My name is Shawntel Bethea, and I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC) when I was 17. Now I’m 25, and I’ve gone through my fair share of flares.

A UC flare can be a lot of things, but when asked to describe it in only three words, these were the first to come to my mind.

For a while, my flares caused me to feel helpless, as if there were nothing I or anyone else could possibly do to ease my pain.

I was under the worst kind of attack anyone could possibly endure: a self-inflicted attack, one which I had no control over. I didn’t start it, and I certainly couldn’t stop it. I felt trapped, with no way to get out.

Living with the pain of constant inflammation and ulcerations is hard and can drain you of just about everything. Flare-ups can steal strength and energy that you didn’t even realize you had until it’s gone.

My flares have drained me mentally, physically, emotionally. And when they’re really bad, they’ve even drained me of all happiness completely.

Through the pain, I found empowerment. I found a better sense of self and chose to use my experiences to ease those of others. I began blogging and sharing what I’d learned.

Eventually, I found an amazing community of people just like myself, living and thriving in spite of the flares and unpredictability of inflammatory bowel disease. My flares pushed me to become a better me.

I took to Facebook to ask others within the UC community how they’d describe their flares in three words. Here’s what I found:

“Elusive, destructive, and a blessing.” — Jaime Weinstein

Jaime chose “elusive” because it took almost 20 years to get properly diagnosed and treated, although the disease was in plain sight. She picked “destructive” because she lost everything, from her job to her house. But most importantly, Jaime described a flare as a “blessing.” The continual losses grounded and humbled her, and allowed her to take stock of her life and find her now fiancé, Matthew.

“Crisis turned opportunity.” — Rasheed

While Rasheed’s UC flares have put him through some of his hardest moments, they have also opened up opportunities for him to do things he’d never imagined.

“Panic, exhaustion, barrier.” — Megan Starshak

Megan chose “panic” because of the urgency of UC flares and not knowing when one will hit and if it’s going to cause a major disaster. She chose “exhaustion” because flares can weigh her down physically and emotionally, and even bring her sense of hope down, as you’ll never know when you’ll have a break from fighting a constant battle. And lastly, she picked “barrier” because although everyone’s life goals differ, flares and symptoms can certainly get in the way.

“Enlightening, destructive, fuel.” — Brooke Abbott

Brooke’s UC flares have changed her whole life. They took a lot of things away, but they also helped push her to be a person she didn’t have to be, and she’s better for it.

Our words and phrases differ, but the consensus is clear: Flares are like a thief in the night, inconspicuous yet detrimental. Unapologetically, they can take anything of value without the slightest concern. UC flares can damage the lives of people both internally and externally. But in the end, they can still leave room for inspiration and opportunity to stem from the lessons they leave behind.

Shawntel Bethea was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at 17 years old. Now 25, she is a blogger and patient advocate who works to normalize and destigmatize conversations pertaining to inflammatory bowel disease and mental health.