With the vaccine behind me, I feel hopeful for the future for the first time in over a year.

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Having an autoimmune disease is tough physically, mentally, and emotionally. Having an autoimmune disease during a pandemic? That is a completely new experience that I wasn’t prepared for.

I have ulcerative colitis (UC), a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and have been fighting a flare-up off and on throughout all of 2020. I like to say that I was quarantining before quarantining was cool.

I finally felt a glimmer of hope mixed with a twinge of uncertainty when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that a COVID-19 vaccine was finally available.

Was it going to work? Was it going to make my disease worse? So many questions were living rent-free in my brain.

I did so much research about the effects of the vaccine on people with IBD and initially found very little. I want to share my experience in the hope that it will help you make an educated decision on COVID-19 vaccination for yourself.

I’m not going to lie: I was hesitant about getting the vaccine at first. Like many people, I truly didn’t know if I even wanted or should get the vaccine.

For a while, I was in the camp of “absolutely not.” My body had started heading into remission and was sensitive beyond belief. The last thing I needed was a foreign substance in my body.

However, I continued seeing more positive research coming out about trial participants with autoimmune diseases, as well as medical leaders encouraging people with IBD to get the vaccine.

Additionally, I did not want to suffer the effects of COVID-19 on top of my existing symptoms.

Ultimately, I chose to get vaccinated.

I did not make this decision lightly. People with an autoimmune disease, myself included, are at greater risk of having severe complications from COVID-19 and I did not want to risk it. On top of that, the chronic stress and fear of getting COVID-19 that I have felt for over a year now have wreaked havoc on my gut and my overall well-being.

On the other hand, the side effects of the vaccine on autoimmune patients are very minimal and provide me with peace of mind in knowing that I am protected.

I weighed all the pros and cons and decided that the reward outweighed the risk.

I was a ball of nerves driving up to the vaccination site on my appointment day, not knowing what to expect. However, the overall experience was a positive one.

I waited in line for no more than 10 minutes, and the injection was completely painless. I then waited in the car for 15 minutes in case of an allergic reaction and drove home.

In the hours after the first dose, I actually felt better than I have felt since the start of my flare-up. Coincidentally, my symptoms were less severe, and I had more energy than normal. (I am not sure yet if the vaccine caused the improvement of my symptoms, but I look forward to reading studies on the vaccine and IBD to see if this is related.)

I heard from friends that the second dose was far worse than the first, so I braced myself. My first dose went exceedingly well, but I feared this would be the moment I would feel the negative effects. I even prepped all my food for the next few days in case I didn’t feel well enough to cook.

The overall experience again was very positive, and the actual injection was not painful. Later that evening, I felt run down and a little tired, so I drank a lot of water and went to bed early.

Fearing the worst, I woke up in the morning and did a quick mental scan of my body. But I felt… normal.

I cautiously waited the rest of the day for the symptoms to set in and they never did. I feel extremely lucky to not have experienced more intense symptoms, especially when I already had symptoms from my UC flare-up.

With the vaccine behind me, I feel hopeful for the future for the first time in over a year. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted and that I can rest easy knowing that I am protected from this awful virus.

My vaccinated future feels bright. You will find me at a bar laughing with friends, playing beach volleyball, and singing my heart out at a country concert. These are all things that seemed so basic and normal in 2019, and yet these are the moments that I will cherish in 2021.

Every person is unique and, therefore, will have their own individual experience with the vaccine.

However, I hope my story and experience will help you to weigh your options regarding your health and the vaccine.

Holly Fowler is a Certified Health Coach and personal trainer in Los Angeles. She loves hiking, spending time at the beach, trying the latest gluten-free hot spot in town, and working out as much as her ulcerative colitis allows. When she isn’t seeking out gluten-free vegan dessert, you can find her working behind the scenes of her website and Instagram, or curled up on the couch bingeing the latest true-crime documentary on Netflix.