Several weeks ago, I visited my doctor’s office for an ultrasound of my gallbladder. After feeling ill and experiencing bouts of cramping pain for several months, I decided it was time to go see what the problem was. As I explained my various symptoms to the doctor I felt nervous and began to second guess myself. What if there wasn’t something physically wrong with me? After all, my stomach and my brain have a long history of conspiring to make me miserable.
We moved to a different state several months into third grade, and I immediately began to experience stomach problems at school. I remember making several visits to the doctor and being given antacids that tasted like a combination of lemon and chalk. Eventually happened my stomach problems faded away; however, several years later I joined the marching band in high school and began taking a lot of bus trips. The smells and motion of the bus made me queasy and I began to worry that I might get carsick—and although this never actually happened, I avoided eating much before any trip on the bus. When we went on tour for several days I tried some Dramamine—and sadly the only thing I remember about Yosemite is the fact that I could barely keep my eyes open. I never did get sick on the bus, but I still don’t know if that was due to my efforts to prevent it or because I don’t get carsick.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’m prone to anxiety, and that many of my childhood quirks and problems were likely reactions to stressful situations. Trying to explain anxiety to people is difficult—when I’ve mentioned that I’m feeling particularly stressed out, they tend to want to know what’s stressing me. Although there might be some external factors, I can rarely point to one specific thing, and even if I could, resolving it doesn’t usually stop my racing heart or fluttering stomach.
Living with anxiety also makes it hard to trust any of my feelings. Inspirational quotes like to talk about the importance of trusting yourself and listening to your inner voice to discover who you truly are, but too often my inner voice tells me that I’m a terrible person, that everyone thinks I’m a weirdo, and that awful things will happen to me if I dare leave my house. I’ve learned in therapy to talk back to my brain—in fact, I call it my ‘anxiety brain’—and I often have annoying little arguments in my head. “You should send a reply e-mail” argues with “but it’s been four days and they probably don’t want my help and I don’t know what to say and it’s easier just to ignore it”. These sorts of conversations get exhausting after a while and I’d really like my inner alarm bell to calm down and stop ringing.
That’s why I’ve spent the last six months or so arguing with myself about whether I had heartburn, some other physical problem, or just a weird obsession with my digestive tract. However, the idea that something is ‘all in your head’ is just a fallacy—even if there is not a diagnosable physical impetus for pain or discomfort, psychic distress can make your body feel pretty lousy. Anxiety makes my stomach knot up, which produces more anxiety about the discomfort. It can be a vicious cycle. So when the technician’s prodding me with the ultrasound wand created a sharp stab of pain, I felt relief. It was hard not be a little excited as I made arrangements for laparoscopic gallbladder surgery, because I had a physical problem that could be cured by a procedure. For once, the worries that I’d felt had been based in something concrete.
Now that a week has passed since my surgery, my incisions have mostly healed and I’m realizing how much better I feel without the accompanying gallbladder pain and bloating. Of course, my brain is now finding new things to perseverate upon and I’m looking forward to healing completely so I can get back into better routines of exercise, sleep, and scripture study to calm things down. I’ll keep working on listening to my true inner voice and discerning which of my feelings can be trusted—and I’ll try not to think too much about that fact that I still have my appendix.