I spent the first few weeks of summer 2016 with the shakes, a fever, shooting pains in my stomach, and, most importantly, unrelenting diarrhea. I figured I just had to wait it out. Not to brag or anything, but I had had diarrhea before, and with the right approach it always went away in a few days.
This did not go away in a few days.
Even after my fever broke (and a barely competent ER doctor ruled out appendicitis), the shits continued. I spent most of the month at home, moving lifelessly between the bathroom and my bed. Oh, and I had a live-in boyfriend, Denis, the entire time.
He was there when I had to go to the ER, Snapchatting me as I carried around a bag of my own pee. He was there when I had to take multiple samples of my own shit. And he was there when my gastroenterologist called with a diagnosis: I had a clostridium difficile infection, one of the most serious gut infections you can get. Known as C.diff, this form of bacteria is bad news. It can hang out in the air for over an hour, it can (in the most extreme cases) kill people, and it’s very difficult to get rid of. Case in point: Your girl got it twice in two months.
Upon receiving the news that I had an infection that could potentially be deadly, that could potentially require a fecal transplant, I broke down. I felt like I had failed as a generally healthy person. I felt frail and infirm, betrayed by my own body. But, more than anything else, I felt gross.
I started to cry, Denis held me, and later that day I started a strain of potent antibiotics. I was so grateful that he was there for me — a textbook Cancer, he has an incredibly soothing presence that's not unlike a marine mammal. But I kind of hated letting him see me like that, too.
Don't get me wrong, Denis knew all about my bodily functions long before I got sick (I'm more than happy to pee in front of him, and he's taken my tampon out before). But this was different. Peeing and periods are one thing, but germ-riddled shit is in a league of its own. I started acting purely out of guilt for my own illness: I cleaned every surface in the apartment, badgered him about the state of his own poops, and kept him at a distance from all of my bathroom activity. (Honestly, it's a medical miracle that Denis didn't catch the 'diff this whole time.)
And then I put just about all forms of sexual intimacy on hold. Initiating anything just felt like a huge risk. After all, I was ashamed of what had happened to my body, so how could I expect another person to embrace it without qualms? My body, which I used to view as pretty darn sexual, had been reduced to little more than a host.
To be fair, when it comes to my health, I can be a little dramatic (see: the eczema flare up that I thought was ringworm and the slight headache that I thought was a concussion). But, despite my best efforts, nothing — not even the most potent erotic fan fiction — could put me in the mood. We didn't spend the summer in frigid silence (we drank beers on our roof, strolled in Prospect Park, and, hello, we saw the third Captain America), but the disconnect I felt from my own body had wormed its way into my relationship.
I ended the summer completely C.diff-free, but I was far from recovered. When every bowel movement draws blood, you don't need to be a doctor to know you're not out of the woods (it's pretty common for C.diff infections to damage the colon). So, that September, I made a date with a flexible endoscope (a tube with a camera at the end of it that explores the very bottom of your colon).
Part of the prep for the procedure was to administer two back-to-back enemas two hours beforehand. I crawled out of bed at 6 a.m., locked myself in the bathroom, and administered the heck right out of those enemas. I don't even remember if I woke up Denis to say goodbye before I ducked out for the appointment. On one level, I was very much aware that this was kind of funny (poop equals comedy, right?), but on another level, my ass hurt and I was sick of feeling like my health was a burden on my relationship.
I returned from the endoscopy with good news: No cancer! No polyps! Just a couple internal hemorrhoids! How do you do, fellow kids, I'm young and somewhat healthy.
In my relief, I felt like joking about it.
"What would you have done if I woke you up and asked for help with the enemas?" I asked Denis, expecting him to be thoroughly (and understandably) grossed out. Because that's what I was, right? I was gross. I was gross for getting sick, I was gross for being sick around someone I have sex with, and I was gross for bleeding out of my butt.
"I obviously would have helped you, dummy," he said.
"Duh, I'm not a monster, Sara." Then he started laughing — not at the idea of me asking him to help pump saline solution into my insides, but at the idea that I'd worry about asking. With those few words, Denis made something clear to me that I was too wrapped up in my own shame to realize: I couldn't count on my own body, but I could count on him.
My relationship wasn't going to fall apart because of a gut infection. It was going to be tested, sure, but, in that moment, it felt stronger than it ever had been. Denis wasn't scared of me, and he wasn't repulsed by me. Despite my fear and guilt, he never once pushed me away. Through the shitting and the fevers and my overwhelming anxiety, he was going to be there, whether I liked it or not. And I guess that's love.