Life with IBS

I’ve written in painful detail about some of my IBS episodes but I’ve never gone into  much detail about the debilitating impact IBS has on my daily life, even if I’m lucky enough not to have had an ‘incident’ in a while. I’m sitting at work, as I write this, in some considerable amount of pain and it’s only 8.30am. My day hasn’t even started and already I’m doubling up in pain, have had to make a toilet run 3 times and have had to ask the office help to get my bag to the toilet so I could have my medication because I lack the confidence to make it to back my desk without collapsing in a dead faint. Such are the mornings [insert bathroom break] that I face on an unfortunately unfailingly regular basis. IBS means I often have to leave work in the middle of the day, usually thanks to my post lunch trio tachycardia, nausea and pain and have to work extra hard to make up for lost time the next day. It also means sudden absences from work when I’ve spent more time in the toilet in the morning than it takes to get from UAE to Karachi.  I also avoid office outings like the plague because the last thing I need is to create a scene out of office and I have no energy to scout for toilet locations and quick exit routes each time. It’s a desperate attempt to salvage what little dignity you have left to be honest, because let’s face it, having to make a mad dash to the toilet every now and again and coming out with tear streaked glasses because you’re mentally not present enough to wipe them is not particularly dignified behaviour. With all that interference in your work life, IBS often ensures people get passed over for promotions because they tend not to be seen as reliable assets. The only thing unreliable as far as I’m concerned is my gut, so I have a real appreciation for jobs that come with flexible working hours and the option to work from home. My current job comes with neither perk sadly. The other, and perhaps more keenly felt, problem is the lack of awareness and understanding of the illness. Unlike other diseases, IBS comes with no warnings and no symptoms like the flu that others can see coming and anticipate that you will need to take some time off for recovery. IBS attacks are sudden, unannounced and can rear their ugly head on a seemingly good day, which makes it difficult for others to understand – how can someone who was fine all morning suddenly be sick enough to need to go home. It seems to most people to be a convenient excuse to slack off, which couldn’t be farther from the truth since flaring IBS often leaves you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut and left for dead.

I came to a realization though, and it was this- that despite how embarrassing it may be to discuss your colon chronicles at work, somebody needs to know. The simple fact that someone knows means I can be assured that should I have an incident, there will be someone who knows what to do, will be able to look after me till the blood returns to my fingers and toes [insert bathroom break] and will overlook the fact that I’m supposed to hand in a sick leave certificate every time my colon acts up.

[start rant]On a related note, sick leave certificates should not be necessary for people suffering from chronic ailments. When I’m having an IBS episode I consider myself lucky if I can make it to the toilet on time. By the time I’m physically able to get to the ER, it’s only because I’ve already taken my medication, the attack has subsided and the ER has nothing left to do except make me wait for hours before being seen only to say I’ve already completed necessary treatment and could you please wait for another hour before I can hand you your sick leave certificate so you can go back home to recuperate with your hot water bottle. [end rant]

I’m lucky that my someone at work also cares enough to know the location of my medication and is willing to skip work to take me home should I need to go. Maybe more than just somebody needs to know to be honest – your friends, your colleagues, your manager, your HR department – they all need to know, for your sake as much as theirs.

The impact of IBS extends far beyond work life. It has overarching effects on every aspect of your daily life, from your relationships, your diet, your travel plans and your life choices. [insert bathroom break]. 

In my case it has meant that my life choices rely for the most part on my gastric convenience.My diet has devolved over the years to the most bland things imaginable, especially when I’m travelling, just in case there’s anything there to irritate the gut. My taste buds I fear are dying a slow and painful death because they’re losing the food wars with the colon. I’m mentally siding with my taste buds but physically have no option but to do as the colon says so it’s a Catch 22.

My travel plans revolve around the proximity of toilets, hospitals, public transport and how close restaurants are to the hotel just in case my colon has other plans. Even if it’s just local travel, something as innocent as dinner and a movie becomes a nightmare when I’m having a bad week so I, more often than not, just don’t show up. I have become, against my will, the antisocial no-show because I’m tired of bringing up my gastric problems over and over again with my friends. I love my friends, I’d go to the moon and back for them… but only if there’s a rest area on the way. Just in case. Rather than be a source of annoyance to my friends, I’d rather just not go and let them have a great time without me.

My career choices become limited, both geographically and otherwise, because I cannot commit to work with travel, I’m no longer able to drive because of the frequency of incidents and have to opt for less challenging jobs to ensure that my stress levels don’t add to the IBS burden. It’s not that I’m not ambitious, it’s just that my colon can’t keep up with my dreams so I’ve had to become a realist and  settle for what I can cope with. Don’t get me wrong. Even within my limited choices, I like to challenge the boundaries and see how far I can go without compromising my health, but there are limits which seem to narrow ever year. [insert bathroom break]

And then, of course, is one of the most overlooked areas of IBS research – the impact it has on a patient’s mental health and well-being. IBS makes you a pessimist, whether you like it or not and whether you choose to admit it or not (calling yourself a realist is an attempt to put a positive spin on your pessimism, commendable effort but it doesn’t fool anyone). It makes you second guess all your plans, question all your choices and shreds your self-confidence. It makes you feel that somehow you’ve done something wrong and this is karma coming back to bite you. Unexplained illnesses do that to you- make you paranoid at times. IBS makes you feel less than yourself, like some part of you is forever lost to yourself. It stresses you out, which flares up your IBS, which in turn stresses you out and traps you in a vicious cycle which is not easy to break out of by any means.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. For all the craziness IBS has brought to my life, it has also taught me two valuable things about life – It’s all about patience and slowing down to smell the roses.

Want to know more about IBS? Enjoy and notice how even Cleveland Clinic offers up this pathetic line under “Treatment”…

“IBS is a chronic disorder with no specific cause, and there is no cure. The patient’s confidence in the physician’s diagnosis, explanation, and reassurance are vital therapeutic tools.”

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