IBS is not BS – recovery really can be a pain in the guts
“I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
This sentence has surfaced during almost every phase of my eating disorder journey. When sitting on the floor in my bedroom, holding my head in my hands in desperation, with the carpet burning against my skin, feeling the fear that comes with seeing that scale creep higher and higher, to moments now when having a ‘bad gut day’. When I have a bad stomach day, my life grinds to a halt.
I’ve always felt that having IBS or any other functional gut disorder ( to read dietician, Kate Lane’s, rundown of all things gut issues) in eating disorder recovery, is a cruel twist. When trapped in the quicksand that is an eating disorder, the irrational fear of food always wins. The same food in recovery can prove to be a real kick in the guts. It feels cruel and unfair to overcome an eating disorder only to seemingly be “punished” for eating regular, nutritious meals down the track.
I don’t know if my anorexia caused my IBS or simply made me more susceptible to developing a functional gut disorder. At the first sign of any trouble – like getting terrible food poisoning in Athens, Greece, many moons ago – my body’s defences collapsed without a fight. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what has caused my IBS because the reality is that I now have to live with and manage it forever.
In recent times and through lots of trial and error, my IBS seems to be improving. Once upon a time, trying to get myself to an early morning meeting, on a morning flight for work or even eating out, was a disaster. These days, while often uncomfortable and almost always unpredictable, it is at least manageable (mostly). What seems to have made the most difference is eating denser foods like white rice, sweet potato and cereal when I can tolerate them – this has also meant unavoidable weight gain to the point where I am starting to feel uncomfortable in my own skin. That overwhelming scale fear has subsided but if I’m honest, it never really disappears.
Recovery is a path I chose and continue to choose
When setting out to write this piece, I didn’t want to pull any punches. I wanted to be raw and real because I think it’s important that people hear voices that haven’t been watered down. I feel as though recovery looks and is different for everyone. Personally, I don’t believe recovery is something that starts and ends – it’s not a line one steps over and is ‘magically’ rid of all of their demons. I believe recovery is a path I chose and a path I continue to choose and manage each day.
If IBS and eating disorders have one thing in common, it’s that they both succeed in isolating you from others and leaving you to struggle alone…if you let them. IBS is not the most thrilling or ‘sexiest’ of topics to have a conversation about, for obvious reasons, but it is something I know a lot of people struggle through, regardless of whether they have any experience with an eating disorder or not.
Just like anorexia held me captive for over a decade, there are days when IBS keeps me prisoner because I am feeling too sick (and/or embarrassed) to face the world. Then there’s the depression and the knowledge that this is it forever. Like a shadow looming over me in the background for the rest of my life. Even when free of symptoms, I am worrying about when that next kick in the guts will come, which of course, only serves to perpetuate and continue the never-ending cycle.
As with eating disorders, people who don’t have IBS or have never had any gut problems, just don’t get it. From the GP who didn’t bother testing me for anything at the very beginning, to the family members who still say, “just get over it,” life with IBS can be a lonely path to walk. And an expensive one – dieticians, naturopaths, gut hypnotherapy, the low FODMAP diet (which isn’t ideal for someone with a history of ED), all kinds of herbs and supplements, gut microbiome tests…you name it and I’ve tried it. I don’t want to contemplate how much money I’ve spent on that ever-elusive pipe dream of a life without IBS.
Perhaps it is time for me to make peace with my IBS and the things that come with it, and remain hopeful that one day, I will make my way out of the rabbit hole.
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Lane, K (2019), Gut issues and eating disorders are a painful but treatable pair, The Diary Healer