We can’t help but laugh at toilet jokes, we might feel embarrassed when we accidentally let a fart slip out in a crowded room and we don’t generally talk about our bowel movements (even to our doctor).
But someone who suffers from IBS often doesn't have any choice but to run for a toilet or pass gas in company. Here are some personal stories from people who live with IBS.
You might actually poop your pants
Wendy Wieser was eventually diagnosed with IBS after thinking she had just picked up a virus. She was referred to a gastroenterologist to rule out anything serious, but kept on putting it off as she didn't have the time to make an appointment – and she was terrified that the doctor would find something seriously wrong.
“So I waited. Things would get better. Then a little worse. But then one day, the thing happened. The thing no respectable grown-up wants to happen: I shit my pants,” she wrote on Scary Mommy.
Wieser was driving her child to a playdate when she had the sudden and immediate urge to go. “I had to get to a bathroom immediately, like yesterday. I zoomed into the Macy’s parking lot. I was breathing hard, sweat pouring down my face. I thought about leaving my kid in the car and just running in, but I couldn’t do that. So I pulled his protesting little self out of his car seat and threw him into a stroller.”
She raced through the store looking for a bathroom. “I could feel everything moving south faster than it ever had. I wanted to scream, but if I opened any orifice at all, I was afraid of what might happen.”
Eventually she found a toilet that was open. “Just as I was getting closer, just as my body knew it was going to get what it needed, I felt it happen. Most of it landed in the toilet, thank God. But not all of it did. I threw my soiled underwear into the trash, cancelled the playdate, went home, and sobbed.”
That incident "pushed her over the edge" and forced her to make an appointment with the GI doctor.
IBS causes bloating and farting
“I wake up one morning certain that I’d become three months pregnant overnight. The farting starts immediately. I skip breakfast, spend a half hour searching for pants I can zip over my bloated stomach, and then hurry to work and sit at my desk by the door of a tiny office crammed with four editors. My belly doesn’t rumble, but buzzes and shrieks. I shift in my chair to hide the cacophony,” Amy McGovern wrote in a column for The Atlantic.
She says that she frequently goes to the bathroom just to stand in a stall and let it all out. “My boss calls me into her office and I rise, suck it in, and waddle to her. Yes, of course I’ll look at the brochure. Lunch time arrives. I cautiously eat some bread and peanut butter, then smell something rankish and panic. Did I just leak gas without knowing? No, someone is heating a cheesy burrito in the microwave.”
She is exhausted by the end of the day and “flatuates her way home”. She's finally able to have her first meal of the day and continues to pass wind every 10 minutes.
“The next morning, I rush to the bathroom, decide to risk breakfast, then stop at the door on my way out to run back for round two. I arrive 10 minutes late to work, tired already, and endure the same routine for two weeks before my bowels settle down and declare defeat.”
IBS affects people differently
For Meg Mankins, IBS means she alternates between diarrhoea and constipation. “[It’s] the best of both worlds.” She also experiences extreme bloating and abdominal pain.
“Sometimes the gas is so painful that I fantasise about being a sheep and imagine a farmer that looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt inserting a long, medicating needle into my intestines," she writes.
Mankin says that IBS symptoms are unique to each individual and experimenting with different treatments can be a long process. “What works for some is catastrophic for others. Biofeedback, meditation, yoga, exercise, dietary restrictions, and acupuncture are recommended treatment options – but there's no guaranteed panacea.”
Frustratingly, sometimes a meal will set off her symptoms, but at other times the exact same meal doesn’t affect her at all. “I've tried dietary changes (including gobbling up the suburban-mom yogurt Activia), over-the-counter gas relief, herbal supplements, more/less fibre, prescribed pills..."
Her current regime to minimise symptoms includes probiotics, activated charcoal pills to absorb gas, and prescription bowel-muscle relaxers, combined with regular exercise and a balanced diet. "Some days this works, but it's often still not enough.”
Don’t be embarrassed about IBS – it's a medical condition
Julia* has suffered from IBS for 38 years and during that time she has finally learnt to manage her condition. She shared her personal story with the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. “Through the support of my physician and my stress management doctor who specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy I have wonderful resources that have helped me learn how to live with it and how to handle major flare ups. Yes, it can be a vicious cycle linked with stress, but help is available. What has been huge for me is that IBS is finally coming out of the closet and getting recognition for the valid medical disorder that it is.”
Although she previously found the shame of having IBS overwhelming, she says that now it's recognised by the public that many people have it, some of the stigma has been removed.
“I encourage everyone to be proactive with your physician and with finding psych support. Together they can be very effective. Give yourself a pat on the back for battling IBS and advocate for studies and increased treatment options. I'm working on accepting that I have IBS and deal with it to the best of my ability, and that everyone else will accept that too. Society doesn't condemn people struggling with diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. This condition is no different and the social stigma is going away.”
Her advice is to stay positive and surround yourself with people who understand your situation. “Sometimes I just have to turn it all over to a higher power, when I'm feeling overwhelmed, and somehow it's always worked out. We're stronger than we think.”
Image credit: iStock