I have now experienced food poisoning three times in my life. Three times is at least two times too many.
Let me start by saying that I hate throwing up. I know that no one actually enjoys throwing up, but I have always found the experience to go beyond being merely a bad physical sensation. I seem to experience throwing up as a kind of mental trauma as well. It verges on existential crisis, meaning I feel as if I will be throwing up forever. I cry a lot. It’s always very dramatic.
There have been times over the years when I’ve felt really bad after eating or drinking something and Jonathan has said to me, “Just go throw up. You’ll feel better.” Just go throw up? To me, that’s like having someone say, “Just take a professional-grade nail gun to your instep. It’s no big deal. You’ll feel better.”
I remember my food poisonings in exquisite detail, perhaps because of the whole “throwing up as trauma” thing.
1983: Sloppy Joe Explosion
My first episode occurred during my senior year of high school. It came as a direct result of my having prepared sloppy joes a little too hastily. Looking at the slightly undercooked hamburger meat I was shoveling into my mouth, I thought, “Eh. What are the chances?” The chances, as I would learn around 90 minutes later, were very good indeed.
I was in a rush so I could meet up with friends later on to aimlessly drive around, smoke cigarettes and other things, and probably end up drinking terrible coffee (unlimited refills!) at the Corte Madera Denny’s* to cap off the evening. Our little group was spread over two cars, one of them driven by my best friend at the time, Johanna. I have a vivid memory of walking down a street and knowing something was wrong with me. The only signs, ominous rumblings in my gut, were subtle but insistent. I tried to keep a lid on things to avoid causing widespread distress or having to cut the evening short. But at one point I broke out into a cold sweat and I guess I’d gone all alabaster, because when I said to Johanna, “I’m going to be in real trouble soon,” my appearance precluded any need for further explanation.
Johanna snapped into action, hustling me into the passenger seat of her Volkswagen Rabbit (diesel!), which she called “Trudy.” The evening was clearly over for us from a social standpoint, although it was just starting for me from a physical one, an odyssey that would end with my having spent so much time lying on the bathroom floor that I had imprints of tiles on one side of my face. Our friend, Chieko, joined us in the back seat. The plan was to drop Chieko off at her house, which was fairly close by, then make haste to mine, which was about 10 minutes from there.
I made it as far as Chieko’s driveway. Not wanting to vomit all over Trudy, I bolted from the car and instinctively headed toward the first source of physical support that I could find. There, in the merciless illumination of Trudy’s headlights, I spewed forth a ptomaine rainbow. Just moments before letting loose, I could hear Chieko’s small, high voice say in a tone of sad resignation, “Oh, no. Not on the mailbox.”
1999: Bombay Barf Fest
My second attack was restaurant-enabled, as was last night’s. I rarely eat out, for lots of reasons. For one, I usually find restaurant food to be overly salted (I don’t cook with any salt and I don’t even give it credit for being a spice — it’s a crutch for unimaginative cooks and a commercial tool for selling more drinks). Also, during the many years in which I suffered from panic attacks (I don’t anymore), restaurants were my primary “trigger venue,” with large crowds and airports a distant second and third. So I just got used to avoiding them in general. Finally, because I’m not made of money, I know how to cook a lot of different kinds of foods, and I don’t think of restaurants as “entertainment,” it’s just not something I care about spending money on. The possibility of contracting a food-borne illness is just one more reason to avoid them.
Anyway. This time we were in London for a visit with family before heading north to Scotland for a romantic Christmas on the Isle of Skye. We were staying with Jonathan’s brother, Rob, and his then partner (now husband), Phil, in their house in the Clapham area. A few blocks down the road sat — for me, menacingly — an Indian restaurant called Bombay Bicycle. We ordered in one night and enjoyed numerous food items. One of mine came with something extra.
As with my first poisoning experience, this one came on with a vague sense that something wasn’t quite right. I got up and took a glass of Alka Seltzer and went and sat in their living room to wait for it to take effect. And take effect it did, although rather than settling my stomach it served to move the inevitable proceedings forward. A wave of nausea hit me and I raced up the stairs to their sole bathroom.
This time around, both ends of of my digestive tract were involved, although fortunately they were tag-teaming. Several hours of alternating purgings later, I collapsed into the guest room bed, where I stayed for two days. When I wasn’t in bed I was monopolizing their bathroom. They were so nice to me. The only thing I remember about those two days is reading Into Thin Air, John Krakauer’s account of death on Mount Everest, and thinking, “Well, this actually sounds a little worse than what I’m going through.”
2011: Don’t Order the Duck
While last night’s ordeal didn’t feature the socially distressing dimension of my first bout, nor the extended misery of my second one, I think it was probably the worst of the three. If you don’t have a strong stomach, then you should probably stop reading now.
Have you ever thrown up onions through your nose? I have. It’s not fun. Nasal expulsion of vegetables was just one of the new and novel experiences I had last night. We had dinner with my father and stepmother, who are moving into a new place on 92nd Street, and a couple of their friends whom we know very well from having spent many a similar evening over the years. It was a good time. But I should have had the coq au van.
We came home and went to bed. I felt okay at that point. An hour later, I awoke, feeling only a primitive drive to get to the bathroom as quickly as possible. There was no prior warning this time. I didn’t even know what was wrong. Just that I needed to be in the bathroom. What happened next is a blur. I was not even awake, but I was aware of having a lot of trouble breathing and swallowing. Next thing I knew, my dinner was all over the bathroom rugs. I don’t know how it got there, but it seemed to be coming from my nose.
Why couldn’t I throw up the normal way? I still don’t know. Instead, an evening’s worth of cheese, snails, duck and vegetables — mixed with what felt like hydrochloric acid — was being violently sneezed in every direction. But that wasn’t all. My backside was also in on this party. At the same time. The mess was impressive. By this time I was fully awake, and fully horrified.
The weird part is that I didn’t even feel all that nauseated. This was a plus because it meant I was able to clean things up before heading back to bed. I thought that was it, but it was only the beginning. Like clockwork, I was up every hour or so for a new session of involuntary purging. Throwing up was bad enough, but by 4:00 in the morning there was nothing left to throw up, so I got to experience a few sessions of dry heaves. These were worse. Those abated at last as the sun’s rosy tendrils began to light the edges of our blackout shades. But my bowels were now working overtime. Jonathan was up periodically with me, doing what you’re supposed to do — applying compresses, murmuring soothing words, getting the hell out of the way — but what else could he do? He had to wait it out with me.
By 8:00 the crisis had passed and I was able to sleep for about three hours. I’m down over two pounds (yeah, it’s sick that I weighed myself, but I was curious). I can handle toast and honey. My insides feel as if they’ve been run through with the plumber’s snake I keep meaning to purchase. I had to cancel a meeting in Manhattan. I’m in bed, drinking tea and eating popsicles. My sinuses are still on fire. The day is shot.
I’m naming names. The source of my eight hour gastrotorture was a French restaurant on 98th and Broadway by the name of Aloutte. If you go there, the escargot is fine. But don’t order the duck.
*Reading the “reviews” I see that Denny’s remains a haven for bored and/or inebriated Marin County teens.