“Your colon probably contains macaroni and cheese from 1973” the pamphlet read. I was standing in front of Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, right after brunch, and justifiably I was thinking about my colon anyway. I knew that the chicken and waffles were in there, but 17-year-old macaroni and cheese?
The pamphlet was an advertisement for a place that claimed to specialize in colonic irrigation. It had never occurred to me to have a colonic, but I began casually asking friends about the procedure, and was astounded to find out just how many of my friends had tried it, and even more astonished to learn how much they had enjoyed it.
“It’s great!” My friend Mary was a huge fan. “You feel so clean afterwards that you’ll only want to eat broccoli for two weeks!”
An entirely broccoli-based diet was sure to have me wonderfully gaunt and skulking like a supermodel in no time. My friend Elizabeth agreed.
“I felt so light — I actually lost five pounds.”
“You lost five pounds after?”
It grossed me out that her colon had contained five pounds of gunk, but her testimony was encouraging. Still, I hemmed and hawed over the matter for a number of months. Sometimes I would forget about my colon entirely, but then there it would be, looming in my brain like an overstuffed sausage. Usually this would happen after consuming foods containing white flour, which the brochure had told me formed a pink paste that adhered to the walls of your colon building upon itself until you died. The only thing worse than white flour was red meat, which, per the pamphlet, apparently never left your colon — not even after death. Then someone told me about a man who upon having his colon irrigated (Ed. — Stop reading), dislodged a fist-sized ball of worms. “Fist-sized.” He repeated, balling up his own fist for a visual aide and extra oomph. Who knew what could be up there? I made up my mind.
The spas where Mary and Elizabeth had gotten their colonics were very pricey, way out of my budget, so I called around until I found a place I could afford. The voice on the recording was new-agey, and mildly annoying. They offered an array of services apart from colonic irrigation, like ear candling, aromatherapy, acupressure, acupuncture, and something called full body crystal-induced mood therapy. I knew several people who could benefit from the crystal mood therapy, but I was thinking about that ball of worms. I left my name and number, saying I was interested in a colonic, and vowed to get a mood therapy gift certificate for my mother.
A man named Steve called me back right away. I hadn’t expected it to be a man. I was not about to put my colon and its contents on display for some dude named “Steve,” but he assured me that a qualified professional, Susannah, would administer my colonic. Steve explained that I had to adhere to a restricted diet for 24 hours prior to my cleansing, consisting of mostly green vegetables, and some corn two hours before my appointment.
“Corn?” I asked. “Why corn?”
“You can see it as it passes out. That lets us know you’re being cleansed.”
At this point I was seriously considering canning the whole idea — this was way too personal. Corn? But surely Steve and Susannah knew what they were doing. They did this all the time. It wasn’t disgusting to them — it was healthy, natural – beautiful, even. I bet they chatted over cups of coffee in the break room about stuff they had flushed out of people’s poop chutes. My appointment was for the next day at six o’clock.
There is no elevator at the colonic center, which is on the sixth floor of a dark and rickety building in the West 20s in New York. I climbed the stairs and found a basic computer-designed printout, the kind that has the perforated holes on each side, reading “[The Center's Name]– Please Wait” in pink writing with a rainbow underneath. Now I was seriously nervous. They hadn’t even bothered to go to Kinko’s to make their door sign. What kind of place was this? The yoga studio next door and natural healing books in the waiting room did little to curb my growing suspicion. The door opened, and a woman with a head full of tight, brassy curls appeared.
“I’m Heather, I have an appointment at six.” I didn’t want to use my real name, but couldn’t think of a fake one, and I tried to be very quiet for fear that I may know someone in the yoga studio who would recognize my voice.
Could she tell just by looking at me? Was there something about me that was screaming COLONIC IRRIGATION? Perhaps I was distended from all the macaroni and cheese and hamburger casserole my mother fed me as a child. She led me into a room and gave me a paper gown to put on. I was afraid to look around, afraid there would be awful stains on the floor. I put the gown on and waited only a moment before there was a knock at the door.
Susannah was a tall, earth-mother type in her forties. He hair was piled in a high turban thing, and she wore a kind of caftan and earrings that looked like she had bought them at a craft fair in New Hampshire. She seemed a bit officious.
“Have you been here before?”
“Oh. Is this your first colonic?” I admitted that it was.
“Oh! Don’t worry about anything. Are you scared?” My fear was a palpable force in the room, the paper gown trembling, so there was no use denying it. “Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything.”
And she did. The gist of it, anyway. She was going to take a hose and put it up my butt. She didn’t put it that way, but that’s the general idea. Then she would shoot a stream of water into it. When I could feel the water entering my stomach — which I would be able to actually see as my stomach rose, I would tell her to stop, and she would turn this little switch to start the draining. The water, and all that debris inside my colon, would flow out of me, through the hose and into this clear tube that would measure it for something or other. This, according to Susannah, was the best part — the viewing of the former contents of my colon. My friends who had undergone this procedure told me they were amazed by it. They described large chunks of concrete floating through that tube. I wondered if it hurt as it was pried off. How forceful was this stream of water? Not very, she told me.
She got out the machine, which was basically a giant Water Pik. She told me to lie on my back with my legs bent and knees in the air. I had to concentrate on not clenching as her gloved fingers spread apart my butt cheeks. The hose was cold as she inserted it. Lying on my back gave me a good view of the room — which, while not filthy, was not entirely clean either. A few posters showing cross sections of the human body, with a focus on the digestive system, were hanging askew on the walls. There was one dirty window near the ceiling. Susannah turned on the hose.
The sensation was peculiar, to say the least, sort of the opposite of throwing up — of something coming in when it should be going out. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. Susannah coughed and looked bored. After a minute or so, I thought I could feel water entering my stomach and told her to turn the hose off. “Already?” she asked, suggesting I had jumped the gun, but she started draining anyway. She hadn’t told me that while I was draining she would be massaging my abdomen, so that part was an unpleasant surprise. I don’t know if having my stomach squeezed and kneaded would feel good if my stomach wasn’t filled with water overflowing from my colon, but I know that it doesn’t feel good when it is. I didn’t want to hurt Susannah’s feelings, though, so I didn’t tell her to stop. I was just wishing the whole experience would be over.
“How long does this take?” I asked.
“About 15 minutes — sometimes longer, depending on how clogged you are.”
I was staring at the tube, trying to ascertain just how clogged I might be, and judging from the fact that there was nothing in that tube but water, I was either squeaky clean, or so clogged that a fire hose would have to be brought in. She turned the hose on again.
I tried to let the water run a little bit longer this time, thinking of those worms, imagining them clinging to the walls of my colon for dear life, unable to fight the force of the hose. I could visibly see my stomach begin to rise. When Susannah turned the hose off, she started in with the wrenching of my intestines. She coughed, longer this time, covering her mouth with her hand, then put that same hand on my bare stomach. I wanted desperately to tell her to stop, that the massaging was uncomfortable, but what if the massage was an essential part of the therapy? I didn’t want this nightmare to be in vain. I tried to think of something happy, to go to my happy place. Again, the water ran disappointingly clear.
I remembered that Elizabeth had told me her colonic was administered in a very pristine, medicinal looking room, by a nurse in a white coat — not by a woman in a caftan with a thick, wet cough.
The tears came to my eyes as Susannah turned the hose on once more. “What’s keeping the water that comes out from going back in?” I asked. Susannah didn’t understand the physics of my question and offered nothing in the way of assurances of the device’s sterility. When she turned the hose off and reached for my stomach I nearly screamed.
“No! Please! That’s going to make me throw up.”
She looked at me like I was a maniac. She also looked hurt. But she stopped the massage. It was about this time that my attention was diverted by something in the other room. I don’t know how long it had been going on, I was so preoccupied with my discomfort. But now I heard it. Someone was having a fight.
“Don’t lie to me Steven!”
“I’m not lying — and what if I did? I don’t get paid anything anyway!”
“You listen to me–”
“No, you're a bitch, you hear me? A fucking bitch!”
Someone slammed a door. I looked in horror to Susannah, who rolled her eyes, embarrassed.
“I’m so sorry you had to hear that,” she said.
“What's going on?” I whispered so as not to arouse Steve’s attention.
“Ugh,” she started. “You know that woman who was in there – Christine?”
“The one with the blonde hair?”
“Yeah. Well she runs this place. We just work for her. She makes all the money. You pay eighty dollars for this colonic. But I only get $11.50. Eleven dollars and fifty cents — to stick tubes up people’s booty holes!” Right there was the tipping point. Keenly aware that I had a tube up my own booty hole, disturbed by the fact she had called it a booty hole, devastatingly, overwhelmingly vulnerable, in a paper gown no less, I told her I wanted out. Now.
“You gotta drain.”
The draining took forever, and still nothing came out. I dressed quickly and tried to sneak out unnoticed, but the office door was open. Steve and Christine were talking more quietly now that I was standing in front of them.
“How was it?” Steve asked eagerly. Why he thought I would want to discuss my colonic with him is a mystery. I said nothing and left Susannah huffing in the doorway having stiffed her out of a tip. Contrary to Mary’s broccoli theory, I ran to the nearest deli and purchased a king-sized Snickers bar. I don’t even like Snickers bars, but maybe it was something about the size and shape of it, and wanting to put back in what had been taken out. A recent study from Georgetown University has proven that colonics do not offer any medical or health benefits at all, and can, in fact, lead to rectal perforations, dysentery, and “air embolism,” which sounds awful. The study, however, neglected to document the other side effects of a colonic: embarrassment, feelings of violation, trauma, and extreme creeps.
Steve called the next day to see why I had run out of the “center” so quickly. Wasn’t I happy with my colonic? I didn’t want to get into it, and hearing his voice made me want a shower. The kind of shower they gave Meryl Streep in Silkwood. Steve felt awful and offered me a free ear candling. I told him I would think about it, hung up, and turned on the water.
Heather Whaley is the author of Eat Your Feelings: Recipes for Self-Loathing and the blog EatYourFeelings.com. She is currently working on her second book and lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Photo via The Magic Schoolbus