Feeling 22 was not, as Taylor Swift obnoxiously sings, “happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time.” For me, feeling 22 was severe stomach pain matched with a little hope that I would no longer find myself in the fetal position of pain every hour on the hour.
22 and a Half: Six months of Crohn’s Disease, Treatment and Regaining Life
The symptoms started in October 2012 with what I thought were reactions to stress and bad Chipotle. When (literally) gut-wrenching aches didn’t stop even after my May graduation, I started to suspect that a funky chicken burrito and heavy workload weren’t to blame. Come June, I had no energy, no appetite and spent more time in Child’s Pose than I ever did in my four years of devoted yoga practices (which I had also given up out of lack of motivation and strength). Because I had lost my taste for pretty much all types of food — particularly chocolate, which made me nauseated just to smell — my weight dropped lower than it had ever been when I was healthy. Sure, I looked great, but I felt like crap.
The night I decided I had to do something about it was when I had returned in late June to Columbia, Mo. to move out of my college apartment. Three friends and I went out to a bar for a few beers and were discussing what we all wanted to do with our post-grad lives. One of them, currently working on his masters in bioengineering, talked about his career goals. I would have been listening if I hadn’t been trying so hard not to scream from the pain radiating through my stomach. That had been the game I had played for the last eight months: Ignore the knife plunging through your stomach. Smile. Nod. Repeat.
And I had gotten away with it, too. Until I realized that here Ryan was telling me something fascinating about his life that I cared about, and I couldn’t focus on it enough to even understand what he was saying because I was too busy pretending not to be sick. How many other things had I missed because of this?
So I came home and finally submitted to going through the tests to find out what was wrong with me. Two days before turning the Big Two-Two in July, I went in for what I called “Let’s Explore Kate’s Innards Day.” While being prepped, the nurses kept asking who my general practitioner was, but I didn’t have one. “I’m usually healthy,” I slurred as the anesthesia cocktail kicked in. I hadn’t been to a doctor for two years before all this started.
In a groggy haze after the procedure, I half-listened to my doctor give my parents the diagnosis. My immune system, like the summa cum laude grad it protects, is an overachiever — it attacks germs, viruses and villainous bacteria, and goes the extra mile to eat away at my entire digestive system.
Crohn’s wasn’t exactly a surprise to any of us. My dad has had it for decades, which was both a blessing and a curse. While I had an idea of what the disease was because all my life I had known about it, the only treatment I had ever seen work was two surgeries and a pharmacy-worth of medication. Of course, my dad waited through years of stomach pain before going to a doctor and had to switch gastroenterologists three times before he found one, Dr. Andrew Bregman, who knew how to treat Crohn’s properly. I had waited eight months and was now seeing Bregman’s protégé.
Instead of the knife, I face a bimonthly needle. Since August I receive an IV treatment of Remicade at the hospital every eight weeks. Each time I take a seat in one of the physician treatment facility’s recliners, I pretend I’m being hooked up to the Matrix. A friend suggested that maybe after my first treatment I’d emerge from the hospital knowing Kung Fu.
Sadly, that didn’t happen, but something even better has come from the diagnosis and subsequent treatment. My passion for running and yoga has returned, and I eat like a teenage boy. I’ve regained my energy, motivation and (much to my chagrin) the 15 pounds I lost while sick, thanks to my newfound love of squeeze cheese and Nilla Wafers. I might not look as svelte as I did back in June, but I certainly feel a lot better. So that was another lesson of this — you might finally hit your goal weight, but it’s not worth it if you don’t feel good enough to go out and flaunt it.
As for remembering what my friend plans to do with his Masters degree in bioengineering? After my first treatment I went down to St. Louis to visit the same friends and got to ask again, this time cognizant during his answer. He told me. I listened. Now I can’t remember it because it’s so specifically technical and I’m a humble journalist with a movie-addled brain — but he wants to work on the hands-on side of research.
I don’t write this article to remind readers of the medical portion of Aunt Mildred’s annual Christmas letter. Crohn’s is a disease that a lot of people suffer with — and it presents itself in people enjoying their early 20s. The problem is that so many of us (and this includes me) are unwilling to go to a doctor or chalk it up to a crummy college diet of pizza or beer. That’s when we wait until the disease has caused ulcers and even sometimes holes in our digestive system that take a lot more than booting up to the Matrix to fix. If my story does anything, hopefully it gets others aware of the dangers of letting pain go ignored. Admitting that you need medical help isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, it can help you regain your strength.
Kate Everson is Chicago journalist and University of Missouri alumna. By day she is an associate editor for four HR industry magazines. By night, she reviews films, outlines fiction novels with tough female leads and dreams of being the first person to win two Oscars in the same night for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay. When her fingers aren’t getting exercise bouncing across her keyboard, she’s reading Palahniuk and Vonnegut, practicing her Batgirl skills in the dojo or waiting by the mailbox for her Hogwarts letter. As Katharine Hepburn said: “Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.”