5 Things I Have Changed Since My Crohn's Diagnosis.
I have always lived a busy lifestyle and never gave much thought as to what or why I do what I do. I have always just worked my way through life with the idea of 'work hard and play harder'. I never put much thought into what I was doing or how it was affecting my health.
I always made jokes like 'I'll rest when I'm dead'.
I have always had more than one job. In high school, I also worked at a supermarket and taught dancing at two different dance schools. At University, I worked for Starbucks, taught for two different dance schools and worked at the local dancewear store. On top of all of this, I always had a huge social life. I was going out with friends four or five times a week and on the nights when I was at home I would be studying or preparing choreography for my dance jobs. I kept this lifestyle right up until my late 20's, where I was working as a full-time school teacher and teaching dance for a dance school. The only thing that had changed by my late 20's was that I'd stopped socialising so much. These days, now that I'm in my early 30's, socialising is very minimal. (I'm currently working on finding a work/life balance. When I figure it out, I'll let you know!)
Midway through last year, life caught up with me. I had spent the first few months feeling exhausted, but I just thought it was life catching up to me and that I should slow down a little bit. Then, on a school trip to London, I became really ill. I caught a tummy bug and never fully recovered. It was months of stomach cramps, nausea and absolute exhaustion where I couldn't even get out of bed.
I knew something was wrong, but I did what I do best… I ignored it.
I went to the doctors to get a travel form signed for an upcoming trip to Ecuador and I thought I should mention what had been going on. Fast forward another two months of pain and I finally received a diagnosis. I had Crohn's Disease. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders knowing what was wrong. The diagnosis didn't fix everything though, and I still endured more months of chronic illness - but that is another post. What the diagnosis did do was force me to look at my lifestyle and make some changes.
Here are 5 things that I changed since my Crohn's diagnosis:
We all knew right from the beginning and the title that this topic would feature! I didn't change my diet straight away though. Well... I kind of did… I couldn't eat when I was nauseous, so I ate a lot less. But other than that, my eating pretty much stayed same. I saw a natural health practitioner after a while (as things weren't improving) and she suggested going gluten free, dairy free and caffeine free. Things were so bad by this point I figured it would be worth giving it a go. I haven't yet completely deleted these things from my diet (I love carbs and ice cream!), but I'm continuously reducing the amount I consume. I did manage to eliminate caffeine completely. This was way easier than I thought! I was so sick that my body didn't actually miss it. The reason why I eliminated caffeine was that my body was already working overtime, so adding the extra adrenaline was causing more stress on my sick gut.
Then I removed gluten and then dairy. The hardest part though is listening to all the different schools of thought. Who do you believe when everyone has such a strong opinion that makes sense? My natural health practitioner suggests all of these things should be eliminated, but my dietitian in the hospital says to add a little bit in. It makes decision-making so confusing!
I decided I will do what is right for my body and what makes it feel the best.
About 80-90% of the time my diet is gluten, dairy and caffeine free. But I'm allowing myself to have some of these things every once in a while. However, I'm now starting to feel my stomach when it processes gluten, so I'm trying not to eat it at all. Because I know what being extremely ill feels like, I really listen to what my body needs.
The sicker I became the less food I could eat. I found a lot of salvation in soft foods and I still do. Soft foods are easy for my stomach to digest. I have a smoothie every day for breakfast - mixed berries, banana, protein, half a gluten-free Weetbix and water. I find this is a great way to ease my stomach into the day. Other favourite foods include mango smoothies, yoghurt, mashed potatoes, peas, and homemade muffins. As I have said in many posts before, I try and get as many nutrients into every meal as possible, and soft foods are really good at this.
What did you have to change about your diet to help with your health? If you have any suggestions I would love to hear them!
2. I use a food and health tracker.
I know this is not the first time I have talked about this, but I mention it so often because it really helped me to plug into my body and discover how I could make a difference with food. I had always been rather conscious about what I was eating and had always tried to eat reasonably healthy, however it wasn't until I started tracking my food and health symptoms that I realised how one affected the other.
Here's a quick break down of the food and health tracker that I've been using (you can get a free template when you sign up to my email subscriptions):
- Write down what you eat for each meal (try and be really specific).
- Write down the medications that you're on.
- Write down the physical symptoms you have and when they happen.
- Write down the exercise you've done throughout the day.
It was by doing these steps that I realised that coconut was making me extremely ill. I could then adjust my diet and take out coconut.
It can seem like a lot of work to start off with, but if you stick to it and are able to make some positive changes then it's soooo worth it!
3. I cut back at work.
As a self-confessed workaholic who loves her job, this was a hard one! But as I became more and more ill, I knew something had to change. I feel really lucky to love what I do and to have had so many incredible opportunities over the past few years to do some really amazing things. So making the decision to cut back was HUGE. By the end of last year and just after my diagnosis, I was teaching full time at school (which involves doing many extra hours to do shows) and was running some extra dance classes on the side. I started to resent what I was doing because I didn't actually have the energy to do it all. I was having naps at my desk (on occasions under my desk!) and I was barely making it to the end of each day. So at the end of last year, I stopped teaching my extra dance classes. This is the first time since the age of 14 that I've had just one job!
This made a huge difference. Having some extra nights during the week to come home and sleep on the couch was priceless. As I became more ill and before I had my surgery, I was appreciating the cutbacks even more. My body was no longer getting me through the day at my main job, so there was no way that I would've been able to make it through another one.
Because of my surgery and how ill I was, I have also cut out some of the extra shows that we'd do as part of my main job. I am a drama and dance teacher, so extracurricular is a lot of what we do. But I chose to take a step back this year in order to get my health back on track. Man, it has worked a treat! Just being able to go home at a reasonable hour and relax on the couch is a major thing. I even learned how to knit! So now I'll often go home and sit and knit for a while. It's such a good way to relax and get my mind off work.
Money is a major factor for a lot of people in deciding whether to cut back their hours. You may find that cutting back the hours just isn't practical for you. I definitely couldn't afford to give up my full-time job. But perhaps there are different things that you're able to cut back on to give yourself more you time. Thankfully I was able to take the year off major extracurricular tasks. What in your life could you alter to give you some more downtime?
4. I learned to ask for help.
I am independent, stubborn and a perfectionist. This combination leads to someone who tries to figure out everything on her own, doesn't ask for help when it's needed and works herself into the ground until she's happy with the outcome. I slave away and work hard to be the best that I can be. I like to think these are positive attributes, but when you're sick and not functioning at 100% these attributes are terrible for your health. After my diagnosis, I carried on as normal for as long as I could - not realising that I was actually doing myself harm and making my condition worse. I pushed through the fatigue, I ignored the cramps and just didn't eat when I got nauseous. Then… I ended up in hospital and had to have an emergency bowel resection.
It was during my time in hospital that I realised that I can't do everything myself. I knew I'd need to start asking for help when I needed it. And straight after my surgery I had no choice - I wasn't physically able to do things. I had to learn to swallow my pride and ask the nurses to help me walk, I had to ask my partner to get objects for me that was on the other side of the room and I had to ask people to drive me places.
Being forced to ask for help really helped me learn how to do it.
Now that I'm back at work and have recovered from the surgery, I make a conscious effort to ask for help when I need it. I'm not as good at this when I'm feeling well and functioning properly, but I still try. It sometimes gives me anxiety to ask for help, but I think to myself 'the more I do it, the easier it will become.'
I recommend giving this one a go!
5. I learned that I can't control everything.
As a dance teacher, one of my favourite sayings is 'one more time'. We will do a dance 'one more time' a hundred times. It's now a joke between myself and my dancers. I say this every class at least five times. They continuously practise the dance until I'm happy with it. This is the perfectionist in me. I like to do the best that I can at everything. Even when I'm stressed out and should be resting, I will do something until I think it's perfect. I can't let it go. This is also very much linked to the previous point about asking for help. I used to take on so much and strive to make it perfect and never ask for help. It's a vicious cycle!
How do you change when it's all you know?
I ask myself this all of the time. How am I meant to change when I don't know any different? I'm a perfectionist. I always have been. So how do I change my expectations? I'm still working on this one to be honest. I don't think I know the answers yet. But I do know that I'm working towards finding a way to uphold my high standards and take some pressure off myself.
As I said, I haven't found the right combination yet, but here's what I've realised so far:
I've thought about the way I communicate with others.
In relation to dance 'one more time', it can actually mean 'one more time'. If I give more specific and individualised feedback to the students, then we don't need to run through the dance so many times. It does rely on the dancers really listening and applying the feedback, but if I give them the incentive of not doing the dance a hundred more times, then they usually go for it.
I've started doing this for myself as well. When I'm doing a task and stressing over the fact that it's not perfect, and I'm spiralling into unproductiveness, I now stop and give myself feedback. What am I unhappy about? What needs to be changed to make it different? I know you probably think this sounds worse. But honestly, I've actually found it more productive! I could be on my own on this one, but for me it really does work. I would normally agonize over something for so long and wait for the answer to come. But by immediately stopping the situation and reflecting, I'm able to solve the issue much quicker.
I don't know if this is the perfect solution, but it's working for now. I'm also working on trying to let go of what I can't control and being more relaxed. As I said, it's a work in progress and when I find the key I will let you know!
If you have any strategies, please share. I would love to hear about them.
Becoming so ill and having to face a whole lot of new challenges in my life seemed really scary at first. However, the more I accept the reality of my diagnosis, the more I realise that the changes that it's caused have overall been really positive.
I hope none of you have to go through something like this in order to make changes to your life. But if you are faced with something really challenging, then try searching for the silver lining - because I'm sure there will be something there.