College | Daily Life | IBD
Managing an IBD diagnosis in and of itself is challenging. Handling an IBD diagnosis alongside school can be downright discouraging. Adding IBD symptoms to a growing pile of classwork, projects, and extracurriculars is overwhelming.
I was a junior in college when I began experiencing symptoms that would lead to my Crohn’s diagnosis. In addition to academics, I competed as an intercollegiate athlete. This balancing act between academics and athletics left little space for self-care. So, when I began suffering from abdominal pain and bloody stools, I dismissed the issues because I thought I had no time to deal with such problems.
The first time I tried this out, I got lucky. My symptoms resolved, and I concluded I had effectively diverted one problem. Now, I could go back to focusing completely on school and sports without disruption. However, this was wishful thinking.
Come December, my symptoms returned with a vengeance. There was no dismissing these issues now. Focusing in class became a struggle with most of my concentration centered on abdominal pain. Trying to study after dinner was near impossible as I often found myself lying in bed waiting for the pain to subside before actually getting to my studies. And, attempting to train as a cross country/track and field athlete meant multiple restroom stops during runs and the constant fear of embarrassment and shame for the lack of control over my own body.
Ignoring my symptoms was no longer an option. Even though my schedule was packed to the brim, I knew I needed to meet with a gastroenterologist. By late February, I received a Crohn’s diagnosis and began a treatment plan.
For those with IBD, you know receiving a diagnosis and beginning treatment does not mean all symptoms just disappear. IBD management is a time commitment, and oftentimes, one we might not necessarily want to prioritize with everything else going on in our lives. This is how I felt.
As I navigated this new diagnosis, I noticed myself attempting to just push through symptoms in order to focus on what I thought was important – school and sport. Now don’t get me wrong, these two aspects of my life were and are important, but ultimately, taking care of our health should be a top priority. You cannot fully engage with the world if you do not maintain your physical and mental health first.
Although I was able to hold everything together from an academic and athletic standpoint, my symptom improvement was not where I wanted it to be. This ultimately led me to realize I simply could not do it all. I was not some machine that could constantly continue to function upon demand – I knew I needed to change aspects of school and sport to get better.
At first, I found myself hesitant to reach out for help and support. I worried that people would think I was dramatic if I opened up to them about struggling and needing accommodations. Also, given the lack of public knowledge on IBD, I was embarrassed to share my condition with my peers. I did not know if others my age would have the maturity to understand what I was going through without poking fun at certain aspects of my Crohn’s.
I began by reaching out to my professors as I could not continue to succeed in academics without receiving extensions on certain assignments or without missing classes on occasion for appointments. The empathy extended to me from my professors ended up shocking me. They had no doubts pertaining to my struggles with this recent diagnosis and only wanted to know how they could help. Having this support and flexibility from my professors allowed me to manage my academics while still taking care of my Crohn’s – it also gave me the courage to reach out to my teammates as well.
When I opened up to members of my team about my diagnosis, I was again surprised. Each individual was entirely supportive. Several of my teammates not familiar with Crohn’s even had further questions on what IBD was and how they could better help me. With the backing of my team, I finally felt like I could listen to my body when I was practicing or competing. If my symptoms were beginning to flare up on a run, I knew I could fall back and run at a slower pace or end my run early without the fear of disappointing my team.
Speaking up about my Crohn’s disease with my professors and peers made me realize people are often much more empathetic and supportive than we may believe. Of course, there were individuals who were not so understanding. An ex-boyfriend told me “I think you are being over-the-top. There’s no way you could have Crohn’s the rest of your life, or it could hurt that bad.” An old friend told me “Crohn’s would have never happened to you if you just took the vitamins I sold.” However, these cases do not have to be the norm, and by reaching out for help, you can and will find those who ultimately understand and care for you.
Being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease during college taught me two main things. One, our bodies can only do so much, and prioritization of our health is a must. Two, managing IBD is hard but it becomes easier when you reach out to those around you for help. If I could go back in time to my junior year of college to tell myself one thing, it would be to “have confidence in my ability to show resilience and respect for my body in the face of this disease and to know I am not alone in this battle.”