Three guesses what today’s post is about. My regular readers will know that over the last couple of months, my life has essentially been dominated by IBS, and quite frankly, I’m fed up with it. So, as April is IBS Awareness Month, I’ve decided to address what it’s like to live with this little bastard of an illness. IBS is still considered one of those conditions that’s gross and embarrassing, but actually, it’s more common than people realise – according to Bupa, 2 in 10 people live with the condition. Throughout the month, alongside my usual content, I’ll be sharing some brand new posts on IBS in a bid to raise some awareness and tackle the stigma around it.
It goes without saying that in this post, I’ll be talking about poo. Obviously it won’t be in graphic terms, but I will be talking about it. So, if you’re easily grossed out, then this may not be the post for you.
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the digestive system. While symptoms can come and go over time, it’s usually a lifelong illness. Symptoms of IBS vary from person to person, but the most common include:
- Stomach cramps – often eased by going to the toilet
Other symptoms include fatigue, nausea, flatulence and bowel incontinence. Symptoms can often be triggered by certain foods, caffeine or stress, and how long they last varies from person to person. While there’s no cure for IBS, it can be managed through diet, medication, and in some cases, psychological therapies.
Living With IBS
I’ve had some form of stomach issues for as long as I can remember. As a kid, a tummy ache would be a regular occurrence (combined with emetophobia, that’s not an ideal combination), and I’d often go for days without going to the toilet. As I got older, this pretty much stayed the same – I’d experience nausea, constipation, and bloating. I don’t quite remember ever getting a diagnosis of IBS until I was about 17, but I’m pretty sure the amount of times I was at the doctors with stomach aches as a child, the idea must have come up. At 17, I was prescribed Mebeverine (also known as Colofac) for the first time, which is an antispasmodic designed to relax the muscles in the gut, and a drug that I’ve since been taking on and off over the years.
I never really experienced an IBS flare up until much later – to be honest, I didn’t even realise they were a thing. The worst I’d get would be bloating and constipation, and I’d feel exhausted and drained in the days running up to a bowel movement. While it was uncomfortable, I’d get by, and it was something that I’d lived with for years, so I didn’t really know any different.
It wasn’t until around 2019 that things suddenly changed – one day after I ate, I had severe stomach pain followed by a single bout of diarrhoea. I wasn’t sick, and I didn’t have any more diarrhoea, but I felt unwell for a good few days, and then it went. I had a good few weeks feeling back to normal, so I put it down to something I ate, or perhaps even a mild stomach bug. Annoyingly, the same thing happened a few weeks later – exactly the same symptoms. It soon got to the case that this happened more often than not, and at this point, I’d lost a bit of weight too. While I didn’t have a bathroom scale to see exactly the amount I’d lost, I noticed that my clothes were becoming looser. My Mum has Ulcerative Colitis (a form of inflammatory bowel disease), and her symptoms started off as something similar, so she was the first person to insist I make an appointment to see the doctor.
My doctor arranged for some blood tests to be done, along with a stool sample. By this point I’d been living with contamination based OCD for a few years, so the idea of carrying a bottle of my own shit filled me with anxiety. Nevertheless, I did it anyway, and had the fear of God struck into me when I discovered on a Friday afternoon a message from the GP saying my stool sample came back as abnormal. To say I shat myself was an understatement – and it was made worse by the fact I had to wait the whole weekend before I could even make an appointment. That weekend, I convinced myself I had cancer and spent most of it in this weird state of numbness. Health anxiety is awesome.
Thankfully, I managed to get a doctor’s appointment that Monday, where my nervous ass flat out asked the GP if she thought I had cancer. Her answer was that it was highly unlikely, but she would be referring me for a colonoscopy. She said if it was going to be anything, it would more likely be some form of IBD, given my family history. It was a ridiculously long process waiting to be called for my appointment, which I finally got in February last year. I can’t say it’s an experience I want to ever go through again, but it ruled out anything sinister, and that was a huge relief. As it turned out, I just had IBS.
Being in lockdown for most of 2020, I didn’t really experience any flares – which I now think was down to the fact I was isolated from everything – work stress, OCD triggers etc. I had a minor flare when we moved house in August, but generally, I was coping pretty well. Until November, when I started having more frequent IBS-D attacks. It would be at least one a week, and I ended up taking solace in the fact I was at home all the time and free of the worry that I’d need to find a toilet in an emergency.
Stress and IBS
Which brings us to the present day. February in particular was one of the worst months I had with my stomach. I experienced at least one IBS attack a week, and often the symptoms would last for days. I’d have one bout of diarrhoea, followed by feeling like I’d been hit by a truck for days afterwards. I’d have no energy, I’d feel cold, I’d feel sick, and I ached all over. Up until this point, I was reluctant to book a doctor’s appointment because I just kept thinking “what else could they do?” It was IBS, they’d done all the tests they needed to and everything else was ruled out. However, it got to the point where it was affecting my mental health. Every time something upset me, I’d have added anxiety that it would cause a flare-up, and I started panicking about what would happen when things go back to normal. Thankfully, since moving house I’d registered with a new doctor’s surgery, and they were amazing. I spoke to a really helpful GP who not only prescribed me Mebeverine (which I hadn’t taken in over a year because I initially felt I was coping well without it), but she also gave me some details for mental health support, as we established one of my main triggers was stress. I’ve had precautionary blood tests which thankfully all came back normal, and I’ve started the process of working on my anxiety again. Mebeverine is a treatment for IBS that didn’t seem to help much in the very early years of me taking it, but on the last few occasions I’ve found it helpful, more so this time around. While I’m still getting uncomfortable symptoms, they’re less severe – I’m hoping that when I get a bit further into the mental health support, I’ll be able to manage my anxiety a lot better which will also help towards getting the symptoms under control.
My Relationship With Food
My relationship with food has been hugely impacted as a result of this particular set of flares. I rarely enjoy eating these days, and on the rare occasion that I do, I just have “what if this triggers me?” in the back of my mind. I feel anxious after finishing a meal, to the point where I have to take my mind off of things by listening to a podcast or some music while I clean up, and even then the worry is still there. I worry about what’s going to happen when things (hopefully) go back to normal with the lockdown situation. Pre-lockdown, we spent a lot of time going for meals at family’s houses and out with friends, and it was something I really enjoyed doing. Now, the thought of it just fills me with horror. I used to love food and eating, but now, if I can go without it, I will. I get anxious just eating some fucking toast these days.
I’ve been working hard to track my symptoms against what I’ve been eating and anything I get stressed about, and from doing it for the last four months, it’s clear that my IBS and anxiety are still as perfectly paired as they once were. Except this time, instead of causing nausea and a bit of butterflies, I get the shits. Awesome. Some may argue that because it only usually happens once, it’s more manageable, and in a way I get that. However, fear that it might happen is incredibly powerful, and again, it makes me wonder how I’ll cope when we’re able to eat out and at people’s houses again.
Do you have IBS or suffer with similar symptoms? Let me know in the comments!