So this post is a bit of a different one. It’s probably going to stick out like a sore thumb in among pictures of my Thailand travels and my attempt at being a fashion blogger. But hey, I think it’s important to talk about and I have previously covered it on my blog, to a rather overwhelming reception – so I thought I’d highlight it again.
Having a platform like this is fabulous and I feel very honoured to be able to call it my job, but I also think it’s important to be able to discuss things that don’t always get highlighted in the media, education and day-to-day life. I think it’s important to share details about real life that aren’t so glamorous. It’s important to use this community to reassure one another that we’re not having to conquer these things alone!
Anyway, so I’ll get on with it…
What I want to talk about today is something that 1 in 5 of us girls have. In fact, us young girls are the most common age group to get diagnosed. And yet there’s a massive taboo surrounding it. Yes, I’m referring to bowel issues. Or in my case, IBS. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. A fabulous (sarcasm detected) long term disorder of the gut that over 60% of us girls in the UK suffer from. Undiagnosed or not. It’s more common than you think.
Characterised by periods of toilet troubles, abdominal pain, nausea, tiredness and severe cramping, it’s a rather unsympathetic thing to have – because it usually flares up when you least want it to, when you’re stressed, anxious or have eaten something you love (but that didn’t agree with you). In most cases, a combination of the three tends to exacerbate symptoms. Some people have it acutely, so they suffer with minor symptoms when things get a little tough – while others have to put up with the unrelenting nasties day after day.
I’ll start with my story. I was 14 when I first got my ‘diagnosis’, following a number of blood tests, samples (I’ll leave that one to your imagination) and scans.
“It’s just IBS,” doctors retorted, with a tone suggesting I should be relieved.
He followed with: “It’s not life threatening,” which obviously was a relief. However it didn’t give me any reassurance as to how I could deal with this awful thing on a daily basis. The fact it was “just IBS” made me feel as though I was making a mountain out of a molehill, even though as a young teenager, it was controlling my life.
So I suppose I muddled through as best I could. My mum was the best support system I could have imaginable and I know she’s been through a lot over the years, as I’ve cried on her shoulder about wanting to be normal and wishing it would go away. It was frustrating from my side, but it must have been even more so from hers, knowing she couldn’t do anything to take it away.
The physical symptoms were affecting me in many ways. Without providing TMI (although you probably wouldn’t have read this far if you weren’t interested), I was having to go to the loo in excess of 12 times a day on some weeks, before then alternating to not being able to go for over a week. It sounds trivial, I know. But when you want to fit that into living a normal 14-year-old’s life, it becomes all consuming. All you ever think about is the toilet. And who on earth wants to do that?
On top of the main symptoms, I also had the most agonising stomach pains which usually hit me worst after lunch. I’d clutch my stomach and try to push my desk into it as much as I could to subside the griping cramps. It sounds odd. But hey, I’d try anything.
Unfortunately because I was going to the toilet so much, the nutrients in my food weren’t properly being digested so I was ridiculously tired and hungry all the time. I remember having to bring 4 nutrigrain bars in with me a day to get me through the 8.30-3 school hours. I’d eat between each lesson – trying to pack as much fibre in to subside the hunger pangs, which would also crop up when the cramps relented.
I probably sound like a complete moaning myrtle. There were (and are) people in the world dying of awful diseases. People getting cancer diagnosis’, people ending up in terrible accidents and never seeing their loved ones ever again. I was constantly aware of how minor my symptoms were in the grand scheme of things. But as much as I tried to look at the positives and tell myself I should appreciate the fact my syndrome wasn’t going to kill me, I did let them get the better of me.
Over the next seven years, I developed an anxiety disorder which stemmed from my IBS. I’d fear being in enclosed spaces with the door shut where I couldn’t easily ‘escape’, or where I’d have to politely excuse myself. This included classrooms, lecture halls and exams. In fact, the latter of which I feared so much that I had to do them all in a separate room – raising suspicion from my peers.
I cared so much about what other people thought about my condition. Or at least, what I think they’d think. I never actually told a soul apart from my mum.
Once the panic attacks started, they then cropped up on other occasions too. If I got a negative email or had someone say something to me that could be interpreted in a way I’d deem bad. If I got overwhelmed with work. If I was worrying about something.
I suffered in silence until I was 19, when I started writing about it on the internet. And yes, it was therapeutic and it did help. But that was only the start of my journey really. Things got a lot worse before they got better. Maybe I’ll talk about that more another day.
The reason for me writing this article wasn’t to moan at you about my symptoms and how awful IBS is. Yep, it’s pretty bloody awful. But it’s turned me into the person I am today. I’m driven to succeed no matter what – despite not being able to attend lessons because I was so poorly in bed, yet I still managed to achieve a 1st in my journalism degree and two A’s and a B at A Level. I appreciate the people I have around me so much – because they provide me with love and support and I’m continuously grateful.
It’s also made me re-evaluate my eating habits, my wellbeing and my health. Despite being a lover of all things naughty food-wise, it’s steered me in the right direction and pushed me to take time out for me.
I’d say I’m 90% better from my IBS now. It’s something I’ll have forever probably. It’s just one of those things. Some people have a bad back, some people always suffer with migraines. This is my health flaw. And I’m accepting of it. Even on those days where I’m sitting on the toilet when I should be getting ready to go out and do something exciting, cursing my stomach!
It’s taken about two years but I’ve finally conquered the symptoms ruling my life. I’m at peace with my IBS. And although anxiety is still a big trigger, I’m taking steps to manage it. I feel in control again.
What I want to do is ensure that no-one else suffers alone in the way I did. I want to share my story to raise awareness of bowel conditions and how they can affect people, but also to prove that it doesn’t have to be taboo. I remember my 16-year-old self furiously googling solutions to my problems, but the search pages only ever returning with anonymous forums or stuffy doctors advice, which I’d heard many times before. No-one that I could relate to.
They’re not glamorous and they never will be. But when something is invisible, it’s difficult to decipher who it affects and how much it affects someone. I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who as a result of reading this post, decided to open up to me about their IBS or Crohn’s or UC. Whether it was friends who I caught up with (but we’d never discussed it before), or complete strangers. Because I shared my story, I was so surprised (but pleasantly so) by discovering I wasn’t alone all those years after all.
Ultimately, I’d love to write a book all about my experiences with IBS. Largely because I think I have so many hilarious anecdotes to share – as well as helpful tips for managing it. I remember my mum once picked me up a book on Irritable Bowel Syndrome, shortly after the initial diagnosis. It was one of those stuffy clinical white handbooks, with a toilet symbol on the front cover – signifying embarrassment, shame and secrecy (those are my A Level English Lit skills coming out there!). I didn’t even want to read it because I was ashamed of the ‘community’ I had unwillingly become a part of. So I chucked in a box on my shelf, hidden away under a pile of old school work.
I came across this book a few weeks ago and it got me thinking about the lack of genuine support bowel sufferers have. Sure, there are websites. Full of information from GPs, advising the same old stuff in their patronising tone – raising their eyebrows as if you should follow their instructions to the letter. There are anonymous forums where SUP125 has shared his story in 2009, proclaiming he is at his wits end with his symptoms. SUZE99 agrees. HELPME445 thinks they should all try Colpermin and then everyone drops off the radar altogether.
Neither of the two are really helpful. Neither make you feel like there’s another human going through what you’re going through.
It’s a minefield.
And so my next venture is going to be to write an e-book. A light hearted cross between a memoir and a self help guide.
Hopefully it will answer some of the questions that I’m emailed on an almost daily basis as a result of my blog somehow being at the top of the Google search page when you type ‘IBS Blog’. I wish I really understood SEO. It’s so flattering to know that some of you feel comfortable enough to share your story and confide in me. Or ask me for advice.
Obviously I’m not a professional by any means. But I am doing some training (which I’ll maybe talk about at some point) which will give me more of a professional backing when it comes to actually releasing said e-book.
Who knows whether it will actually happen, but I think it’s important to talk about. Whether it affects you – or a friend. No-one needs to suffer in silence. With bowel conditions, with IBS, with anything.
I know this post is a bit out of place but I thought it was an important one. I know poo is a bit of a taboo subject for some, but for many – it’s something they have to deal with on a daily basis – and knowing they don’t have to hang their head in shame when it’s mentioned, is a massive relief.
To kick start my awareness raising expedition, I’m delighted to announce that a fantastic new probiotic company Alflorex (launching in Boots next week) will be partnering with the #BloggersFestival next month, hosting a little lounge area to introduce us to the product, chat about any concerns we may have and let us in on some gut health secrets. Our guts are often referred to as the ‘second brain’ and you’d be astounded at how many things in our bodies go off balance if our tummies are off track. Hopefully it will be a great way to really get us all talking about what doesn’t need to remain a taboo!
** disclaimer: I hope this post doesn’t come across as ‘ooh, feel sorry for me I’ve got IBS’. I totally know there are bowel conditions that are life threatening, that leave you hospitalised and that are much more serious than IBS. I’m in no way discrediting those. In fact, this is in support of all bowel conditions and invisible illnesses. It was more so a case of me sharing my story as a means of breaking the ice. I also know that IBS is the most common and the one people can relate to most. If you have your own story to share, please feel free to do so in the comment box below.