When I first realized just how common urinary incontinence was and how isolating it could be, I knew I wanted to write about it. So when Rosanne Spector, editor of Stanford Medicine magazine, said she was planning an issue of the magazine devoted to relationships, I pitched the idea to her.
Incontinence undermines relationships in myriad ways. So often people give up activities they love such as skiing, swimming or dancing. When incontinence is severe, sufferers give up travel and even stop going to restaurants and movies. Often, they are too ashamed to tell friends and even family why they are backing away. As I wrote in my article:
But the secrecy, the sudden unexplained exits from a friendly social situation, and the background shame people carry around with them create barriers to intimacy of all kinds. Many people go decades without telling their closest friends or even their own doctor.
Loved ones are often mystified by the social withdrawal and may chalk up a refusal to go out to depression or even dementia.
As we age, the majority of us can expect to deal with incontinence. Whether we develop incontinence ourselves or have a father, a sister or a best friend with it, we all benefit from understanding it better.
The two most important things I learned were about overcoming stigma and not giving up. Like any stigmatized medical problem — whether that’s chronic pain, a sexually transmitted disease or chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as ME/CFS) — urinary incontinence is more easily dealt with in the open. So many people suffer needlessly, either because they’ve reached out for medical help and their doctor didn’t or couldn’t help, or because they never talked to a doctor at all.
In fact, there are treatments that can mitigate and even reverse or cure incontinence and more treatments are available every day. So don’t give up looking, because it’s possible help is out there.
Previously: Ties that heal: Stanford Medicine magazine examines relationships, Managing a prostate cancer diagnosis: From leader to follower, and back again and Large federal analysis: Hormone therapy shouldn’t be used for chronic-disease prevention
Illustration by Giselle Potter