There are hundreds of invisible illnesses that people suffer from on a daily basis from mental health to chronic pain all dehibilitating to the person in question and all life changing to some extent. For me, this invisible illness is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). IBS is a bowel condition which affects 1 in 5 of us, meaning that no doubt, someone close to you also suffers.
The symptoms range from mild stomach pains to full on cramps, and either constipation or the complete opposite. In my case, it presents itself as severe contraction like cramps with accompanied diarrhoea which tends to either leave me vomiting from the pain or even passing out.
As with many invisible illnesses, there is no cure. No magic wand to wave or Harry Potter spell to solve the issue.
I’m going to talk about my personal experience because everyone’s experience of IBS is completely different and what works for me, may not work for you and vice versa.
My symptoms first started in my early 20’s although I had what i thought were slight food intolerances to the classic IBS triggers such as onions and garlic from a fairly young age. I didn’t experience any full on flare ups until my mid 20’s.
I went to the doctors as you would and was dismissed with a casual ‘it’s probably IBS’, like it was nothing serious, nothing that would affect my life, no tests, no prescribed medication. Nothing. I was told to try Buscopan and that was that.
As I was dismissed in such a blasé manner, I started to think the pain was in my head- that I was being dramatic over something which probably wasn’t that bad.
For the next 5 years, I suffered- trying to control it myself by trying every over the counter medication and every diet ‘solution’ for IBS. Meanwhile, the cramps were getting more intense. I tried Buscopan, Imodium (lols- while calming down the diarrhoea it certainly does not stop painful cramps!), Mintec, Peppermint Oil, Colofac, Colpermin, probiotics, cutting out gluten/ dairy/ meat, FODMAP-ing . All to no avail.
Leaving the house and going out for the day became awkward and I needed to know there were toilets around ‘just incase’. If you have experienced similar, you’ll know how mentally draining it can be as well as physically. After a flare up occurs, I am exhausted. Drained in every possible sense and all I need is sleep and plenty of water!
I went back to the doctor, this time a different one, and absolutely broke down about it. By now, I had realised a LOT of my IBS was down to stress and anxiety from anything such as usual stresses and strains of work life to something as simple as anxieties about meeting a friend for dinner. It also caused huge flare ups when I experience any pain such as menstruation pain- so I was guaranteed at least one flare up a month- Lucky me!
The food triggers had increased as well. By now, there was no set thing that caused it. Once it was strawberries…STRAWBERRIES?! That is what is so stressful about this illness, it can be anything that sets it off at any time.
The doctor referred me to a specialist at the hospital and said I would need a colonoscopy to see what was going on. After some slightly awkward but essential examinations at the hospital and one colonoscopy, I finally got an actual diagnosis of ‘Chronic IBS’, at the age of 30. This diagnosis caused a mixture of emotions. I was relieved it wasn’t anything serious, but because my symptoms are so intense I thought they had definitely missed something. Probably that ol’ anxiety I mentioned above coming into play!
After being referred back to my doctors’ care, there was nothing they could really do. After doing some intense research, I have found I am able to control it slightly better by taking a stronger over the counter pain killer and just being very careful with what I eat. The main thing I try to do is de-stress often, easier said than done and anything can trigger me into an anxiety/IBS spiral BUT it is extremely important for me to take time for myself and do things which calm me down such as a long hot bath with plenty of pamper products or meditation which I spoke about here. IBS is never something I am going to be ok with having- it’s something I just have to cope with.
Because IBS and related conditions are embarassing, people tend to avoid talking about them- but they are difficult conditions that could strike at anytime, anywhere. Imagine doing your weekly food shop and then your bowel thinks now is a good time to hit you with a flare up (yes, it’s happened). Thankfully we have stores such as Tesco leading the way with providing ‘accessible toilets’ which could save someone mid flare up from having to deal with an embarrassing situation or providing somewhere for people to change their colostomy bag without feeling awkward.
So,if you have symptoms which you think could be IBS don’t suffer in silence, it is a REAL condition and embarrassing as you may think it is, remember those statistics at the top of the post- there will always be someone else not far away who is suffering with similar symptoms- there is something that will work for you and ease the symptoms. Do speak to your doctor and ask for a colonoscopy if you’re worried and don’t let anyone tell you it’s ‘JUST IBS’.
Disclaimer- I am by no means a medical professional and I have tried to stick to my own personal experience of IBS. All doctors are different and your’s might be super helpful so please do go and see them. If you have any questions please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message via twitter.