Five years ago I made my third and final attempt to quit smoking, final because this time it was successful. I used no patches, gum or hypnosis while stopping bargaining with myself in the way desperate people do. The previous attempt I had decided to only smoke when drinking, a plan that had me halfway to alcoholism within a month. I was prepared for some unpleasantness, chest infections, mood swings and weight gain mostly, what I did not expect was the onset of IBS, something that is still with me five years later.
Gaining weight has never been an issue for me so I was quite relaxed about the three or four kilos I put on over the first few weeks. This was clearly down to the fact I had replaced my after dinner cigarette with an after dinner snack. My stomach understandably grumbled about this but I was sure in a few weeks that would all settle down. When I stopped snacking after meals and my stomach was only getting worse the choice was stark, I could be sick, tired and bloated or weak, spaced out and angry — I opted for the latter.
Within a few months my diet had become so restricted I had lost those extra kilos and another eight, I was having trouble remembering what had occurred moments before and would feel as if I was going to faint several times a week. Staple foods soon become exotic treats or the food equivalent to a line of coke. “Oh I know I will regret it but go on then, I’ll have a pretzel.”
Despite the discomfort most people have little sympathy for IBS, for a start it’s a syndrome and not a disease. Syndromes have people very suspicious, AIDS or Down’s are serious but those with restless legs can “Fuck off”. IBS should certainly not to be compared to AIDS but that does not give people the right to sneer at our bloated forms (unless we have just farted) as if we are just fussy eaters and attention seekers. I once saw David Mitchell rant about gluten intolerance in a way that reminded me of a homophobic P.E. teacher, chastening a child for “Crying like a poof” when it’s only a flesh wound. Trust me, when you feel hungry, sick and exhausted, someone telling you you’ve made it up is fucking infuriating.
Having said that I partly agree with the mistrust of the label. IBS is an umbrella term for a non-specific illness and umbrella terms and non-specific illnesses are what make the pharmaceutical company’s ears prick up. Dealing in symptoms is far more profitable than dealing in cures. I have taken various pills and potions over the years and none have helped.
GPs are a hit and miss bunch at the best of times, often too arrogant to actually listen to the problem, their advice seems copied and pasted in an effort to get you out of the door before the complaining begins to bore. For IBS it is always “Drink more water, eat more fibre and get more exercise” The problem with this is I couldn’t get more fibre in me if I resorted to gnawing tree bark. When I finally cut down on the fibre I realised it was, in fact, the main trigger. It is deeply depressing to be injured by humus. Never mind, there is always self-diagnosis and alternative medicine.
The Internet was supposed to give us access to a wealth of knowledge but of course to find any actual facts you have to dig through mountains of lies, ignorance and Chinese whispers. This is especially the case when it comes to health. Nearly every piece of non-professional advice involves spending large amounts of money on new but ancient, powerful but gentle supplements. I’m not sure what happened ten years ago but someone must have had a lot of left over aloe vera and coconut as they are billed as a cure for everything from dandruff to gut problems. Again, they didn’t help.
Oh well, at least I can count on the support of friends. Well yes but unfortunately they can’t help laughing as it is related to the arse, the most comical part of the body. “That’s where farts come from teehee.” Yes and for some it’s a place where they don’t stop coming from. It makes it impossible to complain without making a pun. “It’s such a pain in the arse.” – “Well you know any relief from IBS is not to be sniffed at.”
Sniggering at our accidental puns aside, IBS symptoms individually are enough to make the sunniest of people whingers. The exhaustion is overwhelming; nausea enough to infect every pleasure and the hunger has you arguing with your own body twenty-four hours a day. “I want pizza!” – “You can’t have pizza, you know what that does to you.” – “But I want it!” If the whining isn’t enough to put friends off inviting you over, then cooking for you will. “Shall we invite Dean?” – “Ugh, you know he can’t eat anything the fussy bastard.” As long as they invite me for the alcohol I don’t care.
In having constipation I am lucky, the other side of the IBS coin is far worse. Yes I spend 2 hours a day sitting on the toilet, yes I have to knead my stomach as if I am making a loaf of bread (Gluten free of course) but at least I don’t shit myself in public. These are people who cannot be further than 30 seconds from a toilet, whose attempts to leave the house have them desperately trying discard their clothing on the way back to the toilet and who dare not ever wear light coloured trousers. You tell those poor wretches they are making it all up.
IBS is simply not fair; we get no sympathy, we are laughed at, dismissed and insulted. We have no cure and medical advice often harms more than helps. Studies seem to always “Need more research” that never gets completed and we have little food in our bellies but pay three times as much for the privilege. There have genuinely been times when I’ve wished to have something more serious, just to have a prognosis rather than a shrugging doctor and a gleeful snake oil salesman. But that’s just me whinging again, you know us IBS sufferers, we are full of shit.
© Dean Stephenson 2014