The Collywobbles
About eighteen months ago, my stomach went out on strike. And it wasn't panty-waist stuff ... I mean, it was.

It was those complaints you hear about endlessly in the ads: "bloating, heartburn, gastrointestinal distress." I was suddenly beset with a stomach that had a mind of its own, a former good citizen that had taken care of business and kept things running smoothly, with élan, for the past seventy years.

Before the decline and fall of my breadbasket, anything could go into the maw. Whole beeves, heaping dishes of spicy frijoles, rich cheesy plates of this and that, chilies stuffed with ground round, bacon cheeseburger supremes, frosty cake with creamy butternut sauce.

Now, because of my new intestinal war, I was forced to sip a glass of mineral water, eat a small plate of rice, nibble on a cracker ... and then find myself fit to be tied. Everything I et ends up in a swirl of ache running from back to belly. I sometimes find myself wishing that I had died and gone to heaven.

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It started innocently enough. For years, when I had a wheeze that wouldn't go away, an infection, an unexplainable cough, I would prescribe myself a mild antibiotic. Usually the cough or the infection would be gone in a day or so. If it didn't, I moved on to more serious medicine.

Last year, when I came down with a cough that wouldn't leave me alone, I brought in the big gun: Augmentin --- 500 mg. three times a day.

After that, my stomach went on strike. Everything seemed to inflame my gut, even the blandest of foods. No more cheese, no more cookies, no more bread. No more macaroni cooked in the oven, drooling with melted cheddar cheese.

No more vinegar-mustard salad dressing. No hot peppers, no hot-dogs, no goopy hamburgers with lettuce and heaps of mayo. And, yikes: no more black tea, my old friendly standby Russian Caravan ... brewed up with a cup of hot milk, my wake-up call for fifty years. No and no.

In the time that followed, I had the chance to get to know a dozen or so doctors who, within a month of my call for an appointment, would give me ten minutes or so to tell my story. Most were what they call G I specialists.

Two sent me into the torture garden they call "colonoscopy." Outside of enjoying the drugs they pumped in my veins to make me forget the whole procedure, and some nice computer images of my rosy ileum, jejenum and duodenum visible on a nearby screen --- there was nothing to show for my troubles. "Negative," they said.

I have here on my bedside table the many medicines they prescribed. Maalox, Omeprazol, Ranisen, Supra (Lidamidina), Floratil, Align (Bifidobacterium), and from the neo-naturopaths in the crowd, Gastrilim, Microstatin, Papaya & Pineapple Enzymes, and the onomatopaedic Wobenzym (which includes Papaina and Rutina). After trying all these, and more, I found that the only medicine that helped me, and then for only an hour or so, was that old standby Pepto-Bismol. Of these others, and the doctors who prescribed them, the less said the better.

A friendly local witch doctor convinced me to try a potion made from noni leaves. Noni smells of old locker rooms and tastes worse. She also made up a frappé that contained frozen strawberries, chia seeds, banana and papaya, chopped almond, honey, and spirolina. I liked it well enough, but, alas, the duodenal tango refused to go away.

Several times she gave me fermented coconut milk, which also had the air of fetid jock strap, but an article in The New Yorker about fermented things backed up the notion that it was good for you. Presumably, the worse it smelled or tasted, the better it would do me. My gut wasn't enchanted. Or should I say it was out-to-lunch?

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Since we now use the internet to define our lives, I looked up my condition, Googling in "acid reflux," "dyspepsia," and even what my beloved mother used to call the "Collywobbles."

Google gave me some others to play with: "indigestion, diverticulosis, spastic colitis, collagenous colitis, celiac disease, ulcer, Chrohn's Disease, Helicobacter pylori, Ménétrier's disease, Candida" and for the doctors in the crowd, "eosinophilic, phlegmonous, and granulomatous gastritis," along with "GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)." One of the most common was "IBS" (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Although my bowel was implacable, I am not so sure that he (or she) seemed all that irritated.

There was also diarrhea, especially when I indulged in my lingering fancy for spicy foods, street foods, and, presumably, anything that tasted good, like ice-cream, cookies, butter-based sauces and cheesecake. Since I was quite pig-headed about giving up these goodstuffs, there was the payoff. Daily. Sometimes hourly.

And I am here to tell you that it has got to be one of the great remedies for being overweight. It has been so effective in my own case --- twenty-five or thirty pounds down the tube in a remarkably short time. I am surprised that Weight Watchers doesn't pick up on this, open up several international clinics in coöperation with the street-food vendors of Calcutta, Mexico City, Ankara, Sao Paolo, Cairo or Ouagadougou. My two or two-and-a-half stone were not really surplus ... but it disappeared quickly enough through what memorably calls "PooGoo."

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You wouldn't think that an extended bout of gastrointestinal distress could change one's life so, but for those of us who take our eating seriously, it's cruel and unusual punishment. We're talking about a life from before where I spent hours a day planning meals, buying the ingredients, preparing them, cooking them, and then, with friends, consuming them with considerable gusto. Candles, good cheap wine and good conversation in a nook overlooking my tiny garden ... the sounds of the night, a series of wonderful dishes to repair whatever damage the fools of the world had done to tear our fabric.

But suddenly that simple creature comfort had been stripped away. About to bite down on something new, I had to ask myself, "Is this going to make me want to retch (yet again)?" Preparing to take another pill for the usual maladies of age, I think, "Is this going to make it worse?" (Remember this all started with a popular antibiotic). Going out to lunch with friends, I found myself wondering now if I would have to eat, yet again, a leaf of lettuce with a bit of olive oil and a touch of salt, boiled chicken breast (bare) with a spoonful of boiled white rice. Waiter, hold the Hollandaise ... and anything else dripping with Bechamel or any other god-given treat.

§     §     §

Now I have to tell you about my cure. Mind you, I had gone for more than a year with this gut-ache. I was beginning to look like Twiggy ... or William Burroughs on a bad day (without the fedora). More than that, not eating my favorite foods was just plain depressing. Every day, the same old same old bland.

How ever did I get cured? Beats me. One week this month, let's be exact, on the 24th of May of this year, some friends were chowing down on some appetizing looking sandwiches: sesame seed loaves, sliced down the middle, toasted quickly, larded with fake mayonnaise, fresh green peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and freshly-ground pepper. My lunchbox had rejected these same goodies before, and I knew that they were dangerous to my well-being (and inner balance).

And yet ... when they offered me a bite, how could I say no? I figured I would become the world's first martyr to a delicious Veggie Sandwich. Me: the Jesus Christ of the Deli. So what if I would be rolling on the floor within an hour? Live for the moment.

I can't tell you how good it was. To eat all these things, all mushed together, tomatoes leaking juice down my wrist. And for the first time in a year ...

Here's what I figure now, from the perspective of this new bliss, a short time mostly (I repeat ... mostly) free from the ache of heartburn / indigestion / IBS / gastritis.

All my life I had been taking antibiotics. My body never reacted. After all these years, I suspect that the cumulative effect was such that when I downed that last batch of all-too-powerful Augmentin, it killed off what was left of my friendly flora.

All those kindly bifidobacteria: acidophilus, probiotics, fermenting lactobacilli, short chain fatty acids, L. Plantarum OM strains, acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum and Bifidobacterium longum, eucaryotic fungi and protists, those friendly buggers who had been working quietly to take in all those goodies I had sent down the chute: they had been efficiently destroyed by what is, after all, an antibiotic that is one of the most powerful flora-killers ever concocted.

However, with the help of time, my bodega managed to cure itself, to revivify those wonderful beasts that soldier on uncomplainingly within, accepting any and all we offer them. My tum was, more or less, back to normal.

Oh, there are days when it comes back to haunt me. There are days when I am reminded how fraught these tiny creatures that run our lives, that hold us together. There are times when I am too well aware of my gut with its all-too-familiar ache. But it is relatively rare now. Mostly I get to live in the world from before, with its great meals, great companionship, great times.

Still, there are restrictions. No hot peppers, no Tabasco, none of that supermarket check-out trash; no tortilla chips, no potatoes, fried or in any other form. No candy, no cookies, no dairy, no butter, no chocolate (sob). And always lots of fresh vegetables and brown rice. Chicken in any form (except fried). Fruit with sliced almonds and pecans in the mornings (with a twist of lemon).

And some new inventions from the health food store. Like Earth Balance, a fake butter made with soya that's so good that I no longer long for butter (almost). I also make do with a lactose-free milk blended with herbal tea --- manzanilla and fresh mint-leaves --- in the morning (no yogurt, though: that universal cure-all is still poison for me).

In the afternoon if my belly turns a little peckish, I brew up a pot of peppermint tea. Drink it straight, ugh. At night, I go to sleep with linden tea and what they call here "siete azares" (seven blossoms) ... and "te de arnica." No caffeine, ever, again, alas.

And did I tell you: no more buttery chocolaty drizzled marshmallow saucy rich whipped sweet fat vanilla flavored butterscotch thick frappé sugar-fatted hot melted-cake syrup sticky creme-pie delicious pancake wow slurpy goo?


Lacking any information to the contrary, I'm thinking that maybe something new is stalking the planet, or at least what's left of my planet. What happened to me was a classic reaction to antibiotics, complete with a brand new upheaval. I think of it as a feedback device, punishing me for all the years I was getting a free lunch: the medicines that I thought were protecting me were actually robbing me of something very important.

After my year-and-a-half of self-imposed fasting, here's my advice. Never take antibiotics unless you are ready to be laid out on the slab, be planted in the ground. Or lose two or three (or more) stone.

--- C. A. Amantea
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