I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease a few days after my 20th birthday. I had just finished a difficult freshman year at the University of Southern California, and at the time, I was 5’4” and weighed 90 lbs. Over the school year, my ankle joints had swollen so drastically that I was unable to tie most of my shoes. Erythema Nodosum, a series of firm, hot, red and painful bumps, covered so much of my shins that the makeup I caked onto my legs daily no longer made a difference. My hair was falling out and my stomach bloat was so intense that veins would bulge around my midsection for weeks; you could mistake me for pregnant. I only left my dorm room for class. I was often too fatigued to get out of bed for anything else.
My parents thought I had an eating disorder. Anorexic, maybe? After all, I ate only one meal a day. The real reason was because of my stomach pain – a shooting bolt of electricity that set my insides on fire every time I tried to digest something. I often cried after every meal and even toppled over one time at a sushi restaurant while on a date.
To be diagnosed in the summer of 2014 was both a blessing and a curse.
Finally, after so many tests, doctor visits and discomfort, I could take the steps I needed to achieve remission. My doctor explained that Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel and autoimmune disease that eats away at the lining of my digestive tract (I’ll leave the definition at that for now, but feel free to research more on your own). He reluctantly admitted that there is no cure. Still, I had faith that treatment would help curb the illness and improve my quality of life.
Of course, the process was easier said than done. My sophomore year of college was a chain of experimentations with faulty medications and settling for less than desirable side effects (heart palpitations, a swollen face and severe acne breakouts to name a few). Things got worse before they got better. It made me feel unlovable at times. It made me downsize my dreams. And it made me question my faith.
Today, two years post diagnosis and now a rising senior, I finally live in remission. I stick to biweekly needle injections in the stomach of an immunosuppressant, TNF-blocking agent. I am now 110 lbs. with a full head of hair and normal sized ankles. The erythema is gone and my bloating is no longer out of control. I look and feel great.
Of course, I still have my bad days. I sometimes battle with deep sadness, anger and fear, haunted by the possibility of a flare up. If the disease becomes worse, I could face numerous surgeries. It’s not the prettiest of situations, I know.
But I’m not here to paint a depressing picture. I’m writing this because, in spite of all the negative outcomes, I have made an incredible realization throughout the process. While I have experienced the lowest lows with this chronic illness I have also, surprisingly, found my highest highs. In fact, the amount of happiness I have felt during this diagnosis phase surpasses all that I ever felt in my childhood. That may be hard to believe, but hear me out. I consider Crohn’s to be one of the most beautiful parts about my life. Let me count the ways:
1. Crohn’s Disease taught me self-respect.
Once upon a time, I was a huge worrier, gifted with the ability to spend hours flipping out over my grades, appearance and future. Throughout grade school I would compare myself to others constantly, never feeling satisfied with the person I was. My parents never had to push me because I did all work for them. No one was harder on me than, well, me. I was never enough and I never deserved anything. Everyone had to like me and approve of what I was doing before I could accept myself.
I struggled for a long time after the diagnosis with admitting that I was worthy of a happy, healthy life. It was easy to think that I somehow deserved all of this sickness. If I was well one day but weak the next I’d beat myself up for not “holding it together.” I treated myself very poorly for a long time.
Consequently, I had no mental strength and the disease continued to win. That’s when I sat down and decided I needed to start practicing some self-respect. I stopped caring about being perfect and just accepted my flaws, dips and setbacks. Not everyone needs to approve of me or accept the choices I make. I live for me and my journey. I am good enough and deserving of remission. I am not put on this Earth to suffer.
This way of thinking is like a muscle that I workout every day. It can be difficult to stay positive, and I certainly don’t expect myself to always be 100 percent. But that’s what self-respect is all about! YOU MUST BE YOUR OWN #1 FAN.
2. Crohn’s Disease put health at the top of my priority list.
I was always relatively health conscious growing up, but my Crohn’s diagnosis skyrocketed the subject to the forefront of my concerns. I began absorbing as much information as I could. Between my mother and I, we could probably open our own health bookstore with all the books and magazines we’ve bought or subscribed to over the years. Through education I completely changed the way I looked at food and exercise. It fascinated and inspired me so much that I even picked up a minor in Nutrition and Health Promotion. During my sophomore year I began running in triathlons and doing monthly 5k’s with my parents for fun.
I’ve come to understand how important it is to nurture our bodies. They are the only homes we truly live in and if you don’t have good health, you don’t have much else. By adopting a healthy lifestyle, I boost my physical strength, mood and emotions daily. I’m an all-around happier person. Plus I’m constantly in awe of what my body can accomplish when I workout and eat right. It fosters my self-love and supports the self-respect I mentioned above.
3. Crohn’s Disease simplified my definition of happiness.
I used to think I needed to win an Oscar, achieve celebrity actor status, own a big home and have the perfect body in order to be “happy” and considered “successful.” That’s ridiculous.
After only two years, Crohn’s Disease has put me through enough pain and embarrassment for me to understand that strong health and relationships are all I really need to live the good life. It’s not at all complicated. Happiness is learning to bloom where you are planted. It’s celebrating every day. The fact that you were even born is amazing. What are the odds, truly?
I no longer need everyone’s approval. All I want is love from a special few. I no longer need to conquer the world in order to be successful. All I need is to conquer the day. Happiness is not some complicated formula we have to spend our whole lives trying to unlock. Happiness is already within us, ready to blossom. I owe Crohn’s Disease the spark that led me to learn how to properly water, shade and nurture that seed. Thank you, God, for this journey!