warning: this essay can get kinda gross. it’s not something one enjoys talking about, especially at a dinner party.
The Relationship I Formed With My Body During IBS
I’ve always had a complex relationship with poop. The word, the sound of the word, the actual thing, the smell, the fact that we all do it and just that pooping even exists – I intellectually understood the benefits, but I never ever enjoyed one bit of it. Until – I had to.
My entire life I would cringe anytime someone brought up anything that had to do with doing number two. I would cover my ears when the subject matter was brought up in conversation and purposely not laugh when “poop” was used as a punchline. Oh and in the early 2000s “poop” was always the punchline (or “yo mama”). It became such a thing in my life to find people telling poop stories around me. My high school drama teacher had this story she would tell about ‘poop brownies’, maybe they thought some brownies were made with poop or something, I don’t know, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. But it was her go to story, like, every year! It wasn’t funny to me. It was something everyone did in the privacy of their own stall, (or in Michael J. Fox’s case, your own home – he had OCD couldn’t do it anywhere else) and we all knew everyone partook in this activity, but as a society we should not talk about it.
As it turns out the universe was planning the joke on me. Because at 22 years old I was diagnosed with IBS. Irritable Bowl Syndrome. Not only IBS, IBS-D, as in diarrhea. As opposed to IBS-C where the main issue is constipation. Basically, jokes on me, I couldn’t stop shitting. I began to have strong abdominal pain after I ate anything. I’ve always had a bit of a lactose issue (thanks for passing that down mom!), and a sensitive tummy, yet I would still test my luck because ice cream is just too dang good! It began to get worse and worse no matter what I ate, and for the better part of a year everything, and I mean everything, I consumed made me practically shit my pants. (Thankfully never literally!)
The worst of it was when I had just started dating my boyfriend, and we were doing laundry and accidentally got locked out of my house. I went to pick up the keys from my roommate at work and we decided to stop by Trader Joes and just knock the grocery shopping out of the way to make a ‘shitty’ (lol) situation into a ‘getting errands done situation’. I hadn’t eaten anything yet that day and decided to test my luck with a Trader Joes sample, a small bite of cheese on a cracker. (Kind of basic sample there.) I know, I shouldn’t have tested it with what was going down with my intestines, but I was so hungry, it was the smallest bite, and I love a free food. I ate the cheese and by the time we got through the massive TJ’s NYC line I knew I was done for. My stomach started twisting and turning with loud noises and this time with extreme back pain. The train would be 20 minutes to home, there was nowhere to use the bathroom, and I had literally just started dating this guy! We had never even done a cute grocery trip together before! Now this! I wanted to DIE, physically and emotionally.
I ran from the train straight for the toilet in hopes of he somehow wouldn’t think I was having extreme diarrhea, or at least wouldn’t ask me about it. He didn’t. I came out of the bathroom exhausted. That’s the thing about IBS, it not only hurts physically, but your entire body feels like it just ran a marathon or got hit by a car because it literally couldn’t process the food that it thought was trying to poison you. It hurts, like a lot. I was emotionally exhausted from the sheer embarrassment of it all. I tried to eat some plain white rice so my body would actually feel full on something that can’t kill me and stop the lower back pain by lying down.
Eventually, it wasn’t just, milk, cheese, chocolate that made my stomach bubble. It was anything I ate. I had pushed my limits on lactose and now stomach was out to get me. I had to talk about poop. I had to tell someone what was going on.
I would eat and not even five minutes would pass and I would find myself in the bathroom scrolling through the same Instagram pictures for the twentieth time completely emptying my Colon. It was an extremely odd intimate relationship I formed with my body, I could feel the food passing through my intestines turning into liquid until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to get it OUT.
Leaving the bathroom, I felt exhausted. Truly mentally and physically. Sometimes it would be so painful it would result in endless pushing and tears to do something everyone does! Or I would be so overcome with the “why me” conundrum I could just start crying from the sheer embarrassment of having to spend another half hour in the bathroom. I would call my mom from the bathroom at work sobbing at least once a day. I was so extremely weird to go through something so painfully and not be able to tell people around me. “Sorry my face is all red and I keep clutching at my ribs while whispering at my stomach to leave me alone. I just spent the better part of an hour with my pants pulled down, going over everything I ate this week. Praying my asshole would eventually just part ways with my butt.”
IBS can bring up all kinds of symptoms other than texting your mom “I love you if I don’t make it” and being the pickiest eater at the dinner party. Losing weight, eating disorders, light headedness, low energy, etc. The mind begins to say “oh not this again” when it comes to food simply for the fear of the aftermath. You start to do the mental math of how long after eating you’d be on the toilet, so you just don’t do it.
It was too much. I began to fear something was really really wrong. When I was 14, my Dad passed away after getting his colon removed. He had been admitted to the hospital with stomach pain after his emergency colonoscopy it was determined his colon was way too far gone and had to be taken out right then. He later died from a blood clot in result of the surgery. We found out after the fact that he had suffered from Crohn’s disease. A chronic inflammatory bowel disease that affects the lining of the digestive tract. By the time he did anything about it it was too late.
It was so close to home for me to have lower stomach pain. I tried to decipher it as many other things; getting my period, just being stressed, once I even had a therapist tell me it was ghost pains because I was sad about my father’s death. (I mean yeah, but it the pain became real, very real.) Yes, my Dad has very similar issues to mine, but never in his twenties. I worried about my symptoms being so in line with his. I worried by colon was destroyed and I would never be able to eat normal food or use the bathroom normally again.
I spent my Thanksgiving break back at home at my family doctor getting a colposcopy. Yep, I flashed forward to my 50-year-old self and drank the truly vile liquid cleanse (not like there was anything to get out, the whole problem was everything was coming out!) and got a tube stuck up my butt and down my throat to take pictures of my colon. Thankfully, I was under anesthesia and the following day was Thanksgiving so I got to eat as much as I wanted after not being able to eat anything.
I awoke in confusion and tears (IBS brings lots of tears!) when I thought I heard the doctor telling my mom I had Crohn’s which would be a life changing diagnosis. Instead I misheard in my anesthesia dreams and was told I have IBS and it is manageable and fixable. Thank goodness. This overwhelming confusing year of pain resulted in a pill three times a day for a few months and a pill that dissolved under my tongue whenever my stomach was in really terrible pain, and to my amazement things started to change and feel better and eating stopped being enemy.
I did choose to change my relationship to food for the following year. I cut way back on meat, I basically cut it out. Much less dairy and candy. I now eat thoughtfully with what will bring my body the most happiness and joy everyday. I don’t believe in ultimatums and that we can only do one thing forever but I do think it’s good to try different lifestyles on. Doing whatever makes you feel the best! My body and I are a team. I have to eat thoughtfully to have enough fuel and energy to be me. Going through IBS pain tested my willingness to truly know and listen to myself. To tell myself my feelings, my pain, my emotions are always valid. To listen when my body says it’s had enough, and to not eat the sample cheese.
I’m so glad I got over my fear of talking about poop. It literally saved my life.
By Rachel Deutsch
Photo by Rachel Deutsch