Some people spend Christmas with their family. Others slump in front of the TV. This last Christmas, I mostly just peed.
On December 16, I went to the toilet in the afternoon and thought I felt the first twinge of cystitis. I’d had an attack back in October, leaving me in excruciating pain, peeing and crying all night. Now I was stressed and run down, getting by on too little sleep, and I convinced myself it was happening again.
The next day, a Saturday, I had a dull ache in my belly and was going to the loo every 15 minutes. I've always had an anxious bladder, dashing to pee before any interview or appointment. But even when I'm so nervous I could puke, the feeling is usually "I'd be better off if I went..." rather than "Your bladder will self-destruct in 3, 2..." Now I was experiencing the latter.
Trying to hold it in was almost impossible. I tried drinking less water, but it didn’t help: It just meant less came out, not that I needed to go less often.
In October, I'd called my doctor, described my symptoms, and she'd sent a prescription for antibiotics to the pharmacy. I didn't have to see her, didn't have to wait, and felt better in a couple of days.This time it wasn't so easy.
It was the weekend, so the practice was closed. That meant I had to ring the normal doctor's number then wait and wait as it rang and rang. Finally, a receptionist answered, took my name and number, and told me someone would phone me back in half an hour. (But not before I'd filled her in on my peeing frequency and she'd broken it to me that she didn't have any medical qualifications. My life: never not embarrassing!)
Finally, after I'd been waiting an hour and twenty minutes, a nurse called me. She was very sympathetic, with a soft Scottish accent I found comforting. She confirmed my details and then went through a long form with me. Slowly. ("Och, sorry, the computer keeps freezing.")
No, no blood in my urine. Yes, an urgent need to "go." Yes, a dull pain. Yes, I'm peeing very often.
"How often would you say?"
"About every 15 minutes."
"Och, bless you."
She said it sounded like cystitis, but they couldn't give me antibiotics without testing my urine, so she made me an appointment for eight PM at the emergency GP clinic at the hospital. I spent the next three hours dressing, crying, pacing and peeing.
In the waiting room, there were five other patients and a huge flat screen TV playing a Harry Potter film at low volume. I spent 45 minutes swaying in my chair, trying to recall the names of all JK Rowling's book as a distraction technique.
Finally, I was seen by a nurse-practitioner, a gruff man with ruddy cheeks and a gray buzzcut. After asking me to go to the toilet and do a urine sample, he went in the back to test it. Then he motioned me into his office, tapped on his keyboard for a few minutes then turned to me, took off his glasses, and sighed.
"Well, there's nothing in your urine," he said. "It's as clear as tap water, basically.”
"That doesn't mean you don't have an infection. But it's not showing up, maybe because you've diluted it by drinking lots of water. We can't give you antibiotics for something we can't see."
He offered me some codeine, which I accepted, partly because I wanted to feel like the whole day hadn’t been wasted, partly because I was terrified I'd soon be writhing around in agony if I didn't. I wasn’t, but I wasn’t getting any better, either. Frustrated and exhausted, I called my GP the following Wednesday.
“I think I'd better see you and your urine," she said.
I took her a sample, sure that she'd diagnose me with something. But she didn’t. There was still no sign of infection.
"What else could it be?" I asked.
"I think we should rule out an infection before we think of anything else," she frowned, which left me assuming that anything else was just too awful to talk about. She poured some of my pee into a new sample bottle and said she’d send it to the hospital for further testing, and I should come back in about a week.
The first non-emergency appointment the receptionist could give me was in nine days. I took it, sure I’d feel better by then, that I’d be fine for Christmas. I wasn’t. Worse, I was Googling.
I read about interstitial cystitis and how there’s no treatment. I read a forum post by a women who’d been peeing several times an hour for six weeks. I looked up the symptoms of bladder cancer and kidney disease, and wondered how likely I was to get a transplant. Hit by the full force of my medical procedures phobia, I spent Christmas Eve afternoon on my bed, hyperventilating and hysterical, remembering my online friend who died of kidney disease, and all the pain she'd been in.
On Boxing Day, I could hold out for 25 minutes, and thought I might be getting better. Then I got my period, and the peeing -- and my anxiety -- ramped up again. Every morning, I thought “Maybe I’ll feel better today” and every evening I was in tears, sure that I'd need to have a catheter fitted if I ever wanted to leave the house.
Then finally, magically, symbolically, 13 days since I’d first thought I had cystitis, I made it 40 minutes without peeing. The next day I made it an hour. It felt like a miracle. I saw my doctor that afternoon, and I was convinced she'd tell me that all this stress, all this urine, had simply been my body’s way of flushing out some exotic infection. Instead, she shrugged and told me my test came back clear.
"Sometimes you just get an irritation.” She paused, then pointed to her lap and whispered, “There.”
I’m not sure whether I believe the universe sends us “signs,” but I do believe that unhappy experiences can be mitigated, at least a little, by learning from them. I'm pretty sure that stress didn't help, and might even have prompted, my weird peeing stint. So what I took from it was that I need to prioritize my health, improve my sleep and reduce my stress.
That, and some codeine.