My Big-Ass Colonoscopy
You haven't really made it to the big leagues of middle age until you've had your first colonoscopy.
Sure, you can talk a good game about how your hair has been thinning. You can complain about your blood pressure, deteriorating eyesight, or chronic back pain. But those are all just things that gradually onset as you age and make you feel like you're entering midlife.
Little did I know that the very experience that was to christen me into the legion of middle-agers would be the very thing that liberated me from all of the negative stigma surrounding it.
The "big middle" of our lives is a period marked by vagueness, uncertainty, and no clearly defined boundaries. Navigating it can be an exercise in extreme frustration. I know personally I've had more than a couple of doctor visits where I had been experiencing quirky body pains and sensations, and my doctor's final assessment began with "I really don't know what could be causing it, but as we get older..."
"...but as we get older..."
So if ten years of medical school can't explain why your neck has been suddenly giving you pins and needles when you look up or why eating broccoli suddenly bloats you and makes you extremely gassy, you just have to toss it into that big ol' mysterious "Maybe I'm just getting old" bucket.
Going through the experience of getting your first colonoscopy is the closest thing that we, the middle-aged, have to a graduation ceremony. It's our sacramental rite of passage. It gives us the certainty we need that we've finally arrived and can unequivocally self-apply the label of "midlifer." We no longer have to question whether we're in midlife. We've officially made it.
I see the colonoscopy as a much less metal and far more pathetic version of the Satere-Mawe Bullet Ant Initiation, where instead of enduring gloves full of angry stinging Bullet Ants to transition into manhood, we subject ourselves to a ritual day of fasting and self-induced diarrhea followed by an otherwise normal quiet morning suddenly turned sideways by taking the ol' colonoscope up the butthole to signal to ourselves that we've finally entered that long, second-stretch of the marathon before retirement.
The weight and gravity of these rituals don't change over the years or between cultures. They just take on new forms.
I had my colonoscopy on the morning of Friday, December 8th, at the age of 44 (Having a family history gave me an unlock of the procedure a year early). After a solid month of dreading it and spiraling myself into a mental state where I was determined that the doctor would find my colon a nightmarish forest of bloated, malignant, bloody polyps and purple hemorrhoids, I drank my gallon of GaviLyte, set any dignity that I had left aside for the day, and set up shop in the bathroom for the evening.
I won't get into the savage details here, but it's probably the closest thing I've had to a transcendent experience in a long time, and not in a good way. I also watched a ton of YouTube. In the wake of the aftermath, I was left starving, desperately craving a burrito, and specific parts of my body were in desperate need of ointment.
Early the next morning, I arrived, clean as a whistle and empty as the vast cosmos, ready for my procedure. What follows is an actual snippet from my journal entry that evening as I attempted to document the experience to the best of my ability. Some details may be a little fuzzy, as I was under moderate sedation:
December 8, 7:00 AM - I'm told to strip, put my belongings in a bag, put on a gown, and lie down. I'm asked a series of questions, none of which I remember. The nurses joke with me. They know that I'm nervous. A jabbering mess. I'm hooked up to an IV. It takes a couple of tries for the nurse to get it in, she obviously hasn’t had that first cup of coffee yet.
7:15 - The doctor's nurse arrives, comments that she likes my tattoos, and wheels me to the room where the procedure will occur. The doctor enters, introduces himself, and then tells me that it shouldn't take more than 15 minutes. Sedation is administered. I'm loopy, but not nearly as loopy as I want to be. The doctor then instructs me to lie on my left side and hug my knees to my chest. Here we gooo!
7:22 - I'm tired, but far from asleep. I feel something cold and wet pushed against my rectum... Moooooon Riiiverrrr!!
7:23 - I glance at the monitor and see the inside of my colon. I find it strangely fascinating. I'm trying to spot where the cancer is. I quickly realize that I don't know what I'm looking for and that everything looks like a cancer to me.
7:24 - The doctor spots something, pauses, identifies it as a polyp, announces that he will remove it, and then ‘snip’. With a quick, elegant flip of the forceps, I watch him yank it.
7 minutes later - It's over. I'm wheeled back into the main room, and the curtain is pulled closed. The air that was used to balloon my colon for the procedure is causing some intense cramping.
A few minutes after that - The doctor enters and tells me that he spotted some minor internal hemorrhoids as well as the aforementioned polyp that was removed. Besides that, everything else looks normal. He uses the words "healthy colon" to describe his final assessment. I don't have cancer.
I can't tell you how much of a relief those two words, "healthy colon," were to me. When it comes to colon health, the gene fairy has most definitely not decided to sprinkle her magic dust upon my tainted bloodline. My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in her early 50s, and my cousin, who is actually six months younger than me, had just undergone a successful treatment for stage IV colon cancer last year. These two events were cranked up to 11, playing on steady repeat in my head in the days leading up to my procedure, ratcheting my anxiety to extreme levels. I was getting old, I told myself, and disease is my sad, certain fate.
So yes. My colonoscopy officially rubber-stamped my midlife passport, which I totally accept and hold with pride. But much more than that, my colonoscopy and a surprise clean bill of health were potent reminders that to associate middle age with a physical or mental decline is poisonous, self-defeatist thinking, and it's the kind of thinking that we are sadly programmed to make automatically in middle age.
Stop believing that midlife equates itself to anything other than the best years of your life. Wake up every day excited about where you are on this journey. Stop telling yourself that you're past your peak and on the downward slope. There is no downward slope. Stop voluntarily erecting those invisible, self-limiting walls of "getting old" around yourself.
Explore. Practice. Play. Take up an art. Practice a new instrument. Learn a new language. You've earned the right to have fun after 40+ years of struggling, loving, heartbreak, success, defeat, frustration, elation, and fighting.
It's ok to acknowledge you're getting old. You are. Joke about it if you want. I do. But don't ever convince yourself that it's all downhill from here or that you'll never be as good as you were in your glory days. You're in midlife, and these are your glory days.