TW: Medical procedures, bodily functions, food and mental health talk. My experience with IBS is not everyone else with IBS’s experience. It affects each person differently.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while now, you’ll have seen various posts I’ve written about my having IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), a digestive condition, often lifelong (there is no cure) that causes stomach cramps and pain, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, incontinence etc.
While the condition is stated as common and so far, found no lasting damage to the body, the symptoms can be mild to debilitating, depending on the person. It can lead to anxiety and depression, feelings of shame and embarrassment and can affect a person’s daily life.
People do joke, including people with IBS (I often laugh at myself) about its effects, but some are just outright cruel. Especially if someone has had an accident in a public place. This is honestly one of my worse fears concerning IBS. The symptoms can be sudden, painful and/or lead to a potentially embarrassing situation.
While the condition can often be dismissed as nothing more than stomach gripes, the reality is very, very different. I’m not exaggerating or trying to play a so-called victim card, I’m telling you exactly what living with IBS is like for me.
I’M SORRY, I CAN’T EAT THAT. I CAN SOMETIMES, THOUGH… IT’S COMPLICATED!
Like most folks with IBS, certain foods will trigger symptoms. While there are guides like low FODMAPs and such, everyone’s IBS triggers are different. For example, I am fine with broccoli, a high FODMAP food (a food that your gut will have to work harder at to digest), while for someone else it’s an explicit no-go.
I’ve found eggs (sunny side up, scrambled, it doesn’t matter) most pasta and anything with a lot of oil or sugar is a guaranteed formula for a painful flare up. That being said, I could also have that same food and be absolutely fine (though in my case, not very often). It’s very odd how IBS works. One day you can be ok, and the next, despite managing your stress levels and keeping to a balanced diet of food you know works for you, your digestive system plays up like it’s trying to exorcise a demon.
As well as that, as the gastro doctor who examined and diagnosed me said, stress can also induce IBS symptoms. Mine, as par my doctor’s assessment at the time, is primarily stress induced. I have anxiety and experience bouts of depression to start with, which I take daily medication for. Anxiety alone can induce symptoms and the symptoms, in turn, can induce anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle that can take a fair amount of trial and error to manage.
DIAGNOSIS CAN TAKE MULTIPLE TESTS
Symptoms of IBS can also be symptoms for various other conditions. So when consulting your doctor, they will run tests to rule out more serious conditions, like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) which is typically used to describe two conditions: Ulcerative Colitis (UC) & Crohn’s Disease. Coeliac Disease, stomach cancer and food intolerances can also be tested for.
This can include tests like taking stool samples for analysis, physical examinations on the stomach, blood tests, anal exam and possibly a colonoscopy (thankfully I was spared of that). It might not be the most pleasant of things, I know, but it’s important to rule out more serious conditions in this process, so the doctors can find out what’s wrong and give the right course of treatment/management to you.
IT’S NOT A BABY. IT’S IBS…
The bloat. Oh my God, the bloat. The bloat is a visible symptom I really get self-conscious about, despite being self-conscious about my stomach to start with. Bloating can happen just generally, from how it’s reacted to a certain food etc. For me, it’s particularly prevalent during and after a flare up, where my stomach essentially fills with air. It’s very uncomfortable and no word of an exaggeration when I say when really bloated, I genuinely look like I’m about 4/5 months pregnant.
So yes, when I have ‘the bloat’ and if I’m out (not right now so much, with the pandemic) I try to wear something loose to try and cover it up. That and it’s just more comfortable. You don’t want to constrict your stomach when it happens. Given that I have big boobs as well, it can sometimes feel like my torso is covered by a potato sack.
I’ve seen some folks’ covert glances down at my bloated belly with that, ‘Is she pregnant or just chunky?’ look, or worse, the ‘I’m judging your body’ look. The ‘you should stop eating *this* or *that* look’. The ‘red days and green days will fix that in no time’ look. Yes, when that happens, it does not help my self-esteem one bit. I’ve had a few cases where someone asked me if I was pregnant, which I did find quite amusing.
They apologised when I told them I wasn’t, thinking I’d see that as an insult, but truthfully, I wasn’t mad at them. The bloat can be very deceiving like that! It’s the being judgy over someone’s body I don’t like. The grimacing look up and down that just goes straight through you. *Shudders*
People can be very fickle and judgemental, not thinking that something they can’t see can be affecting someone on every level of their life.
UNSOLICITED HEALTH ADVICE & EVEN JUDGEMENT
Like most folks with a lifelong condition and/or known as an ‘invisible’ condition, I’ve grown to loathe unsolicited health advice. The comments from people who don’t fully understand the reality of what you have.
Usually, most folks I’ve confided this to (I’m not ashamed to openly say I have IBS) are very sympathetic. They might either have it themselves or know someone, a loved one or a friend, who does, so they can empathise. However, there’s always one. And unfortunately, that one can be surprisingly common, whether IRL or online.
I’ve been told I need natural diet shakes, that I eat too much of *this* or *that*, that I need *this* supplement or *that* supplement etc. That I just need to eat all natural and stop taking my medication, and all my problems will just magically go away. It’s basically the ‘Have you tried yoga?’ of the gastrointestinal world.
Now, I don’t mind folks (if it’s a case of a loved one having IBS or they themselves do) offering something that has helped them. Things like mint, turmeric and ginger can be great anti-inflammatories and I use them regularly, and I myself have passed this on to others.
It’s the ‘miracle cure’ advice, the ‘wellness’ stuff that amounts to nothing but quackery, spread by misinformation and mere money-making schemes, I honestly can’t abide.
The dismissive attitudes to what your condition can be like when it’s really playing up. Flippant comments about how long or often you need to use the bathroom for. I really hate those.
The perception that you’re just exaggerating when you say bad flare ups can mean a few days in bed afterwards to recover. That they can last for weeks or even months in some people. The very real fear of a flare up in public. While sympathies are around for people with IBS, it is still very common for it to not be taken as seriously as it should be.
AFFECTING MORE THAN WHAT I EAT
Due to the nature of IBS, this can make one feel anxious and more watchful of certain things in their life.
I get anxious about travelling, especially if it’s a long journey. I get anxious about how I’ll be treated in a work environment, by colleagues and bosses, because I might have to make a sudden dash to the bathroom and it might inconvenience them. Making sure I have a snack in my bag for those ‘just in case’ moments. Being liberal with the turmeric in my food. How it can affect my sex life.
While I try my best not to worry what others think of me, having a condition like this can leave you vulnerable to those kind of worries. Given the aforementioned in this post, I hope you can understand why.
It can affect most, if not all aspects of my life to whatever varying degree. Though proper management helps, symptoms can and do play up and they can be very unforgiving, especially in the kind of world we live in right now.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
This post isn’t meant to be a ‘woe is me’ sympathy post. I wanted this to be a frank and honest telling on what living with IBS can be like. And if you are experiencing IBS, I just want you to know that you’re not alone and it can be managed.
If you’re experiencing any symptoms, please see your GP or healthcare professional to get checked out.
*Image – Yummy Mummy Club