I was putting away the dishes after dinner when I paused, exhaled, and said to my husband, “Whew. I just got a major wave of fatigue.” He said, “Yeah, I feel tired right now, too.” This isn’t the first time a healthy, able-bodied person has responded this way—and I know everyone with a chronic illness can relate. I kind of laughed and tried to explain why chronic illness fatigue wasn’t the same as feeling tired, but I was coming up short for words and having difficulty explaining the difference. My husband, Bobby, genuinely wanted to know why I thought my fatigue was different than his and how I knew it was. I said I used to be healthy. I used to not have a chronic illness. I know what tired felt like then and what fatigue feels like now.
Articulating pain with IBD and fatigue can be so challenging—even though it’s something that is so much a part of our day-to-day experience. Unless you live it and it’s your reality, it’s difficult to put the experience into words.
I called upon the IBD family on Twitter and Instagram to see how they describe their own personal fatigue. Here are some of the responses:
“Imagine your car being on empty and you put $5 worth of gas in the tank until you’re running on fumes. Then you put $5 worth of gas again, and you continue this process for months at a time…while sometimes running out of gas completely multiple times along the way.”
“Having to run a consistent marathon without stopping while carrying a toddler in the front and a backpack with a week’s worth of supplies on your back…in flats.”
“Mentally feeling like you have the energy to do simple tasks, but your body physically won’t let you. Knowing I need to walk 100 feet to get in my work building and having to give myself a pep talk to do it because I’m not sure I’ll make it without having to sit down.”
“You’re tired from being tired. You are just over everything and the day drags on and on. A nap doesn’t help because you “waste” your day, but the truth is you can’t even take a shower because the thought is way too much energy.”
“Like you’re walking with ankle and wrist weights on 24/7. There are days I feel like I’m walking through a fog so dense in my head I can touch it.”
“When I think of chronic fatigue for me it means faking being well. When getting out of bed or getting a shower is an accomplishment or needing to rest after taking a shower. No matter how much sleep you get you still wake up tired. Chronic illness fatigue is physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.”
“Trying to motivate yourself when you’re fatigued and having brain fog is how I imagine swimming in syrup or molasses would be.”
“It’s the feeling of exhaustion, hopelessness, and loss. You’re beaten down from managing your condition and the various negative side effects that come with it on top of trying to function in whatever role you’re trying to play on a daily basis (for me: wife, mother, employee, and friend). It’s trying to make the most out of life but knowing you’re limited. It’s mourning the person you once were and want to be at that time. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally draining.”
“I explained the fatigue to my students that just thinking about lifting my legs to walk or the mechanics of moving my limbs is exhausting…let alone the act of doing it. Everything feels heavy.”
“Down to the bone, exhaustion in my core, something that is impossible to push through.”
“I like it’s like first trimester fatigue! But, with no end in sight and nothing hopeful to show for the symptoms like a baby!”
“Like your body is made of bricks. Your mind knows you need to get up and do something—change over the laundry, send an email, but your mind cannot make your body move.”
“Living in a constant state of exhaustion. No amount of sleep or rest seems to shake it.”
“For me…I would describe chronic illness fatigue as KNOWING your car has no more fuel and having to get out and push it home yourself.”
“Heaviness in my body. Just surviving, not thriving. Frustrating because I want to do more things but can’t always.”
“Being tired as soon as you wake up, until you go to bed. Never fully feeling rested. Planning naps throughout a day. Heavy eyes. Mood swing when beyond exhausted.”
“Like constantly living under 10x gravity.”
“Like someone pulled the plug out.”
“Like moving through the mud. It can also creep up on you when you least expect it, sort of like this year’s global pandemic—all encompassing and has no sympathy.”
“Like I’m wearing 100 pounds worth of sandbags that don’t go away even when I get lots of sleep.”
“Waking up and still being tired. No amount of coffee can fix this tired.”
Stop the comparison game
After reading these descriptions, my hope is that the next time you try and compare your fatigue or tiredness to someone with a chronic illness you pause and be selective of your words. Of course, everyone is entitled to be and feel tired, but it’s not an even playing field energy-wise when you’re a healthy, able-bodied person. Coffee, naps, and sleeping in help most of the population feel energized and re-charged, but fatigue with chronic illness is often untouchable. A full night’s rest can still leave you feeling exhausted. A coffee may have no impact. A nap may cause the fatigue to be even more pronounced. As an IBD mom, it can be frustrating to hear someone without a chronic illness try and diminish my personal struggles by equating them to theirs when there is truly no comparison.
Halloween is extra scary this year for all the wrong reasons. It’s especially challenging for children with IBD who are immunocompromised. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s I share input and advice from several gastroenterologists about everything from trick-or-treating to flu season, along with the game plan four IBD families have in place for the holiday. Much like anything with this pandemic, we’re trying to do the best we can to live, while also staying safe.
As an IBD mom myself, I’m still conflicted about how best to celebrate Halloween with my kids this year. We have their costumes, and the house is decorated festively, but I’m extremely hesitant to allow my 3.5-year-old son to get candy from strangers in the middle of a pandemic. Our game plan is to hang out with my sister-in-law’s family as we do every year. I’ve been inspired by how fellow IBD families are creatively adapting and making adjustments to celebrate. I think you will be, too.
Nicole’s daughter Addy is 15 and has Crohn’s disease. She’s on Humira. Nicole said her family already had a little “pow wow” to discuss Halloween and how it was going to be this year. They’ve decided to celebrate over the span of two days by doing the following:
Making Halloween Gingerbread houses
Decorating Halloween Cookies
Having a glow in the dark scavenger hunt (The lights in the house will be out, the kids will have glow sticks/flashlights and they will have to use clues to find their bags of Halloween décor. With the bags of décor, each child will create a mini haunted house in their bedroom and go “trick or treating” to the different bedrooms and experience their siblings’ haunted house.
On Halloween night Nicole is going to make a Halloween-themed dinner
The family will watch Blair Witch Project
Nicole says being immunocompromised through COVID has been incredibly challenging for her daughter. She says they are trying to balance everything so that Addy doesn’t fully resent her disease.
“She sees that her friends are hanging out together, not social distancing, and not getting sick. We have had many moments filled with tears and frustration and we are doing the best we can to try and offer social interactions in the safest ways. But, she is a teen…and the efforts are hardly enough. Halloween this year is something my kids are all excited about, but it’s the day-to-day stuff that is most challenging through the pandemic.”
Ebony’s 14-year-old son, Jamar, is on Remicade infusions to manage his Crohn’s disease. Jamar was diagnosed with IBD when he was nine. He’s now a freshman in high school and attending school daily in-person for half a day with the hopes of making the basketball team.
“Even though Jamar is attending school, we decided as a family that we are not going to do anything for Halloween this year. We also plan to celebrate the holidays at home, to keep on the safe side. Since he was diagnosed with IBD and expressed sadness that he didn’t understand why he had to have this illness, I’ve explained to him that we’ll get through this together and that I’ll always support him—and that hasn’t changed through this pandemic,” said Ebony.
Paulina’s nine-year-old son, Grayson, also has Crohn’s. He’s on Pentasa, Entocort, and Omeprazole to manage it. She says her family plans to dress up in costumes as usual. Grayson is going to be Bowser from Super Mario Brothers. They have tickets for a drive through Halloween event at the community center by their home in California. Paulina says even though they have to stay in the car this year, Grayson and his sister are still excited to see all the decorations and participate in the scavenger hunt.
“We also plan on faux trick or treating, where we still go out and walk around our neighborhood and enjoy spotting cool decorations, BUT I will bring a bag of goodies and little prizes. For every few houses we walk by, they’ll get a surprise goodie put into their bag. Grayson will be able to go through his “loot” once we’re back home. I’m sure we’ll watch Nightmare Before Christmas (it’s a family favorite). Halloween falls on a Saturday and on a full moon…how could we possibly miss the nightly walk?”
Paulina says Grayson often feels frustrated when the topic of “being immunocompromised” comes up, but that he understands they are being overly cautious for his own health and that of others.
Cindy’s 10-year-old daughter, Jean, has Crohn’s disease and is on weekly Humira injections. She says Jean is in that interesting phase of childhood where she still kind of wants to go trick-or-treating, but also feels like she’s outgrowing it or too cool for that. This year, Jean is going to attend a small outdoor get-together on Halloween night with four classmates. It’s important to note—Jean has been attending 5th grade—in-person, five days a week since August.
“The kids will make s’mores and pizza and watch a spooky kid movie on an outdoor screen. Because she and her friends are in the same classroom “pod” and she spends more waking hours with these classmates than she does in our own home, we are accepting of her celebrating with them.”
Cindy says Jean’s friends and their families have been extremely accommodating to her immunocompromised status throughout the pandemic.
“When she has visited their homes or on limited occasions shared a carpool, these families have been careful to pursue a combination of exclusive outdoor time, mask-wearing, windows down on car rides, pre-packaged or restaurant carry-out snacks and meals, and having freshly cleaned bathrooms dedicated for guests’ use. Other parents proactively talk through risk mitigation and I couldn’t appreciate them more for their thoughtfulness. Immunocompromised or not, we all share similar concerns during COVID.”
Cindy went on to say she thinks Jean will trick-or-treat with her five-year-old brother at a few of their next door neighbors’ houses. They live in Indianapolis and trick-or-treating is “not recommended” by the county health department there, but she expects many of her neighbors will still be handing out candy.
“I also intend to hand out candy from our driveway, so long as trick or treaters or their parents are wearing face masks. This follows our family’s general approach on life during COVID: we are more concerned about “shared air” than we are about surfaces. We believe (and science indicates) surface infection can be largely addressed through handwashing. Because trick or treating can occur in outdoor spaces, we feel somewhat comfortable with that – balanced with the fact that while we are extremely concerned about COVID and have taken all precautions since March – we strive for an ounce of normalcy. There are enough parts of Jean’s life that are not typical due to living with Crohn’s Disease – whenever we can control any part of her life feeling “normal” we make every effort to do so. This was the case before COVID and will remain so afterward.”
Cindy says she reminds her daughter they are doing everything they can to protect her health, while also doing their best to ensure Jean can pursue all the parts of her life that bring her joy. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk, and as an adult with IBD, my hat truly goes off to parents trying to navigate these unforeseen times for their children.
What Gastroenterologists are recommending for Halloween and beyond
Dr Miguel Regueiro, M.D., Chair, Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition, at the Cleveland Clinic says he thinks it’s important for people to “live” and be with family and friends. He has a few tips and tricks (or treats!). (His joke, I can’t take credit!)
“For outside events or walking the neighborhood, this is probably the safest as we are learning that open air events are the least likely for transmission of COVID. At the same time, I would still practice wearing masks, social distancing, and practicing good handwashing. Avoid personal contact, shaking hands, hugging, etc.”
For those distributing candy, Dr. Regueiro says it would be prudent to wear gloves (nitrile gloves or similar) to avoid directly touching the candy. Out of abundance of caution, he said it would be reasonable to also wear gloves to unwrap the candy.
“Regarding trick or treating in malls or confined spaces, this would be less optimal than open air. Masks, social distancing, and hand hygiene is a must. Parties or gatherings in houses should follow the guidance of local health advice. Some parts of the country may have a much lower rate of COVID. Overall, though, I would avoid close gatherings in enclosed spaces, which means avoiding these parties, especially if immunocompromised.”
Dr. Regueiro wants to mention that the IBD Secure Registry is finding that IBD patients on immunosuppressive agents/biologics are NOT at increased risk of contracting COVID. He says while this news can be comforting, it may also be that those with IBD on these types of medications have been extra cautious.
“Everyone should get the flu shot. Getting influenza may mimic symptoms of COVID, and influenza is also a very serious virus. We think getting influenza and COVID could be even more dangerous. Getting plenty of sleep, staying well hydrated, eating healthy, and exercising are also important for the immune system and health. Don’t let yourself get run down.”
Dr. Anil Balani, M.D., Director, Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program for Capital Health Center for Digestive Health in New Jersey does not recommend indoor Halloween parties either, even if kids and parents are wearing masks (whether it’s part of the costume or a regular mask).
“With indoor settings it is hard to control the ventilation settings which could potentially increase the risk of airborne transmission, and furthermore many kids may find it difficult to breath indoors with a mask on.”
Dr. Balani says trick or treating, if it’s limited to outside, is probably ok. Although kids should wear masks when doing so.
“Children can trick or treat with their parents or siblings instead of a group of large friends, unless they are with a small group of friends that are in their “pods,” or groups of friends whose parents have been very careful with all COVID related precautions the entire time. Parents of immune compromised kids can also pick up the treats for the kids.”
Along with maintaining proper handwashing and social distancing precautions, Dr. Balani advises everyone to get the flu shot, unless there are medical contradictions. He recommends taking a healthy dose of vitamins including Vitamin C and zinc and continue to stay on top of all your IBD medical care to keep your disease managed and under control the best you can.
“The SECURE-IBD registry has shown us that people who are in the midst of an IBD flare are at high risk for complications from COVID should they contract the virus. On the other hand, if one is in remission, they are likely to have a better outcome from the virus, regardless of which IBD medical therapy they are on.”
When it comes to celebrating Halloween with his own family Dr. Balani and his wife have a few tricks up their sleeves. Instead of typical door to door trick or treating, they plan to set up an outdoor movie night with Halloween-themed movies, have an outdoor candy/treat hung similar to an Easter egg hunt with family and/or a close knit group of friends, host an outdoor pumpkin carving party, and have a backyard costume/glow dance party.
And don’t feel like you need to throw out your kids’ Halloween candy! Studies suggest that the SARS-COV2 virus may not be infectious on surfaces for too long. If there are doubts or concerns, Dr. Balani recommends leaving the candy out for a few days to allow any virus particles to die. Parents can also open the wrappers for their kids.
Dr. Maria Oliva-Hemker, M.D., Director, Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at Johns Hopkins suggests for families to look for other creative ways of celebrating Halloween this year, regardless of whether a child has IBD or not.
Virtual costume parties
Halloween movie or craft night
Making special Halloween-themed treats at home
Outdoor costume parades where physical distancing is possible
Checking to see if the local zoo or other outdoor venues in the area are sponsoring a safe, community event, following social distance guidelines.
“Those who hand out treats on Halloween will hopefully wear face coverings and model safe behaviors. If you are trick or treating, consider going to a smaller number of homes compared to past years,” said Dr. Oliva-Hemker.
Prior to making Halloween plans, Dr. Oliva-Hemker says families should be aware of the levels of COVID cases in their communities, as well as where their family members are coming from.
“For example, if they are coming in, or coming from a hot zone, they may want to consider holding a virtual event or be absolutely sure that they follow known guidelines for safety (masks, handwashing, physical distancing).”
She also says she can’t stress enough that this virus can be controlled in our society—other countries have been able to get a handle on things by people following public health guidelines.
“The virus does not know your political, religious or other affiliation—as a physician my hope is that our country pays more attention to what reputable scientists and public health experts are telling us. Taking care of this virus will also get the country back on track economically.”
Handling Halloween When You’re an Immunocompromised Parent
Mom (and dad!) guilt throughout this pandemic has reared its ugly head a few times especially if you live with a chronic illness and are immunocompromised. The last thing I want is for my kids to miss out on fun and experiences because of my health condition.
Dr. Harry Thomas, M.D., Austin Gastroenterology, says, “For parents with IBD, taking children trick-or-treating outdoors – while maintaining social distance, wearing face coverings, using hand sanitizer, and avoiding large gatherings – is, in my opinion, a reasonable option, provided they are not on steroids. However, I would recommend avoiding indoor gatherings, especially without masks, given the rising case numbers in many areas now.”
Along with receiving the flu shot, Dr. Thomas recommends IBD parents to talk with their IBD provider about the two pneumococcal (pneumonia) vaccines, Pneumovax and Prevnar 13.
Navigating the upcoming holiday season in November and December
Halloween is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the holiday season. There’s no doubt this will be an extremely hard time for us all.
“This is normally a time to celebrate with friends and family. But with the COVID pandemic, unfortunately things cannot be the same. This will be especially difficult for those of us living in the cooler climates where the tendency is to go indoors. For any potential indoor gatherings, it would be ideal to limit the number of people to allow safe social distancing. I would encourage families that are planning on staying together multiple days to consider getting tested for COVID before getting together,” said Dr. Balani.
Ted Fleming of Calgarygave up alcohol more than a decade ago to keep his IBD symptoms and disease activity under control. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005, at age 25. Ted says he not only missed the taste of beer, but discovering new beers. Even more than that, he found he missed the social connection that comes with sharing a drink with a colleague after a hard day’s work, cracking a beer with the guys after hockey, and joining in to celebrate special occasions.
A friend suggested he try non-alcoholic beer. Ted says the problem is most tasted awful and there was almost nothing on the market in terms of variety. It was at that point Ted decided to launch Partake Brewing. His hope—to bring all things that make craft beer great to non-alcoholic beer drinkers including taste, variety, authenticity, creativity, and passion. Now 42, Ted, is a shining example of someone whose career path evolved because of and was inspired by his IBD.
I was intrigued by his patient journey and how he got to where he is today. Here’s his Lights, Camera, Crohn’s interview:
NH:How has your patient journey with Crohn’s disease the last 15-plus years helped you create a successful business?
TF: “The discipline around my own personal health has helped me as a business owner to set priorities and largely keep to those priorities. There are many distractions and potential paths to go down as an early stage business so planning and having the discipline to stick to the plan over the long-haul are critically important.”
NH:How do you manage your IBD (medication/lifestyle wise)?
TF: “Regular exercise, medication (Humira), dietary changes (limited red meat, no uncooked veggies, no alcohol), get enough sleep, and be social.”
NH:What advice do you have for those who are worried about finding a career path they’re passionate about while juggling their IBD?
TF: “I am fortunate to have had some long periods of remission, but early on I struggled and that impacted my journey to find a career that was rewarding in ways important to me. Being willing to try new things is a good way to test interests, but with IBD, we don’t always feel up to it… so knowing when to say no and being ok with that is a necessary skill that takes practice.”
NH: How do you navigate the stress associated with running a business and managing your Crohn’s?
TF: “Managing stress has been an important part of my journey and I find that when I do start to have trouble with my Crohn’s, stress is usually one of the triggers. We each manage stress differently so finding what works best for you is important and integrating regular stress relief and stress avoidance into your daily routine can pay huge dividends. Besides avoiding alcohol, I have adopted better sleeping habits, exercise regularly, plan to socialize directly with people, and largely refrain from using social media.”
NH: What type of feedback have you received from customers? Any IBD folks reach out and thank you for creating this?
TF: “We are so lucky to have some of the best fans in the world, our consumers are incredibly passionate about our beer and our mission. We get emails regularly from consumers from all walks of life who are grateful to have the opportunity to enjoy a great beer no matter what their reason for partaking. The IBD community has really rallied around us and I am incredibly grateful and humbled by their outpouring of support. It was this feedback, particularly in the early stages of the business, that helped us push through the inevitable challenges of running a startup and to this day gives us a powerful purpose.”
NH: What sets your non-alcoholic beer apart from the rest?
TF: “Partake Brewing’s beer is crafted with international award-winning recipes, is incredibly delicious, and is only 10-30 calories per can. Our beer is also brewed with four simple ingredients but is packed full of flavor. When I started Partake Brewing, I wanted to not only brew a great beer but I also wanted to bring a variety of great beers to the non-alcoholic market so anyone can Partake on their own terms.”
NH:How/where can people get their hands on Partake?
TF: “You can find Partake Brewing on shelves across Canada and the USA, but you can also have it delivered straight to your door from DrinkPartake.com. In Canada, you can find us at major retailers such as Safeway/Sobeys, Loblaws, Atlantic Superstore, Great Canadian Superstore, and the LCBO as well as many others. In the US, we are sold at Total Wine & More and select Whole Foods.”
I remember the first time I put glasses on in fourth grade and no longer saw the world unclearly. I can still recall the first time I wore contacts sophomore year of high school and experienced how crisp life is supposed to look. Prior to glasses and corrective lenses, I thought my vision was how everyone else saw. I recently came across a discussion on Twitter by Jessica Caron (ChronicallyJess) about how you would describe your IBD journey at the beginning—in one word. One woman, Emily Morgan (@EmMorgan27) replied with the word blurry.
That response got me thinking. It’s spot on for so many reasons. Take yourself back in time to the first week you were diagnosed with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis and the clarity you’ve gained and continue to gain with each year that passes.
When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in July 2005 at age 21, I remember sitting almost stoically in my hospital bed because I was so overwhelmed by not only what the next day or week would bring, but the next hour. All my plans, all my goals, all my dreams that were once crystal clear became incredibly hazy. The thought of thinking beyond that moment almost made me feel dizzy with dread.
What does this new world of chronic illness look like?
What would be possible with IBD? Who am I now? How has my identity shifted? Where do I go from here? What will my friends think? What will future employers think? What’s it like to be on medication for the rest of my life? Will anyone ever love me? The list goes on. The vision that I had the first 21 years of my life was forever tainted.
But as the years rolled by, I came to realize the rose-colored glasses I wore prior to diagnosis didn’t give me that clear of a reality about not only my own life, but those around me. Prior to Crohn’s I just expected everything to go my way. Prior to Crohn’s I felt invincible. Prior to Crohn’s I didn’t think twice about my health and what a gift it was.
Now life is anything but blurry
Looking back over the past 15 years, my vision of life with Crohn’s is anything but blurry. As I grew older and more mature, this disease of mine made me see the world clearer than I had ever before. The darkest days have led me to the brightest, shining moments. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is expected, but rather overly appreciated. This disease forced me to see the strength inside myself and the resilience that I never knew existed. This disease has demanded a lot out of me and still does, but it’s enabled me to discover a newfound gratitude for life’s simplicities and provided me with superhero strength vision of who is genuinely in my life, and who is not.
It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even know if I would have been the same adult if I never got Crohn’s. My IBD is not my identity, it’s only a part of who I am. Now I credit not only my contacts, but my Crohn’s, for improving my vision.