The Awkward Intersection of IBS and Social Situations

People with IBS will tell you they take note of where the bathrooms are in any given social situation. Blunt but true. I do this as well but for a different reason. I keep a tally of nice plush bathrooms as if I’m doing a survey upon arrival. Seashell? check. Dispenser that puffs random cloying perfume at you as you’re about to leave? check, in the public ones. Toilet roll dolly with optional doily? check, in the ’70s ones. For it is in such a place I will likely be having the majority of my dinner. And by that I mean the Gluten-Free bread sandwich with an inoffensive (low FODMAP) filling I brought with me in the likely event there will be nothing I can eat.

And I really don’t want to upset anyone. Or be that difficult person who can’t eat anything. I’m no longer on an elimination diet and despite IBS, there’s plenty I can eat now. It’s just not usually what’s being served.

It’s easy to say don’t feel bad about IBS. Tell people what you need and don’t worry about what they think. But we’re bred to be polite and not cause a bother even as it impacts our quality of life.

You don’t realise how restrictive and difficult it can be to live with a chronic illness until you have one. Then, my friends, you see how the other half lives. And it’s not fun. You see how much of society is designed to function for people who are not you.

Secret food and the politeness of Brits

Two women drinking at a kitchen counter top

We people with intolerances and sensitivities bend over backwards to carry the burden of illness ourselves so nobody else has to feel awkward. Even though when you speak up everyone is usually lovely and very accommodating. The thing is no one wants to be a burden, the one that needs sympathy. And what happens when it’s every time? Will that understanding start to wear?

I know many people who bring food with them and forage from backpacks and handbags when they go to catered social events. They don’t like eating in other people’s homes, IBS or not. There’s a fear there won’t be enough food. Us Brits are usually too polite to mention it. It’s much worse when you know you won’t be able to eat at all.

IBS and food culture

We aren’t as much of a food culture as some parts of the world where national dishes and family feasts are the order of the day. Unless you count pie and mash, which is a ‘get-the-flags-up-and-invoke-the-blitz-spirit sort of dish.

Then again I probably couldn’t eat the pie. Scampi and chips? that used to be high class. Oh, wait, battered fish. No.

I realise as I write this I’m excluding a lot of wonderful that has become British through immigration. Yay us, other countries’ food has made us better.

Either way, social gatherings always manage to centre around food. It’s a huge part of universal culture.

Without food, what do we do together? How do we relate to each other when there isn’t something on TV that we all like?

A feast for the whole community or bringing together family and friends around a table is the social work that binds us. So if this social glue means inclusion, what does that mean for the 17% of people in the UK who report IBS? Not to mention other chronic illnesses, intolerances and allergies. What of their quality of life?

multiple white plates on a shared table

IBS and those social situations you can’t avoid

How many events have you been to where there was nothing you could eat? You make your drink last so there’s something in your hand as it’s better than standing there doing nothing.

I’ve even gone so far as to get a bottle of beer, empty it, refill it with water and hold on to it all night. Even if you’re less of an introvert and actually like talking to people you’ll find yourself explaining over and over why you’re not eating. And you’ll still get all the usual comments, questions and sympathetic looks.

Some people will never get it

The under-stairs bathroom seems to be quite the popular dining room. I’ve seen crumbs in there.

I confess as I’ve got older I’m less bothered about offending people. I eat the food I brought in front of them. Otherwise, they think you have a different food problem and are starving yourself when you’re already too thin. It’s my ‘No, I’m not anorexic’ defence. But it does look rather sad after you’ve explained IBS. Again.

And everyone is nodding sympathetically. All trying not to look at the poor waif’s slightly microwave-warped Tupperware box, dry brown bread sandwich and limp stick of celery. 

Suddenly, your tiny size makes sense to them. They feel better about the extra holiday weight as it’s not like you earned the thinness. No discernible exercise was involved. It’s a food issue. As you were. Carry on with the cheeseburger. I am not an example of a successful healthy person.

And there are those who feel no compunction at telling you what you ought to try to fix your IBS. Look at them! stomach like cast iron, no problems here after years of junk food and perfect skin too! Here’s a list of things you should try! (that you already have).

And my personal favourite: “You know what? I bet you’ll find it’s all up here” *points to thinning head of hair*. Why yes, I do appear to have more up there than you do…

Moving on.

There will always be social situations where people ask awkward questions. And while you might need the patience of a saint, you don’t need to explain yourself.

women eating dinner at a table in a social situation

Prepare in advance

When you really can’t avoid a social situation or are fed up with having to, prepare in advance as much as you can. Here are a few things to try.

  • Bathrooms. Know where they are. If it seems like now might be a good time to make use of one, simply excuse yourself from the conversation with a trusty “Oh, I must catch ‘insert name here’ before she leaves. Try the dip, it’s excellent!” and go to the bathroom. You could also just say you’re nipping to the loo.
  • There are, believe it or not, toilet-finder apps for both Android and Apple for those situations where it’s all unknown. Now you don’t even have to ask. What innovative times we live in.
  • Drink water and regulate your fibre. Yes, I know that’ll make you go more but with your new app at least you’ll know where you’ll be going. If you’re regular you should have a rough idea when too.
  • Take probiotics daily and enzymes with your food.
  • Prepare in advance by getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is an IBS stressor causing inflammation in the body. Avoid as many triggers as you can, food or otherwise, before you know you’ll be in a social situation.
  • Bring food with you where possible. Maybe try not to eat it in the bathroom though.
  • Keep a record of symptoms so you know when and what’s behind your IBS flare-ups. It helps to claw back some control.
  • Have remedies on hand. Peppermint tablets are a good bet. You can read more about quick natural remedies here.

Finally

If you don’t have allergies, intolerances or sensitivities I ask you to spare a thought for those of us who do. It can be hard and isolating. The next time you’re planning a catered ‘do’ with nibbles on offer, there will likely be someone there thinking about when they can eat the sandwich they brought from home in the toilet. I’m sure you’ve got a lovely bathroom though. It’s just not ideal for dinner.

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