It started when I was 18 during my first year of college. Instead of a normal bowel movement, I began spending very long periods of time in the bathroom straining with extremely little output. This would happen every day, and what came out was probably no bigger than a pebble.
Even more alarming was that I was often only passing mucus. It was frustrating and also scary; I'd never heard of that being possible. I also started feeling really bloated and my belly became distended, which got worse over time.
The next three and a half years of my life was a constant battle to find out what was causing these symptoms, and what I could do to alleviate them. I spent lots of time and money, and I pretty much tried everything.
I cut gluten and dairy from my diet, and I put them back in. I spent $16 at a time on charcoal drinks and kombucha, trying to overwhelm my stomach with probiotics. I reduced my coffee intake and pumped it back up. I ate lots of vegetables for more natural fiber. I drank apple cider vinegar with ginger, which is supposedly really good for you, but is also disgusting.
I also had a colonoscopy, which was ordered by my gastroenterologist to rule out anything physical wrong with the structure of my colon. I believe that doctors do this before they can move on to considering more systematic things that aren't caused by a physical defect. But everything came back normal.
The nutritionist I then began seeing told me that consuming lots of protein would help “heal my gut.” So I upped my protein intake to 90 grams a day. (The RDA for someone my age is less than 50 grams.) I drank tons of water and digestive tea. No change.
As time went on, I became more desperate. I spent extra cash for one-day shipping to get psyllium husk delivered, which was supposed to work miracles but just left me $20 poorer. I bought colon health probiotics, I bought antacids, I bought laxatives, I bought suppositories, I bought anti-gas medications. I ordered digestive enzymes on Amazon, and I only realized they included a toxic ingredient when they arrived at my door. They are still unopened and I have not yet managed to return them to Amazon.
I started believing that my distended stomach was actually fat. I tried diet pills. I became despondent thinking that I’d never be in harmony with my body. No matter what I ate, how much money I dropped on pills and products and probiotics, my stomach bloated quickly after I ate and remained that way for days. I never felt good in my clothes. My constipation was ridiculous and relentless, sometimes even intolerable. I resented my body.
Finally, I decided to consult my gastroenterologist again. Of course I should have done it sooner, but I held off for two reasons. One, as the doctor who performed my colonoscopy years earlier, he had already told me there was nothing wrong with my colon.
Second and most importantly, I was too proud to admit that I couldn’t deal with my stomach problems myself. I read tons of stories online about people who were able to heal their digestive issues through their own research. I tried so hard to do that, and I felt like a failure.
But after I graduated from college earlier this year, I decided to start acting like I was an adult. Fake it til you make it, right? Three and a half years of chronic constipation—nearly my entire college career—was enough. In this spirit of forced adulthood, I finally made an appointment with my gastroenterologist.
I was prepared for battle when I went into the exam room. I was ready with a mental list of every symptom, everything I’d tried, all the doctors I’d seen, everything this undiagnosed issue had cost me for the last three years. When I saw him a few years ago, I wavered more about my complaints. Now I was pretty forceful about saying that something was wrong and I needed help. I was ready for paper gowns and lubricant. I was ready to do what needed to be done.
But all my preparation was unnecessary. Once I told the doctor my primary symptoms, he looked at me like I had three heads, and said, “Well, you have IBS,” as if I had overlooked a huge neon sign flashing those three initials.
I was taken aback. This doctor wasn’t puzzled? I didn’t have to undress and get in a weird position? He wasn’t going to give me some wishy-washy answer about a possible non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a “twisted” colon, or maybe I should drink more water? No, he was resolute.
Turns out constipation is a hallmark sign of IBS, or IBS-C, to be precise—a form of irritable bowel syndrome with constipation as a main symptom. When you think of IBS, most people probably imagine diarrhea or stomach cramps, but constipation is often a sign as well, it turns out. IBS is not actually a disease but a collection of symptoms. It tends to strike people before the age of 35, and women are more likely to have it than men, I later found out.
To treat what I had always experienced as an infuriating and totally mystifying problem, the doctor recommended a regimen of non-prescription medications available any drugstore. Twice a day, I take a fiber pill and a laxative with a full glass of water. Then before bed, I take a probiotic supplement and mix a different laxative into a glass of water. My evenings are very well-hydrated.
That’s it. It’s not invasive, it’s not risky, and it started working within a few days, I swear. Without being graphic, I can say that in the last few weeks, my time in the bathroom has become much more productive and much less time-consuming.
I still have to watch what I eat. I try to stay away from gluten (I was never diagnosed with a gluten allergy but I find that the less I consume, the better my digestive system works) and dairy unless there’s a special occasion, or there’s cake in the office. My belly bloat is mostly gone too. As dramatic as it sounds, thanks to this experience, feel more in control of my body and my life.
This article first appeared on Health.com.