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How My Crohn's Diagnosis Helped Me Find My Purpose and Passion

Over two years ago now, in October of 2016, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I can still vividly remember waking up after my first ever colonoscopy to my gastroenterologist leaning over my bed and telling me he may have found signs of Crohn’s. Overwhelmed by the unexpected news, and disoriented from the anesthesia, I burst into tears immediately and could not stop crying. To this day, this remains a very emotional memory of mine, because it was the moment I knew my life would change forever.

I was less than a month out from my 21st birthday when I received my official diagnosis confirming Crohn’s was present in my bowel, and those next few months that followed over the summer saw me go through some of the hardest days of my life. I wasn’t coping well initially, and began partying a bit more and drinking more to try and make myself seem “cooler” to compensate for my new diagnosis. It was miserable, and I’m grateful that it ended.

The moment that really catalyzed change for myself was when I was accepted into the Graduate Diploma of Psychology program at my university after completing my bachelors of psychology. As the degree was partly a research degree, I remember scrolling through the list of advertised projects wondering if I should apply for a project to do more with anxiety or eating disorders. It wasn’t until I saw a project advertised investigating the psychological factors associated with fatigue and physical activity in inflammatory bowel disease, I knew I had found what I wanted to do with my life.

That year I began to shift my mindset. Crohn’s was no longer something that ruled me while I passively tried to cope as best as I could, but it gave me purpose and passion. I had been so miserable after my diagnosis, and knew just how hard living with IBD was; it gave me so much drive to channel that into working towards understanding how psychological factors impact IBD and helping others with my condition. Although I knew there were things with my disease that were out of control, I could take back some of that control by contributing to research and helping unravel some of the unknown factors associated with my disease. Over the course of my graduate diploma year, my mental wellbeing grew far more than I could have anticipated, and I became much more comfortable with who I am. I no longer felt like I had to compensate for the “defective” part of me, and I found a group of friends who supported me completely and made me feel comfortable with being myself again. I no longer felt like I had to prove myself anymore, and was content with just being me.

This eventually led me into a PhD, where I am now trying to develop a psychological intervention to manage fatigue in patients with IBD. It’s been a long road since beginning in February, with a major Crohn’s flare rearing its head. I was admitted to the hospital twice, tried on a cocktail of corticosteroids, immunomodulators and finally started a biologic. My physical and mental health suffered drastically, with trying to cope with the debilitating back and abdominal pain and unpredictable bathroom symptoms. Even worse, my fatigue became so bad, that some days I didn’t feel safe driving. But the thing that got me through and kept me up to date with my research and sticking to the timeline I had set was my passion for helping others in my position. There were days where I sat at my desk, in pain, needing to get up and go to the bathroom frequently and struggling to concentrate from fatigue. But five minutes of work and effort into something that I cared so much about was still better than no work, and I continued to show up each day despite the struggles.

the author standing in front of a presentation at her PhD hearing

My diagnosis helped me find something I was passionate about, it helped give me purpose, and above all, it gave me a reason to keep trying despite the unpredictable nature of my disease. In two short years I’ve already been on a rollercoaster, both physically and mentally. But I am now excited about where my journey will take me and what the future holds. I no longer fear the worst, but embrace the struggle and use it to push through so I can help others experiencing similar things.