... the same way I cleaned my mom's.
I have Crohn’s Disease. I got that wicked little gene from my mom, along with her deliciously dark sense of humor. I have often wondered if they are inter-connected, those two genes. In fact, whenever I witness someone say something truly terrible and completely clever, I think to myself, “I bet that mother-f*cker shits his pants after eating poppy seeds.”
I’ve written a lot in the past about my mother, and to catch you peeping-toms up about her, I will sum her up with three thoughts:
- Funny AF
- Emotionally twisted
- And she made me touch her freshly carved-out ileostomy when I was 12.
Oh yeah, I’m going there.
(For those of you who don't know, an ileostomy is a surgically carved out hole in the belly through which the small intestine is re-routed as the place where "digestive contents now leave the body.")
She called "him" George. That name always perplexed her doctors. They would always ask her if she was angry at someone named George, which would make us both laugh. If that was the case she would've named him after one of her ex-husbands, Kent and Derrell. But let's face it, a shit-spewing piece of meat named Kent, just doesn't roll smoothly off one's tongue.
Anywhooo, the first time I spied George was from the foot of my mother’s bed. He looked pissed. Like a newborn freshly squeezed out of a body, squirming around, mouth wide open as if screaming, “JESUS CHRIST! TURN DOWN THE LIGHTS!”
It’s a weird thing to see your parental unit’s small intestine hanging out and burping up gastrointestinal fluid here and there. It’s even weirder to poke at it as said parent whispers, “I swear, I can’t feel a thing when you touch it.”
I would soon enter into a love-hate relationship with George.
I loved him because he saved her life. When I touched him, I did it without any discomfort, which was a surprise to me, as I’m usually squeamish when it comes to being physically uncomfortable. I’ve never even jumped into a swimming pool or the ocean because of this. I’ve ruined many swell vacations due to the fact that by the time I inched my way into the water, everybody else was already water-logged, sunburnt and itching to get back to the hotel.
My goal with this next paragraph is to break-down the medical history of having a weak-ass intestinal track whether by illness or battleground wounds.
The first successful "ostomy" was performed in 1776. For the next two hundred years, the accepted method for the management of intestinal issues was to take out the bad parts, close up the wound, and hope for the best — which resulted in an extremely high death rate.
People who were lucky enough to get a “stoma” — a small piece of gut, surgically put outside their body — were left to their own devices to manage it. They sometimes used metal, glass or porcelain bowls to drain them into.
So it was quite literally a mess up until the 1970's when Professor Nils Kock discovered that a form of resin extracted from the bark of a little-known tree species could be used to keep the stoma adhered to the body and the bag. Actually, that resin was first used in dental practices, until this smarty-pants gut-doctor put two and two together.
This is where the hate part of my relationship with George comes in.
From what I can remember as a child, this is how my mother’s stoma worked:
First off, my mother was handicapped from a massive stroke that left her unable to talk clearly for quite a few years. Her left side was completely paralyzed, so she spent a lot of time laying down. Gastrointestinal juice is basically acid, meaning it can eat through anything — even the miraculous resin that adhered the donut-shaped hard plastic piece (which looked like an item of well-made Tupperware) firmly in place against George itself.
There was a powder I would have to pour around her stoma. Then we would put a thin sheet of the tree resin on some glue and spread it onto the Tupperware piece, having made sure to cut a perfect circle the size of George beforehand.
George would often burst or leak, mostly at night. I would have to get up and clean my mother up and also clean off the plastic piece. That was the hardest part.
I would stand at the bathroom sink at 3:00 in the morning, and under the hottest water with what was basically paint thinner, I would scrub vigorously at the miracle resin, as a new resin sheet wouldn’t stick to correctly if there was even a hint of old resin left behind.
I would scrub at it until my hands would literally bleed, crying quietly, sometimes for over an hour long.
Now I've been living with Crohn’s Disease myself for over 25 years.
I used to think handling it came down to mind-over-matter and secretly judged my mother’s own weakness with it. Whenever I was felled from it during road gigs as a stand-up comedian and such, I would literally force myself to get up and go make people laugh. All the while, I was damaging myself even more and slowly putting my own life at risk.
Why did I do that you may ask?
Because I had no health insurance at the time. Most worker-bee comics didn't unless we accidentally married into some. There was nowhere to get it, not to mention that I couldn’t have afforded it if I have found some form of access.
I got really sick five years ago, and I realized I couldn’t dodge the bullet any longer. While staying in the hospital the doctors told me I would have to have the dreaded operation that could perhaps leave me with an ileostomy — just like my mother. I was inconsolable. I was afraid my children would have to care for me in the way I had to care for my mother.
The doctors then told me that if I could hold out for about six more months, they could do the surgery laparoscopically, which basically meant they wouldn’t have to cut my body wide open.
I begged them, “What can I do in order to last six months longer?”
Their answer, “Complete bowel rest and a feeding tube in your arm.”
So that’s what I did. I didn’t eat food for about four months. I had a port put in my arm. I would go about my motherly duties during the day, do comedy at night, and when I came home I would plug myself in. I wasn’t even able to drink water.
The calories in the gruel that came thru that tube were so loaded with sugar that when an old boyfriend of mine went down on me, he said I tasted like a bag of Halloween candy. I secretly hoped I tasted like high-end candy, not the sale-bin candy everybody hates. No girl wants to taste like banana flavored Laffy-Taffy. Not even a funny girl.
Going without food only sucks for the first two weeks and, weirdly, I started to love cooking even more than I did before.
Screw it, I thought. if I can’t eat it, I’ll go about making food sing for others. I hosted quite a few BBQs, dinners and birthday parties for my boys during this period.
Once at a BBQ my younger son caught me licking a piece of sourdough bread alone in the kitchen. Christ, I still remember how tangy it tasted as my tongue scraped against its crunchy outer crust. The look on my youngest’s face was that of confusion and fear that his mother had gone completely off the rails.
During this time, I was so scared. Not just about how my Crohn’s was going to screw up my kids, but about my insurance.
I had just run out of health insurance from my ex-husband — but then Obamacare came along right at the perfect moment. It was as though the cloud’s parted over my little situation! Things started to look up.
Complete bowel rest worked miracles for a bit and I was able to eat again. Then trouble did strike again after my appendix blew, probably weakened by the aggravated area of my intestine near or around it. Of course, due to the fact that I was on some serious antibiotics at the time, the doctors didn’t realize it was my appendix for the next three months. I lost more weight and couldn’t walk around in the sun, as the now stronger meds made me light sensitive.
Finally, three cat scans later, they figured it out. There was no way I was going to dodge surgery this time. Lucky for me, laparoscopic surgery had now found its way into the realm of the type of surgery I needed.
I was able to have this surgery not only because of the advances in medicine but because I was covered by health insurance that gave me access to the best medical help available.
When it comes to my Crohn’s there are two things I’m eternally grateful for.
First, that I am fortunate enough to live in a time when the disease itself, as well as means for managing it, are better understood and that — for now — I have health insurance to help me pay for the necessary treatments.
Second, that when I was 14 years old Medicaid finally paid for my mother to not only have a home-nurse help her manage George twice a week so that I wouldn't have to, and also to help with grocery shopping and cleaning, leaving me able to focus a tad more on school and friendships.
I have never spoken publicly about having Crohn’s disease before now.
When I was first starting out, an older comic told me to never share that with others because I would never get work and would always be looked at as damaged goods. I know he was giving me sound advice and trying to be helpful, but I can’t say living with this secret of mine has been helpful to me or anyone else in the long run.
But I am writing about it now because I want people to understand what they are looking at when they see people trying to cut the programs which aim to help those who are underserved in life, whether due to financial difficulties or other uncontrollable circumstances.
According to an article in the New York Times:
"In well over a million American families ... children as young as 8, 9 or 10 [are] partly or fully responsible for the welfare of adults or siblings they live with. They may have to shop, prepare meals, clean house, do the laundry and tend to the hygienic needs of family members unable to care for themselves. At the same time, these children must go to school, do their homework and attempt, but usually fail, to participate in nonacademic activities like sports and friendships widely recognized as important to well-rounded development."
I’m a taxpayer. I pay a lot of taxes because I’m healthy. If it wasn’t for Obama-care, medical care for my Crohn's Disease would’ve turned my finances upside down. Which would’ve meant fewer taxes paid by this particular taxpayer.
If we aren't here to care for each other, what the hell are we here for?
Oh, and by the way … I haven’t had a severe reoccurrence of Crohn’s in almost five years. I’m pretty dang healthy, and I go to the bathroom in a completely normal way, Yay!
But my kids still bust my chops and refer to me as "The Bread-licker."
Felicia Michaels is a comedian, writer and filmmaker whose comedy has appeared on such networks as MTV, A&E, Comedy Central, VH1 and Showtime (not to mention NBC, ABC and FOX). Michaels built her career by refusing to allow her gender to tame her material and never once flinching when it came to the rigorous travel and TV schedule stand-up comedy demands. She recently was a regular on Nick Mom's "Parental Discretion." Currently, Michaels keeps herself busy touring and putting the finishing touches on a new directorial project, all while raising two boys as a single mother.