There was a time when nobody went on TV and talked about what was happening deep inside our colons. Do you remember that time? It was called the 90s.
It was also called the 80s, 70s, 60s, 50s, 40s….well, you name it.
I’m not saying it was a better time. In fact, I think it’s pretty cool that we talk about our bowels on TV now. It makes diseases of the bowel feel less strange and embarrassing. It raises awareness and educates people. It promotes energetic conversation rather than awkward silence.
In fact, I think guys like Dr Michael Mosley are awesome. It’s cool to see him popping up all over my dial nowadays talking about how amazing the large bowel is. I love his enthusiasm for the microscopic bacteria that live inside us. Not just inside us but with us.
Did you know that the gut is like a second brain?
Did you know that there are millions of little bacteria down there that actually grow and change and work with us to form our personalities? Isn’t that amazing!
I know all this stuff now, because I like watching shows about the bowel. It’s become an area of expertise for me. I can speak very eloquently about my own bowel, and have done so all over the world. I watch guys like Dr Michael Mosley talk about the bowel and how amazing it is and think, wow, the bowel really is amazing! Did you know there are more tiny lifeforms living inside of your bowel than there are in the entire Amazon jungle! (don’t quote me on this, but it sounds true right?).
But here’s my problem with this new reverence we have for the bowel:
I don’t have one.
Well, okay, I guess I have half of one. I have a small bowel. But not the big bowel. Not the Big Kahuna, where all the magic aliens live that work like elves through the night to make me into a better person. That thing is gone. I had it cut out. All those millions of lifeforms that fed on my partially digested food were wiped out, in one shot, like the people of Alderaan.
This has left me with certain questions, a few of which I will share with you here.
Am I now, a half-man?
Did I commit genocide?
Am I a monster?
Sometimes, when Michael Mosley is talking about how amazing the bugs in his colon are, I feel like I must be a monster for killing all of the bugs that used to live inside mine. Sometimes I look at my fading scar and my ostomy bag and think “Dear God, what have I done!” Sometimes I look in the mirror at night and am afraid I will not see my own reflection.
The morning after a night like that, I make sure to look for signs that I am still human. I walk into a supermarket and notice, with relief, that the automatic doors still open for me. Small children do not flee from me as I approach. Flowers do not wilt as I pass and dogs do not bark at me like I’m The Terminator. I go through a range of interactions with my fellow human beings and none of them result in people making the sign of the cross over their chests or trying to ward me off with garlic.
As far as I can tell, despite losing all of those millions of micro-organisms that lived inside my abdomen, I am still more or less the same person.
I mean, yes, not quite the same. I go to the toilet in a different way than I did before. I am not able to break wind or take suppositories. But compared to the person I was before I had my ileostomy, this person I am now seems very similar. If anything, he seems better.
I have less pain. Actually, no pain. I have more energy, more weight, more appetite. I take a lot less medication and have a lot less daily fears. Granted I have new fears, like being pulled aside by airport security in Thailand and trying to explain what my ostomy bag is using only the art of mime, but they’re nothing like the old fears I had, which were daily, and vivid, and all-consuming.
Am I different in my head in some way that I am not able to perceive because of losing all those bacteria in my gut? Well, I guess so. I’m a bit happier.
But am I less creative? Am I less certain of my self? My gut tells me “no”, but can I trust it, seeing as it’s not there any more?
I spoke at an IBD forum at Mater Hospital in Brisbane recently. Actually, it was the same week that Dr Michael Mosley was on SBS talking about the bacteria in his gut. The fact that these bugs sounded great, and I didn’t have any of them, bugged me. In the Q and A session after my talk, I asked the medical experts on the speaker panel if they could answer me the question that has been on my mind ever since I first started hearing about how the gut is like a second brain.
“So gentlemen, as well as having an ileostomy, have I also had a partial lobotomy?”
One of the Professor’s answered me by saying that that was more of a philosophical question. I was satisfied with that, even though it was clearly a cop out.
I don’t know where my colon is now. It might be in a lab or in landfill, I really don’t know. Maybe some of the tougher little bacteria survived in there and went on to find new homes inside other animals. Maybe a sea hawk glimpsed my colon on a trash heap in Queensland one day and swooped down thinking it was a snake. And maybe those invisible bugs escaped into its nervous system, and endowed it with some essential elements of myself – my hopes and fears, my loves and desires, my unshakeable memories of teenage awkwardness. Maybe that sea hawk thinks it’s me now, and will track me down one day and run off with my wife?
That’s a philosophical question too, and it gives me some comfort to know that it’s definitely me that’s thinking all of this, and not just the bugs inside my colon.