By Erin Ard
Chronic illness can be easy to ignore if you aren't the one living with it, but when you start to see how it affects a person you care for, it can strike a cord in you too.
When you meet someone with a chronic illness, it's natural to be curious about their life. You may even feel compelled to a) make their day easier, b) ease their pain, c) see their worth, or d) just help them feel comfortable. And if you want to lift the weight of living with a disease, choose all of the above.
Having IBD myself, it is THE. MOST. AMAZING. feeling in the world having someone who wants to know more and take care of you. So I must commend you for making it as far as reading this post.. You are ONE of FEW who would stick around someone with such a debilitating disease!
This topic has been on my mind for a while now. And when I started writing, I noticed how challenging it was to explain how this disease can affect someone. Experience with IBD is so diverse and can change so fast! For instance, in this moment I would say, "You really don't need to worry about me!" Because in reality, my own Crohn's has been in remission for years with only a few minor complications and I've made big strides in accepting my disease. I can go without thinking about my Crohn’s most days, but that doesn't mean these feelings of security have always existed and won't change in the future. Maybe your person is in the same boat, still it is invaluable to know what could happen. Whether you are a friend, family member, or lover, I want to help you understand the fundamental struggles, how it can affect someone (mainly by using myself as an example), and what you can do.
The first thing to know is that every person with the disease is unique and handles it differently. Some people want to be taken care of, while others may hide their struggles from you; so it's kind of up to you to know your person - I'm sorry I don't have all the answers! Thought, I can promise that anyone with a chronic health issue does not want to be characterized by their disease nor feel like a burden. It poses a challenge to balance helping them feel better and making the disease a big deal. If they choose to let you into that part of your life, that's great! It is too easy to discredit the harm it can impose. My first piece of advice is to have an open mind. Even though you won't be able to fully understand how it affects their body, mind, and lifestyle after reading this; you can keep learning.
Before I jump into the nitty gritty of it all, we should go back to basics. Whether you just met someone with IBD, have know about the disease for years, or have it yourself it can be helpful to know how the disease works. With Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), our immune systems get a little confused and end up attacking the healthy tissues causing inflammation along our digestive tract. IBD is a blanket term for the two most common forms: Crohn's disease and Ulcerative colitis. There are many commonalities between individuals who live with IBD. The most common symptoms are abdominal pain, fatigue, fever, and the infamous diarrhea. IBD can be classified from mild to severe depending on symptoms, e.g. frequency of diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, weight loss, anemia, bowel obstruction, and more! IBD itself does not limit your life expectancy, however, it can lead to some life-threatening complications. And symptoms can be kept under control with medication, thankfully, allowing people to live normal lives whilst their disease is in remission.
The day-by-day symptoms and risk for complication in combination can be very draining for someone, both physically and mentally. Not only are these symptoms tiresome in their own right, but can bring about mixed feelings - fear of flare-up recurrence or inability to find a bathroom, worry over not knowing what you can or can't eat, embarrassment of symptoms, and maybe denial of the pervasive hold it can take on your life. Even though my disease is in remission, it takes constant maintenance to feel in control of my body's health.
Much of my knowledge comes from learning about my own Crohn's symptoms and how it has impacted my day-to-day life. So I will try to describe what to look out for when caring for your person and their IBD.
It's a daily struggle. IBD is a hidden illness, making it hard to understand what kind of struggles we endure because they can't be seen. If your loved one says they don't feel okay but look fine, trust them. They know their bodies better than anyone. I know for myself, every once in awhile I have shooting abdominal pains, discomfort from something I've eaten, unreliable energy levels due to fatigue, joint pain, sensitivity to temperature, and recurrent symptoms close to my Remicade infusions. Usually on bad days, I take it easy on food I prepare for myself and the activities I do.
Tip: Have patience and learn to enjoy a few more Netflix movie marathon nights than usual.
It's a love and hate relationship with food. With Crohn's we have our own food triggers, which can be devastating to our digestive systems and send us running to the bathroom. Unfortunately for us, there is NO SINGLE ALL CURING DIET PLAN that can help us. We really just have to figure it out on our own since triggers differ from person to person. I get a lot of questions like, "Can you eat this?" "Or what can you eat?" and the answer isn't very simple. I can eat just about anything I want most days, but if I'm feeling off or it's getting close to my next infusion appointment - I take it easy on the hard to digest foods. I try to eat as healthy and balanced as I can while still getting the same sense of satisfactory indulgence as anyone else. For instance, I would love to eat an entire pan of brownies (and have gotten close a few times) but this would lead to me feeling like sh** the next day; as it would with anyone I feel. If you switch this desire I hold for brownies during a flare-up, it gets a bit more complicated and pretty much impossible. During a flare-up, however, my indulgences subside and I only crave foods that will sustain me without bringing about more harm.
Tip: Expect a mix of eating habits, since our health can change pretty fast. If they are on a strict diet plan, say gluten-free for someone with Celiac or gluten intolerance, get to know what they can and can't eat! It will be a whole lot easier for them if you have a good understanding and they can stop answering the "What can you eat?" question, at least coming from you :). A lot of people also take supplements to make up for the nutrients lost in their diet or from not being able to absorb an efficient amount through the gut. The biggest thing to understand, like with me, is that there are foods we just can’t eat AND there are foods, though you wouldn’t think so, we are still able to indulge in!
Flare-ups are hard to overcome. When the disease is active, you'll see all of the main physical symptoms taking root. A flare-up can last several days to a few years and can limit our ability to perform daily activities; sometimes even landing people in the hospital. During my own flare-ups, my limitations were somewhat subtle. I was still able to attend school and join sports, but my performance level was not where it could have been (this became clear once I achieved remission). After school I would too often fall onto the couch, exhausted from the day. I didn't have a solid bowel movement for months. I would give up and have emotional break downs in the bathroom. I became afraid of food because my body couldn't digest it properly anymore. I missed a lot of school, plans with friends, and family get-togethers. What I did attend, I would be withdrawn, wanting to lay down or be at home. Flare-ups are very socially isolating and can force us to miss out on a lot of what makes life fun :(
Tip: Be your own person and don't feel like you need to spend every occasion we miss out on with us, because we don't want you to miss out either! If your person is not feeling 100% and tries to dip out on plans, be heartfelt and ask, "Are you sure? What is making you not want to go?" Reassure us that not every day will be a bad one. Sometimes we have to stick it out to reach the good moments. In time, when we are healthy again, we will be able to push through what limits us. And help us see the value of little things, even if it's just an evening of Cards Against Humanity or binging The Office.
We have some tricky immune systems. Many of us take medication to suppress our immune systems to fight inflammation. Some people may get sick more or less often, depending on their medication. When I first started Remicade, it was rare to find me sick with the common cold. However, since my dosage was increased I seem to get sick more often and have a harder time fighting the sickness off. *Insert disappointed emoji *
Tip: Help us take precautions when going out - use hand sanitizer, disinfect grocery carts, and mind your sneezes. Especially during cold and flu season! Maybe consider bringing over a box of tissues and some chicken noodle soup when these efforts fail :)
Everyone has their own self-esteem issues and insecurities. IBD makes us feel a loss of control over our bodies (quite literally sometimes) and can indirectly cause visible changes (e.g. weight fluctuations, inflammation of the skin or eyes, mouth sores, etc.). Complications with IBD may involve j-pouch construction surgery - a major cosmetic change with added stress over maintenance and potential leakage - or bowel resections and scarring. This can also extend to social interactions, like when we have to explain why we can't eat certain foods, obsess over the details with travel plans, or being conscious of our frequent bathroom visits.
Tip: Depending on the person, procedures causing cosmetic changes may not sit very well. All that we ask is you be open and accepting of every scar or medical device. Each one tells a story of our struggles and what we had to face to find strength again.
IBD has it's own added mental health challenges. People with IBD are at higher risk of having anxiety or depression. It is all too easy to get down on yourself when you deal with constant set-backs. With IBD, a lot of the symptoms happen behind closed doors.. Usually bathroom doors. Or in the scope of mental health, you can envision the mental wall that keeps others from seeing your thoughts, feelings, and worries.
Tip: I implore you to keep an open mind. We might need a little extra encouragement when it comes to self-worth, seeing the positive, and enjoying life when our IBD gets in the way.
Being available and accepting of what we deal with can make such a difference to us. Like I said before, IBD can be socially isolating and I hope this post has helped you to understand why that is. I also want to say that people with Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis are the strongest, most ambitious people I know. They deal with keeping their health in check while juggling school, work, friends and family, their goals, AND everything else!
Your person may or may not deal with what I've laid out. Honestly, there is way more that could be discussed on "taking care of someone with Crohn’s" than what I know. Getting to know your person with their Crohn’s lifestyle will have a learning curve. It’s going to take some time and a considerable amount of observational skills to become an expert and if you aren't sure, ask! Just know that you can't do everything for us. You can't take all the pain away or make us healthy. What you can do is keep an open and accepting mind around our abilities. Be patient with our limitations. Help us feel comfortable and emotionally supported when we miss out. And get to know our many qualities in addition to being fighters. To go even further, I respect someone willing to challenge me when I hesitate on getting out of my comfort zone.
Finally, remember to take care of yourself too. Not only can the symptoms be draining on the person with Crohn’s, but seeing your loved one endure such bodily torment could drain you as well. Take time to rest, focus on the good, and keep fighting for your person!
What advice would you give to your loved ones?