How I Manage Crohn's Disease With an Olympic Mindsetby Brian Greenberg Patient Advocate
“How did you get to this point?”
I get this question all the time, and my answer is always the same: “It’s been a long battle, and it didn’t happen overnight.”
For those of you that don’t know my full story, I am living with Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and training for a full 140.6-mile Ironman race this year. I know what you might be thinking: “This guy clearly hasn’t had a severe case of Crohn’s and has no idea how hard my battle has been.” But I promise you, I do.
"We can’t expect years and years of damage to our bodies to be fixed in just a few days or weeks."
My journey back to health with IBD
After being diagnosed at 11, my Crohn’s hit me like a truck at 19. Then, I had 13 surgeries for rectal fistulas and a resection in 19 months. I then had another major battle at 25, which led me to even more surgeries for rectal fistulas, an ostomy, and eventually a proctectomy. I’ve definitely had my periods of struggle.
When a fellow IBD family member told me they felt they could never get their health back, I began to realize what a long, windy, uphill road I’ve traveled since my proctectomy four years ago.
The questions about how I got to this place with my health got me thinking about my four-year journey, and I realized how similar it has been to an Olympic athlete’s journey. An Olympic athlete has a goal in mind, to prepare themselves for a two-week period when the eyes of the world will be on them, and they have four full years to do it — to master their sport and perform at the highest level.
Have patience on your IBD journey
What if a Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis patient begin to use this same mindset when fighting back against their IBD? Too often I speak with patients who began with a goal for their health, created a plan, but quit after just a few weeks or even days in. They tell me how they weren’t seeing a difference in how they felt, so why continue since it “clearly” wasn’t going to work. Whenever this happens, I try to explain that it won’t happen overnight, but that many people have gotten up off the ground after IBD knocks them down, and they can do it, too.
The reality is that many patients have been fighting their disease for an incredibly long time, and we can’t expect years and years of damage to our bodies to be fixed in just a few days or weeks. The healing process is just that: a process — and one that will take an extended period of time. You aren’t going to go from lying in bed, just trying to survive each day, to all of the sudden jumping around and running in circles because you’re feeling better in just a few days.
This is why we have to go into this fight with that Olympic athlete’s mindset. This process is likely going to take a few years, my friends. But I have good news: It’s worth it. During this time, you’ll put hours and hours of work in, trying to better not just your physical health, but your mental health, diet, support team, and more. You’ll have to build all of these areas back up again, sometimes from scratch. And this process can’t be rushed.
You will have to tinker with so many different aspects of life, attempt a variety of different ways to tackle the challenges IBD throws your way, and be creative with your disease to find ways to overcome it.
I didn’t just get out of bed after my proctectomy and start doing triathlons. First, I got out of bed and made it back and forth from the kitchen to make my own grilled cheese. Then I made the walk around my parents’ living room. Then I took on the whole neighborhood. And so on. And that is just one aspect of the rebuilding process.
With IBD, perfection isn’t your goal
It’s taken countless hours and work to get to this point, and I have to be honest: It’s still not perfect. There are still days when I have to fight various symptoms again and take medications to keep my Crohn’s in check.
Still, I can tell you that the long Olympic-like road to my goal has been worth it. I’ve never felt better, and the feeling of accomplishment from knowing where I have come from makes it even better. You’ll need patience and resilience for those times when you’re knocked down, but when you continue to get back up again and again, you’ll start to see that things are improving — that you’re figuring out this puzzle that is your Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.
Get ready for a long road ahead. Your health won’t improve overnight, but when it does, you’ll be able to look back and see where you’ve come from. Maybe you won’t have an actual gold medal, but it will feel just as amazing.