Urine Trouble

Note: This column contains too much personal information. Also, the story’s ending is unsatisfying. Complaints about either of those elements will fall on deaf ears.

A few years ago, I discovered one day that I had developed a strange problem: I couldn’t pee. That is to say, I could pee, but only if I pushed really hard. Even when I really, really had to go, I couldn’t actually do it without a lot of effort.

This was a complete reversal from the natural order of things. I had been urinating several times a day, every day, for the previous 20-some-odd years, and I had never had trouble doing it. Usually, when you have to go, it’s as easy as standing there and lettin’ ‘er rip. In fact, some people go even when they don’t want to, like when they’ve been startled by something, or, in the case of women who have had a few babies, when they laugh, or jump on a trampoline.

Tinkling is supposed to be easy, in other words. The other toilet activity, sure, it’s common enough to have trouble there. The pharmacy aisles are lined with products to help you when you’re constipated. But who ever heard of being pee-constipated? It was crazy.

At first the situation was just annoying. I COULD pee, you understand; it’s not like my bladder was inflating to the size of a beach ball. It just required a lot of work. And one of the unfortunate quirks of human physiology is that if you push the muscles up front, it pushes the ones in the back, too. This meant every time I went to make tinkle, I had to sit down, in case the exertion produced undesired secondary results.

After a few days of this, I started to get worried. What if something was wrong with me? What if there was a blockage of some kind? Maybe I’d ingested so many sugary beverages that the sugar had clotted into a big clump that was now barricading the exit from my bladder, like a washcloth covering the bathtub drain. What kind of exit does a bladder have? I didn’t know much about the inner workings of my body’s systems, but I was pretty sure that, like the Internet, it was made up of a series of tubes. Had one of them become kinked?

I had health insurance at the time — thank goodness I wasn’t one of the 50 million Americans who just don’t care enough about their health to get insurance! — so it was easy to go to a doctor. But I put it off, knowing that I tend to be a hypochondriac. Whenever I have to research a medical condition for some freelance writing job, I always come out of it thinking that I have the condition myself. This has at various times included stomach cancer, autism, and fibromyalgia. Yet I had not done any reading on the subject of pee-constipation, or “peestipation” as I was now calling it, so I ruled out hypochondria.

Finally I went to see a doctor. He was young, probably just out of medical school, and he worked out of one of those giant medical complexes with like 11,000 other doctors, where they all just got out of medical school and haven’t gotten around to opening their own practices yet. I’d been to this place a good pile of times for various reasons and had never seen the same doctor twice. I told the new guy my situation, and he listened and frowned and said “Mm-hmm” a lot, the way doctors do when they want to hide the fact that they have no idea what’s wrong with you. Then he told me to take off my pants, which is something else that doctors always do, even in social situations. “Hello, I’m Jonathan,” a doctor might say to you when he meets you at a party. “Please take off your pants.”

It seemed like a logical thing to do in this particular case, given the circumstances, so I unpantsed, and this doctor — we’ll call him Dr. Icy Fingers — began poking around down in my neighborhood. I’m not sure what he was looking for, but all he found were the usual things one expects to find on the front side of a pantsless man. Having turned up no clues there, he said he was going to check out the situation vis-a-vis my prostate, and he told me in hushed and apologetic tones where that was located. I knew this already, but I didn’t let on. Since I have very little natural shame and somehow lost my capacity for embarrassment years ago, I didn’t care too much about this new course of action. I could tell it was very awkward for poor Dr. Icy Fingers, though, and he did not look me in the eye the rest of our time together.

His excursions into Prostate World also yielded no clues as to the cause of my troubles, so he came up with a new idea. He told me to go into the bathroom and pee as much as I possibly could, saving some in a cup for them to run tests on. He told me to tinkle until I had squozen every last drop out. And then they would go into my bladder manually and see how much was actually left over after I thought I was done. Somehow this would tell them something. I don’t know what, exactly. I think maybe they were just trying stuff out.

So I went and did my business, gave them their sample, and returned to the examining room. Dr. Icy Fingers explained that he would not be doing the bladder-draining himself; I gathered that such a task was beneath him, and I think he was still a little uncomfortable around me since our stroll down Prostate Boulevard. Instead, he brought in two nurses, both female lady types, to do the job, and he left the room. The nurses were professional and prepared. Their chief implement? A catheter, which is something I had no prior experience with. They were going to use the catheter to extract whatever was still sloshing around in my bladder.

Now, I don’t know who invented the catheter, but I’m pretty sure it was someone who was completely unfamiliar with male anatomy. A nun, perhaps, or Jodie Foster. The urethra is a very narrow tube, while the catheter is a very wide tube. I saw the catheter, and I saw what the nurses planned to do with it, and I thought, “What? Are you kidding me? You think that’s going to fit? I’m flattered that you think I have such a roomy urethra, but seriously, ladies.” It was going to be like shoving a hot dog into a drinking straw.

I understood now why this was a two-nurse job. One nurse had to hold me still while the other nurse jammed the catheter into a place that, while not the one normally associated with the expression, is indeed a place where the sun does not shine. If you’re keeping score, this was two non-sunshiny locations that had been breached so far today. And it was only 10 a.m.!

The nurses were successful in wringing quite a bit of urine from my supposedly empty bladder, which made me feel a little embarrassed, like when you thought you’ve cleaned your room and then your mom moves the nightstand to reveal a cache of dust bunnies. (Prostate exam, I don’t care. Finding urine in my bladder, I’m embarrassed.) This meant that not only did peeing require a lot of effort from me, but even when I did it, I wasn’t doing it right. I was a man who couldn’t even pee correctly, and that’s just sad.

The doctor conferred with some of his colleagues, and everyone was baffled. The urine tested negative for every disease they could think to test it for, and yes that includes all STDs thank you very much. Eventually they concluded that I should get a CAT-scan. The next available free time on the CAT-scan machine was several days hence, and by that time — after two weeks of bothering me — the problem had gone away on its own. I still went in for the CAT-scan, though, because hey, free CAT-scan. But what had been the source of the trouble? Why did it come on so suddenly, and go away just as quickly? More importantly, why couldn’t the doctor have turned up some legitimate cause for it, thus providing this story with a better ending?

Yes, I know catheters can be used on women, too, and that women's urethras are no bigger than men's. But if I'd acknowledged that in the column, I couldn't very well have made the Jodie Foster joke, now could I?

The crack about not caring enough about your health to get medical insurance is a response to someone who posted a comment on my review of the movie "Sicko" in which he said that he has health insurance because he cares about his health, and that he doesn't believe the 50 million Americans who don't have insurance care about theirs. Or at least they don't care as much as he does. Either way, it was a hilariously stupid thing to say, considering all the reasons other than "I don't care about my health" that a person might have for not having insurance.

I really do wish this story had a more entertaining ending. At least finding out what my ailment had been would have provided some closure. To this day I don't know what it was, though I eagerly look forward to the comments readers will post telling me what they think it was.

A friend of mine has said before that his mother, the bearer of several children, cannot jump on a trampoline without wetting herself. That always struck me as an odd bit of trivia. I mean, how often do you find yourself jumping on a trampoline anyway? When I called my friend to confirm this bit of lore, I talked to his wife, who is pregnant right now with their fifth child (and who is also my friend), and she said she's the same way. No trampolines for her, thank you! Then, in the course of the conversation, before I'd even told her what I was writing about, she said that recently she hadn't been able to pee without exerting a lot of force -- the exact same problem I'd had! Except that hers is probably pregnancy-related, whereas mine was not. But still! It's like we're soulmates or something.

Oh, and in case you missed it: the source of "a good pile of times."