Like a typical millennial, I enjoyed spending time with my friends and family, attended school at a local university, was living off-campus in an apartment, and liked shopping more than studying. Then the unthinkable happened, I was sexually assaulted. It was a very bad situation that affected me in a huge way and still does. Severely depressed, having just attempted suicide and dealing with what I know now to be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—life seemed hopeless and bleak. At twenty-one years old I found myself in the mental health unit of the local hospital where I lived.
Why did I attempt suicide? There were many reasons. My symptoms, both physical and mental, were too much for me to handle. Ultimately, the last straw was having a miscarriage from the pregnancy resulting from the sexual assault. Life in that hospital lasted months beyond months. It seemed the longer time went on, the more my physical symptoms became increasingly an issue. The rectal pain and stool incontinence was too embarrassing to even talk about with the hospital staff. Depression and suicidal thoughts continued as I felt no hope for my condition whatsoever.
I was admitted into several different hospitals and treatment centers for about a year. Skip to age twenty-two, I was finally out on my own and doing better. I lived by myself and still struggled with symptoms of PTSD—nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks, all kinds of horrible stuff. Returning to work wasn't possible because of all the mental and physical health issues. I sought help for my gastrointestinal problems and was referred to the Mayo Clinic for treatment. During that year I underwent several very unpleasant medical tests and a lot of different treatments—all directed to remedy severe constipation from pelvic floor dysfunction and colonic inertia.
Despite having the best medical care available, nothing was working. Then the dreaded moment happened, two words I knew might become a reality creeped out if my gastroenterologist's mouth. It was time to take the next step, ileostomy surgery—in my non-medical language, a poop bag. I did not want the operation but knew at this point (as I think most of us do) that it was the last-ditch effort to save my life. Not long after that appointment, I had the surgery. All I can remember about being in the hospital was wanting nothing to do with that big red stoma on my stomach. I wouldn't even look at it. I'm not even sure how I made it through my first few bag changes. Thankfully a home health nurse helped me with it for a short while.
After all was said and done, I was out on my own again and that’s when things spiraled downhill quickly. I slipped into severe depression and stayed in bed for a couple of months. I also had four more surgeries to manage complications. The worst kind of sad is when you try to ignore it, and then things get so bad that one day you just breakdown. My last mental breakdown landed me back in the hospital for a couple of weeks, but this time around my life changed because I made it a priority to get the help I really needed for PTSD and find a support system to cope with my ostomy.
It's been nearly six years since my first surgery and I won't lie saying life's been easy, because it hasn't. However, an ostomy has changed my life in huge ways and not all are bad. I've learned the importance of self-care, the value of support groups, and the need for acceptance—knowing it's okay to be different than everyone else. Friends and family were there to support me, but that didn't change my symptoms or PTSD. I don't think they could understand it any better than I could. My wonderful therapist has been with me for the past six years which as helped me more than I can say. She is one of my biggest supporters.
Afraid to ask for what you really need? I want to reach out to all ostomates – especially those who struggle with mental illness – because dealing with depression, OCD, anxiety or PTSD while sporting that flashy stoma is no easy feat. When our minds aren't working quite the way we want them to, it's hard (sometimes nearly impossible) to take care of our physical health.
I want to let you know that it’s critical to your well-being to seek help. Like me, you may need counseling to handle your emotions so that the trauma begins to makes sense. And because you're worth it.