Going from surviving to thriving

At the age of 24, an intestinal illness hit me hard while I was in the midst of my graduate studies in the field of community psychology. The diagnosis at the time was ulcerative colitis. My doctor prescribed corticosteroid medicines when I had flares of the illness. The medicines helped though they also made me feel more vulnerable to the effects of stress.

A few years later I moved to France. I was quite ill with a colitis flare for the first few months that I lived there and then I visited Plum Village near Bordeaux. Plum Village is a meditation practice center and home to the Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. I arrived pale, emaciated, and debilitated. By the time I left six weeks later, I had recovered my health. I do not believe that a miracle occurred, but rather that Plum Village was the right environment for my nervous system to become more balanced. I learned how to relax deeply at Plum Village through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness helped me to generate awareness and compassion, which were potent medicines for my psyche.

After I returned from France, I lived and worked in Washington, D.C. when my illness became severe and even life-threatening. I spent weeks in the hospital and months eating only the blandest of foods. The physicians decided that the disease was not ulcerative colitis, rather, it was Crohn’s colitis. Between 2001 and 2003, I was hospitalized for Crohn’s colitis seven times. Each hospitalization in 2001 involved weeks of starvation and intravenous corticosteroids that made sleep difficult. The fourth hospitalization was for major abdominal surgery.

My sixth hospitalization took place in 2003. It was around that time that something shifted in me. I was tired of the hospitalizations. I was tired of eating bland foods for months at a time. And I was tired of feeling tired.  I had been gathering information about Crohn’s colitis treatments on the internet and after considering the information carefully, I decided to ask my doctor to put me on a long-term immunosuppressant medicine called Mercaptopurine.

Mercaptopurine helped me to stabilize and then I found a regimen that worked for me: taking probiotics, avoiding certain foods (including gluten and lactose), getting adequate sleep and rest, practicing qi gong daily, and making time for daily relaxation, including mindfulness practice. Of course, my support network of family members and friends was also crucial to my recovery. I also danced, wrote songs and poetry, and made art to express my emotions. But perhaps most importantly, I changed my lifestyle and my mental frame of mind. Instead of operating in a “survival” mode of living, I switched to operating in a “thriving” mode of living. That meant rooting myself in a place of self-love and self-care. I listened to signals of stress in my body. And I chose to reduce the stresses in my life and increase the time I spent in daily relaxation, meditation, and awareness-generating practices.

Since 2006, my physicians have found no evidence of Crohn’s colitis and no signs of inflammation in my body. I have been off of immunosuppressant medicines without any flares whatsoever. But my healing process is one that goes beyond the conventional definition of healing. Crohn’s colitis was my greatest teacher. It taught me that I am always whole, no matter what happens to my body. Living with it helped me to learn about what it means to be compassionate. And through all the years of living with the illness, I learned how to really care for and love myself.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bob Stickles
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 22:49:10

    Hi Erica, Welcome to the club. I am going to put you on my blog. Great life I heard every word it is great I am really happy to see there are 3 and a million. I am sitting here with a big smile because I to used meditation to cure my Crohn’s Colitis this prove that it can be done. But I will say this my life would not be as full and happy with out the lessons of my sickness. Please keep in touch with me this is great thank you. We can make a differents.
    Thank you Bob Stickles


  2. Trackback: Watershed « Determined To Heal
  3. Bob Stickles
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 01:21:54

    I was reading your about me page. I love books on the brain that all I read about. It amazes me how much stuff that we don’t understand about the brain. My thought with my sickness was this, my brain runs the body if it is fight itself why would it kill it’s host being the body? I figured the brain was out of wacky and I had to manual reprogram. Which i did using meditation and see positive changes happening in my body during meditation and reinforcing them in my everyday life. I brainwashed my brain telling it that my intestines were fine. My body had no choice but to follow.
    I hope we talk soon I can’t wait to hear more of what you have done and stuff like this.
    I know I sound pushy but I like this stuff and I am ADHD I am a real focused person if you could not tell.


  4. determinedtoheal
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 09:18:59

    Glad to hear from you Bob! I will send you an email soon.


  5. Andy
    Nov 03, 2010 @ 16:22:03

    Hi Erica, Irisha pointed me towards your blog earlier and I am so glad she did. Is wonderful to read how you worked your way out of your illness using mindfulness techniques among other methods. I know a fair few people with different forms of IBD and have seen how harsh it can be.

    I am working with long-standing chronic illness problems of my own just now and it is inspiring to read of your dedication to healing. Thank you so much for sharing some of your path. I need to re-look at my own dedication.

    Tack så mycket!


  6. Trackback: Milestones and celebrations « Determined To Heal
  7. Kashif
    May 09, 2011 @ 01:53:06

    Hey Erica I’ve been suffering from colitis on and off for the past 17 years. What kind of probiotics did you take?


  8. Trackback: Ten years later | Determined To Heal

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