Growing up, long before I was diagnosed with Crohn's, I always felt kind of sick. I remember that whenever our class was going on a field trip, I would wake up the morning of the field trip and I would be so excited that I'd be sick to my stomach. In fact, I usually felt a bit sick in the mornings, generally, and I spent a lot of time in the nurse's office in elementary school. It got to the point where I really liked going to the nurse's office, because it was comforting.
When I got to middle school, the feeling in my stomach became more than just nausea. Now I was in pain a lot of the time -- bad pain. Suddenly I was missing a lot of school, and I remember going to my pediatrician and telling him what was going on. He thought I was just constipated, so he suggested I start drinking Benefiber. Of course, if you're constipated, that's a smart thing to do. For me, with my undiagnosed Crohn's, it made everything so much worse. Anyway, long story short, I eventually went to the hospital -- after a colonoscopy, an upper GI x-ray, ultrasounds, and all sorts of stuff -- and a CAT scan finally confirmed that I had Crohn's. And like a lot of people, I had never even heard of this disease when I was first told that I had it.
Mornings have always been really hard for me. In fact, in high school it was so difficult for me to get going during the day that I often didn't even make it to school until around lunch time. Halfway through junior year I ended up dropping out of high school. I wasn't going to be able to finish with my class, and the all-day schedule just wasn't working for me. I ended up doing a scholarship program at a local community college, Montgomery College, in Maryland. The program was called Gateway to College, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, where students who tested into the program could earn college credits and high school credits for classes.
I did really well there, partly because I was able to schedule my own classes and I never had to be there early. After three years I got my associates degree and my high school diploma. I had something like the second highest GPA in the class, and went on to Towson University in Maryland. After I graduated Towson, Montgomery asked me to come back and give a commencement speech for a graduating class. So that was really cool, and a big confidence booster.
Anyone with this sort of illness needs to have a sense of humor, because when a significant portion of your life involves dealing with gas, diarrhea, accidents -- which is a nice way of saying pooping yourself -- finding a way to laugh about it not only keeps you from obsessing over your problems, it's also the best way to talk openly about it with people you know and with strangers.
Besides, something embarrassing that might seem like the end of the world at the time can actually end up being a really hilarious story down the road. You know, I'm an actress, and I had an episode at an audition at Towson where five minutes before the audition started, I literally pooped my pants. But I went to the bathroom, cleaned up, threw away my underwear, and went back out and did the audition with no underwear on. What else was I going to do? Run away?
I just try to be as honest as I can, with myself and with others, about my condition. And what I find funny is that people seem to think it's amazing and hilarious when I talk openly about, say, farting. I don't get what the big deal is. We all fart, right? I've found that if we're totally straightforward about what we go through as Crohn's patients, most of the time people aren't going to be grossed out. They're going to find it disarming. Besides, when people think you're being funny, they'll listen. And sometimes that's the very best way to start a dialog.