The Vagenda

TMI: Incontinence

Want to know a secret? Six months ago, in hospital, a day after the fairly straightforward birth of my second child, I pissed myself.

Copiously. Publicly. In a corridor in the maternity ward, with lots of newly-enlarged families around me. I don’t know how many people noticed, but I felt humiliated and tearful. I blamed it on being 12 hours post-birth, on the stitches, on the catheter I’d just had removed, and told myself it was a one-off.

Well, it wasn’t. Six months on, three physio sessions, and innumerable pelvic floor exercises later, the situation’s improved. I only piss myself when I crouch down, when I lift something heavy, when I cough, when I sneeze, when I run… You get the picture. I spend my time looking after an active toddler and a baby. I do all those things a lot. I’m also scared of pissing myself during sex. Some people are turned on by involving urine in their sex lives, but I’m really not one of them!

Other than medical professionals, only my husband and my parents know about this. I haven’t mentioned it to my baby-owning friends, certainly not to my child-free friends, and I’m immensely grateful that Ocado sell incontinence pads so I don’t have to chat to the nice people in Boots about it.

As much as my rational, informed side tells me this is a really common problem, my emotional side is shuddering with self-disgust. I mean, I’m meant to be toilet-training a toddler, but I can’t get through the day without an “accident”! But why the disgust? NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) estimates that 5 million women in the UK have urinary incontinence. 5 million? Seriously? That’s about the same as the entire population of Scotland! You almost certainly know a woman who’s wearing a pad and working out what she can do without leaking. It’s most commonly brought on by childbirth or the menopause. Yes, it’s our reproductive cycle kicking us in the teeth again.

The thing is, that’s an estimate. NICE don’t know because women are too embarrassed to talk about it. Many don’t go to their doctor. Some can’t even tell their partners (though how they deal with the sex issue, I don’t know). Women are suffering for years through embarrassment, assuming that it’s just something that happens with age, and they should put up with it.

Well, that’s bollocks. There are things that can be done – physiotherapy, pessaries, even surgery for really severe cases. They might not cure it, but they will help. What won’t happen is that it’ll just get better on its own. If you wet yourself regularly, talk to your GP. Now.

But why are normal, intelligent women simultaneously embarrassed about incontinence but prepared to just put up with it? My theory is that there are three things to blame:

1. Little Britain. OK, not only Little Britain, but it’s a good example. Remember David Walliams’ incontinent old lady carrying on as normal while urine cascades all over the place? Lesson: Incontinence happens to old people, is funny, and embarrassing.

2. Tena Lady. Invaluable products, don’t get me wrong (though not my favoured brand!), but their TV adverts. Really? Pissing yourself is just like getting your skirt caught in a lift door? And a tag line saying that everyone has their little “ooops moments”? Lesson: Everyone gets incontinence, but there’s nothing you can do to make it better. It’s also embarrassing, so don’t talk about it.

3. The patriarchy (yay! You knew they were to blame really!). Seriously, we have a culture of shame about the real workings of women’s bodies. This whole series of posts and the demand for it demonstrates that there’s not much discussion about these issues.

My incontinence is manageable. I’m keeping going with my pelvic floor exercises, trying to lose the pregnancy weight (which can be an factor) and hoping that things will improve when the pregnancy hormone levels finally drop. Many other women have far more serious incontinence, and what we can all do to help them is to lose the embarrassment. While I’m not planning to scream “I have incontinence!” from the rooftops, I can stop the self-loathing and talk to my friends. You should think about doing the same. And while you’re thinking, do your pelvic floor exercises!

- Anonymous

7 thoughts on “TMI: Incontinence

  1. I had some minor issues after my second labour. Coughing and sneezing were usually okay, but trampolines were definitely out. I did some reading online and found an article about the value of squatting. I tried squatting to pee for a few weeks and it has made a huge difference. (I use the kids’potties, much to their amusement).

  2. I’ve been having these problems since I hit puberty. Lucky I’m not thinking of having children otherwise I would be confined to nappies for the rest of my life. I have to wear pads a lot, especially while exercising because it always happens then :( but because I’m in my mid 20′s, people just dismiss it

  3. The embarrassment factor is absurd . I’ve managed to avoid telling anyone about my stress incontinence, but was recently outed when I had to explain to my work why I wouldn’t be in for 2 weeks while I recovered from incontinence surgery. the ridiculous thing was I couldn’t say what the surgery was (and get this, I’m actually a GP myself). I found myself resorting to all sorts of half-truths and euphemisms (“I’m having pelvic surgery.” “I’m having my under-carriage sorted out. ” or most accurately, but still vaguely “They’re hitching up my bits.”) But it was no help, it just left people confused, seeking further clarification, my mother assuming I was having a hysterectomy, my boss assuming I had some sort of awful prolapse, so I had to resort to more obfuscations, that I’m having a urethropexy, a TVT procedure, ANYTHING rather than say for the last ten years I’ve been pissing myself everytime I run for a bus, or laugh or stand up too quickly.

    I cant explain it, it makes no sense, but this is a REALLY hard thing to talk about. But anyway, am hoping its all fixed now (had the unmentionable procedure 3 days ago) and I NEVER have to talk about it ever again.

  4. Oh and don’t get me started on how difficult it was to talk to the consultant about sex. What I really wanted to ask was if I would still be able to do that, ahem, thing with my G spot, when it goes all, all, all.. Oh bloody hell I can’t even say it in an anonymous blogpost..

  5. I think number 3 is wrong.
    Simply put, we have a culture of shame about the real workings of bodies, period.
    Men also have this problem and the exact same embarrassment about it. The shame about our bodies isn’t exclusive to women.
    This weekend I was talking to 2 other friends (all in our 40′s) and none of us knew when Andropause was supposed to happen, if it entailed physical or psychological changes or both… one of my friends thought it happened in your 70′s and it meant you couldn’t have kids…. the other quickly pulled Chaplin out of the bag…. we all knew he fathered children untill the age of 80 something, but none of us knew about Andropause and that one or all of us might be actually going through it right now.
    As another example, if erectile disfunction and incontinence were something men were open about, e-mail boxes the world over wouldn’t be constantly full of Cialis, Viagra and adult diaper offers (not too mention the amount of people I never met that seem convinced I need a bigger penis).
    Good thing the elderly were brought up. They are the ultimate taboo. We don’t leave them on mountain sides to die, but we relegate them to a sort of “smelly children status”, really….
    Everything about the elderly is either shown to us as decrepit, decadent, embarrassing, or just not shown…
    The elderly suffer from everything, from incontinence to social exclusion, hunger and loneliness, but it’s all but absent from our media, unless their selling something…. it’s our obsession with youth, our fear and denial of death…
    We have a culture of shame about sexuality and our bodies. All of us.

  6. I am a 21 year old female, and have been suffering from bladder problems since I was born, and cystitis specifically since I was 2. I bounced from GP to GP, being handed strips of antibiotics and the “It happens to everyone” talk. I lost continence completely when I was 15 for two weeks. That’s two weeks of constantly pissing yourself. It went away, and my abnormal bladder seemed to be back to its normal self. That was until I was 19, and suddenly I had cystitis everyday. It was excruciating, and the incontinence came back. I was in a new relationship at the time, and my worst nightmare was that he would find out. Sex was painful, but I didn’t want to say. After a particularly bad episode where my blood pressure dropped so low it was immeasurable, I was referred to a specialist. Since then I’ve had three bouts of urethra-stretching surgery, am on low-dose antibiotics and bladder calmer-downers. I’m happy to say that I haven’t had a UTI for a couple of months.
    But the biggest thing that has come out of it is the ability to talk about it. Virtually everyone I know knows what’s going on. From barely being able to tell my partner (who, by the way, has been incredibly supportive – up to and including changing his sleeping position to make sure I am comfortable if I spontaneously get cystitis in the middle of the night) from telling everyone. I call my bladder Lord Leaky III, and I’m not ashamed to tell if he’s having a strop – it means everyone understands if I have to be absent.
    I hope everyone gets to feel comfortable talking about incontinence. And if you don’t, you can always talk to me about it. @emilyjstedman
    Let’s not let our Lord Leakys get in the way of our lives.