Losing My Shit: What It Feels Like to Deal with IBS
I've been struggling with irritable bowel syndrome for seven years and counting.
Illustration by Heather Benjamin
It was on a fateful summer evening in Brooklyn that I first discovered the joys of urban gardening as they mingled with the horrors of the flesh. I had purchased my first Four Loko (this was probably around 2009) and met up with friends at McCarren Park before heading to a nearby party. After downing the devil's nectar, I began to feel my insides rebel against me. I told my friends to block me while I peed on a nearby tree. Noticing a different soundtrack than what they'd expected, they turned around to witness me taking a full-fledged shit in the moonlight. Little did we all know that as my excrement fertilized the soil, a new health condition was blossoming inside my gastrointestinal tract.
"Damn. Are you hungry or what?" a classmate asked me, nudging my side with a granola bar a couple weeks after my incident in the park. It was becoming painfully clear that something bigger than a can of malt liquor was fucking up my body. We were sitting uncomfortably close in psychology class and my stomach was talking more than I had all semester. Well, it wasn't technically my stomach—the sounds were coming from my intestines. How could I explain that I wasn't hungry? I accepted the food and feigned gratitude, then ditched class during the break and tossed the granola bar in the garbage.
By that point, I had started shitting as many as eight times a day, and my bowels sounded like a bad noise band. Shortly after, a sex partner woke up to my digestive system soundtrack and asked me if I had salmonella. Soon, I began skipping classes and dipping out of social events early. I kept a food diary and cut different things out of my diet including gluten, dairy, drugs, and alcohol. I tried over-the-counter medication—but nothing worked. I was in constant pain.
Exasperated and out of options, I visited a gastroenterologist. "Your symptoms are all over the place," he said. "Let's have you collect some stool samples and determine next steps." Let me be clear here—I didn't have any interest in this one-girl-three cups scenario. I'm a busy person. I didn't have time to sit around trying to defecate in containers all day. So I brought my little shit cups around town with me and didn't think much of it.
Related: VICE follows poop from your butt to the big-money biosolid business and beyond.
Toward the end of the week, I had filled all the cups and met up with some people at a club. "No offense but you look way better in your picture," a bouncer said to me as he eyed my fake ID, which had belonged to some beleaguered 32-year-old named Therese. "OK, open up your bag." I unzipped in slow motion. Three tubes of my excrement were suddenly in the spotlight. "What the fuck? Please don't let that be what I think it is. Just go in—seriously, that's fucking nasty."
Later, I submitted my biohazardous clubbing accessories to the doctor. All tests for infection or parasites came back negative. A fair number of gastrointestinal illnesses were ruled out, but my diagnosis remained unclear. We moved from medical first base all the way to home plate: I had a simultaneous endoscopy and colonoscopy, the NC-17 cut of Osmosis Jones. Once again, there were no definite signs of a serious condition. He shrugged and diagnosed me with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), sometimes referred to as spastic colon.
"I got stomach pain / Don't matter sun or rain / Thought that it went away / Uh-oh, here it come again." —Cam'ron
Classified as a common functional gastrointestinal disorder, IBS affects more than 30 million Americans. Every year in the US, the illness results in 3.6 million trips to physicians, an estimated $10 billion in direct medical costs, and is one of the leading causes of missed work days (second only to the "common cold"). It affects roughly twice as many women as men, making it easier to shit on the patriarchy. April is designated National Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness month to bring light to a literally shitty situation. Plenty of celebrities have been outspoken members of the spastic-colon club, including Jenny McCarthy, JFK, Tyra Banks, and possibly even Kurt Cobain.
The pop culture reference that most clearly strikes a chord with my colon is the musical story of our shared affliction, "IBS" by Cam'ron. In this bowel-wrenching ballad, he raps about being misdiagnosed as "a dope addict" and enduring discomfort that interferes with daily life: "I got stomach pain / Don't matter sun or rain / Thought that it went away / Uh-oh, here it come again." It's a great song to play to cover up intestinal sounds or listen to on repeat while doubled over in pain in the bathroom for 30 minutes or more.
Irritable bowel syndrome is the medical equivalent of an unlikable extended family member. It isn't life-threatening, but it's annoying as hell and you're stuck with it. Once you have it, you can't really get rid of it—you normally experience symptoms for the duration of your life. It comes and goes as it pleases but overstays its welcome regularly. Manifestations vary extensively—some people may defecate way too much with diarrhea, deal with constipation, or experience anything in between.
I experience diarrhea alternating with constipation, the best of both worlds. I also regularly experience extreme bloating and abdominal pain. Sometimes the gas is so painful that I fantasize about being a sheep and imagine a farmer that looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt inserting a long, medicating needle into my intestines. Since IBS symptoms are unique to each individual, experimentation with treatment can be a long and trying process. What works for some is catastrophic for others. Biofeedback, meditation, yoga, exercise, dietary restrictions, and acupuncture are recommended treatment options—but there's no guaranteed panacea.
Sometimes a certain meal will set me off, but other times that exact same meal is fine. I've tried dietary changes (including gobbling up the suburban-mom yogurt Activia), over-the-counter gas relief, herbal supplements, more/less fiber, prescribed pills... My current regimen to minimize symptoms includes probiotics, activated charcoal pills to absorb gas, and prescription bowel-muscle relaxers, combined with regular exercise and a balanced diet. Some days this works, but it's often still not enough.
It's hard to be intimate when your body is in pain and making noises that sound like a foghorn mixed with a dying beast.
My body is my own personal Judas, constantly bestraying me. In the seven years since my diagnosis, I've become more introverted and developed habits that revolve around my temperamental system, as it is hard to predict a flare-up. Predicting the unpredictable is frustratingly impossible, but I try anyway. I'm that cramped and sweaty person in the meeting at work, constantly squirming in my chair that was strategically chosen for its close proximity to the door. On days when my bodily sounds echo across the Grand Canyon of our open floor plan, bouncing off of computer monitors and concerned co-workers' faces, I banish myself to the far ends of the office. There I wait in self-imposed solitary confinement for my body to shut the fuck up.
I drink in moderation and do fewer drugs (except weed) for fear of stirring the beast. Anxiety and stress also trigger symptoms, so I try to limit both as much as possible (though I do have a unique relationship with the latter). Quiet situations tend to induce anxiety, however, as I prepare for the rumbling to start from the bowels of hell. I avoid movie nights and "chill get-togethers" like the plague. As far as sex is concerned, it's hard to be intimate when your body is in pain and making noises that sound like a foghorn mixed with a dying beast. While post-sex spooning with a partner recently, he put his hand on my abdomen and exclaimed, "Wow, it's like our baby is kicking around in there." Figuring I had already given him enough of an anatomy lesson, I segued into architecture instead and showed him the door. With other partners, I dip out early in the morning, after I've seen the first sign of abdominal pain, with the excuse that I need to help a friend move. That's technically true, as I'm always referring to a bowel movement.
On the positive side, living with IBS has enabled me to be much more open with my body and how I communicate my needs to others. Sometimes while out to dinner, I need to spend 15 minutes in the bathroom, leaving my company to twiddle their thumbs or check Instagram in my absence. Other times, the bloating and sounds are so intense that I feel best excusing myself and ditching out early, or avoiding certain events altogether.
The subject of shit isn't taboo or "indecent" to me. It can't be. If I don't talk about it, my internal organs will eventually do the talking for me anyway. I'm still searching for a regimen that works and consistently alleviates my symptoms. Until then, in the words of fellow IBS sufferer Cam'Ron, "It ain't my fault if I shit on y'all."
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