About 11 years ago, I started to get sick – randomly. Sometimes, it was in the middle of the night, and I would get violently ill to the point where I was pretty useless and exhausted the next day. It happened infrequently enough that I just assumed I’d eaten something that disagreed with me or that I’d had perhaps a beer or three too many earlier in the evening. It wasn’t until I started to get sick more and more often that I took action.
After a while, it got to the point where I was getting sick monthly…then weekly, then sometimes several times a week. It was nearly debilitating; it’s incredibly hard to function when you can’t keep your stomach from practically failing on you and you have no way to predict when or where the digestive fireworks will occur.
I went to the doctor, who referred me to a gastroenterologist – who immediately ordered a “small bowel series”. I can assure you that it is EXACTLY as much fun as the name suggests. You get to chug some incredibly large volume of a radioactive milkshake, and then you’re put under a camera for the doctor to evaluate and see where things may be going wrong with your body. At the time that I went in for my series, the fear was that I had Crohn’s Disease – a treatable but not curable condition.
DH went with me to the appointment and duly waited for me as I choked down all of the icky barium milkshake that I was handed. This was no small feat on either of our parts, given that the appointment required him to wait for HOURS and it subjected me to a veal stall of a waiting room that bordered on one occupied by someone who was busy yakking up her milkshake (ew). Once I’d sucked down all of this nastiness, it turned out that I didn’t have enough “coating” in my system (awesome), so dh and I took a walk around the block and waited some more for all of the milkshake to settle out through my system. When things were finally in the places that the docs and radiologists wanted, I lay on a table and a doctor did something to my belly that felt like he was trying to rearrange all of my internal organs from the outside. Given that I was full of something like 1-2 liters of barium milkshake, calling this “uncomfortable” is somewhat of an understatement.
Anyway, the results of the test finally came back and I sat on my gastro’s exam table while he explained to me that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome – IBS. It’s not Crohn’s? I asked. Nope, he said – not Crohn’s. So, what’s IBS and how do I treat it? was my natural response. His answer was exactly what I didn’t want to hear: It’s the catch-all for any stomach issue they can’t strictly classify as a known, named disorder/disease, and they don’t know how to cure it. UGH.
He explained that the key was to find my triggers, so he suggested I start eliminating things from my diet. His first target was gum (creates bubbles in the stomach), so I quit gum. Next, he said that my lactose intolerance meant I should eliminate all dairy, but I resisted that and held up my Lactaid pills like a shield. His third suggestion was intriguing: eliminate caffeine. Being a fan of Dr. Pepper and coffee, this seemed like he was putting a stake through my caffeinated heart. But, being willing to try anything…I gave up caffeine. Cold turkey.
I expected all of the headaches, shakes and other terrible symptoms friends had gone through when they tried to go decaf, and I was completely shocked when NONE of those issues materialized for me. Even better, my constant pattern of sickness dissipated in short order. It’s like everything went in reverse; I started to get sick only rarely…first a couple of times a month, then a couple of times a quarter, then only a couple of times per year.
Caffeine isn’t my only trigger, as it turns out, but it is the strongest. Dehydration is the other, which is yet another reason why my social drinking dropped to almost nothing; if I have a couple of drinks in a month it’s a lot. As long as I stick to decaffeinated food & drinks, I appear to be able to manage my IBS much better. Much like a person with a gluten allergy or some other obscure food allergy, you’d be amazed what you get attuned to (like avoiding coffee-flavored ice cream or tiramisu, since the coffee components are almost always caffeinated).
The thing that’s actually the hardest about IBS, now that I’ve had it fairly under control for the last decade, is that people don’t believe it’s actually a thing. When I wave off alcohol in favor of water, I get the skeptical glance or comment that says “What, are you a teetotaler?!” As I lovingly cradle my decaf coffee every morning, people think I’m nuts for still drinking anything. Apparently, to some, drinking decaf is the equivalent of downing near-beer…and some of my more caffeinated co-workers just shake their head. I shrug it all off; I like the taste of coffee (and tea), and decaf is far better than nothing at all.
When I first realized I actually had something WRONG with me, a friend of mine with a variety of allergies/food-related issues lent me a book about coping with stomach problems. The thing I took away from it was that people are far more apt to sympathize with someone who has a broken leg than with someone who has a stomach disorder, because they can SEE the cast and think back to a time when they may have worn a cast themselves. I remind myself of this every time I have a friend or co-worker who tells me of an allergy/ailment of their own; not every sickness is visible, but every sickness leaves its mark. Mine limits me somewhat, but I’ve learned how to live WELL within those limitations. And frankly, I’m lucky. It could be so much worse.
So, if you ever see me cradling a decaf or nursing an ice water, don’t tease me for my lack of caffeine or alcohol. Just remember, I’m trying to have a good time…and for me, avoiding being sick is A BLAST.