However, the difference manifested by an ostomy remains so taboo that it horrifies even educated adults. “I would rather be dead,” people say about the prospect of a bag. Excrement is conflated with the stink of mortality, the waste to which we will be reduced after death. For this reason, ostomies generally remain shrouded in secrecy. They are not easy to address.
The fate of Seven Bridges leads me to reconsider the objections of a reader of my book “Memoir of a Debulked Woman,” who was angered by my account of the mortification I experienced after ostomy surgery.
Like many people with stomas, she prided herself on being a happy, productive individual. Ostomies, which relieve terrible abdominal pain as well as recurrent and debilitating diarrhea or constipation, free patients to actively pursue fulfilling goals. My testimony, she argued, would unduly alarm and harm those facing this operation.
Is shame so toxic an emotion that articulating it promotes it? Yes, I concede, shame may be contagious. In an effort to grapple with my shame, I express it and you, recognizing our commonality, catch it. Ought I therefore be ashamed of my shame and stifle its expressions?
But silence can intensify shame, just as shame can intensify silence. On the school bus, it fails to wrest language from bullies who engage in shaming.
Regrettably, unashamed language sometimes also backfires. If a school counselor had instructed Seven’s classmates on his medical state — would he have wanted that? — they might have empathized with him. Or they might have misused the conveyed information to hone their attacks. Perhaps we need more talk in schools not about victims but about bullies whose abusive behavior wards off intimations of their own abiding sense of shame.
In fact, though, Seven’s story focuses my attention on the often invisible burdens of children, adolescents, adults and seniors who undergo temporary or permanent ostomies: those born with congenital birth defects as well as those dealing with injuries or with inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, or bladder, colorectal and gynecological cancers. About 500,000 Americans.