When we’re young, we may think whatever we experience is the norm (we continue to make these types of assumptions in adulthood). I don’t know when I became “irregular”, perhaps I always was. What I do know is that my struggle with digestion, problems with bloating and constipation, and other IBS symptoms set in at an early age.
When we took our family dog, Abby, to the vet, they always asked us to point to a picture on a stool chart. We were being asked to select the photograph which most closely indicated the consistency of her poop. Sometimes, we even brought in samples for the lab. In all my years of receiving medical care, I don’t remember seeing a chart like that for humans.
FYI: There is a chart! Poop and You does an amazing job of breaking it down. They talk, not just about consistency, but also color, size, and the range of time it is appropriate to spend on the commode.
My Struggle with Digestion During The Teen Years
By the time I was in high school, I imagine the last significant conversation I had around bowel movements was when my parents deemed me officially potty trained. Unfortunately, I don’t personally remember the auspicious occasion.
The first time I do remember contemplating how my – movements – compared to others was my junior-ish year of high school. I had a friend, let’s call him Josh, who was going home sick one day, following lunch. It wasn’t the first time. In fact, he made quite a habit of it. I was curious, perhaps even a little concerned, and asked him what was wrong.
It turned out, he went home “sick” whenever he had to “do a number two”.
Shocked, I blurted out, “But you go home after lunch almost every day!”
It was more a question than a statement (I don’t always phrase questions in obvious ways). He likely thought my shock was in response to his overly lackadaisical attitude towards his education.
The truth is that I was, for the first time, realizing people were pooping daily!
My Struggle with Digestion in Early Adulthood
I’ve told a handful of people that in my twenties, for about three years, I went to the bathroom at a gas station down the street, rather than at home. I usually explain to them that I didn’t want my roommate to realize I did that kind of thing.
Sometimes, half-jokingly, I’ve brought gender into the story – women aren’t supposed to do that… It’s just not ladylike (anyone who knew me in high school sees the irony in that statement).
It is true, I don’t want people to hear, or smell, what goes on behind closed bathroom doors. Does anyone?
What I always left out (just between you and I) is that I also went to a gas station because I required an industrial grade flush.
I want to pause and say…
I truly hope that sharing my history is helpful to others. This topic is exceptionally taboo. It is difficult for me to write about, and I’m an extremely open person.
I’m deliberately trying not to contemplate possible ramifications of putting my story out into the world (wide web).
The point is, I didn’t wake up one day and say,
“I want people to associate me with digestive issues.”
I did wake up one day and think,
“Would my struggle have been easier if people were more willing to talk openly about digestive processes?”
Thankfully, in the last few years, groups have been created on Facebook, Reddit, etc. where someone with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can find others with similar issues, ask questions, and share their stories.
Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go in raising public awareness.
Thirty, but not Exactly Thriving
One morning, when I was in my thirties (great decade), I woke up in pain. Many years earlier, I’d developed hemorrhoids while delivering my first child.
My hemorrhoids had flared up occasionally, ever since, due to heavy pushing, which often coincided with toilet plunging. I even had slight amounts of blood, now and then.
Unfortunately, this time was different, the pain was unbearable. It was so excruciating that I debated heading to the emergency room. Instead, I drew a hot bath to sit in. I was up most of the night, which is exactly what I was trying to avoid by not visiting the emergency room…
I may have dozed off a few times, hanging over the side of the tub. Luckily, I had drained and refilled the water so many times, I started settling for only an inch or so (barely enough to drown in). Each time I turned the faucet on, I braced for cold water, but thankfully it never came to that.
If I did doze off a few times, you would not know it by how exhausted I was when 8 am rolled around. At the time, I was a community college instructor and it was finals week. I was positive that nothing in the world would prevent me from attending my 10 o’clock class.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
Frantic, and desperately in need of some relief, I called my primary care provider, who referred me to a specialist. She had me come in for an appointment at 9 am.
I’ll never forget the doctor’s reaction when she looked at my rear end. It was something like “Holy Crap! That is the worst thrombosed hemorrhoid I have ever seen!” (I used quotes here to indicate she was speaking, but I’m pretty sure those weren’t her exact words).
I responded by saying something like, “So can I get some medicine? I have to be at work soon.”
She actually laughed at me. Then she told me I would be in surgery within the hour.
My students might cringe if they knew I was grading papers on my phone, right up to the point of unconsciousness (I was clearly not prioritizing self-care at that time).
Not pushing was difficult to imagine. Previously, I had been using birthing techniques to bring my poop into the world.
After surgery I went back to work, and I spent most of the spring semester trying not to pass gas while I was lecturing. I started a high-fiber diet in an attempt to soften my stools. On the toilet, I practiced deep breathing while twisting, turning, and lifting my legs – basically chair yoga with Lamaze breathing.
I did quit pushing! But my constipation, bloating, and gas issues grew worse, year after year. I tried many diets, with little to no success. I gave up drinking through straws and chewing bubble gum. I was slowly drowning in a sea of seemingly good advice.
I could ramble on endlessly about all of the things I tried (unsuccessfully), but I feel it would be more helpful to jump ahead a decade.
Forty and Fabulous, but Still Struggling
I finally discussed my digestive issues with my primary doctor. Looking back, I’m not sure why it took so long to make that leap. I suppose there were many reasons. I usually went to the doctor when I was sick, and we discussed my illness. Perhaps I didn’t feel the symptoms were severe enough to warrant medical advice. Perhaps I didn’t see bloating as a medical issue. I do have a tendency to push on until something interferes with my ability to work, to be productive.
I was relieved when my provider said I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Technically IBS-C, which denotes the direction of my digestive issues (some people go too much rather than too little, and others bounce back and forth between the two extremes).
You Have to Name It to Tame It!
IBS symptoms can be controlled through:
Although stress and anxiety don’t cause IBS, they often exacerbate symptoms.
Medication is my least favorite way to manage anything (although I do take an antihistamine many, if not most, days). My life experience has brought me to view medication as more likely to create constipation than relieve it.
So although I was anxious to end my struggle with digestion, I left my provider’s office, that day, without a prescription. What I did leave with was a diagnosis. I felt empowered in having a new term to research. And, as a back-up (plan B), I grabbed some MiraLAX Laxative Powder.
That doctor, and many health care providers since, have assured me that MiraLAX is a laxative I can take daily without fear of harmful side effects or otherwise damaging my body. So, for a while, that is what I did.
How Many People Struggle with Digestion?
One day, during the daily laxative phase, I was at the store with my son. Among other things, I needed to pick up more MiraLAX. When we arrived in the “tummy issue isle”, we were confronted with an empty shelf. There were, minimally, seven (seriously seven) empty rows where powder laxatives had been displayed – it looked like the bread aisle before a winter blizzard.
My son, shocked and alarmed, looked at me and asked, “Are there any adults that can digest their food?”
I didn’t know how common digestive issues were, so I did what people do these days when they don’t know something, I asked Google…
Running the Numbers
According to Facts about IBS, created by the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, Inc.
- Between 25 and 45 million people in the U.S.
- 10-15% of the population (globally)
- Many of those affected do not seek medical care
- Symptoms can impact every area of a person’s life
- The stigma which prevents open discussion of digestive processes is a HUGE barrier to seeking support and care
Does Everyone Struggling with Digestion have IBS?
There are many other digestive issues, some produce symptoms nearly indistinguishable from IBS. People suffer from: Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, heartburn, or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), to name a few. It is important to have a medical provider diagnose what is causing your symptoms.
Gas, Bloating, and Abdominal Distention
Although knowledge is power, my struggle with digestion has continued…
Scenario #1: What’s in Your Closet?
SO: Why do you own so many pants?
CD: I don’t know what size I’ll be tomorrow. I’m prepared for every waistline from bikini model to delivery day.
Scenario #2: In the Danger Zone
SO: Hey! I’m right behind you!
CD: Sorry, I didn’t know that was going to happen… (cute, apologetic face)
SO: Don’t you know when you’re going to fart?
CD: I’m always holding back a fart (like the hulk is always mad), sometimes one just slips out…
Forty (something), and Figuring It Out
My struggle with digestion came to an end after a conversation. I was talking to a friend at a weekend dance workshop, who in addition to being an amazing dancer, is a dietician working with the Veterans Health Administration. For whatever reason, my digestive issues had come up in conversation, possibly in response to finding out about her profession.
She listened, then asked if I had ever tried the Low FODMAP Diet, developed by researchers at Monash University. I hadn’t, but did shortly thereafter.
The diet was helpful for a couple of reasons. Most notably – IT WORKED! But also, it was confusing and counterintuitive, which forced me to become proactive.
Once I’d become proactive, I started to make a variety of changes in my life, beyond diet. Most notably, my approach to fitness, relaxation, and (begrudgingly) hydration has shifted.
Sometimes Things Have to be Experienced to be Understood
It is an understatement to say that these changes were life-changing!
I only grasped how lousy I’d been feeling when I had something to compare it with. By the time the symptoms had eased or disappeared completely, I’d been struggling with digestion so consistently, for so long, that I no longer realized there was another possible reality. My symptoms were just – part of who I was. The potential for feeling different was not even on my radar.
Barely a week into my new lifestyle, I was – a different person. I may never be regular, but I do feel (minimally) 10 years younger!