IBS Is Why I’m Still Single

Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Spastic Colon. My large intestine needs to see a shrink. It could use some benzos, or at the very least, Haldol. Maybe a stint in the psych ward. Unfortunately, my colon doesn’t have a separate brain and I can’t take it for psychoanalysis. (I probably wouldn’t want to hear the diagnosis anyway.) Fortunately, my brain (addled and atrophied as it may be) has been able to uncover all the wonders and horrors of dealing with and treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

In 1971, I was born a seemingly healthy, properly-pooping nine-pound baby. But things soon changed. In my terrible twos I was at least easily potty-trained. (You couldn’t get this kid on the toilet fast enough.) I skipped the entire Freudian anal-retentive stage. What was going on? Was it because my mother hadn’t breastfed me? Was it the Ukrainian evil eye from my jealous older siblings? No, proclaimed Dr. Zaber, it’s a sugar allergy. The catch-all digestive diagnosis in those days.

Out went any and all sugar, which only proved to make me a crankier child. Goddamn it, I wanted my candy and I wanted it NOW! Using myself as an experimental group while Dr. Zaber thought I was in her control group, I resorted to stealing my sister’s stash of Halloween candy. Then I raided my mother’s “After Eight” chocolate mints. Soon, this led to desperation: Climbing on a chair and eating an entire bottle of baby aspirin. (Sorry, but it tasted good.) One stomach pumping later, the adults began to catch on that sugar didn’t seem to alter my cramping, diarrhea, bloating, and sometimes severe constipation. To compare the latter to defecating a pine cone is no exaggeration. I was blessed with the worst of both toilet worlds.

Finally, in grade school, after too many incidents of having to leave birthday parties without warning, my father getting speeding tickets from rushing me to a bathroom, and general misery, Children’s Hospital was called in. There I underwent a multitude of tests: Swallowing barium (which turns your poo white), barium enemas, fasting tests, drinking strange fluids, and having my blood drawn every few hours. My arms looked like those of a young Nancy Spungen. I bore this with extreme dignity and extreme bruxing. The results came in: Irritable Bowel Syndrome. More fiber? Metamucil? I was terrified. Dr. White Coat explained that the fiber was to hold my bowel down and build bulk. I tried it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

I began to have periods of remission, but there was no pattern to the flare-ups. Stressed or not, jacked-up on sugar or not, fiber-loaded or not – no rhyme or reason. So I learned how to live around my IBS. I always knew where every bathroom was everywhere I went. I became an expert at all the secret methods of veiling violent bathroom experiences: The social excuses, the hidden bathroom where no one knows you, and the simultaneous constant flush, to name a few.

The older I got, the more time I had between episodes. But damn, when they hit, they really hit. There’s nothing that makes up for having fewer episodes like suddenly jumping out of a traffic jam in Northwest D.C. while simultaneously unzipping your pants to make it to the filthy gas station toilet on the corner in time. It’s also fun facing dinner dates with severe anxiety and deciding to barely eat in order to avoid any embarrassingly quick exits. Never mind being in a new relationship and fearing a sleepover more than a sighting of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

IBS doesn’t exactly enrich your love life. It behaves like a stalker slapped with a restraining order; it’ll show up any damn time it pleases because it knows you have no serious protection against it. Still, I threatened it with more colon palpations by med students, colonics, and near-starvation. Didn’t matter: IBS decided to turn a ski weekend away into a threesome. Every time my companion used the bathroom in our cozy winter resort hideaway, I made a break for the hotel lobby bathroom. (I love lobby bathrooms, in condos, hotels, and apartment buildings. Sure, the front desk person may think you’re homeless, but that judgment is well worth the clean, widely available, and anonymous facilities.)

Marriage means in sickness and in health and til death do you part, but does that include IBS? I should have known after a delightful day with my soon-to-be husband in Baltimore – which ended with me bent over with cramps and sweating in a public bathroom – that love can be conditional. My irritated bowel and I left that grimy bathroom to join an equally irritated fiance who possessed annoyingly perfect health and perfect intestines. Stooped over and unknowingly cultivating my dowager’s hump, I limped apologetically behind him ten paces back to the car. Did I get any compassion? No. Did this and other similar scenarios stop me from marrying Mr. Perfect Scat? Of course not! As newlyweds, sharing one bathroom did not expose cute and quirky Hollywood movie scenes of lovers peeing or number two-ing in front of each other while simultaneously engaging in playful banter. The toilet was my soulmate. Ultimately, IBS wasn’t the reason my marriage ended, but romance certainly can take a nosedive if your stomach makes more noises than you in the throes of passion. I’m currently divorced and single, and sometimes I can’t help but think that my IBS helps firmly pigeonhole me in the “party of one” category.

Over the years, a string of procedures to find the right medication followed. There’s nothing more terrifying than being sedated while having an endoscopy mouth guard inserted as your doctor is playing Billy Joel and joking with the staff. My colonoscopy was even less fun. The prep was horrible and grueling, rendering my lower intestines raw. I no longer had “an unremarkable anus” like Anna Nicole Smith. (There went any chances of a career in anal porn.) Still, I forged ahead. Papaya enzyme tablets, Reglan, Bentyl, Lomotil, and slippery elm bark capsules were just some of the treatments I tried. And ah, opiates – wonderful, stomach-calming opiates. But ultimately, these haven’t been the answer for me. To be honest, the things that have helped me the most have been regular exercise, eating less fats (and, of course, sugar), and plain old Imodium. Do I still have to carry baby wipes in my purse just in case? Absolutely. Not surprisingly, thanks to IBS, I have become, well, quite anal about my bathroom habits.

Welcome to our new Blisstree series about living with chronic diseases as your perpetual housemate. (We kicked things off a few weeks back with tales of Hailey-Hailey Disease, a chronic — and very irritating — skin condition, and last week we featured Crohn’s Disease sufferer Simone Edwards.) Each week, in a Q&A or a personal essay, we’ll feature someone who’s living and struggling with a different chronic disease, and how they manage their life navigating such an enormous built-in obstacle. If there’s a specific chronic disease you’d like us to cover, tell us about it in our comments section, below (anonymously, if you like).

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    • Kristin

      I’m so sorry you have IBS. I’ve got Ulcerative Colitis and it was thought that I had IBS for years before I was properly diagnosed. I was just married in August and thankfully my husband is patient and compassionate when it comes to my stomach problems. When we’re out and I have to rush to a restroom, he fiddles with his phone until I’m done, always asking how I feel. Sometimes he’ll text me when I’m gone for a while to make sure I’m ok. And when I get up a few times a night to use the bathroom, he wakes up when I go back to bed, scoops me up, and asks if I’m ok. Having a stomach condition really sucks, but having support from loved ones makes it so much easier to deal with. I hope you find someone who will patiently wait outside a public restroom for you and will understand that you are more than the antics of your stomach! :)

    • teresa

      my daughter has this, diagnosed after many episodes of accidents (the worst was at school when the teacher did not let her leave to use the restroom) and severe stomach pains which always turned out to be constipation. We also know every bathroom, and when going some place new, the first thing we look for is the location. We too have had better luck with diet and exercise, BUT it is an uncertain thing. I hope she has a sense of humor about it as she grows up! My husband always tells her “It happens” (shortened to fit an 8 yr. olds vocabulary!)

      • Lia Serbyn

        Teresa, a pox on your daughter’s teacher! Shame on her. Best of luck to you and a big hug for her.

    • Lia Serbyn

      Hi Kristin! Thanks! My best friend has UC so I understand what you’re going through. Sounds like you have a super guy, and that can make all the difference when living with such a condition.

      • Kristin Offiler

        Agreed! It also helps to have support from friends and family. I tell everyone in my life that I have UC and explain why I sometimes have to cancel plans, rush off to the restroom, etc. I’m glad they’re all understanding, and even feel like they can talk to me over other people about poop and stomach problems haha. It’s not easy to have a crummy tummy, but it’s also not the end of the world as I’ve come to discover! :)

    • Dori

      Lia, I am so sorry you have gone through so much your entire life. I also suffer from a digestive illness, but mine started suddenly almost four years ago. I even considered a major surgery, which I opted against. After being in remission for almost a year (and believing I was essentially better) I experienced a flare-up again that makes no sense to me. I’ve been back to suffering for the last few months. I wish you the best of luck.

    • Lia

      Thanks Dori..it’s miserable. I hope you feel better soon. I’m pulling for ya!

    • Rose D.

      Yay! I totally understand. I always know where every toilet within radius is. I keep portable baby wipe and tissues in every purse, “just in case”. People who don’t have to deal with this truly don’t understand. I still get comments from people about, “oh, just hold it.” No. My bowels don’t work like that. When I need to go, it is NOW. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who deals with this.

    • Kitten

      OMG – she sounds just like me. Anytime you go into a resturant the first thing is check out where the bathroom is. My ex would say why do i bother taking you out as soon as you swallow your in the bathroom. Not to say don’t upset me because there I go again. So many embarassing moments i could not even count them. My heart goes out to all of us with this horrible desease, and not cure. I keep 2 sets of clothes in my desk draw and my car (what a way to live). Please someone find a cure.

    • Brenda

      IBS is a curse!! It affects every area of your life and one’s being. I would not wish
      this on anyone.

      • Faye

        I agree! :(

    • Louie

      Being that the link from Mark Sisson’s blog led me to this site…

      How about taking a look at his blog.
      The Primal Lifestyle has helped more than a few….

      http://www.marksdailyapple.com/

      Best Wishes

    • Leah Goldstein

      I’ve had IBS since High School but I switched to the Paleo Diet over a year ago and I haven’t had any episodes in a long time. I only get sick now when I have a big “cheat” meal. Look it up! Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, Loren Cordain. They all do Paleo/Primal. It is a cure for IBS.

    • janeray1940

      There’s something to the “sugar allergy” dx, actually. I have a pretty similar problems-since-infancy story to yours, and my diagnosis is fructose intolerance – google that, or fructose malabsorbtion, to find out more. The short version: eliminate most fruits and grains, and all sugars and processed foods, and you’ll be nearly asymptomatic.

      After dealing with this for over 40 years, I’ve concluded that the “IBS” dx is, frankly, BS. But it’s easier to get most people to take a bunch of expensive pills than it is to get them to change their diets.

    • Melissa

      You might want to check out the GAPS or SCD diets. I am a happy graduate of GAPS. It explains why simple sugars didn’t make a difference with you, since they are digested in the upper gut and IBS is mostly an illness of the lower gut.

    • Sabrina

      Lia, your writing and sense of humor are incredible! I laughed out loud while
      Reading this piece. And as someone with Celiac and UC, it sounds so
      familiar.

      I have been on the SCD for 2 years and now follow Mark Sisson’s Primal
      way. The latter is what has helped the most. It’s been very difficult to cut out
      most carbs, but well worth it. I no longer have urgency issues and don’t struggle
      with fatigue any more either.

      I really hope that you find something that works for you. I hope to read more of
      your writing. You’re very talented.

    • Chris

      IBS, IBS, IBS – that was a mean chant my friends used to throw my way when I was in college. Not funny anymore. Thanks Lia for sharing your story, and I don’t mean to laugh – while I type – but your stories do sound similar.

      I’m trying out a regmin of probiotics to setting things down. After combing the aisles of Mother’s and Whole Foods, and trying a few different brands, I finally landed on a daily capsule with 50 Billion active cultures.

      Here’s to hoping that 50 Billion is enough to kick IBS in the ass.

      Like you, I also came across someone who was equally as frank and sharing with her health issues – a woman named Brenda Watson. She’s got a PBS show right now and she even says she goes as far as “reading” her poop to make sure all is right. I guess the good thing about diarrhea is that it doesn’t take very long to read it. brendawatson.com – you can’t buy the DVD unless you happen to catch a PBS fundraiser in your market. I’m sure it will be on sale soon.

      Thanks again for the laugh and the sharing.

      Here’s to kicking IBS in the ass!

    • Nanabella

      I recently found a naturopathic gastroenterologist, Dr. Albert Snow, in Medway, MA who has developed a protocol to heal the gut using probiotics, colustrum, green tea extract and an L-Glutamine supplement … have been on it a month now and the results are promising … I couldn’t take the pharmaceutical and medical throw a pill at it mentallity anymore and I am seeing results, finally … maybe could help you too …

      • Jonnathan

        I know your post is over a year ago, just wondering how you did. Was he able to cure it?

    • Leigh

      For IBS, Crohn’s, UC, please, go check out the SCD, GAPS diet, and/or primal eating. It will change your life like it has changed mine.

    • JenniferK

      Thank you for a good laugh over something that is not (usually) funny! Living with IBS certainly does teach you all kinds of interesting skills – like learning to dry/curl my hair and put on makeup from the toilet so I wouldn’t be late to work. . . I’m lucky my IBS didn’t start until later in life; I can’t imagine being a kid with IBS! Being a kid is hard enough on it’s own!

      AND, I’ve got to agree with all the commenters that advocate Paleo eating (I’m a Mark’s Daily Apple girl too!). Switching to a grain-free, sugar-free, no proccessed food diet change my life (not just IBS, but an autoimmune disease too!)! I still have a crummy tummy (like that!) sometimes, but my whole world doesn’t revolve around it anymore.

    • Lia

      Soon we’ll be laughing all the way to the bathroom – just to put on makeup. I recently picked up a great book “The Maker’s Diet”, the writer has Crohn’s. It’s helped me. His name is Jordan Rubin – check it out!

    • VMan

      Lia, interestingly enough – I also ate an entire bottle of aspirin around the age of 2 and had my stomach pumped! Although I did not develop IBS until later – which was because of my one-meal a day bachelor lifestyle, I suspect.

      • Lia

        Vman, I also ate a mothball because my brother told me it was a gumball. I was really desperate. Of course I spat it out!

    • Faye

      I can relate to everythihg you have written! It’s sad, funny, lonely and pitiful all at once. After almost 10 years with IBS, at now 33 years old, I have tried everything, all meds you mentioned and many more – some now found to be unsafe, all kinds of herbs and supplements, teas, tinctures, diets, medical testing and procedures, accupunture, mental therapy, yoga, meditation…the list goes on and on with no relief in sight. My life is ever changed by this fear and I hope to figure this out one day.

    • Lotus

      Hello, (^_^)/)
      I enjoyed your story. Poor you. <3 <3 <3
      I have/am gone/going through this and so has my daughter.
      IBS is caused by Mercury Poisoning.
      We have not been able to figure out why but as children many of us have been poisoned with Mercury through our amalgam fillings (silver) or vaccinations. These days Mercury is not only in vaccinations (They took out the Thermisol but not the Mercury :-s) but High Fructose Corn Syrup also contains Mercury. Who knows what else…there is lead in car exhaust… and forget what all has arsenic. :-s
      Then they say sea food, etc has Mercury. If you live with someone who has amalgam you get exposed to mercury vapors day after day.
      You need chelation therapy, good probiotics, raw food or Paleo diet and juice and detox on a regular basis and of course coffee enemas. :-p
      Change you life for the better, even if it is only little each day. (^_^) <3 <3 <3

    • nonsense

      Damn I thought the end of your story was going to give the cure!!!!!Should have known different. I lived with pmdd with no cure in sight from age 14 to 56. I have IBS! You explained it to a T! I found starving myself and drinking fiber 3 times a day worked. I am serious it did. I did that in my 30′s. But I still had the bathroom attacks in all the wrong places. I never shopped at a store that did not have free access to a bathroom there. I would yell and scream if I was in a store spending my hard earned money, and asked where is the bathroom? Just to have them say They do not have one for their customers!!!!!!!!They were not going to see my money there ever again.

      • Lia

        If I knew the cure, I’d be living large in the Virgin Islands, baby! I hope you are having a good week.

    • jane

      i’m 24 and have had ibs since middle school. i had symptoms nearly daily from age 13-17, then was in remission from 18-22. when it came back, my attacks were also accompanied by sinus pressures and headaches. i suspect i may have developed some kind of food allergy, but attacks are random, and after foods i have eaten successfully before and can eat successfully again. it is really frustrating to not know how to fix this. i tend to feel best after lots of yogurt, dairy, and fruits/veggies. i can eat fish, but meat and processed foods, heavy oils, refined sugars do me in. i also can’t have coffee, mountain dew (but diet coke is fine), spinach (iceburg lettuce has only ever helped.), and blueberries (but raspberries and black berries have never given me problems either.) i take probiotics, and they also help, and when things are really bad, or i feel a sinus headache coming on, or have something important to do, i pop immodium like a junkie. at one point i ended up in so much agony i didnt care if i died, and took 8 pills in one day. it helped a lot, but i know i can’t do that regularly. hopefully we’ll all figure out what’s wrong with us someday….

    • GiGi

      I get freaking IRRITABLE about my fu**ing IBS!!!! It’s nice to see I am not the only one who has to suffer!

    • Kathy J.

      I’m really surprised that nobody mentioned ginger, at least not that I saw. Can’t guarantee that it will work, but it certainly helped me. It also helped with my morning sickness when I was pregnant. You can buy it in capsules at most drugstores and places like Walmart. Give it a try.

    • Siena Hintz

      My IBS started in highschool and almost kept me from being a teacher.
      My doctor gave me Cantil. It changed my life. I can travel. I no longer have to be near a bathroom 24/7.
      Ask your Doctor abount Cantil.

    • KATHLEEN HOVANSIAN

      I AM SO GLAD I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE,WITH THIS IBS, OR LIKE THE ARTICLE BEFORE THIS ONE. IT TOOK 3 YEARS TO DIAGNOSE.I AM SO FED UP WITH THIS AND I ALREADY HAVE MENTAL ILLNESS.I WAS HOSPITALIZED BACK IN NOV. 2010 FOR WHAT THE GASTRO GROUP OF DR’S SEEMED TO BE SAYING TO ME VIRAL IS LIKE WHAT DOCTOR’S SAY WHEN THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU. ALL I KNOW IS I HAVE ALL THE GONE THE SAME SYMPTOMS AS ALL OF US HERE IN THESE ARTICLES SAY WE HAVE…I JUST TURNED 51 THIS YEAR AND LAYING IN BED IS NOT THE WAY I WANT TO LIVE.NAUSEA, DIZZINESS,DISTENDED BELLY PAIN 24/7 TEST RESULTS ALL COMING BACK NORMAL I FEEL LIKE I AM FIGHTING ALOSING BATTLE, CUZ I HAVE MENTAL ILLNESS, BUT I HAVE TOLD ALL THESE DOCS THAT THESE SYMPTOMS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH MY MENTAL STATUS RIGHT NOW THIS IS A VERY PAINFUL, NERVE WRACKING , FLU LIKE SYMPTOMS PHYSICAL ILLNESS AND I WANT TO GET ON WITH MY LIFE NOT LAY IN BED ALL DAY. ALL OF YOU GIVE ME HOPE RIGHT NOW AS I GO THROUGH THIS THANK YOU AND GOD I’M SURE THANKS YOU! I HAVE BEEN IN COUNSELING FOR SO LONG THAT I KNOWIT HELPS TO HAVE PEOPLE GOING THROUGH THE SAME THING WE LEARN FROM EACH OTHER ….AND RIGHT NOW I NEED YOU …I DON’T SEEM TO BE GETTING THE HELP I NEED FROM THE DOC’S I HAVE SEEN THIS FAR…SIGNED LIVING CLOSE TO THE TOILET TOO…..

    • Renee

      1. I love this. I have IBS and this is exactly like my life. And yes, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. For those following Paleo – do you eat red meat? I haven’t been able to tolerate it for years.

      2. Story suggestion: Cystic fibrosis. One of my closest friends has an amazing story about CF: http://bit.ly/oAqbbX. She’s an amazing writer and would share a great story.

    • Aurametrix

      Thank you, Lia, for this very touching yet humorous story.
      Glad to see you were able to find a pattern, even though it looked like there was no rhyme or reason.
      Aurametrix is a knowledge-based system that can actually help with this. It can replace years of personal trial and error to discover what exactly is causing IBS flareups.

    • http://www.facebook.com/andrea.gideon Andrea Gideon

      I know this is an older post but I just had to comment. Have you tried a low dose of amitriptyline? My GI put me on it about 5 years ago and it has helped alot. The severe cramping is gone completely, unless I binge on really horrid stuff like ice cream and cheeseburgers. I still have episodes, but not daily, like before and not as bad.

    • Mike

      Wow….I feel like I just read my own diary. I’m so sad you too are suffering from this. My marriage of nearly 20 yrs and 3 beautiful kids is screeching to a hault. Thank you ibs. She has been a very tolerant person over the years, but the last 5 or so have been bad and mostly due to my ibs and reluctance to go out, refusal to go, or let’s get the hell out of here now! Moments. I totally get your frustration…I’m writing this early morning after spending lady two hours running back and forth to the toilet. I wish you all the best.