Her Story: I’m A College Student with Crohn’s Disease

The word “normal” never sat well with me when I was growing up. Whether it was with sports, homework, or even family game night, I always wanted to stand out from the crowd. For the longest time I fought to be anything but normal—but now, normal is all I crave to be.

I can still remember when it was time to start thinking about college. It was the year I had to miss over forty days of school. For most high school students, junior year is the time when your GPA matters that much more, when teachers start grilling you with questions about college and when you’re stressing about applications. Like any other high school student, I was dealing with all of that—but this was also the year I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease.


Crohn’s disease is a form of inflammatory bowel disease. The way that I always describe it to my friends is that on most days, I have significant stomachaches that just don’t go away. It seems silly to describe it in such simple terms, and it can be hard for others to understand just how much the stomachaches can affect my day-to-day life—in my case, I also get daily flair-ups of intense nausea that can last for days.

When I was first diagnosed, I was in constant denial. I was healthy, right? This couldn’t be right. But doctors soon insisted on new medications, multiple tests and strict changes to my diet. I was frustrated, though, and fought any decision that had to be made in the process, even though I knew in the back of my mind they could probably help. With few answers from my doctors and as my constant pain went nowhere, my frustration grew.

I went away to college for my fall semester in 2011, and I couldn’t have been more excited. This was a place where nobody knew me as the girl who was sick all the time.  I had a clean slate with an entirely new community. I craved the entire college experience, and I wanted it in every way possible. At first I joined multiple clubs and I started going out with large groups of friends. What I was choosing to ignore in all of my excitement, however, was just how ill I was starting to feel.


As the year continued most college students started to worry about gaining that dreaded “freshman fifteen.” Meanwhile, I was starting to feel the effects of a deteriorating body. My body was unable to retain sustenance due to the blockages that had formed in my small intestine. I was losing weight quickly, and it became noticeable in my appearance. The more I pushed myself, the worse I felt. But slowing down in school was something I would have though of as failure; and because failure has never been an option in my eyes, I pushed on through the nagging pain.

Eventually, though I wanted nothing more than to feel strong enough to go socialize or join a new club, all I could focus on was making it through the bare minimum each day. I felt weak and needed to rest in bed most days. Even making it out of dorms and all the way to classes felt like a physical struggle—but I still managed to maintain high grades in all of my courses.


I ignored the pain, and for a while, that worked. But I learned the hard way that when it comes to Crohn’s, it’s important to address the illness right away as soon as you’re not feeling well—otherwise, the pain will come back and hit you even harder.

I made it through my first year, but going into my sophomore year, I was at my worst both physically and mentally. My illness was dragging me down—it affected me so much that even my personality changed. I went from being that sarcastic-yet-kind girl to a totally negative version of myself. I realized I had let my Crohn’s take over—I had resigned to thinking there was nothing I could do but stay in constant pain.

That year, my doctors decided to do surgery on my small intestine to help relieve some of the damage and scar tissue that was in my intestine after the years of distress it had been in. Unfortunately, the surgery had to take place two weeks before my final exams that fall semester—but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was confident that I could take my final exams early and get them out of the way before my surgery, but when I went to speak to the assistant dean about my plan, she had a different idea, suggesting that I take a medical leave of absence instead—which I knew would set me back on my goals of graduating on time. The administration had never dealt with a case like mine before, and much to my disappointment, they didn’t feel I could perform well on exams if I ended my semester two weeks early. It made me feel like they associated my illness with weakness.

This frustration fueled my fire—I like to think of myself as a strong, confident young woman, and I was even more determined to show that I could do this without setting my education back. I went ahead and spoke with each of my professors individually, and set up dates with them to take my finals ahead of time and turn in any last assignments with earlier deadlines. Fortunately, they responded well and were both accommodating and grateful that I was taking care of this ahead of time. Despite my consistently progressing disease and the worsening of my health, I pushed ahead, maintaining my high GPA and finishing my semester successfully.


Winter break is a time for family, friends and of course, rest and relaxation—but my rest was for a whole different reason. I’d had two and a half feet of my small intestine removed at the beginning of break, and recovery was no simply task—in fact, it was one of the hardest things I’d ever faced. What I thought would take around six weeks took closer to six months for me to really get back to my true self. Even though I was back up and walking and able to leave the hospital days earlier than anticipated, the weight loss I had experienced earlier on had reached a frightening low, I was at only ninety-eight pounds when I left the hospital, so frail I didn’t think I could even walk from class to class, and it took a long time for my body to get back to a weight that could be considered healthy.  

But no matter what, I only used this as motivation to make changes in my life. I decided to leave my old school, which didn’t have the tools to support me, and found a new one that could. Not only does my school now help me overcome some of my daily struggles, it’s also encouraging of what I am able to accomplish. Not only that, I’ve met amazing people who make an effort to understand my illness. I feel like I can finally show who I really am, rather than the person that my Crohn’s was projecting.


This new environment gave me the chance to grow further—and I took every opportunity to become more involved on campus. Even as transfer student, I was named the Advertising Club’s president for the upcoming year and I also landed my dream internship with a prestigious, emerging travel company.

Each day is still a struggle, but I have found better ways to manage my Crohn’s and a university with the tools to help. Transferring after surgery gave me the hope I needed for the normalcy I am always seeking. I can finally see my future without the goggles of my chronic illness. I see who I want to be, and I see where I want to go. I may not know the details exactly, but one thing I do know is that I no longer live with my Crohn’s; my Crohn’s now has to live with me.

 

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