The Loneliness of Living with Hemorrhoids, Part 1

No. 19

Greetings from Chinarrative!

We’re back in translation mode this week with the first installment of a recent piece first published by The Paper’s Reflections Workshop.

In it, we’re introduced to 31-year-old Jiang Yijun as she gears up for her third hemorrhoids operation since being diagnosed with the condition at the young age of 16.

Author Su Zi has tackled what might at first glance seem an off-putting topic and crafted a compassionate, empathetic account of a young woman’s extended battle with an at times crippling and all-consuming medical problem—and the immense shame that comes with it.

In Part 1 of the story, Su sets the scene for the third operation while tracing the origins of Jiang’s condition and recounting her first major showdown with the adversary she has playfully dubbed the “Hemorrhoids Brothers.”

The second and concluding installment will be published on April 5.

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The Loneliness of a Hemorrhoids Patient, Part 1

Jiang Yijun hides under her sheets during her recent hospitaliztion for a third hemorrhoids operation. Her bed is marked in shorthand with the first of two Chinese characters for “hemorrhoids.” Courtesy author.

A bell went off inside Jiang Yijun’s head. She stretched her neck and froze. An unpleasant feeling between her buttocks appeared to signal trouble—her old friends of about 15 years, the Hemorrhoid Brothers, were making their presence known again after a long layoff.

Utter pain. Jiang Yijun wanted to ignore it initially, but soon it felt like the ant colony buried under the tree had burst and the pain started scattering up the trunk. Initially, it was a flash of pain here and a bolt there. Then it started to feel like a stampede. Then gushing.

Jiang Yijun could no longer sit still. She rummaged through her first aid kit, located her tube of Ma Yinglong brand hemorrhoids cream and stormed into the bathroom. Inside, she tried to shove the inauspicious little fellow sticking its head out back in by way of lubricant.

After 15 or so years of living with the Hemorrhoid Brothers, host and parasite knew each other well. When it was the case of a single protruding bulb, it was simply a matter of shoving it back in. The problem would heal itself after two days of bleeding. It wasn’t an issue of life or death.

But something didn’t feel right this time around.

Meeting the Brothers Hemorrhoid

Jiang Yijun is 31 years old. In the 15 years since she’s been diagnosed with hemorrhoids, she’s had two operations.

She started developing hemorrhoids when she was 14, as a result of poor hygiene. She became a boarder at 12 because her junior high school was far from home and her father was a single parent after splitting with her mother. The lack of supervision meant her personal life was a mess.

Jiang Yijun’s only memories from junior high are scenes of terror, such as the time she skipped lunch and rushed through her geography homework due that afternoon on the floor of her dorm room, which was littered with banana skins, used tissue paper and stinky shoes. When her father visited, he’d throw a major temper tantrum while sweeping her floor.

Or the time she tried to fight through a severe cold and lingering high fever. In the end, she was too weak to get up and had to ask her roommate to call home on her behalf from a public phone booth. (This was before the time of cell phones.)

Her father frantically made his way to his daughter’s school to find her buried under a pile of snot-filled tissue paper. Her face was burning but her pillow was cold and damp from her snot and tears.

Or the time her pants were bloodied when she first started menstruating. Somehow Jiang Yijun was of the unconventional logic that “since nobody knew what it was, I could pass it off as smooshed chocolate” and strutted around with huge stains on her butt as if nothing had happened.

Or the time her workload was so heavy that she didn’t have time to do laundry and set her personal record of wearing the same pair of underwear for six days straight—three days normal, three days inside out.

And so the young woman raised by her father learned independence and survival skills as she stumbled through her days in her dark, damp secondary school dorm since age 12, enduring trachoma, eczema and various stomach ailments.

By the time her father realized that Jiang Yijun took a dump just once a week at school, it was already a bit late. He paid her a visit around noon one day but his daughter was nowhere to be found.

A dormmate said she was in the bathroom and wouldn’t be back anytime soon. “Oh, she only shits once a week and it takes an hour each time.”

Shocked, her father stood at the entrance to the bathroom and gave her a stern lecture. But at that point the bad habit had already led to serious constipation and irreversible consequences. When she showered, Jiang Yijun would occasionally feel an unwanted visitor protruding from her butthole. She was too terrified to tell anyone.

By her second year of senior high, the unwanted visitors staking out the walls of her butthole and beyond started claiming more territory, stamping their sovereignty with occasional “suicide bombs.”

One day while taking a crap, the dark red jet stream she passed scared the living daylights out of her. She felt like she was about to die. It was a kind of fear, out of nowhere, that she was ill-equipped to handle.

So she raced downstairs and phoned home, relaying her tragic fate to her father on the other end, just like every time she got into trouble, broke down or felt crushed by her heavy workload.

Her father took her to a specialist in proctology the next day. That was the also the day she was formally introduced to the Brothers Hemorrhoid and learned how to get along with them. The doctor said she was his youngest diagnosed case ever. “How come you have hemorrhoids at 16?”

A picture of frustration, her father inappropriately revealed her habit of taking a dump only once a week. This pissed Jiang Yijun off somewhat.

In the mere 16 years of her existence, she’s already had to face so many challenges by herself. How could she possibly have all the answers without someone to lend a helping hand?

She stared at the middle-aged man who likewise stumbled through parenthood over the 16 or so years. He cooked, did her laundry and bought her sanitary pads, pulling double duty as both mom and dad as he barely maintained a semblance of family life.

But something still fell through the cracks—and that something left a permanent mark on her, a mark that planted the seed of pain. She wanted to complain and throw a fit, but then it dawned on her there was no one to blame.

Everyone Loves Me But In Fact No One Does

On the second day of continuous pain, Jiang Yijun started getting restless. The hemorrhoids cream wasn’t working any more. The next step was a visit to the hospital.

Jiang Yijun wanted to avoid the hospital at all costs. She consulted an online doctor, sending along a few photos, but the doctor said the issue wasn’t her external hemorrhoids and that she had to schedule an in-person check-up to rule out perianal abscess and anal fissure.

Jiang Yijun was devastated. This visit might result in another operation—her third hemorrhoids operation in her 30 years of existence.

The first time the Hemorrhoids Brothers landed her on the surgery table was the summer of the second year on her first job. Jiang Yijun was working as a TV reporter in a small town some 1,500 kilometers away from home.

She and her cameraman were covering a fire during an evening breaking news shift. A small building had been reduced to a black skeleton. Firemen were scampering around the scene, long, snake-like fire hoses in tow, and the smell of burnt objects permeated the air.

Notebook and microphone in hand, Jiang Yijun weaved between the fire trucks, hoping to catch a witness or two. At that point she felt a cool sensation beneath her bottom. It felt like liquid was trickling down her inner thighs.

“Did I pee myself?” She was terrified. Under the cover of night, she furtively stuck her hand down the back of her panties and pulled it out. It was blood, not urine. After going blank for a few seconds, Jiang Yijun decided to hang tight.

Somehow she managed to get through the assignment despite a smothering sense of doom bearing down on her. The darkness of night made up for her fragile composure. But she broke down in tears when she realized a big chunk of her jeans were tainted with blood after she burst into the bathroom at the TV station.

Without hesitation Jiang Yijun called her father, just like in high school. Even though she was already in her 20s, had a boyfriend and a respectable job, in times like this she still reflexively turned to her father, as if he would always have a solution on hand regardless of the crisis.

But this time all her father did was sigh on the other end. He reminded her it was still the same hemorrhoids from high school, that they were likely acting up again after all these years and that she needed to go see the doctor. “You’re a big girl now. You need to learn how to take care of yourself.”

Jiang Yijun realized she had reached a turning point. Her father was 1,500 kilometers away and her stepmother had just given birth to her stepbrother. She was a swallow that had outgrown her nest. She could no longer frantically seek cover under her father’s wings on a stormy night. From now on, she was on her own.

The next day Jiang Yijun received the doctor’s verdict at the city’s best hospital, the central hospital: severe internal and external hemorrhoids. Surgery was required immediately—and it had to be done in two stages. That freaked her out.

The workload was immense at the TV station, turnarounds quick and it was short-staffed. She was also a newly hired reporter located at the bottom of the totem pole. Asking for more than two weeks of leave was bound to draw much contempt. Worse was that it would spark her colleagues’ curiosity and gossip about her condition.

Life in their small, prosperous town was hardly scintillating and journalists with too much time on their hands was a recipe for disaster. The slightest change in routine was bound to catch their interest and draw intense scrutiny, which would then translate into knowing stares in the hallway and insidious laughter around the office.

Not to mention Jiang Yijun’s problem rested in an embarrassing location.

Unable to muster the courage to ask for time off, Jiang Yijun tried to procrastinate, but the Brothers Hemorrhoid were having none of it. Since that fateful night, her hemorrhoids would rupture every time she stood or walked for an extended period. They didn’t hurt. The just bled quietly and profusely.

Initially, Jiang Yijun didn’t adapt and was often caught off guard. She made the big mistake of wearing a pair of white pants while covering a major sports event.

In the middle of shooting her stand-up, she started stammering and had to go through multiple takes. As her cameraman threw her angry glares, Jiang Yijun stumbled through only after coming up with the hasty solution of taking off her jacket and tying it around her waist to obscure the dark red stain.

Jiang Yijun learned her lesson and started using sanitary pads and wearing dark pants every day, but she still had to improvise from time to time. Her hemorrhoids ruptured again one day shortly after arriving at the beach for an assignment. Her butthole felt like an open tap, blood overflowing from her sanitary pad. A toilet was nowhere in sight.

Yet she still had to continue with the assignment. As throngs of winter swimmers rushed into the water amid cheers, Jiang Yijun was secretly having a breakdown. On the journey back, she holed up in the last row of the van, sneaking a notebook beneath her butt. She kept the notebook. The large blood stain imprinted on it, which has since turned dark brown, served as a reminder of an embarrassing past.

As Jiang Yijun recalled the incident, she wondered if she might have died of anemia if she had put off the surgery for another few weeks. But if she could travel back in time, she would probably still struggle to shake her cowardice.

Age 23 was truly an awkward transitional period. Nominally, you were an adult, but as a fresh graduate new to the workforce, you were a rookie who had to take all the crap. You had lost the sanctuary of family. Your father had let go, but a husband wasn’t in the picture yet. A long-distance boyfriend could hardly fill the void.

Butting heads with the Hemorrhoid Brothers at this particular juncture, Jiang Yijun felt the deepest form of loneliness, the feeling that everyone loved her but in fact no one did.

Indebted to Family

Mindful of the painful lesson seven years ago, Jiang Yijun decided to seek medical attention immediately this time.

Setting aside any sense of shame, she sprawled herself face down on all fours on the bed at the university hospital like a wild animal and pointed the most private part of her butt at the flashlight, like the veteran hemorrhoids patient she was.

Dr. Li put on his gloves and started probing. Jiang Yijun let out a huge, abrupt cry, which even caught the doctor by surprise. Unprecedented pain, as if a groundhog were digging holes in her intestines. The doctor removed his gloves and told her to get admitted that afternoon and schedule surgery for the next day.

Jiang Yijun understood this was a major crisis, but as she pulled up her pants, she still pleaded: “Can we put it off for another week?” She had no choice.

This time she was determined to keep her family in the dark and weather the storm with her newly-wed husband of one year. She didn’t want to incur a massive debt to family like she did seven years ago.

The predicament caused by the Hemorrhoids Brothers seven years ago was ultimately resolved by her mother, the same mother who was largely absent from Jiang Yijun’s upbringing after the divorce and who worked extra hard to insert herself in her daughter’s life after she came of age. That’s why she stepped in the day she got word of the imminent operation.

And her mother was indeed quite competent. Despite being based in Hong Kong, she had reached out to all the hospitals in the city where Jiang Yijun lived by phone in a day relying on web searches alone. And when she arrived at the hospital after a hasty departure, her luggage was packed with different gifts for Jiang Yijun’s various bosses.

Hot on her heels was Jiang Yijun’s boyfriend’s mother. The old lady barely 1.5 meters tall treated her son’s girlfriend like her own daughter. After hearing the word “surgery,” she insisted on traveling by train on a hard seat from her rural village in central Hubei province to Jiang Yijun’s bedside.

To free herself for the trip, she even took a break from babysitting her oldest grandson, who had just started to walk.

The two mothers took over Jiang Yijun’s life, tending to her every need before and after the operation. They ordered Jiang Yijun to go to bed at 10, wake up at 6 and made her three meals a day, with variation. They scrubbed the floor of her apartment until it shined and even scratched the grease that had accumulated between tiles on her shower floor.

They queued up for her for tests and prescriptions, dealt with paperwork, made her bed, monitored her IV drip and emptied her urine pouch. They made her favorite dishes and fed them to her.

Jiang Yijun was a bit overwhelmed by the concentrated dose of personal attention, which she had never received in the first 23 years of her life. She enjoyed a speedy recovery and barely remembered the pain.

“The doctors here have made no mention of a second operation. The doctor you saw at the central hospital last time wasn’t unqualified, was he?” Jiang Yijun’s mother said when her daughter returned to her hospital room after the operation. “See, there are some things you can’t handle on your own,” she added gleefully.

Jiang Yijun didn’t know how to respond, just like she was still learning how to get along with her mother. Keeping distance seemed inappropriate, but intimacy also felt very awkward.

Her mother’s efforts made her feel indebted while her mother’s competence magnified her lack thereof. Her pretty, strong mother was vocal and dominant. She shined wherever she went, distinguishing herself from the average masses. As long as she was around, there was no need to worry. You just had to follow her lead.

But Jiang Yijun didn’t like the feeling of being overshadowed. It made her seem like an overgrown child, an attachment.

But she had to admit that her mother came in handy for certain tasks she was clueless about. Before the operation her mother paid the surgeon a visit at his office.

When she got back she gave Jiang Yijun a knowing look and whispered to her: “When I tried to give him a little something, he refused while opening his robe at the same time. I took advantage of the opening to stuff the envelope in the pocket of his suit jacket.”

Translator: Min Lee