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When a Teacher Asked Me to Look at My Life With Chronic Illness and Tell a Different Story

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I remember the day I attended a lecture by Dr. Dianne Connelly, she spoke about “Words as Medicine” and how the stories we tell ourselves and others shape our existence. She shared the story of “The Traveler and the Three Bricklayers.” If you are not familiar, it goes a bit like this:

A man was walking and happened upon three bricklayers. He asked the first bricklayer, “What are you doing?” “I’m laying bricks,” was the reply given. 

The man then asked the second bricklayer the same question. “I’m putting up a wall,” was his answer.

The man then queried the same to the third bricklayer. “What are you doing?” “I’m building a cathedral,” the third bricklayer exclaimed!

Dr. Connelly explained, our “bricks” are the foundation of whatever we do.  She challenged us to see beyond the singular “brick,” the isolated act, and look at the big picture to recognize the importance of what we do and say each day. She encouraged us to see our “cathedral” as something that adds purpose to our lives, something that drives us. And to not only find our “cathedral” but to help and support others in finding their “cathedral.”

She also tied Psalm 118:22-23 into her lesson: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” and talked about the transformation of wounds into gifts.

I pondered: What parts of my life do I perceive as “just bricks” that I could be using to build my “cathedral,” and was there something I’ve rejected that was cornerstone-worthy? I also wondered if I could truly transform my wounds into gifts; it was a lot to take in.

At the time of Dr. Connelly’s lecture, it had been more than 10 years since Crohn’s disease burst into my life. In that time I had experienced many emotions and feelings. I can honestly say “gratitude” was not among them. Sadness, depression and anger became commonplace. Fighting and beating Crohn’s became my mission; and all that fighting, it makes you tired.

What would happen if I no longer viewed Crohn’s as my enemy, as something to beat? What if Crohn’s was trying to tell me something, teach me something? And I wasn’t receiving the message because I wouldn’t be still and listen. What if I welcomed Crohn’s (yes you read that correctly) into my life to see what it had to teach me?

I decided to start by writing a letter to Crohn’s, and as I wrote, I discovered something amazing. Crohn’s was not a random brick to be discarded. It was to be my cornerstone, and I am building my cathedral on it!

Dear Crohn’s,

We have been together for more than 10 years, and we’ve never really talked, so I want to start the conversation. I’m done pleading and bargaining with you; I’m done asking you to go away. I’ve come to appreciate that in your own way you whisper, and sometimes you scream. It hurts when you scream. I need to let you know I am ready to listen for the whispers.

You see, about a year ago, I realized that you had become my identity, my life. Somehow I lost Kelly and became you.  But I saw you as a negative; there was nothing about you I would have ever called “beautiful.” And oh, how I hated you!

I needed to let you go, so I did. While I no longer hated you, I sure as hell wasn’t going to embrace you. So I tried managing you.

That worked for a while, yet something was still not right. I knew you would never truly go away, yet I wished you would. I could feel your presence lurking in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to trip me up. Though all my doctors said you were “quiet,” I knew we were not at peace. 

So get ready for this… thank you, Crohn’s. Thank you for the gifts you have given me. Over the years, you have reignited my passion for cooking and challenged my culinary abilities. You have guided me toward a more nutritious way of eating. Kelp noodles, who knew? You also took me to Kripalu, twice! I probably would’ve never experienced the splendor of the Berkshire Mountains had it not been for you. It was at Kripalu that I was introduced to new ideas that would help us smooth out our differences. I was so inspired that I took on graduate school and earned a master’s degree in Integrative Health and Nutrition.

Oh, and as for exercising, you were the smart one. You knew intense workouts were not in my best interest. You drove your point home with inflamed joints, extreme fatigue, sore muscles and broken bones. Still, I would not yield and did all I could to silence your warnings with pills, shots and braces. I was so mad at you; you slowed me down. Now I see it was a good thing; I needed to slow down. I believed you were just a rough patch and once I had control of you, there would be a day when I could do “real” exercise again. I get it now, and I am done waiting for that magical day. From now on I will be gentle with this body.

Crohn’s, you are my North Star, you guide me and keep me in check. You keep me gracious and humble. I will listen to my body, and you, and I will heed the messages. I’m sure there will still be times we won’t agree, but I will do my best to be a better listener. I see now that we can make it through this life together.



The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment someone changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: April 27, 2016
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