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The Toughest 'Pill' for Me to Swallow When It Came to My Illness

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I’m a planner, and what most would refer to as “Type A.” I like to know what’s ahead of me, and am easily shaken when things don’t go according to plan. I always had a pretty clear picture of how my life would play out, and had no intention of deviating from this dependable plan. You can imagine how I reacted when I was diagnosed with a disease that I would live with for the rest of my life.

Saying that it changed my plans would be an understatement.

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of 22. I was finishing up my last semester of college and relishing my final months before entering the real world. My biggest concerns before my diagnosis consisted of which dining hall I’d go to for dinner or how I’d spend my upcoming Friday night. Although I considered myself a generally healthy person, in hindsight I exhibited some glaring warning signs of illness. During the years leading up to my diagnosis, I often experienced problems with digestion and abdominal pain. These symptoms came and went and I never sought out medical attention. Unfortunately, I waited until my health completely deteriorated before I took these concerns seriously.

My first major Crohn’s flare occurred after a stressful week of studying for my certified public accountant (CPA) exam. I studied accounting throughout college and felt fairly confident for the exam, but nevertheless my nerves got the best of me. (I later learned that stress is a major trigger for my disease.) During the weeks following my exam, I experienced intense nausea, frequent trips to the bathroom, and an inability to eat or drink much of anything. I tried desperately to convince myself that I had a stomach bug, but my condition continued to worsen. I lost a considerable amount of weight by the time I saw a gastroenterologist.

Numerous tests and a gallon of colonoscopy prep later, I was officially given the verdict: Crohn’s disease. Based on the level of inflammation in my intestines, my Crohn’s disease was labeled as “severe.” I took the news surprisingly well for the first few days, and looking back that should’ve been a red flag. Besides planning, I’m also skilled at bottling up my emotions. I wound up spontaneously bursting into tears over a bowl of chicken soup a week later.

For many months following my diagnosis, I struggled to get my disease under control. I moved home with my parents to recover, and used the copious amount of post-grad free time I had to scour the internet and read every book touting to have the “cure” for Crohn’s. The first doctor I met with told me that, with the help of medication, my condition would improve – but my health would never be “great.” While I think that doctors should be realistic about illness, I also felt like this guidance was the last thing I needed. What I needed was a tiny sliver of hope. I knew that I couldn’t pursue perfection, but I also didn’t want to settle for mediocre health. Along with medications, I’ve tried everything under the sun to improve my condition, from dietary changes to supplements to homeopathy. My health is far from perfect, but I’ve experienced significant improvements and continue to search for new ways to feel my best.

It took a long time to come to terms with my diagnosis, and it will take far longer to feel comfortable with this new badge I wear. As much as I’d like to pretend that my disease doesn’t define me, in many ways it does. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of my condition, but instead of viewing it as a limitation, I choose to view it as a strength. It forces me to live in the moment, as I’m much more aware that healthy days are a gift and not a guarantee. It has taught me question everything, from conventional wisdom to the stories that I’ve been telling myself throughout my life.

I’ve taken hundreds of pills since my diagnosis, but reality was by far the toughest pill to swallow. And surprisingly, it was the most effective drug I could’ve asked for. My diagnosis woke me up to so many aspects of my life that I neglected, from my emotional health to the work that I truly want to pursue. My illness forced me to face these hurdles head on, as avoidance was no longer an option. I can’t glamorize life with chronic illness because it is not simply filled with new found wisdom and beautiful life lessons. It’s raw, unpredictable, and downright miserable at times. But instead of wasting precious energy fighting my reality, I instead choose to enjoy everything that comes with living life not according to plan.

Originally published: May 1, 2018
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