Thunder down under
If you’re easily offended by candid discussions of colonics and bowel movements, you won’t want to read this
As a journalist, particularly as one who writes a lot of first-person stories, the line between my personal and professional lives is fluid and often nonexistent. Everything in my personal life is potential fodder for a story—my wedding, my family, my vacations, my hobbies, whatever. If I do something, I write about it.
But more surprising, to me anyway, are the rare moments when I do something for a story, and it ends up becoming personal. Usually, even when I’m not doing something specifically for an assignment, I’m always planning how to tell the story later, in the paper or to my friends. But every once in a while, I’ll have a moment when I stop trying to experience life as an omniscient narrator, and just experience it as a human being.
Lying on a table, with water flowing into my anus, and reams of feces cascading out the other way, was one of those times.
That was during my first colonic. It was a big moment of letting go. My identity as a journalist flew right out of me along with so much other shit. I stopped trying to think of funny descriptions for poop and just tried to relax and let my asshole go loose. I willed myself to be like a tunnel, or the bed of a bubbling brook, and let the water flow through me and out, taking the sediment with it.
The day before my colonic—properly called colonic hydrotherapy—I stopped by Serenity’s Colon Cleansing, near Bartley Ranch in south Reno, to meet the proprietor, Nadine Marchuk, and to receive my dietary instructions for the next 24 hours.
When I entered the clinic, I found a comfortable, homey waiting room, with a couple of dogs hanging out and a 30-ish, relaxed, shoeless woman sitting cross-legged on a comfy chair.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly, “I think I’m in the right place …”
The woman laughed. “Are you looking for Nadine?”
Just then, Marchuk entered from the back room. “And you must be Brad,” she said, seemingly mid-sentence. “Your timing is perfect.”
She shook my hand and then, without missing a beat, gestured to me and the young woman, “Come on back. I want to show you the results of that last colonic.”
“Are you sure she’s going to be OK with that?” asked the young woman, wondering about the client whose defecations we were about to be shown.
“Oh, she’s a longtime client,” said Marchuk cheerfully. “She won’t mind.”
Yes, within seconds of walking into the place, I was whisked off to a back room for a viewing of a stranger’s shit.
On later visits to that back room, I noticed the polar bear posters and anatomy charts on the walls, the CD player and TV in the corner, and the name of the big piece of equipment that dominates the room, “The Ultimate Professional Colon Cleansing Enema System.” But that first time, all I could notice was the giant tub of crap. It looked like a huge bowl of miso soup with long green strands of seaweed floating in it. Marchuk, wearing gloves, and using what looked like an oversized chopstick, enthusiastically pointed out various features in the bowl: What she called “plugs,” for example, I would call wads of poop. What she called “mucus,” I would call slimy shit. What she called “candida,” I wouldn’t call anything because I was too busy gagging.
Marchuk’s exhortations about the results of the colonic reminded me of some strange sort of divination, as though she was able to tell the future by reading the contents of these droppings.
After a few minutes—it’s hard to tell how long exactly, time stands still when you’re staring at somebody else’s poop—Marchuk led me and the young woman back into the waiting room. A fit and healthy-looking woman in her mid-50s was sitting in the waiting room. I realized as I met her and shook her hand that this was the woman whose feces I had just spent the last few minutes studying. It’s a strange thing to meet someone after you’ve already met the recently evacuated contents of her colon.
The older woman asked me not to use her name in print, but she’s a regular client of Serenity’s Colon Cleansing. She says she has done more than a hundred colonics there.
“Nadine has saved my life,” she said. “I really mean that. Before I came here I felt so crappy all the time. Now I feel 25 years younger.” She went on to detail the many aches, pains, and skin and joint problems she believes were caused by mercury poisoning from a botched dental procedure and subsequently healed by her many colonics.
The younger woman, whose name was Nancy Eakle, had just had her first colonic the day before and was already back for more. She seemed ecstatic about the experience, and her face glowed when she talked about it.
“I felt so good afterward, so light,” she said. “And this morning, when I woke up, I felt so good.”
She had a slight twang in her accent, somewhere Southern but not that far South—Virginia, maybe? I didn’t get a chance to ask, because Marchuk soon came out and beckoned Eakle into the back room for her second-ever colonic.
I was alone in the waiting room. It’s just like any other waiting room, though I did notice a painting of Jesus, and in among the women’s magazines on the table was a photo book with pictures of massive colonics—a sort of “greatest shits” album. Among the pictures of colonics were occasional pictures of baby goats, which Marchuk later said were there partially to break up the relentless sequence.
A few minutes later, Marchuk came back to give me my dietary instructions. She’s 51 and a likable, maternal woman with vivid blue eyes and a tendency to call everyone “hon” or “honey,” “sweetie” or “sweetpea.” Mostly “hon,” though. This quirk grated on my nerves at first—I wanted to call her “dude,” just to balance things out—but after a while I found it endearing. She talks quickly, occasionally mentioning obscure names or buzzwords without explaining them, and often jumping quickly from tangent to tangent. She’s compassionate about people and passionate about colon health.
“Hippocrates said, ‘Until we understand the colon, we can’t understand disease,’” quoted Marchuk, in the midst of a long explanation of the history of colonics that also included references to ancient Egypt, Native Americans and the Bible. She’s a devoted Mormon—and though she doesn’t proselytize about her religion, she does preach the gospel of colonic health.
Marchuk studied nursing at BYU, worked as a Certified Nurse’s Assistant and then as pharmaceutical buyer for various medical institutions. The experience of working so closely with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies made her jaded and cynical about traditional, pill-popping medicine. She left a financially lucrative career, started looking for alternatives and discovered colonics.
She asked that I not reveal the details of the 24-hour dietary regimen she has her clients follow—she considers it a trade secret—but it’s heavy on liquids and fiber, low on meat and nuts. She also suggests that some first-timers do two or three daily colonics in a row. (They cost $75 each.) I tentatively agreed to do two and possibly a third.
I found it pretty easy to stick to the diet. I ate and drank everything she told me and nothing she told me not to. I later confessed to three things she hadn’t told me not to do, but which I correctly assumed were bending the rules: I had one beer, one antacid and one cup of coffee. Not all at once, mind you—that would be silly—but over the course of the 24-hour period.
On the table
When I arrived at Serenity’s Colonic Therapy at 4 p.m. for my colonic, I was a rolling ball of nerves. I was stressed out about half a dozen things—work stuff, mostly—though nothing was stressing me quite as much as the imminence of inserting a tube into my anus and subsequently unloading an undisclosed amount of crap into an oversized toilet bowl.
Serenity’s uses an open gravity system—you poop into a hole rather than having the poop sucked out of you, as is apparently the case in the rival closed pressure systems. Many users and manufacturers of closed pressure systems advertise their systems as “odorless,” but Marchuk thinks odor can be an important indicator of various health problems. Closed pressure systems also don’t allow for the easy-access, everybody-gather-’round-and-take-a-gander approach to colonic analysis that Marchuk favors.
I felt nervous, but my conversations with the two patients the day before also had me excited. I also felt very bloated and full from the diet regimen. I’d already had three bowel movements that day—about one more than average for me—and peed a lot.
Before I went into the clinic’s changing room, Marchuk told me to use the toilet if I wanted to. I peed, and thought I needed to poop again, but it was just a loud, nervous fart. I changed into the hospital gown Marchuk gave me. Then I went into the colonic room.
“Look at the belly,” said Marchuk as soon as she saw my beer gut protruding from beneath the gown. “You’re stopped up. Your body is telling me a lot. People don’t know how to read their bodies anymore.”
The colonic machine looked like a big, plastic table, with a slight decline down toward the wide, gaping hole in the center. From the top of the mouth of that hole, extending out like a single stamen from a lily, was a plastic tube roughly the diameter of a drinking straw but intended for the other end. It had a fresh nozzle, just for me, and was appropriately lubricated. Marchuk told me to climb onto the machine, insert the tube into my own anus and gently slide down just a couple of inches until I could drape my legs over the leg rests behind the hole. She told me to call her when I was ready and left the room.
Now, I’ve put things into my own asshole before—who hasn’t?—but it’s not something I have a lot of experience with. It’s still an unusual enough sensation that I really wasn’t sure I had done it correctly until Marchuk came back in, checked the insertion, and turned on the water.
Yep. There was definitely water flowing into my butt. It felt pleasant at first, but then I felt a piercing cramp in my right side. I needed to release the pressure but was too nervous to unclench my asshole to allow the water out. Marchuk put a towel and hot water bottle on my stomach to help me relax, but it was too much. I suddenly felt feverish and broke out into a full-body sweat.
“It’s too hot!” I moaned.
“It’s OK, hon,” she said as she removed the water bottle. Her tendency to call me “hon” was oddly comforting during the colonic. I released a little—it sounded like a trombone player being punched in the stomach followed by a splash—but it wasn’t enough. I still felt bloated, maxed out on internal pressure.
“I’m going to throw up!” I yelled.
Marchuk was quick to get an emesis basin beneath my mouth. I vomited, mostly liquid, very nasty.
“That’s OK, hon,” she said “That happens sometimes, though usually just with women. You’re the first man who’s ever puked on my table.”
“I kind of figured that might happen,” I mumbled, feeling emasculated. “I puke really easily.”
Seconds later, as if to prove the point, I puked again, this time without the warning and all over the towel on my chest. Marchuk cleaned it up, all the while speaking in a soothing tone. I vomited a third time, but was able to get the warning out in time, and the puke in the basin.
Meanwhile, the real action was happening down below: a continuous cycle of building up pressure and blowing it out my ass. Every time through the cycle, the pressure would be less severe and the blowout more of a relief. I kept waiting for a big single crescendo blowout, but it just continued in incremental steps, closer and closer to ultimate relief without ever getting there.
I laid there, with my legs up, pushing and heaving, and gave birth to crap after crap. Occasionally, the cramps would be too intense, and I’d sit up in pain. Marchuk kept speaking very soothingly, telling me to relax.
I don’t normally think of myself as an uptight person. I’ve got some type-A personality traits, but I’m a down-to-earth guy and pretty comfortable with my body. I almost never feel constipated, and my bowel movements come regularly and often. I poop long and strong, sometimes twisting out foot-long bowl-twirlers. But, man, was my asshole ever tight during that colonic. It would not relax.
I realized it was because I was paying too much attention to it. Every time I would feel chunky soup come rolling out, often accompanied by a sound like a horse neighing into a waterfall, I would notice and think, OK, here it comes, and then it would be like my asshole would hear me talking about it and clench up.
That’s when I stopped being me. I had to turn my brain off, quit trying to come up with nonsense like “a horse neighing into a waterfall,” and just relax, focus on my breath or the cheesy but weirdly soothing new-age music playing in the background. Just relax, shut down, and shit my brains out.
A perfect 10
“On a scale from one to 10, 10 being the worst, I’d say you were a 10,” said Marchuk. She said that of all the clients she’s had—she put the number at 1,000—she’d had only about 20 who’d had as negative a reaction as I’d had. “It’s because you’re so toxic, hon.”
I asked her what she meant by “toxic,” and she didn’t really define it but told me it was caused by a buildup of foreign crud in my bowel caused by my laissez faire diet and drink-and-drugs rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
Speaking of drugs: Immediately after the colonic, I felt a near-psychedelic sense of euphoria I’ve rarely, if ever, felt without the aid of illicit substances. I felt relaxed, clean and happy.
But then, just as with drugs, I had a comedown. A couple of hours later, I felt very weak, shivery and headachey—symptoms, I think, of dehydration caused by the sweating and vomiting and the overall physical exhaustion of the ordeal. I had an appointment for a follow-up colonic the next day, but I couldn’t bring myself to follow Marchuk’s diet. I went to bed two hours early and overslept the next morning.
In many medical circles, colonics are dismissed as pseudoscience, pure quackery, or even potentially harmful.
According to the American Cancer Society, “Available scientific evidence does not support the premise that toxins accumulate on intestinal walls or that toxicity results from poor elimination of waste from the colon.”
“There are many risks,” says Dr. Craig Sande, a Reno gastroenterologist with Gastroenterology Consultants. “You can introduce infections through contaminated equipment. There’s been reports of bowel perforations. You alter the bowel flora, not always for the best. Sometimes that leaves the bowel more susceptible to bad or pathogenic bacteria. There can be pain with the procedure, and, lastly, patients, especially if they have other medical problems, it can sometimes lead to dehydration or actually fluid overload in patients with congestive heart failure or kidney disease. … There’s been no proven health benefits from colonic therapy other than relieving constipation.”
But there have been widespread anecdotal testimonials, so maybe it’s faith healing. Maybe the health results are psychosomatic. In either case, I think Marchuk is a true believer, not a charlatan. She’s diligent about sterilization, and she wants to help people.
From Serenity’s website: “According to Dr. Bernard Jensen”—a leading 20th century practitioner of colonic hydrotherapy and other alternative medicines, and one of Marchuk’s heroes; she quotes him like he was the book of John—“bacterial balance for a healthy bowel is about 85 percent friendly bacteria and 15 percent unfriendly bacteria. Jensen sent off 500 patient samples to a medical laboratory. The lab results averaged 85 percent unfriendly bacteria and 15 percent friendly bacteria—these colons were upside down.”
That, according to Marchuk and other proponents of colonic health is the “toxicity”: unwanted bacteria and other parasites stuck in the colon, as well as chemicals and toxins symptomatic of modern life—from car exhaust, plastics and radiation—stuff absorbed into the body and stuck in the colon, where it thrives and continues a slow poisoning.
I don’t know if I believe it. Probably not. But I’m not one to begrudge someone else their beliefs. Here’s my key risk-assessment test question: Is it less risky and dangerous than driving a car around town for an hour?
My feelings about my own colonic have flip-flopped several times. The experience was fairly traumatic as it happened. But I felt great immediately afterward. Then I crashed hard. But now, as I write this, about 30 hours after the colonic, fully rehydrated and well rested, I feel really good—focused and healthy. I might change my mind again, but I think the bottom line is that I’m glad I did it but probably won’t do it again.
I went to my appointment with Marchuk the day after the colonic but told her I couldn’t go through with it. I was just too exhausted from the previous day’s experience and hadn’t been up to following the diet, either. Considering the fact that my colonic had been unusually difficult, she understood my decision.
I met Mike, 24, a healthy, strapping guy with a recently completed criminal justice degree, who was there getting his seventh or eighth colonic. He was baffled to hear about the extreme sweating, cramping and vomiting that accompanied my colonic. “I’ve never experienced anything like that,” he said, “a little bit of cramping, but that’s it.”
As I was leaving, Marchuk told to me very sincerely, “Person to person, not for your story or anything else, you ought to come back.” It was yet another moment when that line between professional and personal blurred. “Because you’re very toxic, hon, very toxic.”
She again spoke about the importance of colonic health—and with a greater proselytizing fervor: “All diseases start in the colon,” she said. “The great plague of the last days is the colon—AIDS, cancer, everything—all disease originates in the colon.”