It’s hard to believe that I’ve had a stoma for nearly 3 years now. It doesn’t feel like that long at all. Since my first surgery, my health has gone down the toilet, a quite fitting expression for my situation. I wish it hadn’t happened this way, but there’s no benefit to living in the past or growing bitter. This is how I got my stoma and how I deal with living with one.
The Start of My Tummy Troubles
My problems started at 19, when almost overnight I developed constipation. At first, I thought the complications came from the iron supplements I’d recently been prescribed, so I immediately stopped taking them. But the problem persisted.
Aside from anemia, I was an otherwise healthy girl — average weight, a decent job, a boyfriend I adored, a social life I enjoyed. I’d never experienced constipation before, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I took laxatives and went to my primary care doctor as soon as I could.
Over the years, I went to many doctors and treatment centers. Time and time again, I was fobbed off. To my detriment, the doctor’s would say “drink more water”; “eat more fiber”; “it’s all in your head”; “you’re too young for anything to be wrong”; “everyone gets a little constipated from time to time”‘ “stop trying to find problems that aren’t there”, and even “try eating several daily kiwis”.
My First Surgery and Some Complications
I tried anything and everything to cure my stomach troubles, with no luck. Without laxatives, nothing happened. At all. Exhaustion and frustration followed me around. Because I was so embarrassed about my condition, I didn’t tell anyone but my parents about my troubles.
Fast forward and a primary care doctor finally listened to me and agreed to run specific tests I requested. These tests showed pelvic floor dysfunction and slow transit. In the hopes of helping my constipation, I paid for my first surgery. It didn’t go well, and this became the turning point for my health going downhill.
After the surgery, nothing worked in the toileting department; even ridiculously high doses of laxatives didn’t help. A few months later, my doctor told me I needed a stoma. I received a loop ileostomy, where a loop of the small intestine is brought out through a cut in the side of the abdomen.
However, my large bowel was still causing problems. The pain and distention were becoming unbearable. Because of this, I had a colectomy procedure, where my large intestine was removed. During the surgery, they discovered my large bowel was significantly dilated and looked dead, with no peristalsis.
The Early Stoma Days
My stoma is now an end ileostomy, meaning my bag and I need to be best buddies because he’s with me for life. Seeing and saying hello to your small bowel every day isn’t something most people experience. At first, I was horrified. The stoma starts out very large, taking a few weeks to shrink and settle.
Finding a way to accept my stoma was challenging. I was angry that my botched first operation led to this. But then time went by, and what started out as strange became normal, and what was initially difficult eventually became routine.
Some patients get little or no warning they’re getting a stoma. I found out a few weeks beforehand, yet it never properly sank in. Even as I drove home from the hospital with my stoma supplies resting at my feet, it felt unreal.
Having a stoma doesn’t just change you physically. Other adjustments, such as with travel and insurance, need to take place. It can also have a deteriorating effect on your mental health, inducing anxiety, depression, stress, and changes in body image.
Spanners In The Works
Having a stoma is different for everyone. While some people will go problem-free for many years, others have more regular issues. In addition, many people may have other additional conditions to deal with. I now suffer from chronic pain, pernicious anemia, osteopenia, undifferentiated connective tissue disease, Raynaud’s, regular migraines, asthma, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia.
My insides like to dance the tango. I’ve had numerous problems with my small bowel twisting and the stoma becoming obstructed. Sometimes, I’ve dealt with this myself at home with a catheter tube, but many times I’ve rushed to the emergency room in agony. During my last admission three months ago, when my small bowel was doing the Twist to a silent disco soundtrack, I ended up needing emergency surgery. Without the surgery, doctors said I could have died. I’ve had 6 surgeries now and I’m awaiting a further diagnostic laparoscopy.
Although it puts me on edge to know another problem could arise at any time, my stoma has behaved since the last operation. I don’t say this to scare anyone, but I think it’s important to show the reality of stoma life.
I have had problems with leaks — once even waking at 3 am, crying as I washed my pajamas and bedding and rubbing my skin raw in the shower. As horrible as leaks are, you learn to deal with them and take them in stride. My weight has dropped after surgery since I’ve had to be more careful with my diet, especially with items like fruit skins. However, I’ve been quite lucky and haven’t had too many problems, although my stoma doesn’t seem to like any meat other than lean chicken. I’m missing some cottage pie!
Looking for silver linings
These past eleven years, the last three to four in particular, have been a process of learning and growing. I now celebrate small achievements and take joy in day-to-day pleasures. I’ve learned to trust my body and instincts and to care less about what others think or what society expects of me. We are more than our illnesses or stoma bags. Those things don’t define us.
The years of fighting for my health have made me more assertive and I’ve become far stronger because of what I’ve faced. I’ve survived depression, pain, sickness, and losing friends and work. Of course, others have far worse things to contend with, but I’ve learned we can’t compare ourselves like that. Those of us with invisible illnesses are entitled to feel however we feel, without comparison or guilt.
Living with a stoma can make planning difficult and it’s a challenge to be spontaneous. While striking a balance is challenging, it’s also important. You can still enjoy the things you’d like to do — whether that’s traveling, swimming or something else — with a little extra preparation and a dose of flexibility.
The online world has been a blessing. It’s opened up new opportunities when others have been taken away, and I have made several valuable friendships. I run a blog, InvisiblyMe, and do what I can to provide support and raise awareness. It may not sound like much, but to me, it means the world. Also, remember that there’s support out there! When I first had my stoma put in, online support groups on Facebook were priceless.
I still struggle, but I’ve done well by prioritizing self-care, accepting my sickness and managing my illnesses and symptoms properly. Being positive isn’t my default setting, but it’s something I constantly work at. With my illness and stoma, life hasn’t ever been what I expected. But with small steps, a little support, and a lot of self-compassion, it’s possible to live the best life you can in the situation you’re in, to live fiercely and grow stronger, no matter what happens next.
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