To all of those holding it until you get home, this one's for you.
"I am a 29-year-old man, and I cannot poop in public."
That's Tristan. He's an engaged architecture grad student, he's a friend of mine, and he's not lying.
I've seen him eat a spicy beef burrito from a C-grade Mexican food truck in an Auto Zone parking lot and hold the fiery wrath of his choices inside his body for a staggering seven hours before he was able to return home to his private dump dojo. The entire time he was pulling this stunt, he was quiet, sweating and visibly uncomfortable.
"Go shit in the toilet!" I practically screamed at him after a few hours of this, gesticulating wildly at the bathroom in our friend's house where we were attending a bridal shower.
He looked up at me, pre-tears shimmering in his reddening eyes, and whispered, "I can't."
While seemingly in control of other areas of his life — his relationship, his job — Tristan is a slave to his shit. He feels incapacitated by his inability and refusal to poop in public places, yet while he knows the physical repercussions of that are serious, he feels helpless to change it.
Tristan's not alone. He's part of a huge population of sons, daughters and lovers that suffer from toilet anxiety, or the fear (and sometimes phobia) of defecating or urinating outside of one's personal sanctuary.
People with toilet anxiety express a range of symptom severity, but for some, the fear is not only debilitating, but fatal. Last year, a 16-year-old girl actually died from refusing to poop. She went into cardiac arrest after days of being too scared to let loose the toxic sludge growing inside her.
While the exact number of people with toilet anxiety is unknown, it is prevalent enough to warrant its own organizations, support groups, scientific studies and Buzzfeed articles. So, chances are, you or at least a few people you know deal with this. I, for one, know a generous handful of other people aside from Tristan with toilet anxiety, a few of who were kind enough to tell me about what living with it is like for them. I wanted to hear their perspectives, so I asked them where they think their poop phobia came from, what they're most scared of, and what they do to deal with it.
"Where did it come from? I think it's from when I was growing up. I always had siblings busting in and out of the bathroom. I never quite felt safe and at peace pooping when I knew other people were around. Now, I just can't stand touching the seats. I can't deal with the thought that other people are speculating, "THAT GIRL IS TAKING A POOP," so I chill until I get home or I make sure to go before I leave the house.
Even when I'm home though, I'll pull this move where I poop right before I shower. I turn the water on, then take a shit so no one can hear it over the water, and by the time I get out, all the smell has been covered up by the scent of shampoo and soap.
I fully understand that it's way grosser to walk around with shit building up inside of you and just rotting in your anus than it is to poop in public, but that rotting shit freaks me out even more and I don't want to see or smell it so sometimes I just leave it in there and pretend it doesn't exist."
"I fully understand that if I poop in public, nothing bad will happen to me. The worst thing that can happen is I clog a toilet or someone knows I just pooped. I fully get that I'll never see the people I see in bathrooms again and that it doesn't matter if they smell my poop. I get it intellectually. But when I have to poop, this primal fear takes over me and completely overrides my sense of logic. It's like the poop shame is more powerful than reality. When that happens, I just give in and hold the shit until I'm somewhere I'm sure no one is.
I shit my pants in fourth grade and everyone was terrified of me. That's definitely where it came from."
"This is messed up, but pooping honestly makes me feel like less of a woman. As a female, you're kind of just inundated with messaging that poop is gross, poop is unladylike, poop is animalistic. If I have to poop in public, I definitely do that thing where I hold it until I'm sure everyone is out of the bathroom, then squeeze as hard and fast as I can to get it all out quickly. As it hits the water, I flush. I definitely carry around that Poo-Pourri stuff too."
"I just feel rude doing it. I know I'm subjecting people to the unbelievable stench of my ass, and I feel like that's something only I should have to suffer. I don't know where it came from; I never had a bad experience with pooping growing up or anything … I honestly just think that smelling my own shit made me scared for other people.
There's also some added pressure in the men's room, too. If you're in the stall, you're either shitting or masturbating, so if you walk out, it's automatically certain you've been doing one of those things and it's just too personal and weird a thing to make others be a part of. I'm not trying to share my own love, if you know what I mean."
"It makes me feel like I have control to keep it in until I want it out. I could get all psychological and speculate that it has something to do with my life being hectic, but I've done this for as long as I remember. Holding it in is like a way to conquer your own body. The only time I've ever pooped in public in recent memory was on a 12-hour flight to Paris from L.A. I went when everyone was sleeping, but even though no one was waiting after me when I left the lavatory, I was still nervous someone would know it was me so I pretended to go to a seat that wasn't mine, then snuck back to my own assigned seat.
I wish other people knew they I can't simply "just do it." It's like asking someone with arachnophobia to put a spider on their face."
"For as long as I can remember. I've been overly conscious about how, when and where I poop. Public restrooms, weirdly-shaped toilets, stalls, smelly bathrooms, airplanes, trains and busses. All these are places with have a big fat NO on them for me.
Why? I have no fucking clue. Freud would say there must have been some traumatic experience as a kid that informs this phobia. I mean, I did shit my pants a lot … but that's just what happens to a little kid with IBS and mild lactose intolerance who really fucking loves pizza.
I think it comes down to this preoccupation with not wanting to inconvenience people. Plus, I don't want to get laughed at. Poop and farts are funny and always will be. I think that's just part of being human.
Also I'm "a gay" and part of my erogenous value is having a fuckable "bussy." I think the idea that twice daily this mangina opens up and squeezes out a rank stool makes me feel like a failure. I mean, it's natural, but also I want a dick in there. Who wants to fuck a soft wet hole that's full of yesterday's Chipotle?
The only thing that's kind of helped me is the reality of living in New York City. Living here is a little bit like being a slightly more fortunate homeless person in the sense that you're on the street all the time and basically you are going to have to poop in public because you're always out. If you hold it all the time your intestines will blow up like Hey Arnold's head when he goes outside the Thunderdome.
You are going to have to poop in a Starbucks bathroom. That's just life. The toilet seat will probably still be warm from the rotund Balinese woman in a Sari who just exited with a smile and a raised eyebrow. You will have no way to cover up the stench of your unique intestinal microclimate. You might have trouble flushing, leaving a little stinker behind, floating like a demonic goldfish, ready to embarrass the fuck out of you when the debonair man who is next in line looks at you sideways as you hold the door open for him but … that's life.
Daily, I have to remind myself that we all poop and most of the time it isn't cute like a perfect brown soft serve that collects into a Tamagotchi turd with adorable little stinky wavy lines. Most of the time it throttles out of you like smoke out of a failing airplane engine.
I'm starting to learn that's okay. I still have a crawling fear of other people discovering my turds, of hearing me fart or poop, of smelling my shit or realizing that I totally do poop. But, like Outkast said, lean a little bit closer see those roses really smell like poo-poo-oo."
Aye, carumba. Poop fear is more complicated than I'd thought.
While it's clear that some people's poop anxiety is the direct result of childhood experiences, it also seems like it's a way to exert control, as well as a way to live up to harsh societal standards of cleanliness, femininity and politeness.
It was also pretty obvious from talking to these people that they were entirely aware that their poop fears were irrational, and they understood why someone would have a hard time empathizing with them. They were acutely aware of the health hazards not poo poo-ing can bring, too. Yet, while they intellectually absorbed that, the reality was that the phobia often trumped the logic of the situation.
Everyone poops, and there's absolutely nothing shameful about that process, but it seems some people need a little more tender loving care than others when it comes to realizing this. So, what can we, the free poopers of the world; the unabashed Port-O-Potty destroyers who joyously defecate in the presence of many, do for our more bashful counterparts?
Well, for one, we can suggest our friends and loved ones seek certain types of therapy. Poop phobia and generalized toilet anxiety can be successfully treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotism, exposure therapy and relaxation training.
But for those whose symptoms aren't debilitating, who aren't ready for therapy, or who see their fear of public defecation as just another fun personality quirk?
As Tristan told me, "Please, just let us fart on you."
… I, um, entirely disagree. To me, it's more polite to poop in public in a bathroom that's already smelly than it is to crop dust innocent bystanders with your retained poop toots all day. At least in a bathroom, people are expecting that. Out there in the light of day, getting farted on by someone who's crowning shit is just … fucky.
Yet, I love Tristan. I love the other five people I know who refuse to poop in front of me even though I'm happy to poop on them in front of a packed stadium if they'd so desire. So, aside from being understanding about his batshit bathroom habits, I promised I'd never judge him about farting again … so long as he doesn't care that I wreck his bathroom.