In comedy, as in life, nothing is funnier than the truth. And, nothing is harder to own. By translating my experience into an internal monologue that sees humor first and tragedy second, I never feel like a victim. And even when I do, it’s often pretty funny. Coming to this has not been an easy process, it has involved countless hours theorizing while on the can and smiling my way through numerous colonoscopies (which actually does look a little weird). The only thing I can actually control when it comes to my Crohn’s is how I view it, so I’ve decided to view it as an annoying houseguest who refuses to leave the bathroom.
Here’s how I came to this point of view.
Sometime in the fall of ‘97 pooping became a lot trickier. Previously, I didn’t think much about pooping beyond taking one, and even then it occupied about as much mental space as the price of bread or whether or not I should wear a hat. But then, almost overnight, pooping became the center of my universe. And a smelly universe it was.
I should say now that growing up with weird illnesses was already kind of my thing. The incurable bowel disease was just the icing on a cake so tasteless it had to be funny. I’m almost deaf in my left ear after persistent infections through childhood and a botched operation when I was seven left me minus one eardrum. In the fourth grade, I got herpes in my eye which left me with a scratched retina and the ocular skill of Mr. Magoo to this day. I don’t even know how it is possible to get herpes in your eye; was I practicing unprotected looking? Either way I’m pretty useless on my left side which is the inspiration for the title of my next one-man-show, “Ben Morrison’s ‘Huh?’”
But Crohns was a doozie. Really painful. As I discovered almost immediately, my symptoms involved heavy obstruction and spontaneous evacuation. I figured this out because all of a sudden I couldn’t poo for three days and then couldn’t stop for the rest of the week. (I call these my “evac” days now). If there was a bright side to my diagnosis it was that it was speedy and 20 stubborn pounds just melted away. Jenny Craig has nothing on the Crohn’s Diet. My symptoms were so localized it was clear my ileum was attempting to physically hop out of my body and I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease with little hesitation.
A myriad of medications were immediately prescribed. The steroid Prednisone proved to be the most effective but enlarged jowls are one of its side-effects and my head inflated so big I could have been in the Macy’s Thanks-facing Day parade. As luck would have it, that was the moment they were shooting pictures for my high school yearbook and my sputnik-sized noggin was forever immortalized with a half-page picture. Everyone’s memory of me to this day is as the kid with the 90-pound head.
It was right after this that three things happened. The first was that I moved to New York City to attend theater school. The second was while I was out one night I got rather tipsy and, apparently, booked a stand-up comedy gig. (You think you do stupid things when you drink? I begin whole new careers). And third, my Crohn’s went insane. Just as I was beginning a new bohemian life of hanging out in dark rooms telling jokes about how messed up everybody else was, my messed up bits revolted. There was many a finger up my keister that summer, I can tell you, and more than a few trips to the emergency room doubled over in pain. (Between you and me, ER painkillers make Crohns totally worth it. At least until they wear off.) I even had emergency surgery to remove my ileum which left me with a lightning-bolt shaped scar that glows when I’m in danger.
I can joke about this now, but I didn’t always understand the healing power of humor. I sort of stumbled on it one fateful night when I was late for a show at a small, underground comedy club on 107th and Broadway called, shockingly, The Underground. Checking the mail on my way to the gig, I opened a letter from my insurance company denying reimbursement for a colonoscopy because it “wasn’t a necessary procedure.” I was so pissed off about this insane logic that on stage that night I told the audience my insurance company thought I was just sitting around really bored thinking like, ‘You know what? I haven’t seen the inside of my own ass in awhile, and I got $5000 layin’ around. Let’s go get probed!”
And the audience laughed. But they weren’t laughing at me, they were laughing with me. I had opened up a public dialogue about my disease, but because I did it in comedy club they saw the funny first and the sad second. After the show three of the people in the audience approached me wanting to talk about Crohn’s because they had close friends or relatives who had it. Maybe I was on to something here, I had turned my disease into a joke and the sicker I got, the more material I’d get. It was a cosmic sign, the moment I knew my purpose was to find humor in a disease that would forever affect what comes out of my bottom. After all, my initials are BM.
It was time to get writing. My cousin Jesse also has Crohns. He’s extremely funny and was also living in New York City at the time so together we expanded the colonoscopy joke to write more material about life with Crohn’s. Jokes about how when you’re obstructed you ‘hulk it out,’ meaning you have to push so hard on the toilet you look like the Incredible Hulk. Or how it’s amazing that they’ve invented robots that perform brain surgery but they still can’t invent a hospital gown that doesn’t show your butt to the world. (I’ve come to believe that if the entire waiting room hasn’t seen your butt, the tests just won’t work.)
The jokes were plentiful and cathartic and “Pain in the Butt,” our Crohn’s-tastic, one-man opus, had been squeezed out of us.
Renting a rat-infested (yes, actual rodents) theater on St. Marks Place, we staged our first run. We marketed the show with the same precise planning we’d used to create it, which is to say, I blindly walked into the national headquarters of the Crohns and Colitis Foundation to promote the show going into random offices, dropping off flyers and saying, “I’m Ben Morrison, I have Crohn’s and I think it’s funny.”
There were more than a few confused faces and none of the top brass showed up at the show, but a couple young interns did and they loved it.
Turns out, people with uncontrollable bowel disease need a laugh as much as they need a toilet.
What happened next was nothing short of phenomenal. We taped a performance and the DVD began selling all over the world. (Because I was personally manufacturing and shipping all of the DVDs, as well as performing in them, some shipments took an embarrassingly long time to arrive. Crohn’s patients put the ‘patient’ in patient.)
I then began getting requests to perform “Pain in the Butt” based solely on word-of-mouth as the DVD circled the globe. I did a national tour. I was asked to come to London. Then Canada (which, surprisingly, has more Crohns than anywhere else. Go figure.) I even performed at the ultra-clinical Digestive Disease Week, which you might not think of this as a hotbed of hilarity. But I can tell you that during Digestive Disease Week the convention center in Atlanta was an veritable intestinal festival, complete with a guy dressed as an enema and someone hocking “Discount Colonoscopy Scopes”. Seriously guys, if it’s going up my butt, splurge.
As I continued to travel and share my story with anyone who would listen, I gave my email address to anyone who needed me to listen to them too. The responses were as numerous as the trips to the toilet that inspired them. Fathers who were lying to their families about why they couldn’t stop crapping for fear of seeming weak, young men and women writing from the hospital so desperate to feel human again that they Googled “Crohns + comedy” and found me. While all the stories were unique, the common thread was that everyone was suffering in silence and going a tad crazy as a result. I still get these letters and every time I get one I eagerly write back with a smile asking how they’re doing with the pooing. Often they tell me that what they needed more than medicine was a good laugh and the humor allowed them to open up even when their intestines wouldn’t.
As I look back on the progression of the “Pain in the Butt” movement (yes, movement) there are certain milestones that stand out in my quest to find funny in foul. Camp Oasis, which I visited three years into performing “Pain in the Butt,” is one of them.
Camp Oasis is a Crohns and Colitis Foundation-run summer camp for kids so affected by IBD that regular camp isn’t an option. They have a full-time medical staff and triage center for kids who flare unexpectedly in addition to having a myriad of sports and craft activities you’d see at any camp. The CCFA brought me in as a volunteer to perform and teach improv classes. It was a startling eye-opener.
As I was lucky enough to get diagnosed in my late teens I had my growth spurt by the time Crohn’s belly-flopped into my life, but the kids at Oasis had early-onset Crohn’s and their bodies were struggling to retain enough nutrition to grow properly. Many of them looked years younger than they actually were, and some had feeding tubes going right into their stomach. But they were all so funny. Maybe it’s the culture of humor these kids were growing up in but the poop jokes I heard flew fast and loose. One camper even made me a diarrhea diorama in art class, complete with puffy-paint poo. It was gorgeous. The kids were so vibrant I knew each one had a story to tell, that I wanted to hear. So I went back to the Underground.
After playing improv games and performing some of “Pain in the Butt,” I sat cross-legged among them and asked that they get up one by one, alone, to share their most embarrassing Crohn’s story. The counselors looked at me nervously, as if I’d farted at the opera. But they let it slide hoping I knew what I was doing (I kinda didn’t).
At first no one raised their hand, but eventually one boy did and then slowly slipped into a story about crapping himself in front of the whole school at basketball tryouts. He was nervous at first but once he got his first laugh it was clear that the more embarrassing the story, the more laughs it would get. Now everyone wanted to go. One kid whom the counselors were worried was too quiet got up there and told a story about showering a persnickety teacher with the contents of a bursting ostomy bag when she wouldn’t let him go to the bathroom. The audience went nuts! It was the funniest thing they ever heard. He went from not being able to speak to doing stand-up comedy about his external colon. Turns out frustration and a Micraphone are a powerful thing.
And that brings me back to where we started. Through the years of doing “Pain in the Butt” and the thousands of patients I’ve been lucky enough to meet, I’ve seen over and over the miraculous healing power of laughter. I’d go so far as to say that laughter is a healing mechanism built into all of us over millions of years of evolution. We’re supposed to use humor in times of hardship because it always makes us feel better. And why not? It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a co-pay.
laughter is especially important when it comes to Crohn’s. Let’s face it. To talk about Crohn’s, you have to talk about what comes out of your butt. That’s kinda hard on a first date but I’ve made it work for me because, wait for it, I just don’t care. Instead of building a cathedral of shame around a disease I didn’t ask for, I own it like a pair of high-priced designer jeans. Within a couple minutes of meeting me, if we veer anywhere near the subject of food or the bathroom, you’ll know I have Crohn’s within moments because I will have made you laugh about it. I’ll tell you to use the bathroom before me because the smells I make could kill a dragon, and sometimes have.
So thats why, 10 years later, I’m still spreading the message of healing through humor. People with IBD need to understand that they have something which no one else has, their story. While certain aspects are hard to discuss, there’s nothing worse than an untold story and I urge my readers to try owning it with a smile. If you approach your Crohns from a place of laughter, it will instill laughter in those around you. After all, pooping is funny. I think I’ll go take one right now.
And I bet that made you laugh.