Take yourself back to the very first time you needed medical attention for your IBD (but didn’t know it yet). Close your eyes for a moment. Who was that person? Do you know them anymore? How have you changed and transformed since that life changing day?
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease July 23, 2005, at age 21. I was blindsided by a chronic illness after growing up as a literal picture of health. A three-sport, in shape athlete, who had never even had an ear infection or been to an emergency room. As a recent college graduate, my world flipped upside down as I struggled to find my way in the real world.
Now, 17 years later, I can tell you firsthand what I, you, and so many others have endured on our patient journeys and how each experience (even the mundane) serves as monumental touchpoints for gaining independence and confidence in making you a more empowered and direct patient.
Let me paint the picture clearly for you
The first time you bravely laid in an emergency room bed and every time there after—not knowing the tests, pokes and probs, and physical scrutiny you were about to go through.
How it feels to be wheeled by a stranger through stark hallways to CT scans, MREs, and scopes, wondering what the results will be on the other side and the repercussions for more medications, a longer hospital stay, or surgery.
What it’s like when you say goodbye to loved ones and they roll you into the OR and you’re shaking like a leaf, all alone and feeling frail and broken, alone with your thoughts and prayers.
The number of moments you’ve watched nurses and even rapid response nurses fumble with IV’s try after IV try and when it’s been more than five, you find your voice from that point forward and start only giving medical professionals two tries before it’s on to the next.
How it feels at the butt crack of dawn when the world is sleeping and the hospital is bustling, waking you abruptly to get more vitals and more labs and you lay alone, haggard, frustrated, and delirious.
The moment when your GI has a heart to heart with you about starting a biologic and having to determine for yourself what route is your preference—infusion or self-injection. Would you rather sit for hours hooked up to an IV drip or sit on your couch with your kids looking on as you inflict pain on yourself.
The times you’ve sat up in the middle of the night wide awake thanks to the prednisone kicking in while the rest of your world is asleep wondering if you’ll ever regain some semblance of control of life.
What it’s like trying to eat meals inconspicuously with your family while they not so subtly watch each bite and every trip to the bathroom with sadness and worry in their eyes.
How it felt driving to a first date or a job interview and feeling like your IBD is a dark secret looming over the conversation and not knowing when to take down your walls and share.
Listening to your friends make comments about health and energy without considering what your experience with a chronic, debilitating illness may be like since you look well on the outside.
What it feels like to look at your reflection in the hospital bathroom. Battered arms, sunken in eyes, a shell of who you used to be. But as soon as you walk out of the door, putting a soft smile on to protect your visitors from worry.
What it’s like to sit on an airplane or be on a road trip with others and silently worrying about whether you’ll be able to make it and what your game plan will be.
When you’re up in the middle of the night doing the second half of colonoscopy prep and wondering ‘why me’ in your 20s and 30s, feeling isolated in the physical, mental, and emotional anguish the process puts you through year after year.
What you’ve internalized each time someone dumbs down your IBD, offers up ridiculous remedies or goes into a discourse about their aunt’s brother’s cousin who “healed” their Crohn’s this way.
When you’ve waved the white flag and alerted family and friends that you needed help or to be seen in the hospital after doing as much fighting as you could against your own body.
The first time you bravely looked down at your incision and saw your body forever changed and came to see your scars as battle wounds.
Waking up each day not knowing what the next 10 minutes will feel like for you and getting after it anyway.
Not knowing if you’ll find your person, but meeting people and having the courage to share about your health issues, even if there are heartbreaks and disappointments along the way.
Deciding to have a baby and discussing family planning, despite all the what ifs and becoming a parent because that’s what you hoped for prior to your IBD.
Landing that dream job with your IBD in your back pocket, not letting the detours stop you from finding the path you were meant to go on.
Celebrate the independence you’ve discovered
The list goes on and on! No matter how old you are when diagnosed with IBD, in that moment we are robbed of our naivety and thoughts of invincibility, and we’re forced to go on a lifelong war and conquest. Our bodies no longer feel like ours. Our dreams feel in disarray. Our people may change and not be who you thought they were. Our hearts may break, but like a phoenix this disease can build you up just as much as it breaks you down.
The reprieve of remission, while not perfect or without symptoms has enabled me to breathe and regain my grounding. In 2015, after three back-to-back bowel obstructions and 18 inches of my small intestine, Meckel’s diverticulum, and appendix removed, there was only one way to go and that was up.
Give yourself grace. Celebrate the independence you’ve discovered that you may not be able to have realized until you’re years out like it took me. And when you’re in the hospital, in for a routine clinic visit or for labs, taking your meds and balancing every daily decision against how it will make your IBD feel, you’ll come to realize what you take on and all you accomplish every day just to survive and thrive, makes you something special. While you may feel dependent on others—and the support of caretakers and a support system can’t be understated, neither can the endless strength that lies within you.