When we asked readers to tweet about the moment they knew they needed to de-stress, the responses were alarming. Breaking points were marked by health crises, family problems and other types of suffering. We decided to go deeper into some of these stories in the hope that others can recognize signs of extreme stress and start to figure out their own paths to de-stressing.
I've seen at least 15 doctors in the past three years, and each one of them has asked some version of the same thing.
"What's a healthy-looking young woman like you doing here with symptoms like that?" When I first got sick, I was just as puzzled and confused as they were, but over time I've realized the answer is actually pretty clear: stress.
The first moment I knew something was wrong, I was backpacking with my then-boyfriend, John. He was a rock climber and I was a backpacking instructor, and although we were going through our first rough patch as a new couple, there was no place we'd rather be to work through our problems than the rough but beautiful forest of Yosemite. We were only a few miles into our backcountry journey when I let John get ahead of me to scout a way around a tempestuous spring river. I was feeling a little low energy and wanted to rest a moment. He was totally out of sight when I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my stomach. I keeled over, trying to digest the pain, but it wouldn't cease. In all my life I had never felt such a distinct unease in my gut. I had never felt such urgency, such internal violence. John had the trowel with him and there was no time to wait, so I found a stick and some loose earth, scraped out a hole, and I filled it. The little relief I felt was quickly replaced by disbelief and horror. My stool was covered in blood and mucus.
I didn't want to tell John what happened -- not that talking about poop in the backcountry is anything to be grossed out about; it's actually an essential part of the game. As an instructor, my favorite lesson to teach kids was the '8 D's of Dumping': Desire, Distance, Destination, Dig, Dump, Disguise, Disinfect and Discuss. But in this situation, I didn't think discussing my dump with John would provide any concern or empathy. That wasn't his forte. Besides, it could have been just a one-time thing. So, we carried on.
But in the weeks that followed I continued to have intense, wrenching stomach cramps and concerning BMs. I was racing to the bathroom up to 20 times a day, and often only expelling yellow intestinal tissue. I honestly thought I had a lingering case of diarrhea, or maybe Giardia (no big deal!) Stupidly, it wasn't until I weighed myself and saw I had lost more than five pounds that I took the problem seriously and called the doctor.
After some tests and an anxious waiting period, I got a call from my nurse-practitioner. "I'm prescribing you some antibiotics," she said. "Where are you? Can you get to a pharmacy now? You have C. Difficile."
On the phone and unacquainted with this term, I asked her to repeat the diagnosis several times. "See-diff-eye-cyl?... See-diff-it-le?... How do you spell it?"
"C. D-i-f-f," the nurse said. "If you don't take antibiotics, this infection could kill you. Okay? Pick up your prescription and let me know if you have any other questions." And then she hung up.
I learned, thanks to WebMD, that Clostridium difficile, or "C. diff." is a toxic bacterium that takes over the colon and GI tract when "something" upsets the balance of good bacterium and microorganisms in your gut. C. diff kills approximately 14,000 Americans each year -- but usually those who are elderly or have weakened immune systems. I had likely developed the infection from taking a previous course of antibiotics for the flu. The only course of treatment? More antibiotics.
Things were bad and getting worse. The new drugs I was taking to treat my diarrhea and loss of appetite had side effects like diarrhea and loss of appetite. My relationship with John was a struggle, but I had high hopes and needed someone to rely on. My job was unsteady too, and I had just been demoted due to budget cuts. And then, out of no where, my landlord asked me to move out of my apartment because he and his wife wanted extra space to "nest," and they needed a whole extra two-bedroom apartment -- my home -- to do it in. Sick and defeated, I felt I had no other option but to move in with John.
Flash-forward one year: I had relapsed with C. Diff twice, which means I had diarrhea for about 18 months. I had taken countless antibiotics to treat the infection, and more antibiotics to treat the dozen side-effect infections that resulted (UTIs, oral thrush, skin rashes, anal fissures, blood-clotting hemorrhoids, and more), and I had lost another 20 pounds from the ordeal. I remember one early morning, just before John and I broke up, I rushed into the bathroom while he was taking a shower.
"I'm so sorry," I said, "I can't hold it."
"Seriously?" he barked behind the shower curtain.
"Seriously. I thought I had gotten everything out when I went twice earlier..."
"Seriously?!" He still did not seem to believe my plight.
Everything seemed to be piling up within me and tearing me apart. When John and I finally split, I was heartbroken, but I knew it was for the best and assumed my stress level and health would start to improve. I moved out and into a tiny, 400 square foot studio apartment, which I could barely afford. I was hanging onto my job -- err -- jobs; I had taken on two official fulltime positions in order to pay off the hospital bills. I was physically recovering, but I was epically depressed. Caught in a vicious cycle, my mental state egged on my GI problems, and the continuous bleeding and disabling pain nourished the depression. I literally could not leave my bed, and friends had to bring me soup.
All I could feasibly do to relieve my anguish was to write. I needed to confess my feelings of depression and make an authentic connection with the world. So I let it out with my fingertips. I wrote a blog about my journey with C. diff and my mental health. I was trepidatious about sharing my vulnerable truths on Facebook, but I went for it anyway, because it was all I could do to be daring and bold and adventurous, like my old self. I needed to feel hope again, and I needed support from friends in order to feel it.
A special thing happened when I shared my vulnerable side to the world, and I was really taken aback. My stressful and overwhelming and excruciating experience seemed to inspire some people. People who I did not expect to see my blog posts, let alone read them in their entirety, were responding to me wholeheartedly, telling me they've also battled with depression and my words helped them, or that they never realized how difficult it must be to have chronic health problems. Friends validated my efforts as a novice writer, and encouraged me to stay strong -- to stay bold -- and praised me for being "real." Hearing these tiny bits of reassurance was exactly what I needed to see through the darkness and heal.
As time has passed on several things have improved, but stressors always seem to find a way to fill in the gaps of what has elevated. As a result, the GI problems persist; I've had a surge of rectal bleeding lately, and the baffled doctor I saw today, who after seeing no physical cause for the problem, prescribed the impossible: "Don't stress."
As challenging as these ailments are, what I've learned, and what I understand in my gut of guts, is that to get through these legendary tribulations I must risk being vulnerable and say what I really feel in order to conjure the support I need. It's funny how my body gives me cues now. The moment I see blood is the moment I know I've been holding onto my stress too long. I can't get rid of worry completely, but I can take some deep breaths, write and share my truths with friends.
Is there a moment you hit a stress breaking point and knew you needed to change your life? If you'd like to share your story, please send personal essays under 1200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration in this series.