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Andréa Farrell: 'There is such a social taboo in admitting to bowel troubles'

Although IBD is a lifelong illness, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence, writes Andréa Farrell.

Andréa Farrell Comedian

I CELEBRATED MY 26th birthday in style. Surrounded by nurses and doctors giving me drugs and trying to stick suppositories up my arse. Sounds like a regular night in Coppers but thankfully I was in the hospital and everyone was sober.

I had just been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Happy Birthday.

I had been sick for quite some time before I sought out help, so I had become somewhat normalised to feeling so sick. The symptoms that I experienced included nausea, extreme abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss, diarrhoea – oh yeah, and occasionally shitting myself.

This was mainly due to not being able to trust a fart. It only happened twice but if respected athletes like Sonia O’Sullivan and Gary Lineker can do it in front of thousands of people and have a laugh about it, so can I.

Social taboo around bowel troubles

I was embarrassed about it at the time, of course, because there is such a social taboo in admitting to bowel troubles. Shitting yourself is hilarious in hindsight, and nobody ever admits that for the first 6 seconds it feels pretty nice.

I started cancelling gigs and meetings with friends while I tried find a solution to my problem. I had to give up my job and was housebound, afraid to leave in case I wouldn’t make it to a toilet on time.

My GP simply told me it was psychosomatic. I went home to my parents’ house after I was no longer able to take care of myself because I had grown very weak. They brought me to hospital that night. Mammy knows best.

I would spend the next 4 weeks in hospital. I had to have a colonoscopy and MRI scan before being diagnosed. I woke up during the colonoscopy and saw my insides on the big TV as the doctor guided a camera through my bowels with what looked like a Nintendo 64 joystick.

A new level of torture

I asked the doctor, “What’s this film called? Maid in Manhattan or something? Can I get a lend of the DVD?” Well, that’s what I wanted to say. But I was so drugged up that what came out of my mouth probably sounded very different.

I remember the doctor laughing anyway. I was pretty happy at the fact that I could still be funny under the influence of a strong sedative.

Then came the MRI. I hated getting an MRI scan of my body, not because I was strapped down on a table in a tube with earphones on to block out the really loud noise of the machine. The worst part was that they had the radio playing through the earphones and I had to listen to Live Line for 45 minutes. That’s right. I was strapped to a table and forced to listen to Live Line. It was a new level of torture that has yet to be used in Guantanamo Bay.

Lifelong illness doesn’t need to be a life sentence

Thankfully I am in remission at the minute and my Crohn’s is under control with daily immunosuppressant medication, watching what I eat and exercise, albeit extremely gentle exercise as the fatigue is a bitch. Although this is a lifelong illness, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. If you are diagnosed with Crohn’s/ulcerative colitis there is support out there.

The Irish Society of Colitis and Crohn’s Disease (ISCC) are great and arrange regular meetups and information nights around Ireland. Don’t be afraid to post about it online in forums. Let’s not be embarrassed anymore. The disease doesn’t need to define you.

When I first started on my treatment I was given a direct phone number for the specialist IBD nurse in my hospital. I could call if I was feeling unwell and she offered to send someone out to me if I wasn’t able to leave the house.

This is why I joined the ISCC’s #DoubleUp campaign this year, which is calling on the government to at a minimum double the number of specialist nurses in IBD. Currently there are only 14 such nurses in the whole country. The care that my nurse offers is second to none. I don’t know where I’d be without my IBD nurse.

After a year of diarrhoea I took a photo of my first fully formed poo and almost shed a tear as I sent it on to my mother and some close friends as if it was a photo of my first born. In a way, it was.

Andréa Farrell is a funny girl from Dublin. When she’s not opening for comedy heavyweights like Stewart Francis, Marc Maron, David O’Doherty or Bill Burr she’s doing regular slots at the International Comedy Club, where her laconic style and irreverent stage presence are a breath of fresh air to the Dublin audiences. Visit www.change.org/p/doubleup-for-ibd.

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About the author:

Andréa Farrell  / Comedian

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