Monday, October 5, 2009

IBS and me: a brief history

Just a heart-shaped emptiness where my stomach should be, surrounded by spongy, deteriorating flesh.

That's what I dreamed I saw in the mirror. I stood there, naked, knowing there was no cure, desperately wishing for a miracle drug.

I have irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, also known by the more colorful name of "spastic colon." What this means is my small intestine often rebels against me, causing pain, nausea, and diarrhea or constipation. It's about as fun as it sounds.

You know when people say they have a "sensitive stomach"? Well, people with IBS literally have sensitive stomachs, or rather, sensitive small intestines. You can see the difference for yourself here. The IBS-afflicted intestine looks like it's having a panic attack, which it might well be.

I also have depression and anxiety. These range in severity from crippling to mildly annoying, depending on the day, the season, how much stress I'm under, and how well I've been doing lately. Comorbid anxiety and depression are very common in people with IBS. Did my depression and anxiety cause my stomach to go crazy, or did my stomach going crazy make my anxiety and depression worse? Possibly the former--definitely the latter.

You see, as annoying as it is, IBS was a wake-up call. In the late summer of 2006, I had been coasting along in a state of mild depression for three years, ever since I graduated college. Though I couldn't see it, it was getting gradually worse, and after or during a particularly bad series of days--I don't remember exactly when it started--I suddenly couldn't eat anything without experiencing stomach cramps and diarrhea. My appetite was still there, so I was in tears half the time--my body wanted me to eat, but it was rejecting everything I gave it. I had no idea what was wrong. I spiraled into constant and severe anxiety, which brought its faithful friend, depression.

It took doctors the better part of six months to diagnose me. I spent those six months living at my parents' house, my childhood home, the only place I felt safe. I had CT scans, ultrasounds, enemas, a colonoscopy, an endoscopy, stool sample tests, blood tests. I had to drink a gallon of laxative-spiked gatorade*, drink a bunch of water and then not pee for several hours, collect my shit in a plastic bowl, and other indignities. My diet shrank to rice, lentil soup, herbal tea, dry cereal, and white-meat chicken. I lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 pounds. My clothes hung off me. Twice, I didn't make it to the bathroom in time, and had accidents usually only associated with small children and the very old. And the whole time, I was trying out different medications for anxiety and depression, all of which came with their own side effects, some related to digestion, some not.

*I am never drinking gatorade again as long as I live.

Eventually, I was prescribed a medication (amitriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant) that calmed down my stomach enough that eating was no longer excruciating, and I didn't have to run to the bathroom as frequently. Eventually, my anxiety lessened. Eventually, with the help of medications and therapy, I pulled myself out of the depths of depression. So sometimes I'm grateful for IBS, because without it, I don't know how long it would have been before I realized I needed help.

Today, IBS is something I live with. I've slowly added most foods back into my diet, although I still avoid dairy products--not easy in America's Dairyland--and high-fat foods like peanut butter. I gained the weight back. I've added a medication to my regimen that slows my digestion even more, although it wasn't prescribed for that purpose. I have some kind of abdominal pain every couple of days, and it gets worse when I'm stressed, but severe attacks are few and far between.

These days it's a reminder: not all illnesses are visible. Anyone you encounter could be dealing with chronic pain, mental illness, an invisible disability. There are things people don't talk about, because they fear stigma, or they think they'll be branded a whiner because their illness or disability isn't immediately apparent (or not as severe as others), or people will tell them it's all in their head. But these things exist, and they're real. And millions of people deal with them every day.

Maybe if my stomach was being visibly eaten away from some kind of wasting disease, like I saw in my dream, I wouldn't feel so self-conscious every time I ask someone to cover the front desk at my job so I can run to the bathroom. Maybe I wouldn't feel embarrassed about staying in the bathroom so long. Maybe I wouldn't feel so isolated every time people offer me pizza or ice cream, or every time every item on the restaurant menu has cheese in it. Maybe I wouldn't feel so lazy when I get tired more easily than other people, or when the pain of an attack leaves me exhausted for the rest of the day, or when my medication makes me sleepy and lethargic.

But at least IBS is physical. It's something I can tell people about, even if they don't want to know the details. Mental illness is much harder to mention casually in conversation.

More on that tomorrow someday.

1 comment:

  1. I have had IBS since I was about 7. Mine is based solely on certain foods and stress. They didn't have any cure for it then, and I am sure they don't now. It's completely sporadic and medicine, in my opinion, would be waste of time and money. They told me that IBS was solely stress related, although I don't know how much I believe that. I have gotten IBS during my happiest times as often as my worst. "Getting IBS" meaning going through a general 3 hour episode of it. No one can comprehend the excruciating stomach aches it causes. I wish I could explain it to some. I wouldn't doubt that it is worse than child birth, not for a moment.

    I never knew what IBS ACTUALLY was. I am glad you explained it. And to formulate a guess on your question, I feel that stress/depression/anxiety came first. I have been that way since I can remember. Always thought too much, worried, broke every conversation down into its purest most simple form. That is when the stomach aches started.

    In any case. Good/bad to know that someone else is also going through this. I am glad you are getting better. I don't have my episodes as often anymore. But I have to stay away from certain foods. Keeping track of my stress level, however, is impossible seeing as most of it is subconscious. But anyways. Figured I would put a comment here. This hit home for me. If only I could tell you how much I understand.