top of page

letters from katherine


Make Friends With Your Bedfellows

This article was originally published in 2017 and has been revised for this platform.

Something I tend to hide (because it makes me vulnerable) is telling people that I am a sensitive person, both emotionally and physically. I am working on the vulnerability. Physically, among other things, I have Crohn’s Disease and Hashimoto’s Disease. Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disease that occurs anywhere in your digestive tract. Over the years, my Crohn’s disease has typically lived in the area between the small and large intestine, and when I was nineteen I had a section of that part of my intestines removed. Hashimoto's Disease is a autoimmune disease of the thyroid. My thyroid usually likes to be slow instead of fast, so I tend to have more issues on the hypo-thyroidism spectrum than the the hyper-thyroidism spectrum. Currently in my life, I tend to focus my Crohn’s disease symptoms more than my Hashimoto’s symptoms, but both let me know they exist daily.

I have had Crohn’s disease for twenty years. I started feeling sick two weeks prior to graduating from high school after a bout of what I thought was food poisoning. I was sick for nearly a year after that, and lost fifty pounds in my first eight months of college. I was not doing well, and my parents medically excused me from my second semester of my freshman year. I went home to figure out if I had colon cancer or Crohn’s and after some exploratory surgery and removal of a chunk of my intestines and my appendix, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

My entire adulthood has been intertwined with this relationship with Crohn’s. That is crazy to think about. Crohn’s and I have become unlikely partners over the years. We have been together longer than my marriage and most of my friendships. It was with me through college and graduate school. I t has gone on every vacation and road trip I have been on in the past twenty years.

For just a quick second, let me explain the science behind the disease the way I understand it. In my digestive tract, my killer white blood actually get a little more aggressive than they should and attack whatever they see as an enemy. So, if I produce a lot of killer white cells to fight an infection, they go crazy and attack everything, both the good and bad cells. This turns into inflammation, ulcers or fistulas (tiny canals between the walls of the intestines) and a flare up has occurred.

The list of Crohn’s symptoms is long, but the big ones for me are sudden and intense urges to go to the bathroom, diarrhea, multiple trips to the bathroom and intense abdominal cramps. Food is an issue and certain foods definitely bother me. But, here’s the funny thing… some foods I am able to eat without problem on some days and on other days those same exact foods will cause me an immense amount of grief. My response to what I eat, and the symptoms I have, are all intertwined with every other function in my body. The level of stress I am currently under, the amount of sleep I’ve had in the past few nights and what I ate three days ago all factor in to whether or not a food I have eaten today will bother me.

Crohn’s has been an integral part of my life for twenty years, but for most of those years I didn’t pay much attention to it. I would take medicine to keep it bay, go to the bathroom like twenty times a day, and keep moving. I met with doctors every three to six months to make sure things were alright and I just kept going. It’s a gross topic, so I tried to make it a non-issue and mastered the art of going to the bathroom quickly. The benefit over the years is that Crohn’s got me out of washing dishes at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. But really, for many years I had other priorities than dealing with Crohn’s disease. I had to figure out my career, be in relationships, get married and have babies.

And then, a couple years ago I started to not feel that great. I was tired all of the time. I was achey. I had joint pain. I felt like an eighty year old woman. I was in the bathroom more than the typical twenty times a day (I am exaggerating, sometimes it was way less than that). I realized that this disease was starting to take a toll on my body. After a good amount of tears, a number of temper tantrums, and my mommy flying to Alaska to be with me, and my sweet husband by my side, I had a colonoscopy (the first one in fifteen years). The results came back from the doctor: “Your colon show indications of Crohn’s Disease”. If I had any doubts over the years, I guess this letter solidified that this particular unlikely partner wasn’t going anywhere.

One day about six months ago, I was talking to this very intuitive and kind person and she said: It seems like you are pretty angry about having this disease. It seems like, perhaps, you feel like a victim to it and you often ask the universe “why me?” Well… uh….. yeah. I guess I do. I wasn’t too keen on the victim word…. as most days I like to think that I am a warrior and strong. But, I guess I do subliminally wonder why I have this disease. Daily. Except when I get out of doing dishes at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.

Then, the amazing lady said: Perhaps it would do you justice to make friends with this disease. Become partners with it. Be comfortable bedfellows. What? Be friends with this thing that makes no sense and bothers me daily and sometimes nightly? Be friends with the disease that makes me tired, and achey and sick? Be friends with the disease that I worry gets in the way of my actual relationships? Be friends with the thing that says I can’t have chocolate cake daily? At first, I was not very happy with this suggestion. I said to myself: Forget being friends with Crohn’s. I had a few other choice words to say along with that. I said to myself: I am going to beat this Crohn’s disease. We are going to war. I am not going to welcome this disease into my bed!

But, then after just a minute of being quiet and contemplating this challenge, I realized this really amazing thing. Crohn’s has made me the person I am. It has made me strong in other ways. It has given me a perspective on life that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It led me to a helping profession so that I could walk with others dealing with the amazing difficulties of life. It has made me be aware of how much stress I process, how much sleep I get and how much I exercise. Recently it has made me think about everything I do with my body, including making big choices with the food I eat. It has made me ME. It has become an integral part of my spiritual journey and we are spiritual partners, Crohn’s and I. We are bedfellows.

Katherine Phifer









bottom of page