I recently met a 15-year-old girl who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Like many parents of teens newly diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, her mom reached out to me for words of advice and comfort. It’s not too often that upon learning this news and connecting with families that I get to meet both the parent and teen in the same room, at the same time.
Maybe this can be chalked up to pregnancy hormones. Maybe it was because my heart hurt for her. It was probably both. But, I kept getting emotional looking at her and talking to her. My eyes welled up with tears because without her saying a word, I felt and could see her pain. In that moment, I felt like I had time traveled back to the first few months of my diagnosis.
I felt the loneliness and isolation she was feeling, even though she was in a roomful of people. I watched as we ate dinner and she quietly sauntered in the hallway, behind the kitchen table to make her way to the bathroom…more than six times in less than an hour. I listened as people questioned why she wasn’t eating…and told her to get ready for dessert. Her mom telling us as she was in the bathroom that she’d dropped four pounds in the last week and only had an Ensure to drink that day. I told everyone to stop talking about food and allow her to come into the kitchen when she felt ready. I remember all too well how it feels when people are watching you like a hawk, questioning every morsel you put down your throat. Food and the relationship we have with it while taking on IBD and navigating familial relationships and friendships can feel like psychological warfare.
She pulled her mom to the side after she overheard her telling me about her medical issues and told her not to tell anyone. I touched her arm and with tears in my eyes, I quietly told her I’ve had Crohn’s for more than 13 years…and that I understood how she felt. I pointed to my 18-month-old running around and to my baby bump and told her that if she wanted a family in her future, it was still possible, despite her disease.
Oftentimes, it can be difficult to connect with teenagers, because they seem guarded and are private about their disease. For many, it’s still a top-secret part of who they are. I get it. I took me nearly a decade to share that I had Crohn’s disease with the world. There’s no sense in rushing anybody. We all find the time that is right. We all know when we feel strong enough physically, mentally and emotionally to open ourselves up to questions, opinions and thoughts from those around us. It’s completely normal to want to keep others (especially strangers) at arm’s length, because during those impressionable young years, you don’t want to be seen as different. You know the moment you say, “I have IBD.”… it’s truly your reality. Your identity, how people view you…it’s all forever changed.
A message for parents
Parents—I know it must be SO difficult to feel like you’re on the outside looking in at your child in debilitating pain as they deal with the burden of a lifelong disease for which there is no cure. If this is a “new” disease to you and your family, you probably feel overwhelmed by all the information on the internet, what you’re hearing from specialists and what is best for your child. Lean on people like me, who live your child’s reality. Ask us the questions. Talk to us about how it feels. Equip yourself with knowledge and understanding so you can get acclimated to life with chronic disease in your family, just as your child needs to. It’s a learning process for every person in the family. Have patience. I know it sucks. I know there are times you just feel like screaming from the tallest mountain… “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING!!!???” I know you are reminiscing back to when life seemed so simple. When health was never in question. There’s no use in romanticizing the past.
You must embrace your new normal and be a pillar of strength for your child. If they see you waver, if they see you upset and frantic, that will directly impact how they feel. Communicate with your child and see if they’d like to talk with someone else who is living with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. If not now, maybe later. The IBD family is strong, resilient and welcoming…and we’re not going anywhere.