I am sick. And I hate saying that because it doesn’t really feel true. I don’t consider myself a sick person, but the thick file of medical bills, office visit summaries, and test results from the last year indicates otherwise.

I am 26. I’m supposed to be young and healthy.

People put a lot of time, energy, and money into learning how to be healthy. For me, health classes were required in middle school, high school, and college. There are the basics: eat right, exercise, get an annual physical, go to the dentist, take your vitamins. You’ve probably also learned about first aid, alcohol abuse, and birth control (well, my Catholic high school had “morality day” instead of sex education).

Everyone wants to teach you how to be healthy, but no one teaches you how to be sick: How to cope with the guilt, depression, and frustration that often accompany illness. How to navigate work and socializing when your body is screaming at you to stop. How to navigate the complex U.S. health care system. How to handle the even more complicated nightmare that is health insurance. How to simply exist in the world as a person with a chronic illness.

In person and on social media, I affectionately refer to it as “the gallbladder situation.” The TL;DR is that my gallbladder was wrongfully terminated, so the rest of my digestive organs have gone on strike.

In November 2017, I took a road trip with my partner, Tony, from Virginia to our home state of Oklahoma to visit family. Right before we were going to be going back home, my best friend, Anna, texted me to say they had a stomach bug. Given that Anna and I had spent the entire previous week together, slept in a bed together, and shared each other’s food, I was worried. Tony and I had over 20 hours in the car ahead of us for the drive back to Virginia, and I paid attention to every little twinge, ache, and chill in my body. Saturday went by with no issues. On Sunday, I wasn’t as lucky.

I threw up six minutes away from our apartment. Tony didn’t even have time to stop and pull over. I hurled into a Target bag in the back seat while we were smack-dab in the middle of a six-lane highway (peak millennial). I was sick for three days after that with what we figured was food poisoning because my friend had it too.

One year later, I am still sick and will likely be sick until I’m… just not sick anymore.

But two weeks later, again on a Sunday, the exact same symptoms returned. Tony drove me to the only open urgent care in Arlington, but without radiological imaging, the physician assistant couldn’t give me a diagnosis. He warned me though: “I want your threshold for going to the ER to be very low. If the pain gets any worse,” he paused and looked at me directly, “gets any worse, you need to go to the emergency room.”

Two hours later, I checked into the emergency room. After an ultrasound and CT scan, the ER doctor came back with an answer to why I was having such severe abdominal pain: gallstones. With an abnormally high white blood cell count, I needed emergency surgery to remove my gallbladder.

Relieved that I had an answer to my stomach woes, I muttered to Tony: “Could be worse.”

“I’m an ER physician. It could definitely be worse,” the doctor quipped.

The surgery itself went well; a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, while still major surgery, is relatively simple. I emerged with four incisions: three diagonally down the right side of my abdomen below my ribcage and another under my belly button.

That was Dec. 11, 2017. One year later, I am still sick and will likely be sick until I’m… just not sick anymore.

I’ve been pretty healthy for most of my life. I got all my vaccines as a kid. I’ve never had the chicken pox or broken a bone. I get a flu shot every year. I take vitamins. I drink enough water. I don’t exercise as much as I should, but who does? (To quote Parks and Recreation, “Jogging is the worst, Chris. I know it keeps you healthy, but God, at what cost?”)

At some point or another, all of our bodies betray us, which is why it is so important to talk about the stuff you might otherwise consider gross and private.

What was supposed to be a simple surgery and recovery has snowballed into something much uglier. People who have their gallbladders removed generally experience some sort of digestive disruption in the weeks or months following surgery. Symptoms include abdominal cramps and tenderness, bloating, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. I’ve experienced at least a few of these symptoms every single day for the last year.

I’ve vomited at work, on the bus, in the McPherson Square Metro station, at Tony’s parents’ house, and in an Aldi. I hurled at least once every morning for the first four months of 2018. I vomited twice on our trip to Germany. This morning, I threw up in the shower. As of today, I’ve lost about 50 pounds without trying. My life exists in a weird gray area between not sick enough to not work entirely but sick enough that my sick leave balance hovers at a perilous low.

What’s wrong with me, you ask? That’s a great question.

My friend Anna is the closest thing I have to a sibling. It’d be no surprise to anyone who knows us that we would get food poisoning together, but a real surprise came about a week after I had the gallbladder surgery. Anna also started having stomach troubles again, and urgent care also told them to go to the ER. The diagnosis? Gallstones. So Anna had surgery too.

Do Anna and I have a cosmic connection so deep that even our internal organs operate on the same wavelength? Possibly. That’s just one idea. There are many theories about what caused the Great Organ Revolt of 2017-18.

While we’ll never know for sure, my new gastroenterology specialist’s opinion seems to make the most sense right now: She thinks Anna and I did, in fact, have some kind of stomach bug after Thanksgiving. But whatever infection I’d had coupled with major abdominal surgery less than two weeks later probably damaged something in my digestive system. The specialist suspects I might have rapid gastric emptying or the opposite, delayed gastric emptying, both of which can be caused by infection and abdominal surgery.

Unless I tell you, you’ll have absolutely no idea that I feel like someone is running my digestive organs through a meat grinder on a regular basis.

So, more than a year now after I had gallbladder surgery, I will schlep over to George Washington University Hospital and eat some radioactive eggs while doctors and technicians use a fancy camera to see how quickly or slowly food moves through my system. This might give me an answer, or it might not.

It is possible that I will never have an answer—no aha moment, no official diagnosis, no cure. After an upper endoscopy, a colonoscopy, a dozen blood tests, a barium CT scan, two ultrasounds, three different drugs, bland diets, low-fat diets, more Metamucil than you could find in a retirement home, and a gastric emptying scintigraphy, it is possible that what’s wrong with me is what we’ve suspected all along: I’m missing a tiny albeit vaguely important digestive organ, and my body is just really pissed off about it.

I don’t have any more answers now than I did a year ago. I had gallstones, and I needed my gallbladder removed. That much I know for sure. Most people aren’t this sick for this long after they have their gallbladders removed, but I’m nothing if not an overachiever in every aspect of my life.

Embarrassed” is no longer a word in my vocabulary. Once someone has stuck a camera up your bum, any residual sense of shame flies out the window. At least three of my co-workers have said some variation of “I have kids, so nothing phases me,” and that’s honestly made me feel a lot better. Everyone has a body, and at some point or another, all our bodies betray us, which is why it is so important to talk about the stuff you might otherwise consider gross and private.

I have no words of wisdom or life-changing insight into sickness, but I do have a body that went from healthy to sick with little warning. And that has led me to two very clichéd observations:

  • You truly have no idea what pain, emotional or physical, anyone else is experiencing. If I don’t talk about it, you’d probably assume I’m healthy. I have a decent poker face, and I look like an average, young, healthy, able-bodied human being. Unless I tell you, you’ll have absolutely no idea that I feel like someone is running my digestive organs through a meat grinder on a regular basis.
  • Commiserating feels really good. It doesn’t feel good to know someone else is in pain, but oh man, does it feel good to say, “Same!” Hearing or reading experiences similar to mine has been such a relief—if only to confirm that I am not alone and that the emotions I feel are normal and expected.

We are not alone in sickness or in health. Our bodies are unique, but many of our experiences are shared. It would serve us all well to talk about those experiences more, even the ones we think are kinda embarrassing and yucky.