Fri 09, Oct 2020

Anja Christoffersen standing in front of a help signSince speaking with Bridge in 2018, model and advocate Anja Christoffersen has made it her mission to show that people with incontinence can live happily and confidently. She’s now 22 and her story has gone from Brisbane to the world, in magazines and medical conferences. She shares what she’s learnt from incontinence and this experience. 

Incontinence is many things. However, it is rarely thought of in a positive light. For me, it has been one of my greatest teachers. I was born with a condition (VACTERL - anorectal malformation) that has left me with life-long faecal incontinence – a feat few have faced. 

At first, I was unsure about speaking publicly about my incontinence because of stigma, myths and a fear of being open. After taking the leap with the support of the Continence Foundation, I found the openness I was showing was attractive. It  led to more powerful connections. People approached me to open up about the private challenges they were facing, whether incontinence or something else. 

The more I connected  with others around the world who had incontinence, the more I learnt our experiences were similar. I started keeping track of the lessons my incontinence taught me. I want to share them because these reminders have been my saving grace. They helped me change from someone who was ashamed to be incontinent, to someone who is proud. 

1. You are not alone 

We usually like to keep incontinence private. No one wants to air their dirty laundry in public – even less when this laundry is soiled. Because it was not talked about openly, I quickly began to feel like I was the only person affected by incontinence. This privacy led to isolation, which can show itself in physical ways. For me, it was mostly emotionally and socially. 

I felt like I was carrying not only the weight of a fear of accidents, but a weight of embarrassment. 

That weight and shame was lifted when I realised that other people experience similar things. I finally felt like that part of me could be shared and understood. 

It can be assumed that in every full room you walk into, there is at least one other person who has experienced incontinence. 

Ask yourself: Would I feel emotionally isolated by incontinence if I knew some of the people I work with experience it too? 

 

This cover story was first published in Bridge magazine. Subscribe to Bridge online.

 

2. You are not responsible for the things you cannot control 

Anja with Greg Ryan at the 2019 National Conference on Incontinence where she presented.
Anja with Greg Ryan at the 2019 National Conference on Incontinence where she presented

I know this phrase gets thrown around a lot, but it feels very true when applied to incontinence. 

I used to feel like it was my fault when I would have an accident. I experienced guilt and frustration for things I missed out on because I was glued to the toilet. I remember missing out on my friends’ 18th birthdays because I couldn’t get my bowels under control. 

When I truly processed that I could not control my accidents and I would never be able to, I realised that sometimes incontinence just is what it is. 

Ask yourself: If someone crashed into your car while you were parked, would you blame yourself? 

3. Incontinence does not make you unlovable or undesirable. It makes you human 

Get up, go into the bathroom. Not to the toilet (unless you need to!) but  to the mirror. Stand in front of it and speak that point to yourself – out loud – 10 times in a row. Even write it on the mirror. There is no explanation for this. You have to grow to believe it yourself. 

Ask yourself: If your friend didn’t make it to the bathroom in time would you love them any less? 

4. You cannot expect to break the stigma around incontinence if you still believe in it 

What is stigma? 

Bad or negative beliefs and attitudes about things, including some health conditions. These beliefs are common in society and stop people from getting help. 

For too long, I would speak with my inner circle of friends about how important it is to stop the stigma about incontinence. I was truly passionate about the cause and could happily speak up for others.  

However, I didn’t allow myself the same kindness. I still believed incontinence was an embarrassing condition and wouldn’t tell anyone about my accidents, unless I really trusted them. These two things didn’t match up – if I believed there should not be stigma, then why did I continue to stigmatise myself? 

I learnt that before I could even try and stop the stigma, I had to first stop believing it myself. I 

had to accept myself, accept my incontinence, and then let go of any concerns about “what would people think?!” If someone is cruel enough to make fun of a medical condition, it says more about their character than yours or mine. 

Take what speaks to you. You do not need to ‘come out of the closet’ like I have, but life is too short to spend it feeling horrible about your incontinence. 

Head to Anja’s website vacterl.com.au for more about her journey and book. 

This story was first published in Bridge Magazine. Subscribe and receive Bridge straight to your inbox. 
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