Let’s play an imagination game, dear readers. Put on your thinking caps, sharpen your mental pencils. I want you to think about what the word colostomy conjures up in your head.
Let’s be honest, it’s probably something you don’t think about terribly often. But let’s try it. What -- or who -- do you think of? Someone elderly? Someone who has had bowel cancer, someone incontinent, someone incapable of taking care of themselves? Some kind of inevitable odor. Some kind of undignified bag o’ crap hanging around somewhere.
It’s time to change those ideas.
Hi, my name’s Briar, and I’m a 23-year-old writer/bookseller/post-grad student/oddball. And I have a colostomy. And guess what? It’s one of the best things that has happened to me in recent history.
Inflammatory bowel disease is not something to be trifled with. I spent years dancing through different medication hoops, from steroids, to immunosuppressant meds, to injections and to in-hospital IV infusions. I cut out foods that made me worse -- and still, even on a diet of "good" foods, nothing changed. Nothing fixed me. So after the infusions proved themselves to be inefficient, I went in for my tenth-ish colonoscopy in less than four years. The decision was as expected. It was time for some (even more) serious action.
So in September last year, I underwent a Hartmann’s procedure, in which a large chunk of the left-hand side of my large intestine was removed. Everything went according to plan -- I was in hospital for six days, everything was done laporoscopically (my scars are pathetically small) -- and I woke up with an extra hole on my left-hand side.
I decided to call her Buffy. Because she was kind of totally kick-ass, like everyone’s favorite vampire slayer -- and because her existence probably saved my life. But that didn’t mean that there weren’t moments when I felt really gross and broken because of this new acquisition. There still are, occasionally, but as time goes by, as with most things in life, you learn to deal with them.
So here’s a little of how I deal with it -- a window into the world of the ostomate.
If you look at me, you wouldn’t have a clue of what lurks beneath my novelty book-related T-shirt. The appliance sits pretty flush to the skin, even if it’s got some contents in it (euphemisms, everyone, don’t you love them?) -- especially if you have an addiction to pretty lacy ostomy-appropriate underwear like I do. These nifty knickers have a little pouch inside, which your bag can sit in, rather than being pressed up against your skin.
For the first month post-surgery, I was largely at home recuperating, and embraced the excuse to wear trackpants and pajamas most of the time. The next phase was the Leggings, Always phase -- when I started back at work, anything too firm was still out of the question -- so leggings became my best friend, paired with drapey tunic tops and floaty dresses. The only problem with that approach was that it was harder to show off my scars in a dignified fashion -- there’s something a little more questionable about a gal flipping up her skirt to show off tummy scars, even if there are leggings involved. Which is a shame, because sometimes you just really want to show your war wounds.
But now, of course, some five months after surgery, I’m pretty much all healed up, and have a total handle on my sartorial approach to feeling fabulous with an ostomy. I still wear skinny jeans and high-waisted skirts, like I did before. Since I didn’t tend to wear things that were super-tight across my lower abdomen when I was sick (tight clothes + constantly squalling intestines = extra unhappiness), nothing has hugely changed in that regard. But I tend to dress up a little bit more, just to remind myself that I’m still me, I’m still kind of badass, just like Buffy-the-Stoma.
It’s also been a reason behind the meteoric rise in my attention to make-up (and associated obsession with xoVain and the like). The whole "look good, feel better" approach really kind of rings true with me.
Before the surgery, I was going to the bathroom anywhere from 10 to 20 times a day -- sometimes more. I was taking painkillers every day, just to get through work. Now, all I have to do is switch the bag out once a day (generally), sometimes with a few "deflations," for lack of a better word -- "manual farting" would be another way to put it, I suppose -- in between.
It’s undoubtedly a hugely better quality of life. I am going back to postgraduate study, after years of illness keeping me from it, and I have moved to an entirely new city to do so, which is not without its challenges but at least I don’t have to worry about mapping out the city’s public bathrooms as I would have six months ago!
It has opened up a whole new area of advocacy for me, too. I have already been involved with the local branch of Crohn’s & Colitis New Zealand, but now I am investigating the similar organizations for ostomates in my fair nation, and making sure that we have a voice.
Sure, it’s not something that you typically bring up around the dinner table, but it’s something that should be better understood. We’re not gross, or unsanitary, or anything like that. We’re just doing what we need to in order to stay alive and well, like anyone else.
But Buffy and I aren’t going to be together forever. It’s fairly likely that at the end of this year, health and recovery needs permitting, she’ll be gone, and the only physical reminder I’ll have will be another scar to add to my collection. But I know now that should things take a turn for the worse, and should I need a permanent ostomy, it’s not the end of the world -- it’s just a bit of new plumbing.
And I’m so much more than my guts.