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The Unexpected Symptom That Came Along With My Chronic Illness

Crohn’s disease, like any illness, isn’t just one thing.

Sometimes, when commercials explain it, it just gets broken down to “something that messes with your stomach.” While it absolutely does that, there’s a lot more to it. And among the super fun myriad of other symptoms, the one I want to talk about today is anxiety.

A lot of people tend to want to separate the physical and the mental when it comes to illness, but I tend to disagree. Diseases like Crohn’s or colitis or any number of health issues seem pretty much tailor-made to make you anxious. Think of it this way — you need food to live. And on a less dramatic level, going out to eat with friends and family or attending dinners at other people’s homes is a pretty standard part of life. So if you have an illness that makes your eating situation more complicated, it’s easy for anxiety to accompany simple things like grabbing dinner with a friend or attending Easter brunch.

Additional anxieties can stem from less-than-fun gastrointestinal symptoms as well. As someone with Crohn’s, I can’t exactly go on a random adventure hike with no destination — I always need to know where the nearest bathroom is. It’s not very glamorous, but it’s necessary.

The last major area in which chronic illness gives me anxiety is in other people’s perception of me and my disease. I never want anyone to think I’m being overly dramatic, or a hypochondriac, so I’m often hyper-accommodating even when it’s not best for my symptoms. If a friend wants to hang out and I’m too sick to, I may shuffle through and make it happen so I don’t feel guilty. Conversely, I may lie and come up with what I think is a more palatable excuse than “I’m too sick to go out today.”

All of this is to say that with a chronic illness, it’s easy to become a “big ball of anxiety” thanks to the littlest of everyday things. What I have found supremely helpful is finding and cultivating “safe spaces.”

Safe spaces can mean different things for different people. I am lucky because my workplace is one of my safe spaces. Part of that was inherent when I was hired; I work for a very small Internet company that has a pretty familial feel. I can wear leggings to work (great on bad pain days) and because of what I do for a living (web content), if I’m particularly ill, I have the luxury of working from home. Also, because my office is small, I’m not just a number on a list of employees. My bosses and co-workers know about my medical problems and have always been wildly understanding.

I know I’m very lucky in this respect — not everyone with a chronic illness has a workplace they’d deem “safe.” For economic reasons people have to take the jobs they can get, sometimes forcing them to work on their feet all day, making symptoms worse. In those cases, hopefully other safe spaces can be created to balance things out — like the home!

I just moved into a new apartment, and I have quickly gone to work making it a safe, happy space for my Crohn’s. My room is a great safe haven after long days, with fluffy blankets, candles, a heating pad, Netflix and no fewer than two cats. My kitchen is also a safe place, because it’s where I make all the foods I know won’t hurt my body and exacerbate my symptoms. I’m nerdily obsessed with my new Ninja blender. If work or school can’t be a safe haven for you, home is always a good place to create your own little bubble of happy. In the literal bubble sense, too — go buy some bath bombs and relax your face off.

If you’re still in school, I highly recommend being open with administrators and professors about your illness if you feel comfortable doing so. My university had an attendance policy that would have been nearly impossible to meet thanks to my Crohn’s. But, after reaching out to our school’s disability services office, I was able to get special allowances from my professors to do work from home when necessary, and even have separately proctored exams in case I couldn’t sit through one for a full hour. As a result, I went from struggling to graduating with a 4.0.

The moral of the story here is: anxiety blows, but I’ve found it can blow considerably less if you’re open about your conditions and take the appropriate steps. Do what you can to make yourself feel happy and healthy in the places you spend the most time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. People may surprise you with how wonderful and understanding they can be.

Follow this journey on Sicker Than Your Average.

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