The paths not taken in life are spoken of often in many contexts and today I want to speak of my paths not taken because of irritable bowel syndrome. And those I took despite it.
There is shame attached to irritable bowel syndrome. It’s a secretive, underworld affliction. As children, we are taught that one’s toilet functions are not to be spoken about and we learn well. So we suffer alone. Time does not change that. Whether others have the same experiences or not is never discovered because we don’t voice our condition as we don’t in fact know it is a condition – perhaps it could be the normal lot of all people. How would we know if we never discussed it? There is an inkling that all is not well but we have no yardstick to measure our discomfort by, and we don’t ask.
I remember a camping holiday with friends on a bare section bordering the seaside many moons ago when I was about 16. We slept in tents and had a long-drop for a toilet halfway between the tents and the beach – so not very private. Teenagers haven’t yet the confidence to brazen out the rough issues of life and I felt acutely embarrassed about the time I needed to spend in the one-and-only toilet. So I often avoided going completely which resulted in pain, bloating and constipation. Sneaking about became the order of the day – how to get away from the others and get to the toilet without them knowing. This kind of subterfuge tends to dominate one’s days and it did mine. I enjoyed the holiday in my own way, but I was never free of anxiety. What I learned from that was to avoid similar situations and so often lived on the fringes of my friend’s lives.
When I returned from Italy to set up home here with my husband, I ran a business in the fashion industry and so my time was my own and I seldom found myself in awkward situations because I had control. After a decade, I sold it and homeschooled my son but the time came when I looked for work outside the home and choices had to be made. I returned to teaching English as a second language in the mornings, which I had done in Italy, and that afforded me a modicum of control as well because symptoms are worse in the afternoon than the morning. And so the years passed. But then I got a job at a real estate agency which had only two toilets – one for the men and one for the women – right in the centre of everything. I found a way of coping by using my half hour for lunch to walk up to the toilet at the shopping mall not too far away. I then walked back, eating my lunch on the way, and survived until home time.
I was very unhappy in that job – they were not nice people, and so I started looking for a new position. I was eventually offered a job as an assistant to a team of architects. I love anything creative and was excited about the job until I visited the premises and discovered that I would be the only women among a bunch of men and that we would all share one toilet – again, close to the main open-plan office space. And this time there was no mall nearby. I was by now old enough to make sensible choices and to avoid putting myself in situations which led to pain and discomfort on a daily basis and turned down the job. What a shame!
When my son was eleven, I decided it was time to take him on a big trip with us and I organised to go to Africa to visit my uncle who owns a fishing lodge on the Zambezi River in Zambia. While in Africa, we also did a camping trip in Botswana. What made me hesitate before booking it was the journey by mokoro (a native dugout canoe) into the Okavango Delta to camp in the wilderness where the toilet was a hole in the ground. I dwelled on it for some time before throwing caution to the wind and booking it. I was worried that I would never again do this if I didn’t do it then. Funnily enough I had few troubles on that entire trip and I know now that it was because the food there was so much simpler than in our modern processed world. We ate meat, chicken and fish, which have no FODMAPs and a few simple vegetables – nothing elaborate or stewed up with garlic and onion, few desserts and little fruit. The perfect diet for someone with irritable bowel syndrome who benefits from a low FODMAP diet.
But a few years later, I decided to take a side trip to Egypt when I and my family went back to Italy to visit my husband’s family. I was to take this without them for they wanted to stay in Italy and I wanted to see Egypt. I sorted through small group tours and desperately wanted to take one that included a feluca cruise on the Nile as I have always loved grassroots travelling but knew it was a foolhardy thing to do because, this time, there was no toilet at all, just the side of the boat. I ended up taking a more sedately cruise on the Nile with my own cabin. And just as well I did as I and all my travelling companions came down with food poisoning as do many people who travel to the Middle East. But I regret the missed felucca cruise.
I have many other paths not taken or paths taken that caused me to suffer but I will finish here and would love to hear about your similar experiences with irritable bowel syndrome and the choices you have had to make. Leave a comment or email me through my contact page. I love hearing from you.