Stomachaches were a regular part of Natalie Kelley’s childhood.
“We always just chalked it up to me having a sensitive stomach,” she says.
However, by the time she was college-bound, Kelley started noticing food intolerances and began eliminating gluten, dairy, and sugar in hopes of finding relief.
“But I still was noticing all the time really horrible bloating and stomach pain after I ate anything,” she says. “For about a year, I was in and out of doctors’ offices and told I had IBS [irritable bowel syndrome, a noninflammatory bowel condition] and needed to figure out what foods didn’t work for me.”
Her tipping point came the summer before her last year of college in 2015. She was traveling in Luxembourg with her parents when she noticed blood in her stool.
“That’s when I knew something a lot more serious was going on. My mom was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teen, so we kind of put two and two together even though we hoped it was a fluke or that the food in Europe was doing something to me,” Kelley recalls.
When she returned home, she scheduled a colonoscopy, which led to her being misdiagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
“I got a blood test done a couple of months later, and that’s when they determined I had ulcerative colitis,” Kelley says.
But rather than feeling down about her diagnosis, Kelley says knowing she had ulcerative colitis brought her peace of mind.
“I had been walking around for so many years in this constant pain and this constant fatigue, so the diagnosis was almost like a validation after many years of wondering what could be going on,” she says. “I knew then I could take steps to getting better rather than flailing around blindly hoping that something I didn’t eat would help. Now, I could create an actual plan and protocol and move forward.”
Creating a platform to inspire others
As Kelley was learning to navigate her new diagnosis, she was also managing her blog Plenty & Well, which she had started two years prior. Yet despite having this platform at her disposal, her condition wasn’t a subject she was altogether keen to write about.
“When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t talk about IBD that much on my blog. I think part of me still wanted to ignore it. I was in my last year of college, and it can be difficult to talk about with friends or family,” she says.
However, she felt a calling to speak out on her blog and Instagram account after having a serious flare-up that landed her in the hospital in June 2018.
“In the hospital, I realized how encouraging it was to see other women talk about IBD and offer support. Blogging about IBD and having that platform to speak so openly about living with this chronic illness has helped me heal in so many ways. It helps me feel understood, because when I talk about IBD I get notes from others who get what I’m going through. I feel less alone in this fight, and that’s the biggest blessing.”
She aims for her online presence to be about encouraging other women with IBD.
Since she began posting about ulcerative colitis on Instagram, she says she’s received positive messages from women about how encouraging her posts have been.
“I get messages from women telling me that they feel more empowered and confident to talk about [their IBD] with friends, family, and loved ones,” Kelley says.
Because of the response, she started holding an Instagram live series called IBD Warrior Women every Wednesday, when she talks to different women with IBD.
“We talk about tips for positivity, how to talk to loved ones, or how to navigate college or 9-to-5 jobs,” Kelley says. “I’m starting these conversations and sharing other women’s stories on my platform, which is super exciting, because the more we show that it’s not something to hide or be ashamed of and the more we show that our worries, anxiety, and mental health [concerns] that come along with IBD are validated, the more we’ll keep empowering women.”
Learning to advocate for your own health
Through her social platforms, Kelley also hopes to inspire young people with chronic illness. At just 23 years old, Kelley learned to advocate for her own health. The first step was gaining confidence explaining to people that her food choices were for her well-being.
“Piecing together meals at restaurants or bringing Tupperware food to a party can require explanation, but the less awkward you act about it, the less awkward the people around you will [be],” she says. “If the right people are in your life, they’ll respect that you have to make these decisions even if they’re a little different than everyone else’s.”
Still, Kelley acknowledges that it can be hard for people to relate to those who are in their teens or 20s living with a chronic illness.
“It’s difficult at a young age, because you feel like no one understands you, so it’s a lot harder to advocate for yourself or talk about it openly. Especially because in your 20s, you so badly just want to fit in,” she says.
Looking young and healthy adds to the challenge.
“The invisible aspect of IBD is one of the hardest things about it, because how you feel inside is not what’s projected to the world on the outside, and so a lot of people tend to think you’re exaggerating or faking it, and that plays into so many different aspects of your mental health,” Kelley says.
Changing perceptions and spreading hope
In addition to spreading awareness and hope through her own platforms, Kelley is also teaming up with Healthline to represent its free IBD Healthline app, which connects those living with IBD.
Users can browse member profiles and request to match with any member within the community. They can also join a group discussion held daily that’s led by an IBD guide. Discussion topics include treatment and side effects, diet and alternative therapies, mental and emotional health, navigating healthcare and work or school, and processing a new diagnosis.
Sign up now! IBD Healthline is a free app for people living with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. The app is available on the App Store and Google Play.
Additionally, the app provides wellness and news content reviewed by Healthline medical professionals that includes information on treatments, clinical trials, and the latest IBD research, as well as self-care and mental health information and personal stories from others living with IBD.
Kelley will host two live chats in different sections of the app, where she’ll pose questions for participants to respond to and answer users’ questions.
“It’s so easy to have a defeated mentality when we get diagnosed with a chronic illness,” Kelley says. “My biggest hope is to show people that life can still be amazing and that they can still reach all of their dreams and more, even if they are living with a chronic illness like IBD.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.