Living with IBS comes with a wealth of emotions. Before I was diagnosed I felt embarrassed, confused and disgusted at my body. Immediately after my diagnosis I felt relieved that what my body was experiencing had a name, but I still felt frustrated and isolated. Nobody I knew spoke openly about their bowel habits. Now 14 years on, those emotions look completely different. I’ve come to love my body. I understand it and I know, for the most part, how to show it the compassion it so desperately craves. I feel hopeful. No longer isolated or lonely but full of respect. My IBS doesn’t define me.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a condition which affects the digestive system resulting in symptoms such as stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation and urgency. I have IBS-D which is diarrhoea predominant. Sometimes it feels like an enemy that’s out to get revenge, especially if I’m in a public place with no toilet in sight. Other times it behaves so well, I forget that it’s there and can spend the day happily in skinny jeans. It’s a real Jekyll and Hyde.
I can’t pinpoint exactly where it all started or even when I got my diagnosis but there was a crazy year, near the end of my teens, where I believe it all stems back to. I’d been on-and-off antibiotics for recurring tonsillitis for six months or so, resulting in a tonsillectomy, two post-op bleeds, another operation and big old dose of antibiotics. Add to that the fact that my parents were mid-divorce and that I was starting my first year of university, and you’ve got a gut running low on good bacteria and a huge amount of stress and anxiety taking its toll.
At the request of my doctor I kept a food diary to track everything I ate and how I felt, so we could look for any patterns and attempt to uncover what my main triggers were. It became apparent that every time I consumed lactose, it went straight through me. I’ve also learnt that too much onion or garlic is a trigger, alongside anything too acidic.
I became so obsessed over what I could or couldn’t eat that I didn’t appreciate that stress was one of my biggest triggers. I’d pretty much ignored it. Last year my anxiety hit an all-time high and I found myself unable to focus and the things I worried about spiralled. I reached my breaking point and cried my way through a doctor’s appointment, asking for a referral for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
For me, CBT has been the biggest revelation in my relationship with my body, my mind and my IBS. It helped break that constant cycle of worrying about having a flare-up, which then caused a flare-up and the downward spiral it would bring.
It armed me with a toolbox of techniques I can deploy whenever I feel a grumble in my gut or my heart starts beating faster. What CBT taught me about myself is that I’m stronger than I think. And that I’m the boss of my body, not my IBS. It also allowed me to be kinder to myself. To listen to what it needs and indulge it.
For me that means meditation before bed each night. It means taking probiotics every morning, Symprove are my go-to good buys. I say no to things that I don’t want to do because stress management is key. I schedule in down days because if I cram my diary I will pay the price with extreme fatigue. I soak deep into a bubble bath to soothe my cramps. I cuddle a hot water bottle for comfort and pain relief. I get outside for gentle walks to move my body and soak up what’s around me. And, I talk openly in person and online about my IBS because I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re alone, which is how I first felt.
The reality now is that I’m much more relaxed with my IBS and as a result feel more content. Some days I soar high with the relief of not having a single symptom, including the dreaded bloat, which I can spend over 70% of my day with. Other days I could be bed-bound with fatigue. I’ve accepted that both of those situations happen but it’s OK, I’ve got this.
While there may not be a cure, there is definitely life post-IBS diagnosis.
Read more about Jo’s experience at Jocoates.co.uk.