In my junior year of college, I noticed a picture of a t-shirt someone posted on Facebook. It read “Girls don’t poop.” At first I just laughed at how ridiculous it sounded. Everyone poops. But then I evaluated my own situation and realized after four years of having Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), I still wasn’t comfortable being more upfront about my condition and respective needs.
IBS was not something I understood until I had it. I lived a fairly regular (hah!) life until halfway through my junior year of high school. The day I returned to class after Christmas vacation, I found myself in the girls’ bathroom every five minutes. At first I assumed I was just reacting to an overly-decadent holiday diet. After a few days, I figured I just had a stomach bug. After a few weeks on the toilet and clutching my stomach in the nurse’s office, my mom took me to a gastroenterologist. The examination was less than pleasant to say the least, but eye-opening. I learned how many people deal with IBS, that the symptoms can be managed, and that I will probably have it for life.
By the time my senior year rolled around, I developed a pretty good diet and schedule to manage my symptoms. It was far from a perfect situation, but at least I was able to get through my school day. I had gone through a variety of different diets and medicines and had barely discussed my problem with my friends, referring to my situation as having a “sensitive stomach.” Now I’m in graduate school six years later and my confidence has returned, probably stronger than before. But as someone that falls on the severe end of the IBS spectrum, getting here wasn’t easy and I still have bad days. Here are some tips I’ve gathered over the years that will hopefully bring others with IBS some comfort:
1. Know where the bathrooms are.
Stress aggravates my IBS more than anything, and nothing is more stressful than not knowing where the can is. Wherever I go, I tend to scan the room first. It puts me at ease. If you find yourself skeeved out using a public bathroom, or one that’s not your own, try discreetly packing some sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer.
2. Be upfront about your needs in your professional life.
Professors can’t help you if they don’t understand your condition and might mistake frequent bathroom breaks for disinterest in their class, an excuse to text, or even an opportunity for cheating during an exam. You wouldn’t want your employer to mistake the same for laziness. It may be embarrassing to talk about at first, but it will save you an even more uncomfortable situation down the road. If you’re still not ready for a face-to-face conversation, an explanatory email works just as well.
3. Be upfront about your needs in your personal life.
Your friends will still like you, I promise. They might not fully understand how IBS works but being up front is the start to hanging out with them like you used to. Real friends won’t pressure you to eat certain foods or do certain activities if they know you can’t handle it. The same goes for relationships. It took me nearly seven months before I felt comfortable enough to fully explain my condition to my boyfriend, which was ultimately the best decision. He doesn’t think any less of me for it. He also likes to update me on his ‘schedule’ to make me feel better. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.
4. Be smart about your eating schedule.
Buffalo chicken wings and fries for dinner might leave you feeling subpar for your exam the next day. I personally try not to eat greasy food late at night because it takes my body longer to digest, so I usually cut myself off around 9pm. If you stop at Chipotle on a road trip with friends (which has happened) avoid beans, cheese, onions and anything else that is likely to bother you. I love eggplant but it’s very acidic, so telling my Italian grandmother that I can’t eat her eggplant parm when I have a big conference the next morning is difficult but necessary. If you can’t manage sushi before going to the movies, be upfront with your date and suggest eating something else or having dinner after the movie.
5. Realize that not all cases of IBS are the same.
Some people have strictly one type of IBS. There’s IBS-D(iarrhea), IBS-C(onstipation) and IBS-U/IBS-A, a combination of both. Probiotics can help but there is no cookie-cutter solution for one or all types. Before going to a gastroenterologist, my pediatrician prescribed dicyclomine, which has been known to treat some cases of IBS. It didn’t work for me, but there are a lot of options out there, so seeing a specialist to determine what’s right for you is totally worth the visit.
6. Realize that some people will just not understand.
Last year, a classmate had asked me why I wasn’t eating corn at a school barbeque. At first I kept it simple, telling him that corn upsets my stomach. After more questions such as “Are you allergic?” and “If you’re not allergic, what’s wrong with you?” I finally told him I have IBS. He responded with “Ew, TMI.” I would refer to this as a case of immaturity on his part. However, we live in a society where talking about poop is somewhat taboo, seemingly more so if you’re a woman, so I’m not surprised at how frequent this type of response is.
7. Understand that IBS can potentially worsen your period cramps.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish what type of pelvic pain you’re experiencing, but studies have linked an increase in IBS symptoms during menstruation. This is a time to be extra sensitive to your diet and exercise routine. During this point in my cycle, I tend to do slower workouts, more stretches, and rely more on the exercise ball. If you’re a male, you’re not totally out of the woods. Gastrointestinal disorders have also been linked to increased sexual disfunction in men.
8. Don’t psych yourself out.
Fear of having to go to the bathroom caused me to miss out on many opportunities that I’ll never get back. I canceled a trip to Europe, missed an awards ceremony, my friend’s recital, and some of my siblings’ sporting events. I also skipped a bunch of classes, stopped going to church for a while, and even postponed my Drivers Ed classes. Last year, I decided to go on a road trip from New York to Florida with my boyfriend and three friends. I was absolutely worried about being trapped in a car with four people for so many hours. Did my stomach act up during our trip? Definitely. Do I regret going? Definitely not. I would have missed out on a boat-load of fun activities if I had decided to play it safe and stay home.