How Accepting My IBS-C Diagnosis Helped Me Lose Weight and Feel Better
My IBS-C diagnosis wasn’t exactly fraught with drama or high emotion. The earliest symptoms caused confusion, a kind of mini-shock that stopped me in my tracks when a thing I’d been doing every day for my whole life—eating—made my stomach behave as if possessed by spirits. Suddenly my body visibly swelled after eating a meal the size of my fist. The shape of my middle in profile changed from two modest loose rolls of fat to one smooth, taut, perfectly convex arc, as though I’d swallowed a volley ball. Right before the swelling commenced, I felt morbidly, painfully full to bursting, as if I’d scarfed down three turkey dinners and a couple of pecan pies without taking a breath. It just isn’t right, I thought, you aren’t supposed to feel your food digesting. It’s eerie, as though what I swallowed took on a life of its own. I thought of poor John Hurt in ALIEN (1979) who, after a congenial spaghetti meal with his comrades, gives birth to an alien via his chest and dies in bloody painful horror. Now I only eat pasta with pesto sauce. Hold the marinara.
I also gained 18 pounds in just a few months while this change took over my body. A relatively youthful, proportionate figure had followed me into my early fifties but this—thing, this—bizarre, digestive, alien invasion was turning me into—well, picture Sally Field morphing into W.C. Fields.
Already well-schooled in denial-turned-protest from previous years adjusting to a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, I followed that same careworn roadway towards an IBS diagnosis. Push/pull, fight-fight-fight. My natural instinct was to gain control over it like a cowboy breaking a wild horse. I cut my calories to 600 and smoked three packs of cigarettes daily, losing my appetite in the process along with 22 pounds at the end of 14 months. But the torturous post-meal symptoms remained, as did my apple-like body shape. Mastery, unfortunately, is not a cure.
I fought making changes to my clothing choices. Five pocket zip-up jeans’ waist bands now accentuated a bulbous waist that made my pants fall down around my hips. I didn’t like belts but it helped keep the pants up. For the first time it was a bad look, tucking in shirts and belting pants. To my surprise I resembled my Italian grandfather who secured his belt underneath the belt loops, scarcely containing his pale onion of a paunch. I seriously considered wearing suspenders instead. There would be a lot more firsts in the coming years.
Several months into this Kafkaesque metamorphosis I visited a gastroenterologist. When I complained of sternum pain after having my gallbladder removed, she told me to get a cardiac stress test before she’d do any further gastric testing. I did and it was normal. But it would be several more years before I returned to the gastro clinic.
When I finally did return and all other differential diagnoses were ruled out, I was bummed that the only treatment for IBS-C was a FODMAP diet and laxatives. No fancy medications were available like the ones I take for multiple sclerosis. Even a year’s worth of probiotics did nothing except cost a lot. I was pissed. No matter what I ate, the digestive process was slow and broken. And while I suffered horrific gas pains from eating high-fiber foods, something I could control—it was this sluggish, bloating phenomenon that I could not do anything about. The only way I could be less uncomfortable was to not eat. And when I did eat it would have to be servings measured in microns and served in a thimble. Needless to say, I rebelled.
I was starched
I ate everything I liked and I liked everything I ate. So much so that one helping wasn’t enough. One helping didn’t even register on the digestive scale of empty to halfway full. So I ate more. But it wasn’t enough so I ate more still. It wasn’t until I felt uncomfortably full that I put down my fork. The tines were scratched and bent as if the fork had fallen onto the agitator bar of a dishwasher. Only I didn’t have a dishwasher. They were tooth marks. My tooth marks.
I was out of control. Starch was my enemy, I knew that much. So once a week I ate an entire box of Kraft Deluxe macaroni sharp cheddar cheese in one sitting. My weight ballooned another ten pounds. My bras strained and my XL microfiber petites tightened across my upper back. My tummy was permanently distended. I ate so much starch it became a verb describing physical assault. I was starched into a stupor, starched into chronic constipation. I began drinking three scotches every evening, adding even more calories from carbs. I was still overweight and uncomfortable but after three scotches I didn’t care as much. It was getting away from me fast.
Taking back the reins
Finally, I stopped the madness. First I stopped drinking. Then I cut my calories. It took two days to lose my appetite enough that I wasn’t feeling desperate to eat every two hours. Next I replaced starch with veggies. I eat raw celery and carrots several times a day. Celery is now my favorite food. It’s high in fiber and water and has a satisfying crunch. It’s also loaded with vitamins and minerals. I dip them in hummus, too. And I can digest it well, one of the few high fiber veggies that doesn’t cause gas pains. And I’ve given in to the fact that I must drink senna tea every other evening to keep my bowel moving.
I cook a lot from scratch: homemade chicken soup, turkey chili (no beans), Brussels sprouts with bacon. Chunk light tuna in water with lots of chopped celery. Hard-boiled eggs. Two Clementine oranges every day. So far I’ve lost three pounds. I allow myself a handful of pretzels twice a day. It’s hard to totally do without starch and it’s not necessary to totally deny myself. Everything in moderation.
By accepting my lot and making healthier choices, I upped my comfort rating considerably. My symptoms are here forever, but I’m learning to enjoy food again without over-indulging. I still fall off the wagon and eat too much sometimes. But I just think of Scarlett O’Hara and drawl: tomorrow is another day.