IBS - you're not alone

 

Hi, my name is Scarlett Dixon and I am a blogger and journalist from the UK. I currently write about my life, fashion, beauty, food and other trivial things on scarlettlondon.com. However, recently I decided to stop hiding something that affected my day-to-day life and start writing about that too. It took me a very long time to pluck up the courage to start writing, because it's a very personal topic and I consider myself to be quite a private person. Similarly, it is largely unexplored and is often seen as taboo, despite one in five of us suffering from it at present. But it is a condition I suffer with on a daily basis and something that affects every decision I make. I'm talking about IBS.

IBS, if you didn't know already stands for irritable bowel syndrome. It's not a very sympathetic term in my opinion and it is equally as unsympathetic when you have to try and 'spell it out' for someone, or explain the symptoms. If you've ever had gastroenteritis or food poisoning, or something similar, IBS sufferers experience the same (or in many cases) more extreme symptoms - but on a daily basis. Round the clock. 24/7. It's embarrassing, it's debilitating, it rules your life and is a horrible, horrible disease that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. And I say disease, because it's just that. I didn't ask for it, or bring it upon myself. Just like other sufferers.

My worst symptom (at present) is abdominal pain, which at times is so painful it brings me to tears. It feels like someone is stabbing me in the stomach with a knife and twisting it around (although I'm sure in reality, this would be ten times more painful - but when it happens, that's the only way I can describe it). Or it feels as though a basketball is trying to make its way through my intestines, before settling (well, hardly settling) in my stomach and leaving it feeling extremely bloated, and me extremely miserable.

Of course, there are periods where it doesn't bother you at all. And during those periods you almost forget you ever had it. You can lead a relatively normal life. But when the bouts flare up again, your 24/7 is dictated by your stomach. Social calendars, relationships, work, school - everything, is affected by it. And because it's such an embarrassing condition, you're usually left telling people that you have 'stomach issues' which they write off as a bad case of food poisoning (oh I wish, because then it would go away) or you simply being a hypochondriac.

I've been a 'sufferer' for nearly seven years, starting aged 14 when I started experiencing excruciatingly painful stomach cramps - and trips to the toilet, which were rather embarrassing when you are sat in an English lesson, trying to focus on 'How To Kill A Mockingbird'. I undergo plenty of tests each year to determine the problem isn't a condition such as Crohn's or UC (which have similar symptoms, but can lead to having to have parts of your bowel or stomach removed). However usually - and thankfully - they come back clear. As much as this is reassuring, it's also frustrating and I have thought on several occasions, rather morbidly, 'I wish it was something like Crohn's' so that people would have a better understanding of it and it wouldn't keep being ruled in the public domain as 'minor'. Something minor, in my eyes, shouldn't rule your life as much as this rules mine.

Weirdly, I've never met or really spoken to another sufferer, although I know members of my family experience similar symptoms - which is why I am starting to write about it in the hope that I can grasp the fact I'm not suffering alone. There is no real understanding of IBS in the public domain. We don't talk about our toilet habits with our friends. We don't want to share intimate details of our life with strangers. But IBS, if you have it, affects you every single day. And it is something that needs to be talked about and explored.

The isolation you feel when you're having a particularly bad bout is horrible. So for me, if I was able to read a blog (similar to mine) where a sufferer explored how it made them feel, from a really personal perspective, it would help me immensely. If this helps just one person, it will be more than worth it. And hopefully from my perspective, it will help to talk about it publicly. Sure it's embarrassing. I'm a university student and I'm around peers on a daily basis, so having people know about it when I've tried for so long to keep it private will be strange. But I'm not alone. 8 million of us in the UK have IBS, whether or not they have been formally diagnosed. If people laugh about it immaturely, they aren't worth worrying about. You wouldn't laugh at someone for having a bad back, a broken leg or a heart condition, so why should IBS be any different? I appreciate I might get some negative comments or trolls from posting this, which is why I haven't talked about this until now. But I'm over hiding what I have. Unfortunately IBS is a part of me, and it only makes me more determined to succeed in life.

My IBS is very closely linked to anxiety and my stress levels, which unfortunately has meant that, in recent years, I have been suffering from hideous panic attacks (worrying about a flare-up) especially in situations I can't easily be excused from. A panic attack, although I appreciate is fairly common, is one of the most awful things I have ever experienced. An overwhelming sense of dread, accompanied by sweating, a fast heart rate, panic, nauseous feelings, feeling extremely hot, out of breath, powerless and completely out of control. It's not pleasant. And especially not when the anxiety brings out the worst of your symptoms.

Each week, I will be exploring a different aspect of IBS and how it affects my life, or how I deal with it personally. Whether that be personal relationships, intimacy, your career, your education, your friends, your social life, your well-being or hints and tips about how I get over certain things, I will be talking about it as openly as I possibly can. It would be very positive on my part if other people with similar experiences or symptoms came forward too, but I appreciate for some people - it's private. So whatever happens, I just hope to bring awareness. Bring it to the forefront of people's attentions and give it some airtime. I have a platform to influence and I want to use it in the most positive way I can. I appreciate it's not everyone's cup of tea. You might be reading this thinking 'well, this doesn't affect me'. And you might be right. But I think it's important to be aware of what this is. And share any experience you might have. No matter how small. Whilst it might not help you, it might help your friend who is suffering in silence. Or your other half. Or someone in your workplace.

Alongside this, I will also be reviewing Symprove®, a probiotic which, in tests initiated by Kings College, has helped many sufferers immensely. It's a relatively new product on the market, but having tried endless amounts of therapy, drugs, tests and diets, I feel I have adequate knowledge and experience to give Symprove® a real trial, to see if it helps my symptoms. Of course, not everyone reacts in the same way, but when something such as IBS affects your daily life so much, anything is worth a try.

In April, there will be an IBS Awareness Month - so my aim is to try to engage with readers who suffer from the condition, or perhaps know someone that suffers, into talking about it, publicly, by that week. Whether it's on Twitter or on their blog (or elsewhere), IBS shouldn't be a condition where we suffer in silence anymore. It's 2014. If celebrities' sex lives and MPs' personal lives are splashed across the media on a daily basis, why can't we talk about something that REALLY matters publicly? IBS matters. And you're not alone. You're not making it up. And although (I have been dutifully told many times) there is no cure, you can find a solution that works for you.

If you are a sufferer, please don't be embarrassed. I've had enough of being embarrassed. There are so many of us out there - students, young people, mothers, fathers, grandparents - step by step we can eliminate the embarrassment and isolation we feel by talking about it. It's not necessarily something I feel 'proud' to have, as it does affect my everyday life, but it is time that we talk about it openly, rather than hiding away and doing our best to mask what we are going through. More people are becoming aware and accepting of mental health problems, and anxiety. So we can do the same for IBS.

My first instalment and review will begin next Monday, with another article each week until I have completed my three-month course of Symprove®. I'm not expecting it to be a 'miracle cure', because I have tried so many other medicines, therapies and diets in the past. However I think it will be interesting to track my progress and see if it is making a difference. Even if you're not suffering from IBS, you might find it interesting to see how much of an impact introducing a probiotic into your daily life can have. With IBS, it's very easy to be negative and rule things out. But I'm going to give it a try and we'll see what happens. I'm going to be working closely with the people who are researching IBS on a daily basis, to shed light on the condition and hopefully make it more accessible. Whether you're a sufferer or not, I'd love for you to join me on this journey.

Please visit my IBS series on scarlettlondon.com. If you'd like to get in touch, anonymously or via email, please feel free to contact me with any questions or experiences you may have. It really does help to talk to other people with the condition. You're not alone.