Loved one or friend have IBD? Read this before the holidays

The holiday season is upon us and with that comes family gatherings, social outings, and more food than anyone can handle. As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease more than 14 years ago, the holidays can still be complicated and stressful at times.

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Christmas 2013 with my family

If you’re reading this—and you have a family member or a friend with IBD, you’re in the right place. Chances are you may struggle with how to be supportive, knowing what to say, and how to navigate IBD. I’m here to help so that this truly can be the best time of the year, for everyone involved.

Here are my top 10 tips for making that possible:

  1. Start the conversation. Stop making IBD the elephant in the room. It can be more hurtful if you only see family or friends a couple times a year and if no one asks how you are feeling. Three words—is all it takes— “How’s your Crohn’s?” Ask questions and genuinely listen to our answers. Your empathy means more than you know. This puts the onus on the person with IBD, and allows us to disclose what we’re comfortable sharing, while knowing that you care. When people don’t ask, it seems as if they don’t care. I find this to be especially true as a patient advocate and blogger. So much of my presence and identity is talking about my life with Crohn’s, that when people don’t ask, it hurts more now than it used to. With the growing online social media discussion, I’m sure many people in our community can relate to this.
  1. Leave the neighborhood watch party for criminals in the streets. Chances are Aunt Joan came across a diet “cure” for Crohn’s while perusing through Facebook last month. Insert eye roll. Don’t question the food we put on our plates or ask if that’s going to “hurt our stomachs”. element5-digital-XQ5QWR8eZ5I-unsplashWe know our bodies, we know our triggers, and we are the ones who are ultimately going to have to pay if symptoms arise. Comments like “Oh, I didn’t think you could eat that?” or “Isn’t that going to land you in the bathroom?” are completely unnecessary. Focus on passing that side dish of mashed potatoes rather than giving us the side eye at the dinner table.
  1. Be flexible. The unpredictability of IBD—whether it’s feeling too fatigued to shower, lying in pain on the couch or holed up in a bathroom when you’re supposed to be getting ready or making a side dish, can cause us to be late for social gatherings. If a family member is tardy to the party or needs to leave earlier than expected, please don’t give them grief. Chances are they had to muster up a great deal of strength to get out of bed, get dressed, and put on their happy face, even if they are struggling on the inside. Practice grace and patience and remember how easy it is for us to mask pain with a smile.
  1. Don’t be offended if we bring our own food or don’t eat much. Oftentimes if we’re symptomatic or in the middle of a flare we are nauseous and eating feels too risky. It’s nothing against the way you make the family favorites. Trust we would eat everything if we could. kelsey-chance-ZrhtQyGFG6s-unsplashBringing “safe” foods or eating ahead of time at home provides comfort and allows us to enjoy more of the party. Please don’t take offense if we eat very little, or nothing at all.
  1. Please don’t make us feel like a spectacle. Chances are while at a social gathering, we’re going to need to break away to use the bathroom. If we need to go upstairs to use your bathroom, please don’t be offended or draw attention to us when we leave the table or return. We’re not trying to be rude; we’re already embarrassed and don’t want to deal with the anxiety of hogging the bathroom or smelling up the house as people socialize.
  1. We have doctors. Thanks to social media and Google, many seem to think they have the background of a MD. Please don’t try and teach us about a way we can “heal with food” that worked for your neighbor. Please don’t downplay or compare IBD to a stomach bug your toddler had. mona-masoumi-6dgpbvuAEpA-unsplashPlease trust we know the side effects of the medications we are on; we know the risks of the surgery we may have to get; we know it all. Please don’t tell us to start taking a supplement you found online. Yes, we’ve heard of: CBD oil, turmeric, probiotics, the list goes on. Please don’t question the safety of our biologic. Our disease is our reality. Unless you live it, it’s not yours.
  1. While IBD is invisible, oftentimes it’s not. If a loved one is on steroids, trust me they are incredibly self-conscious about their appearance. The temporary chipmunk cheeks (are not cute), the acne that makes you feel like a teenager (is nothing to kid about), the sudden influx in weight (is nothing to comment on). The same goes for someone who looks like they’ve dropped a lot of weight. When you have IBD, weight fluctuations happen all the time. It’s not a good thing. It’s because we’re malabsorbing nutrients or in the thick of a flare. If you notice these outward differences in us, please keep the thoughts to yourself unless you know we are purposefully trying to lose or gain weight. Don’t pressure us to be in photos if we seem hesitant. Know that we are aware of the changes and struggle with them daily.
  1. Don’t push the booze. brooke-lark-HjWzkqW1dgI-unsplashJust as with food, everyone with IBD responds differently to alcohol. We understand a glass of wine here or a beer there at a celebration may not seem like a big deal, but one drink can be enough to cause us extreme abdominal pain. Feel free to ask us, but if we decline the offer please don’t pester us, ask us if we’re pregnant, or try and make us succumb to peer pressure. We’d much rather be sober and present at the party without pain.
  1. Use us as a resource. Have a family member, friend, or co-worker of yours recently diagnosed with IBD? Let us know! Use us as a sounding board. I always love having the opportunity to use my patient journey and experience to bring hope and inspiration to others. Connect us with people in your life who we can support and help. The IBD family is incredibly welcoming and uplifting. By sharing this mutual connection, you can possibly change someone’s patient journey for the better.
  1. You play an integral role in our overall well-being. You bring us normalcy. You have the ability to distract us from our isolating illness.
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    With my (now) husband, New Years Day 2014. I was very sick at this family party. You would never know it by looking at this photo.

    If someone close to you has IBD and they aren’t opening up or wanting to talk about it, don’t push them. We all handle the disease differently, and chances are in time, when the moments right, they will take down their walls. In the meantime, make it known you are present and there to offer support and encouragement every step of the way—and leave it at that. The simple act of knowing who we can count on and trust makes all the difference. Thank you for walking alongside us on this unpredictable and challenging journey and for seeing us as so much more than our disease. For that we are eternally thankful.

How motherhood has helped me discover I’m so much more than my IBD

We walked out of the automatic rotating doors of the hospital and the cold air hit my face. I looked up to the sky in thanks, to show my gratitude and to take in the moment. We had our baby girl in tow, our Sophia Shea. img_5915It was a brisk January morning. Tears filled my eyes as I was overcome with emotion. Our rainbow baby is here, safe and sound. Another pregnancy behind me, a pregnancy that silenced my Crohn’s disease and provided sweet reprieve from my chronic illness. It was time to take Sophia home and start our life as a family of four.

When your health is taken from you and when you receive a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease, life prior to illness often feels like a distant memory. There’s something so sacred and so special about bringing a healthy life into this world, despite your own shortcomings.

My Sophia, much like my sweet son Reid, are my inspiration and motivation to push through the difficult days and find strength and perspective within myself. The creation of their lives has renewed my faith in my own body. img_5886Each time I have a procedure or deal with painful symptoms, I see their faces, I say their names in my head, and it brings me a sense of calm. My goal when Reid was born, was to stay out of the hospital until he could walk, luckily that’s been the case. He’ll be two in March. Now, I have that same goal following the arrival of my daughter.

Pregnancy and child birth bring about such an amazing, miraculous transformation. You see life created right before your eyes. You experience a shift in your own identity. There’s nothing like it. There are no words to capture the emotions and the overwhelming love you feel for your children.

Finding the balance: Motherhood and IBD

17-untitled-9166Motherhood and IBD can be a difficult and challenging balance. Some days the fatigue and symptoms are so debilitating you feel like you’re falling short. At the same time, the days where you’re feeling well, remind you that you are so much more than your disease. Just because you have a chronic illness, doesn’t mean you are robbed of experiencing the beauty of life and what it feels like to have your very own family.

Women often reach out to me with questions regarding fertility, conceiving, pregnancy and what it’s like to take on parenting while battling IBD. There are so many unknowns. I know it can be daunting. img_5751It all starts with recognizing where you are in your patient journey and then determining when your symptoms and body are in the best shape to get pregnant. While everyone’s disease experience is different—the worries, concerns and fears associated with parenting and chronic illness are often the same. Always know you are never alone. Communicating these feelings with those around you, makes all the difference. Lean on our patient community and all those who’ve lived your reality.

I treated my pregnancies the same. I had colonoscopies prior to trying, to ensure I did not have active disease. Once I received that green light, I discussed my game plan with my OB, high risk OB and my GI and had monthly and sometimes weekly appointments. Each time—I stayed on my medication and vitamins from start to finish, which includes the biologic drug, Humira. I had scheduled c-sections for both. It’s all about finding what works for you, what brings you comfort as you embark on this journey and being confident in your decisions. It’s your body. It’s your baby.

29-untitled-9292When Sophia Shea entered the world January 14, 2019, our family received a wonderful gift. Between our son Reid and our baby girl, we could not be more blessed. My chronic illness has given me such an appreciation for health and for life in general. With the pregnancies behind me, I often reflect on where I started back at age 21 in 2005. At that time, in my eyes, I was Natalie and I had Crohn’s disease. There was no telling what my future would hold. Now, nearly 14 years later, at age 35, I’m so much more. I’m a mom to two under two. I’m a wife. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m an aunt. I’m a friend. And I also have Crohn’s.

 

An ode to Dads: A letter from a father of four with IBD

I’d like to give a shout out to all the dads out there who have inflammatory bowel disease, yet persistently persevere to make life happen. christian3  

I have been dealing with UC/Crohn’s for 18 years now, and in that time, I have had seven surgeries, countless procedures, two near death experiences, my colon removed, a j-pouch, my ego scared, and my relationship with God strengthened.  I’ve tried every prescription drug, had every side effect, and continue to fight the good fight on a daily basis. christianI’ve also been blessed with a beautiful wife and life partner, as well as four amazing children (10, 7, 3, and 9 months). This takes an already difficult situation, and adds more “life” responsibility as well.  

You see, as a father, you place the needs of your family and children above your own.  A father doesn’t really get a day off. And when you’re dealing with health issues that can cause daily battles, it’s easy to find yourself in a place of self-pity, weakness, or doubt.  That’s why I’m absolutely amazed to see the strength of all the dads out there that can deal with this struggle, but continue to be a dad first, push through, and ensure that “life” still happens. You see, Crohn’s doesn’t mean you can miss baseball practice, the soccer game, the anniversary dinner, or just “life” in general. Life will go on with or without you, so all those with chronic illness are heroes in my mind.   In fact, being a father of four has been the most motivating and rewarding things we could have done as a family. christian2

I can remember when I was recovering from one of my more recent surgeries, my family came in to visit me in the hospital.  Like most fathers, I felt the need to provide for my family, get back to work, I just had to get going. I just didn’t have time for this!  There are MORE than enough reasons for everyone impacted by IBD to feel defeated, want to give up, or take an easy route. My family is a CONSTANT motivation for me to keep going and keep fighting the fight. I cannot and will not let them down. I think most fathers feel that way. We are here to help shape our children, and ultimately provide the ability to learn, have fun, be kids, and eventually mold them into productive members of society.  It’s a tall order for us all, but I think men with IBD have learned to be persistent with their health battles, and that also helps us to persevere through the trials and tribulations of fatherhood.

So today and every day, I commend all of those fathers who refuse to let their disease dictate their life.christian4 Take the time to get to know a father with IBD, and you will meet one of the most courageous strong willed people in the community. As a man, we can sometimes let ourselves down because as an individual, it just impacts me. But as a father, that is not an option.  We must persist, have faith, and fight the fights every single day, so that we can continue to mold and shape our children, and provide support and guidance for our families that mean absolutely everything to us.  

We are motivated, we are strong, and we have IBD.  Above everything else though, we are blessed to be a father, and if lucky enough, a dad.