What I Learned to Feel From My Gut

Erin Britt essays

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I was 27 and living in Los Angeles. I had a great job at an Internet company during the boom years. We were all young, making pretty good money, working 80-90 hours a week, and in my case, living on a diet of cigarettes and coffee. I had a business trip to New York I was looking forward to when everything started to unravel.

I knew something was wrong as I boarded the plane. Every time I swallowed—and not just food or drink—it felt as if shards of glass were scraping my esophagus. I tried to blink back the tears that rimmed my eyes with each excruciating swallow. I had never experienced such intense pain before.

I had gone for a regular checkup a month beforehand and my blood work came back a tad too high here and a titch too low there. Nothing to be concerned about they told me, but they scheduled a follow-up appointment. I had my blood drawn that very Friday morning but the results would not be ready until Monday.

I spent the weekend at a friend’s house trying not to betray my panic. But I couldn’t hide the fact that I wasn’t eating or drinking. It simply hurt too much. On Monday morning, as soon as the clock struck 9 am PST, I called my doctor’s office. He got on the phone right away, and I cried to him that something was definitely wrong, that swallowing was a nightmare I could never have imagined. He said he knew something was awry; my blood test results were completely out of whack. Now he just needed to run more tests in order to diagnose me. He scheduled me for an endoscopy three hours after I landed back in L.A., and I went straight from the airport to the hospital.

I gagged as they put the tube down my throat and watched the screen to see what they saw, trying to make sense of the alien images. I learned later that I had ulcers lining my esophagus and the duodenum. They took multiple biopsies, and when the official report came in a few days later, the diagnosis was definitive: Crohn’s Disease (a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract i.e. the worst stomach bug you could fathom that can never be exterminated).

And there began my two years of hell. I was at home, in pain, with no family nearby, and no significant other. Although my friends were wonderful, after the first month, they understandably had to dial back their help. There were days when the pain was so excruciating that no amount of pain medicine could relieve the searing burn in my belly. In those moments I thought I wanted to die, for something to just kill me so I wouldn’t have to live in agony any longer. But deep inside my gut, beyond the rotting, inflamed tissue, I knew, or at least hoped with every ounce of my being, that it would pass – that eventually, somehow, I would get better, even marginally, and be able to live my life again.

I could write pages about the treatments, procedures, adverse reactions, and generally miserable two years that followed. But in some ways, none of it stands out as much as the first few days that I realized my life had changed forever. I had to make a choice: run home and hide under the covers or fight this disease head on with every fiber of my being. One thing I knew for certain: I would never again take my health for granted.

There were moments when I wanted to curse the heavens and give up the fight, but for the most part I was thankful to be alive. I came to believe that no one goes through life unscathed and if this was my burden to bear, so be it…I would do so with as much grace and gratitude as I could muster that it wasn’t something worse. I learned the hard way, through two years I would not wish on my worst enemy, to slow down, appreciate what I had, savor moments of joy, and to never let work rule my life again. 

I learned not to care about a lot of little things, so I could care a lot about a few important ones. My mantra became: unless someone is sick, dying, or dead, everything else is manageable. I promised myself that if I were to ever recover, I would live differently.  

I have kept that promise for the most part, and my Crohn’s has not flared up in several years. I work from home now. It is not always easy as I took a huge pay cut with this choice. But the payoff is much greater. Whereas most people are in a rush for one thing or another, I don’t share the same sense of urgency. If someone needs my attention, I remember that most things can wait. I have learned that deadlines usually aren’t firm and the sky won’t fall if someone’s email is not responded to immediately. I have photos that need editing for a client that I am 2 days late sending to the printer, we have no hotel booked for a business trip in 3 weeks, and I have 4 articles that need to be completed. Yet today was a snow day. Sure, a part of me wanted to ignore the kids and catch up on work. But the truth is, snow days are supposed to be special and fun.  At least that is how I recall them from when I was a child growing up in Siberia Winnipeg. So work took a backseat and instead I baked a cake with my son and watched a dragon movie.

Work can wait. It’s often the things that don’t have deadlines attached to them that can’t. I cried for God to give me another chance. I promised I would do better, be better, live better. When I die, I want to be remembered as a wife and mother who loved her family above all else and always put them first. I also want to be remembered as a cherished and loyal friend who was kind, generous, and thoughtful. I do not want to be remembered as a good employee.

Whenever I start to feel like being a wife and mother is the hardest work I’ve ever done, I remind myself they are the best part of my life. I only need to think back to what I learned to feel from my gut to be thankful beyond measure and not take either my health or my family for granted.

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Erin Britt

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