discovered.
Oh, God, That Endoscopy
The worst ordeal I endured that summer, one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, occurred when the gastroenterologist recommended that I have an endoscopy. In this procedure, my doctor told me, I would be sedated while a doctor pressed a tiny scope down my throat and took pictures inside my stomach to see if I had any abnormalities. I didn’t think it would be that bad of a procedure — I would be sedated and lost in my own little world, after all — but the doctor carelessly failed to give me anything in the way of anesthesia.
Before the snake-like scope was lowered down my throat, I could tell that something was wrong — not only was I not sedated, but I was completely awake and aware of everything around me. My throat had been numbed, thankfully, but as soon as the scope entered my system, I started choking, and instead of removing the scope for safety reasons, the doctor continued to cast it down. I still remember him saying to me, “just relax… relax, Brian… I’m almost done… it’ll be over soon,” as I gagged and choked on my own vomit. Even worse, the sensation of a small camera poking around the inside of my belly is one I will never forget. And what came of this moment of sheer terror? Nothing. The endoscopy pictures found nothing unusual in my system.
Alternative Medicine the Answer?
Therefore, at the end of the summer, the gastroenterologist diagnosed me with irritable bowel syndrome and told me to turn to alternative medicine to alleviate my systems. I was excited about the possibilities — any natural solution that wouldn’t make me choke on my vomit was a good thing — and I became obsessed with alternative therapies. But soon I ultimately realized they drained my bank account far more than they ever pacified my symptoms.
I started having sessions with alternative doctors both in Reno and Los Angeles. One man I saw, who looked like a modern-day version of Albert Einstein, spent an hour with me performing all sorts of silly tricks. He dropped a round rock against my palm and studied in which direction it slipped out of my hand. He laid me down on a flat surface and tapped two small mallets against my elbows and ankles. He gave me a mix of herbal pills I was to take every day for three months to see if the mix of so-called magical herbs would heal my symptoms — they didn’t (in fact, this alternative medicine “doctor” died of cancer less than a year later).
Hypnotize Me! Acupuncture!
I frequented the website helpforibs.com for food and diet tips, and I also used it to research the power of hypnotherapy. For six months or longer I spent the last hour of the day in bed listening to a soothing male voice on a CD that was supposed to hypnotize me and wish all of my negative symptoms away. Unfortunately I ended up falling asleep before any hypnotization took hold, so this method didn’t help, either.
In 2006, when my symptoms became so painful that I often refused to leave my apartment, I took on — more like endured — eight sessions of acupuncture at a small office run by an even smaller Chinese man. He spent a few minutes sticking fine little needles in places all over my body, including my scalp, toes, rear end, and belly button; then he left me in a dark room for close to an hour while I listened to New Age artists like George Winston and Enya.
As much as I wanted to convince myself I would grow out of my health problems, I spent the next three years in more pain; clearly alternative medicine wasn’t working. Even worse, I was putting my health at risk. In 2009 my IBS symptoms ruined a first date, and I almost suffered a nervous breakdown — I was ready to try anything, literally anything, to get my stomach pain to go away.
What About Paxil?
I saw a gastroenterologist in Los Angeles and spent close to twenty minutes discussing with him every procedure, experimental method, herbal medicine, and wacky out-of-the-box procedure, that I’d endured over the years, and he looked at me, his lips pursed, a curious look on his face. “Have you tried anti-anxiety medicine?” he asked. I said that I hadn’t, and he wrote me a prescription for Paxil. I really didn’t want to take any pills, especially ones that came with enough side effects to fill a fifty-page novella. But he said that anti depressants, like Paxil, had been known to help and sometimes nearly cure patients with aggressive IBS symptoms.
After a few weeks of hesitation, I finally decided to give the drug a try. It took two months to feel the benefits of the drug, but I soon started feeling noticeably better, and by the end of the year I was a whole new person. My IBS symptoms became so infrequent that I was able to spend more time focused on what I wanted to do — spending time with friends, going on dates, traveling the country, falling in love. Most important, I was able to commit to all my dreams and ambitions.
I Finally Have My Life Back
Today, I’m the healthiest I’ve been in my life, and although I don’t know if Paxil is the source of all my transformation, I’m glad to report, after so many years of seemingly never-ending pain and turmoil, I’m happy, and that I’m able to see every day for what it is — a miracle. In 2013 I weaned off the drug, and for the past five years I’ve been mostly pain-free, aside from the occasional stomach pains I’ll get here and there, maybe once a month, usually after a heavy lunch or dinner.
Since that distressing, humiliating tenth birthday, I have experienced ups and downs in my health. Sometimes months would go by without many problems; other times I would go three months straight with unbearable pain. For so many years I tried to go the alternative medicine route, but in the end I turned to western medicine in search of dire help, and help I received. While Paxil hasn’t 100% cured my IBS, it helped make me a different, more hopeful person than the one I used to be. My ambitions are greater, my relationships are stronger, and my outlook for my future is one of excitement instead of bleakness.
Alternative medicine is an option for anyone trying to solve his or her health problem, but I’m here to say that in my case the alternative options led me only to dead ends, and that western medicine, while not perfect, is still the best road to take when it comes to unusual, hard-to-diagnose diseases like irritable bowel syndrome. I ultimately learned from my mistakes, and after so many years of uncontrollable and unpredictable stomach pain, I’m finally healthy. And even though the source of my well-being may have been unexpected, I am forever indebted to western medicine not just for making me feel better, but for ultimately saving my life.