Poop friends have a close bond and can be traced through history : Invisibilia Sh*t happens. So why is it so hard to talk about? This week, the ways that poop divides and binds us in our friendships.

Poop Friends

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1050050716/1050059739" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KIA MIAKKA NATISSE, HOST:

From NPR, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Kia Miakka Natisse. And today with me is producer Abby Wendle. Hey, Abby.

ABBY WENDLE, BYLINE: Hi, Kia. So you know Tracy Clayton - right? - the writer and podcast host.

NATISSE: Yeah. Love Tracy.

WENDLE: So I called Tracy up because we're doing a season on friendship. And as far as I can tell, Tracy coined the term for a very particular kind of friendship.

TRACY CLAYTON: Poop friends.

(LAUGHTER)

NATISSE: Poop friends - never heard that. What's a poop friend?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: Well a few years back, Tracy says she was talking with someone, and somehow this topic came up. And the person that she was talking to had never heard of this either.

CLAYTON: They were like ew, what do you mean a poop friend? And I'm just like, it's somebody that you talk about poop with. What do you mean? Everybody needs a poop friend. You got to have a poop friend. And they were like, no, that's actually an odd thing. That does not exist. And I was like, I wonder if this is a me thing. Is this, like, a phenomenon thing? Do other people have poop friends?

WENDLE: So, you know, Tracy did what any self-respecting millennial would do. She asked Twitter.

CLAYTON: Trying to do some various scientific research, of course.

WENDLE: She tweeted, everybody has a poop friend - right? - the friend you can talk about your poops with. Tag your poop friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

WENDLE: And the tweet - it went, like, a little viral - not, like, pandemic-scale viral, but a good-stomach-flu-passed-around-the-office viral. Is it too early for a pandemic joke?

NATISSE: I don't know. We'll find out (laughter).

WENDLE: Anyway, Tracy's tweet - it got, like, more than 2,000 likes. Hundreds of people replied, tagged folks.

NATISSE: Oh, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: And I just want to show you this Twitter thread.

NATISSE: OK. Oh, my gosh. Someone said they've got a poop clan.

WENDLE: Yes.

NATISSE: Someone married their poop friend.

WENDLE: There are several poo-posals (ph).

NATISSE: People asking their friends to be their poop friend.

WENDLE: Some people get really specific. One person said that, like, extra special dairy-related conversations are for @Lindbergh, to which @Lindbergh replies, like, I just went to go get a three-scoop bowl of ice cream. I also just installed a bidet...

NATISSE: Oh, my God.

WENDLE: ...So this should help with lactose-induced cleanup.

NATISSE: So graphic (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: So do you have a poop friend? Do you have a poop clan, Kia?

NATISSE: You know, I don't talk to all my friends about poop, but I do talk to a lot of my friends. We also use this video chatting app to, like, keep in touch with each other, and it's not unusual for someone to send a video from the toilet.

WENDLE: No.

NATISSE: Like, it's very normal. It's just the four of us in this chat, but it is extremely normal, like, very normal for someone to do that. (Laughter).

WENDLE: Do they talk about what they're doing on the toilet? Like, or is it just...

NATISSE: On occasion, yes.

WENDLE: (Laughter).

NATISSE: They are, like - they are really open women.

WENDLE: So there you go. That's just more evidence for Tracy, who, you know, when she saw this Twitter thread developing, felt vindicated with the person who doubted poop friends in the first place.

CLAYTON: I was like, yeah, most people do have a poop friend. Some don't, and that's OK. You know, like, we've all got our sensitivities. But I did not deserve the judgment, I'll say - the judgment that I got from that particular person.

WENDLE: Now, it's worth reiterating, this was not a scientific survey. And some of the people on the Twitter thread were explicit about their desire to not talk about poop with their friends. I did an informal office poll that backs that up. Some of our colleagues were like, what are you talking about? I do not have poop friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: But lots of our colleagues, including me - though, never over video - do discuss the doo-doo (ph).

NATISSE: Oh, my gosh.

WENDLE: So today, that's what we're going to dive into - poop and friendship - in part because it makes us laugh, like a good friend, but also because, you know, poop talk can be taboo. How can talking about it anyway, sharing these private unmentionables, bring us closer together as friends and maybe even push all of us a little bit forward?

NATISSE: That's a lot to digest.

WENDLE: (Laughter).

NATISSE: Let's get into it.

WENDLE: So I want to start with a story that raises the question, what do you do when you think you have a poop friend and it turns out that you don't? That happened to a woman who I'm going to only identify by her middle initial, V.

Because why? Like, why...

V: Why the great lengths to preserve my identity over this extremely important issue?

WENDLE: Yeah.

V: I didn't want to be the poop girl.

(LAUGHTER)

V: Or, like, I didn't want - I didn't want to un-anonymously be the poop girl.

WENDLE: About a year and a half ago, early 2020, V was delighted to feel herself being drawn into a deeper friendship with somebody who had just been an acquaintance. It was the beginning of the COVID pandemic. They both lived alone. And after talking about it, they agreed to be in each other's bubble. So a couple nights a week, V's friend would invite her over for wine and pasta or roasted chicken and broccoli.

V: We would argue about the fact that he liked his broccoli a lot more crispy than I liked mine, so he would take my half out like 20 minutes before his was done so that we would have the ideally roasted broccoli on both sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: After dinner, they would sip tea and talk and talk. They liked to analyze themselves and each other, dissect things like why they were the way they were and how that showed up in their relationships.

V: He had gone through a breakup, and then I also was coming out of a long relationship. And so I think, like, talking about some of that stuff maybe brought us closer together.

WENDLE: But the moment V realized just how close they were getting came when she had to get her wisdom teeth pulled and she needed somebody to pick her up from the dentist.

V: I remember I was, like, kind of debating, like, should I ask him or not. And I was like, hey, like, you know, would you mind picking me up and maybe, like, staying with me a little bit if I'm in pain? And I remember he told me he was, like, touched that I asked him and that I trusted him to do that.

WENDLE: The procedure went - a couple of crunches, a pop, and then V was out on the sidewalk, getting into her friend's car.

What kind of condition were you in? Was your mouth full of gauze? Were you bloody?

V: Yeah, I was pretty bloody, and we just kind of had a silent car ride back because I wasn't supposed to talk.

WENDLE: He helped her inside, ran to the pharmacy to pick up her meds, and he stayed with her until she fell asleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: A few months later, V was back at her friend's place for Sunday night dinner - pasta with marinara sauce and lamb meatballs.

V: And then ricotta cheese and parmesan cheese on top with basil.

WENDLE: After dinner, they settled in with their cups of tea, when suddenly, V felt a familiar knock.

V: I feel a churning. I feel something happening, and I had to poop. I had to go to the bathroom. And so I was like, hey, sorry, do you mind if I poop in your bathroom? He paused a long, long pause. And he looked at me, and he said, aren't you about to go home?

WENDLE: At first, V thought he was joking.

V: And I was confused.

WENDLE: And then she realized he wasn't.

Did you say, do you not want me to poop in your bathroom?

V: I think I did say that. And I think he, like - he basically was like, well, aren't - he just kept repeating, like, aren't you about to go home? I was like, I mean, I guess I am, and I will now. And on the way out, he looked at me, and he was like, should we talk about this? And I was like, yes, but also I have to go right now because, like, I have to poop. And then I was like, we'll talk about it later.

WENDLE: V had a rideshare come and pick her up and drive her the few miles back to her house, where she took care of business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: Which actually - why don't we do that right now, too? NPR's INVISIBILIA. We'll be back in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: So after the night that V's friend denied her the use of his toilet, V says she waited a few days to let things cool off. And then she texted him.

V: Like, tongue-in-cheek, I was like, oh, like, should we talk about our poop fight? He took a day to respond. And then he told me that he did think we should talk about it, but that he wasn't finished, quote, unquote, "emotionally processing it."

WENDLE: And is that the last time you guys talked?

V: Yes. He's emotionally processing it to this day.

WENDLE: And it's been how long?

V: It's been, like, four months, five months.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: Now, we did reach out to V's friend to get his perspective, but he didn't want to be interviewed. So we know we don't have the full picture here - just V's side of the experience, which she says was a blur of confusion and silence and then speculation about why he responded the way he did. She wondered if maybe he was hiding something.

V: Is there something going on with his toilet?

WENDLE: Or maybe this poop fight wasn't actually about poop.

V: What was the real culprit here?

WENDLE: Or maybe he was weirded out by the way V asked the question. Can I poop in your bathroom?

How come you did phrase it that way?

V: I don't know. This is really the - I've been - I've - I mean, I never thought that my choice of phrasing in that moment would result in this much analysis. I didn't think about it. I literally just said whatever popped into my brain. Looking back on it, if I had to really analyze it, maybe it's because we have just always been very, like, open. I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: And this is typically the spot where V gets stuck. Like, she thought and she could tell her friend anything. They'd covered tons of ground - breakups, traumas V had experienced, plus, there was the whole bloody wisdom teeth thing. How could this - acknowledging that she poops - be a bridge too far? Sometimes V would be a total loss. Like, fine. You don't want to talk about poop. But who doesn't let their friend use the bathroom?

V: Like, what? Like, I would never do that to him or any friend.

WENDLE: But other times, V had a different way to think about his reaction. Maybe he was just acting in line with our culture.

V: The shame aspect - we have a lot of shame around that.

WENDLE: Pooping.

V: Yes, pooping.

WENDLE: And here, I want to say, I will bring this story back to V and to friendship. But first, I have to take you down this rabbit hole that I've been calling the social history of pooping. Because I really want you to understand why we have so many feelings about pooping and how those feelings have ebbed and flowed over time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: So yes, everybody poops. But many of us living in the West - especially women - are taught to be ashamed of it - you know, the whole women don't poop myth. And on the one hand, not wanting to talk about poop makes perfect sense because, to state the obvious, it smells bad, and it's gross. Psychologists who study the emotion of disgust told me that disgust seems to be a universal reaction to poop. And there's evidence to suggest that poop has grossed out all humans everywhere always. In fact, it's likely that we evolved to be disgusted by poop because it can spread disease.

But the shame factor - not just not wanting to talk about it, but pretending that we don't do it. I talked with a few historians, sociologists and poop activists - yes, that's a thing - who told me that at different times and in different places throughout human history, pooping has been way less shameful and surprisingly social. David Inglis, author of "A Sociological History Of Excretory Experience," says in Ancient Rome, people actually pooped together.

DAVID INGLIS: The Romans would sit side-by-side shitting. And they'd sit there with their bums above holes, talking to each other, chatting - no sense of shame about shitting next to your neighbor or your friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SARAH ALBEE: Do you want to know what the toilet paper was?

WENDLE: Yes.

ALBEE: A bucket of salt water and a sponge on a stick. And you would just use it to wipe yourself and then put it back in the bucket for the next person.

WENDLE: That's Sarah Albee, author of "Poop Happened! A History Of The World From The Bottom Up." According to her and Shawn Shafner, founder of the People's Own Organic Power Project...

SHAWN SHAFNER: Or the POOP project.

WENDLE: ...Communal pooping was actually a thing here in America, too.

ALBEE: In early America, people were not shy about using the toilet together.

SHAFNER: George effing Washington used an outhouse with three holes in it.

ALBEE: Even in schools - like, little one-room schoolhouses - they'll have, like, a three-seater outhouse outside.

WENDLE: Professor Daniel Gerling, who wrote his dissertation on the cultural and social history of excrement in the United States from 1860 to 1920, says historically, people didn't just talk more while pooping. They also talked a lot more about pooping. In politics...

DAN GERLING: Ben Franklin had an essay called "Fart Proudly."

WENDLE: ...In religion...

GERLING: Martin Luther wrote extensively about scatological matters.

WENDLE: ...And especially, in agriculture and economics.

GERLING: In the U.S., our shit was worth about $70 per year...

WENDLE: Actually, it was more like $50.

GERLING: ...As a commodity. Because the farmers would buy it.

WENDLE: ...To use as manure. The farmers in China...

GERLING: They would invite people in, put signs on their outhouses saying, you know, please come shit here.

WENDLE: Here in the U.S. and in England, people made money by collecting poop inside the city and hauling it out to the country, where it was used to grow crops that were hauled back into the city and sold as food.

SHAFNER: We live in a food-to-poop-to-food cycle. And everything we eat has, at some point, been poop, right? And we ourselves will become food and poop again. I mean, it's just part of a huge, like, food to poop circle of life - very Disney (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: And because of that circle of life, for millennia, instead of being ashamed of poop, we put it on a pedestal.

SHAFNER: There are cultures that have scatological origin stories.

INGLIS: Excrement was used a lot in medical cures.

SHAFNER: It, at different times in history, has been magical.

ALBEE: And the Romans and the Aztecs all had, like, gods and goddesses of dung.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: So how did all of this change? When did we become ashamed? David Inglis says it didn't necessarily unfold in a neat, chronological order. But he points to a dramatic shift in Western Europe around the 1400s.

INGLIS: Increasingly, they don't shit in public. They don't fart because it's all about having a poker face and control over your own body.

WENDLE: This attitude was developing among the aristocracy - kings, queens, members of the court - and, Shawn Shafner says, was inscribed in etiquette manuals that contained instructions on the new way to poo.

SHAFNER: These are really fancy people, and they need to be instructed that, like, don't just poop in the hallway, you guys; we have a place for that now.

WENDLE: Over time, this attitude trickled down from the royalty to the bourgeoisie to the working class.

INGLIS: The working class are being told by those above them, you have to shit in this way. You can't do that. You have to hide away when you shit. You can't just shit in the street - and so on and so forth.

WENDLE: This attitude reached a fever pitch in England throughout the 1800s.

ALBEE: The Victorians were really, really the ones who became super prudish.

WENDLE: The Victorians started using euphemisms.

ALBEE: I have to see a man about a horse or whatever.

WENDLE: They'd already been concealing their chamber pots.

ALBEE: Furniture-makers started making furniture that hid a chamber pot. Like, an easy chair - that we call an easy chair - was a place to do one's ease. So there would be a cushion you could lift up, and you could use it as a toilet and then put the cushion back.

WENDLE: It was also around this time that indoor plumbing became more prevalent, and it was the aftermath of the cholera epidemic in the West, a time when we started to understand just how dangerous poop can be. And that's the world that many of us live in today, the world that V and her friend live in, a world of improved sanitation but also poop shame. And poop shame is arguably why we have poop friendship, according to Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher.

MARLENE SOKOLON: I did actually poke around a little bit after I got your email, just looking to see - did Aristotle ever really actually write about poop?

WENDLE: This is Marlene Sokolon, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal who specializes in ancient political thought. And I called up Marlene not because of what Aristotle writes about poop - he doesn't - but because of his thoughts on shame and friendship. Aristotle thought shame was good for society, a way to prevent us from doing very bad things. The problem is that society sometimes deems things shameful that maybe aren't shameful.

SOKOLON: Why is it that we now think poop is shameful, right? We need to have those kinds of conversations about those very things. That's the place where I think, he thinks, friendship is very useful.

WENDLE: Because with friends, it's safe to be a little shameless, to talk about things you probably wouldn't bring up with just anybody. Poop is only one example. There are lots of things society tells us to be ashamed of - sex stuff, what kind of meds you're on, how much money you do or don't have. But inside a friendship...

SOKOLON: It becomes this place where, you know, you can sort of challenge those community norms, especially the ones that you think, you know, might be, by your community, considered inappropriate, but why are they inappropriate? Maybe they're not inappropriate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: Marlene says Aristotle thought that being shameless, questioning cultural norms, was a big part of what friendship is for.

SOKOLON: The more, let's say, intimate the friendship is the more this can happen, right? And the highest form of friendship for Aristotle is friendships in which you are actually doing that very thing.

WENDLE: In other words, talking about shameful things can bring friends closer together, and those conversations can be the beginning of deeper cultural change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: Which brings me back to V, who for months thought she was cultivating this kind of friendship.

Had you pooped in his bathroom before?

V: Yes, but I didn't realize we were in, like, a don't-ask-don't-tell situation.

WENDLE: (Laughter).

V is of the mind that poop shame is a cultural norm that definitely should be questioned and challenged within the safety of her friendships.

V: I think up to the point where we, like, created good, modern practices around using the bathroom - like, great, that was productive. But I feel like now it's just not serving a purpose other than to make people feel bad about themselves.

WENDLE: She also gets that maybe her friend doesn't feel the same way. And she doesn't want to shame him for not wanting to talk about poop. If he doesn't want to, V says that's fine. What she can't understand is why he won't talk about not talking about it, emotionally process all this with her. For V, that's what has made this whole poop fight about a lot more than just poop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

V: It just has reaffirmed my, like, red flag that if, in any friendship where I feel like the person and I are really close, they, like, make me feel bad for something that's normal and natural. Well, it might not be on purpose. Like, make me feel bad and then, like, we can't talk about it - right? - like, in a way that's just, like, ending the relationship, then it's just sort of reaffirmed for me that that is one of my standards, I guess, for, like, a really close relationship or friendship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: So, Kia...

NATISSE: It's tough. It's a real, like, friendship-ender. It's a little sad.

WENDLE: Yeah, it is sad. So I told Tracy Clayton - aka the original poop friend - about V's experience, and even though she would never tell the friend they couldn't use her bathroom, she did empathize with not wanting to talk about poop in certain situations.

CLAYTON: I have dated people for years, like three, four years, and the subject or the topic has not come up. My body does not perform that function. I don't know what you're talking about. What are these words?

WENDLE: All is to say not all people are poop friends. They don't have to be. And talking about poop does not necessarily reflect a deeper level of intimacy for everyone. It might just be a matter of preference.

NATISSE: That's fair.

CLAYTON: This is a poop person. This one is not. That's fine. We don't have to talk about poop.

WENDLE: Tracy is all about consent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: And it's worth mentioning - if you are poo curious, you're not alone. The historians I talked with told me that recently, they've noticed a cultural shift of people in the West starting to talk more openly about their poop. Some of them even called it a poop renaissance.

NATISSE: All this has just reminded me that I still have probiotics in my purse.

(LAUGHTER)

WENDLE: That need to go in the fridge?

NATISSE: Yes, exactly.

WENDLE: Well, we're about to have break No. 2, which is time to go put your probiotics back in the fridge, Kia.

NATISSE: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: Coming up - the fabulous Jake Arlow, formerly an INVISIBILIA intern, more recently a published novelist.

NATISSE: Woo hoo (ph).

WENDLE: Jake's got a story for us about a magical land she visited, where all of your friends are poop friends.

NATISSE: That's coming up after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: Now we're going to visit a time that's notoriously difficult for friendships - teenage girlhood. Pile on some pooping trouble, and closeness gets even more awkward. Here's Jake Arlow.

JAKE ARLOW: (Reading) The first time I met Cindy, she stuck her finger up my butt.

You have to stop clenching, she told me.

Dr. Cindy Haller was my gastroenterologist. She wore a Bumpit clip in her thick, blonde hair and had the efficiency of a woman who had started her medical training at 16 years old.

I need to check for rectal bleeding, so relax.

(SOUNDBITE OF BREATHING IN AND OUT)

ARLOW: (Reading) Cindy modeled sucking in a big breath of air and encouraged me to do the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: (Reading) I tried to relax but the idea of her shoving her finger back up my butt made me clench more. We're clenchers, us Arlows, my dad told me later when I regaled him with the details of my appointment. We clench.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: I was 12 when I was diagnosed with Crohn's, a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the digestive tract, which explained the symptoms I'd been having for years. My stomach hurt. I was groggy and nauseous. Everything I wanted to eat made me sick. And I had no way of explaining any of this to my friends. How do you tell other middle-schoolers, especially middle-school girls, that you have a disease that centers around the most embarrassing function of the human body? The answer - you don't. You keep it bottled inside. Well, you bottle up the knowledge of your disease, not the poop. That comes flowing out of you so aggressively you don't know what to do with yourself.

So after my diagnosis, I learned to hide my disease. I ran out of rooms with little explanation, like Superman if Superman constantly needed to take a dump. At sleepovers, I would excuse myself from floors crowded with sleeping bags for 20 minutes or more.

And when I came back in, I'd tell an outlandish lie, like I got locked in the bathroom, or I passed out on the floor and came to 20 minutes later.

Anything was easier than telling the truth. And it went on like this for years - the hiding, the running, the pooping, the lying - until I couldn't take it anymore, and I spent a night frantically googling keywords such as poop group and poop support. Eventually, I stumbled upon a YouTube video called "A Day At Crohn's & Colitis Foundation Of America's Camp Oasis."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Being at camp, you have people that understand you, especially when you don't have any family members that have Crohn's or colitis.

ARLOW: The video started with an interview from a camp counselor. Kids don't have to worry about trying to find a bathroom or taking their meds, she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And we do what we can to try and make them feel comfortable.

ARLOW: A camp mental health consultant added that at camp, it was normal and cool to have ostomy bags and scars. Somehow, I had found the feel-good camp for people who shit themselves, and I was captivated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You'll get through it. I promise.

ARLOW: Unlike most other suburban Jews my age, I had never been to sleepaway camp. I had friends who returned to school in the fall with an aggressive tan, dozens of poorly crafted friendship bracelets and tales of pranks, s'mores and underwhelming first kisses with boys from the neighboring camp. I wanted all that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: And Camp Oasis seemed like it could provide a comparable or maybe even better experience. It featured canoeing, a ropes course, a 24/7 on-staff gastroenterologist. So late in the summer before my senior year of high school, my mom dropped me off at the bus that would take me and the other kids from Queens and Long Island to the weeklong camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: In the last few rows of the bus, a group of girls who looked to be about my age were loudly chatting. My first instinct was to bolt because I've been scared of teenage girls my entire life, even when I was one. But I steeled myself and made my way to where the gaggle was sitting.

(CROSSTALK)

ARLOW: I quietly plopped down in the row in front of them, praying that they would welcome me into their clique, Even though I hadn't indicated to them in the slightest that I wanted to do so much as talk. As the bus backed out of the parking lot, I felt a pang in my stomach. Not so much an I-have-to-poop but one that filled me with a similar primal terror. It was a what-have-I-done pang, the kind that only happens when you're sitting on a bus about to take you to poop camp, and you realize that you may have made a huge mistake and that it actually might not be all that different from school. And the YouTube video that portrayed camp as utopia had probably lied, and these other girls didn't want to talk about their bowels.

Before I had the chance to fling myself off the bus, I heard, are you an LIT?

It was one of the girls speaking to me.

Um yes, I said.

As is the case for most camps for kids with functioning intestines, Camp Oasis had a Leaders In Training, aka LIT program, for older campers.

Cool. We are, too, the girl told me.

When we pulled into the parking lot of Camp Oasis, the sun was beating down on the fields. And the whole place looked exactly like how I'd always imagined a regular camp - wooden cabins, a lake, lots of authoritative and muscular counselors with whistles and rolled up t shirt sleeves, except that everyone, from the youngest campers up to the counselors, had intestinal ulcers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: As we filed off the bus, the counselors grouped us by bunk and led us to our cabin, where we sat outside on the grass in a circle. Rachel (ph), our counselor, announced that we would take turns introducing ourselves. I wasn't sure how much I was supposed to say. Should I describe the condition of my latest poops, like I did with my gastroenterologist, or avoid the subject altogether? We all giggled as people went around the circle and said their names. It was the nervous laughter of not wanting to embarrass yourself. But here, we already knew something deeply personal about each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: When we were done with this exercise, we went inside to unpack our bags and get settled. Rachel told us we needed to come up with a bunk cheer, a first-day-of-camp tradition. So what should we do for the cheer? Rachel asked, trying to get the conversation started. After an extended silence where we all waited for anyone else to speak, one of my bunk mates suggested we do a parody of the song "Rude" by the band Magic!, which had been billed the song of the summer that year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUDE")

MAGIC!: (Singing) Why you gotta be so rude? Don't you know I'm human, too?

ARLOW: I was skeptical.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUDE")

MAGIC!: (Singing) Why you gotta be so rude?

ARLOW: The girls in my bunk in their short shorts and tight tank tops looked so much like the popular girls at my school, the ones who both frightened and fascinated me. I was certain they would never be caught dead talking about poop. So it surprised me when one of the blonder and more intimidating girls improvised a sample line of the cheer.

What about, (singing) why do I have so much gas?

She belted it out as if that was always supposed to be the line in the song, as if the lead singer of the band Magic! was whispering these new lyrics in her ear.

With the first line established, my bunk mates plotted possible lyrics rhyming gas with class in the inspired couplet, (singing) why do I have so much gas? Don't you know that I have class?

It felt like an alternate universe where the cool girls talked about poop, and everyone followed their lead. It was the best thing ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: Then, as if by divine intervention, I saw a vision of the next line.

What if instead of, (singing) I'm gonna marry her anyway, the line is like, (singing) I'm going to let it out anyway.

Like, gas. Get it?

There was a pause - a moment where I didn't know if what I had said was acceptable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: Oh my, God. That's amazing, the blonde girl who had come up with the first line said.

We're definitely putting it in the cheer.

After that, the floodgates opened. We jumped around our bunk shouting...

(Singing) Why do I have so much gas? Don't you know that I have class? Why do I have so much gas? I'm going to let it out anyway.

...And decided the perfect ending to our cheer would be to make a bunch of obscenely juicy fart noises...

(SOUNDBITE OF FARTING SOUNDS)

ARLOW: ...Which we did loudly and with so much enthusiasm, it made my cheeks hurt - partly from making vibrating farting noises with my cheeks, but also from smiling.

(LAUGHTER)

ARLOW: At dinner that night, the nurse called each bunk outside one by one to have us take our medication, handing me my mercaptopurine, which was the latest in a long string of medications that hadn't quite worked.

Hey, I also take mercaptopurine, Emily, one of my bunkmates told me.

We're like medicine twins.

She gave me a high five, and we gossiped about the medicine as if it was a minor celebrity with relationship drama and not a potent immunosuppressant. No one at school even knew I took medicine, but here I was having a full-on conversation about dosage and side effects and regular blood tests and low white blood cell counts with someone I had met just hours before. We were fast friends, bonded by a tiny white capsule. It was the first time I had connected with someone because of my Crohn's, not in spite of it.

Cheers, a camper at the end of the table shouted, and we all swallowed our pills.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: For most of the week, my bunkmates and I lounged in the lake, played dodgeball and gossiped in our cabin. We talked about poop and crushes and school, all of it with the same level of normalcy. And then suddenly, it was the day before camp was set to end, and we had to prepare for the camp talent show. As members of the oldest girls bunk, we were expected to put on a showstopper.

What if it's like "The Bachelorette," someone suggested fresh out of the bathroom.

Ooh, I like that, Rachel said.

Soon, we had a name for the show - IBDating - as in IBD, inflammatory bowel disease. Instead of a rose, the bachelor would give a plunger to the woman who had earned his affections. The next night, the entire camp gathered in a large open-air cabin for the talent show. And when it was our turn to perform, our audience absolutely ate it up. We cracked poop jokes and recited our lines and awarded the final plunger to one lucky bachelorette.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: That night, up on stage, sweaty in my camp T-shirt, I got a glimpse of what true friendship could look like and I began to live differently. Like, how recently, I stayed in an Airbnb with my best friend. And after walking in, I shouted, I have to poop, and ran to the bathroom. This bathroom is nice, I yelled out to her. They have three-ply toilet paper. I've become the kind of person who answers my friends' FaceTime requests from the toilet, the kind who proudly announces that I'll be gone from anywhere from five to 30 minutes to poop at a game night. If I fart in the middle of a sentence, so be it.

I've managed to take what I had at camp and bring it out into the real world - a version of myself who isn't shy about talking about poop, who isn't ashamed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARLOW: Back at the talent show, we sat down in the audience after our skit ended, and I looked around. The whole camp was in this room - a hundred or so people - all brought together by this disease that had felt too embarrassing to talk about a week ago, all brought together by poop. I zoned out and missed the beginning of the next skit, but a bunch of third and fourth-grade girls were shout-singing a song they wrote about - what else? - poop. Everyone in the room was cheering and clapping along. For a moment, I unclenched.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BREATH)

WENDLE: That's Jake Arlow. And if you want more of Jake's storytelling, her new novel, "Almost Flying," is out now.

NATISSE: Well, Abby, you've managed to do an entire episode about poop.

WENDLE: I did that, Kia.

NATISSE: (Laughter).

WENDLE: Listeners, if you listened whilst on the toilet, please let us know on Twitter.

NATISSE: Or Instagram.

WENDLE: You really want poop selfies?

NATISSE: I mean, careful of the angle, but sure.

WENDLE: To each their own. And if you're someone who doesn't talk to friends about poop and this whole episode has you squirming a bit in your pants, remember - poop isn't the only bridge to intimacy with your friends. It's whatever things you let hang out in the open, without shame. We asked our listeners to tell us what some of those things are for them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I talk mad shit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: If people saw our messages or heard our voice notes to each other, we'd be arrested.

WENDLE: And they sent in messages about all sorts of things society makes us feel ashamed of or embarrassed about and how talking about those things can bring them closer to their friends.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The fact that I believe in psychics.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The size and color and consistency of our phlegm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We have begun to discuss the topic of sex.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: My embarrassing moments, my inner thoughts, and also all those, like, embarrassing - how do I to do that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: My boyfriend of over a year - he has a fairly normal, if not little high, sex drive, whereas I do not share that. And it creates a lot of strife. It creates a lot of frustration. I talk to my best friends about that. It's interesting to see that I'm not alone in this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: What do we talk about with our best friends? How insecure we are.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: The level of depression that I deal with.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: How we feel lost.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: When I dropped Christianity, I told each of my closest friends, one at a time, in one-on-one meetings. It can be very scary and feel like you're jumping off the top of a cliff with nothing but fog below.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Right now, I am ending my second marriage to a man who emotionally abused me almost every day for 20 years. I went back to him seven times. She knew everything and place no judgment on me, but gave me only love and support.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Sometimes, I just need to air my feelings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: They are the people that I feel comfortable being that vulnerable with.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: It's kind of nice to not have to be so mindful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: It's almost a release for both of us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: I love you, Colleen (ph), for all you give to me and for showing me, even though we are different, all we have shared and continue to share and just what true love and friendship is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: That's it. That's our poop show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: This whole thing would have gone down the drain without many talented producers - Travis Larchuk, Adelina Lancianese, Rhaina Cohen, our intern, Pablo Arguelles Cattori, and me, Abby Wendle. And we stole Barrie Hardymon from NPR's newsroom to edit us.

NATISSE: Andy Heuther mastered this episode, and Jane Jane Gilvin and Naomi Sharp kept our facts in check.

WENDLE: Thanks to Beth Archie, Doris Bergen, John Cryan, Dan Fessler, David Pizarro, Paul Rozin and the women of the WhatsApp Poop Group, all of whom talked with me about - what else? - poop. Additional thanks to Alix Spiegel for helping out with Jake's essay in the early days and Rebecca Kaplan from Camp Oasis - also to Brit Hanson, Jordana Hochman, Audrey Pallmeyer, Frances Quinlan, and Jennifer Schmidt for listening. Plus, a huge, huge thank you to all of our listeners who shared with us the secrets they typically only share with their friends.

NATISSE: Brave souls. This season of INVISIBILIA is also produced by me, Kia Miakka Natisse, Yowei Shaw, Andrew Mambo, Luis Trelles, and Justine Yan. We also had help from Micah Ratner and Gerry Holmes. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom, and Nicole Beemsterboer is our supervising senior producer. Neal Carruth is our senior director of programming, and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. Our theme music is by Infinity Knives. Additional music for this episode provided by Stephen Antony Beasley, Elizabeth de Lise, Husked, courtesy of Tribe of Noise, Yung Kartz, Connor Lafitte, Magnus Moon, courtesy of Tribe of Noise, and Solxis.

WENDLE: To see an original illustration for this episode and the rest of our season by Sonnenzimmer, visit npr.org/invisibilia.

NATISSE: Remember to flush.

WENDLE: And always wash your hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: Part of the reason that I'm not really on Instagram is because the only time I've really ever looked at it is when I'm in the bathroom.

NATISSE: Yeah.

WENDLE: But, like, every time I've done it, like, somehow, the camera just turns, and I'm like, oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.