• Hattie Gladwell

Navigating relationships with digestive issues

I live with ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease. It’s a disease that has taken over a huge part of my life, yet I still find myself feeling anxious to open up about it - because bowel disorders are still a taboo subject; something that many don’t take seriously, despite the fact they can be debilitating to live with.

There’s this misunderstanding that having a bowel disease or disorder means that you just go to the toilet a bit more than the average person. That it’s just a bit of a dodgy tummy. It’s something people without bowel issues sometimes feel they can relate to because they’ve experienced a bad stomach before - despite the fact living with an actual digestive illness is so much more than that.

Sometimes it’s going to the toilet non-stop, other times it’s suffering from chronic constipation. It’s stomach aches and urgency and sometimes even incontinence. In inflammatory bowel diseases, it can be inflamed intestines, rectal bleeding, excessive weight loss and even bowel perforation, which can be life-threatening and results in major surgery. Irritable bowel syndrome can cause extreme cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhoea and/or constipation.

Living with a bowel condition

Digestive illnesses can contribute to mental health issues, in fact, they’re associated with significant distress and higher levels of mood disorders, anxiety and other psychiatric conditions.

Living with a bowel condition can have a negative impact on your friendships, relationships, work-life and social life. Due to the severity of my condition, I have had to work from home for the past six years, and therefore I haven’t had the chance to progress in my career nor apply for higher positions due to being unable to do them remotely.

Though I’m now in a relationship, I spent the first few months hiding my IBD from my partner, taking Imodium to stop me from going to the toilet - which left me in a remarkable amount of discomfort and pain. But I was too anxious to be honest with him - and had convinced myself that if he knew the truth, he would be disgusted by it. In friendships, I’m always the one who cancels plans. The thing is, bowel conditions can be so unpredictable. And even when you’re having a ‘good day’, the idea of going out can be too anxiety-inducing, especially when you don’t know where the nearest toilet is, or if, like me, you have a fear of using public toilets due to having had humiliating experiences in the past.

Bowel disorders and diseases are just as debilitating as other chronic illnesses and I wish people realised that - because if they did, maybe people like me wouldn’t feel too embarrassed to speak out about what they’re going through. Not only would this help to decrease the stigma and the idea that ‘poo is taboo’, but it would likely encourage more people to seek help for their symptoms. There are 300,000 people in the UK living with either ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, and two in 10 people suffer from irritable bowel syndrome.

I find it very upsetting that we are able to speak out about so many conditions - but there is an unignorable silence around bowel conditions. It’s like talking about them is shameful, or amusing, or embarrassing. But this is damaging to people like me. I shouldn’t feel like my condition is something to be ashamed of, or something to be laughed at. It’s something that has had a serious impact on my life - which in fact, almost controls my life. A huge part of my day is spent on the toilet or in pain. I shouldn’t have to suffer in silence or feel too embarrassed to seek support for it because it involves poo - I mean, we all do it, and it’s ridiculous to ignore that fact.

As the statistics show, bowel conditions aren’t exactly rare, and they affect every part of your life, and can contribute to suffering badly with your mental health.

It’s time we stopped feeling embarrassed about the topic of bowel conditions - and started being more understanding of the fact they can have a significant impact on a sufferer’s life.

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