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Having a Debilitating Illness Taught Me to Be Grateful for My Body

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Photo: Instagram/@aliontherun1

Don't mind me, but I'm going to stand up on a soapbox and get a little preachy about what it means to be grateful. I know you might be rolling your eyes—no one likes to be lectured—but this gratitude soapbox I'm standing on is huge, and there's a lot more room up here. So I hope that by the time I'm done, you'll consider standing up here with me. (Costumes are optional, but let's just say my theoretical soapbox style includes sequins, legwarmers, and a dope fishtail braid.)

First, let me explain why I think you should listen to me.

I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease when I was 7 years old. At the time, the diagnosis was confusing, but it was also NBD because I didn't really understand what was happening to my tiny—or, more accurately, emaciated and completely dehydrated—body. The doctors put me on a high dose of steroids, and I got right back to my easy second-grade life within a few days. I think we can all agree that life was a whole lot easier when your biggest worry was tomorrow's spelling test.

It took me nearly two decades to fully comprehend the severity of my disease. Throughout high school and college, my Crohn's would flare, meaning I'd suddenly experience severe stomach pain, frequent and urgent bloody diarrhea (I didn't say this was a sexy soapbox), high fevers, joint pain, and some seriously intense exhaustion. But those same steroids would quickly and efficiently get me back on track, so to be honest, I didn't take my disease very seriously. It was briefly debilitating, and then I could forget about it for a while. Think about it: You break your arm playing sports. It sucks, but it heals. You know it could happen again but you don't really think it will happen again, so you go back to what you were doing before.

Things started to change when I entered adulthood. I landed my dream job as a magazine editor and was living in New York City. I started running, and running a lot—something, as a former dancer, I never anticipated doing for physical enjoyment. While that all might sound good on paper, behind the scenes, my Crohn's disease was becoming a more permanent fixture in my life.

I was in a seemingly endless flare that ended up lasting two years—that's two years of ~30 trips to the bathroom each day, two years of sleepless nights, and two years of exhaustion. And with each worsening day, I felt like the life I worked so hard to build was slipping away. I became too sick to go to work, and my employer—as kind and understanding as she was—asked that I take a medical leave of absence for a while. My passionate side project, my blog, Ali on the Run, became less about my victorious daily runs, marathon training, and my weekly "Thankful Things Thursday" series, and more about my health struggles, frustrations, and mental battles I was fighting. I went from posting twice a day to going dark for weeks because I had zero energy and nothing good to say.

Making it all worse, the one thing that always kept me feeling sane and grounded—running—was gone, too. I ran through my flare for as long as I could, even when it meant making a dozen bathroom stops along the way, but eventually, I had to stop. It was too painful, too inconvenient, too sad.

 

I know I keep saying vague things like, "These past few weeks and months have been hard." And that's true, but the truer truth is that in addition to being sick, I've spent the past few months in a sad, scary, dark, depressed place. It's been like living under a constant dark cloud without many breaks for sunshine. And I have admittedly given into it and let it take over. Whenever someone would say, "Keep fighting," I knew I wasn't fighting — I was barely getting through the day and couldn't wait to go to sleep every night. Last weekend felt like rock bottom, and the week that followed was particularly rough. But yesterday morning, I finally felt like most of that weight was lifted. I'm still too sick for my liking, but mentally I feel ready to do some fighting again. It may be a fleeting feeling, but I'm clinging to it for as long as I can! (And eventually I'll write more about this on that blog I used to have or I'll talk about it on that podcast I used to update twice a week. But for now, going to bask in this newfound lightness.)

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I was sad, defeated, and really, really sick. Unsurprisingly, I became deeply depressed during that time. At first, I was resentful. I would see healthy runners and felt so envious, thinking "life's not fair." I knew that wasn't a productive reaction, but I couldn't help it. I hated that while so many people were complaining about the weather or the crowded subways or having to work late—things that seemed so trivial to me at the time—all I wanted to do was run and I couldn't because my body was failing me. This isn't to say that everyday frustrations aren't legitimate, but I found myself having a newfound clarity on what really matters. So the next time you're stuck in a traffic jam, I encourage you to flip the script. Instead of being angry about bumper cars, be grateful for who or what you get to come home to.

I did finally make my way out of that two-year flare, and I spent most of 2015 on top of the world. I got married, fulfilled a dream of going on an African safari, and my new husband and I adopted a puppy. I entered 2016 banking on a banner year. I would train for races again, and I would run personal records in the 5K, half marathon, and marathon. I would crush it as a freelance writer and editor, and I would be the best dog mom ever.

 

Every time I think I might be getting better, I'm wrong. (I hate being wrong!) Some days I do a good job handling the physical and emotional stress of having Crohn's disease. Other days, like yesterday and today, I fail over and over and over, and in my least glamorous moments, I cry hysterically while I'm on the toilet in pain. (LMK if you want more details on that one.) When @etfeeney21 sent me this #TBT (I know it's Wednesday and IDGAF) this afternoon, I burst into tears, which felt very dramatic. But the 2016 @nycmarathon was such a special day for me. Seeing this picture and remembering everything I felt that day — happy, scared, sick, excited, terrified, proud, giddy, tired, lucky — made me question whether I'll ever actually get healthy enough to train for a great race again. But then I caught the little "YOU GOT THIS" I wrote on my hand that day. This past year has been hard. I miss my life. I miss my health. I miss things feeling easy. I miss running. I miss my friends. I'm tired of going to the bathroom, and I'm just plain tired. But I love this photo, and I do believe, deep down, that even on my darkest days, I do, in fact, "got this." (So thanks, Fennel, for the reminder. I clearly needed it today.)

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Halfway through the year, though, it all came back, seemingly overnight. The stomach pain. The cramping. The blood. The 30 bathroom trips a day. Needless to say, the goal-crushing year I'd planned took a wrong turn and it's been on that path for more than a year now. I'll be real with you: I pretended it wasn't happening for a while. I wrote blog posts as if I were actually grateful for the hand I'd been dealt. I found little things to be psyched about—FaceTiming with my niece and nephew, a new heating pad to help soothe my stomach—but deep down I knew it was a front.

Then, just a few weeks ago, a dear friend said something that changed it all. "It's hard, Feller, and it sucks, but maybe it's time to figure out how to live your life sick and try to be happy."

Whoa.

I read that text and I sobbed because I knew she was right. I couldn't keep having the same pity party. So that day my friend texted me was the day I decided I would never resent a healthy person's seemingly easy-going attitude. I wouldn't compare my personal best to anyone else's. I would harness the one emotion (in a tangled mess of emotions I've experienced because of Crohn's disease) that I've tried to embrace throughout even the darkest of days, the emotion that changed my world—gratitude.

When we are functioning at our best—when we're Ali the editor, the runner, the blogger, and Ali the wife and dog mom—it's easy to take it all for granted. I took my health, my body, my ability to run 26.2 miles at a time for granted for nearly 20 years. It wasn't until I felt it all being taken away that I learned to be grateful for the good days, which were now few and far between.

Today, I've also learned to find joy in my body's bad days, which is not easy. And I want you to find the same. If you're frustrated with not being able to handstand with the rest of your fellow yogis, be grateful for your killer crow pose, your mental tenacity to enter a hot yoga room, or the progress you've made in your flexibility.

On January 1, I opened a new notebook and wrote "3 Things I Did Well Today." I committed to keeping a list of three things I did well every day of the year, regardless of my physical or mental health—things I can be grateful for and things I can be proud of. It's been 11 months, and that list is still going strong. I want you to start your own list of daily wins. I bet you'll notice pretty quickly all the awesome things you can do in a day. Who cares you didn't run three miles? You took the dog on three long walks instead.

 

I haven’t had too many moments to brag about in the past year, so today I am going to outright BRAG, and I do not care if that is tacky or obnoxious! This morning, I finished my fifth Hell Week class at @otfedgewater and snagged that very coveted “you have to earn it, not buy it” shirt. I started going to @orangetheory this summer when I had finally given into this Crohn’s disease flare, and had given up on trying to run or trekking into the city for my favorite @soulcycle and @lyonsdenpy classes. I was a little overwhelmed by the format at first, but I loved that the workout was modifiable, that the studio was welcoming of all fitness levels, and that it had THREE bathrooms! When I started out, I was super sick and very weak. I just wanted to move and sweat and try to feel like myself. But even the lightest weights felt like bricks, and my base pace on the treadmill was slower than the pace I ran when I started running almost 10 years ago. But I stuck with it. Some days I had to jump off the treadmill three times during class to use the bathroom. Some days I chose to power walk instead of run because that was the best I could do, and I learned to be OK with that. Over time, I started to see and feel progress. I also learned to practice forgiveness, and to do what I could, when I could, without judgment or expectation. Along the way, my push paces got a little faster, and I switched from the 8-lb. weights to 10s, 12s, and eventually 15s. I stopped skipping out on burpees because they were “too hard,” and I stopped quitting on myself. I learned to be kinder to myself, but I also figured out when to cut the bullshit and how to get stronger emotionally. Today, I maxed out my treadmill, hitting 12 mph for the final all-out sprint. Some days I still feel sick and weak. But other days, like today, I feel really freaking strong.

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I have this unofficial policy in life to never give unqualified advice. I've been running for a decade and have completed a handful of marathons, but I still won't tell you how fast or slow you should run, or how often to get out there. But the one thing I will get preachy about—the one thing I'm perfectly fine advising you to do because I know a thing or two about it—is how to live life graciously. Embrace your good health if you've been lucky enough to have it. If you've had some setbacks with your body, your relationship, your career, anything, look for and embrace your small wins instead, and shift your focus to what your body can do, instead of dwelling on what it can't.

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