I originally wrote this to enter into the xojane.com ‘It Happened To Me’ competition – only to then read in the T&Cs that it’s only open to US citizens. So, to the blog! Basically a general introduction to life with chronic bowel disease.
I was eighteen when I first encountered blood in the toilet bowl. And it definitely wasn’t my period. My first inclination wasn’t to freak out and Google what it meant, and it certainly wasn’t to go to the doctor – eighteen-year-old girl talking to the family GP about bowel movements? Yeah, no thanks.
No, my approach was much less sensible – I ignored it. It happened again, every now and then, and I mentioned to my mum at one stage, and she said that it was probably worth going to the doctor if it happened again. I took her advice under consideration. By which I mean I didn’t, at all – so time went by.
I did a semester abroad, spent a couple of months living in Brooklyn, came back to New Zealand and crashed and burned academically. A couple of years beforehand, I’d been in the top echelon of one of the best schools in the country, getting scholarship payments, placing in national creative writing competitions. But now, dragging myself to class was almost impossible. I was, in hindsight, almost certainly extremely depressed, but I couldn’t admit that to myself. I couldn’t concentrate. My visits to the bathroom were increasing in frequency, bit by bit. There was still blood.
I still didn’t go to the doctor.
It wasn’t until I had to go to A&E because I could barely swallow – an unrelated issue, as it turned out – that I finally brought up my digestive ‘issues’, at my mother’s insistence – I had, a month or so before, admitted that this was still an issue, about two years after it first started. The doctor at the after hours clinic gave a me a prescription for some Losec for the swallowing pain, and told me to get my butt to my GP, because with upwards of eight bathroom trips a day, and blood involved on a regular basis, a referral to a gastroenterologist was almost certainly going to be needed.
The blood tests my GP ran came back negative for any parasites or such things, so it was off to gastroenterology. The public health system in New Zealand can sometimes mean it takes a little while to get seen, but as it turns out, when you’re 20 and full of bloody stool, your file gets stamped with ‘urgent’, and you get seen pretty damn quickly. I was also told, before getting referred, that I was extremely anaemic, which made sense, since, you know, I’d been losing blood for an awfully long time. I was told that this would have affected energy levels – check – and concentration – check. The waning trajectory of my academic performance was starting to make a little more sense. The low iron levels were also, in all likelihood, enhanced by my less than nutritionally-sound vegetarianism and obscene coffee/energy drink habit.
Within a month, I’d had my first colonoscopy, and a diagnosis. Ulcerative colitis – not that I’d ever heard of it before. I’d heard of Crohn’s disease, but had no idea what it entailed. Both are IBDs – inflammatory bowel diseases – which some people do confuse with IBS – irritable bowel syndrome – however they really need to be differentiated to understand the severity of IBD. Certainly IBS can be serious and distressing, but the difference between ‘inflammatory’ and ‘irritable’ is crucial. It drives me a little loopy when I read posts on forums, where someone will mention having Crohn’s or UC in a post, and then the comments are full of people saying ‘oh, I know what you mean, I have IBS!’ Crohn’s and UC are auto-immune diseases, that, save for very mild cases, will generally require some serious drugs to attain any level of control over the debilitating symptoms. There’s no single cure for any IBD, and no magic medicine that works for everyone. There’s no cure for IBS, either, but there’s also not the problems of bleeding and inflammation and general increased chance of bowel cancer, at the end of the road.
Over the next two years, I was to find out that I’m one of those ‘lucky’ folk for whom most medications won’t work. I was started on enemas, which was as much fun as it sounds, and they just wouldn’t take. I’ve been on various pills for a couple of years now, and none of them have really helped, until I finally caved and agreed to try predisone, a steroid with nasty side-effects. Since I already had a propensity towards a depressive mental state, taking a drug with relatively frequent incidences of psychological symptoms – not to mention the physical symptoms like weight gain and acne, which would hardly enhance my mood, I was loathe to try them, but given that I’ve run through basically all standard medications, plus a drug trial, it was really a case of ‘try the steroids, or that colon’s probably going to have to come out.’
Which is still might. Though everything’s somewhat under control now, and my days of taking painkillers just to get myself through the morning at work are mostly have mostly passed, there are still days when the only way that I’m going to be able to get to work without having an accident and excruciating pain are by popping some Tramadol. And I hate that. I hate that I have to go into the hospital every eight weeks to get hooked up to an IV for infusion treatment (which I’m still waiting to see whether or not it will work) – I want to be travelling, exploring, not worrying about the fact that I have to be here for a very much not portable treatment. Or that if I did go travelling, travel insurance would either be prohibitively expensive, or not cover me for any UC related problems – which could occur regardless of how careful I am. Just because I avoid eating foods which are particular triggers doesn’t mean that I won’t find myself bed-ridden. By the same token, ‘healthy’ foods for the masses are some of the worst triggers for my particular brand of UC. Raw veges, any kind of legume, whole grains – no no and definitely no. Any large amount of dairy is no go, anything soy based is dangerous… my vegetarian days are certainly a thing of the past.
I’m lucky, in some ways, though. I mentioned the public healthcare system earlier – my current infusion treatment, which costs thousands, possibly tens of thousands per year, is entirely funded. In a twisted way, I’m also ‘lucky’ that my case is fairly severe – it means that everything is taken very seriously, and I’ve got a couple of doctors and clinic/research nurses who are all very invested in my getting better. Even if, as I am now faced to admit, that may getting some pretty serious surgery in the not so distant future. If it means that my life is mine to live, and not controlled by this fun-filled disease, so be it.
I want to educate people as much as possible on IBD, and even IBS – since, realistically, us bowel-challenged folk ought to stick together, since it’s not something that people like to talk about – and possibly as a result of that, it’s not something about which people actually understand the severity of the issue. Sometimes when I mention that when I had an iron infusion (since my anaemia was so bad) I was on a ward with chemo patients, people start to grasp that, hey, there’s more to whatever this thing is than Briar having to go to the bathroom fifteen times a day.
I did manage to finish my degree, though certainly not to the high level I’d expected when I went in. Now that my symptoms and iron levels are the most controlled that they’ve been in years, I’m contemplating going back to study, to get back on track with life goals and plans that have laid by the wayside for far too long. I’m also working on a YA novel involving a main character with IBD, because hell, if I’d been diagnosed any younger, it would have been a major blessing to have encountered someone in the pages of a book who was dealing with the same issues as me. And writing what you know is always a good place to start.
It may have taken over my life, and changed it – but with a bit of luck, the continued developments of modern medicine, and a hell of a lot of determination, I’m working on changing it again – not change it back, but make it even better than before.