How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
“The girl with the sensitive stomach.” That’s what I had been labeled.
For years, I was just a girl with a sensitive stomach who had to lie down after meals, skip out on social plans, and leave class early. The girl who could be out with her friends one night, and the next barely be able to leave her bed. These ups and downs became my way of life.
But then, on Aug. 4, 2017, I went from the girl with the sensitive stomach to the girl with a chronic illness. The girl with an autoimmune disease. The girl with ulcerative colitis.
It took me almost 2 years before I heard the magic words, “You have ulcerative colitis,” and was ushered out of the gastroenterology center with a pamphlet and a diagnosis. Two years of pain and tears and confusion. Two years of clutching to my identity as the girl with the sensitive stomach because I was scared to be the girl with something more serious.
In the first 9 months after my diagnosis for ulcerative colitis, I took on a new identity: the girl in denial.
“I’ve told everyone about it. I write about it on my blog. How could I be in denial?” I wondered, all while ignoring flares, dodging calls from my doctor, running mile after mile each day despite my stomach cramping in protest, and taking on every new responsibility possible at college.
The flare I had been ignoring got even worse a couple of months before graduation. I was losing more and more blood, barely able to keep my eyes open in class due to fatigue, and leaving work early more often than I ever used to because of the pain.
But the denial was keeping me stuck. Denial was telling me I could just wait it out a few more months until I was home. Denial was telling me that soaking up my last 2 months of college was more important than my health. Denial was telling me I could do all the normal things other college seniors do without a second thought about my ulcerative colitis.
It was denial that landed me in the hospital a month after graduation in 2018. My health had gone downhill and, after being unable to eat or drink without excruciating pain, I was admitted to the emergency room.
Denial had created a cushion around my mind. It put me in the position of “staying positive” in a way I now know is toxic. I shoved everything under the rug and plastered a smile on my face. I never processed the grief, the fear, or the anxiety that naturally comes with chronic illness.
On day 3 of lying in my hospital bed, I decided I was done walking on eggshells around myself and my diagnosis. Even though I had told everyone about my diagnosis and changed my diet to support my body, I realized I hadn’t changed what was going on internally. I hadn’t worked on my mindset or faced the hard emotions I had bottled up in order to better support my ulcerative colitis.
By refusing to give up my hustle mindset and lifestyle, refusing to slow down long enough to hear my thoughts, and refusing to acknowledge the grief or fear, I was holding myself back from acceptance.
It finally hit me that my mindset was the last missing piece to getting out of denial. I made it my personal mission to commit to my journey of acceptance and mindset work moving forward.
I believe that finding acceptance with a chronic illness is possible, and it’s possible for everyone. Acceptance doesn’t mean giving in to your illness, though. It means taking back your life by changing your mindset.
Daily meditation, journaling, and slowing down helped me pinpoint my true emotions about my diagnosis and figure out the ways I needed to tweak my life to support my body. It helped me learn the power of being present.
Being present helped me banish “what if” thoughts that would constantly circle in my head, helping me see that what’s going on right here, right now, in my journey with ulcerative colitis is all that matters. It gave me the gift of slowing down long enough to realize that my mindset is the only thing I can control while living with a disease that has a mind of its own.
Working on my relationship with myself helped immensely, too. As my self-love grew, so did my self-respect. And that love and respect became the ultimate catalyst for acceptance. Because of this love for myself, I began prioritizing my needs and committing to routines that bring me peace and presence. Self-love also motivated me to release guilt around making decisions best for myself, even if others didn’t understand.
All of these pieces came together to teach me that my inner world — my soul, my mindset, my emotions — are the most important pieces of me. Not how much I work, how far I run, or if I’m able to “keep up” with other folks my age. Nourishing the pieces of my inner world help me live in the beauty of acceptance.
My journey toward acceptance showed me that I am me and that is enough, even with ulcerative colitis.
Two and a half years after that life-altering hospitalization, I’m happy to say I’ve found genuine life-giving acceptance. I’ve taken my broken pieces and built something beautiful — a strong mind and a strong life. Acceptance is freedom.
Natalie Kelley, the founder of Plenty and Well, is a chronic illness mindset and lifestyle coach, and the host of the Plenty and Well Podcast based near Seattle, Washington. After years of symptoms, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2017 at 21 years old. She started her blog and brand a few years prior to share about health and wellness. After her diagnosis, she changed paths to discuss life with a chronic illness and provide support for others. After a life-altering flare-up in 2018 and a hospital stay, Natalie realized her purpose ran deeper than just sharing wisdom on social media. She obtained her holistic health coaching certification which led her to where she is now. She offers women with chronic illnesses personal coaching as well as her group program, The Path to Empowered Acceptance, which helps individuals find acceptance, confidence, and joy on their health journeys.