"Raising awareness by sharing my personal story with IBS and how it's affected the last eighteen years of my life. IBSinAmerica AD"
This topic is a little outside of my normal food-loving repertoire, but it’s a subject that hits very close to home: eighteen years ago I was diagnosed with chronic IBS. It’s a condition we hear a lot about, but not necessarily one we know much about – or more importantly, just how severe IBS can be. Since I was diagnosed, IBS has impacted every decision of my life, from my choice of career to how I interact with family and friends to even the foods I eat. But as big of a roll IBS plays in my life, most of my friends and coworkers don’t even know I suffer from this condition or the hold it has on my life.
But then, that “secrecy” about IBS is far from uncommon. IBS certainly isn’t a glamorous topic, and if we do talk about it, it’s usually with our close friends and family members – and more times than not, our well-intentioned loved ones have no idea what we’re really going through. They may think they do (because no one’s digestive track is perfect) but it’s an entirely different ordeal to live with the symptoms (or the fear of the symptoms) of IBS every day. In fact, sometimes it’s those very conversations with those close to us that keep us from seeking a doctor. Instead of making an appointment, we become convinced that over the counter remedies or herbal supplements or even the next fad diet will give us the help that we need.
In a recent poll for IBS in America, it was found that more than 67% of people who experience IBS symptoms wait for more than a year before they ever try to consult a doctor. 11% wait more than 10 years. 10 whole years. In addition, 77% admitted to trying OTC (over the counter) remedies for their symptoms, but very few of those could say they were satisfied with the results.
My case with IBS was a little different. I was taken to a doctor soon after my symptoms started, as my father had colitis and knew what I was going through – but at the time, the doctors couldn’t really help me. The only IBS medication that was commonly prescribed back then was an extra strength form of Imodium, which I took diligently for eight years (despite the fact that it only worked half of the time). I saw many doctors in the early days of my condition, each wanting to take a different approach with the limited options that were available. Some tried to put me on special diets (long before “gluten free” was popular) while others even suggested therapy. But being young and hard headed, I was having none of it; I just wanted to take my pills and continue living with the symptoms, getting by as best I could.
It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year of college that I realized I had to take my condition more seriously. I’ll spare you all the details, but just to set the stage: I was heartbroken over a boy, engrossed in petty drama with a roommate, and all of it happening in the wake of the September 11th bombings. My life was a cluster of frustration and stress, and as a result, my IBS became so debilitating that I could no longer attend class. I could hardly stand to get out of bed. I felt like a prisoner in my own body, and depression was slowly starting to seep in.
As my absences from class mounted, it became clear that my professors had given up on me. They seemed to assume I was just another unmotivated student ditching class and did not believe me when I told them I was actually ill… except for one. My English professor had a family member who suffered from IBS and felt sympathetic to my situation. For a few weeks he painstakingly emailed me all of my assignments, but when I became too sick and depressed to complete them, he began to distance himself from me, too.
In an act of desperation, I arranged an early meeting at his office so I could talk with my English professor face to face. My future at that college was already very bleak, but I realized it mattered to me that at least one person didn’t give up on me. I had to prove that I was still worth something to someone.
I was a bundle of nerves the morning of the appointment. My IBS symptoms were under control, but I didn’t know how long my luck would last. I decided I would arrive a bit earlier than the scheduled meeting time, in the hopes that I could get through the whole ordeal faster and return to the small comfort of my dorm room.
His office was on the third floor, and I remember exiting the door from the stairwell at the same moment that his office door swung open. I stopped short, an expectant grin on my face… but he barely glanced my way. I could only stand there and watch as he turned around, closed his door, locked it, and walked away from me toward the stairwell on the opposite side of the hall. And once he had disappeared, I crept down the hallway so that I could peek through the tiny window to his office. His desk looked tidy and untouched, as though he had not been to work yet that morning. The lights were off.
I checked my watch. Our appointment was in 5 minutes.
I realized he intended not to be there when I showed up. He really had given up on me.
And as it turns out, that was exactly the kind of wake-up call I needed.
For the next few years, I focused all of my attention on my condition – what my triggers were, what my solutions were, where my comfort level was. I talked about my struggle with IBS all the time, if for no other reason than to remind myself that my condition was always there. Whether I liked it or not, IBS was an ever-present part of my life. I not only had to learn how to live my life with IBS, but despite IBS.
It took years to get control of my life again, but it wasn’t easy. I never returned to that college, and instead sought a certification through online college courses. I lost friends along the way – friends who didn’t understand why I kept canceling plans or couldn’t go out with them at the last minute. I also found I had a hard time making new friends for the very same reason. I even had to give up on some of my career goals, because at that point in my life I needed a low-stress office job to keep myself balanced, something my original career path never would have offered me. I also had to work toward overcoming my depression by finding things to enjoy in life that my IBS could not touch or ruin. For me, that wound up being the computer games that I play.
Once I finally felt confident again, I started to piece my life back together. I got a part-time job doing data entry for a nonprofit. A year later I moved cross country (something I’m still amazed I had the courage to do) and got another data entry job, this time working full-time. Soon after I jumped jobs a final time, yet again using my data entry skills, but this particular job eventually led to me being promoted to a team lead position. It was certainly more stressful than I ever could have imagined, but I handled it (and my IBS) all the same. Then in July 2014, I mustered up all the courage I had to leave my safe and stable office job and pursue my original career dream: creating and designing web content. And as you can see, that dream has morphed into this little food blog. I’m happy to say this blog is now my career.
After many years of trying, I finally found a groove in my life that worked for me. I no longer talk about IBS all the time, because I’ve finally accepted it as a part of who I am. I plan my life around IBS, but I no longer allow it to make my plans for me. I still have good days and bad, but the important thing is that I keep moving forward. My goal is to live as normal of a life as I can, and I prove that I can do it every day. I’m able to spend time with friends again, and have made countless connections with people through the internet.
My life is not perfect, but it’s good for me… something I wouldn’t have believed possible back when I was nineteen, standing in front of my professor’s dark and empty office.
Do you suffer from IBS or know someone who does? Want to learn more about the condition? Be sure to join me at the IBS in America webcast on December 17th, 2015! Register here: http://bit.ly/1Z8wUfp