Through new habits and high quality healthcare, I discovered what it’s like to feel strong and confident in my body.
When the blogs I read warned there would be no central air, they didn’t lie. I shoved my face into a handheld fan, sweat dripping, a lanyard with my name on it hanging around my neck. It was 2018, I had been living with Crohn’s disease for over a decade, and I was moving into my tiny new dorm in South Korea to teach English for 3 years.
I had just enough money in my bank account, no real savings, and no job, car, or home to go back to. I was also in a lot of pain. I had terrible constipation from adjusting to a new diet and I had a growing anxiety that my insides were going to explode.
The physical stress coupled with the emotional stress felt overwhelming. I worried: Will people be able to tell that I am struggling? Will they think I’m bland if I’m too quiet or reserved? Am I going to make any friends?
Retreating wasn’t an option. I had to make it work.
As I bopped around my new room, the band BTS’s newly released song “Euphoria” played from my smartphone.
Suddenly, the door opened. I froze. It was my roommate and fellow teacher-in-training. We stood there in silence, not sure what to say first. Then, as the next song started to play, to my surprise, she smiled and began to sing along.
If this was what life in South Korea would be like, I thought, maybe I was in the right place. It was a comfort to the pain.
Over the next few months, I decided to follow the music. I embraced the highs of a 7-year dream coming true, and I danced my way through the fear of the string of failures that were inevitably waiting for me.
I grew up on a small farm in rural Missouri. My childhood consisted of hiding in the garden hammock to avoid green bean picking and spending my time reading instead. I loved to read stories about amazing faraway places — England, Egypt, Japan. I grew up longing for adventure.
Then I got sick, I got sad, and I got stuck.
As a high school student, I developed some of the worst symptoms of my life. Like many other people living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), my symptoms affect my mind as well as my body. With my physical symptoms, I also struggled psychologically, socially, and academically.
Each time I took the SAT, my scores got worse. My “smart kid” book-loving identity was devastated. I was so lonely and depressed, I’d come home from high school and lay in bed, wishing I was asleep. I was holistically unhealthy.
Part of the problem was that my dad was buying my medication online bootleg to save money. It was all we could manage with our five-person, single-income household, but I think the medication he was getting made me feel worse.
My mom didn’t want me to go to college and waste money on something I might not even be able to finish. I think she also worried I would suffer all alone.
But I wanted to go to college like my life depended on it. I wanted to leave my small town and see the wide-open world.
I didn’t know what sacrifice meant then, but I was at the age that “suffering for art and adventure” sounded romantic. Besides, I was already suffering, I couldn’t imagine it getting worse. I figured doing something is better than doing nothing.
I stood firm against my mother’s wishes and, in 2010, I moved from farm life to fulfill my “big city dreams” in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In Tulsa, something amazing happened. The freedom, new habits, and great new friendships transformed me. A new doctor and prescription helped, too. I became stronger than ever. My mind felt clearer. I was healing.
I moved onto campus, and two rooms down from me lived a girl named Tina who was from Seoul, South Korea. She was older than me, had very expensive taste, and wasn’t afraid to tell me what she really thought about my life choices. I loved her for it. We became good friends.
One day, when we were daydreaming about our after-graduation schemes, she suggested it: “Why don’t you go teach English in Korea?”
“Why not?” I thought.
This idea played over and over again in my head for 7 years. Again and again, I asked myself this same question: “Why not?”
Flash forward to 2018. I was 2 years into a joyless content writing job, still dreaming about adventure. I coped with K-pop memes and watching hours of Korean music videos on Friday nights with my friends.
I had been living paycheck to paycheck, under constant medical debt, for 4 years. My health was rocky from the hour-long commutes and the no-rest work culture.
I felt weary and stuck. It was time for something new.
So, I returned to the idea Tina planted in my head 7 years earlier. I dove headfirst into researching how to get a role teaching in South Korea.
The blogs and the YouTube videos told me to expect anything. Your classroom could be calm or chaotic. Your co-workers could be helpful and generous or judgmental and terrifying. You were essentially signing your life over and could be sent anywhere in South Korea that the company chose. What a thrill.
But I thought: If I don’t do this now, when will I? This is it. Even if it’s hard, this is my chance. I’m not going to let it pass me by.
I took time to think and pray. I reassured myself by thinking about how my life had been before I went to university, how it was during university, and how it has been since. My life wasn’t perfect, but it was good. I hoped that this would be like that.
I poured nearly every last bit of my savings into paying off my medical bills. What little was left, I took with me to start again as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in South Korea.
When I told some Korean friends I was moving to a small, remote city in Jeollabuk Province, hub of Korea’s rice fields, they looked at me with surprise. Not Seoul? What if I ended on a mountain all alone? How would I survive?
Well, I did grow up on a farm, didn’t I?
I ended up in Gunsan, a city on the west coast with a population of almost 2.8 million people. My cohort of other new English teachers in Gunsan were from interesting places like Scotland, Canada, and New York City.
I told new friends and students that I was from Kansas City, which is pretty close to my hometown. They’d always ask: “Where?” And I’d say, “You know, like ‘The Wizard of Oz.'”
I quickly learned how to say it in Korean, thanks to a friend. It’s funny, the phrases that became essential to navigating a new life.
Moving to a new place is hard for anyone. You get lonely. You have to figure out a new routine. You may have to get a new job, a new car, and all the rest.
Moving to South Korea with Crohn’s disease was hard for me. I won’t lie. It wasn’t just the pain of flares or the isolation of being somewhere so culturally different from where I had spent my whole life — it didn’t help that it was the hottest time of the year.
I also had to learn to take my trust in strangers to a whole new level. I had no idea how anything worked, from how to get a bank account to how to get medication. Language barriers made even little things challenging sometimes.
It didn’t take long, however, to discover a depth of human kindness and generosity that I never could’ve imagined. I also experienced the best health of my life.
When I needed to find a pain clinic but I had no idea how to get a referral, my new friend named Eppie, who was South Korean, helped me by calling a pain clinic where no one spoke English. It was the best one in town, she said.
Eppie came with me to my first appointment. The nurses were friendly and the visit cost less than $15. I left feeling lighter with relief. I felt optimistic knowing I could pay so little and receive the reassurance I needed that my body wasn’t imploding any time soon.
In the beginning of my healthcare journey in Korea, when I had no idea where anything was or how anything worked, Eppie continued to accompany me to many appointments.
Crohn’s check-ups aren’t like seeing the doctor for something like the flu. The doctor can’t just say, “No fever. OK,” and send you on your way. It was vital we understand each other, and Eppie made sure we did.
I tried to thank her by buying her coffee, but it rarely worked. I’d tell her, “Thank you!”, “You’re the best!” and “You have no idea how much this means!”
She would simply say, “God is good,” and smile and pat my arm, and do it all again the next time.
Eventually, I was given a referral to a gastroenterologist at Jeonbuk University Hospital in Jeonju, a city 45 minutes away by public bus.
For these hospital adventures, I took taxis and the inter-city bus on my own. The first time navigating public transportation was intimidating, but it didn’t take long to start feeling more confident.
I was happy to realize that the laid-back gastroenterologist spoke English, but going into an appointment with no idea what to expect was stressful.
My co-workers at Gunsan English Learning Center took care of me like I was family. I was given as much time as I needed to get to my appointments in the next city over, and they never made me feel guilty about taking care of myself. They encouraged it.
The director of the program checked in with me after each visit to see how I was doing and to offer me a little treasure of special tea or herbal extract: “Try this for your health. Your health is the most important thing.”
Healthcare in Korea was affordable and accessible. The most expensive part was the bus and taxi fare, and the visits themselves cost less than $10. This was a welcome relief from the extensive medical bills I was used to at home.
Over time, my persistent anxiety from years of medical debt and hospital confusion lifted. I didn’t have to budget for my Crohn’s anymore. I knew with each visit, I had enough. I never stopped being thankful.
This made a significant impact on my mental health, but it was the lifestyle in South Korea that transformed me the most.
Once I had adjusted to it, I discovered that my body thrived on Korean food. I lived in what is known as “the breadbasket of Korea,” where, in my humble opinion, the food is the most delicious in the country.
I ate high-veggie dishes, fermented goodies, an abundance of bone-broth, even the kimbap ajjumma from the corner market was delicious. It was a dream. High quality, nutritious food was affordable, as were housing and a fitness membership.
The problem was, I hated exercise.
The only reason I joined a yoga studio in Korea was to hang out with my friend, Katie. It didn’t take long to find out I was absolutely terrible at yoga.
I stumbled through my first class. The instructor came over often to correct my form, sounding like a mother worrying over her child. However, it didn’t take many classes for me to notice on the days I did yoga, I would feel less anxious. The deep breathing especially had an incredible impact on me.
Katie kept inviting me, and I kept going. Over time I got less terrible at it. When Katie left Korea, I made the switch to more of a Pilates-focused yoga class and fell in love.
I tried more yoga and more Pilates, then I tried pole dancing, surfing, jujitsu, weightlifting, and even mountain hiking for the very first time. By the end of 3 years, I’d gone from a flimsy weakling to toned and excited to feel the mood boost of a good workout among friends.
A few months into my second year in South Korea, thanks to regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and new medication, I realized I was feeling better than I ever had. One day, it struck me: This is what it’s like to feel strong, to actually enjoy your body.
Depressed high school me could never have imagined this version of my life: strong, social, and happy.
Risk isn’t painless. Especially for people with autoimmune diseases. A new medication could improve your symptoms, or it could come with side effects like hair loss. Or it may do absolutely nothing.
Even our best efforts to address our mental and physical health can’t always determine what we lose or what we gain, and that’s scary. It is.
I used to play a lot of guitar. In college, I performed a song I wrote in front of an audience for the first time, knees and voice shaking. As people clapped at a — presumably — job well done, I imagined myself melting into the wall. A friend snuck a card into my hand.
It read: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the things which you think you cannot do. — Eleanor Roosevelt”
She said, “This is you.”
That was almost 10 years ago. I never forgot it. Throughout my 20s, whenever I felt the fear of a hard choice, I’d focus on those words. The more I chose to believe, the more I did believe.
This belief carried me to Central America, Africa, Europe, and then Asia. This belief helped me make reality out of my childhood dreams of adventures. I didn’t always choose right, and my body didn’t always like the journey, but it was by making my own way that I found who I really am.
I hope you, too, will find the courage to choose who you are, what you want, and the life you find. None of us chose to have Crohn’s disease, but we do get to choose how we live with it.
Sarah Dinwiddie is a writer living with Crohn’s Disease. She writes mostly for business and medicine, with passion projects on travel, wellness, and YA action-adventure. You can find her on Instagram (for fun) or Twitter (for work).