Crohn’s and a Climber
Blog By Euan Ryan
As I write this, I’m experiencing a painful, dull ache in my lower abdomen. It feels like there’s a pair of hands kneading my intestines into a fine dough - a rolling, rumbling sensation. Not a pleasant feeling. The kind of feeling you’d be saying to yourself “Hmm, I should make a doctor’s appointment. Something’s not right in my tummy.”
The sensation I’m experiencing is actually the mucus membrane that lines my intestinal tract slowly being broken down and shedding from my bowel wall. An infection, you ask? A tropical parasite hell-bent on destroying my innards? The dreadful result of a night at the local curry house?...
None of the above.
I wish it were one of those. Each one has a cure or will only last a few days at most before the body’s immune system deals with it and brings everything back to that sweet, sweet “once a day” equilibrium.
No, in actual fact, my body’s immune system is the cause of this most uncomfortable feeling and the destruction of my gut. Simply put, it thinks that my intestines are an infection. And it’s trying to fight it. Fight it hard. My white blood cells are hard at work destroying the very part of my body that I rely so heavily upon to absorb the nutrients from my food and keep me in good health.
In essence, my immune system is confused and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I began to experience this all too familiar pain as a teenager, working my way through a tough high-school career. I was a climber and spent every waking moment at the local wall or outdoors working on my trad-climbing apprenticeship. A fit, active child and I loved nothing more than getting outside and exploring new places - rather unconventional for a post millennial youth. Let’s just say I wasn’t one of the “popular” kids at school and had to keep my head down to avoid trouble as best I could.
My teachers had started to notice my frequent and urgent need to use the bathroom. One minute I’d be happily doodling in the back of my jotter avoiding the lessons being taught, the next I would be writhing in pain as ghostly hands gave my intestines a good old fashioned Chinese burn.
I soon figured out a coping mechanism to help deal with the growing problem. I noticed that these cramps were usually within an hour or so of having eaten a meal. So, to avoid the need to use the bathroom at school, I would skip breakfast. By lunchtime, as you can imagine, I would be ravenous. However, if I allowed myself to eat lunch, the afternoon’s classes would be severely disrupted by the dreadful routine. So, I abstained and kept my fast through till home time.
Now, if you’ve ever managed to keep a fast for longer than 9 or 10 hours, you’ll know that towards the end, it actually gets easier. This is because your stomach shrinks and your desire for large quantities of food starts to diminish. Added to that the lack of sustenance and a full day of school, I was just about ready to go to bed as soon as I arrived home.
As you can imagine, this cycle of not eating much, if anything, started to take its toll on my body. I lost weight, grew weaker, lost muscle mass and became fatigued. Although, looking back, it’s obvious to see, these dangerous symptoms went by unnoticed by not only myself, my friends and my teachers but even my parents. It was such a gradual change that it really wasn’t apparent until it was all too late.
I eventually became too weak to walk to school and begged my mum for a lift in the car nearly every day. I had to stop climbing because I was just too tired and weak. My relatively small social life became non-existent. My GP couldn’t work out what was wrong with me. “A touch of IBS” he’d say. It took a referral to a specialist to finally get closer to some answers.
I was booked in for a colonoscopy. For anyone out there who is not familiar with this procedure, I‘ll explain it as simply as possible – the doctor pushes a miniature camera up inside you and takes a good look around the inner workings of your body’s sewage system. As a 16 year old boy, I wasn’t best pleased about this. It was one of the most violating and humiliating experiences of my life. But it was the key to unlocking some much needed answers.
“I’ve reviewed your colonoscopy results and it appears you have Crohn’s Disease. We will start you on a course of heavy-duty steroids and other medications immediately. You will need to stay in hospital until we can get this under control.”
My whole world started to spin off its axis. My parents were broken. Seeing me lying in a hospital bed put my sorry state in to unbearable context. I was skeletal. The skin hanging off my bones. I was seriously ill, and I looked it. We all wondered how on earth we’d missed it for so long.
A hospital ward full of the old and the sick. It had been my home for the past fortnight and now I was being set free. I had gained weight, the steroids had helped my body start to recover and I had medication that was helping to keep my immune system at bay.
Slowly, I was able to return to the things I love doing. Being outside, exploring, adventuring and, most of all, climbing. My muscle came back, my fitness was rebuilt and my ambitions soared.
Fast forward to today. This evening. As I write this, sat at my desk. I have forged a career in climbing and the outdoors. I am one of those extremely lucky few who can genuinely say they love doing what they do. I make films and take photographs of climbers and other adventurous folk. I get to explore and go on trips with like-minded people. And the best part? I can pay my mortgage with the proceeds.
And yet, as I write this, I feel the cramp and clutching of my intestinal tract. I feel my body going down this most self-destructive path. I’m experiencing what is known as a flare-up. My Crohn’s lies relatively dormant most of the time, but occasionally due to stress, anxiety, poor meal choices or sometimes for no identifiable reason at all, it rears its ugly head and reminds me what the word “chronic” really means. It’s not going away.
Photo Credits: Robbie Phillips
Smart scientists and clever researchers toil day in and day out to try and come up with a cure, but right now, as it stands, it’s not going away. My flare-up may require a tweak to my medication, or it may simply require a bit of TLC and putting my feet up for a couple of days. It will pass, but it serves as a reminder of the horrors from my past.
I cope with my condition with my medication. I also cope through meal planning. I also cope through stress and anxiety management. I cope by being outdoors as much as possible. I cope by keeping myself busy and not letting it hold me back. I cope by knowing my exact distance to a public toilet with uncanny accuracy. I cope by the support afforded to me by my climbing partners, colleagues, friends and family.
Ask 75% of people who know me, and I bet they have never noticed. I plan to keep it that way.
My condition doesn’t define me. I’m much more complex than that…
For More Information on Crohn’s Please visit www.crohnsandcolitis.org.uk
Please share this blog to raise awareness of Crohn’s Disease, 1-7th December 2016 is Crohn’s awareness week.
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