I have quite severe IBS, that is Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
I have an extremely limited diet that I struggle daily to adhere to. I more or less manage but not completely but the discipline required to adhere to a strict diet when everyone around you has more choice is exhausting.
Mostly that controls the symptoms, although I’m left with permanent, chronic bloating. This is in no way life threatening, but as an exercise instructor I struggle with it psychologically. There is no hiding place in my line of work – no baggy trousers, tops or dresses can hide the situation and it affects my ability to do some exercises properly.
On days when I’m worse, it’s harder to ignore – with the discomfort and pain and diarrhoea, however there aren’t too many of them and they occur when I’ve eaten the wrong food, or too much of the “right” food.
The things that upset me are the fact that I’m dealing with something that is so public. Some of you who might know me might say, “oh Alison, I’ve never really noticed”. More often though I get “You really don’t look too bad” , but one of the ways I control the symptoms is by not eating during the day. I eat nothing from getting up in the morning until about 3.30pm . At that time I eat just fish or fish and boiled eggs (because Protein doesn’t affect me) and then try and manage until late in the evening when have finished work – so from 9pm ish or later depending upon the day)
So that is the reason I don’t look too bad – I may not have eaten for 16 hours!
Going out for a meal is absolutely out of the question, and I cook around 6 meals per week and prepare 6 lots of lunches for my children and 7 breakfasts – all consisting of food that I cannot eat. Cooking meal after meal that you cannot ever eat is no fun at all – and then stand by and watch other people eat it. I’ve stopped baking. It was just too hard not to eat little morsels of cake or biscuit.
Already as I write, in November , the shops are filling up with Christmas food. From an eating point of view this is my least favourite time of year. I maybe share this feeling with many other people even if it is for different reasons. And I almost certainly won’t gain any weight! This has made me aware of how hard it must surely be for neighbours, friends and fellow citizens who cannot afford to buy enough food. That, it seems to me, must be just awful and make people feel angry and humiliated. I can afford food and I am able to feed my children with no problems and the whole thing has prompted me to donate regularly to a food bank, which doesn’t solve the problems but at least it helps lessen the consequences.
I am someone who has always set great store by my clothes and in the past I’ve taken great pride in my appearance. That oftentimes my clothes won’t fit or just look plain awful with my distended belly has been a bitter pill to swallow. It has made me very sad. I spent ages – months and months, avoiding going out because I just couldn’t face it. Now, if it’s planned , then I eat less before leaving the house thus limiting the bloat.
There are other stresses and strains but in short, it’s hard.
The NHS has not proved helpful thus far, although I’m awaiting a Dietician referral I don’t hold out much hope. A private Dietitian was of use and she provided the basis of the specialist diet that I am on and I’ve tried umpteen remedies recommended by people who found them helpful but nothing has worked for me.
There is one thing that I can do though – and that is to try and manage my response to the situation – it is all I have left.
This is where the Mindfulness comes in.
If I feel myself starting to go down a rabbit hole of negative thoughts I can generally catch then and try to put a halt and find some way of coming back to the present moment. The radio in the car is helpful or just being outdoors. Going out helps because as soon as I start interacting with people , even simply smiling at someone in the street, it takes my mind elsewhere. If there is nothing much to concentrate on then I turn to a simple breathing exercise. The breath is always there and it’s soft , gentle permanence is a helpful, grounding focus
There is another rabbit hole to fall down – that of “catastrophising” – imagining all the things that might go wrong starting with the wrong-ness of the IBS. (It flares up every 2 or 3 days) I can generally catch that after its started and before it really takes hold.
I sometimes keep a gratitude Journal to make myself find the positives in the day and I originally started Instagram as a way of being more observant and outward looking. That for me is a helpful way to be “non judgementally in the present”. That phrase for me typifies a mindful outlook. It maybe a superficial definition of Mindfulness but it is still a helpful starting point.
This week I have decided to return to finding a “daily moment of thankfulness”. It will shift my thinking from “woe is me” to “I am happy, grateful, pleased for……” and help me to go through each day on the lookout for happy moments. Being on the look out feels a bit like cheating . After all, I’m not completely non judgmentally in the moment if I’m deliberately on the lookout for stuff! However it upturns the metaphorical glass from half empty to half full so it works for me. I am blessed in that I encounter multiple opportunities in my teaching which make my day. When an exercise really works, someone has a eureka moment or we all just leave a session feeling better.
Exercise is very helpful. I know, I know, I sound like all the rest: like an annoying messianic exercise guru extolling the benefits of exercise. But it’s true!
However, for some people that would make them feel worse – if everyone , all chipper and keen, goes on about exercise.. Suppose you can’t do any or don’t feel confident about doing exercise? I should say “movement is very helpful”. That sounds more manageable already – T’ai Chi, Yoga, Chair Based Exercise, dancing along to the radio. (Yes, really), walking in the park.
Exercise works for me because it shifts my mind into another space. I can’t, during exercise, focus on the way I look and because the discomfort isn’t severe I can block it out, especially when exercising – be it running, gym work, or the bike. And the effects last longer than the workout. Irony of ironies, I don’t turn to Pilates because that is work! It would work but only if someone else taught me, then it would succeed splendidly!
I have noticed over the years that exercise is all very well, but supposing you are in a situation when you can’t exercise? Another annoying twist, and I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this, is that when I’m on holiday I feel worse, because I haven’t got work to occupy me and I can’t exercise – a double whammy. And I’m supposed to be having fun and relaxing!
I have started to wonder if this is where meditation comes in. I have failed to make space for this in my life and for that reason I haven’t succeeded even with a basic meditation. The most likely time is first thing in the morning and I really must give it a try. A lady who I see every month who does Qi Energy release has showed me a way to do basic “entry level” meditation, focusing on a simple mantra “I am happy”. This was only last week and it is so serendipitous and fitting that she has suggested meditation, that I really must start.
You might be thinking at this point, justifiably, that I’m being rather self indulgent. I agree entirely.
My mother has a daily battle with deteriorating MS. My brother in law has severe Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. And that is only my immediate family. Despite IBS, I am healthy, thriving even and not limited by physical or mental health problems.
I know that many people are much worse off than me and I am genuinely thankful for the rest of my health, my family, my job, my house – the list really does go on, but I think we shouldn’t rob ourselves of the desire for more, for better. Reverse self indulgence might, in the end be worse – self denial of how I feel. Better to be honest with myself about where I am and what I want but can’t have. It is a matter of balance. I know that in almost all respects I am a very fortunate person and I am thankful for that. Despite this, sometimes I’m hacked off and fed up.
So What Makes Me Happy?
- Meeting friends – I don’t do this much but when I do it feels special and memorable.
- Spending quality time with the kids. Making pack lunches doesn’t count, or washing up whilst they are in the room and probably staring at an electronic device!
- Having a bit of time at the end of the day to read a book or listen to the radio – I really treasure that 30 minutes or so
- Visits to the cinema, concerts or art galleries.
- Seeing plants grow in the garden.
- A job that I enjoy, that enables me to be creative, is intellectually challenging and where, for the most part, I am in charge of what I do.
- Random events, happenings, bits of weather, something I hear on the radio, meetings, interactions – the stuff of day to day life that punctuate the ordinary and make life worth living
- Fairy lights and all things sparkly
- Music in general, but at the moment, Baroque music in particular, especially Henry Purcell
I could go on, but…….
I have started listening to the Radio Three “In Tune Mixtape” which is 30 minutes of non stop music. Nothing to heavy or cerebral or too long. Calming, helpful and not a spotify ad in sight! It’s on 5 days a week with the back catalogue accessible.
Have you heard of binaural beats? Weird pseudo-music designed to calm and relax the mind. I find it wonderfully calming, especially if i’m stressing before bedtime. I’m not explaining it very well so get more info from these guys.
They sell their binaural beats but there’s loads for free on Youtube. You need to listen through headphones though.
There is a ton of resources out there. I like the work of Alfred James whose website is Pocket Mindfulness.
Here is a post he wrote which outlines a simple breathing meditation
I am also inspired by the work of Rohan Gunatillake who as written a fabulous book called This is Happening which I would thoroughly recommend, or he has a popular app which I have just downloaded but not yet used called Buddhify
Not sure where to start? Try these. They are one minute guided meditations, spoken beautifully with or without music. All downloadable from the resources page. It kind of subcontracts out the meditation, that is, you can quietly meditate without having to summon the focus and discipline of the “inner contemplation” bit yourself.
I’ll struggle to find a better metaphor than this one. It is considered to be Native American in origin.
A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.
One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather quietly replies,the one you feed