Lessons from the Bedside: Constipation, Oversharing, and Mental Health

No, not oversharing about constipation. As a nurse, is there ever oversharing about bowel movement woes? There's nothing like the feeling after a really good, healthy poop.

Several months ago, I was talking on the phone to a friend from nursing school and was explaining how it's been a long journey learning to process things with others instead of holing them up inside me like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter. 

"Sometimes," I told my friend, "I forget to process things and go back to shoving them deep inside and trying to forget about them. It's so unnatural for me to talk about everything and process it. Every time I go to counseling, I have to relearn to open up. The longer I go without consciously processing things, the harder it is to start again."

My friend graciously agreed, and then the perfect analogy popped into my head.

"It's like I get emotionally and mentally constipated," I decided. "And sometimes it gets so bad it's impacted, and I need an enema to get things going again..."

Too cute. I couldn't resist. ( Stock photo from Adobe)

Too cute. I couldn't resist. (Stock photo from Adobe)

Thank God for nursing friends who, rather than being grossed out, laugh richly and loudly at these kinds of things. In fact, I'm pretty sure she even said she was a big fan of the analogy. Nursing friends. They are wonderful.

Like bowel movements, everything in life flows a little easier when we regularly practice owning and processing emotions, events, and struggles in life. The longer we push the need aside, the tougher it is to begin. When I was a child, I spoke so few words I could remember everything I said to everyone and when I said it. Naturally, I figured everyone else was the same way and wondered why some people would tell me the same stories over and over again. I genuinely believed they were intentionally telling me the story for the fifth time because they thought I needed to hear it five times. I didn't realize until much later it was possible to talk so much you actually forgot what you said and to whom you said it! Though I have since conformed and routinely have more conversations than I can recall, it's still not my natural bent to process life out loud. It's taken a long, long time to develop this habit that's so easy for other.

Of note, conversely, some face the challenge of oversharing and lacking boundaries (the opposite of constipation would be "the runs"). This, as you can imagine, can get really messy, really fast. The nurses who are reading this know what I'm talking about. Sometimes we walk into rooms and have to wonder: "How in the world did they get stool in that spot??"

Sometimes, life gets a little crazy and our ability to process life gets put on hold. Traumas or deaths or major life events alter our habits, and in those times all we can do is lean on each other. We turn to each other the best we can, give supportive care, and clean up the messes as they come. From my own experience, I know we often feel ashamed and judged for our involuntary reactions when life overwhelms us. There was a season after returning from working in a Cambodian hospital I broke down every few hours and breaks between classes were spent in the nursing building's chapel crying. I was embarrassed, but I didn't have to be. Sometimes we lose control. It's temporary, and it's okay.

Unlike bowel movements, learning to share appropriately—enough, regularly, and with boundaries—is a trial and error process. It's one I'm constantly challenged by and one I think we will all continually be adjusting and tweaking throughout our lifetimes.

So I'll keep trying and tweaking. A little daily stool softener like Colace may resemble a phone call to my best friend or a journal entry spilling my thoughts. A little laxative like lactulose or milk of magnesia may take the form of a therapy session. A little antidiarrheal like Imodium may look like the restraint not to tell that person my deepest fears or post a blog about a wound that hasn't yet healed.

The analogies could keep going and going, but the main point is this: we all get a little constipated or have diarrhea mentally and emotionally, and this is okay. Health is the goal, because we all know it's true:

There's nothing like the feeling after a really good, healthy poop.

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Lessons from the Bedside: What Foley Catheters Taught Me about Emotional Nakedness

It’s undeniable we celebrate weird things at the hospital. Things like bowel movements, being able to walk without assistance, and really big, long, straight veins. The day when patients’ Foley catheters come out also calls for celebration (except when patients are incontinent; then our little nursing hearts sink a little...)!

It was on such a day when a patient should have been celebrating his Foley catheter coming out that I learned an unexpected lesson about my emotional health.

“Please, can you take this catheter thing out?” my patient had begged all day.

Several hours into the shift, I heard from the doctor: the Foley catheter could be discontinued. I gathered supplies for wound care and for removing the catheter before knocking on the door.

“Good news!” I remarked cheerfully. “The catheter can come out!

Stock photo from Adobe

Stock photo from Adobe

Surprisingly, the patient sighed deeply, as though disappointed. Although confused by his sudden change of heart, I proceeded to provide wound care, and the conversation turned to other things for a few minutes.

“Okay,” I finally said, “if you’re ready, let’s go ahead and take out the catheter now.”

“Do I have to take my pants off?” he mumbled as he started to roll his pajama pant legs up (up, instead of pulling his pants down).

“Um, yes.” Questions patients ask will never cease to amaze me. (Also, how anyone can wear pants over a catheter by choice will never cease to amaze me.)

“Okay. I just feel so humiliated…” More mumbling. Another deep sigh.

Finally, I understood his hesitancy. He was embarrassed and would rather wear uncomfortable, inconvenient pants than have his privates bared.

As nurses, often we forget it’s abnormal to see people’s bodies — all parts of their bodies. We wipe butts on a daily basis, put in catheters and take out catheters, and deal with every kind of bodily fluid you can imagine. Human anatomy is no big deal; it’s our job to assess it and make sure it’s functioning properly.

However, it is a big deal to most other people. Once I clued in to why this patient was balking at the chance for his number one request of the day to be granted, I was able to address his fears accordingly. Thirty seconds later, the catheter was out. Mission accomplished.

After washing my hands and stepping out into the hall, I began thinking about how this patient had considered discontinuing his Foley “humiliating.” His use of this specific word was actually shocking because to nurses there is nothing humiliating about having a catheter removed. In fact, to me the words “humiliating” and “catheter” have no reason to be in the same sentence.

Yet something about this patient’s words struck a chord with me. I knew that same hesitancy, the same feeling of being humiliated, the mumbling and the deep sighs — but not because of physical nakedness. Because of emotional nakedness.

Despite years of dealing with depression and some serious time spent in therapy, I still find it difficult to open up emotionally, even to my therapist. I still hate admitting my weaknesses and the natural anatomy of my feelings to anyone , myself included. What seemed ludicrous a moment ago when I was with a patient I now recognized in myself: I would rather wear uncomfortable, inconvenient masks than show others the fear and sadness I once believed were ugly and shameful. I would rather roll my pant legs up and acknowledge just a little ugliness than pull my pants completely down.

Yet in the same way healthcare workers in the hospital don’t think twice about seeing patients’ naked bodies, I finally realized mental healthcare workers probably don’t blink an eye at the raw, bare truth about people’s mental and emotional states. When something isn’t working right, someone has to look at it. Nakedness is simply part of our jobs.

With this perspective, I’m learning to be more intentional about overcoming my habit of stalling before getting to the heart of my struggles when I show up for a counseling appointment or pick up the phone to call a friend; I’m learning to try to pull down my emotional pants and check my shame at the door.

Is stripping emotionally vulnerable? Sure. Should we be careful whom we share our emotional and mental nakedness with? Of course. (Wouldn’t want to moon anyone by oversharing inappropriately!) Should we be ashamed and humiliated by emotional nakedness? I’m starting to understand the answer is no.

As a nurse, my job may include physical nakedness. As a human, it will always include emotional nakedness. Because of this encounter at the bedside, I’ve decided: it’s time to stop fighting it and strip right down to emotional nakedness.

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