When you’re amid the worst of your bad days, it can feel like there is no silver lining to having Crohn’s disease — and some days, that’s likely true. But during the 13 years since I developed Crohn’s symptoms, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that have made me better at navigating my disease, my life and my relationships.
From the time when the symptoms of Crohn’s disease first reared their heads, so began my first lesson: patience. It took almost four years before I was accurately diagnosed, and the battle to stay in remission is ever ongoing. It’s not the nature of an ambitious overachiever to patiently wait as life happens to her. But when you cannot control what is happening inside your body, it has a way of changing how you look at time. Instead of constantly fighting the clock — are there ever enough hours in the day? — the condition has taught me a lot about living in the moment and giving diets, lifestyle adjustments and medications a chance before I write them off as being ineffective. You can’t wait for something you’ve given up on, so as long as you are waiting, it means you have hope, which is a vital thing for those with chronic conditions to have.
The first thing I learned about limits: I have them. The second thing I learned: that’s OK. Like most young folks, I felt invincible in my teen years. I could eat what I wanted, abuse my body with lack of sleep and minimal exercise and take on an endless amount of work and activities without it catching up with me. After the symptoms of Crohn’s arose, I quickly learned that for better or for worse, nearly every choice I made affected my body and my disease. If I don’t eat well, exercise, take my medications when needed, get lots of sleep and keep a lid on my stress levels, I get sick. Of course, I’ve tried to rebel against these facts, but have I always ended up losing the battle. Most of the time, I’m able to recognize my limits and have learned that it’s never worth it when I exceed them. When I’m sick, I can’t do much but be sick, so it’s worth following the rules to try to stay well. While I used to feel that staying “in the lines” meant living a stifled existence, I’ve learned that it’s only by making good choices that I’m able to have the health and energy to live my life as fully as I can.
How to rely on others
In many ways, learning to ask for help went hand-in-hand with accepting my limits. Making good dietary choices, getting exercise, minding a strict bedtime and not overcommitting oneself all take time and energy. It’s time and energy well-spent, but keeping your health as your top priority naturally means that sometimes other priorities will be neglected. That can be hard to accept at times, because let’s face it: it’s a lot more fun to, say, plan a friend’s wedding shower than it is to meal plan and grocery shop for the week. It took me an embarrassingly long time to learn that I didn’t have to do everything myself. It sounds so simple, but it used to never cross my mind that I could ask for help. Now I know that the only way I can stay well is by leaning on my friends and family occasionally. As a bonus, I’ve found that letting them help me allows them to better understand my disease, and my relationships have been made stronger because of that.
When I’m amid a really bad stretch because of Crohn’s, I can get caught in the self-pity trap. But spending lots of time in doctors’ offices and with support groups has made me realize that there are countless people struggling with my same condition — or worse. I know that I can get self-absorbed and irritable when I’m not feeling well, so that’s made me slower to judge others who may act inconsiderate or lash at out at me. I know that I don’t know their whole story, and that it’s very unlikely their behavior really has anything at all to do with me. Knowing that everyone is always going through something has also made me more understanding of loved ones’ bad behavior. And as strange as it sounds to have empathy for oneself, I’ve learned to not be so hard on myself when I do something like bail on plans at the last minute. It’s a lot easier to take care of yourself when you’ve forgiven your body of its shortcomings.