Growing up, my mother was the picture of perfect physical and mental health. Her family valued holistic wellness and fostered confidence and self-esteem. At age 18, she began experiencing sudden severe abdominal pain and embarrassing digestive problems. It was debilitating at times. She began to worry about leaving the house and knew where every bathroom was in public places.
Soon after these problems began, each episode was characterized by more than just fear of embarrassment. She experienced intense anxiety, sometimes culminating in panic attacks. She began to feel as if every episode pulled her further from the full and healthy life she once lived.
When she consulted her family doctor, he chalked it up to hyper-peristalsis – a condition that causes food to move rapidly through the stomach and intestine. It is not a serious condition, and her doctor did not believe it warranted treatment. He had known her since birth and assumed she was worried about college. She felt she had been dismissed as if it were “all in her head,” and the problem persisted.
Routine tasks became mountainous challenges. She very clearly recalls events such as being in a store and trying to decide on an item, such as a birthday card. She would be overcome with anxiety, begin to sweat and run to the nearest bathroom. It was time for another doctor, a second opinion. The next doctor decided it was “just nerves” and told her she was fortunate because some people are afraid to leave the house at all. He was completely unsympathetic to how her condition was interfering with her life, even as she began to experience symptoms when she woke up and began to miss work. Again, the severity of her problems was dismissed.
Finally, she went to a gastroenterologist in Pittsburgh, who diagnosed her with Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease. These conditions are characterized by abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss. They range in severity and occur in episodes, or “flare-ups.” The gastroenterologist informed her that she would need to be on medication for the rest of her life, but assured her that the condition would not get any worse. She started taking medication (at last, a treatment!) and was advised to change her diet – no fresh vegetables, seeds, nuts, spicy foods – avoiding anything that would irritate her intestines.
She felt too young to have a chronic condition and to have her life limited. Being on medication forever felt daunting, but it did help. On occasion, she would still have crippling waves of anxiety associated with Crohn’s symptoms. She never knew whether the anxiety came first or if the anxiety worsened the Crohn’s symptoms. She felt like she had to be prepared for every moment, and was always on edge. These feelings dissipated with age, but she is always mindful of a flare-up of symptoms. Because Crohn’s and Colitis can be genetic, she also fears that she may have passed the conditions on to her children.
In my mother’s case, no one considered the connection between mind and body. She was especially troubled by the sudden onset and intensity of the anxiety she experienced, as this was completely out of character for her. It is often said that the gut is the second brain, and influences mood and emotion. My mother researched the neural networks in the brain and how they impact physiological stress response. Everything began to make more sense.
Finally, it wasn’t a matter of being “all in her head,” “just nerves,” or “worried about college.” Her anxiety occurred solely with flare-up symptoms. Rather than being nervous about having random panic attacks, she knew when to expect them and had a better understanding of their origin. When she was in the grips of anxiety, she felt it would never end. Now, even though anxiety may creep up on her, she is cognizant of the fact that it won’t last forever. And that gives her hope. She hopes it gives you hope, too.