Sunday, December 16, 2007

GERD Girl Guide

In October of 2006, I was finally diagnosed with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) after a nearly three decade battle with my midsection. At that moment, my life changed.

For years, various doctors had me convinced me that I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. For years, I thought it was all in my head. Then on one bright shiny day, I realized that it was all in my esophagus which, the last time I checked, is just under my head.

From time to time, I will be writing about my daily experiences with the GERD Monster. I will do this because I am convinced that a large part of our population unknowingly has GERD.

I will call myself GERD Girl because this is the closest I will ever come to being a superhero. I may even make myself a cape. As far as my super powers are concerned, well, I suppose I can regurgitate slightly at will and I can sleep on a slanted bed.

A few years ago, I wrote about my stomach troubles on Does this sound like you?
I think I'm the only person in the world who can get an upset stomach just by reading the back of a Milk of Magnesia bottle. "Directions for Use," it says on the 12-ounce plastic container, "As a laxative: Adults and children over 12, 2-4 teaspoons. As an antacid: Adults and children over 12, 1-3 teaspoons." It's the overlapping dosage number, you see, that causes me concern. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if I took the recommended 3 teaspoonsfull? How would my body decide which way to react? And why is it a laxative and an antacid? In my mind, a laxative and an antacid are diametrically opposed and don't belong in the same product. It's like having a bed that's also a catapult.

The reason I am intimately familiar with Milk of Magnesia... and Tums... and Mylanta-- both generic and name-brand... and baking soda... and Alka Seltzer... and club soda with bitters... and recently with this awful antacid gum that I found on a bargain table at my local Rite Aid... is because I have had a 26-year battle with what the professional medicine men like to call a nervous stomach.

I first started taking prescription stomach medication when I was 11 years old. It was 1976, the year America's sweetheart, Dorothy Hamill, won her Olympic figure skating Gold Medal. It was also the same year I watched The Mike Douglas Show religiously and, on one of her many MDS appearances, Ms. Hamill confessed to Mr. Douglas that she had undergone treatment for a bleeding stomach ulcer. Instantly, she became my childhood hero. How could I not worship a fellow female with a cute haircut, winning smile and self-inflicted, screwed up intestines? When I saw Dorothy Hamill it was like I was looking in a mirror... in a bathroom mirror, of course.

A fellow comic, who was suffering from the mother of all intestinal problems, Crohn's disease (or regional ileitis for all my Latin friends) once told me that many standup comics suffer from anxious innards. Since we all, no doubt, knew about our tense tummy tendencies long before ever doing our first open-mike, I had to wonder why we chose to pursue a career in an occupation that ranks right up there in stress level with executioner, crocodile hunter and Vatican lawyer. If we all knew early on that this would be a lifelong problem, as I believe we all did, then why didn't we become yogis or gardeners or Maytag repairmen? What is it about our basic personality type that makes us seek out stress even when stress turns our midsections into living lava lamps?

Back when I still had health insurance (Ah, the eighties! While most comics were snorting cocaine and marrying comedy club waitresses, I was seeking out low co-payment medical care!) I tried desperately to get my stomach problems under control. My bi-coastal life style allowed me to visit doctors on both sides of the country and after several humiliating, low co-payment, invasive procedures, each doctor gave me the same annoying advice, "You have got to relax." Unfortunately, the men in white coats didn't realize that the one guaranteed way to make me tense up further is to tell me to relax. Just ask my husband. Blue Cross and Blue Shield wound up paying lots of green money for me to find out what I had already known. As I left each office, my stomach sounded like the mating call of the wildebeest.

One particulary evil doctor decided that I needed to have a lower GI, which, by the way, has nothing to do with having sex with a very small military man. The lower GI, and it's sister test the upper GI-- which also has nothing to do with sex and a slightly taller man in the armed forces-- are two of the most unpleasant and embarrassing examinations a human can undergo. The worst of the two, the lower GI, consists of several steps: first you empty out your system (let's just leave that to the imagination) then you endure a barium enema and finally you allow a man who's never taken you out to dinner and who, most likely, just lost the coin toss, to insert a camera into a place where no camera should ever go and have a look around. My only comfort was that he didn't request a wide-angle lens... or wallet-sized copies. To add insult to what had to be injuries, the doctor wrote on my chart, "The patient took to the procedure very well." And he expected me to relax?

Not having health insurance, or enough money for twice-yearly trips to Hawaii, has forced me to deal with my gastrointestinal problems in more inexpensive ways. Diet, blah, blah, blah, exercise, blah, blah, blah, meditation, blah, blah, blah and over-the-counter chalky white substances all seem to help. But a month's work of relaxation can all be wiped out with one sports bar hell gig. So, I have to ask myself, punk, can my stomach survive 18 more years in standup comedy? Especially if at the end of those 18 years I still have dust blowing through my bank account?

But perhaps money-- or lack thereof-- has nothing to do with the pressure I feel. Let's face it, standup comedy and stress are the peanut butter and jelly of show business. Sure you can have one without the other but it just wouldn't be the same. As comics, we thrive on the challenge. We like living on the edge, even if that occasionally means falling over the edge. Stress and anxiety keeps us sharp. So, maybe those of us who experience heightened stress in our daily lives became standup comics because we finally found a positive way to channel our anxiety? All these years, our critics have said that we're maladjusted. But maybe we adjusted just fine, thank you very much. After all, who's crazier? The stressed out comic? Or the stressed out toll taker?

(Comics should end stress in third world countries by releasing an album called Rolaid. Sorry, I was channeling the '80s again.)

Heartburn, gut rumblings and acid reflux will probably be with me for the rest of my life. They've been with me since puberty, so I can't think of a good reason why they would one day pack up and leave. But I can't even imagine how much worse they would be if I didn't love what I do. And if acceptance is the first sign of recovery then maybe there's hope for my stomach in the future.

I only wish I had discovered all of this before subjecting myself to those awful tests. At least now I have beautiful 8x10 glossy's of my intestinal tract. I sign each one, "Hope to see you soon!" I guess I should get new ones made. It's embarrassing to look at them... my colon looks so 1986.

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