Let’s Talk About… Irritable Bowel Syndrome

I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) when I was 16, and I found it very hard to deal with. IBS is a chronic condition which means that you have to go to the bathroom more often (or sometimes less often), and it’s often paired with bloating, wind, and abdominal pain. While the exact cause is not completely understood, increased stress can cause people to develop the condition, as was my case. Once you have it, anything can trigger it; certain foods, alcohol, lack of sleep, and stress are all common triggers, and everyone is different, which means there is a lot of trial and error working out what you need to avoid and at what times.

It was particularly embarrassing in school having to constantly worry that I was going to do something that people would be talking about for years to come, as well as having to run to the bathroom every class. In my case, this led to increased stress and so my symptoms would get worse, leading to yet more stress, and so on. What really didn’t help at the time was comments being made by people in my class, and even some made by a teacher, and I really couldn’t cope for a while. It wasn’t until I opened up and started discussing it with people that I became comfortable enough to be able to manage my IBS.

Coming to university with IBS terrified me. While I had gotten to the stage where most days were fine, I was still having bad days, and the idea of leaving a familiar environment for somewhere completely new was very daunting. At the advice of a friend’s mum, I registered with the university’s Disability Service, which meant that all lecturers, tutors, and examiners would be informed of what was going on, and gave me some reassurance that there wouldn’t be any problems with me leaving to go to the bathroom.

I am now in my third year, and despite managing to get to the place where I can go most days without thinking about it, only having to avoid sugar when I’m particularly stressed, IBS still greatly impacts my studies. Some days my stomach is so sore that I have to miss classes in favour of staying in bed with a hot water bottle, and having to endure the comments about sitting at the end of an empty row in lectures because I need to be able to run out if I need to grows tiring.

I think most people don’t realise that just because you cannot see that someone has a condition, it doesn’t mean they don’t have one, and that comments which seem reasonably harmless can actually make an already difficult situation so much worse. As annoying as it might be having to squeeze past someone to get a seat in the lecture, it’s preferable to you having to get up halfway through it to let me out to go to the bathroom. Around exam time too, I not only have to worry about the exam itself and doing well, I also have to worry about whether I will need to leave for the bathroom, and whether this will impact my time or the people around me. Or whether in the deafeningly quiet exam room, everyone will hear if I get windy. These are things that I wish I didn’t have to think about, as I get so anxious about them that a lot of the time I’m can’t even focus on the contents of the exam.

There’s a stigma around IBS. While I am more than happy talking about it, there are many people who aren’t, and this means that many people don’t know what it means both symptomatically and socially to have IBS. And while many people will think that my behaviour in lectures is just me being a pain, where I sit can mean the difference between me being able to concentrate and learn, and spending the hour worrying about whether I’ll be able to get to a loo on time. So, please give people the benefit of the doubt; you have no idea what they might be dealing with.

[Rachel Gillet]

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