Virginia Ironside

Me and my Bag…

When I was told that I had to have a bag or I would die, there wasn’t much option. I’d been battling with ulcerative colitis for years and had taken every drug imaginable to avoid having a bag –what I thought would be the end of the world. I’d been high as a kite on steroids, lain for hours on end having immuno-suppressant drugs dripped into me, used enemas, foam in every orifice, it seemed, and still nothing worked. Clearly my colon was in tatters. Finally, racked by pain, I gave in. (“It’s usually the pain that gets patients to take the decision in the end,” muttered my gastro-enterologist darkly).

Anyway, I ended up with a bag. Like the Queen mum was supposed to have. Like Cliff Richard was supposed to have. Like all kinds of people were supposed to have but none would ever “come out” about it. It’s amazing. Stars are quite happy to tell how they abused their children, snorted enough cocaine to blow their noses off, were in prison for murder, but when it comes to a bag, everyone clams up as if it’s the Worst Thing in the World.

Well, as I and plenty of the other 110,00 bag-wearers in the UK have found, it isn’t.

Even the operation wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. I was out of hospital within four days and apart from a moment when the wound split open when I was on my own at home in the middle of the night (that did prompt a few tears, I can tell you, and desperate calls to a doctor neighbour who came down and bandaged me up with selotape until the morning) and with the help of an amazing stoma nurse, I did pretty well. Indeed, I was even driving my car (rather nervously) within a fortnight.

When I got the hang of the whole thing I found the whole procedure to be dead simple. Now I change my bag every couple of days – I take it off, clean the stoma, jump into a bath and loll around a bit, leap out, and slap the new one on and Bob’s your uncle. Of course I’ve had the odd accident – two to be precise. Once when I opened it rather too vigorously all over someone’s bathroom carpet, and once when it just came apart in the middle of someone else’s guest bed – but having experienced far worse with UC I didn’t, embarrassed as I was, feel I actually had to crawl away and commit hara kiri. And my friends were terribly understanding. Then there was time when I was half-way to A and E in the middle of the night thinking I was bleeding to death, when I suddenly remembered what I’d eaten the night before – beetroot.

But the first thing that amazed me was that though I thought I’d have be wearing flouncy baggy things for ever it wasn’t so. I could wear tight skirts and trousers and swimming costumes and no one would know.

Then, thanks entirely to Tidings, I found that there were different kinds of bags on offer. I tried them all and found one that suited me best. And then I found these brilliant panties, Cui Wear (through an ad in Tidings, too) which I could get for free on prescription. And then I discovered these great little sachets (yes, thanks to Tidings) – Trio Diamonds – which, if you put them into your bag before you went to sleep, mean that you can have a whole night’s sleep without getting up to go to the loo once!

I was doing so well I wondered whether I really wanted the operation for the internal pouch that I’d been booked in for this January.

I’d been wary of this op. My surgeon, who was dead keen to do it, insisted I talk to other patients who’d had it done. “Go for it!” said one. “It’s brilliant! I’ve only had pouchitis once since I had it!” Pouchitis? No thanks, whatever that was. Another crowed: “Go for it! I only have to get up a couple of times every night to go to the loo!” A couple? I’d rather not get up at all, thanks. “Go for it!” screamed another. “You can eat nearly everything you want!” Did I hear her use the word “nearly”? At the moment I can eat exactly what I want, thank you. And finally, another old lady of eighty, who’d had an internal pouch, said she regretted it. “My muscles just aren’t what they used to be,” she said. “I have to wear a pad all day.”

Then, finally, I had an adhesion. Or was it a blockage. Or a twist. The result was that nothing came out into my bag and I had an excruciating pain in my side. Luckily, just as I was wheeled into an emergency room for a hernia op, the whole thing righted itself. And as I lay, mightily relieved, and waiting to be discharged, the registrar, who had to sign me out, asked me what were my future plans. “I was going to have an internal pouch,” I said. “But after talking to lots of patients, I’ve decided just to have the rectal stump removed in January, because of the risk of cancer. And stick with the bag.”

And to my amazement he replied: “Good idea. I see surgeons all the time, and these internal pouches can be right devils to get right. If I were in your position and happy with the bag, I’d…” “Go for it?” I suggested. “Exactly,” he said.

Now I realise that the internal pouch is ideal for some people. And successful. And quite honestly, if I weren’t sixty five, single, and not looking for a bloke, then I probably would have been thrilled to find an alternative to the bag. But at my age, I’m not prepared to work out yet another way of going to the loo, and my motto is: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

So here I am. Resigned and happy. The bag that I have may not be exactly a fashion accessory. But at least it does give a new meaning to word “bag-lady.”

Virginia Ironside’s The Virginia Monologues – 20 Reasons why Growing Old is Great is published by Fig Tree (£12.99)