It was 8pm on a Saturday night and I was stuck at home binge watching Friends and feeling sorry for myself. I was supposed to be in Bristol with my boyfriend, visiting some of his uni friends. Unfortunately, my urinary tract had other plans for me this weekend. This sucked.
I’d been struck down by cystitis earlier that day. My boyfriend and I had actually been on our way to Bristol when it happened. I’d felt a niggle that morning but thought I had everything under control after downing a few glasses of water with a couple of Azo tablets. Yes they make your pee look like radioactive Tango, but I’d read that they help ease symptoms temporarily. Except they didn’t. When we stopped for lunch I thought I’d run to the toilet for an emergency pee to try and clear everything out. But barely anything came out. Oh. Crap. No.
You know that moment where you go to the toilet and the cystitsy feeling either eases a bit or gets much, much worse? That day definitely fell into the latter. As I sat there, It felt like a metal claw had latched onto my urethra and pulled. I started to panic.
The screaming in my head sounded something like this:
“WHY DID I GO TO THE TOILET IT’S SO MUCH WORSE NOW! WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN TO ME IT’S SO UNFAIR!!!!! WHY TODAY?? OHMYGOD HOW AM I GOING TO GO TO BRISTOL AND MEET THESE PEOPLE FOR THE FIRST TIME WHEN MY PISS IS ON FIRE? I’M SO FAR FROM HOME AND IT WILL TAKE AGES TO GET BACK! WHAT IF I WET MYSELF IN THE CAR? HOW WILL I SURVIVE THE CAR JOURNEY?? IF I GO HOME WILL MY BOYFRIEND BE UPSET WITH ME? I’M GONNA DIE THIS HURTS SO BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!!!!!”
Meanwhile, the pain was reaching a crescendo and walking hurt. I managed to waddle out of the toilet and caught my boyfriend’s eye, shaking my head ominously. He understood.
In the car we discussed the options, and decided that the best (and only) thing we could do was to drive me home. I instantly relaxed, and although the pain was still intense and my thighs were hurting, it was getting more bearable. At home, my now well trained boyfriend suggested I go up to the flat while he parked the car and brought our stuff back up. Grateful, I shot up the stairs and launched myself headfirst into the bathroom. When I emerged, there was a hot water bottle, blanket, and cup of tea waiting for me.
I curled up on the sofa and instantly felt better. Maybe it was all going to be okay! Maybe I didn’t have another infection, a mere 3 weeks after finishing my last course of antibiotics. Maybe I could go to Bristol after all? Was I even unwell? We spoke about how I was feeling, the awful moment in the toilet that afternoon, and the drive home. The moment the conversation moved back to whether I felt well enough to come to Bristol, I started to panic again.
“What if it comes back while we’re there? It would be so embarrassing!” I wailed.
“They’re really nice, if you were unwell and had to stay in the toilet they’d be cool with it I promise,” he replied encouragingly.
As I thought about it, the pain crept in with my panic. He was looking at me so hopefully, and I really didn’t want to disappoint him and ruin the weekend. But at the same time, I knew that if I went I wouldn’t actually be able to spend all my time in the toilet, and even if I did, what would be the point of even going? More so, if I did spend all my time in their bathroom, what would everyone else do when they needed to go? I was starting to panic just by thinking about it! Much to everyone’s disappointment, I decided to be sensible and stay at home. Almost immediately after making the decision, I felt the pain ebb a bit.
As I lay on the sofa cuddling a hot water bottle and pondering how Monica got her hair so shiny, I realised that the majority of my most excruciating oh-god-just-end-it-all bouts of cystitis had occurred when I was far from home, usually in a car on a long journey, or at work. More specifically, I was usually in a situation where I was unable to access a toilet as regularly as I wanted to. I used to attribute this to Sod's Law, but now I was starting to wonder whether these situations where I felt trapped and panicky were actually contributing to the development of my symptoms? It would explain why just being near a toilet (or being sped along the motorway in the direction of one) instantly eased my symptoms.
The old Chinese proverb describing the bladder as ‘the mirror to the soul’ suggests that the concept of ‘bladder emotions’ is not a new one (in the East, at least). The term ‘psychosomatic’ describes illnesses which are impacted by the sufferer’s mental state, and has gained increasing credibility within the medical community as a way of explaining symptom ‘flare ups’ (e.g. eczema), and sometimes even symptoms with no clear underlying organic cause (e.g. fibromyalgia).
I have come to learn that my emotional state and ‘self talk’ has a massive bearing on the severity of my cystitis symptoms and the rate at which the pain escalates. Tuning into my inner dialogue has allowed me to slow things down a bit, listen to my self talk, and reappraise the less helpful bits (e.g. “why meeeeeeeee?!”) When I do this, it gives me scope to interrupt the useless panicky self talk and replace it with more useful things. Here are all my top tips for helpful self talk:
Remember what you’ve done to help yourself
I’ve put this first because it’s by far the thing I find most effective. In my case, I remind myself that I have prepared myself by taking daily supplements of D-Mannose and cranberry extract, and that this has served to strengthen my urinary tract over time so that when situations like this arise from time to time I will be able to recover more quickly. This technique is more effective if you a) have more things to draw on (e.g. I took D-Mannose an hour ago, plus I drank two glasses of water today, plus I didn’t drink alcohol last night) and b) have invested long term in your health (e.g. I take D-Mannose supplements daily, and I have massively cut down on my alcohol consumption). Remembering how you’ve helped yourself is great because it moves you from the position of being a passive recipient of pain to a position where you are empowered and active in this fight. Go you! I also try and imagine the D-Mannose sweeping around my urinary tract and grabbing all the nasty, frightened E. coli bugs. Kind of like in those old toilet cleaner adverts. Die evil bacteria, Die!
Challenge the “I’m trapped” self talk
If, like me, you notice that your cystitis is worse when you are in a hard to escape situation, try relaxing yourself by visualising exit strategies. Once I was on a train with friends whilst travelling in South America and I seriously contemplated getting off a few stops early just so I could use the loo. Realising that I physically could choose to do this (even if everyone would think I was crazy) was really helpful because it gave me back my agency.
Misery loves company
When you have terrible cystitis, it’s easy to feel very alone and to imagine that it’s only you who is going through this. But remember that you’re not alone: over 1.5 billion women worldwide have experienced cystitis (and that’s not counting the men!) and around 20% of women who have had a UTI will experience another one. So there is very likely to be another poor soul panicking somewhere in the world at this exact moment (just have a look on Twitter right now!) Reminding yourself of how common cystitis is can help you normalise the experience, which can feel reassuring when you’re feeling rubbish.
"This too shall pass"
You know that this pain has passed before, and it will again. If it’s your first time, try and trust me: it will pass! And when it does pass, make sure to consciously say “thank goodness that’s passed!” And repeat it every time you have a pee that is not painful: it’s good to appreciate your urethra!
On a final note...
Just to clarify, I am not saying that you can talk yourself out of an infection that needs antibiotics, and if your symptoms persist for a number of days you should definitely go to the doctor. What I am saying is that it is worth exploring what you might be doing (however unconsciously) to exacerbate the pain, and to see whether it can be challenged. Because simple empowering actions like taking daily D-Mannose and cranberry supplements, mindfully managing your self talk, and using imagery really can make a huge difference in the moment!
Chickpea's Cranberry and D-Mannose Care Pack is now available to order online. Recommended by NICE and NHS guidelines, the supplement subscription helps those prone to recurrent cystitis to maintain improved urinary health and reduced UTI occurrences.
For more information, and to take advantage of the introductory offer, click here.