Reflux (Josh Olsen)

I sent my mother a picture of my dinner—a grilled New York strip, topped with sautéed mushrooms and blue cheese crumbles, on a bed of spring greens, with a side of rosemary garlic potatoes—something I didn’t do with anyone but her. Food was one of the primary points of conversation between her, my grandmother and I, something we could talk about endlessly and peacefully, with joy. But here I was looking at that same dinner, masticated and regurgitated into a shallow plastic bowl while I sat in anguish in an emergency room. 

The pain in my gut was excruciating, an easy 10 out of 10. I sweated and writhed and paced as I tried my best to politely answer every one of the nurse’s and doctor’s questions. My blood pressure was high—164/99—but my other vitals were more or less normal. The EKG didn’t show anything worthy of concern, but then again, it didn’t last time, and I assumed that the X-rays I’d surely have wouldn’t show anything either. 

This wasn’t my first trip to the emergency room due to wrenching abdominal pain. It’d happened once before, almost exactly one year prior, over Memorial Day weekend 2020. The first time, they sent me home with a diagnosis of acid reflux and a prescription for Pepcid, but not before the ER doc nonchalantly suggested I get the spot on my lung checked out. Well, fuck me, I thought, I went to the hospital because of the pain in my stomach and left with lung cancer

But lung cancer it was not. After a series of chest X-rays, CT scans and a couple appointments with a cardiopulmonologist, I was diagnosed with the scars of histoplasmosis, a lung infection “caused by breathing in spores of a fungus often found in bird and bat droppings”. I couldn’t fathom where I’d come into direct contact with bird and bat droppings, but soil contaminated with bird and bat droppings could spread histoplasmosis as well, so could it have been caused by my time spent digging up our backyard, or all my years working in a library, with our stacks of books and magazines donated from dusty attics, moldy basements, and decrepit warehouses? Either way, it was a benign diagnosis and a new addition to my vocabulary. 

The histoplasmosis created the calcified nodules on my lungs and lymph nodes, but it wasn’t the cause of the pain in my gut, then or now. According to the medical professionals, the pain was caused by my diet. Or my body’s reaction to my diet. This time, it was the steak and garlicky potatoes and blue cheese I devoured at dinner, but it was also the mango-pineapple hard seltzers and the Tito’s vodka with Diet Squirt I washed it down with, as well as the two shredded chicken Quesaritos I ate for lunch and the four or five cups of black coffee I drank before noon. It was my lack of ability to enjoy in moderation and my unwillingness to adjust when my body began to revolt. Not unlike my mother who had her stomach stapled in her mid-20s—a then-experimental and extreme weight loss solution—who afterwards, still chose to eat whatever she wanted, vomiting after every meal. I refused to take heed when doctors told me the pain I suffered could be avoided if I controlled my diet, exercised and medicated as prescribed. I convinced myself that the diagnosis was incorrect, continued to eat and drink more than my fill and wound up in the emergency room, yet again, begging to be put out of my misery. 

They responded with an injection of Haldol, an antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia that is sometimes administered in the ER, instead of opioids, to treat unspecified abdominal pain. When the doctor told me this, I asked myself, Do they actually believe Haldol controls pain or do they just think I’m fucking crazy, and based upon the lack of effect it had on my pain, I decided it must have been the latter. Clenching and tensing through waves of agony, I could smell my dinner in my clothes and my sweat, on my skin and especially on my breath, rank, oily burps trapped in the cloth mask over my nose and mouth. Charcoal smoke and grilled beef and garlic and blue cheese, “One of my favorite combinations,” I said to my mom via text after I sent the picture of my “black and blue salad” and she replied, “Holy buckets, that looks delicious!” 

My mom loves to eat, but due to her stomach stapling three decades ago, she can’t do it, or at least she can’t do it to her liking. So instead of substantive, well-balanced, and appropriately portioned meals, she subsists on high-sugar blended coffee drinks, gas station diet pills, and tongue-blistering flavor combinations like her most recent snack of preference, Buffalo Wing Cheez-Its crackers seasoned with granulated sugar and pecans. My mom always battled with her body image, just like almost everyone in my mostly obese family—to whom the greatest compliment you can give is to ask, “Did you lose weight?”—so she got her stomach stapled when she was less than thirty years old. She almost immediately regretted it, finding it impossible to adjust to the new restrictions and horrified by the thick pink scar that bisected her belly. 

So instead of eating less, she ate what she wanted and induced vomiting after every meal. She’s been doing it for over thirty years now. She’s a functioning bulimic, but it’s destroyed her teeth and her esophagus. She suffers from GERD and acid reflux. She’s severely anemic. She claims that she receives blood transfusions every three to four months, due to low hemoglobin, which she tests with a take home device. To think that she’s worked as a caregiver in home health care for so many years is somewhat ironic, because she refuses to take proper care of herself, but her employment has never been her calling, it’s simply a paycheck, it’s what she fell into after years of working fast food and telemarketing. It allows her to work the schedule she prefers, with the freedom to come and go as she pleases, dress how she wishes to dress, driving back and forth from client to client, with no educational requirement beyond a high school diploma. 

My grandmother blames my stepdad for all of this. My stepdad, my grandmother seethes, who showed up to my grandparents’ house in a suit and tie and proposed to my mom after dating her for two weeks. My stepdad, who led me and my mom away from my grandparents’ home when she was twenty-one, and I was three. My stepdad, who became obsessed with my mother’s weight after she gave birth to my brother and, according to my grandparents, insisted she volunteer for free, experimental stomach stapling surgery. My stepdad, who I haven’t spoken to in over twenty-five years.

My brother is the one who told me about my mother’s alleged blood transfusions, and I flat out didn’t believe him when he told me, not because I don’t trust him, per se, but because this information came from our mother. So, I asked our younger sister about the blood transfusions, as well as my mother herself, and they all claimed she was receiving them, because of her advanced anemia and low hemoglobin, but still, I didn’t completely believe them, and I don’t know if I ever would, unless I saw— with my very own eyes—my mother being transfused with a pint of blood. I don’t like that can’t believe what my mother says, or what she tells other people to say on her behalf, but I’ve grown accustomed to it. After she used me as an alibi to spend time with her extramarital boyfriend while married to my stepdad, I’ve come to expect it. 

It was months before I told my mother about my first trip to the ER and how I was diagnosed with acid reflux. I wanted to make sure everything else had been eliminated before I cleared the air, but she could sympathize with the diagnosis. She had no shortage of suggestions for how to manage it, ranging from TUMs and Rolaids to Bailey’s and vanilla ice cream. None of her remedies suggested I restrict what I eat. But now that I ended up in the emergency room again, I might just keep it to myself, and not worry her with my medical ails. 

And as for my dinner of steak and potatoes and mushrooms and blue cheese crumbles, I won’t disappoint her by telling her it ended up in a plastic bowl in the ER, while my partner and our son used the leftovers the following day to make chopped steak cheese quesadillas, and I nursed myself to health with a large Baja Blast. But if anybody could empathize with the tragedy of throwing up a delicious, overindulgent dinner, it’s my mother.


Josh Olsen is a librarian in Flint, Michigan and the co-founder of Gimmick Press.


image: MM Kaufman