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Learning to Trust My Gut in Life With GERD

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When my dentist told me I had nine cavities, I was shocked. I had recently given birth to my son and, during my pregnancy, had skipped a six-month dental check-up and cleaning. But nine? That was a lot!

To be honest, I had been having dental issues for the past 15 years. When I was a senior in high school, my dentist referred me to a periodontist, who put me on antibiotics for gum disease. I don’t remember getting a cavity until I was in college, but throughout my twenties, it was not unusual for a routine dental checkup to end with an appointment for a filling. Despite six-month dental cleanings, brushing twice a day, sometimes with prescription toothpaste, and flossing, by the age of 41, the top layer of my enamel had worn away.

I always assumed that I just hadn’t done a good job brushing.

I also, throughout my adult life, have had stomach issues — that I’ve pretty much ignored. In college, I told a friend who told me (I thought) to drink garlic tea (though, looking back, she probably suggested ginger), so I spent the rest of that semester microwaving mugs of water and chopping garlic cloves. While my stomach issues haven’t been constant, there have definitely been several times over the past few decades when I’ve woken up, stressed in the middle of the night, dry heaving. The thoughts: “Well, I guess I don’t have a stomach lining,” or “that’s probably an ulcer,” have accompanied many morning coffees.

Being a hypochondriac (though never formally diagnosed), I, strangely enough, spent decades dealing with this. The thing about hypochondria is that, while it invokes a ton of debilitating fear, it also gives me a psychological “out.” When I assume something is wrong, I often say, “It’s OK. I am just a hypochondriac,” before burying my concerns deep into the pit of my stomach and going on about my life.

The summer before the pandemic, I was scrolling through Facebook when I noticed that somebody I had grown up with, somebody younger than me, had died of stomach cancer. How could this happen? I thought. She was so young. As an obsessive Googler, I Googled “stomach cancer” — and as so often happens when I Google diseases, I didn’t like what I found. One cause of stomach cancer: chronic stomach irritation. So, I thought, chronic stomach irritation isn’t just uncomfortable. It also kills you.

The next time this irritation assaulted me, instead of ignoring it as I had for decades, I scheduled an appointment with a gastroenterologist. I told him about my stomach irritation, and he replied, “Are you eating fatty or spicy foods? If so, stop. And take Nexium for two weeks.” So, instead of having a condition that predisposes me to stomach cancer, I thought, I simply need to eat better and take an over-the-counter medication? While such a response might comfort some, I still really thought I had a pre-cancerous condition, so the doctor’s response felt dismissive.

Then, the pandemic happened, and I stopped paying attention to my body and needs for a year.

A year or so later I saw a female nurse practitioner about this issue, thinking that perhaps a female would be more likely to listen to me than a male (I had read in the New York Times that female doctors were more likely to listen to their patients than male doctors – and much of my life experience confirmed this). When she gave me the same advice, to avoid spicy and fatty foods, I realized that, perhaps, this was par for the course. She did, however, order an endoscopy, which made me feel better.

So, on a hot July day, I underwent the endoscopy — and waited a few days for the report. When I received it I was surprised to learn that I had a “clinical history” of GERD. What? I thought. Nobody told me this. Clinical “history” suggests that somebody previously diagnosed me with something and yet, I have no recollection of having been informed of this diagnosis. When I asked the nurse practitioner where this information came from, she noted that the doctor I had seen about my stomach issues, over a year ago, had noted it. I had a lot going on. We were on the precipice of a global pandemic. Maybe the doctor shared this diagnosis and I, thinking that GERD wasn’t a big deal, ignored it. I don’t know (though I suspect nobody told me).

Five months after my endoscopy, I finished a round of medication that was only supposed to take three months – and the doctor (the nurse practitioner who I had been working with fell ill, so I started communicating directly with the doctor who performed the endoscopy) told me that if I get heartburn more than three times a week, I should go back to taking medication twice a day.

Heartburn more than three times a week, I thought, that’s absurd. I don’t even know if I’ve ever really experienced heartburn.
The more I started to pay attention to my body, however, the more I realized that, yes, I do experience it. I experience it quite frequently – definitely more than three times a week.

So, what has struggling with an undiagnosed health condition for decades taught me? I need to believe that it has taught me something, because I don’t want these decades of stomach irritation – and the specter of stomach cancer — to be in vain.

Well, for one, I am beginning to realize that the older I get, the more I have to advocate for myself. I am the only one who knows what is going on with my body, and if I am not in touch with and advocating for it, no one else will. This realization, of course, inspired a slew of racing questions. Why hadn’t I realized this when I was younger? Is my refusal to advocate for myself related to my people-pleasing mentality? And is all of this related to being raised female? Being raised female in my generation? Are younger generations better able to advocate for themselves?

I suspect that the answer to all of these questions is yes, though I really can’t say for sure. What I can say, however, is that the older I get, the more the deadening weight of inaction wears on me, and the more I need to proactively prioritize those things that sustain me, because nobody else will. And if I simply exist in response to everybody else’s needs and demands, I will cease to exist. After 41 years, I know myself better than anybody else.

As I journey through age, the one thing that I would like to share – with others, with myself, with my younger self, with my son — is to pay attention and trust your intuition. Throughout your life, you are going to hear a lot of noise. Let yourself hear it, but be able and willing to filter and evaluate – and know that, very often, you know what is best for you. Be willing to trust your gut.

Getty image by Carol Yepes.

Originally published: March 7, 2022
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