My Esophageal Ulcer was a Wake-Up Call to Take Better Care of Myself, Both Mentally and Physically

The magical mixture of depression, obsession, not eating, acid reflux, and copious amounts of coffee festering in my empty stomach was the perfect recipe for an ulcer.
Publish date:
July 14, 2014
isolation, ulcers, acid reflux

I almost didn't write this post because the regularity with which I write about "weird stuff that happens to my body" could be a column all its own.

My best friend says, "If I didn't know you, I'd think you were making all your accidents and illnesses up. But stuff like this ONLY HAPPENS TO YOU."

I swear I don't seek out medical maladies. I hate being the center of attention due to sickness or injury. Being accident prone has long since gone from being a funny joke to an annoying quality friends and family use to describe me. "Louise doesn't get sick, she gets SICK," is how my uncle the doctor likes to describe me.

And while a lot of stuff just HAPPENS to me, sometimes it is my own doing.

And sometimes realizing what I've done to bring about such "stuff" is a sobering indicator of other "stuff" going on in my life.

The ulcer was my latest indicator.

You see, I have an esophageal ulcer. I say have not had, because, while it's pretty much healed right now, it's something I've had since high school and will continue to be prone to for the rest of my life.

Yes, I developed an ulcer in high school.

It all began with a vitamin. I took a giant multivitamin tablet before bed one night, didn't wash it down with enough water, and through the magic of acid reflux, woke up feeling a little "funny" in my back.

As the day progressed, the "funny" feeling in my back, to the left of my spine and just under my left shoulder blade to be exact, graduated to a dull ache that got worse when I ate.

The next day, the ache intensified to a stabbing, stinging pain that got worse when I laid down, sat up, turned, twisted -- basically MOVED. My mom gave me some Advil (which I've since learned is one of the worst things you can administer to an ulcer), and said that if it got worse we'd go to the doctor the next day.

It got worse alright. By the next day, even swallowing liquids made me yelp with pain. It felt like my chest and left shoulder had red-hot porcupines running around inside them. So my mom took me to the doctor.

Almost 20 years later, just thinking about that doctor makes me want to power-curse in a rage. She took one look at 15-year-old Louise, a Louise who was scared, in pain, and had barely eaten or drank in three days, and told me to there was nothing wrong with me.

She looked me square in the eye after listening to my chest and back, and said, "There's nothing wrong with you. You have to eat, you have to go to school. That's final." And with that she sent us on our way. She thought I was faking it, and I thought she was an asshole.

I remember going back to school the next day and crying during lunch because I was so hungry but eating was excruciating.

That night when I got home I begged my mom to let me see another doctor. When your 15-year-old daughter is begging you to take her to the doctor, you know something's up. She made an appointment with her own doctor for me for the following day.

On day five of my ordeal, I saw my mom's doctor, and finally someone took me seriously. After listening to my symptoms, she immediately told me it sounded like I had an ulcer and that it was bad. That very day she sent me downstairs to a gastroenterologist who, after making me drink foul liquids that made me cry some more and putting a camera down my throat, diagnosed me with an esophageal ulcer. A freaking ULCER in my esophagus.

And that was that. After almost a week of suffering through stabbing pain, in less than five hours, I was diagnosed, given medicine, and most of all relieved to know that I wasn't minutes away from birthing an alien through my chest.

I'm not expert on esophageal ulcers, I just know that mine came about because of that multivitamin tablet I took. The doctor said that it, or part of it, probably didn't go all the way down to my stomach, and sat in my esophagus over night. Since I suffer from reflux, acid probably backed up into my esophagus, interacted with the vitamin that may have already caused some irritation, et voila! Instant ulcer!

Ignoring it, not eating, and taking Advil for the five days leading to my diagnosis only served to irritate and exacerbate the ulcer. When I was finally healed, the doctor said that while I shouldn't stress about it, an esophageal ulcer would always be a concern as my esophagus had been pretty damaged.

And the doctor was right. Through my adult life, my esophageal ulcer has flared up from time to time, usually when I'm not taking care of myself. That's definitely what happened this last time.

When my husband goes away for long periods, usually to Japan for his PhD stuff, I sometimes revert to this freaky-hermit pre-relationship version of Louise that luxuriates in her solitude and indulges in a lot of the obsessive tendencies regular human interaction guards against.

Typically I have a job to go to that keeps me from going too far down the rabbit hole. But in the past few months I've transitioned to working entirely from home, and with my husband gone it's possible for me to spend stretches of entire days without really having contact with anybody beyond the guy who makes my coffee and the lady who teaches my yoga class. I have some friends here in Honolulu, but when I'm in this mode, I become rather adept at dodging them.

At one point I wasn't eating. OK, I was eating at night when my stomach would roar to life and say, "HEY BUTTHEAD! Remember me?" but during my work day eating was either forgotten or put off until the project I was working on was completed. I existed on coffee and "Gin Gins," a chewy, spicy ginger candy.

This magical mixture of depression, obsession, not eating, acid reflux, and copious amounts of coffee festering in my empty stomach, was the perfect recipe for an ulcer.

And the ulcer did come. Slowly at first, a mild ache in my chest and back, then growing to that familiar sharp pain. Recognizing what was happening, I quickly made an appointment with my doctor.

When I told my doctor, a petite woman, whose high, girlish voice betrays the "no BS" attitude she takes with me, what was happening, she said in no uncertain terms, "You have to cut this out, Louise. This behavior is really troubling."

And she was right. It's really troubling that my ulcer flaring up was my wake-up call to take care of myself. I had been so content in wallowing in obsessive, anxiety-based behavior, that even when my body threw up some warning signs before the ulcer showed up ("Why am I so shaky by 4 p.m.?"), I tucked my head further into the sand and just told myself, "This is how I do things." And maybe it is, but that doesn't mean it's not potentially dangerous behavior.

So I'd like to think I'm on the other side of things now. The ulcer does not hurt anymore. I still feel it -- I know it's not totally healed, but I'm not impeded by it. I set an alarm to remind myself to eat. I force myself to make "work dates" with friends a couple days a week, where we meet at coffee shops to work for the day. I'm slowly letting myself drink weak, half-caf/half-decaf coffee, but I'm trying to break myself of the addiction.

More than anything, I'm trying to float above the constant temptation to just throw life to the wayside and hunker down with me, myself, and my compulsions. I have to admit it's a really comfortable place for me to be, but the ease is deceptive. It's all avoidance. Avoiding real responsibilities to both myself and the people who care about me, and avoiding having to live in the real world -- with all its stresses and inconveniences.

Part of me is grateful for my ulcer, which lately feels like a secondary character in my life. I'm happier right now. I feel steadier than I have in a while. I have to be present in my own life, so that's good, if not a daily struggle. But that's how we're supposed to go about life right? Involved, interactive, "feeling the feelings."

So as I finish up my last cup of watery coffee that I probably shouldn't be drinking, and my left shoulder catches a little as I reach for the cup, I acknowledge it as a small reminder that while "weird stuff" happens to me, there are things that I do have control over.