Madeleine Dunnigan

Writer and editor living in London. Currently working on a first novel and studying the MA in Creative and Life Writing, and recipient of the Isaac Arthur Green Fellowship.


21st May 2020

Scatological Confessions

If I can’t do a shit in the morning my day is ruined. Usually I’m forced up and out of bed by the need, and stumble to the toilet where I sit and purge myself of last night’s misdemeanours. It’s spiritual. It feels like a cleansing, like a new beginning. I emerge lighter, literally and metaphorically, ready to face the day.

When lockdown started I became constipated. I’m not sure if it was the lack of movement, the puddings I ate three times a day after breakfast, lunch and dinner, or the anxiety that caused my whole body to tense, tightening my glutes so they refused to let even a pellet through. All day I had a pain in my lower abdomen and back. A feeling of heavy sullenness which I tried to soothe with more treats – treats, the enemy of bowel movements.

With constipation come piles. People don’t like bring up piles – they are uncomfortable, for both parties. On a road trip through America, deep in the desert where fresh fruit and vegetables are but a memory, in the dark room of a dingy motel, I made a doctor friend feel my piles. I hadn’t done a poo for three days and was desperate. ‘Do you think I need surgery?’ He looked away, a reluctant hand outstretched. If the subject of piles comes up however, most people have much to say. ‘I sometimes get up in the night and sit in a saltwater bath just to get some relief,’ someone confessed to me in the dark corner of a pub. At a party someone else spoke about the pain of having them sutured off and the merits of wiping the other way, his eyes filled with the desperation and relief of one who has truly been seen. I looked at my own once with a compact mirror: small and bulbous, soft and pink, like the fronds of a sea anemone. I am lucky my piles come and go and I forget them until I am suddenly and starkly reminded: during the first weeks of lockdown the toilet bowl was stained red, blood coloured the water and splattered up the sides – the scene was violent, as if a small slaughtering had taken place.

How is everyone else’s poo? Do they, too, feel weighed down and dragged backwards by it? Unable to start that new knitting pattern or plant those bulbs, or make that sourdough starter, because all their energy is channelled towards their bowels.

Sitting. Sitting on the toilet seat specifically. Squatting. Lunging. Weight Lifting. Any load baring exercise. Running. Cycling. Any exercise in general. White Bread. Alcohol. Meat. Dairy. Processed Foods. These are all things that are bad for piles. The best thing to do is to stand up eating lentils.

I started doing a new exercise class which involved half squats and pulses; split lunges and rocket squats. Every time I bent to the ground I thought forlornly of my bleeding buttocks. I started doing the class because I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t run because I couldn’t poo. If I don’t do a poo before I run I inevitably get cramps and am immobilised by the side of the road clutching my stomach in pain.

Then something lifted. I’m not sure when or why but my body started to relax. Going to the toilet became easier, smoother. I was eating fewer baked goods (just one a day) and went for walks instead of squatting in my bedroom. This morning I was woken, bright and early, by the call to stool. It was glorious if a little overwhelming. Afterward I made a cup of tea and stepped into the light, the sun already warm, a new woman.


12th June 2020

On Piss

A couple of weeks ago I made a trip north, cycling thirteen miles to sit at the end of my sister’s front path. On the way back I was desperate to wee. My boyfriend and I paused on the marshes. It was hot and the grass was littered with people and remnants from where people had been. Each time I made my way toward a bush I was intercepted by another desperate traveller. As I looked around me I realised that the ground was strewn with little bits of toilet paper. With the closure of nearby pubs and restaurants the marshland has become an open toilet; UK beaches are left covered in human faeces. I am forced to head into a nettle bush where I squat uncomfortably, trying neither to wee on my shoes nor sting my arse – both of which I manage to do.

My bladder has weakened an alarming amount over the course of my twenties. The urge to pee is violent, intense – how I imagine it is for an over-sixty man with an enlarged prostate. At one point a few years ago I was weeing almost hourly, making any activity that did not allow for a quick piss – cinema, theatre, dinner, walk – extremely difficult. Now, if I don’t drink before bed (goodbye favoured sleepy-time tea, you diuretic tease!) then I can get through the night with only one trip, maybe two, to the loo. Each morning I stumble to the toilet long before my alarm to relieve myself, where I am invariably met with a toilet floor decorated in droplets of someone else’s pee. It is here that I now sit, waiting for the wee to come out of my bladder and looking at the pee between my feet.

I suspect that the deterioration of my bladder muscles is due to overuse at a young age. When I was little, I had an aversion to going to the toilet and would wait until I was bladder-busting desperate to go, clenching my sphincter muscles for as long as possible. Often I would be reduced to my knees curb-side, clutching my groin, my child-minder irate, why didn’t you go before you left school? I’ve read that anal retention in children is a sign of control – a child taking pleasure in holding onto that which she has created. If I was anally retentive as a small child, I am the opposite as an adult. So it was in my twenties that I started wetting the bed. The first time was in a colleague’s mother’s spare room. The second was at a friend’s mother’s sixtieth birthday party ¬– in leather trousers. I wonder what Freud’s theory would be about the presence of the matriarch in both these instances.

As a hot stream of wee hits the toilet bowl I think about the nation’s rush to stockpile loo roll at the beginning of lockdown. About how ridiculous this seemed, even on a practical level – if, in your own home, you run out of toilet paper, surely there are other ways to wipe? But it was clearly psychological rather than practical. There was something primal about the country’s panic purchases, harking back to that crucial stage of development when a child gains independence by learning how to piss and shit properly. What we witnessed was a kind of mass regression, a global return to the anal stage – a desperate attempt at control. And perhaps what we are seeing now, in the parks and on the beaches, is a slippage, a total loss of that control. Anal expulsion.

Speaking of anal, I’ve been sitting on the toilet for too long thinking about this, which is bad for my piles. This is the third time I have needed to wee since last night. Not too bad. I wipe and rearrange myself, careful not to disturb the pissy droplets by my feet and as I do, I have a thought: perhaps I should add my own? Cross the line and start urine warfare. Perhaps tomorrow. I ease open the toilet door, creep back to bed and slip under the covers, thankful for another dry night.