Imagine having a laundry list of medical conditions, along with your IBD. For many, it’s a stark reality. In a poll I recently conducted on Instagram, 64% of our patient community responded that they live with multiple chronic illnesses. This week—we hear from several women about what it’s like to juggle IBD and more.
As someone with Crohn’s disease I learned a lot by interviewing others and hearing about their personal struggles and triumphs as they face the unknown. Whether it’s trying to pinpoint which symptoms pertain to which illness a person is living with to coordinating a care team and living through a nearly 2-year pandemic that has shed light on how the world perceives our community—it’s heavy. It can be discouraging and it’s a lot. At the same time, finally getting answers gives some people hope and a feeling of relief.
As Brooke Abbott so eloquently puts it—it can be a domino effect. She started experiencing IBD symptoms when she was 18, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2008 at age 24. Brooke also has IBS-D, Psoriasis, Ankylosing Spondylitis, trigeminal neuralgia, erythema nodosum, and asthma. Being a mom of color with multiple conditions in a world where patients are also “othered” has not been an easy journey. Finding a care team was a challenge for Brooke. She experienced unconscious bias, sexism, and racism when she was newly diagnosed. Not to mention irregular healthcare coverage.
“It reminds me of babysitting multiple children. The one screaming and crying got my initial attention. Once they were settled, I’d move on to the next child that needed my immediate attention. It’s a balancing act and I try to be as flexible with myself and give myself as much grace as possible. A breakthrough flare of one can ignite the flare of the another. Being diagnosed wasn’t the gut punch. It’s the days when my life is paused to cater to another illness after I just finished catering to another.”
Natasha Weinstein was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2004 when she was only 11. Since then, she’s been diagnosed with IBS, Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Migraines, Asthma, Carpal Tunnel syndrome, Tarsal Tunnel syndrome, Dermatagraphism, Vertigo, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Endometriosis, Pelvic Floor Dysfunction, Depression, Anxiety, OCD, and multiple vitamin deficiencies. She says juggling all these health conditions feels like a full-time job that she can never escape.
“It feels like my body is constantly falling apart. I feel like I live at the doctor, but I am grateful to be where I am today. I have an incredible job, a supportive family and understanding friends. My medically complex health has taught me resilience and strength, despite the frustrating and emotionally breaking days. Being chronically ill gives you a unique perspective on life. Add in MULTIPLE conditions and it’s a whole new ball game.”
Rocio Castrillon has been living with Crohn’s disease for 18 years. She also has Anemia, Asthma, Cataracts, Fibromyalgia, Glaucoma, Hypothyroidism, Uterine Fibroids, and Uveitis.
“Having multiple conditions is complicated particularly if one affects the other. I have learned to manage my conditions as best as possible, but my greatest fear is the flare of one of them at any given time, so I feel like I’m always waiting for something to happen. It’s extremely challenging to manage multiple providers, conditions, and medications. And they are all invisible illnesses. So, no one can “see” what I’m going through even though I may be suffering tremendously. That’s one of the hardest things for me…living a life full of chronic disease(s) in silence.”
Sarah Holleman was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome (APS) in 2018. It is also called Lupus Anticoagulant, but you don’t have to have Lupus to get it (although many people with Lupus get APS). Sarah went from being a healthy 28-year-old to having two chronic illnesses and seeing four specialists on a regular basis.
“It is utterly exhausting. Dealing with insurance, waiting rooms and doctors’ appointments is all-consuming. I had a healthy baby boy in May 2021, but going through a pregnancy with two chronic illnesses was challenging. My GI monitored my IBD symptoms, which fortunately stayed in remission. For APS, I had to switch from my oral medications to twice daily self-injections until the last few weeks when it went to three times a day.”
Trying to find balance
Laura Steiner was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2012, she also has IBS, Asthma, hidradenitis suppurativa, IBS, and a few other inflammatory skin conditions.
“It can be confusing and frustrating balancing all of the different symptoms and having all doctors on board with everything. It also sometimes limits the available treatment options because for example, Inflectra that I am on for my UC is also used to treat HS, but since I’m already on it there is not much more the dermatologist can offer me for relief. UC is the only condition that tends to really interfere with work, so that is my #1 priority to manage, the rest I can deal with and manage.”
Meredith Ditty was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 20 in 2011, she later found out she also has Primary Schlerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a liver disease that people with IBD develop. She also has Anemia, Gilbert’s Syndrome, Psoriasis, and Ovarian Cysts.
“I was so young, other people were living a normal life and I was stuck dealing with all of this. Thankfully, I had a great support system and had emotional, physical, and financial help, to get me where I am today.”
Emily Adams has Crohn’s disease and Lupus. She became symptomatic with both in 2020 at 26 years old. Her IBD has been flaring since July 2020. As you can imagine, being diagnosed during the pandemic made the process extra stressful and worrisome. Emily has been hospitalized five times in the last two years without visitors.
“Before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s and Lupus, I was very healthy. I was training to run my third half marathon and I was in my third year of teaching 5th grade science. Since getting sick I have had to stop working and I’m now on disability and I had to move in with my sister, as living alone was too difficult for me. My life went from complete independence to needing my family every day for help. Honestly, getting sick has made me more patient, empathetic, and kind. I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect because my life is a lot slower these days. I appreciate the small things because now the small things are the big things.”
Alyssa Pinkham was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2020 and was recently diagnosed with Gastroparesis and GERD. She’s dealt with anxiety issues and learning disabilities for more than a decade. She often struggles with knowing which condition is causing her abdominal pain. Alyssa credits coming to the realization that she was experiencing additional health issues to the friends she’s made through the online chronic illness community.
“It is difficult to navigate multiple chronic illnesses of the digestive system. They oftentimes have overlapping symptoms and if one condition is doing poorly, usually the others are doing poorly as well. It is also difficult having multiple gastroenterologists for the different conditions. In my case, they are on opposite sides of the state. It’s a challenge for the gastroenterologists to communicate their specific treatment plans with one another and with me so that they can provide an effective treatment plan that will put my Crohn’s and gastroparesis in remission. The lack of communication is frustrating and exacerbates my anxiety. When my anxiety isn’t being controlled it sets off my Crohn’s and gastroparesis conditions, which leads to more anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Katie Schimmelpfennig was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2011, she was 21. Then, in 2015, she was diagnosed with nodular scleritis, an inflammatory condition that impacts the white outer coating of the eye. If left untreated, it can cause vision loss.
“It’s hard having two chronic health conditions and continues to be a challenge. I started therapy about a year ago. I wish I started sooner. Talking with someone has helped me. I struggle with feeling like my body is broken. I feel like I’m letting myself (and others) down because I’m sick more times than not. The book, “This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers” by K. J. Ramsey was helpful to me. She writes about how our culture treats suffering like a problem to fix and the shame that comes with that all through a Christian point of view. It brought me comfort, understanding, and even some more acceptance for what I’m living right now. I would highly recommend checking it out.”
Feeling unsupported through the pandemic
Ableism existed long before the pandemic, but it seems that unfortunate mentality and attitude has been exacerbated since the start of these unsettling times.
Rocio explained, “While there have been many accommodations that have been made during the pandemic for the general public (i.e., curbside pickup, free delivery, etc.) I wish this had been the option for us long ago. Working from home is yet another dynamic that has allowed everyone to have the flexibility that many of us with chronic diseases need on a daily basis. It has become acceptable and more of a norm now, yet any previous requests for similar accommodations for us have always been denied or frowned upon. I’ve truly seen who supports and cares about others and who is selfish and out for themselves.”
Mo Lynn was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in October 2019, when she was 23 years old. She also has Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
“The world, the workplace, and the US health care system are not built for people like me. Throughout the pandemic, it’s been made clear to me that a lot of people find the deaths of people like me with chronic illnesses or disabilities as inevitable and meaningless. Never mind the value I bring to my family, my friends, and society. There will always be people who think that the lives of the chronically ill /disabled are meaningless.”
Katie says, “I choose to believe that most people are good and kind, doing the best they know how to do at the time. But it’s hard, really hard–especially for the chronically ill right now. I don’t want covid. I don’t want mild covid. I don’t want severe covid. I don’t want to give covid to someone else. I don’t want long covid. I know what it’s like to be sick for days, months, and years. When I personally know people who are choosing not to get vaccinated, it hurts. It makes me feel like they don’t care about me. When I see people not wearing a mask, or their nose hanging out, it makes me feel like they don’t care about me or the health of their community. So, my perspective on the world around me: we need to do better. We need to be better.”
Brooke says looking through social media at peoples’ selfishness and carelessness has made her sad and frustrated with the evolution of humanity.
“We talk a lot about community and inclusivity on our platforms, but when it’s time to perform action to ensure that all are safe and healthy, we fail to do so if it feels inconvenient for us. Watching people fail their neighbors by simply wearing a mask, stopping the spread of this highly contagious virus is just heartbreaking. It’s also frustrating to watch people waste their health by risking it for a party, or a concert or a bar night.”
Rapid Fire Chronic Illness Tips
- Having chronic illness equates to a lot of trial and error. From finding your care team to what works best to manage your health—be patient as you find what helps you get your disease(s) under control and recognize that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for you.
- Seek therapy and don’t look back. When you are constantly at battle with your body and worrying about the what if, it can be overwhelming and all-consuming. Give yourself permission to take time to put your mental well-being first.
- Keep your GI as the team lead or quarterback of your care. Let them guide the decision-making and set the stage for your care plan. Build your care team around your GI.
- Rather than focusing on remission, focus on the thing that is ailing you the most and heal that. Once that is settled, move on to the next thing.
- Try to let go of the guilt and shift your mindset about how your caregivers are sacrificing for you. Instead, think about their genuine care and concern for you despite your illness. They show up day after day because of their unconditional love for you.
- See all your doctors in the same network so they’re able to share reports and test results easily. Making information accessible to your care team takes the burden off your shoulders to play telephone and relay information back and forth.
- If you’re being dismissed or feeling unheard by your care team, remember you aren’t married to them. Find a new team. The time and effort are worth it. Ask for referrals.
- If friendships and relationships feel toxic to you, let them go. Use your medical misfortunes to your advantage. You have an innate superpower to see peoples’ true colors—if they genuinely care, if it’s a relationship of convenience or actual care, and you see who shows up and who disappears to the background.
If you’re tired of being sick and tired, please know you are not alone in feeling this way. There will be days when managing multiple health conditions are extra tough. Anger, frustration, and sadness are all normal and justified. When you live with multiple health conditions—or even *just* IBD it’s like a daily game of Jenga. One wrong move, one decision, can inadvertently cause the tower to come crashing down. It’s a fragile balancing act that comes with its fair share of setbacks and challenges but also provides a unique perspective and appreciation for life and taking on each day without taking anything for granted.