I had always been fairly healthy growing up. Sure I had the normal stuff, colds, fevers, chicken pox’s, ect; I even stepped on a nail once and had to go get a tetanus shot booster (trust me, it would seem more dramatic if it happened to you early one Saturday morning). That all changed in college. During my sophomore year in the university after having lunch with some friends at the on campus pub not long before spring break I caught a nasty case of food poisoning. It lasted a solid two weeks and after over 6 days without eating or drinking anything I seriously thought I might die. We had a fairly high tech medical center on campus that was approximately five or six blocks from my dorm room and since I didn’t have a car I had to work to my doctor’s appointment. I got faint and nearly passed out 3 times on that walk short little walk.
While that was probably two of the worst weeks in my life, I eventually got over the food poisoning. Unfortunately that incident aggravated a condition I didn’t even know I had. After my food poisoning subsided I was left with a bad case of irritable bowel syndrome or IBS. Now IBS doesn’t really sound all that bad and compared to most other illnesses it can be quite mild. I, of course, don’t have a mild case of it.
The symptoms for IBS can vary from person to person; I myself suffer chronic diarrhea and chronic nausea with really the nausea being the more annoying of the two symptoms. Now, as I said this probably doesn’t sound all that bad and it’s not the worst thing in the world for a day or two. Imagine dealing with daily bouts of extreme nausea for a year though and having to go make a bowel movement 5 or more times a day, sometimes within ten minutes of the last time you went and you start to understand what the problem is really like.
So, starting near the end of my sophomore year in school I suddenly had to deal with being a full time student and feeling sick everyday. Some fields of study are easier then others, being able to do a bit studying and phoning it in every now and then. Of course, my major was Computer Science in which missing a days lecture would simply be irreplaceable. I miss a day and return the next and find that I will never recover that missing data and what I can recover will come the hard way. Every missed day adds 8 hours of work and research onto the next piece of software I had to write.
Prior to my IBS I was an excellent student; I was on the deans list every semester and due to some advance placement classes on the subject of computer science I was a freshman taking junior level classes and out performing the students who had gotten there the normal way. That changed with my IBS. I began to miss pieces of lectures and at times whole lectures due to illness. Even if I felt good in the morning I didn’t know what to do: Do I eat something and run the risk of upsetting my delicately balanced stomach or do I not eat anything and risk setting off my IBS due to not eating. That dilemma frequently reminded me of gambling, not just because it was really up to luck if I picked the right choice but because just like being in the casino the longer you play the game the more inevitable losing becomes.
So my grades slipped. It was only a little at first, but then things seemed to get worse health wise and my grades dropped even more. By the summer of my junior year I received a letter from the administration informing me I had performed so badly that semester that I had been placed on academic suspension and wouldn’t be allowed to return to school for a full year. I got back in that summer by appealing the decision on the grounds that I had been long term ill and fortunately the administration agreed but things were never the same. Instead of graduating early it took me an extra semester and I barely squeaked by. I graduated but the low marks I had received in my last two years and the lapses of knowledge that accompanied that made my degree little more then a piece of paper that hangs on my wall. While all my colleagues either went to graduate school or found high paying jobs in field, I did not.
Still, it could have been worse.
When I first starting showing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome there really wasn’t a lot of talk about it. It wasn’t unknown in the medical community, but it’s not like it is now with a plethora of probiotic substances on the shelf and commercials on TV for new prescription drugs. No, it was still a battle of trial and error and you couldn’t really treat the disease as much as try to control the symptoms. That’s probably why it took a few years to find the right balance of drugs and lifestyle choices that slowly calmed my symptoms. Being male didn’t help either.
You might wonder why being male and having IBS would be a problem. It might sound silly but especially in the early days IBS was considered a female problem. Again, I’m not joking when I say that. It isn’t that males don’t suffer from IBS (If that were the case I wouldn’t have to be writing this whole article) it’s that women report having the symptoms more then men. I can’t say by what margin as the field is pretty wide; everything from a conservative 2:1 all the way to a far out 9:1 women to men. I feel like I have to keep repeating that I’m not joking but… I’m not joking when I say that when my general physician wrote out my first prescription for this problem my pharmacist, who is a good friend of my family, told me he was surprised because I was the first male patient to be prescribe that drug and he was the head pharmacist and a busy pharmacy.
Pills were just the tip of the medical fun. You see, there is a little cosmic joke that goes along with IBS. No one really fully understands what causes IBS and so nearly everything that could possibly go wrong with your gastrointestinal system has to be thoroughly checked as many of the symptoms associated with IBS are also symptoms of other illnesses whose sources and effects can be seen via ultrasounds, endoscope procedures and blood tests. Everything has to be checked and if nothing appears to be wrong but you still have symptoms then congratulations, you have irritable bowel syndrome.
After three years of tests, guess work, and suffering I finally got to a place where I could function normally. I had to take pills a couple of times a day but as long as I watched what I ate, limiting any spice or grease to as little as possible, and ate small meals I’d be fine. For probably three years I had jobs, friends, and a productive life.
Then one day things starting to slide. Even little bits of food began to make me feel sick and quickly that feeling grew. It became harder and harder to be at work as even mild smells or an uncomfortable position would make me sick and I’d have to leave my desk and try and calm down. I had to return to the doctor and get new pills as well try to discover new ways to calm my symptoms. I felt so sick and it was so hard to eat that in approximately two months I lost over fifty pounds. I didn’t even realize that was possible.
That was nearly a year ago and things have been up and down since then. I’ve lost my job due to my inability to be at the work site consistently and though my symptoms aren’t as bad as they were a year ago they are still something I have to pay close attention to. The number of pills I have to take has also increased quite a bit as well as their frequency.
In reality my description barely scratches the surface of what it’s like having to deal with IBS. It’s damaged my education and employment, cost me bundles of money in medication and medical expenses, and most importantly drained me of a considerable amount of time. What worries me the most though is the fact that even if I can get this completely under control I’ll never know when it will strike again.