My college campus wasn’t very big. It only took 10 minutes to walk across the entire thing, and less to go from class to class. But even so, I remember running out of one class to use the nearest bathroom, and walking, defeated, to the next building for my next class, just to have that dreaded feeling of urgency hit again.
Junior year of college was one of the hardest times I have had in dealing with my IBD. I had been diagnosed just two years prior, and I had had it for long enough to accept that I was never going to be healthy again. But since I was diagnosed at essentially the beginning of my college experience, I didn’t know enough about sharing it with other people, and I didn’t have any good friends to be supportive. Basically, every day of junior year was just dealing, trying to get through one day at a time, and hoping the next one would be better. This included many days spent missing class, staying near a bathroom, and visits to the doctor or ER.

Although I was unsure of how both my disease and my college career would turn out, and I had a long way to go with the acceptance of my condition and the confidence to really own it, I made two early promises to myself: 1. I would never use IBD as an excuse to get out of things and 2. I would keep trying as hard as I could to accomplish the things I wanted to. If it was going to stop me, it was going to have to try harder than this!

So I kept on trucking through, going to class when I could, working to stay caught up on schoolwork, learning about my disease and trying to figure out nutrition. By the end of the school year, all this had taken a toll. I told myself that I was going to finish no matter what, that giving up was not an option. But I was beginning to doubt myself.

I was feeling the pressure of finals, papers due, and especially a big group project I had going on. My teachers were fairly understanding about my absences and late homework, but I had a big presentation and I couldn’t let my group down. I had other people depending on me! The morning of our final presentation, I felt so sick that I drove to the doctor and walked in without an appointment. I was so exhausted and drained that I couldn’t even stay awake as I was waiting for him in the waiting room. He ended up prescribing a high dose of Prednisone to get me through this flare. Just what I needed before the most important week of the semester. Sigh!

I drove back to campus to prepare for my presentation, which gave me 20 minutes to think about how overwhelming everything was becoming. I got back to my apartment and the phone rang. A family friend was calling to check in and see how I was doing. It was perfect timing, as I vented about how sick and drained I felt, and how worried I was about my group presentation and the rest of finals.

He told me to stop stressing and think about the big picture. He told me that this presentation wasn’t going to make or break my whole life and career. I told him that he just didn’t understand. It wasn’t just my grade on the line, it was my group partners also. This presentation was half of our final grade! But he was right, and I realized it later. One grade wasn’t going to change my life. Who I was as a person, my positive spirit and perseverance would make me who I am. My strength and drive to succeed despite disease spoke louder than what ends up being a tiny factor in my college GPA.

He then passed the phone to his wife, who had also overcome some medical issues in her past, and was working as a nurse. What she had to say also stayed with me. I don’t even remember what the conversation was about, but at the end she said, “Don’t give up. It’s worth it.” And she, also, was right, as I would find out years later.

My presentation went well enough and my few final tests went by without incident. I was down to my final project of the year, a six page paper comparing different religions. Even though my teacher was flexible and usually gave the benefit of the doubt, I wanted to do a good job. But if you’ve ever tried to concentrate while on 60 mg of Prednisone, you know that even the simplest tasks can be difficult!

I wrote my paper and went back to read over the final proof…and realized it was a train wreck. Turns out lack of cohesion, run on sentences, and bouncing around topics are all side effects of Prednisone. It was one part awful and one part, I admit, kind of funny. But at that point, I didn’t care anymore. I walked it to my professor’s office to hand it in.

My professor for that class was one you remember forever. He was an old man with thick rimmed glasses who always referred to his wife as “The Lovely Susan”. He had survived a liver transplant and everyday his eyes told how thankful he was for a second chance at life. He was passionate about teaching and valued the life lessons he taught more than the academic ones.

I felt that a verbal disclaimer was necessary before reading my final paper. I had explained to him that it might not make sense, as I was on a high dose of steroids, but I did my best and I was proud to have finished out the semester. I was met with nothing but understanding, and he told me about his liver transplant, and that he had also been on Prednisone for an lengthy period, so he understood what it was like. We talked for a bit more, and before I left, he looked up at me and said, “I don’t know how you do it.”

That was one of the first times that I felt pride as a result of dealing with IBD. It hit me just then that he was right. If I would have taken time off of school, everyone would have understood. I had a perfectly good reason. But I didn’t. I finished, no matter what it took. And that was something to be proud of.

Here’s the thing. I don’t remember the grade I got on that presentation. Hell, I couldn’t even tell you my college GPA if you asked. But I can tell you three people who probably weren’t out to give me a life lesson ended up doing so, and left me with small memories of encouragement that have stayed with me, and that I’ve been able to pass onto others.

The first one- Things you think are important at the time might not be so important in the long run. Figure out what your true priorities are- and health is always a priority. You can always bounce back from a bad grade or job. But your health is irreplacable.
Second- Don’t give up. Just don’t. Life gets really hard sometimes, especially with a chronic illness. But it’s worth it to keep on fighting.
Third- Our experiences and battles are something to be proud of. Our diseases aren’t always embarrassing. We can use them to inspire others.
And one more lesson- you never know when you’re going to influence someone’s life, even with a few words or a kind act. So be supportive of others, and recognize the battles that we all face. And when someone graces you with these kind words, accept them, and keep them. Use them to keep you going, and when you’ve made it through, pass them on to someone new.

Megan is the co-creator of The Great Bowel Movement

Lauren Baker’s story: How a simple dress gave back my self-confidence. Lauren’s Story: When Giving Up a Dream Really is the Best Thing

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  1. I am so proud to know you, Megan. This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Steven Defour says:

    It really surprises me how strong some (quite a lot, probably) girls and women can be. I’m a man, dealing with UC for 19 years now and I’m far from that strong (I wished I would be stronger to be able to deal a bit better with my disease & with life). Even got emotional while reading this wonderful article.Thanks for writing down your story, Megan, it will be a support for me as I’m dealing with another flare-up at the moment, aftr only a year.

  3. kerriann clark says:

    Megan- I was a fighter in the beginning and most recently I’ve fallen prey to my disease. The ostomy doesn’t feel like working because of the huge motility disorder I have and had through all of my surgeries. I thought I’d feel better and I don’t.I haven’t worked out in 3 weeks because I am so weak and that was the 1 thing I could accomplish daily and I can’t even do that. I am hurting and slowly fading,my Mom found these websites. I belong to the usuals but they are nothing like this! I’m glad to have found you all and look forward to sharing my stories with you all!

  4. Keri says:

    I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this because this was me to a T in college. I always took my academic life very seriously. Of course I wanted the good grades, but it was more than just wanting the A—it was wanting to do my best. Not only do I take pride in my work, but I also take my writing very seriously and I’m very critical of it. So, of course, I would work myself to the bone on every assignment. A few times I had people tell me to “just do ‘B work’ or ‘C work’ and be done with it, that I’d still pass. But I didn’t know how to write a paper that was A, B or C quality. The only thing I knew was to do my best. And I just couldn’t submit work that didn’t meet the standards I’d set for myself. But there were nights I ran out of time and energy and just had to stop pushing so hard. And, you know, I’d usually still do fine (just as everyone had assured me I would). And when I’d look back at the work I’d been critical of, I’d realize down the line that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d made it out to be.
    You’re absolutely right. School is important. Work is important. But health is more important. There were times I didn’t get the grade I wanted, but I had to tell myself it was more about the big picture. I used to get so nervous before exams that I’d study up until the test was in front of me and then keep repeating things in my head. Once I felt so sick but tried to stay up studying, fell asleep, studied on my way to class…and then completely blanked on the exam and basically had a panic attack. Fortunately my professor was incredibly understanding and let me stay after class to take another shot at it after I’d eaten something and composed myself. Somewhere along the way I started studying a few hours before an exam so I’d retain the information better, got to the room and told myself, “It is what it is.” I figured I know what I know, and now I just have to deal with what’s in front of me, stay calm and use my common sense. Did I still stress sometimes? Oh yeah. But I at least got to a point where I realized there’s only so much I can do.

    I will say, though, that I was very proud of myself for graduating. I got sick right before my first year of college. I had family encouraging me to take a medical leave, but I did’t want to fall behind the rest of my class and was determined to at least try to stick it out. Because I was so hard on myself I don’t know how I got through all of that work and all of those classes while feeling as horrible as I did some days. Most professors were very understanding. I tried not to take any extensions unless they were absolutely necessary, and when I did I tried to do extra work. But there was this one time when I had a job on campus, an internship in NYC twice a week, two classes and two group projects I was the team leader for. I had an important assignment and only two days to get it done, neither of which I’d be home long for with my schedule. The day it was due I felt incredibly sick and just couldn’t focus, but I was told it would be unfair to grant me any sort of extension and to turn it what I could. I don’t know how, but I managed to finish the assignment and submit it online with probably 30 seconds to spare. And at that point, it didn’t matter to me what grade I got. All that mattered was the fact that I finished. It was out of my hands and time to move on.

    I think that’s really how you have to try to look at things. Only worry about what you can control right now. Stressing about the past and the future is too much pressure for anyone. I came to really love the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” I actually found a bracelet with those words engraved and got it as a reminder to myself.

    Health has to come first. And the people who will be a part of your “big picture” will understand that.

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