From Crohn’s to Colitis to Crunch Time
Natalie Whelan and her twin Jesse celebrating her achievement
In July 2012 I started getting sick. I thought it was a dietary thing and went to see a naturopath. Fortunately she told me that I needed to go to my doctor and get a blood test done. The blood test came back and the GP sent me for a colonoscopy. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in August 2012.
I was put on medication and had a very bad reaction – terrible rashes and swelling in my mouth. My gastroenterologist took me off it and told me I had to wait for my body to recover before trying anything else. So I was just on prednisone for seven months and it was awful – the big moon face, everything.
I decided to get a second opinion at the start of the year, and my new gastroenterologist has been my saviour. He talked to an immunologist and they worked out that I was allergic to the coating on the first medication, not the medication itself. So I was able to go back on it; I take it as granules now rather than as a tablet and have no problems. He also diagnosed me as having ulcerative colitis, not Crohn’s disease!
I quit my job at the beginning of 2014 after the worst flare since my diagnosis. It’s such an unpredictable illness. I can be feeling fine and then five minutes later be unable to stand upright! I had used up all my sick leave. My boss was wonderful and very understanding; we had been discussing options where I could work part time or even transfer to different departments. My intention was to stay at work in whatever capacity I could. Then one Monday I came into work and there was an email from a client asking if we could meet up on Wednesday and I realised that I couldn’t give her that commitment. I could say yes now and then be unable to get up on Wednesday or I could be fine until just before the meeting but then possibly have to cancel due to a sudden episode. I no longer thought that it was fair to my boss, my clients or me to continue to work in such conditions, so I stood up and handed in my resignation and it was the best decision I could have made. I have since come to truly accept my illness. There is a big difference between saying “I have a chronic illness” and living what you are saying.
I am at place now where I am ready to re-enter the workforce however there is still that fear lurking in the back of my mind that only those with chronic illness can understand. I guess the only thing I can do now is face my fears and confidently remind myself that I am strong enough to face whatever comes.
Living every moment
I follow a girl who has Crohn’s on Instagram. She posts photos of herself in crazy contortioned yoga positions, as she is a Yogi and teacher herself. I came across a picture of hers that she had captioned preaching about taking every moment you can to do what you can and that really spoke to me. When you have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s you have to do what you can when you can because you never know if you’ll be well enough tomorrow or even in five minutes time.
Before I got really sick I was hard into Muay Thai Kickboxing and training six days a week. For me one of the biggest setbacks with the flare at the beginning of the year was not being able to train. The loss of functionality and freedom was so disheartening; unable to travel to training to do what I wanted to do, the same with work, the same with seeing friends… I felt like I was losing all of it.
There is such a focus when it comes to IBD management on the physical symptoms and not so much on mental health and it is such an invaluable part of your holistic health to be able to keep a positive attitude.
When I was first diagnosed I went onto all the online forums but I don’t do that now. You get a lot of negativity on the forums because happy people don’t post there. The majority of those on the forums are unfortunately going through the toughest times. I thought sharing my experiences with them would help but I just felt that the pessimism was having the opposite effect. I started meditation classes at the start of the year and that really helps. I think keeping a positive attitude is so important.
My background is in event management. When I had to stop working this year, honestly, I just got bored and very stir crazy. I needed to keep my brain active and I thought why not do something for Crohn’s & Colitis Australia (CCA) as they support me and Australia’s IBD community.
Crunch Time is a campaign to increase awareness about Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and help raise much needed funds for CCA. At the annual Crunch Time events, registered Crunchers have five minutes to power through as many crunches as possible and raise money through individual sponsorships.
I wanted it to target people within the 15-35 age range because that’s the average age of diagnosis for IBD and I thought if we are to spread the awareness in the most effective way it has to be to the right demographic. It’s not just about increasing awareness but promoting empathy and understanding of the disease; if your peers have it you can’t be making fun of them. People have to understand it is not just food poisoning that’s going to go away in a week; this is systemic, this is idiopathic.
There are three core values of:
- The action of the crunch itself represents self awareness and controlling your mind in order to overcome pain or obstacles to reach your goals. Even for healthy people doing it, five minutes of crunching starts to burn and hurt in the area where most IBD sufferers hurt, so they can relate.
- I wanted to have the event held within gym/sports team/community environments because it promotes the significance of a support network. You can do this sort of thing on your own but it’s never a sign of weakness to ask for help. With IBD or any kind of chronic illness it is so much easier and in my opinion healthier to have a good support network around you. When we did this event in May, this element shone through; you’d get to two minutes and say “I can’t do this” and there were people all around you shouting “yes you can!”
- The importance of maintaining an active lifestyle as much as you can through IBD in order to boost mental and physical health.
I also decided very early on that 2014 was going to be a tester event in my gym for something bigger. This year we had 18 people participating and we raised more than $2,500. I now want to grow it and market it to community sporting groups and gyms as a “host your own” Crunch Time event grass-roots type initiative, with each host independently responsible for organising their own event for a collective greater good.