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Interview with Tim Phelan


Tim Phelan grew up outside Manhattan in the suburbs of New York and Connecticut. In 1988, he graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia with a double major in economics and French. Tim’s ambitious plans for global conquest took a sudden, unwelcome detour, when he experienced his first terrifying symptoms of what would eventually be diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
 The next fifteen years were filled with anxiety as Tim faced the daunting daily challenge of trying to simultaneously conceal and conquer his mysterious, embarrassing medical condition before it sabotaged, among other things, his chances of holding onto lucrative jobs and promising romantic relationships.
 These days, combining his professional sales background with his stand-up comedy training from the San Francisco Comedy College (yes, there is such a place), Tim has turned his focus toward actively raising awareness for irritable bowel syndrome.
 Tim recently moved from San Francisco back to the East coast, where he currently resides in a three-bathroom townhouse outside of Philadelphia.


 Romance, Riches and Restrooms by Tim Phelan
What could possibly be worse than being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on a California freeway and realizing that your irritable bowel syndrome is kicking in full force with no restroom options in sight?  How about having the girl of your dreams, who is unaware of your condition, in the seat next to you?
 This, as well as many other equally embarrassing situations are detailed in Tim Phelan’s book, Romance, Riches, and Restrooms.  A Cautionary Tale of Ambitious Dreams and Irritable Bowels.
 Set amid the rigid expectations of a polite society where mentioning bodily functions is taboo, Romance, Riches, and Restrooms is a tragically hilarious memoir about one man’s desperate quest to conceal and conquer irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) before he becomes a penniless hermit.
 Follow the offbeat odyssey of this buttoned-down bachelor as he struggles to navigate the high-pressure world of investment banking and the image-conscious San Francisco dating scene while secretly experimenting with alternative treatments such as colonic hydrotherapy, hypnosis, building “dams,” and “avalanche blasting.” Will this excessively regular guy find happiness?
 Romance, Riches, and Restrooms is a humorous, informative and heart warming read about an ailment that affects 58 million Americans and is the second leading cause of workplace absenteeism each year, second only to the common cold.

   What prompted you to write this book? How did you come up with the idea?  Did someone tell you that sharing your life may help others?
 Actually, I don't remember anybody saying that sharing my story could help others – at least not in the beginning. But that's probably because when I first started writing about my IBS, I hadn't really come out of the "water closet" yet and told more than a handful of people what I was going through.
 No, believe it or not, the idea for this book was born on a ridiculously congested taxiway at Denver International Airport. Returning from a sales trip, I was trapped in the middle seat of a jam-packed United Airlines 757 which, our pilot told us over the PA system in an obnoxiously calm voice, was currently number 17 in line for take off. Knowing there was no way I could use the lavatory until we were in the air – a situation that I knew from experience would inevitably cause me to have an urgent need to use the lavatory – I frantically pulled out a pen and a notebook as a way of coping with my unfortunate predicament. Hoping to distract myself through amusement, I began chronicling the absurdity of my adversarial relationship with my uncooperative digestive tract. In that original journal rant, I remember thinking, "Hey, this would make a funny book. I can see it now…'Full of Shit – The Story of an Honest Man'…hmmm, that might just have potential." Because writing these journal rants turned out to be such a helpful coping method, the more planes I flew on, the more material I wrote. But it wasn't until I got fired from that job that I decided to get serious about writing and publishing my story. 
 Any new developments on your quest for freedom?
 A few months ago, after my savings had dwindled down to an alarmingly low level, I decided to get back into the job market. The president of a financial services firm had gotten my name from one of my former co-workers and asked me if I would hop on a plane and fly down to North Carolina for an interview. Now, although I've gotten much better at managing the anxiety that triggers my IBS, flying still isn't one of my top-five favorite activities. To my surprise, I accepted his invitation and ended up having a surprisingly enjoyable flight. But the real moment of truth came in the interview when he asked me what I'd been doing from a career standpoint since leaving the financial industry four years earlier. Now, as somebody who had spent years keeping my IBS a highly guarded secret, I couldn't believe what I was about to do. I pulled a copy of my book out of my briefcase, slid it across the conference table, and basically said, "I wrote and published a memoir about living, dating, and working with irritable bowel syndrome." My new way of thinking was, hey, if he has a problem with my IBS or the fact that I wrote a book about it, then this is definitely not the right job for me. Even though I didn't get the position, this was still an incredibly liberating moment for me.
 Has this book made you look at other illnesses with a different light and how has this affected you?
 So many people have the misconception that IBS is purely a digestive disorder – that's to say the source of the problem and the symptoms are physiological. But what I learned is that it's extremely common for people with IBS to also suffer psychological symptoms like anxiety, panic, depression, and sometimes even agoraphobia. So, yes, I think my experience has made me much more empathetic toward not only people with mental health issues, but also anybody who suffers from inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and colitis (which, by the way, are different and much more serious than IBS).
 Who is your favorite author? Why?
 That's a tough question, but if I had to pick just one, I guess I'd have to say Tom Wolfe. From The Right Stuff to Bonfire of the Vanities to I am Charlotte Simmons, I just enjoy the way he tells his epic-length stories. I also love his knack for capturing – and often satirizing – our culture's prevailing social trends, values, and attitudes.
 For the record, my choosing Tom Wolfe has nothing to do with the fact that he and I belonged to the same fraternity at Washington & Lee or that I keep a framed picture of the two of us hanging next to my desk. I swear.
 How many books have you written and if you have written more than one book, what are the subjects?
 Nope, sorry to say this is it so far.
 Who did you dedicate this book to and why?
 I gave the matter an awful lot of thought and couldn't come up with one obvious choice. So I ultimately decided that no matter who I dedicated it to, I would probably upset all those people who I didn't dedicate it to. I explained this reasoning to my mother, and she claimed to be OK with it. So, as lame as it may sound, my book has no dedication.
 If you could pick out anyone to read and comment on your book, whom would you pick?
 Well, since Oprah is way too obvious of a choice, I would go with Camille and Kelsey Grammer (Cheers, Frasier). In the past, Camille has talked publicly about her longtime struggles with IBS and how the condition has impacted her personally and professionally. A few years ago, the Grammers acted as national spokespeople for IBS sufferers in a campaign to raise awareness for IBS.
 Where can you buy this book?
 You can find it at, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, iUniverse, and pretty much every other online bookseller.
 But if anyone would like a signed, personalized copy, email me through my web site, and I'll be happy to mail one out.
 Do you have any advice for other writers who want to author non-fiction books about their own challenges and successes?
 Even though writing this memoir was unbelievably cathartic for me, there are still times when I wake up in a panic at three in the morning and ask myself, "Oh God, what was I thinking? Why did I feel the need to tell the whole world about my IBS?" But those "memoirist's remorse" worries usually disappear when I remind myself that one of the main reasons I wrote this book was to encourage people to talk more openly about topics like IBS and hopefully erase some of the stigma.
 So, my advice to other writers is to think long and hard about why you want to share your challenges and/or successes with the general public, and then really take your time getting comfortable with the idea of revealing what are often very personal details of your life. But I would also say, once you decide to do it, don't second guess yourself.
 What would you like to have your readers get from this book?
 First and foremost, I want my readers to be entertained. If my story makes them laugh out loud, hey, that's even more of a compliment. But aside from the entertainment factor, I hope my book also offers a few more serious takeaways that will resonate even after they finish reading.
 I hope my book reassures IBS sufferers that they're not alone, and also stresses the importance of talking to a doctor about their symptoms. As for readers who don't have IBS, I would thrilled if they come away with a better understanding of the challenges – often invisible – that people with IBS and other digestive disorders face every day. 
 Are there any plans on developing this book into a series?
 A TV series, maybe…although it would probably have to be on HBO. Who knows? If they don't renew Curb Your Enthusiasm, maybe I've got a shot.
 But seriously, no, I don't see writing another entire memoir on this subject because this book already covers all the key pivotal moments from my IBS odyssey. However, I do still have an enormous number of untold IBS-related misadventures, and it's possible they might someday find their way into a collection of stand-alone personal essays. 
 Have you received any special comments back from any of your readers and can you share them with us?
 Sure. My absolute favorite comments are the ones from other IBS sufferers, especially when they can relate to my experiences and laugh about them, too. Nothing makes my day more than reading an email like this:
 "I LOVED it!
 It's like you read my mind. Your thoughts about IBS are eerily similar. I still don't travel much or do a lot of things because of IBS.
 I laughed all the way through the book. Thanks so much for writing the book in the first place! This is another step in getting IBS out there in the mainstream. If there wasn't such a taboo about bathroom issues, we would probably all be better for it. Thanks again and sign me up if you decide to write another book."
 And occasionally, I'll get comments that are certainly enthusiastic, but also a little curious:
 "Just a note to tell you I just finished your book. I loved it both as a fellow IBS-er and as a good read.
 PS no offense but this is the one book I don't want signed by the author."
 I didn't really know how to interpret his guy's PS. Does he think I wouldn't wash my hands before picking up my Sharpie??
 Can you give us a 2-minute commercial about yourself so our audience can connect with you? (Background – current life)
 Well, let's see. I grew up outside Manhattan in the New York and Connecticut suburbs. In 1988 I graduated from Washington and Lee University, where I majored in French and economics.
 Before writing Romance, Riches, and Restrooms, my professional background included four years in Boulder, CO as a waiter/aspiring professional triathlete, a brief stint in the cut-throat world of copier sales, and ten years working as an institutional mutual fund salesman in San Francisco. Two years ago, I moved from California back to the East Coast, where my girlfriend and I currently reside in a three-bathroom townhouse outside of Philadelphia.
 When I wasn't writing this book, I spent the last few years trying to combine my professional sales background with my stand-up comedy training from the San Francisco Comedy College (yes, there is such a place) to actively raise awareness for irritable bowel syndrome. Along the way, I've been a volunteer in several IBS clinical research studies and have even petitioned the FDA to approve promising new IBS treatments. I love public speaking, and I'm hoping this book will lead to lots of opportunities to stand up and share my experiences with audiences at conferences, symposiums, or even college campuses.

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