The unexpected ways an invisible disorder like IBS affects my friendships

Before I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), I spent years hoping a doctor would tell me what exactly was causing my seemingly endless bouts of diarrhea, bloating, and other unpleasant symptoms, then hand me a magic pill to instantly end my woes. The good news: I did eventually find a doctor who was able to diagnose me. While I was happy to know what was causing my pain (which I had imagined to be everything from cancer to a strange food allergy), it hurt to learn that there’s no magic pill to cure IBS overnight.

Since my diagnosis several years ago, I’ve found that living with an invisible disorder like IBS affects how I interact with friends in unexpected ways. Recently, I was shopping in the grocery store during an IBS flare-up. During these recurring flare-ups, I’ve learned what I can eat and what I can avoid. And yes, there’s something about certain baby food cereals that can soothe the IBS beast. I was happily sorting through the impressive array of baby food on the shelves when I heard a familiar voice yell, “Hey, why are you buying baby food?”

A friend stood behind me, staring into my cart, which already had a large amount of baby food in it. Her questions didn’t stop there: “And what are you going to do with all those bananas?” I know this woman from my gym, where we take an occasional class together, and I stayed true to my new decision to only confide in my closest friends about my IBS. So that left me trying to come up with responses to satisfy her curiosity.

“I’m going to a potluck with a lot of infants and toddlers,” sounded odd. “I have a great recipe for banana bread that uses baby cereal” could have led to her requesting the recipe. So I decided to keep it vague. “I occasionally have stomach problems, and these bland foods help,” I said casually. And then I went for what I knew would silence her, adding, “Otherwise, I have really loud, smelly farts.” Ever since that interaction, I notice that she stands on the opposite side of the room as me in our fitness class.

There is a reason why I’ve decided to only tell my closest friends about my IBS.

Initially, I was so excited to finally have a diagnosis that I told everyone, even just acquaintances. When the grocery store clerk at my neighborhood store commented on how my usual food purchases had changed—“What? No salsa and broccoli?”—I blabbed, “I just got diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and have to change my diet.” Her expression made it clear that it was more than she needed (or wanted) to know.

But I still had a tendency to spill the tea—or my reason for no longer drinking coffee. Shortly after my diagnosis, I stopped at my local Starbucks. The barista greeted me with, “Mocha, right?” I responded, “No, I just got diagnosed with IBS, and I need a very mild herbal tea.” I got a similar taken aback look. So lesson learned.

Despite those initial awkward TMI encounters, I did go on to tell some of my closer friends. Or rather, they indicated to me that they knew something was wrong.

Their hints ranged from subtle concern—“I’m worried about how frequently you need to find a bathroom when we’re shopping”—to blunt questions—“Are you allergic to me, because why else do you rush to the bathroom every 10 minutes when we’re at a restaurant together?” As soon as I was honest with them, they wanted to know more about IBS and how it affected what I could eat. I could finally explain to them why I had regretfully declined an invitation to a Mexican-themed potluck, why I no longer get fast food with them, and why I avoid spicy appetizers at restaurants.

Some friends wanted to know how they could help, which led to me saying things like, “Umm, I know this sounds weird, but do you mind if I bring my own super-soft toilet paper to your house for book club nights?”

I discovered that taking the risk of feeling awkward to be honest with my friends was worth it. They showed me understanding, and in one case, empathy: “Believe me, I get it. I’ve got ulcerative colitis.” I let my closest friends in so they could know how my daily life has changed, and as was the case with my new low-FODMAP diet, knowledge about living with IBS was power.

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