In this commentary, Avery Oliver offers an honest perspective on the challenges of trying to maintain employment while navigating the often debilitating symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.
As a person with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), I’ve learned over the years that employers generally don’t consider a poor stomach to be a valid excuse to miss work, nor to strictly stick to remote employment. However, what many employers fail to realize is that IBS is much more than a sour stomach. It comes with debilitating pain, stomach cramps, nausea, bloating, and other flare-ups that can last for days, weeks, and even months. And it has made navigating everyday life extremely difficult for me, especially when it comes to employment. Working in person is almost impossible.
At my first in person job, I was known among my colleagues as the person who had a “bad stomach” and it became a thing people considered humorous. They would blame it on my cooking, unhealthy eating habits, or simply just the stress of everyday life. It became somewhat of a humorous thing at work. Back then, I laughed along with the jokes.
Part of me thought that when it came to the pain of IBS, I was just overreacting. If my coworkers were also sharing stories of their own mild occasional stomach aches, then I really had nothing to complain about. This persisted until one day, I had to coax myself to take the day off when the stomach pains became too unbearable. I had gotten into an altercation with my coworker, and as a person who has anxiety and is generally nonconfrontational, it absolutely rocked my nerves. What I was not expecting, in the aftermath of that argument, was the way my digestive system flipped. I woke up with extreme stomach pain and though I attempted to get myself out of bed and encourage myself to go to work, I couldn’t. I called in sick with a stomach ache.
I know my coworkers didn’t mean to sound judgemental about it, but they were. My job was fast-paced and high stress, so calling in for a bad stomach was not something that could be done often. Unfortunately, it happened again and again. As my stomach pains grew worse, I realized I was becoming a nuisance to my coworkers.
I decided it was pinpoint the problem. Despite my anxiety, I went to the doctor, explained my symptoms, and the following week, a CT scan was ordered. After that, more tests, scans and discussions followed until I was officially diagnosed with IBS. For most people, a diagnosis is a step in the right direction, a pathway to finding a cure or maintaining your health. IBS, however, has no cure.
Understanding I had IBS gave me guidance, but that did not make the journey any less difficult, especially when it came to employment. I ended up quitting my in-person job for a multitude of reasons, including my chronic IBS pain. People don’t tend to recognize that IBS can be disabling, so getting reasonable accommodations can be challenging. Employers often don’t extend understanding about flare-ups. And using a shared toilet when you have IBS can be difficult!
Now, I lean toward remote work. The COVID-19 pandemic showed me and others who live with chronic conditions how accessible remote work can be. It has been somewhat of a life-saver for me. I have painful flare-ups frequently, and even getting to my computer can be difficult, but it is a lot better than sitting in an office space dealing with my pains and the judgment of colleagues.
Currently, I am still on the lookout for better paying remote positions as my IBS struggle continues. As workplaces have tried to “return to normal,” remote jobs are increasingly difficult to find. I continue to advocate for myself, as I still deal with judgment from others. Sometimes, I even judge myself. But I have found solidarity in communities of people also experiencing IBS. My hope is that employers learn to take IBS seriously, and that it is one day understood as a valid disability.