A view out a car windshield during a snowstorm. Directly ahead is a "no-restroom" sign

The Panic of a Stormy Colon and a "Closed Restroom" Sign

During times of inflammatory bowel distress, the tiniest acts mean so much. I realized this when my husband and I traveled during Winter Storm Elliot this past December. First, everyone knows when a storm receives an official name, it's going to pack a powerful punch. Winter Storm Elliot delivered its Christmas "gift" in the form of snow, high winds, and bitter temperatures across the U.S.

A storm outside... and inside

For those of us living with IBD, any sort of external disruption creates its own chaos internally. As my husband and I drove away from the safety of our home and headed into the storm, I said a silent prayer that my colitis dragon would sleep through the journey – not lash out at me for agreeing to such lunacy.

But that was fanciful thinking. After more than 30 years of living with ulcerative colitis, I know that my intestinal dragon cannot take the stress of any kind – even during a holiday road trip. What was I to do when my determined husband said we would keep our plans to travel north? We had spent money to buy tickets to both a basketball and football game. That meant we were going no matter what.

Colitis fears

Now, I don't care to confess that I'm a weenie. Yes, this scaredy-cat likes nothing that cranks up the boom-bass of my temperamental digestive system. I know better. I've lived with this cranky body for 52 years. And most of these years, I've cleaned up messes of colitis flares – literally.

On the other hand, I married a fearless warrior. He possesses no qualms about driving straight into any kind of "challenge." In fact, he relishes challenges – eats them up like a delectable dinner. Whereas, I prefer to sit on life's bench, quietly twiddling my thumbs, humming soothing tunes with my eyes closed, ignoring any kind of action on life's battlefields.

"Pack your toilet paper."

But right at the start of the Christmas season, my husband repeated, "We’re going to Cleveland. Money's been spent. Pack your toilet paper. We can do this." Oh, boy. Those words, "We can do this," immediately stirred the familiar intestinal rumblings I've lived with for so many years.

So, I packed my beloved Charmin. Not one roll. But 2. Just in case. Next, I grabbed a brand new package of Imodium AD. Just in case.

Two days before Christmas, we headed out from the southern point of Ohio into the windy, icy conditions. The temperature gauge on my car noted -7 degrees at one point. Wind gusts clocked in at 50 mph in some areas. All I know is that my breathing exercises were not helping to calm my nerves.

The colitis dragon begins to rumble...

In addition, seeing tractor-trailers jackknifed on the interstate or cars stuck in the median and ditches, I quickly learned to divert my eyes from these scenes. I couldn't allow myself to envision our car ending up like those vehicles stuck in banks of snow. After 2 detours on back roads because of traffic accidents, my colitis dragon no longer remained mute. He stirred and rumbled, and I knew I was in trouble.

"I need you to stop at the next gas station," I forced out between clenched teeth somewhere past Circleville but not quite to Columbus. The sweat beads formed around my temple and upper lip, which telegraphed its own message considering the negative temperatures.

"There's no place to stop before Columbus," my husband replied, as he turned to look at my anguished face.

"I see a sign ahead," I whispered as I continued breathing in and out, in and out.

UC restroom emergency!

He took the next exit and within minutes turned into the parking lot of a BP gas station. Thankfully, he stopped at the door as I bolted out of the car. We've been married long enough for him to understand that time and distance matter for someone with UC.

My laser-like focus spotted the restroom sign as soon as I walked inside the warm station. But as I rounded the corner to the women's restroom, my eyes shifted to the white bar braced firmly across the doorway with a dangling sign that said in large red letters: "Closed for Cleaning." The female station attendant standing near the door with a mop in her hand studied my sweaty, tight-lipped face.

As I bent over in intestinal pain, I gasped out in despair, "I can’t wait. I have an inflammatory bowel disease." I kid you not! Those were the first words that popped out of my mouth to this stranger doing the task required – her job.

Release the dragon...

Normally, I'm a compliant person. I follow rules and obey orders (or "closed" signs_. But on this day, during Winter Storm Elliot, my UC dragon wouldn't allow me to sit the bench during this challenge. Not waiting for a response from the worker, I ducked under the bar and entered the restroom.

And here's where kindness came into play. The young lady didn't yell at me for "crossing the line" into her work zone. She didn't scream "no" at me. Instead, when I slammed into the restroom stall, she gently replied, "No problem."

In my intestinal pain and travel agony, I knew what came next. I braced myself. In that stall, what would emit from my body wouldn't sound so festive and jolly. So, I first hit the "flush" button to cover up my UC obscenities.

Calming the colitis chaos

Then, more kindness happened. The attendant standing just outside the doorway of the temporarily barred women's restroom began playing music on her cell phone. At full volume, I listened as, "Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock/Jingle bells swing and jingle bells ring/Snowin’ and blowin’ up bushels of fun..." echoed throughout the closed restroom.

It was at this point that I relaxed. Every cell of my body fell into the gentle sway of "What a bright time, it's the right time/To rock the night away." The pain that had built for hours along a treacherous roadway finally released its grip and let go.

Ironically, I could relax into the comfort of a public restroom. And I did. I didn't rush my colon. I knew the dragon needed time to settle.

The greatest gift: kindness

When I finally exited to wash my hands, the young worker stood at the doorway slowly mopping back and forth as she quietly hummed along to the Christmas music.

"Thank you for being so kind, but I might need to come back," I said nervously.

"That's all right. We'll be here for you," she said with a twinkle in her eye. And I knew she meant it.

As it turned out, a trip that should have taken 4 and a half hours ended up taking close to 7 because of the treacherous driving conditions. Ultimately, that restroom attendant offered a gift better than any holiday trip, basketball, or football game could ever give.

During those "closed restroom" moments...

In the end, I don't know that young worker's name. All I can offer is this homage for helping me during an intestinal time of need. Because during many "closed restroom" moments in life, I've learned one valuable lesson: No matter what time of year it is, the gift of kindness costs not a single cent.

For those of us living with IBD, though, it's a priceless offering. Do you have any stories of kindness during an IBD time of need? Please leave a comment or share your story with us.

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