11th January 2022
Until two years ago, theatre director Nicola Pollard didn’t know anything about IBS. Now it’s something she thinks about every day. As her work restarts after lockdowns, she’s feeling prepared to take on the challenges that lie ahead.
In the summer of 2019, when I was 30, I started to experience severe abdominal pain, sometimes in the evening, sometimes sporadically during the day. At times, I was heavily bloated.
Many nights, I couldn’t sleep because of the pain, and I could only lie on my back, as lying on either side was too painful. My bowel habits changed too, and I noticed an increase in gas, (enough said!).
I’m a theatre director, but I also have a couple of other side lines – one of which is a Tour Guide at Shakespeare’s Globe. I remember when I’d finished one seven-hour shift, I was in so much pain I could barely get myself back to the staff room.
I also remember stumbling through the front door after a Zumba class, crying because of the intense pain in my abdomen. I went to my GP, who sent me to an out-of-hours GP, who sent me on to A&E. I also had a morning at A&E after almost collapsing with pain on the way to work. I then got referred to a clinic at my local hospital.
Things weren’t moving quickly, but a consultant who had operated on me in 2018 took me on and arranged some tests. My first piece of advice: if you have to have a colonoscopy of any kind and you’re offered gas and air or sedation — say yes! My flexible sigmoidoscopy was not the ‘mildly uncomfortable’ experience the literature assured me it would be. Following this aborted attempt, I had a colonoscopy – with gas and air, which is a bizarre feeling but far more preferable to the alternative. I also had a scan of my pelvic area, and blood and urine tests, all of which showed nothing nasty in my body.
Eventually, I heard from my GP that it was probably IBS. This was February 2020, just before I went away for a hugely significant directing job. At that point, the timing felt awful. I couldn’t deal with this new diagnosis while rehearsing and living away from home. Then, of course, Covid came along, and the tour was cancelled. All my work dried up in a matter of days and I had all the time in the world to get to grips with my IBS.
I began my food journal about a month after returning home. Looking at it now, I can see that I also recorded any symptoms. In addition, I spoke to a couple of friends with knowledge about gut disorders, who helped me understand what was actually happening when I ate certain foods.
At this time, I found The IBS Network, which gave me more of an understanding of what IBS is, and where to get support. Through this, and tracking potential triggers, I identified my problematic foods as: lactose, orange juice, chilli, onion and garlic (how original), paprika, high levels of saturated fats and microwaved or heavily processed foods (there’s a science in there somewhere, but I don’t yet know what it is!). I seem to have a very sensitive gut, as I can’t manage my problem foods in any form or quantity. I’ve known about my intolerance to caffeine since 2014, so yes, I have become one of those people ordering an oat-milk, decaf latte!
Being diagnosed with IBS has had its silver linings. My herbs and spices drawer has expanded dramatically. I’ve enjoyed experimenting with new flavours, such as cayenne pepper – last week I made an adapted curry powder for the very first time. I also make more meals from scratch, because I can’t use sauces in jars and that kind of thing. I also have linseeds on my dinner every day – when I forget I really feel the difference.
Some evenings I will have a mint tea, I also have a stash of peppermint tablets, and Buscopan for emergencies. A few days into my food diary, I also started daily yoga. Have I kept that up since work has re-started? Err, no. But I have a few IBS-specific yoga moves that I do when I can feel the pain starting, or at the start of what could be a difficult day.
My IBS is heavily linked to stress, which is part and parcel of being a freelancer, especially in my industry for the past 20 months. I’ve also had a few Reiki sessions, which I believe to be beneficial and, after the family dog came to stay for a week, I have been for a walk every day, which has really helped. It doesn’t need to be far, just at a decent pace for twenty minutes or so.
One of my main challenges is lunch, both at home and when at work. Because of my intolerances, I can’t grab a sandwich, as onion or garlic are in practically everything. If I’m away for work, I have to plan for the next day more so than I did before.
Eating out is trickier now too, which also makes me anxious. I did have to leave one pizza/pasta chain restaurant as they said garlic was in pretty much all of their dishes. My partner and I went to three weddings in the summer, cue anxiety, but two of them couldn’t have been better in their catering for me. My local Chinese take-away is brilliant at catering for me too — I thought my days of a Chinese take-away were over.
As I write, right now, I feel okay. I have much more of a handle on these gut problems than I did two years ago. During one rehearsal in November 2019, I was found in tears, doubled up in pain in a dressing room. I don’t believe I will be in that situation again.
In some ways, IBS has made me healthier. I’ve also found, through mentioning it in conversation, that a number of my friends have IBS too, and some of us have shared resources and insights, or are just able to empathise with each other. It’s not been easy or quick to get to this stage, but it’s been worth it. I still get pain sometimes, and my lunches at work can be very dull. But I’m much more aware of what to do or not do. And — major milestone — last week I went to my first Zumba class in two years! I completed the class, walked in through my front door and did a little happy dance.
By the time you read this, I’ll have been to another. If I can Zumba, I know I’m managing my IBS.