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My Chronic Illness is Not the Butt of Your Joke

Irritable Bowel Syndrome. What a beautiful diagnosis. This was the diagnosis I received after years of pain and months of tests — little did I know it was only the beginning. I was diagnosed with IBS while I was in junior high and soon I learned just how hard living with this would be. 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is an umbrella diagnosis, meaning there are many different symptoms that doctors will diagnose as this disease. I still clearly remember the gastroenterologist looking at my mom and me and telling us, “We don’t really know what’s wrong, so we’re calling it this.” That’s comforting, right? Well, after lots of research I realized that IBS is a very common disease with some underlying similarities. It is a gut disease that is often described as overactive nerves in the intestinal tract and the inability to digest certain chemical compounds found in food. This means that my body can’t digest many common foods, and when I eat them my large intestine turns it into gas, which causes extremely painful bloating, gas, and other complications. 

Because I was diagnosed at a very early age I’m able to look back and see how this influenced me, and one of the main things I noticed is there were many jokes about it in television shows. When I say there were jokes, there were really offensive and rude jokes about this disease that was making me painfully sick every day. Shows like The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation had scenes or characters with IBS which meant they were gross, constantly farting, or even simply annoying. This was really hard for me to see during junior high and high school because it made me believe that my chronic disease was my fault and something I should be ashamed of. Because of this, I often hid my pain and what I was actually struggling with.

This shame has plagued me throughout my whole life. Even things like commercials about Crohn's disease, which has similar symptoms, made my shame even worse because friends would laugh and make comments about them. I probably should have stood up and explained my situation, but you try to tell a high schooler who’s trying to fit in that her constant bloating and gas is something to be proud of! Not going to happen. This meant that I tried to look okay and hide all the pain I was experiencing.

Many people don’t joke about chronic illnesses if they’re easily seen, but often people are suffering with things that you have no idea about. Many people joke about mental illness, but have no idea that it’s hurting their friend dealing with anxiety; people may joke about cancer not realizing their friend’s aunt is dying from cancer. This can happen to anyone and happens all the time. It’s impossible to know what everyone is dealing with, but it’s important to be sensitive to people even if there’s no way that you could come in contact with someone dealing with a specific condition.

The shame I garnered in my adolescent years is still with me today, but is lessening after finding a community. If you are dealing with a chronic illness and feel alone and vulnerable, try to find people you can connect with. I looked up IBS on Instagram and found a dietician that has helped me immensely with my symptoms, and I also found an account run by a girl with IBS who made jokes about having it that made me feel included in this community. These jokes were different than the ones I had heard growing up. Suddenly I was included in the joke, instead of being the butt of the joke. Without this community I would not consider my condition to be a “chronic illness,” but rather just a problem I’m dealing with right now. This community is so important to me because it made me realize I’m not the only one in the world, but rather one of many. 

I have struggled with Irritable Bowel Syndrome my whole life, and I’ve heard all the jokes associated with it. These jokes made me feel really shameful and alone, so remember that anytime you laugh at a joke about a chronic illness, you’re laughing about an actual person. It’s important to be empathetic and try to be caring for all your friends. And remember, if you're struggling right now, it will all be okay. You're not alone. The golden girls hugging eachother