Over the course of 2015 and 2016, I underwent two major bowel surgeries due to a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis (UC), a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
The first surgery saw me having my large bowel removed, as it was so ulcerated that it was just half an hour away from perforating.
I was given a stoma, where the small intestine is pulled to the outside of my abdomen with an ileostomy bag placed over it, to help my body recover from the operation and to allow my body to release waste.
The second operation saw the stoma taken away – with my small intestine connected straight to my rectum, so that I could go to the toilet the ‘normal way’ again.
Both of these surgeries resulted in my abdomen becoming heavily scarred – with a long scar covering most of my stomach, starting just under my ribs and ending at the top of my pelvis.
The site where my stoma was placed, to the right of my abdomen, also formed a thick scar.
But while I received many questions regarding the operations – how did my bowel movements happen? How much it hurt to be sliced open? (which, FYI it didn’t as I was put to sleep) – the main question I was asked was: ‘Have your surgeries affected your sex life?’
I believe this question is not only down to curiosity but also because I am a young woman in a long-term relationship.
Whatever the reason for this question – the straight answer is yes. But not for the reasons you’d think.
While I wasn’t able to have sex for a few weeks due to my body needing to recover, when I was eventually able to, it wasn’t the surgeries themselves that affected my sex life.
It was the way I felt about myself because of them.
I had always been extremely body-conscious – having suffered with bulimia for a good part of my teenage years, looking ‘perfect’ was always on my mind.
And so, when the time came where I was first able to have sex, following the operations, I refused to remove my top.
I was so insecure about my scars that hiding them was the only way I could feel good about myself.
My partner had never known me with scars beforehand – I didn’t even have a mole on my stomach let alone a long, visible scar – and so I feared that if he saw them, he’d see me differently.
Maybe he wouldn’t find me attractive. Maybe he’d view me differently. Perhaps I wouldn’t be sexually appealing to him anymore and it would just be a constant reminder of the fact my toilet habits had drastically changed.
Writing this now, I see how silly it sounds – I couldn’t help the surgeries I had and, in fact, they’d saved my life so I should be grateful for them.
But every time I looked down at my abdomen to see the long, thick scar, I felt unattractive. And I convinced myself that if I found myself unattractive, surely my partner would too.
And it wasn’t just the ‘unattractive’ factor either. I worried that my partner wouldn’t treat me the same way. I worried that he’d see me as some ‘fragile object’ that couldn’t handle rough or intimate sex.
I worried he wouldn’t want to touch me in the same way, or handle me in the same way.
The first time we had sex after the operations, he was very timid with me, and asked whether what he was doing was ‘okay’, whether I was hurting or whether I wanted to stop.
I know that he was just being cautious because I was recovering but it still made me fear that our sex life would forever be this way.
I worried that he no longer saw me as someone he could experience passion with but someone he had to treat like a fragile doll.
Sure, nobody wants to be seen as a sex object – but attempting to initiate sex became daunting because I grew scared that it wouldn’t be the same anymore.
Instead of just getting into things, I thought there’d be questions and awkwardness.
While my sex life didn’t end, it almost felt as though it was at a hault – that it had changed, not because of the surgeries themselves but because of how my body had changed and how I viewed myself because of them.
It was playing on my mind so much that in the end, I decided I needed to speak with my partner about my fears.
I needed to know what was going on in his head and whether his fears matched mine.
And it turns out, it was all in my head.
It’s crazy how a lack of self-esteem can really affect the way you perceive things to be.
My partner explained to me that, while he had been taking things more slowly and delicately, it was only because my body was recovering and he didn’t want to do anything to hinder that.
He expected things to be back to normal once my body was recovered completely.
He assured me that my scars hadn’t changed anything – that it was down to those scars that I was still here with him, having that conversation.
Of course, your mind still plays tricks on you so I was still doubtful that my scars hadn’t changed things. That was until he shut me up completely by actually kissing my scars.
It may not sound like much to the average person – but for the person you love to actually kiss a part of you that’s making you feel so insecure, it changes things.
It makes you realise that really, it’s your own insecurities that are hindering things.
And from that moment on, everything just changed. I won’t say they went completely back to normal – because for a while after that, I was still unable to have sex without a top on due to feeling conscious of my body.
And I’m sure things would have kept on that way had he not actually removed my top himself during one encounter – which almost said to me: ‘I’m fed up with not seeing your body’.
It really, really made me feel good about myself in that moment, something I hadn’t felt for a long time.
From my experience, I now believe that if someone in a relationship has undergone a surgery that makes them feel insecure in their body, it is very much their partner’s job as well as their’s to help things become ‘normal’ again.
While it was me who started the conversation about how I felt, it was my partner’s actions that finally opened my eyes to realise my scars hadn’t changed how he viewed me – or how I should view myself.
And now, looking down at my scars, I don’t feel anything but gratitude for the fact I’m still alive to talk about my experiences.
They don’t make me any less attractive and they certainly don’t change how I should be viewed sexually.
I only wish I’d realised this sooner so that I hadn’t spent the first few months of recovery worrying about my sex life instead of just enjoying it.