Discussing Your Digestive Disorder at Social and Work Events
I recently went to my monthly acupuncture appointment and Lisa, my acupuncturist, began with her usual list of questions. Since I have fructose malabsorption and suffer from other digestive issues, one of Lisa’s questions was, “How have your bowel movements been?”, which I answered with ease, listing all that was feeling good and all that was not. However, one unusual aspect of this appointment was that Lisa had a new acupuncturist who was joining the practice sit in on the session. Upon reflecting on the session afterward, it occurred to me how comfortable I had become talking about, well let’s just call a spade a spade, my poop. I realized that I did not cringe with discomfort or even hesitate when talking about my bowel movement with this stranger in the room. I remembered how different this was from years ago when I first met with my gastroenterologist (GI) to begin undergoing tests to figure out what was going on with my digestive system. At the time, my doctor asked a bunch of questions and I was so embarrassed and horrified to have to answer how often I went to the bathroom and what “it looked like”.
Beyond my acupuncturist and GI, I have also gotten better at explaining to friends and co-workers why I am not eating that delicious entrée or dessert that everyone else is drooling over at social and work events. But that took a while to figure out. For the first few years after being diagnosed, I felt embarrassed thinking that telling my story would evoke images of bathrooms and bowel movements. During those conversations, I felt like a circus animal, trying to explain what fructose malabsorption was, which no one had heard of before. I guess I cannot blame them, neither had I until my diagnosis. It seemed like these conversations kept coming up and I had to repeat my story over and over. I also had to manage the cynics, who were convinced it didn’t make sense, that it wasn’t real, that the doctors misdiagnosed me, and/or that it was in my head. Because of all these thoughts and emotions swirling around in me, I ended up giving away more information and opening up more than, in hindsight, I was comfortable with. The question I had to grapple with was, “How to do I navigate these conversations in an intelligent and friendly way while protecting my dignity and privacy?”.
Below are some of the things I learned:
- Most people ask questions out of curiosity and interest, not out of ill intentions. Some will drop the conversation and move on to another topic after you answer them. Some will mention they also have digestive issues, leading to a great conversation around shared horror stories and helpful tips. But unfortunately, a minority will be cynical, judgmental, antagonistic, and/or jerks. It ends up being like most conversations in life and I have learned to accept this reality with confidence that I can manage whichever personality I encounter.
- Come up with simple canned answers. Having various prepared responses will allow you to decide what to say depending on who you are talking to and the situation you are in. You can choose to be more detailed and say that you have [fill-in-the-blank] digestive disorder and cannot eat that certain food; you can be less detailed and say something like, “Onions and I don’t get along well or fried foods seem to bother my stomach”; or you can be completely nonspecific and respond with, “I am trying to watch my weight”. Although that statement may not be why you are not eating the dish, 99% of us are probably watching our weight and it is a fair statement that no one would blink an eye to.
- It is a good idea to discuss your irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease [fill in digestive disorder] with some people, such as family, friends, and your boss. This way they can help you if you need and understand what you can or cannot eat at their dinner party, why are late, out sick, need to change plans, or leave in the middle of a movie or meeting. For those conversations, you can simply provide a medical description of what you have and explain some or all of the ways that it can affect you, depending on your comfort level.
- Over time you might find, like I did, that you become comfortable talking honestly about why you are avoiding a certain food. I do not go into the details about how eating onions will affect me, but I do let people know that I have trouble digesting onions so I avoid them. If people ask, I describe what fructose malabsorption is and, depending on the conversation, I may mention some of the nicer sounding symptoms like fatigue, headaches, and bloating. I have found that when I became more confident about my situation and talking about it, I was better able to handle speaking about it and did not feel embarrassed.
The most important thing is that you are comfortable with what and how much you say. The last thing you want to do is stress yourself out, which can wreak further havoc on your digestive system. Practicing how to respond with people you are comfortable with is a great way to start and then you will be ready for the awkward work cocktail party.
Photo taken by Ben Duchac at Unsplash