One of the upsides of college: all that new freedom! One of the downsides of college for people with UC: all that freedom! With it come the pressures of dating and the social scene.
It’s true that dating and getting into relationships can be more complicated when you have an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Most handbooks on dating don't cover talking about ulcerative colitis and its accompanying symptoms, like frequent gas and diarrhea.
But there are strategies for getting past the awkwardness to have a good time. Here are some ways to make dating and socializing go smoother.
Ulcerative Colitis and Dating: When to Bring It Up
"UC is not an easy disease to talk about, especially as a young woman," says Sandra Kim, MD, pediatric gastroenterologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "People find it easier to talk about things like asthma, where you wheeze, or a food allergy, where you might break out. But a lot of the symptoms associated with UC -- not so easy."
"All relationships develop over time, and trust has to be there first," Sileo says. "When revealing something so personal, there has to be some level of trust in the relationship. There's no barometer or timeframe of when you have that in a relationship. So you really have to trust your gut -- no pun intended -- that this person is someone you'd really like to share this aspect of your life with."
Broaching the Topic of UC: Just Do It
Megan Nardini, 19, a student at Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif., was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when she was 12 and had six surgeries in one year. She says UC can definitely be a "strange” topic to bring up.
"It's always weird," she says. "When do you tell somebody you just met, 'Oh, by the way, I don't have a colon and I poop a lot?' A lot of people feel really uncomfortable talking about that kind of thing. That's why Crohn's and colitis aren't that well known -- because nobody wants to talk about poop."
But Nardini usually doesn’t wait too long to talk about her UC. "Once I start getting comfortable with somebody, it's hard for me not to mention it," she says. "Because it's a big part of who I am -- it's a big part of my life. Usually after a few weeks or months, I'll be like, 'Oh, by the way, guess who doesn't have a colon? It's me.'"
It's always kind of a shocker to people, she says, but it's never been so uncomfortable that it's ruined a friendship or romantic relationship.
Kim encourages young women to be straightforward about it, like you would any other part of yourself. "People are not going to be uncomfortable talking about it as long as you're matter-of-fact,” she says.
Talking about your UC can also make you relax about it. "I try to teach my patients to get to a comfort level of sharing their UC with others because when we do that, it takes away the shame and embarrassment,” says Sileo, who has Crohn’s disease. ”People will see we're OK with it, that we can talk about it."
Talking About UC: A Sense of Humor Can Help
Nardini is very involved with her local chapter of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). Last year, she was selected to be the local hero for her chapter’s Take Steps Walk to raise money for research and increased awareness of the diseases.
At around the time of the walk, she was sitting with a boyfriend when she decided to reveal she has UC by starting a conversation about the walk.
"You need to join my team, Team Megan-Poops-a-Lot," she told him.
That broke the ice and she explained everything to him. "When you mention you have to go to the bathroom, like, every two hours, it can definitely ruin your image," she says. "You want to give off that you're a smooth, graceful, whimsical, wonderful person. But it just adds another side to who you are."
Nardini also told him about being in and out of the hospital for two years, and he was very supportive. She says he was taken aback at first because she doesn't "give off the vibe" that she's been through something like that.
"I just try and stay positive," she says. "I used to be a really big ‘negative Nancy.’ But I've tried to turn that around and really focus on the positive things."
Honesty and Ostomies
It can be especially complicated to tell others if you’ve had an ostomy -- surgery that creates an opening in the body for the discharge of poop -- or have a colostomy bag, which collects the poop.
"In the area of sexuality among college students, that is more of an issue as far as both people feeling comfortable with it," Sileo tells WebMD. "Nine times out of 10, people don't know many people with ostomies.”
If you’ve had an ostomy, you’ll probably need to educate others about what it is, what it isn't, and what you can or can't do, he adds.
It’s not uncommon to worry about what others will think of you when you break the news about an ostomy or your UC. But you can also learn something about them by their response.
"For some people, it can be a deal-breaker in dating and relationships," Sileo says. "If you disclose you have ulcerative colitis and what it means to you and your life, and someone doesn't want to be with you because of that, then you’re better off knowing early on."
Sex, Drinking, Smoking, and UC
When making decisions about things like sex, drugs, and smoking, it helps to be informed. You’ll want to consider some aspects of your UC.
Besides being overall bad for your health, smoking can make it harder for some people with UC to fight infection (including sexually transmitted infections).
Alcohol can bring on UC flare-ups in some people and can be a big problem with some UC medications. Always check with your doctor about whether drinking alcohol is safe for you.
Then there’s the issue of sex. If you choose to be sexually active, there’s no reason you can’t have a normal sex life. But you may be concerned about unpredictable bathroom runs, abdominal pain, or surgical scars.
If you have active UC, talking to the person about it will make it easier for the times that you don’t feel well or need to stop in the middle of sex. Communicating about your UC with a lover can also increase intimacy.
"I tell young women, 'I'm not here to make a judgment call,’" Kim says. ”’I'm not here to tell you it’s right or wrong for you to drink or engage in sexual activity. You just need to be careful.’ This is advice I would give to any young woman, regardless of whether she had ulcerative colitis."
You may not end up being the biggest social animal at your school, but there’s no reason why you can’t go to parties, develop good relationships, and have fun. The key is to control your ulcerative colitis, so it doesn’t control your life.
"When you have a chronic illness, there's a tendency to place your identity with the disease itself," says Kim. "'You happen to have ulcerative colitis. That doesn't define who you are. When you go to college, you don't put your life on hold because you have this disease.”