Yesterday I went to my GI’s office for my regular six-month check-up. He diagnosed me with Enteric Nervous System Dysfunction in 2014: an anti-inflammatory diet and meds stopped my gut from seizing and, as a result, saved my life. The gut needs extra attention, Dr. M. explained, because it houses our first, primordial brain — our first nervous system (think of a worm). This kind of blew my mind.
“Last visit, your gastro symptoms were at a One,” Dr. M. says as he points to the smiley face on the far left of his pain scale. “Today?”
“Umm. Four? Maybe a Five?” My voice trails off.
We talk through the details of my recent gut woes, which I will spare you. (You’re welcome.)
“Last fall, you ranked your general sense of wellbeing — your feelings and emotions — at a Three.” He consults his computer. “You said this was primarily because of the looming [2020 presidential] election and COVID. How do you feel today?”
I don’t remember what number I settled on. But I heard myself telling him that I was “fine” — my people and I were “good” — but that it was a “stressful time of year.” The kids were wrapping up sports and school, and everyone’s tired, I explained. “And I guess I’m doing four jobs.” He raised an eyebrow, but only briefly, because he sees a lot of women. “I’ve got my day job, my house and family, am publishing my first novel, which involved accidentally starting a business, and am also trying to write my next novel. So…yeah. Four jobs.”
He beckoned me to the exam table and did what too few doctors do: performed percussion and palpated my entire abdomen, pressing different places, asking whether they were tender, and listening as I breathed.
“Well,” he said. “Your gut is overactive.”
No shit, I thought.
“It could be stress or your old friend, endometriosis.”
Endo is a common cause of Enteric Nervous System Dysfunction. Meaning that ENSD is predominantly a “woman’s disease.” Which is why it is woefully under-diagnosed; why only three doctors in the U.S. specialize in it; why the two GIs I saw before Dr. M. dismissed me and my debilitating symptoms (“You don’t have cancer — congrats! Try some chicken soup.”); why a cousin — one of very few female relatives on the bum-gut side of the family — likely died of it in her forties; and why I burst into tears as soon as Dr. M. told me that I did, in fact, have something very real wrong with me — that he was able and willing to fix.
“Hmm,” I said.
Before I had a hysterectomy at 38 — gnarly, but one of the best decisions I’ve made (goodbye super-duper-extra-plus-two-pound tampons, hello white jeans!) — Dr. M. had been clear: “Endometriosis is a chronic disease. You have it for life, no matter what.” Even after I ended things with my endo-ravaged — or, more specifically, adenomyosis-ravaged — uterus.
“In any case,” Dr. M. said, “I’m upping your medication to calm things down.”
By the time I got in my car I was shaking with rage. How could I — a strong, intuitive, healthy, spiritually-awakened(ish), meditation-practicing yogi — not recognize that “regular woman” demands were making me sick?! I am saying “woman” instead of “mother” intentionally because I believe that every woman mothers, whether they ask to or not (partners, friends, parents, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, colleagues, rescue animals).
I called a friend because I prefer to process feminist rage with company. With her help, I realized that getting this novel out of my head and into the scary world and building an author brand and putting that into the scary world and working on a second novel and wondering if either of them is worth a damn and obsessing about why my fully vaccinated, COVID-negative husband is in bed with chills and lethargy (new, deadly variant?) and whether my sensitive eight-year-old who says he really wants to go to the exorbitantly expensive overnight camp we already paid for but is also terrified of leaving home will be permanently scarred if we do or don’t send him and packing the kids’ fucking duffles and coordinating end-of-year/masked/outdoor/but-it’s-still-COVID parties and rides to and from two baseball team obligations and choir practice and appointments and working and giving in to extra iPad time and fries with dinner every night because I don’t have the energy not to and clawing and scraping to carve out “me time” maybe at my kids’ expense and wondering every second of every day whether my various “regular woman” demands will prevent me from meeting my potential and fulfilling my soul’s purpose or doom me to lifelong frustration and resentment could, potentially, be giving my primordial nervous system a run for its money.
So, it took my regularly scheduled GI appointment for me to consider that not one, not two, but three of my women’s afflictions — endo, ENSD, and stress, all of which seize us deep in our bellies, our guts, our first brains — might need some attention. I also finally realized why I can’t have an honest conversation, or write an honest piece, about womanhood without talking about shit. They are inextricably linked.*
*If you can identify, use the hashtag #womanshit on Insta or Twitter to name all the ways in which this is true. Let’s get it going. (Twitter: @EmilyWolfAuthor Insta: @emilywolfpaperbackwriter)
 Apologies for the poop pun.