How this 23 Year Old Student Deals With the Daily Challenges of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Lorna McCarten is, in her own words, “a 23-year-old prisoner of architecture.” She’s currently studying for her masters at Queen’s University Belfast where her life revolves around all things architecture. Lorna also suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). While chatting to The Style Edit she jokes, “I’ve suffered from IBS for close to five years now but I’m still unsure of what’s worse, writing a 10,000-word architectural dissertation or going to the toilet ten times a day.”

With all joking aside, Lorna acknowledges that IBS can be an uncomfortable topic to talk about but feels sharing her experiences and raising awareness of the condition is important.

Here, Lorna discusses her experience with IBS, the impact it has on her social life and how she deals with IBS on a day to day basis.

When did you first start experiencing IBS symptoms and how long after that were you diagnosed?

Firstly, I’d like to put in a disclaimer that what I’m about to talk about is a little TMI but I love talking about IBS to others even in all its gruesomeness. I feel that sharing my personal experience with IBS is raising the awareness that it needs.

I first experienced symptoms in the summer of 2014, after I’d finished my A-Levels. As bowel disease runs in my family, before going to my GP, I was already aware that the symptoms I was experiencing were closely related to IBS. I went to my GP the September of 2014 and at that initial appointment, I was told I was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.

Styled by Jennifer Taggart. Photography by Glenn Norwood.

“I’ve suffered wfrom IBS for close to five years now but I’m still unsure of what’s worse, writing a 10,000-word architectural dissertation or going to the toilet ten times a day.”

What adjustments did you have to make to your lifestyle upon your diagnosis?

IBS is a tricky condition because there are no tests to definitively diagnose it. It’s more of a discussion between you and your GP about your symptoms, medical history and lifestyle. At first, I made no adjustments apart from taking mebeverine medication to ease the symptoms. Looking back, my symptoms really weren’t that bad. I experienced mild discomfort in my stomach (similar to period pains) and I was badly constipated for the first two years. To me, it was manageable because it wasn’t serious and I could live with a few aches and pains every day.

Are there any particular treatments you’ve found to have helped you deal with IBS symptoms?

Unfortunately for the first 4 and a half years I was suffering in silence. As I said, at first the symptoms were mild, but over the course of my undergraduate degree, my symptoms got progressively worse. I eventually stopped all medication because nothing was working. From my personal experience, the pain and the struggles us IBS sufferers go through are often overlooked by medical professionals. It took me to be bleeding from the rectum to be taken seriously. I am now on an anti-depressant drug called Amitriptyline which is prescribed for extreme cases of IBS that have not responded to any other treatment. I can happily report that the medication is working for the pain. As for the bowel incontinence and chronic diarrhoea, I am still under investigation by my GI consultant.

Has IBS affected your social life? If so, how have you dealt with this?

The short answer is YES it has affected my social life.

Long answer – I really don’t have a social life. My condition just doesn’t allow it. I have had to almost completely cut out alcohol which isn’t a problem with me as I’ve never been a big drinker anyway. You will find a drink in my hand at Christmas, my birthday and on spa breaks/city breaks but as a result, I’ll spend the majority of the next day on the toilet. A few good friends have reached out to me lately for regular food and coffee dates, to which I rarely ever say no to. I’ve never told them, but being included in these food/coffee dates really makes me feel good. I hate not being included in something just because I can’t drink which is very often, so my social life is slowly but surely picking up again thanks to good food, good friends and great coffee.

“I hate not being included in something just because I can’t drink which is very often, so my social life is slowly but surely picking up again thanks to good food, good friends and great coffee.”

What are your tips for handling IBS day to day?

My tips would be to take your meds if any, move to soya or almond milk, cut out intolerances that you are aware of, test gluten-free (GF) options which are now available in most restaurants and supermarkets, always know where your nearest toilet is and most importantly, seek the medical help you deserve. No-one should have to suffer in silence. I urge anyone who is experiencing bleeding from the rectum, in particular, to immediately go to your GP or if in extreme cases your nearest A&E.

While travelling, don’t drink or eat anything you know you’re intolerant to as hard as that is. I’ve been very lucky when travelling that I rarely flare up and so far my condition has only ruined a handful of days on city breaks and holidays.

Eating out is also easy when you know your intolerances. So make a food diary and figure out those intolerances. Think of them as allergies, if you were allergic to nuts you wouldn’t eat one would you? I apply this thinking to my foods of choice. I always stay away from garlic which is my biggest killer.

“Seek the medical help you deserve. No-one should have to suffer in silence.”

You were previously offered a modelling contract but instead decided to continue in your pursuit of a career in architecture. What fuelled this decision?

I’m just too focused on pursuing a career in architecture. I don’t want to be added to the statistic of women who left the profession prematurely with it being so male-dominated. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since primary school. I live and breathe it. So personally, modelling would have been a lovely addition to my already busy schedule but it’s just something that came along at the wrong time.

Styled by Jennifer Taggart. Photography by Glenn Norwood.

Most sufferers of IBS find the biggest issues to be with their diet. What’s your guilty pleasure food wise?

I have a really healthy relationship with food, I have always been a big eater and always will. I don’t believe in having guilty pleasures with food if I love something I’m going to eat it and I’m going to be happy about it. Since my condition has gotten worse over the last year I’ve had to cut out much-loved foods such as garlic, gravy and pasta to name a few. These foods are completely forbidden from my diet, although I’ve found GF gravy and GF pasta to be great alternatives. I eat a lot of Chinese food, at the best of times I’d eat it around 3 times a week. A lot of sufferers of IBS would not be able to tolerate spicy food, although fortunately for me this food doesn’t affect my IBS.

Do you find IBS interferes with your studies? If so, how do you overcome this?

It’s been a constant struggle and it’s only now being in my master’s degree that I’m really struggling with the condition. I haven’t found a way to overcome this just yet although Queen’s University have been so understanding with my circumstances and I really wouldn’t be able to cope had the university not been so helpful. I’m studying architecture and I am currently in my 5th year so regardless of whether I had a chronic condition or not, there is no such thing as student life when you are training to be an architect. For me, overcoming that aspect of it is easy. However, my health often gets in the way of my ability to succeed in my studies. It is honestly so upsetting that I’m being held back in something I love so much because of something I have no control over. Thankfully, Queen’s University has made it a little easier to overcome.

“My health often gets in the way of my ability to succeed in my studies. It is honestly so upsetting that I’m being held back in something I love so much because of something I have no control over.”

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome since being diagnosed with IBS?

The biggest obstacle for me was the colonoscopy procedure I endured in November of 2018. It was possibly one of the most horrible experiences I’ve ever gone through. I was urgently referred for a colonoscopy as from mid-2018 my health had declined. The pain was debilitating. I was bleeding from the rectum, experiencing explosive diarrhoea around 10 times a day and a lot of the time, not making it to the toilet. I was so fatigued and lethargic that I couldn’t even open a car door. I was rushed to A&E in the summer of 2018 with the pain being so extreme I was vomiting as a result. I was met with the loveliest doctor who unfortunately had to examine me in places we’d all rather not have examined, and I was immediately put as a red flag for an urgent colonoscopy.

The colonoscopy for anyone that doesn’t know, is a day procedure that involves a small camera being passed through the anus to examine the large bowel for any polyps and/or irregularities. The day before the procedure, there is a laxative medicine you have to drink to fully clear your bowels in preparation for the colonoscopy. This means setting up your laptop in the bathroom to watch hours upon hours of Netflix whilst sitting on the toilet. That part for me was tolerable, however, the procedure was horrible. I don’t have a great pain threshold so I am one of the very few people who find the colonoscopy to be horrible. If you need it done, do it. I was given the all clear of Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease after the procedure thankfully, but it has left me going through a number of other tests and scans as my GI Consultant is unsatisfied with my daily symptoms.

What do you wish more people understood about IBS?

I guess I wished more people would understand that it is a chronic condition that is somewhat very hard to control. In the past, I have had to deal with managers in the workplace being very dismissive of the condition and the least understanding of the struggles that come with it. I am very lucky to be studying architecture as my work placement in my 4th year couldn’t have been more lovely and attentive to my circumstances, so thankfully when I am chartered I will not have to deal with the managers I once dealt with in part-time jobs. I urge anyone suffering from IBS or IBD (Crohn’s and Colitis) to make your employer’s aware of your condition. Hopefully they will understand that we are all human, and almost everyone suffers with something, be it physical or mental. If you can find an employer that is understanding of your condition, you really do have one less worry to deal with.

“I urge anyone suffering from IBS or IBD (Crohn’s and Colitis) to make your employer’s aware of your condition. If you can find an employer that is understanding of your condition, you really do have one less worry to deal with.”

Niamh Crawford-Walker

Niamh is a full time fashion and features writer at The Style Edit. Her work has previously appeared in IMAGE magazine, image.ie and Emirates Woman.

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