Illness is much more than a matter of bodily symptoms, it is a state of mind. When we are ill, we feel helpless. We cannot look after ourselves and so we have to depend on others to look after us and help us recover. The pain and loss of personal control make us a victim of circumstance. We lose all health confidence and are no longer sure about what we can eat, what medications we should take, what therapies work and how we should lead our lives. We are in that state of inertia or learned helplessness that is often reported after trauma. We lose initiative and passively conform to the directions of health care professionals.
It may start with an acute crisis like a major infection or a severe psychological or physical trauma or it may gradually creep up on us. Notwithstanding the trigger, illness can grumble on for years undermining our efficacy and eroding our autonomy. IBS is not so much as a discrete illness but a chronic state of ill health that affects our whole personality, mind, body and meaning. Since this modern malaise is expressed in physical symptoms, people look for help from doctors, dietitians, pharmacists and therapists for treatments to make them feel better, but perhaps their expectations are too high. No external professional, however well meaning, can cure a soul, sickened by life. All they can do is to help relieve some of the symptoms for a while. But when the treatments don’t work, they shoulder the blame for not understanding, not caring enough or just getting it wrong.
How can you escape the chronic trauma of illness and learn to ‘live again’? That requires an alteration in attitude, a change from learned helplessness to self efficacy. Yes, you can get better! It starts with the will to recover, to learn about the illness and how it affects you and then to adjust the focus away from illness and on to wellness, seeking guidance from health professionals only when necessary. Many people with diabetes, asthma, colitis, coeliac disease and many other chronic diseases including cancer come to know the ups and downs of their illness but still manage to live normal active lives in spite of it, only seeking medical advice when there is a serious complication. A friend of mine has diabetes and recently rode his Brompton bike from John O’Groats to Lands End to raise money for Diabetes UK.
IBS is more arguably more complicated because there is no disease marker and no clear pathology, but that may also imply that the chances of recovery are greater. The symptoms of a sensitive gut can be triggered by changes in routine and every vicissitude of fortune. Doctors do not have the time or skill to understand and manage the intricacies of their patients lives. Only you can do that. You know from your own experience what affects your own health better than any doctor can determine it from scientific papers. Your health professional may help you see more clearly the things that affect you, but should not seek to apply his own rigid treatment regime.
Our health, like our wealth, the work we do, the food we eat are all expressions of us as individuals. We all have to find our own way. We may occasionally need a little help from our friends, but nobody can do it for us for very long. So feeling better is not just about being given the right medication or the right diet, it is more about being able to understand and feel in control of our own lives.
Unfortunately, we do this against a background of ever increasing external control. Britain’s National Health Service through the agency of The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) has produced guidelines on how every illness should be treated and which particular tests and treatments should be used. Nevertheless so many people with IBS respond as well if not better to ‘so-called’ alternative and complementary therapies. People feel so more in control if they believe and identify with the treatment and can have the power to adapt it to suit themselves. Diets and treatment protocols that are too rigid and restrictive run the risk of keeping them in a place of learned helplessness and illness.
Although we are constantly being told what we can and cannot eat, we often relinquish control for our own diet to the fast food outlets and the purveyors of ready meals. Fewer people make up their own meals from raw ingredients and therefore have little knowledge or control of what goes into the food that they eat. We go to gyms for exercise routines, yoga classes for relaxation, we switch on the television for entertainment, engage with friends by Facebook. Every aspect of our lives is controlled. People have become deskilled at looking after themselves and are instead passive recipients of care.
We do not have to be victimised by illness or its treatment. We can feel so much better and more confident we feel if we take control of our own lives. People, who have recovered from their IBS have been able to let go of the dependancy on their illness and found a way of living their lives regardless of their symptoms. The change might mean finding a new relationship, having children, finding a new vocation, moving house or starting a new life. Getting over IBS is very similar to getting over trauma. It requires self belief and the courage to start again and a will to work at it.