Calling all IBD patients and caretakers, the IBD Insider Patient Education Program is this Saturday (January 30) at 11 am CT. The virtual symposium will include IBD clinicians along with patient moderators. I’m excited to share I am one of three patients who will be speaking and sharing my experience during the live event.
The discussion will include updates from the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress, and we’ll talk about the following topics:
Getting the most out of your healthcare visit
Future therapies in IBD
Holistic Approach to IBD Care
Management of IBD Care during the COVID-19 pandemic
I’ll be teaming up with Dr. Brigid Boland, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Diego to talk about the future treatment of IBD. As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s nearly 16 years ago, it’s been extremely comforting to see how many therapies have become available since 2005 and all that is on the horizon. Below is a chart that was shared during the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress that shows all the therapies currently in research and clinical trials. When I started my biologic in 2008, I had two options. With each year that passes, we get closer to a cure and get more and more options to manage our disease if our current therapies fail us.
“I love the idea of designing a program with patient advocates where we are communicating to patients and their families about the latest breakthroughs in research and patient care. There’s never enough time in visits to talk about all the research going on that will impact their care now and in the future. Ultimately, all the research and future therapies that are being studied are ways to improve patients quality of life and provide a lot of hope for everyone affected by IBD (patients, caregivers and providers),” said Dr. Boland.
As people living with a disease for which there is no cure, it’s in our best interest to stay up to date on all the latest happenings and developments. IBD can feel like a beast of a disease to be up against day after day. When you participate in learning opportunities like this that are right at the touch of your fingertips you empower yourself as you make decisions and grow through your patient journey. It’s like the education saying, “The More You Know.” As you make decisions about how you manage your Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, as you take on flares from a hospital bed, as you navigate life milestones like career and family planning, having resources like this in your arsenal of knowledge will only help you advocate for yourself and collaborate with your care team.
It’s not too late to register! Click here to sign up and can’t wait to “see” you Saturday!
If you live with chronic illness, you may often find you sugarcoat your struggles. For 26-year-old Marissa Spratley of Maryland, this is nothing new. She battles Crohn’s disease, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and interstitial cystitis. She manages her conditions with Stelara and sulfasalazine. This week she openly shares what she wishes healthy people knew about life with IBD. I’ll let her take it away.
In the chronic illness community we all know how incredibly difficult it is to have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), or any other chronic illness. We know what it feels like to get hit with a wave of fatigue so hard you have to lay down immediately. We know what it feels like when our gut is on fire from something we ate. We know what it feels like to have nausea so badly all we can do is curl up in a ball on the bathroom floor and cry. We know these things, yet when we communicate with a healthy able-bodied person, we downplay our struggles and pain.
Why are we afraid to be honest about how much pain we’re in on a daily basis? Is it because we don’t want to make others feel bad for us? Is it because we don’t want to show weakness? Or maybe it’s because we feel like by explaining how much we suffer on a regular basis, people might know the truth about us. That even though we are incredibly resilient, we live a hard life. We struggle and we cry and we ache and there are days where we wish IBD didn’t exist at all.
The truth is, hell yeah we are strong. But we are also weak, and we are tired. We are exhausted from always having to be strong in the face of pain. We are sick of having to downplay our symptoms and our suffering to make the healthy, able-bodied people around us feel less uncomfortable. We are tired of saying, “I’m good,” when someone asks how we’re doing and we really want to say “I feel like death.”
So, in the spirit of honesty and opening up to the very ableist world around us about what it’s like to live with IBD, here are four things people with IBD wish healthy people knew.
There are days when it hurts just to breathe.
No, I am not being overdramatic. Yes, IBD affects more than just your gut. There are days when we wake up and everything about us aches. The way I describe it, is that I feel like I just got hit by a bus. My whole body aches deep in my bones, and it can take me an hour just to get out of bed and stand up straight. Those days are some of the hardest because on the outside we look perfectly normal. Please remember that not all illnesses are visible to the eye.
Good intent doesn’t always mean good impact.
We know you’re just trying to help when you make suggestions about things we could do to try to feel better. But the truth is, we know our bodies better than anyone else, and trust us when we say — if there was something we could do to make us feel better, we’d do it. When you comment about things we should try (like juicing or yoga or going paleo), it makes us feel like you think we aren’t doing enough to feel better. Our healing and health are our business, and while we know you care, if we want your help or advice, we’ll ask for it. We appreciate you understanding this.
Having a chronic illness is really hard on our mental health.
IBD is hard, period. Folks with chronic illnesses not only have to struggle with our physical health, but IBD also has a huge impact on our mental health. Being chronically ill makes you question a lot about yourself — Am I a burden to those around me? Am I worthy if I can’t work? Does my chronic illness make me hard to love? It also makes you question a lot about your worth — Am I lesser than because I can’t work as long as healthy people? Will employers not want to hire me? Do I bring enough to a relationship? These are all real questions I’ve asked myself at one time or another, and I can guarantee they are things other chronically ill folks have thought about as well. The way that IBD can affect your mental health is one of the most challenging parts of being chronically ill, because it is not talked about. So, what can you do to help us with our mental health? You can remind us we are inherently worthy, no matter how “productive” we are. You can remind us that you love us for who we are in our hearts, and not what we can do with our bodies. That means more to us than we can even put into words.
Ableism affects the chronically ill, too.
Many people with IBD and chronic illnesses struggle to claim themselves as disabled, and this is something I could go on a tangent about. But here’s what you need to know: IBD affects our bodies in ways that make us less able, or disabled. The truth is, in the able-bodied centric society we live in, we believe it is offensive to call someone disabled because it means they can’t do something. However, to the actual disabled folks in our community, it is not offensive at all. We own the fact that we can’t use non-handicapped restroom stalls or walk up stairs. We are not afraid to say that there are tasks we cannot do as chronically ill, disabled individuals. It is our ableist society who thinks the term disabled is offensive. It is the ableist mindset that believes by saying someone can’t do something, we are being hurtful. Because to the chronically ill and disabled community, we know that our disabilities do not affect our worth. We know that our health does not affect our worth. But now we need you to know that, too.
To all my IBD and chronic illness folks: I see you, and I hear you. I hope that the next time you have a conversation with someone and you want to be real about how much it truly sucks sometimes, you can send them this article.
To the healthy, able-bodied folks reading this article, thank you for showing up and reading to the end. I hope you learned something new about how to better support your loved ones with IBD or chronic illness.
Connect with Marissa on Instagram: @mindbodycrohns
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.
I paid for my groceries and casually pushed my cart full of food through the automatic door when I saw it. The bathroom where I experienced one of my scariest and most painful moments. The bathroom I had to run into after pulling over on my way home from work because I was in such debilitating pain, I couldn’t handle sitting upright in my car to make it the extra five minutes home. The bathroom where I lost all feeling in my arms and legs and where my fingers locked into painful contortions. I couldn’t even hold my phone to call my boyfriend (now husband) to tell him we needed to go to the hospital. The bathroom where I unknowingly happened to call my mom after accidentally hitting “Recent Calls” with my elbow. All she heard on the other line when she answered was me screaming. She didn’t know if I was getting raped, she didn’t know what the hell was going on and she was in a different state. God was watching out for me because she was able to call Bobby and let him know I needed help and I needed help fast.
He rushed to the grocery store and whisked me out of the bathroom and straight to the hospital where I found out I had a bowel obstruction.
I’ve been going to this same grocery store for nearly seven years. It’s been nearly six years since that dramatic experience occurred. But even now, five years into remission, I always go out the other doors because seeing that bathroom is a trigger. A trigger to one of my lowest points in my patient journey with Crohn’s disease. A trigger that caused my IBD to act up right in that moment this past week.
I was forced to go out of the grocery store that way as part of COVID-19 safety procedures to keep all incoming traffic through one set of doors and all outgoing traffic to another.
Coping with psychological triggers
When those of us in the IBD community hear the word “trigger”, food usually comes to mind. We casually say “oh that’s a trigger food for me”, but we often don’t pay much attention to the physical triggers in our lives that can exacerbate our symptoms—such as locations like that grocery store bathroom, relationships with certain friends and family members, the pressure of being enough and doing enough in comparison to our peers, the list goes on.
I interviewed Dr. Tiffany Taft, PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and a fellow IBD warrior to get some clarity on this subject and to learn more about what steps we can make right now to protect our mental health and prepare for the unknown.
NH: As chronic illness patients–how can we best navigate triggers that instigate a stress response? (Other than avoidance)
Dr. Taft: “While avoidance feels like the safest option when it comes to situations that trigger our stress response, it simply kicks the can down the road in terms of the effects these situations have on our bodies. People living with chronic illness may collect multiple situations that trigger the stress response – doctor’s offices, hospitals, certain tests or treatments, making avoidance very risky if it means not managing the illness and staying healthy.
Try the “Exposure Hierarchy” exercise: Dr. Taft recommends making a list of activities or situations that are stressful, ranking them from the least stressful to the most stressful and picking 10 things. Rate those 10 things from 10 to 100 (100 being the worst). After making the list, she has patients start with number 10 and practice that task several times over the course of a week.
Before that, though, she teaches relaxation strategies such as deep breathing and grounding to help when the anxiety goes up. She says, “With repeated exposures to the feared situations and working through the anxiety, each time we do activity 10 again, it will feel easier and confidence grows. Once the patient is ready, they repeat with 20, 30, etc. until we get to the dreaded 100 which will actually feel less scary because of all the other work we did before.”
**NOTE** If you feel you have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which include vivid nightmares, flashbacks, and feeling on high alert most of the time, you should seek treatment with a trauma therapist. The good news is research on treatments for PTSD show they are just as effective when delivered via tele-medicine.
NH: Can you explain (in layman’s terms) what goes on when we’re “triggered”?
Dr. Taft: “Triggered is setting off our body’s fight-flight-freeze response, and results in a cascade of physical sensations and emotions. The most common ones are muscle tension, sweating, shallow breathing, and heart racing. Unfortunately, this response can also trigger our guts to start acting up because of the brain-gut connection. It’s a completely normal process but when you have IBD it can trigger symptoms. Your thoughts may be all over the place and littered with “what if’s” and “I can’ts”. Your mind may revisit the worst aspects of past experiences or come up with even more catastrophic possibilities in the future.”
NH: As people with IBD–I know many of us are nervous about flaring and needing to be hospitalized all alone during this pandemic, while being at greater risk for getting COVID. Do you have any advice on how to cope/mentally deal with that worry/concern?
Dr. Taft: “Facing a flare and hospitalization was stressful in the “before times” so facing this during COVID19 is an extra level of stress. While we have video chat, it does not replace the comfort of physical closeness and touch we would get from supports who could be in the hospital with us. The good news is hospitals have figured out COVID quite well and the odds of contracting it while hospitalized for IBD are lower than they were at the start of the pandemic.”
If you’re facing hospitalization, think about your resilience in these circumstances. There were probably times you felt like you couldn’t handle it, or it was never going to end or get better, but here you are today reading these words. You made it through. It may not have been pretty, it was probably incredibly hard. Anxiety has a great ability to negate our memories of how much we’ve navigated in the past.
Feeling anxious? Do this: Write down the ways you coped before, what worked and what maybe didn’t. Evaluate your thoughts about being hospitalized. Are they accurate? Are they helpful? What are some alternatives that could help you feel less anxious? If that doesn’t work, sit with the anxiety, and try some deep breathing to calm your nervous system. The sensations will likely pass and then you can retry evaluating your thinking when you aren’t feeling so keyed up.
NH: What advice do you have for people during these already complicated and challenging times when it comes to managing mental health?
Dr. Taft: “This is truly a unique time in that we are all in this COVID19 boat together. We all came into the pandemic with our own life challenges, and those probably haven’t gone away and even may have been made worse. We’re coping with a lot of information, new rules every other day, grim statistics, and people bickering over who’s right or wrong. I’ve told every patient I see to turn off the news. Get out of the comments on social media when people are arguing the same points over and over.”
Steps you can take in your day-to-day: Dr. Taft advises not to spend more than 15 minutes a day on the news, so you can stay informed but not get into the weeds. Take social media breaks, especially if your feed is full of the same tired arguments. Focus your attention on meaningful activities that align with your values. Those are what will bring you some stress relief. And those are unique to you, so no list on the internet of how to cope with COVID is going to solve everything. Sometimes these lists make us feel worse because we’re not doing most of the recommendations. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend or a beloved family member. Nobody has it figured out right now even though some people like to say they do.