Disclaimer: This is the first time I am writing about the biggest struggle of my life—chronic illness. I am going to be vulnerable for a moment and share with you some of my health problems, fears, frustrations, insecurities, and joys, in the hope of encouraging others. I apologize ahead of time if I gross you out in any way.
The Pride-Crushing Diagnosis
It all started my last week of high school. The first symptoms I experienced were abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloody stool. It got worse after graduating. My parents and I made many trips to the hospital. I remember one day being in the waiting room of a gastroenterologist and thinking, “What am I doing here?” I looked around the room and was discouraged at the fact that I was the youngest person there. Everyone else was older—a lot older!
After several trips to the hospital and numerous tests and scans, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness called ulcerative colitis, which is inflammation in the colon (large intestine). Basically, the immune system is out of whack, attacking things such as good bacteria and food that comes in, resulting in inflammation in the lining of the intestinal walls. Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that is life-long and incurable.
The year I was diagnosed was hard for me. Up until this point, I had never heard of ulcerative colitis, so I responded in a typical Hispanic way: “It’s nothing! It will go away eventually!”
That year, I lost a lot of weight and felt embarrassed to go out. Doubt and fear were my companions. Depression showed its ugly face on various occasions. And the physical pain was unbearable at times, to the point that I contemplated the idea of giving up on life.
But God—yes God!—was (and has) been my source of refuge and strength. When I wanted to give up on life, He was there. God stretched His mighty hand and pulled me up from my pit of despair, giving me the courage to press on with life.
The Struggle is Real, But So is The Story of God
I feel like my struggle with chronic illness has been one of “trial and error”. I have literally spent thousands of dollars, visited many doctors, and tried many medications, from antibiotics and natural supplements to probiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Due to ulcerative colitis, I have a hard time maintaining a healthy weight and often deal with physical fatigue, leaving me frustrated and discouraged at times.
This might sound crazy, but I am thankful for the pain and suffering I have experience thus far in my short twenty-five years of life. I thank God for the physical hardships because they have brought me closer to Him. Make no mistake about it: physical pain and suffering sucks, and I have had a few other health-related issues that have tested my faith over time.
I do not know about you, but it is easy for me to see life through the lens of chronic illness. Limitations, failures, shortcomings, insecurities, and fears tend to color my view of reality.
Without realizing it, I have allowed chronic illness to become big and God small. Consequently, I have often allowed chronic illness to define me—my value, meaning, and purpose, negatively impacting my self-esteem and my God-given dreams and aspirations.
But there is good news—really good news! The story of God has changed it all. The story of God gives me an interpretive grid by which to make sense of life and chronic illness.
The biblical story paints a different picture of reality—one from God’s point of view. Though I am a sinner, I bear the image of God and thus possess dignity and value. I experience pain and suffering and illness as a result of sin and its tragic effects on creation, including mankind.
The story of God reminds me to look back at the cross and empty tomb as historical events marked with God’s redemptive fingerprints. The biblical story also points me to the future when God will restore all things and get rid of all evil, sin, death, and pain. Illness and suffering will be more. This is the blessed hope that keeps me going.
So I am not defined by chronic illness; I am defined by God and His redemptive story, which gives my life meaning, joy, and purpose. I am defined by my identity in Christ, which is eternal and unchanging.
Ulcerative colitis will not have the last word! Christ will have the last word! Or better yet, Christ has had the last word ever since His sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection. Ulcerative colitis has nothing on me!
I have to remind myself constantly that my value does not depend on how much I weigh or how I look or how much harder I am trying to live a “normal” life. No, my value rests solely on God and His love for me. Period.
The fight for my joy is real. And that is true both when I am sick—and caught up in the pain—and when I am feeling fine and cruising along.
Things I’m Learning … Six Years Later!
Here is a list of some of the things that I am learning (key word) as a Christian struggling with a chronic illness:
- I am learning that God is good, powerful, and faithful
- I am learning to exercise self-control when dealing with, and responding to, negative comments made on my appearance
- I am learning that I need more Christian accountability and community in my life
- I am learning to value friendships more
- I am learning that having faith means both praying and taking action
- I am learning to seek and find refuge in God and His joy-giving, soul-awakening presence
- I am learning to appreciate the ordinary things of life
- I am learning to accept help from others
- I am learning to glorify God with my (limited) physical strength and energy and,
- I am learning to not take myself too seriously and to enjoy life to best of my ability.
If you are struggling with ulcerative colitis—or some other chronic illness—please hear me out: you are not alone! It was not until I began to see my health condition holistically—taking in consideration stress management, nutrition, exercise, rest, etc.—that I started to see some improvements. I am no expert on ulcerative colitis, but I have learned some things along the journey. Here are three tips/recommendations:
- Manage Stress
Monitor what (or who!) gives you stress and take practical steps to relieve it. Go out with your friends, go watch a movie, or go enjoy your favorite dish. If you’re a student, break down big assignments (like that 10-page paper!) into smaller, more-doable assignments. This can be a great way to relieve stress—and get a better grade too!
- Eat Healthy and Exercise Often
Eating healthy is not only hard, but expensive! I have tried organic, vegan, and gluten-free products and my wallet has paid the price. For me, avoiding red meat, spicy and greasy foods, and lactose products help prevent flare ups and stay in remission longer. You will need to experiment a bit and figure out which foods trigger symptoms and which foods “feel good in your tummy”.
When it comes to exercise, I enjoy playing basketball and soccer. Whether you like hiking, going to the gym, running, or baseball, make time and do it as often as you can. Stay physically active!
- Get Help
If you have the means, get professional help from a gastroenterologist and/or nutritionist. If you’re a college student, visit the health center at your campus and take advantage of its free and low-cost services. For online resources, I highly recommend checking out The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.
In regards to medication and treatment, every person is different; therefore, every case of ulcerative colitis will be different. There is not a one-size-fits-all treatment or medication. If you struggle with ulcerative colitis and are interested in receiving medical advice, please consult with a physician or healthcare provider.
Do you—or someone you know—struggle with ulcerative colitis? What have you found or heard to be helpful? What would you say to others who are struggling with the same or a similar condition? You can leave a comment below.
Feel free to share this blog post with others. Please let me know how I can help/pray for you? You can contact me here.