by Leah Ruthe Chatterjee
by Leah Ruthe Chatterjee
Hi Fistula Warriors,
Starting this post for my fistula medical illustrations. I’ve come a long way in my drawings since my first, rather crude, advancement flap drawing! It’s pretty hard to find images of surgeries and anatomy that don’t cost a bunch to use, so I’m starting my own collection. You are welcome to share and print any of these for non-profit purposes only, I just ask that you leave my copyright watermark in place. I’ll be adding more over time, so check back for more.
Hellooooo fistula warriors!
I have not been very active on here lately as I am going through a new health ordeal (adenomyosis and endometriosis! ugh!), and am navigating my way through all of that. I hope to soon be putting up some new stuff here, and have lots of ideas, so please stay with me!
I am excited to be able to share a new fistula project with you. Fellow fistula warrior Jen and I have been working on a project called Finally Fistula Free. Our goal is to provide a space where people going through the fistula nightmare can come to find success stories. We are currently collecting stories from people who have healed from their fistula, and want to share their journey with others. If you (or someone you know) has healed from a fistula and would like to share your story, please send us your success story at firstname.lastname@example.org, we would love to hear from you and share your experience.
Part of breaking through the stigma of this health problem is being able to talk out loud about it. Speaking from my own experience, writing about my journey in detail has been empowering, and has enabled me to help others. I encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone, even if that means just reaching out and joining a support group (I run a great one on Facebook: Fistula Support Group, and Jen runs a wonderful group for women: Abscess/Fistula Support for Women), or openly speak about what you’re going through with family or a close friend.
You can check out my full success story on our new blog here: Through the Tunnel of Doom and Back Again, and on the home page you will find Jen’s amazing journey, as well as our first contributor, Mary’s story. We hope you enjoy it, and that it brings some hope!
Be Back Soon!
Leah R. Chatterjee
There’s no getting around how painful and disgusting living with a fistula can be. I am fairly certain that my period was the most dreaded part of those three years of fistula doom. For those of you who have never experienced living with a fistula, let me paint you a picture:
One day, after a painful ordeal with an abscess, you learn from your doctor that you have developed what is called a “fistula.” A lame explanation accompanied by crude drawings ensues, and you learn that there is currently a tunnel connecting your rectum to an area right near your vagina. You are now constantly leaking fecal matter. Your life becomes a constant battle to keep your nether regions clean, to manage pain and discomfort, to maintain a shred of dignity and some semblance of sanity. To make things extra fun, your doctor places a giant rubber band in your ass, which hangs down and wreaks havoc on your butt cheeks and surrounding tissue. As if all of this wasn’t horrific enough, you are a woman. Once a month your uterus sheds, and suddenly an already unpleasant aspect of womanhood becomes HELL. Now, not only are you leaking fecal matter, dealing with chronic pain, and have a giant rubber band sticking out of your ass, but you are bleeding all over the place. You become intimately familiar with all of the adult diaper options. You try to come to terms with a new normal.
So, how does one cope with having a period while living with a fistula? My first piece of advice? Ditch your tampons. If your doctor hasn’t already told you this, I’m telling you now. Inserting a tampon while you are leaking fecal matter is a great way to ensure that bacteria and fecal matter will enter your vagina, which will open you up to all sorts of infections you do not need to add to your plate. If your fistula is rectovaginal, that whole area is going to be super tender and extra sensitive anyway, so you definitely don’t need a big, abrasive chunk of cotton up in there.
If you are a diva cup user (or whatever “cup” brand you prefer), the same applies. Ditch it for now for the same reasons.
Here are your options, and what worked for me:
-overnight pads with wings
-overnight pads with wings on an adult diaper for super heavy days
-for those who wish to be eco-friendly I highly recommend GladRags. They are washable, reusable pads, and are actually really good for lining your underwear for bad leakage days even when you’re not on your period. There are also a few shops on Etsy that will custom design reusable pads for you.
-frequent washing. Invest in a squeeze bottle with a spray nozzle. Clean your vagina and bottom regularly throughout the day.
-Sitz Bath every chance you get. Scroll further down for my entry on Sitz Bath and hygiene.
-ask your gynecologist about the possibility of skipping your periods altogether with birth control. This may not work for those of you who are sensitive to medication or hormones, but it is a viable option for some.
-Meditate. Seriously. Do this all month long. It really helps.
Fistulas are life-disrupting, painful, fairly gross, and can often turn in to long-term struggles and multiple surgeries. I received an e-mail from a woman who is dealing with a colorectal fistula, and she wanted to know more about how to deal with her period during all of this. I thought about it, and nobody ever gave me ANY advice about how to handle a menstrual cycle while battling a fistula of doom. Women with fistulas are constantly dealing with what I call the “Silence Factor.” Nobody wants to talk about periods, about tampons, about menstrual blood, and nobody wants to talk about anything relating to the rectum. Our reality, though, is that we have to navigate through life with these added complications that most people don’t understand, and are uncomfortable hearing about.
I’m here to deliver this very important message: You have nothing to be ashamed of. You are not gross. This shit is really hard, painful, isolating, and really depressing, and you are a warrior who is surviving it.
YOU HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF.
If you are a woman, or a person who has periods, and you need to reach out to someone who has been there, please shoot me an e-mail at email@example.com. Sometimes it can take me a while to respond, but I will respond.
I have been thinking about how to write this for a while now. How does one write an entry about quitting smoking without the BS shaming, the guilt-tripping, the clichés and facts that everybody already knows?
Before the Fistula of Doom descended on my life like a gloomy fog of despair, I was a very heavy smoker. I’m talking 1 to 1.5 packs a day heavy smoker. In fact, one of my greatest fears was that I would never be able to quit. I had tried unsuccessfully countless times to stop the nasty habit. Unfortunately, I loved smoking. I loved every part of smoking (okay, not the smell), and over the years I had come to rely on it as a coping mechanism for pretty much everything. When I first got the fistula I started smoking even more to deal with the pain and distract myself from the poo leaking out of the tunnel. My doctor encouraged me to quit, citing all of the obvious reasons that smoking was impairing my healing process.
I already knew, as most smokers do, the risks involved in smoking. Even after reading about how bad smoking is for your intestinal system, how it slows almost all healing processes, how it is especially bad for people with Irritable Bowel Disease, I still did not quit. I thought about it a lot, but it just didn’t feel urgent.
Fast forward to a year later, and something changed. I got scared. Really scared. I had a rubber band (seton band) hanging out of my ass, was still leaking poo, still rocking the Depends and copious amounts of gauze. The awful red donut was still my major accessory.
I was terrified that I would never heal. To top it all off I got a c diff infection (please see my earlier blog on C. difficile), and was not having success in getting rid of the persistent disease. I finally told my therapist, “I will do anything to get better. That includes quitting smoking. Please, help me stop.” I really meant it, but was nervous, skeptical of my own will power. With the help of my therapist, I worked out a plan to taper off of them…VERY SLOWLY. I cut back by one cigarette a day until I was down to 3 a day, then cut back one a week, until I was finally down to just chewing gum (I eventually quit that, too, after a year of gum chewing). It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. It was a painful, messy, grumpy, tearful affair, but I did it. All because of my deep desire to get better.
I’m sharing this, not to give myself accolades for my achievement, but to let you know from one smoker to possibly another that it is possible. I am not joking when I say that there was a point in my life where I did not think I was capable of quitting. I thought surely it would be what killed me. The truth is that smoking wreaks havoc on your entire system, not least of which is your circulatory system and your digestive system. If your fistula experience is anything like mine was (don’t worry, plenty of fistulas are not as wretched as mine was), you are looking at possibly several years of multiple surgeries. You want to be as kind to your intestines and colon as you possibly can (trust me when I say that you will suddenly be more concerned about what you put in in relation to how painful it is coming out). I absolutely have to say this obnoxious line:
You really ought to quit.
Making the decision is easy enough. I recommend seeking out some kind of support if you know you are going to have a hard time. Checking in with my therapist weekly was a huge help, and the one thing I did different when I finally managed to quit. I had someone to hold me accountable, and even on weeks that I messed up it was good to have someone reminding me that it’s okay to screw up. If therapy is not an option for you, there are a lot of online and in person support groups that are free. I highly recommend the tapering off method, especially if you are a heavy smoker like I was.
As usual, I recommend looking into natural remedies to ease the anxiety of quitting, such as flower essences (Bach Flower Remedies are good and fairly affordable, and their website has pretty great explanations of what each essence is good for), meditation, exercise, breathing exercises, etc. I definitely used Nicorette for the first 8 months, but when I quit the gum it was the natural stuff that kept me from going backwards.
Three years later I can tell you that the rumors are true: you do feel a hell of a lot better after you quit. Every body is different, but mine felt a significant difference after 6 months. One year later I could really breathe. You know, big, deep, full breaths that you forget you’re capable of. Truth? I still get cravings sometimes. It’s so much easier to write them off now, though, and I don’t miss being a smoker one bit. Good luck!
Leah R. Chatterjee