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My name is Alyssa Zeldenrust and I’ve been involved in Girls With Guts since the beginning. I’ll never forget the magic of that first retreat in Michigan where I made friends who I still talk to almost ten years later. I’ve had Crohn’s disease since 2003 and a permanent ileostomy since 2010, and it’s been a rough journey. I count myself extremely lucky to have found a group of such amazing women to walk alongside me.

The motto where I work, Stealth Belt Inc., is “Go Anywhere. Do Anything.” And Girls With Guts is all about empowering women to take charge of their physical and mental health, so I felt like going to the retreat was important for personal growth and some of the goals I’ve been setting for myself after feeling stuck in an illness rut for way too long. Going to the 2022 retreat was a big deal for me. I was in the hospital the week before. I’m currently anemic, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. I knew it would be great for my mental health, and so did my family, so they helped make sure I got there. I highly recommend getting wheelchair assistance at the airport if you’re low on energy.

The sense of relief I felt when I saw my girls was amazing. It’s been so long since I’ve been social in general, let alone with my pen pals and online friends. Whoever shows up, it always ends up feeling like a unique sort of home. We end up talking about the deepest, most intimate struggles we hide from most of the world.

I had to face challenges as I pushed myself to go to New York and take full advantage of all the activities, but I surprised myself with my strength and I had external support the whole time. I was weak and still in recovery mode, emotionally down because I’m lonely and sick lately, there was no heat in our cabins, and I came down with COVID-19.

I am afraid of heights, and I have no upper body strength, so obviously I did the high ropes course. Because I was posting on social media for Stealth Belt, there’s some nice footage of my screaming, but I did it! I got stuck on a giant net, but one of my trusty friends helped pull me the rest of the way. I felt like a cat stuck up a tree.

Our speakers and breakout small group sessions helped me confront societal norms and body image issues, and during our photoshoot I felt great because people were cheering me on. The photoshoot was all about empowering us to feel great, and I’ll remember it for a while as I keep finding gold glitter in my stuff. I got so much advice from the girls as well as our speakers, and I have notes on who to call about a few sensitive topics. I’m going to start seeing a GI psychologist regularly, and I feel like I’m better armed against my depression and anxiety a bit more now.

Mental health is a huge issue for me, and so is self-doubt and sometimes even hatred. Being uplifted and  provided with valuable resources and new perspectives is a whole unique experience I’m still processing every day. Seeing myself through the eyes of my enthusiastic friends brought me to tears more than once.

The levels of both pain and empathy were overwhelming. I would like to thank every attendee for the support and vulnerability I witnessed. You’re all brave, too, dear readers, for seeking help here and opening up to a community. Thank you to all our volunteers who make Girls With Guts possible. I’m deeply grateful for all of you. My challenges are smaller when I have good company.

Alyssa Zeldenrust has Crohn’s disease, an ileostomy, and the extra-intestinal complication of a dark sense of humor. She currently lives in the Chicago area with her parents and tiny dog. Alyssa enjoys writing letters, hiking, learning new skills, profane calligraphy, and creating art.
Finding Relief through Community: Megan’s 2022 Annual Retreat Experience

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