I have learned this with ups and downs of life with a chronic disease. But this is especially difficult for me to remember with my mental health.
I struggle with anxiety and depression, and I’m currently wading through it with help from a number of healthcare professionals, people who support me, and the #1 role-player…myself!
I woke up a couple of days this week in a fog, sad, heavy…which is counter to my normal, healthy, chipper self. But I’m not apologizing for these bad days, and I’m taking them in stride, going to therapy, journaling, soul-searching, moving my body when I need to, being still when I need to, feeling all the feels, and not feeling bad for the bad days.
Growing up, I carried such guilt when I had a bad day, and my coping mechanism was pretending that everything was finnnnnne and grrrrrreat. I now know that I don’t owe anyone an apology for a bad day, not even myself.
I guess what I’m saying is- give yourself grace, because I’m working on giving myself grace: -when I KNOW I’ve done everything to feel better; given myself the right amount of sleep, food, #self-care, and I still don’t feel better -in the thick of it, in my lowest low, feeling like it will never pass. spoiler alert: it will- it’ll wash over -when I’m panicked for no reason/ when I’m panicked for a real reason -when I’m tired, weary, and downright depleated -when I don’t accomplish everything…or anything on my to-do list
Healing is the ups, the downs, the peaks, valleys, rough parts, ins, outs, and all the in-between. But it’s the good stuff, too. I’d like to think the lowest lows help us feel the highest highs with even more intensity and gratitude.
I want to be a sure, steady shoreline that can take on storms, and allow them to wash over. I watch the tide take the storms away, and when they come back, I’m still the shoreline, only this time- I can stand in the storm from a different vantage point from before, because I’m still the shore. Is that cheesy? I’m a cheese-ball, yall. I don’t care- this works for me, okay?
And remember- you’re never alone. People are healing all around you, including me.
Is this the fastest year ever for anyone else? Just me? It’s flying by in a hurry!
I realized today that it has been five whole years since my ulcerative colitis diagnosis– woo! So much has changed in the last five years, and today I’m making a post about five obstacles that I have overcome and you can, too! But first, here’s a timeline of all the significant moments of life in and around an ulcerative colitis diagnosis:
-September 2012: Began experiencing severe symptoms (x-rated version: bloody stools 30x daily, loss of appetite, quick weight loss, fatigue, night sweats)
-October 2012: Diagnosed with “moderate to severe ulcerative colitis”- began remicade infusions, pain medications, steroids, and mesalamines to get symptoms under control
-January 2013: Tried stopping all medications and healing with holistic approach (without doctor’s permission) Stupid, stupid, stupid
-April 2013: Hospital stay for dehydration due to symptoms; back on remicade infusions every 8 weeks with steroids. Decided to stop eating red meat, fried food, processed meats, and cheese
-December 2013: GRADUATED from The University of Texas at Austin, despite pleas from family to take a medical leave of absence. My GPA even improved after a diagnosis.
-March 2014: First post-grad job, a night shift at a Houston hospital. Here is where I learned that I did not want to be a nurse but instead decided to pursue dietetics. I declined my acceptance to a post-bachelor’s nursing program and began scoping out dietetics programs.
-June 2014: 2nd colonoscopy revealed active and increased inflammation; diagnosis modified to “Crohn’s disease”; removed from night shift schedule and increased dosage of steroids
-March 2015: Registered to run first half-marathon and fundraise for cures to Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis; began talking publicly on social media about disease and realized that I could help encourage people through my journey with a challenging diagnosis.
-July 2015: Completed first half-marathon in Sonoma, California after fundraising over $3,900 for Crohn’s and UC research
-February 2016: Completed second half-marathon in New Orleans after fundraising over $2,500 for Crohn’s and UC research
-May 2016: OFF STEROIDS!
-July 2016: ENGAGED!
-August-December 2016: “Is remicade working?”
-January 2017: WEDDING!
-February 2017: 3rd colonoscopy confirms “ulcerative colitis” diagnosis, but with significantly less inflammation
-May 2017: REMISSION!
-October 2017: 5 years of ulcerative colitis diagnosis
Much has happened in the last five years, and I get bummed when I live through an experience and think, “why didn’t anyone tell me about this?!” which is why I [probably] tend to overshare on social media-you’re welcome. I believe that leaning into the vulnerability of real life challenges and sharing the experience with others helps create a community of empowerment. My life isn’t filled with bright, celestial light and like-it-to-know it worthy outfits (currently sporting dirty high-top converse and yoga pants); my life is peaks and valleys, a balancing act of chasing chocolate chip cookies with probiotic green juice and just trying to stay the eff in remission while I navigate life as a normal twenty-something year old newlywed while remaining a girl boss in organic chemistry. My life is far too much to pretend that it’s instaperfect.
Okay, I’ll stop rambling. Here’s five obstacles that I have overcome with ulcerative colitis:
1. Fear of pain. I remember freaking out as a child every time my mom would take me to the dentist, “Will it hurt?!” Grown adults still ask me this about colonoscopies
(No, Debra, you’ll be fine).
I honestly go into procedures/infusions now knowing that at some point I WILL feel discomfort, possibly even pain, and I don’t even care. Pain is temporary, even if it doesn’t feel that way. P.S. The most painful part of the infusion is the end, when the nurse takes the tape off. Think of it as a nice little wax job.
2. Fear of needles. Before UC, I would get so nervous to have by blood drawn annually at my physical check-up. One time I almost passed out. But I realized quickly that I would be seeing a lot of needles after my diagnosis, and I needed to woman-up and get brave. Now I can look at needles all day long- no problem. I don’t even care if the nurse has to try four times before hitting a vein, that looks like hard work anyway.
Pro tip: If you ARE afraid of needles, don’t look at the needle when your nurse is trying to thread it, because this triggers a fight-or-fight response from your sympathetic nervous system and your veins vasoconstrict, making life more difficult for you AND your nurse. Also be sure to hydrate well the day BEFORE a procedure so your veins are happy, plump and hydrated.
3. Being my own advocate. If you know me, you know that I have a soft voice, AND I have a resting nice face which means that everyone smiles at me all.the.time. Strangers frequently strike up a conversation, like we’re old friends. My naturally semi-extroverted self is STOKED to have these encounters, but because I LOOK so.damn.friendly. it’s a real challenge for people to take me seriously. When the nurse says “let me check on the order for your medication” I take notes of who I spoke to, when I spoke to them, and then I call back later that day to make sure that homegirl actually checked on the order as promised. People get busy and forget, but my body isn’t going to forget that it needs an infusion to function. If I show up to an infusion appointment only to find out that an order had never been written and insurance had never been contacted for prior-authorization, I WILL craft an email to the head of the infusion center, call my doctor, or show up in person with an order ready for him to fill out and sign. Whatever it takes, I leave my dignity at the door, and I fight. It’s too easy to get lost in our American Healthcare System, so go to bat for yourself. Take good notes, talk to understanding people, and make your case sound.
4. Hair loss. Many, many people experience hair loss; it’s just part of life. I could write an entire post dedicated to “How to make your hair healthy after you’ve been REALLY nutrient depleted and it thins and falls out and breaks off in clumps and makes you cry really hard in the shower but it’s going to be okay, Stacey- IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY. YOU’RE OKAY.” Honestly, hair loss was a tough little challenge for me, and friends and family members were so kind about it “I can hardly notice”. My older sister bought me expensive, old man hair growth shampoo- bless her. But to me, hair loss was an outward expression of how desperately unhealthy I was on the inside, and it was hard to wash my hair knowing that I had balding spots, and I could feel it thinning by the handful. In retrospect, it could’ve been so much worse. I wasn’t bald! Let’s review:
5. Health is comprehensive. Being healthy has been another challenge, but I FINALLY feel like I’m getting it down. In college I stressed and slaved so hard over science courses to get into nursing school, and I sacrificed quality sleep and my diet suffered (but isn’t that the tale of so many college students?)
Post-grad I learned that I felt better when I was physically active, and I started sleeping more. I now feel like I’m balancing sleep, productivity, physical movement, spirituality, and time with people I love better, and each facet is an integral part of overall health. Taking care of myself is getting easier. Three cheers for adulting!
If you’re dealing with a diagnosis, managing a disease, or you just feel like you have a one-way ticket to Struggle City, USA, know that I’m here to help you feel like you’re doing a thing, and you’re doing it better than you think. Life is a continuum of learning, and if we can manage to learn together…well, I’d say we’re doing something right.
Here’s to five years of learning and living! Hope your day is a good one! 🙂
The question I get asked most often by friends and strangers alike is, “How did you know something was wrong?”
Please don’t use my experience in lieu of a doctor’s professional opinion. If you think something is wrong…go get checked out!
Okay. Here’s my story:
Once upon a time in early Fall at a coffee shop on campus at The University of Texas at Austin in 2012, I began having excruciating stomach cramps. When I say the word excruciating, I mean excruciating. Unbearable. The BEST way I can describe the pain for the sake of being relatable…have you ever had a violent stomach virus? Multiply the frequency of your symptoms to several times a day and night, for weeks. Then you get me.
I excused myself a couple times over the duration of my brief meet-up with a friend at the coffee shop. “Guess I should switch the chai lattes to soy,” I thought to myself.
But the pain and the symptoms weren’t alleviated by omitting dairy. Within weeks even ice chips resulted in pain, followed by 10-15 wind sprints to the bathroom.
X rated version: I knew something was wrong when I noticed that my stools consisted almost entirely of blood, and nothing seemed to offer even a hint of relief (not even drinking imodium from a straw…not recommended, by the way).
About a week and a half later, I made an appointment with University Health Services; they accommodated me quickly when I described my symptoms. They prescribed me high-powered antibiotics, which didn’t phase my symptoms. “Come back in 8 days for a follow-up.” I noticed that I had already lost twelve pounds when I weighed in with the nurse before my appointment.
I found a local gastroenterologist, without a referral from a professional. Something had to be resolved fast.
At the time I would wake up two hours before class began (after a night of restlessness because of constant stomach cramps and running to the bathroom), to ensure that I would arrive to class in time, allotting plenty of time for bathroom stops in the buildings on my way to class until I was finally able to make it to my class. I received permission from my professors to record their lectures during this time, because I would have to sneak out of class three or four times to be sick. This went on for a few weeks.
During my first appointment with the gastroenterologist, he scheduled a colonoscopy for the next day, and so began my life of poking, prodding, stool samples, blood samples, and biopsies. The prep juice wasn’t bad because I was pretty clear from shitting thirty times a day…still not entirely sure what the big fuss over colonoscopies is all about.
After my colonoscopy the doctor read my diagnosis, “You have moderate to severe ulcerative colitis. There’s no cure, but there are treatment options. You’ll be monitoring this diseasefor the rest of your life.”
Honestly, I was pretty certain that I was dying of cancer. When I was diagnosed, almost three weeks beyond my very first noticeable symptom at the coffee shop, I had lost twenty-five pounds. I looked like a bag of bones. I was weirdly relieved to have “ulcerative colitis” as a diagnosis. Having answers makes all the difference.
(During this time I got recruited by Abercrombie model scouts on campus for a live audition. They were quickly educated…thanks to the prednisone and my lack of sleep.)
All that I had heard about “ulcerative colitis” was a brief overview in a pharmacology course, and I knew that Crohn’s was its cousin, both under the umbrella of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD)…not exactly enough for me to understand what the heck the doc was talking about. He explained that my immune system was hyperactive, recognizing even food as a foreign substance that needed to be expelled immediately. Not cool, immune system. Not cool.
My body was rebelling against my colon. Why? Could be genetics, or the environment (e.g. toxins, antibiotics altering gut bacteria), or an interaction between the two.
“What can I eat?”
“Eat whatever you want. Since you’re a bit underweight, drink as much dark beer as you want. Eat burgers.”
^ Never made sense to me. UC is an autoimmune digestive disease in my gut, where most of the immune system is located, and I’m being told to eat whatever I want? Too good to be true. I knew immediately that dairy and beef physically hurt to eat, so I eliminated those. Next to go was processed meats and fast food, because no way are those beneficial. To my surprise there were still plenty of good options to eat, despite being in college and on a budget. Good food didn’t have to be expensive. I began researching which foods to eat to help with inflammation, since UC is an inflammatory disease, and I tried to eat more of those helpful foods: leafy greens, grilled fish, lean meats, and blueberries became my go-tos. And so began my interest in nutrition. I watched it help me, change me, and I dreamed of how it could help the people I love. Present day Stacey is in school again pursuing a dietetics degree.
After my scope, the doc handed me a paper folder full of info pamphlets and immediately prescribed me an IV biologic & immunosuppressant: Remicade. MANY people ask, “Why did you decide to be on such a high octane medication?” At the time I didn’t feel a like I had much of a choice. Looking back, I still would’ve agreed to such aggressive treatment, because I felt (and looked) like I was actually dying. It’s different for everyone, but for me it was serious at the time. I mean. I LOST OVER 25 POUNDS IN THREE WEEKS, PEOPLE.
I remember my first infusion, walking into a dimly lit infusion suite with recliners bordering the walls, each with a patient hooked up to an IV pole. Some were asleep, others read books, flipped through their phones, and a few watched HGTV buzzing in the background on the televisions. Not all the patients had Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, some had rheumatoid arthritis, MS, and a host of other autoimmune conditions. This was the first time I realized that my life would not be the normal I remembered. I needed medication from an IV so I could live life like I remembered living. Weird.
Overnight, I felt like I had gone from being a normal, healthy, social college student to a smaller, weaker shell of myself: spending more time alienated by my symptoms; a more vulnerable person, more medicated, with less autonomy over my own health. I bought a pill pack from the pharmacy store that looked like the one my grandmother carried in her oversized old-lady purse, so I could keep up with my new lifestyle.
In addition, I was prescribed pain and sleeping aids (which I never took), along with a hefty dose of Prednisone, a corticosteroid. Jesus and steroids saved my life, and I honestly believe that. Prednisone was the only oral medication that seemed to ever work.
But I hated it.
Steroids were great in college, because I felt very energetic (almost jittery) while taking Prednisone, so even on little sleep I was able to get a lot accomplished. However, the mood swings made me feel like a crazy pants to say the very least, so I avoid Prednisone at all costs today. I also like to sleep…and I have the hardest time sleeping when I’m on the ‘roids (disclaimer: not the same anabolic steroids that give you muscles…womp womp)
LIFE AFTER DIAGNOSIS
Slowly but surely, my energy levels began to creep back up to normal. I got my life back. Sure, I had to make some adjustments here and there (still learning), but heyyy I’m alive!
I graduated with a pretty decent GPA, even with a hospital stay, despite my family’s pleading for me to take a medical leave of absence from college. I never asked for a project deadline extension. I honestly look back on this time in life and think, “How?” But I was in survivor mode. Don’t say “I could never.” You could. And you would.
I got into the working world, took some time to get a Crohn’s diagnosis, had a doc switch diagnosis back to “ulcerative colitis”, changed shifts, changed jobs, conquered anxiety, and got to know myself really well. Wasn’t glamorous, and wasn’t what I anticipated, but it’s okay! I’m okay.
LEARNING TO COPE 1. Haters Gonna Hate
People will criticize you whether or not it’s warranted. I have been criticized for being a “pill popper”; for “taking the easy way out” with the infusion (that one is beyond me); for being “too stressed”; for not taking a medical leave of absence from college; for drinking beer; for the way I eat. People don’t mean to be as nasty as they can be sometimes; they simply don’t know your situation. I control as much as I can with diet, but I’m also human and sometimes I slip up or make conscious decisions to indulge. The meds help where nutrition cannot for me. My dream is to be 100% in remission with diet, but I’m not there yet. I can’t advise YOU if you were recently diagnosed on which course of action you should take. This disease is different for everyone. What works for one person may NOT work for another. It’s all about figuring out what works for YOU until there’s a cure. But shake off the negativity. You’re living with this- YOU are the badass.
2. Keep your people close
There will be people in your life who are with you during your diagnosis, and I don’t just mean the people who happen to be around. Who is WITH you? Who is there keeping you strong? These are the people you want around forever. For me that’s my sister, my college roommates, and my Zack. Story time 2.0:
One night in my apartment that I shared with friends, I was THE most physically ill I had been in my life, sick from both ends for hours and hours (pretty, huh?). I called Zack and begged him to come over. He spent the entire night on the phone with pharmacists, arguing with my doctor about medications, all while I slept on the bathroom floor in between being sick. Finally, around 4am, after much harassing Zack managed to get me some anti-nausea meds. My gawsh, the guy is a saint.
He fought with me. He went to bat for me. He never judged. He didn’t do good things for reward. He was just there, beside me, gutting it out with me. And so were my roommates. The BEST people I know.
I promised myself that if I ever had the energy again to move, then I would. Sounds overly emo, I know. But y’all. I really struggled with weakness for so long. So my roommate and I did this thing ^. Not pictured: Roommate Becca, still one of my greatest friends, probably drinking a mimosa at the finish while snapping this photo.
KEEP YA PEOPLE CLOSE.
3.It gets better
There will be times when you think, “TF HAPPENED? I was doing so good! Where’d these symptoms come from?” This will pass. It will get better. You will prevail. You’ll come out stronger with every flare. You’ll live to tell about it, and you’ll develop a pretty damn good sense of humor from it, too.
4. Find your silver lining
There may be days when you shit yourself in your car while in traffic. It’s okay to cry about it, but then try to find some humor in that. When you’re in a flare and EVERYTHING makes you sick, think about all the amazing Netflix you’ll be able to watch. “I won’t be able to do this when I’m better.” Think about all the food you CAN eat. If none of those options work, recognize how this has changed your life. I wasn’t interested at all in nutrition before this disease, and now it is my life. I sho wasn’t going to run before UC, and now it’s my hobby.
5. You’re still you
You’re still you, but you’re more relatable. You’ve seen struggling, and SO.MANY.PEOPLE. are struggling. You’ve seen sickness, and SO.MANY.PEOPLE. are sick. You’ve seen recovery, and people NEED to find their strength to recover. Help them find it. See this as a weird superpower. This disease doesn’t define you, but if you let it, it will make you a better, bigger, badder, stronger, gassier(?) version of you. You’re still you, only better.
Please let me know how any unexpected life situations have changed YOUR life! I’m with you. Solidarity!
Keep moving forward 🙂
OH! And have a great Monday! There is such a thing, I promise.