1st April 2017
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is tricky to talk about. It can be messy, undignified and extremely embarrassing. Thankfully, I now feel able talk about it because my IBS is mostly in the past. I would like my story to provide some hope to others struggling to live with IBS. Here, I describe my route to health and share my experiences, my techniques for managing the problem and how self-hypnosis brought me a happy ending
My problems began in my late 20s, when I experienced a period of great financial stress. My body’s reaction to this was total loss of control of my bowels. It had been creeping up on me for several months, but I’d ignored it. There were certain triggers — generally to do with spending money, for example at the supermarket — that would cause me to urgently need the loo. It was annoying, at times inconvenient, but not too alarming. But, one weekend everything changed; I went from a happy-go-lucky girl to someone consumed by fear and debilitated by uncontrollable bowels.
I remember the weekend vividly. After a lovely relaxing lunch with friends, we went for a walk on Wimbledon common. Everything seemed fine. Chatting, catching up, enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, it was all lovely. Until suddenly, I had the most overwhelming urge to poo, right there and then, in the middle of the exposed and crowded common. I looked around frantically searching for somewhere to go. I settled with the dappled cover of a few trees and squatted, looking at all the people wandering happily pass in the common as I hid. I tore off my pants and used them in an attempt to clean myself. Then covered my mess with a pile of pine needles and walked out, shaken and unsure of what had just taken hold of my body. The power, force and speed of it was alarming, but the urgency and difficulty seemed similar to what I’d been experiencing for several months. It had now escalated to a new level.
That weekend was the beginning of five years of extreme difficulty living with IBS. During that period, I had ‘accidents’ on a frequent basis, often weekly. Simply leaving the house was a nightmare. I lived one street from work, yet I would regularly be unable to make the five-minute walk. I’d often have to return home to clean myself up, before arriving late. I used to joke about how the person who lives the closest arrives last. I’d rather pretend to be disorganised than admit what had happened. During that time, I developed some coping techniques. I always carried a change of clothes, wet wipes and other emergency bits. Imodium was another essential. I’d often take a whole packet at a time. I used Beta-blockers to try to lessen my anxiety. Nothing took the problem away, but these things helped me to continue working and living.
My job was totally unsuitable for someone with this type of condition. I was a fundraising manager for a local charity. I had to give talks, organise events and spend a lot of time out and about. Standing up in front 800 teenagers trying to motivate them to raise money would be challenging for many people, as would presenting annual budgets and plans. For me, they were more than just challenging, they were hell. They became my ‘take a whole packet of Imodium’ occasions. I frequently considered leaving my job because of my IBS. But, everything — from working in a supermarket, to delivering post or being in a call centre — felt too much. So I stayed and struggled on.
Then there were occasions when my body seemed to overreact unnecessarily — for example, during our Monday morning meetings. The fundraising team were a friendly group. The weekly meetings were very informal. There should have been no reason for problems. But, at each and every Monday meeting, my stomach would go crazy, the feeling would build, the anxiety would rage until I’d have to excuse myself and rush to the loo. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t control it. I tried a variety of techniques to help. I’d encourage myself to relax, to really focus on what others were saying and have interesting things to contribute. But nothing worked.
This relentless pattern continued for the entire nine months I’d been in my job, until one morning I decided to get up early and try self-hypnosis. I’d been given a few notes from a friend of my mum’s on what to do: lie down, shut your eyes, focus on your breathing, imagine a peaceful scene and then give yourself some positive suggestions. So, I did just that. I imagined a beautiful beach. I imagined the yellow sunlight streaming down, bringing me health and happiness. I pictured each and every part of my body being filled with health and happiness. I then pictured my stomach and bowels being peaceful and calm during the meeting. I had little faith that it would work but surely it wouldn’t make things any worse. Later that morning, to my utter surprise and delight, I sat through the whole of the meeting, as I did for every other Monday morning meeting for the next six years I was at that job. It was a breakthrough.
I was astounded by the power, strength and simplicity of the self-hypnosis. From that point on I used it regularly to prepare myself for the day ahead. I’d use the same sequence of images to induce the hypnosis and deepen my relaxation and then change the positive suggestions depending on what I needed at the time. It helped me so much to cope with the daily difficulties of living with IBS, from simple things such as sharing car journeys, to giving talks and attending meetings. It also meant that I no longer needed to take Imodium. Some things were still hard and there were rare occasions when I was still caught short. The worry and the uncertainty stayed with me for a long time. But overall, through my self-hypnosis, I was in a completely different place. I could now manage life and often with a smile!
Fast forward another five years — inspired by the impact that self-hypnosis had on my life — I am now a qualified hypnotherapist. I really enjoy helping others to overcome difficulties that they have in their lives. I now understand so much more about how our thinking and visualisations can impact our physical health and the behaviour of our body. Looking back, I can see how a fear of things going wrong would exacerbate my situation and how I was caught in a horrible negative cycle. Breaking this and replacing the bad images with positive ones is tough. Teaching clients’ techniques for doing this is something I find very rewarding.
I wouldn’t say that I am 100% better. Occasionally, I have difficult days. But generally I now leave the house each morning without worry. I can spend hours playing in the park with my young son, not even thinking of the loo. I even enjoyed a skiing holiday this year, the thought of which, in the depths of my IBS would have been pure hell. For those situations that previously I would have done everything to avoid, I now happily embrace.
Ruth recently attended The IBS Network’s training day for Support Group Leaders and has set up a group in Alton (Hampshire) which meets every month. More details are provided at: https://www.theibsnetwork.org/self-help-groups/