First Health Challenge of 2009: An Ulcer

I suspected all fall I might have an ulcer. I had a duodenal ulcer, confirmed by endoscopy, about 14 years ago. I recognized some of the symptoms, and I mentioned it in regular check-ups with my doctor. However, I didn’t push. Having another endoscopy would have meant missing work when I was extremely busy, and it also would have meant someone having to bring me home because of the anesthesia. With all the hospital-related time the family had put in all year, I just wasn’t in a mood to add to that. And the discomfort came and went.

For some reason, though, last weekend the dull ache and pressure in my upper abdomen and across my ribs became constant. What’s more, even though symptoms from a cold-thing I’d had over the holidays had continually improved daily, I felt dreadful; no energy, sometime-nausea, the sense that dragging myself along required more of me than I had to give.

I finally gave in and went to the doctor on Tuesday. I told her everything. She listened to my heart and my lungs, asked questions, and looked confounded. While I was standing, she pressed the part of my abdomen dead center between my breasts. My knees almost buckled. I asked again whether my suspicions about an ulcer might be true, and she replied that I’d “taken the thought right out of her head.”

She decided to put me on Nexium first and see how that went. If there was no improvement, then we’d look into a specialist and an endoscopy. Fortunately, the Nexium worked extremely well and very fast. So fast that I was a little suspicious. However, I forgot to take it on Thursday, and by early evening the dull ache was starting to come back.

So it’s not an official ulcer, and I don’t know what kind, but my doctor thinks the impact of the Nexium probably confirms the diagnosis. I’m glad I don’t have to bother with the endoscopy. I’ll be on the medication a month; I’m just hoping I’ll still feel better once I stop taking it. Guess that remains to be seen.

I know some ulcers are caused by bacteria, but I’m sure this one is due to stress. I’m not sure why it got inflamed when it did — I wondered if something I was taking for the cold just pushed it over the edge. The big question is how to keep it in check. My job is extremely stressful. It may let up in a few months, but I told myself that all of last year. Everyone around is overstressed as well. I’ve often joked that the job/company was going to kill me someday. I’m not joking now because I do think certain physical responses are manifesting in response to the constant pressure. (Not that family problems don’t have their contributions as well; however, it’s the job that gets the acid flowing.)

I know the overtime and the day-to-day pace impacted my health all last year in a variety of ways. I often ate badly, especially if I’d been too tired to go to the grocery store after working late, then made do with stuff out of the vending machines next day at lunch. Both the bad diet and the stress impacted my blood sugar levels in a very negative way. Aching and stiffness gets worse, sometimes from fatigue, sometimes from tension, and sometimes simply from sitting at the desk hunched over or in weird positions through hours at the computer terminal.

I’d already resolved to put in less overtime this year, no matter what. I don’t know what to do about the day-to-day pace. It’s not a good time to resign, although I often think longingly of freelance copyediting or proofreading. Then the realization of health care expenses and the possibility of losing it when the COBRA runs out rare up like fanged monsters.

A therapist once told me that often ulcers are due to “swallowed anger.” I’ve often felt more overwhelmed or fatigued than angry, but here’s something that makes me really mad: When we had our company meetings about the changes in our healthcare coverage for 2009, there was a lot of emphasis on how WE had to monitor our health and take care of ourselves, as if it was ALL our fault (bad diet, lack of exercise, etc.). No one even brought up the impact of stress — and everyone in my workplace is stressed out to the max, as they are in most workplaces. Companies run their employees into the ground with overwork, then cut their medical benefits — and then lecture those same employees that they need to take more responsibility for the state of their health.

Makes me so damn angry! But anger’s not good for ulcers, so I’m better off not thinking about it. Instead, I’ll take responsibility for the state of my health — and work less overtime.

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