No, It’s Not Bulimia!: Weight Loss and IBS
When I transferred from a private college to a state university my junior year, I was nearly 5’5 and 125 pounds. I was actually the heaviest I would ever be in my life—having gained over 10 pounds my freshmen year (I guess the infamous “freshmen 15”) and kept that on and even added a few pounds since. Always having been skinnier, I liked the extra curves and girth that I now had added to my body. I would never suspect I would begin to get sick only a few weeks into the semester, losing over the course of a couple of months not only the weight I had put on since entering college, but more than that till I was only a hair over a 100 pounds. I had not weighed this little since I was 14 and also lost over 12 pounds due to contracting viral hepatitis in a week’s time.
But this illness was more gradual. It started slowly at first, hitting me a couple of times a week, then every other day, then every day and then multiple times a day, till I started having severe anxiety about proximity to a bathroom and eating. It seemed no matter what I ate, it went through me. I timed feedings so they only occurred when a class or a job (I worked several to put myself through school) wasn’t imminent. I began to live on Imodium. I started eating mostly bananas and apple sauce and plain white bread because they seemed the only things I could digest. My body began to waste away as the pounds slid off me and my bones protruded through my skin. My jeans all started to slip off me and I had to make new holes to keep them from falling down; even then, they were baggy and rendered me shapeless. My hair also began to shed in the shower, probably from nutritional deficiency.
I went to the campus doctors, all of whom scolded me for being so stressed out. No doubt, my hectic schedule contributed to or exacerbated things….and my growing anxiety didn’t help. But my stress seemed more a result of the stomach issues than a culprit. I had been calm the first few weeks when I thought it was just a stomach bug. But now I was panicking, worried I had some disease that would ruin my life or maybe even kill me.
Most of the times IBS is not characterized by weight loss—IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) is, though. Which is probably why the gastroenterologist I finally found who tested me was convinced I had Crohn’s disease. But when labs turned up nothing, he too dismissed me and told me “all” I had was IBS. Even though IBS doesn’t usually result in rapid weight loss, it can if the person is eating food the gut can’t process and so immediately expels. It became apparent to me that much of the campus food, which was substandard and low quality, was probably instigating things or at least not helping them. I noticed when I ate off campus or made my own food, I usually had better outcomes. But I had a meal plan I had purchased, so I still was forced to eat the food.
A punch in the face
I remember after I returned from my medical leave of absence, I asked for an exemption from the meal plan so I could accommodate my IBS with a better diet. The administrator not only refused, but balked at the notion that their food could be a culprit in my compromised health. When I responded that I needed to have access to food that did not trigger me—he indirectly accused me of being bulimic. Specifically, he said that the campus food wasn’t the problem, it was my aspiration to be like the stick-thin models in the magazines I read.
This comment hit me like a punch in the face. I had grieved the lost of my curves and more solid body, the loss of my muscle mass, and was still mourning its departure. I had heard some whisperings on campus about me of this nature by my peers, but to be blatantly accused of it to my face by someone with my medical records and my doctor’s letter in his hand who had authority to help me, was a shock I am still not over to this day. It was my first in many lessons on how those with power can and do harm those without, especially those of us with chronic illness. How they can deny or dismiss the truth about our bodies, even with strong evidence to support our needs.
We deserve empathy
Though I had gained much of the weight back over my leave of absence (again showing me that eating home cooked food helped), I was still several pounds shy of what I used to be. I didn’t read fashion magazines. I was an English major who adored hardcover classics and Romantic poetry. The comment was not only insensitive, but I suspect, a violation of laws or campus rules on staff behavior. I told him as much and he backed down a bit, offering me a compromise of a reduced meal plan. Exhausted with fighting so hard while I was still recovering, I finally just agreed to it.
It took me some time, but I eventually was able to identify a few foods that usually didn’t bother me offered on campus and mostly stuck to those token three to four items. I also got a mini-refrigerator for my dorm room and started carrying and preparing my own food to diversify my diet. While I wish I had more options and campus support, I made do with what I had to work with. While I didn’t gain more weight, I kept on the weight I had gained and didn’t lose anymore.
What I wish though is that society wouldn’t judge people’s appearances. Those of us with weight fluctuations may have health conditions that are responsible, and we deserve empathy rather than judgement and false accusations.