For Julian, it began with a swollen ankle.
I was a healthy and well adjusted eight-year-old. But then at age 8 my Dad noticed that I had a swollen ankle. It was not the result of any injury and so we went to see a doctor for an explanation. Initially, it was thought to be a sign of juvenile arthritis but that diagnosis was short-lived. I began having additional symptoms that fell outside of an arthritis diagnosis. I began having intense stomach cramps, bloody and atypical bowel movements, and intense nausea and vomiting. Some of these symptoms I self-reported, others I did not. However, there was one symptom that I could not hide from anyone – that of growth failure. Prior to these symptoms, I had been well-sized, perhaps even on the bigger side for my age. That all was to change. I completely stopped growing and for many ensuing years found myself to be the shortest in my grade. The growth failure led us to seek out an endocrinologist, who after reviewing my blood work referred me to a pediatric gastroenterologist. Through a colonoscopy an a biopsy, the GI doctor confirmed what was already suspected; at age 11 I was told that I had Crohn’s Disease.
"In short, I was angry, withdrawn, and in absolute denial."
To say that I responded emotionally poor to the diagnosis would be an understatement. I remember my parents trying to share resources with me about my disease. They tried to get me to engage with kid-friendly educational websites that explained what living with Crohn’s would be like. I refused to even glance at the webpages. They tried to get me to go to a camp for kids with Crohn’s; I rejected the proposition out of hand. In short, I was angry, withdrawn, and in absolute denial. Around the time I began treatment, which consisted of driving forty minutes to receive a Remicade infusion every four to six weeks, I started acting out in school. My disease, and my corresponding smallness, made me feel unbelievably insecure. Compounded with the awkwardness that is middle school, I struggled to form a coherent social identity outside of being the class clown. I became riddled with anxiety and began to suffer from insomnia. I also got in more and more trouble at school, eventually culminating in an out of school suspension my eighth-grade year.
"Struggling to keep up on the field, I found that I could no longer rely on sports as a prime facet of my identity."
As I entered high school I was responding well to treatment (the Remicade effectively induced remission), however I was still struggling to deal with the Crohn’s precipitated growth failure and delayed puberty. Outside of being a class clown, my identity had longed been defined by sports. But when I began competing in sports at the high school level, against fully developed eighteen-year-olds, my small size put me at a severe disadvantage. Struggling to keep up on the field, I found that I could no longer rely on sports as a prime facet of my identity. I had to give up the class clown routine as well; classroom disruptions were no longer seen by my peers as funny. Bereft of identity and still deeply insecure, I turned to partying to connect socially. I began drinking and smoking weed occasionally. By the time I was a senior, the smoking was a daily and the drinking a weekly occurrence. From a Crohn’s perspective I was doing superb, my disease was still in remission and after years of daily growth hormone shots I had finally hit puberty and my growth sport. But from a mental health standpoint, I was in a bad way. I was becoming increasingly reliant on weed and alcohol and other parts of my life began to slip. My relationship with my parents deteriorated, as did my grades and athletic performance.
"Things immediately spiraled out of control and I found myself hospitalized for a few days – not because of anything to do with my Crohn’s but rather because of my poor mental health and addictive behaviors."
Somehow, I survived my senior year relatively unscathed and headed off to college in New Orleans. Free from my parents supervision, my alcohol and drug use increased immensely. Things immediately spiraled out of control and I found myself hospitalized for a few days – not because of anything to do with my Crohn’s but rather because of my poor mental health and addictive behaviors. I limped to the end of the semester but was in so much trouble in school and was in such an unhealthy place that after some serious pressure from my parents, I agreed to go to substance abuse treatment. So, at eighteen, I flew to Minnesota and entered a youth treatment facility. That was the first time that I began to reflect on my childhood and realize how astray I had gone. I swore off alcohol and drugs and began to reconnect with myself. After intense months of self-reflection and rebuilding work, I enrolled in a college in Minneapolis.
Two years later, I graduated from college. I had transformed from the insecure teen. Now, I was a confident and healthy twenty-one-year-old. Not only was my Crohn’s under control (I was now taking Humira) but my mental health and addictive behaviors were as well. After working at a law firm for a year, I was accepted into law school in Virginia and my long-term girlfriend and I moved down there together.
"I wish I could travel back in time to tell that insecure, anxiety-ridden eleven-year-old Julian that everything was going to work out okay."
I am just beginning my first year of law school and am truly living a life beyond my wildest dreams. I wish I could travel back in time to tell that insecure, anxiety-ridden eleven-year-old Julian that everything was going to work out okay. While that is not possible, it is possible to share that message with all the young teens that are today struggling with Crohn’s and subsequent mental health issues.
That is why I am involved with the Crohn’s & Colitis Young Adults Network - to share that message of hope that things do get better. I am living proof.