Monday, 30 November 2009

The bitch in my belly

I would seriously like to confront whichever numpty came up with the name Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Since it’s a condition that affects so many of us – as many as one in 10 people at some point in their lives, actually – you’d think someone could have thought to give it a name that’s slightly less humiliatingly ugly and ridiculous to say in public or to your nearest and dearest. “Sorry if I’m a bit quiet tonight, darling one, my bowel is super irritable tonight.” Fabulous. Why not ‘sensitive colon’? ‘Grumpy gut’? ‘Traumatised tummy’?

Actually, that last one is not acceptable, and I retract it, because it taps into the annoying tendency for anything bowel-related to be portrayed in the media as childish, a silly little nothingy affliction of the ‘tummy’. Nobody above the age of eight should ever say the word ‘tummy’. I’ve said it many times, and I hang my head in shame. “I have a funny tummy tonight.” How stupid does that sound? We all know what we mean. And it ain’t funny, that’s for sure.

Advertisers of medications for bowel troubles seem to be in a constant panic attack about how to address issues of the bowel, with each different marketing angle branching out into yet more ridiculous imagery, in some preposterous attempt to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities with the actual science of it.

“Restore your natural rhythms,” we hear, while watching a woman dancing the salsa. How does this translate to our everyday communication about constipation? “Sorry, boss, I can’t come into work because my natural rhythms are simply all over the place.” I think we all know that wouldn’t go down well.

Even worse is when they try to suggest that talking about your bowels with your friends is the most natural thing in the world, as in the advert in which a group of women chat about their hard stools over cocktails and show each other the tablets they carry around in their tiny bags along with their credit cards and tampons.

Then there’s the whole arena of probiotics as a digestive aid, and the advertising of these has always based itself on the juvenile notion of ‘friendly bacteria’, as though we are children who might be a bit scaredy-waredy about the rumblings in our tummies and cannot cope unless we look at probiotics as friendly little superheroes who have come to the rescue.

Look, you can’t make bowel trouble funny and silly, because that pisses off the people for whom it’s a regular blight on their lives. Equally, though, you can’t be too scientific about it because there is definitely still a taboo around using words like ‘bowel’ in polite conversation. We’ve all had that situation where we’ve been unwell and someone’s asked “what’s wrong?” It’s not at all embarrassing to say you’ve got a headache or a bad back or a cold, but what do you say when it’s been a terrible bowel problem? You just can’t utter the necessary words, so it’s “Oh, you know, just a bit of a funny tummy, really.”

Since I was diagnosed with IBS as a teenager, I’ve been through the requisite stages: embarrassment, intolerance (emotionally and nutritionally), grief, defiance. For some time now I’ve been at the stage of acceptance. She’s in there, my bowel that doesn’t work properly, and she isn’t just irritable, she’s a right mardy old bitch – the bitch in my belly – and she’s clearly not budging, so I may as well just learn to live with her and give her what she wants.

Sometimes she can take dairy and actually wants chocolate; sometimes she simply says “girl, oh no you didn’t just give me milk”. Generally she’s better when she’s fed with gin and hot meals and she doesn’t like cold stuff very much. She takes one look at the medications I swallow down to her in the hope that she’ll shut up for a while and she says “Nu-uh, ain’t no helping me. You just gotta wait till I’m ready to calm down.”

There you go; there’s my personal image of my bowel and the bitch that she is, and I feel that she’s a character I can use when talking about my problem. “Sorry, darling, I’m feeling a bit rough tonight; it’s just the bitch in my belly.” That’s more like it. Read more by Maddie.