health

"My bowel is irritable. And so am I."

IBS isn’t a glamourous illness at all.

by LUCY JANE

Tummy aches, sensitive stomach, picky eater… I try to gloss over the specifics of my illness because, to be frank, it’s not pretty to talk about your bowel movements, especially as a single, educated, professional 25-year-old woman.

For me, the whole saga began with a nasty bout of gastro (thanks to the lethal combination of working with children in a hospital!). I recovered well from that but about a month later, experienced my first episode of “chronic bowel dysfunction”. I survived that night and woke up the next day feeling completely normal.

Unfortunately for me, these embarrassing episodes of diarrhea, cramping and painful gas started to come on more frequently. When it became apparent that they weren’t going to go away and were, in fact, becoming more frequent, I freaked out. It became all that I thought of from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep. I recorded everything that went in to my body as well as everything that came out of it trying to find a pattern, trigger or just something!!!

The Bristol Stool Scale became my most used app (how many 25 year old women have this on their phone?). I was terrified to go out in case I got sick. Getting through a week at work was exhausting, physically and emotionally. I cried. A lot. The more stressed that I got about it, the more frequently I seemed to be getting ill. I only shared what I was going through with one person – my mum. Mums are a special kind of people that you can share even the grossest things with, even when you are 25 years old.

After many trips to various doctors, I was proclaimed to be of perfect health (apart from the intermittent and rabid cramps, gas and diarrhea that could strike any time, anywhere of course). The conclusion when you are given a clean bill of health (medically) but still experience these symptoms? Irritable Bowel Syndrome, aka ‘IBS’. A diagnosis of exclusion that really means ‘we don’t know what’s wrong with you’. Or in the case of one gastroenterologist, ‘it’s all in your head’ (to that I say, going to the toilet 10 times a day is not all in my head!).

Sometimes it can feel like this

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a “functional gastrointestinal disorder”, although I’ve always thought that whoever named this as ‘functional’ has never gone through it themselves…

The symptoms of IBS differ for each person but it is usually characterised by recurrent gastrointestinal symptoms for which no physical cause can be found.

1 in 5 people in Australia live with IBS at some point and it is more common in women. IBS typically emerges in the twenties and frequently comes on after a bout of gastroenteritis. Check, check and check for me.

Over the past months, I’ve certainly earned my Doctor Google degree. I tried every recommended “natural therapy” out there (and please note that these HAVE worked for some people – it can’t hurt to try them out!).

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Peppermint oil, slippery elm, calcium, herbal teas, soluble fibre, insoluble fibre, probiotics, prebiotics, digestive enzymes, apple cider vinegar, acupuncture, chiropractic, hypnotherapy. A naturopath tested my blood for intolerances and recommended a gluten, legume, soy, dairy, egg and fun free diet, which I stayed on strictly for 3 months and am still slowly reintroducing. I have spent lots of time looking for that “miracle cure” and so far, I haven’t found mine.

IBS isn’t a glamorous illness. It’s difficult to talk to your colleagues about your bowel movements. It’s not really a conversation you can have with the girls on a Friday night. Discussing how many hours you’ve spent in the toilet this week is no way to woo a new love interest.

Since IBS became a part of me, I’ve felt as if my life has been on hold. I’ve kept going to work everyday but my social life, hobbies, exercise and dating life have certainly paused. As I’ve started talking about what I’m going through with my close friends, I’ve felt more positive about it but I’m still at a point where I can’t imagine meeting someone and dating and it scares me because I want nothing more than settling down and having babies.

IBS definitely plays havoc with your mind and, as well as working with the physical symptoms, this has become the place where I am trying to work on myself.

The Bristol Stool Scale app. How many 25 year olds have THIS on their phone?

My tips… TALK about it – it’s not the most glamorous chronic illness to have, but remember that YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  I guarantee if you talk about it, you will come across someone who has gone through something similar (if not, email me!).

It can be such an isolating illness and for me, it wasn’t until I started the cruel, cruel elimination diet that I was forced to start talking about it to my friends and it was, frankly, a relief.

Allow yourself time to think about it (goodness knows there are still times when I’m feeling terrible and the ugly cry comes out) but try not to let it take over you. Don’t let your malfunctioning bowels rule you.

I have to remind myself everyday that my body may act however it wants to but that this doesn’t have to dictate my feelings, thoughts and actions. I’m not a failure as a person because I have IBS.

Lastly, most practical tip, become friends with Imodium and don’t be afraid to use it!

IBS is such a silent illness and I think it is something that needs to be talked about more. As someone who has IBS, raising awareness and chatting about it with other people is one of the best things I can do to help myself and hopefully, others.

Do you know anyone who suffers from IBS? Is it spoken about or is it something not mentioned?

Lucy Jane  is a mid-twenties English literature graduate turned counsellor living in Sydney who still longs after studying the written word!