Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Why nobody gives a sh*t.
Author: Bethany Bale
LET’S TALK ABOUT POO BABY
LET’S TALK ABOUT POO AND WEE
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE DIARRHOEA AND CONSTIPATION THAT WILL BE
LET’S TALK ABOUT POO
Inflammatory Bowel Disease is arguably one of the most invisible of all the invisible illnesses, because talking about gastric symptoms is still incredibly taboo within society. Poo and flatulence: they’re nothing more than the punch line of a 9 year old’s joke, the result of pulling one’s finger, or the infamous ‘I thought it was a fart, Sir’ Inbetweeners scene. Going for a ‘number 2’ or ‘letting one rip’ has always been embarrassing. Look no further than the advertising campaigns of products like Poo Pourri, based on the widely acknowledged misconception that ‘girls don’t poop’. I distinctly remember conversations with friends when they’d confess that they ‘could never poo at school,’ or the accusations that someone had opened their bowels if they spent too long in the toilet. Why do we care so much? Why have faeces been unfairly victimised for so long? Why is it that if somebody had to leave a social gathering due to diarrhoea they would probably make up an excuse rather than tell their friends the truth? But if they came down with a migraine, vomited, fell and hurt themselves, or experienced any other socially acceptable illness - they would expect a completely different reaction.
Flatulence is even demonised when you’re on the TOILET. I’m not willing to accept that I’m the only person who has ever been embarrassed (or even held in) a fart on the TOILET?! Toilets were literally invented as places to fart and poo. What’s wrong with us?
This strange (and oddly British) attitude to poo needs to change because it makes living with any kind of gastric illness so much harder than it already is.
For most individuals with a healthy gut - poo: for the most part, can be ignored. It’s rarely necessary to talk about it, and I doubt it’s ever on their mind. However, when you live with Crohn’s Disease (or any gastric condition, for that matter) you’re not afforded that luxury. Not only can you not avoid talking about poo, but you become well acquainted with it. You’ve got to check your stools for blood and mucus (as both of those can be dangerous), you’ve got to be able to answer Bristol stool chart questions when you see your doctor, alongside the ‘how many times a day do you open your bowels’ question. When was the last time you carefully examined your poo? For an IBD sufferer in the middle of a flare up the answer would probably be today!
As if this wasn’t bad enough, in addition to dealing with the judgement of others, you’ve got to deal with some really debilitating symptoms. For example, the classic routine of constipation to overflow diarrhoea (google it, it’s not fun), nausea, abdominal pain, fatigue - just to name a few symptoms. At the height of my flare ups, I could be actively concentrating on something (e.g. reading or writing) and wake up a few hours later - unable to remember falling asleep. That’s the kind of fatigue you get with Crohn’s, and these symptoms don’t disappear when your condition becomes more stable. To this day, although my Crohn’s is the most stable it’s ever been, I am still guaranteed to suffer with awful nausea every exam season. Although you may have heard of (or even experienced) these symptoms before - nothing can prepare you for the ultra high-def IBD version. Menstruation also exacerbates these symptoms.
I don’t understand where this attitude came from because, before sewers were invented, people used to just throw their excrement out of the window. How have we gone from that to humiliating people who spend a long time in the toilet? Perhaps we decided to punish all those who poo, after the sewer was invented, because we were still really angry about how badly the streets used to smell. Or perhaps we still weren’t over the whole Cholera outbreak in 1854 - that wasn’t great, I’ll give you that. But, wherever it came from, it needs to stop.
It’s only when you start to question this prudent approach to poo, that you realise just how strange it is. For example, why is vomit more socially acceptable than diarrhoea? Opening your bowels is something that everyone does everyday, but being sick is a much rarer and more unpleasant experience. I remember a while ago, on a particularly bad day, I ended up spending at least half of my 10 hour shift on the toilet (I did get paid for some of that though, so silver lining!). My team leader for the day was incredibly understanding, as were my co-workers, however the toilet cleaners were clearly confused as to why I was so regularly using the toilet. Before I knew it, I had told them that I felt nauseous and kept thinking I was going to be sick. Why couldn’t I just say: ‘back at it again with the pooing my brains out, how’s your evening going’? Because I knew what reaction I would get if I told the truth, and I didn’t want to deal with that.
There are two sides to this issue. One is that poo, and the reality of gastric illnesses, are not discussed. Two is that, when they are discussed, they are often ridiculed and laughed at. Referring back to the infamous Inbetweeners scene,
I can attest that - as someone who has faced 5 exam seasons with Crohn’s Disease - that this is a very real fear. In fact, the morning of my GCSE Maths Exam, one of my teachers ran across the road to buy me Imodium (a tablet that basically stops you from pooing, for those of you not in the know).
So, firstly, we need to be more candid when it comes to this subject. Let’s talk about poo!
I had the pleasure of meeting Amika George at a book signing recently, the formidable woman behind the Free Periods movement, and she explained that one of the hurdles she faced with her campaign was that menstruation is such a taboo topic - just like poo! Why is this the case? How many people have periods every day? How many people are pooing? These are normal everyday human activities. So why do we have to be so weird about them?
Attitudes only change when we challenge them and attitudes towards gastric symptoms certainly need to change.
Talking about these things are easier than you think. Once you start that conversation then you’ll wonder why it was ever awkward. It’s only since my Crohn’s diagnosis that I’ve been more vocal about these things, because I’ve had to be, but now if my friends are ever feeling sick they’ll come to me for advice - and more often than not, I’ll google the Bristol stool chart for them and offer a laxative from the many boxes under my bed (they’re all over the counter, don’t worry). So, if you’re suffering in silence with a gastric condition then talk about it more with those around you, and if you’ve not got any stomach issues - then challenge these damaging attitudes on behalf of those who do.
Making someone feel bad about their symptoms is a crappy thing to do but what you might not realise is that gastric illnesses have a strong link to your brain and emotions - i.e. somebody’s symptoms will worsen through stress (that’s why I’m always ill during exams). So just remember, next time you’re making someone feel embarrassed and stressed about these symptoms - even if inadvertently - there’s a chance you’re also making their symptoms worse. I’m also very aware of how fortunate I am that my Crohn’s isn’t more severe, but for those who live with stoma bags etc., I can only imagine how much more damaging these attitudes must be.
So, those of you that live with gastric illnesses, don’t be afraid to talk about your symptoms: don't hold it in, just let it out! Also you’re amazing and deserve a round of applause just for getting out of bed every morning. Stay away from anti-inflammatory painkillers (if you can) and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about your decisions - what works for others may not work for you and vice versa. You’re fabulous.
On the other hand, for those that don’t know what it’s like to live with debilitating gastric symptoms, try to be more understanding towards those who do - and actively challenge the attitudes that surround gastric symptoms. Stop demonising poo, it doesn’t understand what it’s done to deserve such a bad reputation. Use 💩 your 💩 poo 💩 emoji 💩 proudly 💩 and 💩 liberally 💩. Also, if you’d like to broaden your understanding of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and what its like to live with it, then why not download Crohn’s and Colitis UK’s new app ‘In my shoes’.
Let’s make Crohn’s and Colitis more visible.