How to Navigate Social Situations When You Have a Digestive Disease
Diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, gas, fatigue, abdominal pain. There’s not much else that makes maintaining a social life harder than having a digestive disease. Whether you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), intolerances or anything in between, you know what it’s like have not-so-fun symptoms kill your social status.
Parties, functions, events, dinners, dates and even coffee with your bestie can suddenly become incredibly daunting. Having gastro symptoms hit when you’re out and about can seriously dent your confidence to be social again. And here’s the kicker – anxiety and stress are likely to worsen your gastrointestinal symptoms. It’s a nasty cycle. And one that’s important to work through.
You shouldn’t have to avoid socializing because you’re unwell. Seeing a familiar face and having lighthearted small talk may be just what you need to get through your next difficult week. My digestive disease hit when I had just moved to a new country, so you can imagine I had all sorts of obstacles trying to fit in. I’ve learned a few strategies over time that have helped me fight the monster in my gut trying to stop me from having fun:
Prepare for Your Food and Beverage Needs
Depending on your illness, you may have a restricted diet or be avoiding alcohol. This can be hard to navigate at a place that isn’t home. If you’re going to a venue, do some research on their menu. Bring some gut-friendly food if you’re invited over to friends’ places or heading to an event. Even consider eating before going anywhere. Showing up late and avoiding most of the food is better than not showing up at all. Not only will this limit stomach disasters and stress, it means you’ll avoid any conversations about weird fad diets when people see you’re eating differently (one of my biggest pet peeves).
If you’re off booze and want to avoid attention, try an alternative drink like sparkling apple juice, soda water or tea. Having something to hold and sip during those potentially awkward conversations can ease some anxiety. You should never feel like you must avoid food situations. If someone invites you out for a meal you know you can’t eat, saying something like, “Sorry, I’m intolerant to that kind of food but I’d love to try (insert food/drink you can have)” is a great way to avoid missing out on new friends. I invite my friends over for iced tea and almond milk lattes when I want to be in a comfortable environment.
Bring Every Possible Medication You Could Need
Even if you’re feeling fine that day, having your medication can ease your stress levels. Hide your emergency medication in your bag and don’t be afraid to slip away and take some if you need. Big bags with lots of hidden pockets make stashing meds easy. I don’t leave the house without painkillers and anti-nausea pills. It’s not only great for me, but has made me the hero when other people get sick. My friends now jokingly refer to me as the “walking pharmacy.” There is never a situation I’m not prepared for.
Have an Exit Strategy
No need to commit yourself to a whole event. If you’re going to a function, it’s perfectly fine to drop in, make light conversation and leave. There’s also no harm in a little white lie to get out quick if things are turning south and you’re not comfortable explaining your debilitating diarrhea. Need an excuse? Try saying you have a family commitment, you’ve got to catch up with an old friend or you’re trying a new early morning workout or hike you want to be fresh for. It’s perfectly OK to stay home too. Don’t push through illness when it’s at its worst. Staying social is a great boost for your mental health, but you’re not going to enjoy a party when you’re too sick to function. There will always be another event. Send a polite message to the host and stay connected with friends so you’re not left off future guest lists.
Find a Safety-Net Friend
Not everyone knows the battle you’re fighting, and you may not want to talk it over with new faces. Just having one good friend looking out for you can get you through a long night. Someone who knows how hard it is for you to socialize, and is happy to put your health first. Just a quick glance, smile or sneaky eye-roll to a friend can save some awkward social situations. It also reduces anxiety knowing you have someone to pull aside if you’ve had enough or need a breather.
Talk About Other People
When you’re chronically ill, basic questions like “What kind of work do you do?” and “What do you want to be in the future?” can leave you stressed and scrambling to think of an appropriate response. For a long time, my full-time job was getting well, and I did not want to discuss my fight with new people. When I wanted to stay out of the limelight, I learned most people’s favorite topic of conversation is not you, but themselves. Ask about their job, partner, mutual friends, kids, workout routine, outfit – anything. If a question you don’t want to answer comes up, answer broadly and relate the conversation back to them, or a mutual friend. I’m often asked about my studies or job and it breaks my heart because I quit my job and put my studies on hold when I was too unwell. I don’t want to talk about it with acquaintances, but I can make an easy segue to their current or previous studies. Upsetting conversation avoided!
Be Honest and Open When It’s Safe
It can be very hard to talk openly about your digestion, and unfortunately many people are uncomfortable with the topic. You need people in your life who understand your condition and know how to support you when you need it. That being said, it’s usually not wise to open with back-to-back stories of diarrhea (unless you’re a champion with jokes).
When I first got sick, I would downplay my symptoms and act like I was OK. This took a huge toll on my mental health and I started avoiding people altogether because I couldn’t keep up with my old social life. Learning to open up to my friends was one of my biggest battles. Talking to new people can be even harder. I’ve learned to be clear and concise, but leave out some of the more gruesome details until I know them better. “I have a digestive disease that interferes with my life from time to time, but I enjoy doing (insert achievable activity)” is a good response when organizing social activities. When I started dating my boyfriend, we switched dinner dates and weekend getaways for movies, short walks and yoga.
Take a Moment to Breathe
Never underestimate the power of deep, calm breaths. Excuse yourself for a minute if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Don’t forget to tell yourself how amazing you are doing. When I’m feeling positive, I write myself little notes on my phone like “You are stronger than most people know,” and “Anyone would be scared in your situation – it’s so impressive you don’t let it hold you back.”
When I’m having a hard time, a quick glance to my phone can really lift my spirits – especially when I’m around people who don’t understand what I’m going through. It reminds me I don’t need to impress anyone; I impress myself every day. Getting out and socializing when you’re battling disease makes you an absolute warrior. The people in the room may not know or understand that, but no one can take that away from you.
Have Understanding for Others
While it’s important to have friends who understand you, you also need to be aware of how new people may react to your condition. Most people don’t have experience with digestive disease and have never put much thought into it. Throwing them in the deep end of your symptoms over light dinner and drinks may not be your best move. My diagnosis has changed more times than I can count. Without having a clear label, this makes it even more difficult to explain to new people and even good friends.
Sometimes I have to take a step back and think about other people’s positions. Chronic illness has an impact beyond your own struggles. It can change the lives of those around you. Sometimes people will make mistakes or say the wrong thing. It can hurt, but they probably don’t understand the disease like you do. Have patience and talk over issues calmly. Most people will want to support you. That being said, if someone repeatedly reacts negatively to you or your condition, they’re not the kind of person you want in your life.
The most important thing to remember is not to isolate yourself further than your disease already does. You deserve the support of your peers and the joy of staying social in whatever way you can.
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Thinkstock photo via Kane Skennar.