‘Two months before college graduation, my symptoms returned. The bloat, the blood, stomach pain, and fatigue.’: Young woman diagnosed with severe Ulcerative Colitis, ‘I felt I would never get my life back, now I embrace it all’

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“Sometimes I think about the past five years of my life and my hands begin to shake. My heart beats faster. Tears spring to my eyes. Five years of grief, loss, heartache and turmoil. Five years of fighting, breaking, growing and learning. Five years of trying to calm the shaking hands, beating heart and watery eyes when I tell my story. And although this is a story of my chronic illness journey, my true ‘story’ begins before my diagnosis, on November 16th, 2014.

November 16th, 2014, flipped my world on its head. I can still remember it as if it was yesterday. Being woken up in my freshman year dorm from a call. ‘Natalie. He died.’ All I remember next is screaming, No, no, no, no, no!’ over and over and over. I ran to my resident advisor’s room, pounding on the door, shaking uncontrollably, crumbling on the floor.

Dead. Died. Gone.

My friend Parker was the victim of a random act of violence on November 16th, 2014. Ripped from our lives too early for no reason. Taken by someone else’s selfish actions. This was my first experience with grief and the grief tore me apart, and still does at times. I tried to pick up the pieces, but the thing about grief is it always leaves you a little broken and beaten. Leaves you a little more weathered. Ages you a little quicker. Over the following months I tried to cover up the cracks in my heart with drinking, with silence, with fake smiles, and with control.

Control is how I mainly dealt with the feeling of complete disarray in my heart, brain, and soul. Control over my body, over my food, and over my appearance. Maybe if I ate less or ran more it’d numb me just enough to not feel the ache. Slowly I slipped down, down, down. Trying harder and harder to numb the pain with my obsessive behaviors. Months of self-destruction passed, and I finally sought help, from friends, family, a counselor and a nutritionist. I began talking about my pain and healing my relationship with my body.

But as time went on, I started feeling sick. Very sick. My mind was getting healthier, yet my body was hurting…physically now, not just with aches of grief. My memories from sophomore year to right before my senior year of college are riddled with moments of pain and confusion. Lying on the bathroom floor writhing in pain after a few sips of a beer in Ireland. Leaving sorority meetings and class early because of stomach pain. Racing home to use the bathroom in the middle of runs.

Courtesy of Natalie Kelley

Stomach pain was my normal, or so I thought. I thought I caused it. I thought my eating disorder had messed up my insides so much they were simply getting back at me. Or perhaps my body was just transitioning from deprivation to normal amounts of food. Or maybe I had an autoimmune disease I didn’t know about quite yet. Maybe, just maybe. I finally realized it was time to get answers when I was traveling with my family in Europe in July of 2017. My bloating was getting more severe. Food was going right through me and I would always have to map out public restrooms on my long runs. I was constantly in pain. When I started noticing blood in my stool I knew I couldn’t blame it on IBS any longer.

Courtesy of Natalie Kelley

I remember being half awake after my colonoscopy, munching on the post-procedure snack my mom had packed me and my doctor saying ‘it’s definitely ulcerative colitis’ as if it was no big deal. It didn’t register until I was in the car on the way home. I remember staring out the window thinking, ‘I have a disease. I am sick. I will always be sick.’ I had an incurable disease which would never go away.

I had known I felt sick for quite some time. But feeling sick and being sick seemed so much different all of a sudden. I was about to enter my senior year of college, I was about to run a marathon, I was about to map out the rest of my life, yet I had just had my entire life flipped on its head once again.

For those first nine months after my diagnosis it was pretty smooth sailing. I managed to stick to the ‘Specific Carbohydrate Diet’ even while in college. My friends, professors and bosses were all very accommodating and compassionate when I needed to change plans, miss class or leave work early when I felt sick. I successfully ran my first marathon. I kept up my good grades, I made memories with friends and I finished up my leadership positions within my sorority. It was almost as if I could just eat my special food, pop my pills and simply ignore ulcerative colitis.

That is, until it decided to give me a wakeup call. About two months before my college graduation my symptoms started coming back. The stomach pain, the bloat, the blood, the fatigue. But with graduation so close on the horizon and a colonoscopy already scheduled for the summer, I ignored it.

Courtesy of Natalie Kelley

I wanted to soak up the last eight weeks of college with my best friends and squeeze every last ounce out. I didn’t want to worry about doctors, new medications, more medications or an even stricter diet. I was 22 with my whole life ahead of me. I didn’t want how sick I felt to become my reality, so I naively thought pushing it aside would be the answer. The week of graduation, after little sleep, high stress and a lot of running to cope with my emotions about graduating, I could tell things were getting worse. My family came to visit a few days before the ceremony and I could barely get up off of the couch my fatigue was so severe. I tried to rally the best I could and join in on the fun, but each day felt like I was walking with legs which weighed ten times their actual weight.

‘Maybe it’s just the stress’ I, once again, naively tried to convince myself.

Fast forward a few weeks of being home. My symptoms were still very present, but I kept pushing. I was studying for my personal training certification, dedicating all of my time to building my own business and, ultimately, trying to figure out how to transition to adulthood.

I was finally forced to slow down when I got a nasty cold, which simply wouldn’t let up. No amount of sleep, liquids or elderberry syrup was doing the trick. I remember the moment I felt it in my stomach. I was sitting by the lake trying to distract myself from how sick I felt, and it was like someone punched me in the gut. Out of the blue a solid, never-ending pain just struck. When I got home I told my mom, ‘I think I have the stomach flu,’ because I was still trying to pretend my ulcerative colitis wasn’t getting worse.

But then it did get worse. Far worse. I woke up in the middle of the night a couple of days later with the most horrifically intense pain and nausea. I remember sobbing in a ball saying, ‘I wish I could just cut myself open and rip my insides out of my body.’ As the days turned into almost two weeks of being bedridden, unable to even drink water without writhing in horrific pain and crying, my mom finally rushed me to the ER. I was admitted into the hospital and after a colonoscopy we found out my mild ulcerative colitis had progressed to ‘severe’. My entire colon was inflamed and covered in ulcers. I remember being told the news and feeling like I would never get my life back.

Courtesy of Natalie Kelley

I spent five long nights in the hospital, fighting to get better, fighting to keep hope, fighting to stay positive. But it was hard. Disheartening. Scary. Crying less than ten times a day was a success. Walking one lap around the hospital wing was a success. Brushing my hair was a success. Those five nights changed my life. They pushed my greatest limits and made me stronger than I could have ever imagined. They made me realize I needed to embrace my diagnosis and I needed to change my lifestyle beyond simply what I was eating. I needed to respect my body more, rest more and realize yes, I was sick, but I would be able to feel healthier if I simply changed my mindset about my sickness.

The moment I was let out of the hospital room I stopped avoiding my diagnosis and instead started speaking out about it. I shared my story, I got vulnerable and I began committing to my own healing, so I could help heal others.

Looking back at the last year (plus some) since being out of the hospital it makes me almost cry happy tears. There were moments in that hospital bed I thought I would never be where I am at today; running my own business, helping other women with IBD and connecting with the most amazing IBD community on Instagram. Of course, there are ups and downs, good days and bad days. There are days where the anxiety and fear still hit me and days where the grief over what I thought my life would be washes over me like a tidal wave. That grief is hard because it’s so different from the grief I felt when I lost my friend Parker. It’s grief, but grief over losing myself. Or what I thought I would be.

Courtesy of Natalie Kelley

But if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s I have to embrace the new me and my future. There are ebbs and flows in this journey of mine and I’ve learned to take them as they come. I’ve learned to soak up every second of the good moments and give myself grace during the hard ones. I’ve learned to stand up for myself, be my biggest advocate and put myself first.

Sometimes I just sit and think back at the past five years of my life. It’s a blur of pain, tears, loss, grief and confusion. But it’s also a blur of indescribable growth, change and self-discovery.

If someone asked me if I would get rid of my diagnosis if given the option, I actually wouldn’t. I’ve thought about it a lot and I truly wouldn’t change it for the world. I believe I was put on the path I was for a reason and if breaking and rebuilding myself is what I needed to do in order to be where I am today, then I’m grateful.

Courtesy of Natalie Kelley

And sometimes I wish I could go back to my freshman self, wrought with grief and pain, yet completely unaware of the continual grief she would be faced with, and slip a little note under her door. ‘Brave girl, when you feel like you might break, when you hit rock bottom, keep fighting. Fight harder than you’ve ever fought. Fight hard, but let others help you fight. Because life is beautiful, and YOU are strong, and don’t you ever, ever forget it. Because one day you’re going to become more YOU than you ever thought possible. One day you will have the happiest heart, bursting with passion, with the brightest future ahead, despite feeling like the grief will never end. The hard times will shape you, mold you, push you, but they won’t break you, not truly. One day, you will find yourself. Find the you you were always meant to be. You will help others, live a passion-filled life, find your hustle and blaze a path for yourself. But for now, embrace it all. The crazy, the sadness, the grief, because you’ve got big things ahead of you and you’re going to make yourself so proud.’

And I am proud. Proud, joyful, passionate and always a little broken, but mostly proud. Proud of how I took my broken pieces and built something beautiful.”

Courtesy of Natalie Kelley

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Natalie Kelley of Seattle, WA. You can follow her journey on Instagram here, her podcast here, and her website here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more inspiring stories of people battling chronic illness here:

‘Graduating isn’t possible.’ My body was shutting down. But I was going to get my degree one way or another.’: Woman finds ‘strength, faith’ among tumor discovery and multiple chronic diagnoses

‘The first time I fainted, I was 13. This time, I remember too clearly. My heartbeat felt like it was skipping. I started to sweat. My eyes went black.’: Woman finally diagnosed after fainting ‘hundreds of times’ with POTS

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