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To Little Jennie

To my 12-year-old, newly diagnosed self:

Jennie David on the 4th of July just a couple months before being diagnosed with Crohn's disease

For a long time, you will regret your decision to tell your parents that you were hurting. You will wish you had kept the pain and the blood and the fear a secret so that you wouldn’t be different and sick.  You will wish it very much, using up your wishes on birthday cakes and fallen eyelashes. But first, let me tell you, you did the right thing and that not telling your parents would not have kept you from getting sick.

 


Defining and Defying

As of today, I joined ‘the real world’ - aka started my first real-world-full-time-look-I’m-an-adult-honest-to-goodness-getting-paid job. Today went as follows: 1) I ran into the PI of the study (who’s the head of the division, and who I’ve worked for the past couple of summers) and he gave me a hug (the day was off to a good start) 2) Got my ID badge which officially says “Jennie David, Cardiac Surgery, Research” - AWESOME 3) Found out that my ID badge gave me access to the OR (unnecessary, but totally cool nonetheless) 4) Geeked out with a co-worker over the research studies 5) Nearly drooled on my computer at an abstract that’s being presented at an international conference in a couple of weeks where I’m listed as a co-author.

 

Graduating from college is more or less synonymous with the phrase, “Here comes the real world!” To paraphrase a speaker at graduation, if this is the real world, where was I living for the past 21 years? The dictionary defines real as, “actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.” I would therefore like to argue that my entire life has actually existed and occurred in fact and has neither been imagined or supposed - so I would like to believe it’s all been quite real. The question becomes - what does joining ‘the real world’ mean?

 

For those of us living with chronic illnesses, we joined ‘the real world’ a long time ago, often years before our contemporaries. I would gander to think that ‘the real world’ refers to a certain consciousness, when you are acutely aware that your actions have consequences, that things matter, that responsibilities have weight, that bills need to be paid on time, and that if you put dark jeans in with white laundry you will dye all of your underwear blue. To quote Joan Didion in ‘Goodbye to All That’, a favorite essay of mine (that I highly suggest you read if you find yourself entering ‘the real world’), “That was the year... when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

 

Definitions are, in virtually every way, relative and changing. Entering adulthood is different for everyone, just as living with an illness is or even a person’s preferences for candy. ‘The real world’ - or the awareness that you have a choice in making things the way you want them - isn’t something that’s prescribed only to the cohort of recent college graduates, it’s something that can happen at any time to any of us. For me, I was 12 and newly diagnosed and began to realize that I had the ability to define what Crohn’s meant for me and to defy what others thought it meant.

 

There is a difference between being chronically ill (a physical reality) and living with a chronic illness (the emotional experience). Today, in the midst of loving my new ID and reading over papers, I was temporarily bothered by the psorasis sprouting along my arms and legs and the ache in my abdomen compliments of my inflamed guts grumbling. Does it mean I didn’t enjoy my first day? Does it mean I can’t be successful at my job? Of course not. I’m just a girl who has a lot of goals and dreams and will work my butt off to get there - step one, doing my best at my research job, step two, getting where I want to go. I’m someone in my own right, and my Crohn’s fits in, but it does not define me in and of itself.

 

I remember the first time I ever heard the term ‘glass ceiling’ and thinking it was a funny way of talking about limitations. After all, even if it’s a glass ceiling, you can see the sky, so is it really that bad? But I think that’s the point - you can see what’s out there, but you’re boxed in and can’t get out. We all have preconceived notions about what it means to live with a chronic illness - we might think it means we can’t have a job, or a significant other, or move away from home, and so on. But at the end of the day, we are free to choose our own definitions - and they can change - and we are free to defy the expectation that a life of illness is a life of suffering.

 

So go ahead - defy expectations, define yourself according to yourself, shatter those glass ceilings. You’re already living in the real world, so go out there and do a downright gutsy job of it.

 

Jennie


Body Image & IBD

Having your body at the center of ongoing medical scrutiny is not the ideal situation in which to develop an individual and autonomous body image. We make room for scars and side effects, sometimes feeling as though who we are (and who we want to be) shrinks more and more. Developing a positive sense of self and body image is something every kid must face, but especially when it comes to IBD there is a role for everyone to play.


First and Last

There are evenings like tonight that I am sure I will remember in thirty years. There’s nothing remarkable about tonight, just a quiet evening at home, only it entails being forced to watch the school’s football field undergo a Cinderella transformation into my way-too-soon college graduation. And as such, I am overcome with a simultaneous sense of relief and panic – causing me to nearly freak out at the sight of the stage being built with a near “WAIT, I AM NOT READY TO LEAVE”. But alas, no one would hear me, so I will spare my neighbors the screaming.


All or Nothing

This semester alone, I have heard the phase “all or nothing” easily a gazillion times. Okay, I might be exaggerating here, but what I’m trying to say is that my psychology classes have discussed – repeatedly, at length each time – the ‘danger’ in “all or nothing” thinking. And it’s very true, because things are never black or white, things are not all or nothing. It’s not as easy as saying that someone is sick or healthy, there are grey areas in the middle, that slick slide you find yourself on traveling from one side to the other.

 

I hear my professors say this – I have proof of this scrawled in my doctor-worthy handwriting – and yet, I watch them crash through the glass walls they just built. Today in a class, a guest lecturer was talking about chronic pain. I know the guest lecturer meant well and he was in truth ultimately very determined to make a difference for those living with chronic pain.

 

But – some rules of thumb for doctors/parents/anyone reading this: not everyone who will deal with chronic pain/illness is anxious or depressed. Everyone (illness or otherwise) will deal with anxious and depressed moments, absolutely, but that does not mean they present with clinical psychopathology or that it is the heart of the problem.

 

One of the points this lecturer made was to help encourage positive thinking, active lifestyles, and a sense of control. So here’s an important note – if you want patients to have positive thinking, the doctor has to be positive with them, if you want patients to have a sense of control (and better yet, not just a sense but actual control), then a doctor has to be willing to share. It’s not all or nothing, it’s not you versus me, it’s us, here together – the ‘chronic’ should be a hint that there’s a plethora of time together. So use it wisely.

 

With each passing lecture, the urge to stand on my chair and shout (no, not ‘Captain my captain’, though that would be pretty awesome) “Hey you, listen, I’m a patient and I disagree. You can’t judge me or make blanket statements about me and all patients because you don’t know me.” This might cause massive disruption to the class and/or result in a stern conversation about being adults and not interrupting others when they’re speaking. But, like every kid knows, if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say it at all.

 

Sometimes I think people forget that patients are not lab rats. We’re not a separate population, smushed somewhere between children and adults. It’s like wearing one of those really itchy and constricting outfits for a family function and all you want to do is rip it off, but that would be impolite and people might stare so you smile tightly and keep your mouth closed. It is so polarizing to say people can only be a patient or a doctor, no in-between space, or shared community or feelings or beliefs. One or the other. All or nothing.

 

So I will stand up metaphorically on my chair (though, in reality, this involves me typing passionately at my computer) and declare that I am not just a patient, it is not black or white, not every person with a medical issue experiences anxiety or depression or is incapacitated crying ‘why me’ in a corner with a sappy violin playing in the background. Most of us are strong and capable and fighting – we’re advocates and whole, real, amazing people. We are every color imaginable, because black and white is boring, we are everything because to be all or nothing is belittling and untrue. We are loud, and we will never be quiet.

 

Jennie


Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner (or a Space-Saving Bag)

Today in class, a guest lecturer talked about patients with chronic illness “having to get used to” their new roles as patients. Those words were not the main point of the sentence; they were the words you say trying to pad the time, but nevertheless they were there, sandwiched in between other ideas. It made me think of space-saving storage bags. My grandparents bought them years ago, in an effort to control the umpteen crocheted afghans that had begun to overtake their Florida condo.

There’s a sense of disbelief – or at least at 13 I possessed such a notion – that overtakes you when watching someone demonstrate a space-saving bag. They show you the pile of items to be stored and the nonsensically small bag that the items will supposedly all fit into. No, your reasonable brain informs you, this is impossible; it is foolish, for it seems like trying to fit the entire American population into the state of Rhode Island. But the miracle is performed; disregarding your doubt, the vacuum is hooked up to a special port in the bag, sucking air out and shrinking down the large pile until it is neatly, possibly even comfortably, squished in the teeny space-saving bag. And this is what I thought of, as the speaker lectured, about fitting into bags that can't possibly contain the whole of you - until you shrink.

There is something about being a patient that is belittling, and for the chronically ill, something that is voluntarily so. We comply and save our feelings for favorite books, comfort food, the song that always makes us smile, the memory of our first car, our first kiss, our first failure, plans to travel the world, and whatever else makes us up.  Instead we don the Johnny shirt, shrinking into our own space-saving bag. We become reduced down to our disease; a list of symptoms, a medicine cabinet of pills, a medical record number.

If there is a manual on how to deal with a chronic illness, I missed it. As far as I'm concerned there are no rules, all you can do is live (and trip) gracefully. Yes, it is important for people with chronic illnesses to learn about their illness and to adjust to what it means (read: adjust emotionally not adjust your expectations about your life's possibilities).  But it is also important to be true to yourself.  When I wake up in the morning and get ready for class, or sing along to some favorite lyrics, or tell my parents about my day, or make cupcakes for my roommates; I am not my disease. I am Jennie. I am a girl graduating from college who wishes Patrick Dempsey would marry her - and so many other things. I politely, but fervently, refuse to be put in a space-saving bag, because it’s impossible to shrink me down and after years of being reduced to a diagnosis, I will no longer allow it.

The noun ‘doctor’ comes from the Latin ‘docere’, which means ‘teach’. ‘Patient’, on the other hand, is also Latin but means ‘suffering’. Even if you can manage to overlook the double meaning of patients having to be patient, the roots of the words speak for themselves. But the best doctors are the ones who suffer alongside you, who see the pain you’re too proud to admit to, who are normal and everyday and accessible and in that way wholly incredible and wonderful. And the best patients are the ones who never pass up the opportunity to teach a doctor, a nurse, or a medical student. The relationship between a patient and a doctor is dynamic and constantly evolving, and only when we can understand and respect it as a process will we ever be able to meaningfully work together – to quote a Taylor Swift song (but of course), “two is better than one”.

So be a little rebellious (if you’re like me, you never really went through the traditional teenage rebellion phase [Mom, Dad, feel free to disagree], you’ve earned it). You don’t fit in a space-saving bag, so don’t bother trying. Be patient with yourself, but no need to be only a patient – you are a teacher, you are incredible, you are a thousand other things, and (in the words of a fellow Crohnie) you deserve a beautiful life. That, my friends, is impossible to fit in a space-saving bag.

Jennie


Follow The Leader

Many years ago now, I was at an IBD conference with several other patients. It was the last day of the conference, and we were sitting in a room, chatting at white-clothed tables with our suitcases at our feet. At 16, I was the youngest in the group by a couple of years - the others were a mix of guys and girls: college-students, with boyfriends and jobs and so on. The moment that is so clear in my mind all of these years later was sitting next to one girl I admired so much and bursting into tears. Alarmed (she had only known me for 48 hours, it was alarming to start sobbing!), she asked me what was wrong. Through my tears and melodrama I blubbered, “I don’t want to go home! No one else understands me like you guys do!”

 

Even though it sounds silly and very over the top, to my younger self, it seemed like nothing had ever been more true. I suddenly had a family of older brothers and sisters who got it, who could coach me from the sidelines and pick me up as I tripped trying to figure out adolescence with a chronic illness. And interestingly, if you asked the group why they were involved, the answer was always the same - so the younger versions of themselves would have the support and encouragement.

 

And it’s true - knowing someone else like you could do it means so much, it’s the I-think-I-can to the I-KNOW-I-can attitude switch, which is priceless. For me, that was the moment when I was suddenly in charge of my life again, and since then I have been fortunate enough to be that support for other people. Having mentors and people to look up to, gave me hope when things felt small and constrained, and in a lot of ways it gave me the fuel to keep going.

 

I am still in touch with my IBD friends from that first conference. Many of them are engaged or married, working and successful, one girl and her husband even have an adorable little boy. Yes, they are still sick, they still struggle to find the balance between patient and person, but they are living and doing an incredible job at it. Their mentorship to me is something that I will never be able to adequately thank them for, so instead I hope that by aspiring to be like them I will make them proud.

 

Jennie


I've Had It Up to Here

I returned home on Tuesday evening, dropped my bag on the floor, sighed, and looked at the pile of clothes still sitting on a table beside my desk and thought, ‘Thanks for the reminder.’ I had been looking forward to attending a great IBD meeting in Montreal this past weekend - planning to, but in the end my unruly body decided that traveling was not a good idea. Consequently, I missed the conference, my friends, and had left the pile of clothes atop that table and spent the past near-week in the hospital.

 

I find that when I’m hospitalized, for the first few days with the nausea and upchucking and pain meds and exhaustion, I’m relatively okay with being in the hospital. Relatively. But then I reach a point, a threshold level, when I’m feeling okay enough or frustrated enough or just as though I’ve had enough and feel the inescapable need to devise my exit strategy.

 

Crawling into my own bed last night, I felt as though I simultaneously belonged nowhere and everywhere. There’s an ease in being transposed in hospital, academic, or home situations that is comforting but alarming. The same habits flood back to me - using my medical lingo (“No an 18 French is not acceptable, please get a 10 French, and I’ll be putting in the NG tube myself, thank you very much”), putting my disease history in chronological order (deciding, as doctors have taught me, what is relevant and what is ‘personal’), reciting my IV speech (“I’m a hard stick, go a little higher or a little lower, but try wherever you think you can get it”), and explaining my ever-faithful teddy bear companion (yes, even at 21 years old). It’s routine. But it’s also disorienting, a feeling that leaves me awake at night, blinking at the ceiling, wondering when the bruises on my arms will fade and knowing that the ones on my spirit may never quite heal. This is not intended to sound fatalistic or depressive, just honest, a feeling that sucks me back to a fetal position regardless of the 9 years of IBD, until I feel like a little girl just wanting to be hugged.

 

A friend, who was at the conference that I missed, was texting me today and asked me how I was doing. Throughout our conversation, he asked me if I was taking it easy and taking care of myself. I replied that I think we both do a much better job of taking care of others than taking care of ourselves. I’m the first one to hold someone’s hand, to hug them, to offer company to the hospital or an equally difficult/upsetting task, yet the last one to ask for my hair to be held back as I vomit. And luckily for me, I have friends who do not ask (because they know I’ll politely decline) and help me out anyway and I love them for it.

 

Similar to my reaction to the over-sized NG tube, sometimes that tantrum of “It’s just NOT FAIR” bubbles to the surface. And that’s okay, even if it feels like something I should’ve gotten over. When I’ve had it up to here, near-tears and all, the comfort of having people who ‘get it’ is immensely helpful. I don’t have to explain myself to them, and it makes me really believe that there will be more conferences, more opportunities, despite the pain and frustration that accompanies any chronic illness.

 

My only advice when it comes to ‘having-it-up-to-here-moments’: eat a cupcake (if tolerable), stare at a picture of PDemps for a while, listen to a favorite song, dig up your old yearbook and reread notes that make your heart warm, hug someone, and remember that there are always people in the wings waiting to catch you.

 

Jennie


Never Say Never

Under normal circumstances, I would avoid quoting my fellow countryman Justin Bieber in the title, but this my friends is anything but a normal circumstance. You see, I have set a record for myself. I went the entire semester without being in the hospital.

 

My first thought, ‘Is this what college is supposed to be like?’ Answer: apparently. Who knew. I managed to forgo my frequent flyer status at the local hospital (after all, the rewards are less than desirable, I’ve already ‘won’ enough scars to last me a lifetime) and get to all of my classes. I didn’t miss a class for feeling sick - instead I missed a couple of classes for attending an IBD conference and running a half-marathon. Sure beats my ‘sorry-I-decided-to-live-in-the-hospital-now’ line that has accompanied every semester.

 

My parent’s reaction to this: IT’S ABOUT TIME (yes, the feeling can only be expressed in caps). This semester has been full of college firsts - having a kitchen, living with roommates, starting my senior thesis. I think of my roomies, we’ll call them Maya, Mimi, and Ana, and can’t remember a time when I didn’t come home and see their faces, grinning at me, or bake them cupcakes or have silly dance parties to Disney songs. I felt this kind of way after my ostomy surgery a couple of years ago, like the reset button had been pressed and all of a sudden I was turned out bright and shiny (quoting Grey’s Anatomy, but of course).

 

If things were always sunny, I wouldn’t know any different. But when things are dark sometimes, it's nothing short of glorious to open your arms wide and squint into the sun. Not metaphorically, having had a rough go of it for my freshman through junior years, it means all the more to me to have had a wonderful fall semester of my senior year.

 

But this is not to say that challenges are not hiding behind my closet door and under my (impossibly high) bed (note: the bed is very high, I have a stool to propel me atop it). My small gut is dotted with grumpy ulcers, ready and waiting it seems to rain on my beautiful parade. But now it’s different - I have a say in my care, an absolutely wonderful GI, roommates and the best of friends who are all to willing to pick up prescriptions and keep track of what I’ve eaten during the day (“Jennie-fer, what have you had to eat today?” note: ‘Jennie-fer’ is my name for when I’m ‘in trouble’), and just be there and not talk about IBD or bowels or bags and just be 21. Of course sometimes I’m scared, sometimes there are tears, and sometimes I am angry that my body will never give me a break.

 

But more often than that, I am so very happy to be where I am. The other day I was standing in my living room on the phone with my Mom, and had this thought:  ‘Wait, how did I get here?’ The sheer fact that I’m a college senior, without any medical leaves: who's had two surgeries and extensive hospital stays, made me wonder how it all happened. And here’s how - with a lot of help. My parents, my friends, my professors, the disability office on campus, and my doctors. My education has and always will be, if I am so lucky, a communal effort. There is no way to thank everyone, all I can do is try and keep running as fast as I can toward my dreams.

 

Life is big and giant and arguably impossible and overwhelming at times. Maybe you feel like you can’t do something all by yourself, but the thing is there’s no reason you should have to do anything by yourself. There are so many others who love you and who are rooting for you on the sidelines (if you can’t hear them, maybe it’s just that your thoughts are turned up too loud). You can do it.

 

Remember, in the wise words of Justin Bieber - never say never.

 

Jennie

 

[Editor's note: Original post featured on The Gutsy Generation.  We made a few minor edits for clarity and to include links to other posts by Jennie, which you'll enjoy.]


One More Time, Just For Kicks

[Editor's note: posted originally on The Gutsy Generation, Jennie has shared One More Time, Just for Kicks with LOOP.  Enjoy!]

 

What would be the fun if things were easy? I prefer the harder, circuitous route that takes you a thousand miles out of the way only to end up a step behind - clearly the more enjoyable path.

 

I’ve since lost track of which stories I’ve employed as metaphors, but alas I shall tell another in the hopes of demonstrating my point. When I was about 9 I was sledding with a friend on this big, enormous, wonderful hill (that seemed like a mountain at the time) near my house. The short of the long story was that there’d been an ice storm that day before and the hill was slick and frozen. Regardless we still thought it was a good idea to sled, and we climbed in this big purple Rubbermaid sled (goodness knows why Rubbermaid made such a sled, but I’ll have you know it was quite hefty and heavy), her behind me, and pushed off. Needless to say it wasn’t the smartest idea to be sledding in such conditions, and soon enough we flew off a bump, did a 360 in the air, then I landed on the ice chest first, then her on top of me, then the big ol’ purple sled and all we could hear as we moaned and slowly slid down the hill was my Mom screaming at the top. When I decided to have ostomy surgery a couple of years ago, I did so knowing that I would still have Crohn’s, still have a chronic illness, still have medical decisions to be make, but it was a big step in treating and addressing my disease. And it was. I don’t for the smallest fraction of a second regret my choice. IBD treatment has been described to me as ‘step up’ treatment (ASAs to steroids to immunosuppressants to biologics to surgery) and by all accounts a complete protocolectomy at 19 was the most aggressive treatment possible. But now as I sit here with a flare-up, it feels like I did when I landed on my chest on that icy hill - the you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me-this-is-ridiculous kind of head-space. Even though I know it’s not true logically or medically, it feels like I’m back in the same place as I was before surgery making these difficult decisions about difficult medications.

 

It’s kind of funny - I’ve never had a flare-up without my colon before. To quote Aladdin, it’s a whole new world. Don’t get me wrong, it still sucks and hurts and seems particularly unnecessary and unpleasant. But I’m not running to the bathroom, and all of my colonic symptoms are only memories. I know for my parents they hoped - with good reason - that my surgery would be more or less the final event in my IBD journey, at least for longer than two years. I can sense their disappointment and frustration on phone calls, just as I feel disappointed and frustrated at times, but I know that I have their support about whatever treatment I choose (to this point my Dad informed me that my Mom and him were “100000% behind me”).

 

It’s kind of like when you’re somewhere and you smell something that seems familiar but it takes you some time to place it - having a flare and being ‘sick’ again is a transition that I’m getting used to. After standing on my soapbox about taking your time with medical decisions and so on an so on, it’s about time I take my own advice.

 

I just have to hold on, and close my eyes for the scary parts if I need to. Here we go.

 

Jennie


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