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Why I'm No Longer Staying Quiet During IBS Awareness Month

When my mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer over 20 years ago, she never really talked about it. She didn’t want to make a big deal of it, didn’t want to worry my grandmother or anyone else. She never even really said the “C” word until years later. She just had “a thing taken care of,” and that was the end of it. Even when we started doing events with the American Cancer Society, she was hesitant to own it for herself, to join with others in the Survivor Lap.

Anyone who knows me (or follows my blog) knows I am not shy when it comes to talking about my illnesses. I’ve written posts about Sarcoidosis Awareness Month, Arthritis Walks and advocacy activities and my involvement with World Autoimmune/Autoinflammatory Arthritis Day. It took a little while to get comfortable with that, to get over the embarrassment and the fear of what other people would think of me. Ultimately, I had to just get over it. These illnesses aren’t my fault – I didn’t do anything to bring them on myself – and if writing about them can help anyone else, then that’s more important anyway.

That said, I’ve still been mostly quiet about one illness/area. Physically, the details are not what anyone wants to think about, so I don’t write about them. Psychologically, I was scarred by my third grade teacher: if any student had to go to the bathroom during the school day, she said we had three minutes; any longer and we would be in trouble (she assumed we must’ve been playing, not actually using the facilities). I was conditioned to have this negative association with an entire system; a natural biological process became synonymous with being bad. Even though I now know how wrong she was, it’s been so deeply ingrained that nearly 35 years later I’m still not comfortable discussing it.

I recently discovered that in addition to Sarcoidosis Awareness Month, April is also IBS Awareness Month. My initial instinct was to just let that pass without a word…but then I thought about why I write about the rest.

The shame and secrecy make it so much worse. Maybe if I’d heard people talk openly about this type of thing when I was younger, it wouldn’t have been as bad for me. Maybe I could have spoken up when I was having problems, rather than waiting until I had to be brought to the emergency room at 8 years old. Maybe I wouldn’t have developed such unhealthy habits that only make a “bad” situation worse. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so isolated, living with a problem that I couldn’t talk about and even doctors couldn’t easily explain or resolve.

Instead, I grew up with severe abdominal pains that would literally stop me in my tracks. I grew up never knowing what “regular” was, but usually needing a lot more than three minutes. Decades later I’m still dealing with these problems, and despite countless attempts, my doctors have never found a good solution for me.

The debilitating pain that sent me to the emergency room back in third grade was treated as an isolated incident, but I continued to struggle. We tried to address it again when I was in high school. After the most uncomfortable and embarrassing testing imaginable, my doctor diagnosed me with a “spastic colon” – my intestines were literally having spasms, causing the severe cramping and motility problems. Between that and my headaches, his explanation was simple: “stress really does a number on your body.” While I understand and believe in a mind-body connection, this translated in my 15-year-old brain to saying I could have avoided this if I wasn’t so uptight (and how exactly was I supposed to relax anyway, when I was in that level of pain and he was just shoving medical equipment the wrong way up a one-way street??).

We tried a number of different medications, but none really helped. When that doctor was no longer practicing, I saw someone new who couldn’t find anything wrong with me…and when he couldn’t help, I saw someone else. This was a basic cycle that I repeated every few years: I saw a doctor, he made me feel bad about not looking as awful as I felt and eventually I either gave up on him and figured I’d just have to live with the pain or he gave up on me and referred me to a gynecologist instead (now, in fairness, I did have problems in that area also, but the two weren’t mutually exclusive). Then the pain got worse and I tried another doctor…who also didn’t help, and eventually I gave up on him, too.

At some point, what used to be called a “spastic colon” became more commonly known as irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. I was officially diagnosed with IBS nearly 15 years ago, but the cycle continued just as before. I’ve tried dietary changes, supplements, medications (both prescription and OTC) and alternative therapies, but none have really made a substantial difference yet (I still say “yet,” because I’m not giving up). IBS is something I’ve always had to endure in silence.

bitmoji of woman saying 'shhh...'

When I think about someone else struggling alone in silence though, I have a problem. That’s when I really want to speak up. I don’t want anyone else to feel that they are alone in this. I don’t want anyone else to be too embarrassed to get help, because this is just not the kind of thing we talk about. So as uncomfortable as I am writing this (and as much anxiety as the idea of posting it publicly is giving me), that’s what IBS Awareness Month is about.

So if you are struggling with IBS, or think you may be, here’s what I can offer based on a lifetime of living with it:

1. You are not alone. IBS affects one in five people in the US. Statistically, that means four other kids from my third grade class could have been dealing with this, too. If we could have talked about it back then, we probably would’ve figured out for ourselves how wrong our teacher was to put that kind of pressure on us. We would have known it wasn’t just us, it wasn’t our fault and it wasn’t our dirty little secret to keep for the rest of our lives.

2. There is no normal. Even without any underlying problem, people digest at their own pace, so don’t try to compare yourself to what you think is the “right” frequency. There is no “right” frequency.

3. Trust your gut. Well, your metaphorical gut, anyway. If something doesn’t feel right, get it checked out. If your “pace” or pain level changes and you’re feeling concerned, get it checked out. As uncomfortable as it may be, it is always better to know what’s going on. If something is developing, you can address it before it gets worse. If it’s not, you can save yourself the stress of imagining the worst (which could, in fact, make things worse).

4. It’s OK to talk about it. If you’re not comfortable discussing IBS with people in your life, look to the IBS community. Find a support group, in person or online. There you will find people who understand what you’re going through, who won’t judge you or look at you any differently. The reality is that most people who care about you probably wouldn’t either, but I understand what it’s like to have that fear.

5. Never give up hope. It’s true, there is no cure for IBS and no one-size-fits-all treatment answer, either. But there are options. Even though I’m not a “success story” myself, there are many who have found relief through diet, medication and alternative therapies. And while I won’t hold my breath for it, I still hold on to hope that my time will come. And yours will, too.

This post originally appeared on Float Like a Buttahfly.

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