Symptoms can manifest slowly. Or, they can rear their ugly head with a shocking strength that would throw even the most steady-footed individuals into a spiral that feels unending. I remember quite vividly what I’ve dubbed as “the last morning of normalcy” (Or rather, the first day of “Chronically Jess”), when I suddenly ran to the bathroom and wouldn’t emerge unafraid for a few years.
On that morning, bags were packed and the car was almost loaded. I was so happy and carefree that I swear I just bounced from room to room (I have a habit of looking at pre-disease me with such rose-colored glasses). I would soon be off for a Spring Break to remember with good friends and a serious boyfriend. All 10 of us would be staying in adjoining rooms on Grand Bahama Island. I was excited and focusing on things that now feel so trivial; but at the time, were my biggest concerns. Would I look good in my bathing suit? Would everyone get along? What if it rains? I had been ignoring a nagging pain in my side all morning, but now something told me that I had to run to the bathroom. One Imodium later, and I was off to meet my travel companions for a celebratory all-nighter in New Hampshire before we would board our early morning flight the following day.
While everyone partied, I tried to sleep off this thing that was hopefully only a stomach bug. I ate bananas, drank plenty of fluid, and tried to take some Tylenol and a warm shower – all of these tricks had worked in the past. Nothing was working now, though. By the time our rowdy group needed to leave to catch our flight, I was hiding fatigue, pain, confusion, uncertainty, and the constant urge to run to the bathroom. Why was this happening? Why couldn’t I get my body under control!?
The hour-long drive to the airport only saw an increase of symptoms as I began vomiting in front of everyone. I embarrassingly had to hold a bag while my boyfriend’s father blasted the radio to cover the sound. As if you can really cover up the noise that a person vomiting next to you makes. And the looks on their faces? Oh gosh, I knew what they were thinking – This is so gross. (or, SHE is so gross).
We couldn’t stop the vehicle, though. I couldn’t hold everyone up and risk missing our flight. I couldn’t be responsible for possibly ruining everyone’s trip over a 24-hour stomach bug. Once we arrived at the airport, a new (and now forever) fear emerged: How would I make it through security? The airport security line provides no escape for uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea. Possible humiliation grows with each minute I’m forced to stand there, slowly shuffling forward with the crowd of unsuspecting travelers. I still, today, take a deep breath when I look at that line and say to myself, you can do this, Jess. Guess who always shows up super-early for her flights now? THIS GIRL!
With a lucky trip through security under my belt, I was heading to the airport shops to buy anything to make this stop. I can be quite frugal, but on this day I was popping $15 pink Pepto tabs like money was the least of my worries… because it was. Oh, how quickly we will hand over every hard-earned penny for a promise of possible relief from the unknown thing that ails us.
While everyone celebrated the beginning of vacation, I was in an exhausted, gloomy state, trying to talk to my boyfriend about it all. First puking in front of his family and our friends, now tallying up and describing bloody shit in the middle of an airport. I remember Nearby passengers making failed attempts to appear as not to be listening in. Hoping that he would tell me that it everything sounded “normal,” I was letting him in on the reality of my difficult day.
But as we boarded the plane to take off, and I said a silent prayer that I would at least make it to the island without an accident, I started to give in to the sinking suspicion that this just wasn’t a normal stomach bug.
In these first 24-hours, I would be thrown into chronic illness with force, and I would suffer many of its common stigmas right away: loss of control, fear of my own body, embarrassment, pain, sadness, anxiety, hiding the truth of my experience, and the guilt of how MY illness could quickly ruin things for everyone around me. This was 10 years ago, but many of these concerns still exist in one form or another on a near-daily basis. Time has brought with it some relief and care, of course, but also a change in my own reality and a fine-tuned skill to mask and manage the daily experience with Crohn’s disease – the new normal.