I had two minutes to find a restroom, and I didn't have a find-a-potty app on my phone because I couldn't plan these events, and even thinking about them made me want to go. In these moments, I also didn't have time for apps, and in this situation, here in Millbrae, California
, I already knew where the closest restroom was: in the nearby Trader Joe's.
I feared I wouldn't have time to walk across the parking lot and down a hundred feet to the market's front door because I couldn't see the storefront from my car. Had a line formed? I'd frequently seen one outside the store during the pandemic
. And I'd misplaced my "I can't wait" card to show people
in a queue or place of business
I'd never been inside that Trader Joe's before, so if the bathroom wasn't immediately obvious, I'd approach a roaming employee and ask where it was and whether a key was required. Or I'd go to the customer service desk, where I might have to clear my throat repeatedly or blurt out "Excuse me, where is the bathroom?" to command attention. Or, most dangerously, if I found myself fiftieth
I decided against going to Trader Joe's.
There are times in life when we have to think on our feet, and this was one of those times. I scanned my surroundings and noted the bushes bordering the parking lot; there was no time to consider whether anyone might see me from the windows of a nearby building, so I dove behind a bush and did my business.
Restroom apps are “hit or miss,” according to Tim Pyle, executive director of the American Restroom Association, and the ARA website lists more than a dozen categories of people affected by “restroom duress.” Nicholas Kristof recently noted in The New York Times that people experiencing homelessness
must confront that problem.
How about those individuals?
Along with the millions of Americans who have medically caused urinary incontinence, 25 to 50 million people have celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and/or irritable bowel syndrome, all of which can cause diarrhea
— as can other chronic medical disorders, prescription and nonprescription medications, intestinal infections, and immunotherapy treatments for cancer
I've had the runs on and off since the Nixon administration, and I've rarely mentioned my condition to anyone, including those closest to me; only my doctors were aware of my episodes, and I'd sometimes spared even them the details.
Crohn's disease first appeared in my life during a family vacation at the end of the summer before I started high school, when I vomited on my oldest brother's lap in the back seat of our car, thinking I was just carsick. Then I vomited again, often at night in the trash can that my brother had set up between our motel room beds.
Who knew barfing on your brother could draw a line in the sand?
Crohn's disease, a type of IBD that is becoming more common, caused me to have anemia, bowel obstructions, fatigue, fevers, fistulas, infections, pain, vomiting, and weight loss, as well as loose stools. Multiple bowel resections also resulted in my ingested food moving
more quickly down my personal pike, and no, I couldn't take Imodium for years on end to treat my noninfectious, incurable, and often
At 14, I quickly realized that the people around me didn't want to talk about a "bathroom disease," so I didn't. During first-period Introductory Physical Science
, I constantly raised my hand to ask to be excused, and I walked down that long high school corridor to the restroom on a razor's edge, terrified of getting sick in front of my peers.
I didn't talk about it in college. One night on campus, with no loo nearby, I had no choice but to sit cross-legged between a sidewalk and a patch of ivy, cover my midsection with my backpack, and empty my bowels in the briar, exchanging pleasantries with fellow students as they passed by. I later told my roommate what had happened, then swore her to secrecy.
I didn't talk about it when I was a heavy-lifting mom, but I did pull off Highway 101, screech into a McDonald
's parking lot, and get three kids out of the car with strollers and diaper bags and toddler meltdowns in the mix, shouting "I have to get to the bathroom," and the four of us miraculously landing there.
Sometimes I didn't make it, and those were the most humiliating times of all. Like when I walked with my husband in our neighborhood during shelter-in-place last year. Or when I found myself in that parking lot next to that unfamiliar Trader Joe's.
Along the way, I encountered strangers' kindness
, or perhaps those strangers had experienced similar bowel issues, at least occasionally. Adults in the United States
experience acute diarrhea once a year on average.
I used to ask, "Could I use your restroom?" hoping that my desperate expression accurately conveyed my urgency. Eventually, I began to add, "I have an intestinal disease," to my bathroom requests, and the more specific the words I used, the more people seemed to understand.
One June day a few years ago, I had just arrived in New York City
by train from Washington
, feeling a little rough around the edges after attending a wedding reception the night before. As I stood outside Penn Station getting my bearings, the clarion call sounded. I stormed into the nearest Duane Reade, latched on to a kind-looking employee who seemed to have time to spare, and spilled my update.
There wasn't a bathroom in the store, so she offered to watch
my suitcase, and the two of us hoisted it up and jammed it behind the counter, a twosome bound by one mission. "Now run across the street and into that McDonald's," she said, pointing and explaining exactly where I would find the restroom.
Earlier this year, I took another step toward open, honest, and very real encounters by naming my disability
— and even discussing specifics.
One evening, not far from my home in Northern California, I entered a Walgreens. The week before, while pursuing surplus COVID vaccines
there, I asked to use the restroom, only to be told it was closed; so, with my investigative-journalism hat on, I returned for an update on bathroom access.
I requested the store manager, eager to hear what the person in charge had to say.
“Yes, the restrooms are still closed,” she explained.
“I was in here last week,” I explained, “because I have Crohn's disease, and the bathrooms were also closed, and sometimes I just can't hold it.”
She could have said TMI or Ew, gross! and crossed her arms over her eyes to shield herself, but instead, her unprotected eyes met mine with grace and compassion from above her mask.
“You could have asked for me and explained you have a medical condition,” she said, “and I get it. I'm going through chemo, and sometimes I just can't hold it.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, wanting to acknowledge the gravity of her revelation, and then we just talked for a few minutes; it felt so good to stand there together, masks
on, pretenses off.
Trust me when I say that writing this piece and having it published on an international website isn't my idea of a good time, but I've learned that when done correctly, words can defrock shaming.
After Walgreens, I reflected on all the times I hadn't spoken up, all the times I'd yearned for words I couldn't form; all that silence had obscured, rejected, and invalidated my experiences.
It's not easy talking about, or writing about, diarrhea, especially when it's your own. There's a lot of shame associated with having a bathroom condition that we rarely discuss openly, so writing this piece and having it published on an international website isn't my idea of a good time.
Yet I've learned that when used correctly, words defrock shaming; they are silence's retaliation. And I've had decades' worth of words saved up, a stockpile that wouldn't stop clamoring to be written.
The more we talk about it, the less embarrassing, "disgusting," or frightening it will be. If we remember we're all human beings, we can reach across aisles, whether in Walgreens or in Washington. That's when real change can happen — offering more assistance and understanding to one another, incorporating better restroom planning into architectural design, and providing funding for plenty of clea
Having diarrhea is difficult; having diarrhea and no place to go is even more difficult. So let us talk about it, destigmatize it, and treat people with more kindness. Let us make going to the bathroom — and finding bathrooms — easier and better for everyone.
Alison Carpenter Davis, a former managing editor at Outside magazine, has written for the Chicago Tribune, The Independent (UK), the International Herald Tribune, and Stanford Magazine, among others. She co-founded the Disability at Stanford Oral History Project and is working on a memoir
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