Which Came First: the Poop or the Panic?

woman wearing glasses and smiling down at a dog
woman wearing glasses and smiling down at a dog

The link between mental and gut health has long been debated by medical researchers. I’ll start off by saying I’m no expert in the mysteries of the gut biome, nor do I know anything definitive about the link between serotonin and anxiety. What I am an expert in is the best toilets in the northeast of England, how to surreptitiously poop at inconvenient times and what to carry at all times if I have an unpredictable bowel.

Rewind 10 years, I’m 17 and studying my A Levels at the high school I’d been at for four years previous. Exactly seven minutes walking distance from my house, this series of prefabricated shacks and dusty old science labs were just on the fringe of my comfort zone. Thinking back, I guess this was quite a stressful time. My dad fell ill with meningococcal meningitis, a rare bacterial infection that makes its way into the brain and spinal cord. Meanwhile, I worked at a well-known fast food restaurant, where all my friends were at least five years my senior, including my boyfriend at the time. I had very little time for my studies, so it’s no wonder I missed my target grades by six marks and ended up in clearing begging for a spot at any university that would take me. All the while, I was debilitated by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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IBS isn’t a definitive diagnosis, simply a collection of rather inconvenient symptoms that affects approximately 20 percent of people in my native United Kingdom. My parents informed me that I always took issue with toilets. I refused to go at school and would avoid drinking any fluids so I could dodge the bog for as long as physically possible. By the time I’m 18, I have regular bouts of diarrhea, mostly in the morning, paired with agonizing cramps. A visit to the doctor in the hope of diagnosis to explain why my body was rebelling yielded very little results. “Have you tried loperamide?” the GP asked me, “How do you think I leave the house every day?” I responded. A sympathetic smile and off I went.

My determination to go to university overwhelmed the constant anxiety. In the autumn of 2010, I packed my bags and wished farewell to my disgruntled boyfriend. Hull was to be my home for the next three years, I’d make new friends, leave the anxiety behind and everything would be OK. As I entered the application process late due to clearing, I was given a room in the worst hall at the university. We had shared bathrooms, including around a dozen toilets and showers to hundreds of students. It’s safe to say, this was my nightmare scenario.

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I began to assemble a mental map of the best toilets on campus, the “safest” ones where I could go in peace and not worry about being heard. I sat at the end of the row in lecture theaters in case I needed to run. I even negotiated a change in seminar times with a sympathetic lecturer because I couldn’t function at 9 a.m. unless he’d teach me from outside the bathroom stall. All the while, I maintained the facade of a fun-loving, smart and happy university student. I didn’t even realize myself that it was weird to poop up to 10 times a day, and I never questioned why I needed to nap all the time from exhaustion. I was a student, we were always tired!

Moving on a few years, I met my now fiancé and got my first office job. By this point, I was incredibly ill and even more aware that it wasn’t “normal.” I walked two miles to work every day, a journey that I extended by at least half a mile as I needed to walk through the shopping centre past the toilet every day. I made excuses about having an eyelash in my eye, needing a tissue during a meeting or simply “getting fresh air.” I toured the toilets of the office building, I even missed a solar eclipse because I was in the loo. At the time, I was learning to drive. I bailed driving lessons claiming “migraines” because I couldn’t fathom the idea of driving around not knowing where the nearest toilet would be. I stopped taking the 30-minute metro journey to see my parents after an incident where the panic set in so bad I had to exit the train and run for the nearest toilet, over a mile away at the hospital.

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I passed my driving test, I got promoted at work, I continued on as normal, all the while I would wake up at 6 a.m. “just in case” I needed the toilet a dozen times, and I would fall asleep at 7 p.m. every night after an exhausting day of existing in the real world. We went on holiday to Greece, where I sat on the beach with one eye on the public toilets and carried a ridiculous supply of toilet paper everywhere I went. We went to Amsterdam, Berlin and London, all with mental maps of the nearest loos and paranoia over what I ate and how long it took me to digest.

All the while, I was visiting the doctor regularly begging for a diagnosis. I didn’t have celiac disease, nor did I have Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. As terrible as it sounds, I wished for one of these because at least it would mean it wasn’t all in my head. Following a particularly stressful period at work, I visited my GP one more time with a list of symptoms that included diarrhea, migraines, acne, fatigue and irritability. She said, “have you thought about anti-depressants?”. I wasn’t depressed, why did I need anti-depressants? She explained that these symptoms could be psychological, to which I was pretty insulted: “This isn’t all in my head!” She wrote me a script for an SSRI and off I went.

A week into taking the meds, I was feeling a weight lifted already. Months later, I was made redundant and attended interviews with only one nervous toilet trip instead of 10. A year later, my fiancé and I jumped on a plane to Thailand and embarked on a seven-month-long exploration of Southeast Asia and Australia. I pooped in a squat toilet on a ferry across the Gulf of Thailand, I sat in a bus for six hours crossing the border into Vietnam from Cambodia and I rode a bicycle to the famous Hội An beach.

Anxiety has never truly left me. And I still have a sensitive stomach, but I no longer enter every establishment with one eye on the bathroom door and sometimes I even leave the house without a bunch of spare tissues in my bag. Although the medication sparked a turning point for me, I couldn’t have done it without the unrelenting support from my fiancé. My recovery began the moment of acceptance. It’s OK to go to the toilet twice in a row, it’s OK to squeeze past someone in the cinema, it’s OK to be a little late to a morning meeting. By accepting that it was OK, and realizing that “what people might think” didn’t really matter, my symptoms started to subside. Doors opened to new opportunities I never thought possible, from volunteering with cats and dogs in Thailand to spending a night in a boat in Ha Long Bay, I did it all despite waking up every morning with that little voice in my head saying I couldn’t.

Read more stories like this on The Mighty:

A Day in My Life With Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Finding a Quiet but Powerful Strength in Accepting My Illness

Life With IBS: I'll Take an Order of Fries and Imodium, Please