When my first son was a toddler, I developed a wicked case of irritable bowel syndrome. I’d always had a sensitive stomach, but for some reason, after he was born, things went haywire. I’m still not sure what caused it. Hormones? Getting older? Stress? Lack of sleep? Everything combined?
Either way, my stomach was a total mess. Without warning, my bowels would needed to be emptied STAT. Each toilet experience was a literal shit SHOW. Like, it felt like there was an actual person inside my body, beating my bowels like a drum and then squeezing them out. I’d sweat, cry, curse, and freak the fuck out. When I was done, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.
This kind of thing was happening a few times a week, and in between I’d either be terribly constipated and painfully bloated, or just have the general runs. And the thing was, it was totally unpredictable and I was chasing around a young toddler at the same time — taking care of him, feeding him non-stop, trying to stick to his routines, and driving him to this and that activity.
When the desperate bathroom experiences first started happening, I felt ashamed and confused. Was I sick? Was I dying? How come the episodes weren’t stopping? What would happen if I went to a doctor? Would they tell me I was off my rocker? Would they they tell me I was dying of cancer?
On top of a sensitive tummy, I also have an anxiety disorder, so my mind went to some very bad places when I was hit with the worst of my IBS.
Then came the day that changed it all. I was driving my son to a playdate when the urge to purge took hold with an unbearable force. I needed to go NOW.
Then came the day that changed it all. I was driving my son to a playdate when the urge to purge took hold with an unbearable force. I needed to go NOW. My heart was racing, and of course, my son was fussing in the back seat. I pulled over to the nearest store, ran out of the car, got the stroller out, and threw my son into it.
I raced through the department store, desperately searching for a bathroom. I went upstairs and they told me the bathroom was closed. I had to get on a fucking elevator to get downstairs to the bathroom, and when I finally got there — literally when I turned the corner — I shit my pants.
It was not only the most embarrassing moment of my life, but it only added to my anxiety about what was happening to my body. I thought: “If my stomach problems are this bad, it must mean I’m dying.”
I developed a case of PTSD around this particular incident, and for the next few months, and even a few years after, I was pretty much petrified to be in a car. My bowels felt so unpredictable, and the stress of being in an enclosed space with a small child — perhaps not being within reach of a bathroom for miles … the thought just basically terrified me.
My bowels felt so unpredictable, and the stress of being in an enclosed space with a small child — perhaps not being within reach of a bathroom for miles … the thought just basically terrified me.
Of course, once you feel stress about bowel issues, it only makes things worse. The stress makes your bowels start to churn, and once your bowels start to churn, your stress levels increase, and on it goes. It’s a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one I had trouble talking myself out of.
Within a few months of the “shitting my pants” incident, I was able to get to a GI doctor. A million tests were run, and I was diagnosed with simple IBS. I was able to settle things to some extent by trying an elimination diet (I discovered that dairy was a major culprit, as were FODMAPS). Meditating, decreasing my stress levels, and getting as much sleep as possible helped too.
But even after my IBS was better controlled, my fear of driving and of leaving the house in general persisted. I just couldn’t talk myself out of the fact that I might suddenly need to use a toilet and that I might end up in a situation where there wasn’t one. The idea embarrassed me to my core, and I would have nightmare scenarios about this play on a loop in my mind.
Things are much better now, although when my stomach is acting up or a stressful event is coming, I still have some resistance about driving. I wonder sometimes if it will be a lifelong phobia for me. I sure hope it won’t.
But I know I’m not alone. Back when my IBS was really bad I remember reading some online message boards from IBS sufferers. Many people mentioned the fear of driving and the fear of leaving the house as top IBS complication. Many people felt like IBS limited their lives. Many were afraid to talk about it with anyone.
I totally get that. I know how shameful and terrifying it can be. You start to feel like maybe you’re “crazy” and you feel embarrassed that you can’t control your thoughts (or your bowels, for that matter).
If you are in that place, I want you to know that you are not alone. There is nothing to be ashamed of. I urge you to talk about how you are feeling with someone you trust — a friend, a therapist, or an online support group. My husband has been such an amazing supporter with this: it really helps to air out all your feelings and weird hang-ups.
So talk about it. Meditate. Work on healing your gut (it’s totally possible to tame that messed up tummy). And remember that you don’t have to feel this way always. You deserve to live a full life, to get into the car and not fear what might happen next. To leave the house and feel free.
Your feelings are real. But don’t let IBS or your anxiety about it rule your life. I promise it can get better.