Thursday, November 3, 2011
"Good Health is Gorgeous" - Living Fully with Chronic Ulcerative Colitis
I have made a personal addition to the campaign slogan.
Good health AND WELLNESS is gorgeous! I wholeheartedly believe in the necessity of holistic health: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and sexual. Fulfilling each aspect of holistic health is unique to each individual, but with awareness of all these needs an individual with a chronic illness can feel complete. Happy. Whole.
I personally have had major gaps in each of these aspects of health.
When I was a mere child, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. An illness that would plague me with excruciating pain, embarrassing symptoms, and a defeated self-esteem. I was only twelve years old when I first noticed symptoms occurring: bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and constant nausea. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t mention anything for an entire year. It wasn’t until my Mother noticed that I was unwell that I was sent to the doctor, then Internal Medicine, then Gastroenterology for diagnosis and treatment. I endured a battery of embarrassing diagnostic texts and physical exams until I was properly diagnosed.
I was diagnosed with Chronic Ulcerative Colitis. At thirteen years old.
Being an adolescent, there was a focus on the physical and sexual aspects of beauty. I never felt beautiful in any manner – I felt sad and sick. I had to take daily medication that reminded me that I was not a “normal” teenage girl. In the interest of rebelling, I acted as normally as possible to prevent any of my peers from discovering my secret. I participated in high school activities, got into some adolescent trouble, drank alcohol, and dated high school boys. Although I did date high school boys, I was often heartbroken by my fear of being sexually intimate with another person. This fear was that a sexual partner would discover my illness and be disgusted by it. I made a personal choice to wait as long as possible until I could be comfortable enough to share intimacy with someone I was certain loved me enough to make my Chronic Ulcerative Colitis a non-issue.
Despite being sick, I was determined to live my life as fully as possible. I traveled to Italy, Germany, Scotland, and many other countries. I learned to pole and hip-hop dance. I learned to surf (and learned that I am not a naturally gifted surfer). I indulged my love of food and cooking by preparing delicious meals for the people I am close to, even if I was far too nauseated to enjoy it. I indulged in learning more about cooking and had kind comments made towards me such as"You must love to cook, I've never seen anyone reading a cookbook for fun!” I felt an impending sense that I needed to live my life now because the future was so uncertain. It’s deep introspecting for someone in her early 20s.
During my BScN, I was absolutely in love with the career of nursing. I was also overcome with studying and high expectations of my university program. Studying plus a chronic illness leads to disaster. My condition was worsening. I was prescribed medications that caused me to bloat, have emotional mood swings, and prevented me from having a normal sleep pattern. This carried on into my professional career, with me having to call in sick when I was overwhelmed with side effects or overcome with nausea that was so bad it made my teeth chatter.
When I turned 23 it became clear that the steroids, 5-ASA drugs, and antibiotics were not helping. I was now diagnosed with Refractory Chronic Ulcerative Colitis, which means I don't respond to conventional treatment. There was talk about major abdominal surgery, which was a terrifying though. At 23, I did not feel ready to wear a colostomy bag and have my entire colon removed. There had to be another way.
My first glimpse of hope was when I was accepted into a Master of Nursing program. In fall 2010 I started my Masters degree to become a Nurse Practitioner, a passion of mine. I want to work in women's health and sexual health, providing services to girls and women that are low-income or high risk. I love every minute of school. Going to school, as it turned out, became a lifesaver for me as well.
Gaining my education also meant I was going to move back home. To the Northwest Territories.
The beauty of the cold Northern environment was healing.
I was later told by a kind-hearted Nurse Practitioner course instructor that when I started my program in September 2010 that I looked “positively grey” and sickly. I surely felt that way. I used what little energy I had to perform academically, but I spent most of my free time napping. Or eating chocolate and candy to keep my energy levels up.
In a last ditch effort to control my disease, I was started on a medication called Remicade. An IV infusion that is incredibly expensive and has dire side effects. There is a severe side effect of a rare lymphoma, a fact that terrified me as the first infusion flowed into my veins. This drug is also known for reactivating Tuberculosis and worsening respiratory infections, which meant that I need regular chest x-rays and need to be cautious of monitoring my health. Since I’ve begun Remicade, I am extra careful about washing my hands and avoid anyone with a cough. I was afraid for the first few months, going to the hospital for my IV infusion.
After the first infusion I began to feel better. My symptoms decreased and my energy began to improve. By the third month, all of my symptoms were gone. I had energy. I began to feel, dare I say it, happy and healthy.
I was told about a holistic nutritionist in town, and out of curiosity I decided to arrange an appointment. I have never been to nutritionist before, despite my bowel disease. She was warm, supportive, and taught me the greatest lessons I know about how food is a powerful healer. I learned about the benefits of a plant-based diet and did in-depth research into this dietary choice. I slowly realized that eating a plant-based diet was the best approach to eat an anti-inflammatory diet and ensure I had optimal nutrient intake. To improve intestinal healing I drank green juice, green smoothies, and soup. To go from a standard diet to a plant-based diet was a drastic change, but an effective change. My skin developed a healthy glow, I had outstanding energy, I slept better, and my gut felt better than ever before.
I also did more research into holistic health. I read endless books about veganism, chronic illness, alternative treatments, and meditation. I began integrating what I have learned from my readings and from my Holistic Nutritionist, into my healing journey. I started acupuncture and massage with great success – it improves my emotional stressors and relaxes my busy mind. Dry brushing mades my skin glow. Meditation improves my mental wellness and capacity to cope with my disease. I stopped “exercising” and started being “active” – taking part in activity that makes me feel happy and fulfilled. I bike regularly, an activity that makes me feel free and joyful. I started Yin Yoga, which assists in relaxation and improves my hip pain related to long-term steroid use. I started drinking aloe juice for its positive and soothing effect on the gastrointestinal tract. I started having detoxing baths with essential oils. I started practicing good sleep hygiene to ensure I have enough rest so that I can perform at optimal mental capacity. I began using natural and organic skincare and household products after becoming educated on the negative effects of parabens, pthalates, propelyne glycol, sulfates, and other nasty ingredients.
I even met someone wonderful and fell in love. My disease is always a non-issue, and he is wonderfully empathetic and caring when I am unwell. The experience of loving and being loved by another person has made this experience a little less scary and has created a lovely sense of companionship in my life.
My feelings of self-confidence have soared. I am empowered by all the positive changes that have occurred in my life. My disease had been my greatest motivator, teaching me lessons it would have taken me a lifetime to understand. I feel more in touch with each aspect of my holistic being, and predict that my journey will continue to empower me to develop into a proud and confident individual that is not defined by disease.
I feel complete. Happy. Whole.
The journey into wellness and health is continuous, but it can be gorgeous.