IBS and Emotional RSI
I have a bad habit for my emotional wellbeing: I cannot sleep more than six hours. I wake up unhealthily early. My body is wide awake by 5am most days and this is without an alarm. Even if I am tired, I struggle to go back to sleep. On good days, I will sit up in bed and write. But there are days when I can’t write; when I am paralysed by a deep discomfort in my stomach.
I often ask clients of mine to describe their anxiety in physical terms, to locate it in their body. More often than not they talk about a tightness or a heat at their chest; a tension at their diaphragm. Mine is always lower. And it makes perfect sense to me that it should be lower.
Each of us has a habitual locus in our body for stress, a place where it plays out when things get too much. I compare it to a repetitive strain injury: when you abuse or overuse your emotional scaffold, certain joints will always give way. To heal them, you need to change your behavior, much like a writer with RSI in their hand should stop typing. It sounds so simple when looked at in these terms. But the ‘behaviour’ in emotional RSI is of a different brand. So often it is systemic, and by this I mean a complex position in relation to others: society, family, friends. How we treat ourselves is something ingrained, learnt from the very moment of our birth: how we were treated, how we were raised, how we react to and interact with others. It is not easy to switch to a different way of being when so many factors are at stake.
My mother died of bowel cancer. She had a long innings from diagnosis to death: seven years to fight the disease that was killing her; seven years to reflect on her life, to question why it was being curtailed in such a cruel way. On a graph, I would draw this period in her life and the life of those close to her as a jagged mountain top: spikes of spiritual clarity and healing; rapid dips of depression and conflict. She was someone who had suffered huge emotional neglect in childhood. She had never weathered stress well and it was us, her close family, who reaped the consequences. I lived a childhood very much on the edge: if my mother was going through a bad time (and these times were monthly), a rage would sweep through the house for several days, while my father worked late or disappeared to smoke his pipe in the garden.
My mother told me, during one of her more reflective moments near the end, that she remembered frequently lying down in her office at work because the pain in her abdomen was so acute. ‘A stress pain, that’s what it was,’ she said. ‘I used to drink black coffee all day, isn’t that mad? I was so anxious, and there I was feeding the anxiety in my bowel. That’s where this comes from.’ She rubbed the bloated mass at her belly. She looked pregnant by then, but she was 64 years old, months away from dying. The change in her was extraordinary. She had finally been through therapy and she had softened to the point that all she had to give any of us was love. She had become more forgiving to herself, too, clearer on her own life story: she could see the things that had made her the way she was, the things that had been out of her control. ‘I wish I had known,’ she said, ‘I wish I had read the signs. I should have quit that job. We should have left London earlier, changed the way we were living. I wouldn’t be dying now.’
Here I am at 42 and I find that same area is where the stress hits. In many ways, I am lucky: I know what it means, I know what I need to do. I think about my mother at my age and the way she continued: two daughters in private school, a highly stressful job, the UK hit by recession, mortgage rates at 15%. In comparison, what I am going through now is perhaps not stress. I see stress as grueling and reactive, whereas what I am doing is absorbing the multiple messages of doom around me and trying to digest them. My abdomen is like a barometer of the world and my position in it: the uncertainty that ‘being human’ entails. I believe that if you have grown up in heightened uncertainty (financial, emotional, relational – the very question of survival presented to you on a regular basis and from a young age); if you have grown up with a parent who rides the wave of it in despair and suffering or internalises that suffering and lets you feel it in cold rejection or indifference – your resilience to it will be weakened. This is basic attachment theory, its effects playing out in the way we handle crises.
When my mum had one of her emotional meltdowns because we were on the brink of financial collapse, I would kick in to saviour mode. I would try to make things better. When I couldn’t (and of course I couldn’t), I would lie awake at night and listen to the rows. I would feel trapped, confined to a family that made no sense to me. Why could we not just change the way we were living? Why could we not be at peace? I would get crippling stomach aches that later my GP diagnosed as IBS – a broad brush diagnosis to describe any abdominal pain that cannot be explained in logical medical terms. (It is no surprise to me that so many clients I see have been diagnosed with IBS.)
To return to the present day: during the coronavirus crisis we are living through the claustrophobia of confinement (particularly those of us in apartments, in countries where we are not allowed to go outside), reading daily news stories about economic collapse and a changed world. It comes as no surprise to me that it is the scars of my ‘IBS’ that are causing me discomfort. This is where my emotional insecurity lies. This is where I feel the anxiety of being human. There may be something genetic in it: it is where my mother felt it too.