If you want to hold my hand, you have to buy me dinner first. Likewise, if you want to hear about my bowels, you’ll have to endure some back story…
OK, fine. The word ‘irritable’ is sometimes used in reference to me, particularly when it comes to: getting up early, going to bed too late, sharing food, and listening to people tell me why they could never give up eating animals. My mother once told me “I don’t suffer fools gladly”, and I reluctantly confess this to be the case. Heaven forbid you’re a foolish person, because you’ll already know this about me.
So what does being a bit irritable have to do with irritable bowel syndrome? Absolutely squat. An irritable disposition does not an irritable bowel sufferer maketh. I wish it were only a matter of putting on a happy face. I would have freaking tap danced down Yonge Street in an oversized top hat shooting fireworks out of my mouth- if it would have improved my IBS.
A couple of years ago, my life topsy turveyed for a while. A really, really bad break up (the quality stuff made for a Monday night teen drama series) resulted in me losing ‘custody’ of my two amazing dogs, as well as being essentially run out of my community, and dealing with the good times of selling a house co-owned with a person who hated my guts.
Oh, my poor guts! That’s exactly where my stress went. For some people, it’s their back, others suffer from chronic migraines. Some people just cry constantly, or turn to the drink (which I did one night, and half-assedly). For me, I went from being a pretty regular gal, to being a total wreck down there. Every morning became hellish, my bathroom a kind of prison, as I was held at the mercy of my very stressed body. The worst part was that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what would having me going to the bathroom with a frequency I more commonly attribute to my guinea pigs, who poop 10-20 times per hour.
“My bowels have organized a full scale mutiny…”
It got so bad that vegan brunch with friends was completely out of the question (my stomach never really ‘settled’ enough that I could leave the house until the late afternoon). Plans to go home and visit friends and family (and reclaim some of that territory stolen from me during the breakup) were back-burnered (I became terrified of long bus rides, having to eat food at other people’s houses, etc.). Had I been less fortunate, and not been able to work from home, I undoubtedly would have lost my job, a very real concern for IBS sufferers, and the second most common cause of worker absenteeism (next to the common cold).
The pain of the abdominal spasms would be so bad I’d nearly faint, and often be crying. I felt like I must be dying, my organs failing me, it was so awful. But I was given this vague diagnosis of IBS along with a considerable amount of emphasis on my mental state as being the underlying cause. I was essentially written off as overly sensitive and weak, with a problem that was entirely “in my head”. If only I could control my stress, I could control my IBS.
My dear partner fancies himself a bit of an explorer, especially as it pertains to health and medical issues. He’s the guy who gets the obscure phone calls from loved ones about weird symptoms and sleuths things out. If you’re like me, the thought of sharing your most personal details about poop (and the always glamorous act of pooping too much) with the person you’d like to also find you ‘sexy’ is horrifying. In fact, I was so private that for the first couple of months, I’d cloak my pain in vaguish explanations like “My stomach is just really hurting”. Ever the stalwart for accurate medicalspeak, after months of relentless nagging, he dragged out of me that it was not my “stomach” that was hurting, it was my “bowels” and they are “really fucking upset”. To this day, I cringe with the power of a thousand shy people when I say it. [And for the record-- bowels is an exceptionally crude moniker for a body part that is already responsible for dealing with the 3rd most disgusting human-made creation. It goes 1) animal agriculture 2) nuclear weaponry and 3) poop.]
So after I admitted my “bowels have organized a full scale mutiny against the rest of my body and they want justice”, it got much easier. He did a lot of reading, and we initially thought, like my doctor, that the majority of work to be done was on reprocessing the way I deal with stress. So there I was, working on managing my stress while eating my 12 grain sprouted bread in the morning, totally confuzzled when I’d end up in the bathroom 15 minutes later. I didn’t even feel stressed! It was a noggin-scratcher, to say the least.
And then Joseph found the website of Heather Van Vorous, particularly her book ‘IBS: The First Year’. And this was the first step on the path to putting my IBS into remission. What was most magical about her book, was that it confirmed my physical intuitions. For example, during a flare up, I would want nothing more than a white bagel for breakfast, and Joseph would look at me quizzically and say “But that is so bad for you! And there is no way that is good for your belly! It makes no sense!”
Friends don’t let friends [with IBS] eat [insoluble fibre] alone:
Thanks to Heather’s book, I learned it actually made perfect sense that my body would crave bagels, white bread, rice, bananas, quinoa, and pasta (soluble fibre) while simultaneously intuiting that a green smoothie, or kale salad, or gorgeous raw red pepper, or soy latte, would only make things worse.
This is because people with IBS have a hard time with fat, caffeine, coffee, carbonation, alcohol and this mysterious little thing called ‘insoluble fibre’. What’s that, you ask? Insoluble fibre is, simply put, found in the stuff that is the healthiest for us and a HUGE part of the vegan diet! Leafy greens, whole wheat flour, seeds, nuts, beans and lentils, peaches, pineapple, apples, oranges, dates, green beans, celery, onion, broccoli, cucumber, sprouts, you get the idea. Pretty much anything with a tough skin, hull, peel, pod or seed, is likely insoluble fibre. And before you start flipping out, don’t worry! There is no diet in the world that would tell you to stop eating these foods, though depending on the severity of your IBS, you may have to restrict yourself for a short time. The rule of thumb is simply that you NEVER eat insoluble fibre on an empty stomach. You always start with soluble fibre. Heather’s book explains all this in detail, and she will empower you with all the knowledge you need to get going in managing this physical condition. Yes, say it with me: it’s a physical problem.
IBS is not “in your head”, though as with any other physical problem, stress can aggravate it greatly. It’s even thought that the actual onset of IBS can be brought on by food poisoning, a bug, or a traumatic event, but that does not mean that IBS is a brain-based problem. Any doctor (unfortunately, most of them) who tells you otherwise should be dropped like dairy. I know personally it can be a hereditary issue, and I also know it is more common for women than men, and common for people who were abused as children to suffer from it. Heather sees it as a brain-gut dysfunction, and through dietary management and some alternative therapy, I really believe most people can have their IBS put into remission. And because IBS is a functional disorder, when the symptoms disappear, so does the actual diagnosis.
I’ve thought long and hard about what to say next. I want so badly to share everything I’ve learned in this bizarre, frustrating journey. But ultimately, it’s too important to have it oversimplified and summarized here. If you have IBS, chances are it’s taken enough of your time away from you, I don’t want to waste more of it here. The following is a brief step by step to what I recommend you do next. And please, even if you don’t have IBS, pass this on to a loved one who does.
Step 1) Get a copy of “IBS: The First Year” and read it right away– Book a day off work, plunk the kids in front of the TV, do what you’ve gotta do. (Note: the IBS management diet is mainly vegan, and easily made entirely vegan, as almost all animal products are discouraged from the get go.)
Step 2) Start to rule other illnesses out right away– You’ll want to ensure you actually have IBS, and the only way to confirm this is to rule out all other possibilities. Be sure to read Heather’s book for a detailed overview of what you should rule out.
Step 3) Get angry– Immediately after reading the book, I became angry. Angry with healthcare professionals, who made me feel like IBS was “in my head”, when the reality is that there is an underlying physical condition, and stress can exacerbate it. You’ll feel angry, and you’ll be justified. The amount of pain endured by IBS sufferers simply because the medical community refuses to prioritize the issue is infuriating.
Step 4) Tell your loved ones– I should have done it sooner. But I was embarrassed. Having to cancel get togethers, meetings, etc. I wish so badly I’d just rounded up my loved ones, and told them. When I finally did, not only did I feel liberated, I got some much deserved empathy for living with such chronic suffering! And even better than that was that many people confessed that they too struggled with IBS, so I felt much less lonely too.
Step 5) Stock your pantry– Become obsessed with the difference between soluble and insoluble fibre and memorize what foods are which. Soluble fibre will become your dear friend.
Step 6) Get angry again– Damn right you should be angry! Why is your body different from other people’s? Why can’t you just eat what normal people eat?! Take a deep breath and remember, that your bowels need time to recover from the torture they’ve been consistently enduring. Stick to the diet, and if you’re like me, in no time, your body will feel ‘normal’ again.
Step 7) Buy a hot water bottle and a lifetime supply of strong peppermint tea-- Drink it constantly. Don’t stop drinking until your pee smells minty fresh. Just kidding. But seriously…thank me later.
Step 8) Here’s the part where I tell you to try hypnotherapy– If you haven’t garnered from the site thus far, I believe in science. I don’t believe in fairies, or crystals or supplements that come in bottles without a DIN. When I read in Heather’s book (and on various sites and blogs) that hypnotherapy was associated with a huge success rate at resolving IBS, I was so desperate I was willing to try anything, including what I considered to be the wackiest of all quack-pot quickfixes– hypnotherapy.
Heather recommended Michael Mahoney’s work, and because of how valuable her book had been in managing my IBS from a dietary perspective, I decided to trust her that this may actually work at putting my IBS into remission. The purpose of the therapy is to unconsciously rework negative thought patterns associated with IBS. For example, many people with IBS are terrified of using transit or having someone else drive them places, in case they need to stop suddenly to go to the bathroom. The fear generated by these situations is enough to create a palpable fear of ever having to do it again, even if the outcome wasn’t negative (read: even if the person didn’t crap their pants/embarrass themselves/etc.). The very fear of it being a possibility is enough to create a strong negative connection in the brain. Simply put, hypnotherapy works on an unconscious level to disconnect those connections. And the best part is, you get to just fall asleep while you listen. Please don’t delay in giving it a try. I’d give anything to have found it earlier.
To be honest, I was reluctant to even write this piece, because IBS stole so much of my time away from me. It stole me from the people, animals, places and activities I adore, and I didn’t want to give it any more of my time writing a piece like this. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how many people are likely suffering just like me, not knowing what to do, eating a healthy vegan diet and yet being constantly unwell. I never want anyone with IBS to suffer longer than they need to.
I’ve been symptom free for long enough now that I’m almost starting to forget the fear, the pain and the panic. I wanted to get this out there before I’ve been back to normal for so long that my time with IBS is starting to feel like nothing more than the memory of a bad nightmare I once had. It’s still scary, but there is a vagueness too. My life is so full of hope and peace again, now that I’m symptom free. So if you’re reading this, thinking “What the hell is wrong with me? What if I never get better?”, I hope this post offers you the hope you so deserve. I welcome all comments and will do my best to answer questions. Please, please, please consider sharing this with loved ones living with IBS.