Victoria Davies, 34, Adelaide, SA
Blinking open my eyes, I could still feel the pain in my abdomen. The last thing I remember was being wheeled in for surgery and I knew I'd come close to losing my life. Thank God I'm still here, I thought.
I had so much to live for - a supportive husband, two great sons and amazing friends. You'd never tell just by looking at me, but for most of my life I'd been hiding a painful secret.
In the core of my stomach was a constant ache of cramps and bloating. I'd been to several doctors but they weren't able to tell me what it was. So I simply learnt to put up with the discomfort, getting on with life as best as I could.
Living in England, I married my husband Colin, 41, in 1999 and we welcomed our son Mack, now 12. Two years later, I discovered I was pregnant again.
By that stage, my condition had become much worse. Curled up in agony, I'd sweat through the night and my tummy felt like it was ready to explode.
It's just the pregnancy, I told myself, trying to find a reason for my suffering. When I gave birth to another gorgeous boy, Harrison, now 10, I expected much-needed relief. But it never came. Soon I developed an infection in my mouth and started passing blood when I went the toilet.
Petrified, I consulted doctors, but they were still puzzled as to what it could be. Outside, I was the picture of good health. But inside, I knew something was terribly wrong. It took seven months of scans and tests until I had a diagnosis.
'You have ulcerative colitis,' the specialist told me, explaining that it was an inflammatory bowel disease. I had internal ulcers and the inner lining of my colon, also called the large intestine, was inflamed. That's what was causing the infections, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and bleeding.
My head spun trying to take it all in but I was also relieved to finally have an answer. Desperate to put an end to the agony, I was given steroids to help reduce the inflammation. Sadly, 18 months later, my condition hadn't improved. One morning, I woke up so crippled by pain I couldn't walk. This time, it was too much.
'I need to go to hospital,' I told Colin, through gritted teeth. He rushed me to the emergency ward where I was given more steroids and a chemotherapy drug to reduce the swelling. Still, the torture didn't stop. 'Your colon is dangerously inflamed,' the doctor warned. 'If it bursts you won't survive.'
It was so surreal. Was I about to leave my beautiful family behind? I couldn't bear the thought of our boys growing up without their mother. I begged the doctor to do whatever it took to keep me alive. But there was no time to be frightened.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, I had surgery to remove my colon. Six hours later, I thankfully woke up and even though I was on morphine, I could feel the ache in my middle. Still, I was grateful to be alive.
Looking down at my stomach, a small white plastic bag was now attached to the right side of my hip. 'That's the ileostomy bag,' the nurse said. A hole had been created in my abdomen, so waste could still leave my body and be collected in the pouch, working in place of the colon.
I'd previously been warned that I might need one some day but now it was a reality. This little bag would be by my side forever. Although it was daunting, I was relieved. It had saved my life. After three weeks in hospital, I was finally able to go home. Colin and the boys quickly learnt to give me a hand whenever we went out.
"My ileostomy bag represents my will to survive."
In the beginning, a nurse helped me change the bag but I slowly learnt to do it myself. Colin was so supportive and encouraged me to never be embarrassed. With the pouch concealed beneath my T-shirt, I never had to explain it, but I was happy to tell family and friends how it changed my life.
'If I didn't have it fitted, I wouldn't be here,' I said. In 2011, I had a permanent ileostomy bag fitted, which meant I no longer had to worry about recurring problems. Finally, after endless suffering, my future would be pain-free.
Two years later, when Colin's job gave us the opportunity to move to Australia, we were able to agree without having to worry about my condition. So we settled in Adelaide, eager to soak up the sun. But the summer heat meant I couldn't cover up like I did back home. Could I let my secret out of the bag?
At first I worried people would screw up their noses and stare, but I brushed the thought aside. I was proud of my little pouch! Heading to the beach for the first time, I slipped on my bikini and looked in the mirror. You can do this, I told myself.
When we got to the beach I settled on the sand and took a deep breath. Taking off my dress, I waited for the ogling. But no one was looking at my bag but me. Colin didn't bat an eyelid and neither did anyone else. No-one cared. I knew there was no reason to be ashamed.
From that day, I never shied away from showing it. My ileostomy bag represents my will to survive. That's why I joined the that's life! Realvolution - because I want to encourage others to feel comfortable in the skin they're in. Pulling up my T-shirt, I snapped a photo that showed off my bag and uploaded it on Facebook with my poster.
'At the age of 27 I had surgery to create an ileostomy. Well, I think my stomach rocks -scars show the battles we survive - bring on the bikini! ' I captioned the pic.
From now on, I'll always celebrate what makes me real. You should too.
This story was originally published in issue 47 - November 27, 2014.