TL;DR: Recovering from about five months of some of the worst irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) I ever had, I reflect on the journey and discuss being your own advocate in times of trouble and an advocate for your relationship.
Have you ever endured a horrible medical problem that left you out of commission for a long time? Better yet, if/when you solved it, did it teach you an amazing life lesson? (Warning: long story and related relationship advice approaching!)
As I’m writing this, I’m recovering from five months of chronic abdominal pain (specifically, irritable bowel syndrome) that left me vegetating most weekends like a drooling internet troll. It started when I took medication for a menstrual migraine and continued especially during strenuous exercise, when I was under normal amounts of stress, and during that time of the month.
I wondered if there was something wrong with my uterus, so I went to the OB/GYN, who gave me an ultrasound. She discovered nothing wrong with my uterus, but my intestines looked hyperactive, almost like moving Jell-O. (To those who take things literally, don’t take that literally.) She recommended I see a gastroenterologist and prescribed antibiotics for a different problem.
Seeing the General Practitioner
Since my health care provider is the bureaucratic land of Kaiser Permanente, I had to go to my general practitioner first. She asked me some questions, felt around on my belly, and said it seemed to be irritable bowel syndrome. Since I’d also had it in my late teens/early 20s and cured it by eating more fiber, I thought it would be easy-peasy to cure again. My doctor prescribed Bentyl, a “promising” intestine relaxer (that I later discovered made me feel less inhibited in my speech and actions, like being drunk), that I could take as needed up to three times a day.
Bentyl made the pain disappear after a couple of weeks, during which I was also taking two other medications (the antibiotic and Spironolactone, the latter for hormone-induced acne). It was difficult to balance that concoction, like juggling glass bottles, because I was afraid of accidentally turning that witch’s brew into something dangerous if I hadn’t timed the pills right. Shortly after I went off Bentyl, though, the pain returned, and it was so much worse.
Seeing the Gastroenterologist
I kept taking Bentyl out of desperation and finally went to the gastroenterologist. She also trusted the medication but sent me to the Diagnostic Imaging Center for a full pelvic ultrasound. She also recommended this expensive over-the-counter peppermint oil stuff called IBGard.
“Email me a progress report in six weeks,” she told me.
I did everything she asked me to do. The peppermint oil shit didn’t do shit and the ultrasound looked fine. While I was glad it was “fine,” it still didn’t solve the mystery. I emailed her saying I tried everything, even staying on the low-FODMAP diet that I’ve been on for 1.5 years. She said to schedule another consultation with her. When I called Kaiser to schedule an appointment, the receptionist said she wouldn’t be available for another 1.5 weeks.
I was furious and said I needed to see someone soon, since the pain was out of control like a temper-tantrum toddler. While it’s normally best to see the same doctor for gut (and many other types of) pain, I opted to see the physician’s assistant in two days and endure the pain until then.
Seeing the Physician’s Assistant
Everyone who knew about this pain was worried: my boss, my partner Phillip, my immediate family, and some of my closest colleagues. I was hoping one more Kaiser visit would be it and I’d go back to living my life, particularly off the couch.
I saw Ravyn, a wonderful, kind PA who vigorously took notes as I talked and “played” them back to make sure she captured everything. But she was also stumped, just like the doctors. I told her I had to take a sick day earlier that week because the pain felt like someone was squeezing and twisting my insides while laughing like a mad, red-eyed psychopath (okay, maybe not in so many words, but you get the idea). She left the room to get a second opinion and then returned.
“Okay, since you have no family history of this to your knowledge, all signs point to this being a functional problem,” she said. “It’s classic IBS, which means we don’t need to operate on you. Do you take any supplements?”
“I’ve taken Metamucil,” I responded.
“So, that can give you a lot of gas. We’d recommend Benefiber and Greek yogurt,” she said.
“Seriously? Benefiber and Greek yogurt?” I thought to myself, rolling my eyes on the inside.
But I had to try. I was desperate.
Greek Yogurt: My Last Resort
I tried the Benefiber first and got nothing but pain and diarrhea (sorry, TMI). Then one Monday morning, I was a little late to work and thought I’d get breakfast at one of the cafeterias. But since I hadn’t eaten and hadn’t been able to treat the pain, I felt like I was at a crawl, like the protagonist of a superhero movie losing a fight. I felt pale and weak but had to get the one thing I hadn’t tried: Greek yogurt.
I returned to my office with the yogurt and was on the floor. I opened it, took my first bite, and immediately I felt like the clouds had parted for singing angels to come down from the heavens to congratulate me. The pain began to disappear like a colony of bats leaving a cave. I felt the color return to my face. I felt lively again!
I texted my partner Phillip to let him know what happened.
“Maybe I was missing good bacteria this whole time,” I said.
“You took antibiotics, which can kill some of the good bacteria in your intestines,” he said.
I paused for a moment, wondering why I hadn’t put two and two together during these difficult months. I wrote that in a text to Phillip.
“The real question is why the doctors didn’t put two and two together,” he said.
Thinking back, antibiotics had never been a problem for me, apparently until now, and the doctors and I had totally overlooked it as a possibility. Instead, it seemed like the docs did what American docs are known to do (at least in my experience), which is to throw medications at the symptoms instead of treating the cause. Whatever had started the pain, antibiotics had probably worsened it. So, I loaded the fridge with Kefir products and Greek yogurt and stopped taking my migraine medication (and Bentyl).
Mystery solved (at least for now)!
That was a long story to get through, so if you made it this far, you get a metaphorical goodie bag of life lessons!
Perhaps a major takeaway from this experience that I can share with you (other than the obvious “don’t give up” stuff) is to be your own advocate, which can be easier said than done. To be your own advocate is not only to assert yourself in times of trouble, but to be an advocate for others, including in your relationship. Social psychologist Adam Galinsky says this “mama bear” effect of advocating for others can help widen your scope of influence.
I knew a doctor’s “detached love” and tendency to prescribe “quick fixes” wasn’t going to help my situation alone. This practice resulted in overlooked details, so I had to be on my toes as much as I could. I had to keep fighting to figure out a solution alongside a medical professional, especially since this pain was also affecting those around me. Phillip the engineer was frustrated that he couldn’t solve it. My parents were silently worried and couldn’t figure it out. My boss and colleagues were hoping this would end soon and tried to be supportive, even when the issue was affecting my work performance.
In your relationship, though, advocacy can take on several personas. You advocate for your well-being and the relationship’s well-being, because you know your relationship is greater than the sum of its parts. If something feels off or your needs aren’t met, you tell your partner using “I” statements. When your partner is in trouble, you step up for the team, because it’s hard to achieve anything in this world alone. Furthermore, if your relationship isn’t working out, you develop the confidence to leave and find a more suitable partner.
With that said, I’ll bring this to an end by referring back to Galinsky’s words. To strengthen your influence as an advocate, be not only a “ferocious mama bear,” but also:
- be a humble advice seeker
- have evidence for your case
- have strong allies
- be passionately empathetic
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