Every now and then, I come across a Twitter joke where the user acts utterly shocked that their girlfriend farted or pooped. Girls don’t poop! That isn’t ladylike at all. Well, the reality is, we do. Everybody poops… but what happens when we actually don’t?
I am diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a semi-rare genetic connective tissue disorder that affects the collagen produced in my body. While it affects everyone differently, I have the absolute pleasure of being plagued by a variety of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. Among other things, I am in the process of being diagnosed with Gastroparesis (delayed gastric emptying), on top of my already diagnosed Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and chronic constipation. The symptoms of them are all vastly unpleasant and inconvenient: near-constant nausea, cycling between constipation and bowel urgency, bloating, burning throat. The list unfortunately goes on.
Despite this, I try to maintain a bright disposition… even from a dark bathroom stall. Usually, when you’re chronically ill, you often spend time begging doctors to take you seriously. With symptoms like these, I desperately want to keep them hidden sometimes. It can be so embarrassing, especially as a college student and athlete.
What has been worse than the embarrassment? People in my life that invalidate my symptoms and expect me to be totally normal and fully-functioning. Trust me, I wish I could feel comfortable enough to do everything I used to be able to do.
If you have anyone in your life struggling with chronic GI illness, hopefully you can learn from some of my experiences and be able to support and validate them during their struggles. Talking about digestive issues needs to be normalized, as it is a more common problem than you think.
For a while, I was housebound due to the plethora of symptoms I was experiencing. My nausea was near debilitating, keeping me up so late that I shifted to a nocturnal schedule. At the time, I was taking an anti-emetic called Zofran every day for months just to be able to eat anything. What I was neglected to be informed was that Zofran causes even more constipation that I was previously experiencing… which in turn triggered more nausea.
The unfortunate truth about some of these symptoms is that they piggyback on each other, creating a cycle that fuels the other problem until it is unbearable. The nausea inevitably forced me to lose multiple figure skating seasons and take my education online.
Something I wished my loved ones would have originally understood is that just because I wasn’t vomiting, didn’t mean I was fine. The anticipation of not knowing what would come from my nausea caused excessive anxiety and left me afraid to leave the house for fear of having something unsightly happen in public. My nausea spells, as I called them, came on so randomly and suddenly that they were unpredictable. The best way to support someone suffering from constant nausea is to respect their wishes to stay home, but make sure they feel welcome with any plans being made. Having the choice to go, even if they are unable to will still make them feel included during a difficult time.
While bloating isn’t the most isolating symptom, it sure was (and remains to be) embarrassing. The average person bloats after a large meal or drinking a lot of water. For a gastroparesis patient, even a sip can cause severe abdominal swelling to the point of unbearable discomfort. Without a cocktail of medication, eating half of a cheeseburger makes me feel as if I ate three Thanksgiving feasts. The feeling of being ripped apart from the inside is only resolved with hours of heating pad usage. Even worse, I look like I am expecting… not just your average food baby. I feel that I look as if I’m expecting a McDonald’s supersized set of triplets.
Personally, I think the worst part of the bloating isn’t the pain. Pain is temporary. However, it feels like the world is constantly staring. As a woman, appearance is something we value and are judged on every day. It should not be this way, but the society that we live in puts thinness on a pedestal. Men seem to coincidentally ignore the fact that bodies fluctuate over the day – even their bodies! Fluid retention, food, swelling, and so many other factors can affect the way our bodies look.
Bloating happens to be such a sudden change at the moment and any anxieties associated with it are valid. I personally am forced to determine my clothes for the day based on the times I am eating… Will I be around people? Are these people going to judge me when my size changes? It shouldn’t be this way, but it’s an unfortunate, lesser-known struggle of women struggling with digestion.
If someone you know is struggling with abnormal bloating related to gastroparesis (or something else), remind them that it’s temporary and cannot last forever. Bloating does not make you ugly and people aren’t actually judging you. Make sure not to make a big deal about any appearance changes as it can be uncomfortable to respond to. Give your loved one suggestions of how to self-soothe such as heat, a warm bath, tea, or laying down.
Thankfully, one of my current symptoms is something I have grown to be less embarrassed about. I am a constant source of upper natural gas. In any situation where I am comfortable, I am pretty much the queen of burping. Burping (and farting, something that I do not deal with in an acute manner) is something that everyone does. If your stomach is causing you severe stabbing pain when you try to hold in a belch, please remember that it is natural to let it out. Burping being “unladylike” is so last year if you ask me. The new trend is letting your body do what it needs to do to feel comfortable. It’s practically self-care. Let’s stop comparing it to truck-drivers or limiting it to men. Stop being uncomfortable to fill a societal “ladylike” standard. If men do it, women can too.
In all seriousness, I’m glad to have come to realize that if someone is going to villainize you for burping around them, they aren’t a supportive person. You don’t need that type of negative energy in your life. If you have a loved one with stomach issues, helping them feel more comfortable is simple. If they burp (or pass gas of any kind), don’t make a point of it. It truly doesn’t affect you. At the least, don’t laugh at them! Laugh with them instead. You do it too… don’t try and hide it.
Now, here is the symptom you probably clicked on this article for. Chronic constipation. Not to be dramatic, but when suffering from chronic constipation, you feel like a prisoner of the bathroom. You never know when or where you will finally be able to “go”… and the lack of “going” generally results in, well, going a lot. If you can’t go when the urge finally hits, it might make the constipation even worse. This symptom is probably the most taboo. With social media already joking about women not actually using the restroom, how can you present this struggle as serious?
I swear people still think I’m joking when I say I actually don’t poop.
The worst part is how it affects my life. I’m constantly afraid at my figure skating practices that one wrong jump will result in an urgent need for the bathroom. I’ve even had to write papers for school while camped out in the bathroom. I definitely do not live a glamourous college life at this point. On bad days, I’m afraid to leave the house for fear of not having an accessible bathroom for emergencies, or being struck with stabbing colon pain; forget a future life of college partying.
If someone in your life struggles with bowel-related symptoms, the main thing you can do to support them is to listen to them. Listen to them without laughing or making a joke out of it. Help them find a bathroom in situations when they are in need. Most importantly, never make them feel embarrassed.
The silence is deafening at this point. Why can’t women talk about their stomachs like men can? Everyone has a digestive system and no one should have to suffer in silence. If you are struggling or seeking medical attention for your digestive issues, don’t be afraid to talk about it. Start normalizing the conversation within your communities.
At the end of the day, I have no clue when my symptoms will resolve. It could be tomorrow, it could be a year from now, or this could be my new normal. I plan to return to a physical college in the fall, COVID permitting, to finish my education. Hopefully, by then, some of my anxiety and fear of embarrassment will have dissipated. There’s no need to be afraid to talk about these things. Why? Well, everyone poops… when they can.