Adios, Wretched Hive of Bile and Gluttony

Personification of Bile, with its heartbreaking bitterness, fire, lion’s rage, and organ-gnawing eagle

I’ve been tag-teamed this month by a deadly sin and a medieval disease. I think this stuff is going around, like measles among the uninoculated. So let’s consider this a health advisory.

In my case, the deadly sin was gluttony. And I’m ashamed to admit it took me by surprise. You’d think a fat woman would see that one coming . . . and going. But since moving to L.A. to address my depression and hoarding, I’ve been pretty good—better than I can remember for a long, long time—at making healthy food choices, and losing the bloat has made it easier to be less sedentary. Yet somewhere around the 4th of July, I somehow decided To hell with it. I started the holiday weekend with one ginormous cholesterol fest of a breakfast out with my kids; went on to celebrate my sister’s 60th birthday with heapin’ helpings of marinated tri-tip, a couple of sips of wine (to toast with), and two hunks of lemon Bundt cake knee-deep in sweetened cream cheese icing; and partook in the Friday morning afterparty breakfast of bacon, eggs scrambled in bacon grease, raisin toast slathered in butter, and (yes) another slab of that Bundt cake. The handful of blueberries I sent in to anti-oxidize stood not a chance.

Saturday and Sunday I skipped meal preparation in favor of fast food and frozen taquitos, because it was easy. And ice cream, lots of ice cream, because it was hot. Then on Monday we did a family Disney Death March on the hottest day of the year, and the case of bottled water I consumed (at $3 a pop) did not stop me from ingesting a sausage McMuffin on the way down and a spicy Texas hot link sandwich, a burger, fries, and churros dipped in chocolate sauce at the park. Standing in line with my son for the sausage, I said blithely, “I’m throwing caution to the winds.” What I should have been saying was “O my God, I am heartily sorry.”

And so Tuesday my poor abused gall bladder struck back. Four days of biliary colic and attendant digestive woes, a Dante-esque misery designed to remind me over and over again why sin is sin and how I had no one to blame but myself. It was also four days of fasting, graduating slowly to liquid nourishment, then a week or so of very limited fats and proteins. The pain (like a stitch in the side after being kicked by a mule ridden by Godzilla) and the weakness lasted another week.

I had ample opportunity, during that time of penitential recuperation, to meditate on the medieval disease that both precipitated and was the result of my gluttony. Back when European medicine (influenced by Greek and Arabic philosophy) attributed all illness to an imbalance of the four humours, I would have been diagnosed as choleric–having an excess of yellow bile, the substance produced by the liver to digest fats, and stored in the gall bladder. Putting the gall bladder into overdrive the way I did over the holiday weekend can cause the poor little organ to back up with sludge or, even more painfully, gall stones—a condition still known as cholecystitis after the Greek word for bile, chole.

Medieval physicians also believed that the humours affected people’s personalities and reactions to the world. Those with an excess of blood were sanguine—red-faced, plump, and generally easygoing. Too much phlegm, and you were slow on the uptake, without much energy for anything. Too much black bile (melan chole) led to sadness and a dark outlook. And people with too much yellow bile were choleric—prone to bitterness, cynicism, and outbursts of temper. Sanguine temperaments were hot and wet, phlegmatic cold and wet, choleric hot and dry, and melancholic cold and dry. Treatment of imbalance involved eating and drinking things associated with the opposite temperament, to strike a more even keel. (If you’re familiar with Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, many of the same principles apply.)

Having spent most of my life melancholic until the miracle of meds, choler also sneaked up on me. But looking back, I can see that the bile triggered the gluttony, and then punished it. This was a month of bile and gall and bitterness in the blogosphere, with the Supreme Court decisions on marriage, followed by the Zimmerman trial and its explosive sequelae, interspersed with abortion wars in Texas, woven through with the never-ending thread of clerical abuse scandals and government investigations. Anything I could think of posting was either a reaction to bile or would incur bilious reaction. It made me angry and afraid, and that’s a condition in which it’s very, very easy to say To hell with it. I did it by feeding the ache with grease and sugar, which started as a bad habit and toppled over into deadly sin with my full and conscious choice to indulge it. After that followed on the devils that had been swept, I thought foolishly, away: depression, panic, relapse into hoarding patterns, avoidance of therapy. By no means at former levels of pathology, but there still, dancing in the shadows. Turns out they still have keys.

Like I said, this stuff is going around. The Anchoress Elizabeth Scalia, mired in the same bile swamp, wrestled this month with the noonday devil of acedia. Unlike me, she caught herself on the brink before toppling into the deadly sin of sloth. She did it by asking for spiritual reinforcements—because you can’t be holy or whole alone—and by recognizing the vital importance of good health habits: regular prayer, Adoration, confession, the Eucharist. I had let all those things slide, too, living in bileville. As much if not more than good nutrition and exercise, they’re the prescription offered us at no co-pay by the Great Healer.

So I ask you to reinforce me in my spiritual recovery. Hold me accountable. And together, let’s put out a health advisory on bile avoidance. One of the worst complications of choler, physical or spiritual, is jaundice, which first shows up in the eyes. Steeped in bile, we can’t see the world as it is. Everything is bitter, gassy, nauseating. Let’s blow this wretched hive. Let’s look at the world as God, who is perfect balance, does—as a way home to him. Let’s look at it as Pope Francis, who can enter the hell of the favela and laugh, does—as a teeming mass of joy from which hope is never absent.

Bile is vile. Let’s fast from it. Starting now.

  • Lori

    Thank you for your honesty, Joanne. This was an inspired piece.


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