I know almost immediately that it is going to be a bad one. It’s always preceded with this pain that happens just below my tailbone. It’s not pain exactly, but it’s the closest description to the sensation I have. Sometimes, it happens after a fairly severe stomach cramp, sometimes I feel the cramp in my back. I know I don’t have long to find the bathroom.
If I’m at home I just run down the hallway to the bathroom, but if I’m out and about, the search may be more involved. If I’m driving, it means pulling over at the first place that is likely to have a public restroom. Fast food restaurants are the best. They usually have decent bathroom access, and few of them have locks on the door. Sometimes gas stations work, but they’re not always reliable. I pull over and I run inside, and if I have to, I ask to use the restroom.
If I’m not driving, but I am out somewhere, then I run for the nearest public restroom. Chances are I know of several within my vicinity.
I carry a map in my head of where the nearest washroom is, to the best of my ability.
I do this, because I know what it feels like when I don’t find the washroom in time. I know what it feels like to lose bowel control and the feeling of soiling myself. The whole experience is unpleasant. Although the spasms in my bowels prevent me from being able to stop it, it doesn’t mean that it comes without pain. The always sensitive skin of my bum will often burn or sting.
Then there is the burning sensation of embarrassment.
That moment of finally reaching a restroom and having to clean yourself. Removing your underwear, which you try hopelessly to wash in the sink. It’s mostly to make it easier to carry home. Having to wipe off all the exposed and soiled skin.
It doesn’t matter what the plan for the day was, as soon as I’m out of the restroom, I head back for home. Once there I will shower, medicate, and likely take a nap.
Having an accident in public is more than just pooping or peeing yourself. It costs real emotional and physical energy. Even after years of living with a condition and knowing that it happens, it stills takes a toll.
Bathroom jokes are popular, and the inability to hold one’s waste is something that is not uncommonly used as a way to insult people. So being someone who experiences what is often played for laughs, I can’t avoid the knowledge and social stigma of that experience.
I still remember the sense of betrayal I felt when a friend lied to her new friends about me having wet myself at a horror movie. I still feel the weight of the scorn and laughter that that rumour evoked. It’s a wound that reopens whenever I have one of these Crohn’s moments.
It’s why the idea of someone being refused access to a restroom, especially in an emergency case, is something that fills me with anger. It is why I fight to get people to recognize that bathroom access is an accessibility need. Public restrooms need to be free, readily accessible, and as long as a space is open to the public and has a restroom, that restroom should be accessible to that public.
One of the worst of these moments for me, the one I don’t think I will ever be able to forget, happened because I was refused access. On the one hand I understand why: It was 3am. We were stuck outside because of a building fire alarm, when I felt that tell-tale pain.
Everything around us was closed. We lived next to a little strip mall, but everything was closed. Except for the drive thru of the Tim Hortons.
I went over there and I begged.
I have Crohn’s I explained. I can’t hold it and I have nowhere to go. This is an emergency and I’m only here because of a fire alarm. But no matter how much I begged he refused. He was the only there he said. He couldn’t let me into the store.
The area I lived had a small wooded area behind the strip mall. I hoped that maybe I could make it enough to be able to crouch behind a tree. I didn’t.
Usually when one of these accidents, it’s only a small initial rush that comes out. Usually I can make it to the restroom before it is followed by the bulk of it. This time though, there was no toilet at the end of the tunnel.
The rush just kept on happening, while I cried and tried to clean myself up with leaves. I imagined with horror people finding the mess the next day. I cleaned my hands on the wet grass, using the dew and gathered condensation to wash everything off. Using the friction of the blades of grass, to help clean, wiping off on my already soiled pants. Then I had to stand, in my filthy clothing for close to a half hour as I waited for the firemen to give the all clear.
Not wanting all the other tenants to know what I had done. Not wanting to see their disgust as they smelled my shame, I waited a little longer until everyone had gone inside.
Back inside the apartment, I took a cold shower. I didn’t want it to be cold, but for whatever reason, there wasn’t much hot water at 4 in the morning in that building. I cleaned myself, scrubbing off not just the actual filth, but trying to remove the stain of the humiliation from my skin as well.
All this was witnessed by my roommate. Am I a funny story she tells now? Does she use this incident as an example when she decides to complain about me to others? Or is she lucky enough that this memory fades into the background?
I wonder what it is like to be able to go somewhere and not have to worry about whether there is a bathroom close enough. I wonder at people who get to make decisions like not using public restrooms for anything other than to pee.
There are times when using the restroom because of my crohn’s, when I’m reminded of how the girls at school would mock anyone who were overheard using the restroom to poop while at school. I remember how, when I had to, I would try my best to make it as quiet as possible. How I would hold it if someone else was in the bathroom, so that I wouldn’t have to hear the mocking laughter. Hear the whispers.
It’s amazing to me now, that this is a thing that happened. Everybody Poops. It’s one of the first active lessons we are taught. There’s even a toilet training book by that name. And yet, for whatever reason, this bodily function is mocked and ridiculed. Women are expected to act as though they never do, with some going to great lengths to maintain this perception.
Safe, unrestricted, bathroom access is essential. It is one that affects many groups, from people with disabilities like me, to trans women who are often prevented from having safe access because of bigotry. It’s not a joke.