There’s power in surrendering to your IBD. It takes time to reach that mindset and it’s something author and patient advocate Christine Rich eloquently explains in her debut book, “Chronic”. Christine reached out to me when she was doing the initial writing research and we hit it off instantaneously. There’s something magical about connecting with strangers who understand your reality. You may be thousands of miles apart, with different back stories, but the common thread of life with chronic illness makes you feel seen, understood, and like lifelong friends.
Christine, now a 41-year-old married mom of two, was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was in high school. It took time and struggle for her to truly process all she endured and reach the point where she is today.
“Many of us are taught to smile, be grateful, and make everyone else feel all comfy and cozy at the expense of our own comfort and well-being. The problem with these types of expectations is that they are lies that create loneliness and rage that eventually turn women against themselves and their potential.”
This quote really spoke to me. Having an invisible illness like Crohn’s disease, one of my biggest struggles in my 16-plus years since diagnosis has been feeling comfortable with making those around me know how uncomfortable I am in any given moment. It often feels a lot easier to just put a fake smile on and pretend you’re not in pain. But, in doing so, we are only hurting ourselves and deepening our personal struggles.
Advocate for and take care of your body
Christine’s powerful journey exemplifies all the work and personal development it takes to discover self-acceptance, grieve the loss of the former you, ask for help, and feel empowered. She speaks of the trajectory we all go on from the point of diagnosis to becoming a “veteran” patient years later. Take a moment to think of how you have personally transformed since you were told you had IBD. That transformation is one that takes a great deal of time and personal growth, but once you come out on the other side you won’t look back aside from reflecting on how far you’ve come.
“When I walked in for my outpatient procedure that warm July morning, I was arrogant, afraid, angry, and emotionally incompetent. When I walked out (well, wheeled out is more like it) I was humbled, vulnerable and awake in a way I had never been before in my adult life.”
This quote paints the picture of what life is like with flare ups that result in hospitalization and how we evolve through the setbacks. Often those in our lives think we’re “all healed” the moment we cross through the hospital doors, when in actuality the healing process is something, we’re constantly going and growing through.
Thinking of your body as an ally, not an enemy
One of my favorite chapters in “Chronic” is Chapter 14—The 4th F. Christine’s words and experiences really resonated with me.
“After working through the peak of my resistance, denial and rage I realized I had made an enemy out of my body for far too long. I had turned my back on her for being different. She wasn’t broken. I wasn’t broken. We were both sad and not fully aware of the other. I needed to learn how to stop fleeing and fighting my body…I needed to befriend it.”
She goes on to explain how altering her perception of the way she looks at her body and thinks about it, has shifted her entire life experience, and brought her to where she is today.
“I was faced with a choice: continue to carry this anger and self-hatred until it sunk my health, my marriage and my self completely, or decide to feel it all and acknowledge that my body is not and never was an apology, enemy or failure.”
Rather than our community thinking of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis as a villain trying to destroy it, Christine asks what if we treated our chronic illness as a small child seeking love and attention?
“What if I could make friends with my body? Love her and care for her like I do my own children.”
In my own personal experience with Crohn’s, I’ve also learned to be in-tune to the subtle signs my body is trying to communicate through symptoms. Rather than constantly shutting that communication out and trying to push it to the back of my mind, like I did in my 20’s, now, I listen closely. That voice is part of a constant inner conversation that is part of every hour of every day of my life. Even in remission—each choice, each decision I make, has my Crohn’s in mind. Because as an IBD mom of three, my disease impacts a lot more than “just” me.
“Although I would never be able to control the circumstance of my diagnosis, I could control my perception and reaction to it. I could start telling the truth. I could stop punishing myself.”
This is so important. Even though we were all powerless over receiving our diagnoses, we’re not powerless in how we choose to live life after our diagnosis. The unpredictability of the disease may make us feel like we’re constantly on edge, spiraling out of control, but by being proactive rather than reactionary and by making efforts to manage our disease on every level (physical, emotional, and mental) we set ourselves up for a much-improved quality of life. IBD doesn’t have to be the headliner of our lives, it can be more of a footnote.
There’s no fixed end point with chronic illness
Christine says her therapist tells her to go to her 17-year-old newly diagnosed self as her current 41-year-old self and hold her hand. Tell her it’s not her fault. She goes on to explain how there’s no fixed end point with chronic illness and that the collective power of patients in the IBD community must discuss the mental anguish that’s often brushed under the rug.
“For the life of me I can’t figure out why mental health screenings aren’t standard practice of care. They test and screen us for everything else. They test our blood and our stool. They examine our rectums and colons. They poke and prod us top to bottom…they examine everything but our minds.”
She calls on all of us to be “chronic truth tellers”—which I love. The more doctors hear the same message over and over again directly from patients, the better chance we have to impact change. This takes effort and a heightened sense of vulnerability on our parts, but reaps endless benefits. We can’t take care of our whole self by simply focusing on the physical manifestations of our illness.
In “Chronic” one of my favorite lines is when Christine recalls how one of her yoga teachers once said, “what we resist—persists.” In IBD terms—every time we resist telling our care team, loved ones or friends about symptoms and struggles, things will only snowball and get worse.
“In order to advocate for ourselves we must also be chronically curious about ourselves. Being chronically curious about yourself starts with a clear understanding of what makes you feel good and whole.”
The overarching theme in this remarkable and must-read book are to keep showing up for yourself every day. Stop running away from the discomfort. Acknowledge it, explore it, and feel it—all of it—the good, the bad, the embarrassing. Christine Rich started out as a stranger on the phone with a dream of becoming an IBD patient advocate and published author. Not only did she accomplish all the above, but she did so in a way that even her personal experiences will feel like something you can relate to and grow from. As a fellow woman with IBD I stand up and give her a round of applause and a big hug for so bravely and candidly speaking the words so many before her felt too silenced and worried to share. Bravo, bravo, bravo.
Order “Chronic” on Amazon here.
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