1st September 2017
Bear with me. For the purposes of this piece, I will be referring to ‘taking a poo’ as ‘going to the toilet’ to avoid having to write it out numerous times!
I was always a child who had to go to the toilet a lot which never really affected me until I reached secondary school. As with many sufferers of IBS, I would go to the toilet to relieve the pain of bad abdominal cramps.
Whenever the pain and discomfort (not to mention embarrassment) occurred, I would go at every opportunity possible to avoid being stuck in a classroom full of my teenage peers and potentially unsympathetic teachers (although this be may be unfair as I never informed anyone of my condition).
Looking back on it now, it’s obvious that I was giving myself a complex. I would dread any kind of social situation for fear of not knowing where the nearest toilet was. This anxiety was also a huge trigger for the cramps – the more I worried, the more pain I would have, and the more pain I had, the more I would worry. To this day, when arriving somewhere new, I scout out the nearest bathroom. It puts my mind at ease to know that if I have to go I know exactly where it is. I would always consider toilets almost as ‘safe havens’.
As you can imagine, all of this made for quite a quiet child and, whilst having a core group of friends, I became introverted. Despite this, I enjoyed performing onstage at my local theatre. Looking back on my time in musicals and plays, I don’t quite understand how the two managed to co-exist (my IBS and my performing), but they did and I believe I gained confidence through my acting and singing.
As I entered my late teens, I made a decision to start to understand and manage my IBS rather than let it dictate my life. Some triggers were obvious (anxiety, spice, sugar) but others developed over time as my body became less resistant to them. I soon discovered alcohol to be a significant trigger which, as an 18 year old at the time, seemed like the end of the world. However, with the stubborn attitude of my age, I resigned myself to drinking anyway and dealing with the consequences later, ie giving myself the day after as a recovery period. I hardly drink now as I associate alcohol with the pain it brings.
I continued acting and singing at college, then university which is where I came to decide that I didn’t want my IBS to hold me back. Now I live with the mantra that I will never allow my IBS to be an excuse or stop me doing what I want to do as I had done so many times as a child.
One of the most difficult things is being on stage in front of an audience and having to smile through the pain and discomfort, but I do because I’m stronger than my IBS and it can’t stop me!
One huge thing that has helped me was having peers who understood. I found that the older I got the easier it was to find friends who didn’t judge me for something that I couldn’t help, who were considerate towards my condition, and who even gave me space when I needed it; some of them even going through similar situations themselves.
The term IBS is itself often used as a ‘blanket term’ and sometimes slapped onto any indefinable problem a person may have with their gut, stomach, or bowels. I believe this is due to a lack of research and understanding of this non-life threatening but heavily life affecting condition.
As I continued through my twenties (developing my most recent trigger of caffeine), I found people in similar situations who could openly talk about everything concerning their bowels. It’s comforting to be able to have a grown up discussion about IBS with someone who is also experiencing it (of which there are many). ‘Toilet talk’ is still seen as quite taboo and embarrassing to the general public. Even having IBS myself and speaking openly about it like this I still cringe and can’t bring myself to write ‘taking a poo’ as if it is a ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean’ word. Unfortunately, though I have found people to confide in, there are countless others who have no one to turn to in comfort of their condition. This can make it incredibly difficult for people to cope with the various ways IBS can manifest itself (I haven’t even touched on issues with metabolism or body dysmorphia).
As a 27 year old, lucky enough to have a career in the band, Collabro, with three great guys who respect and don’t judge me, I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m comfortable discussing and even joking about my IBS, despite the pain it inflicts. I figured out a long time ago that, by making a joke of my condition, rather than feeling ashamed of it, I released its stranglehold on me mentally and, by being unabashedly open, my peers could be as comfortable dealing with it as I have become.
Unfortunately to a lot of people this may come across as crude and, in that instance, if people with IBS are to not feel ashamed to talk about their own bodies, changes must be made to raise awareness and better understanding of IBS.
Thomas Redgrave is an Ambassador for The IBS Network charity.