My decision was simple: If I survived, I would give back to others and lean in to my own life.
On May 22, 2006 I was admitted to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center where I had surgery to remove a significant portion of my small intestine. A mom of three and a self-employed business owner, I was scared and worried. I had pushed myself so hard; I thought that working and doing as much as I could for my kids and family was the way to achieve my goals in life.
The problem was that I wasn't exactly taking care of myself: I often skipped meals, hardly ever exercised, worked late hours after the kids went to bed, and I made sure to never tell my freelance publishing clients about my frequent flare-ups from both Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. I hid the fact that I was sick every few weeks, and always downplayed my illness. The day of my surgery, my husband, Steve Carmichael, had to carry me out the door because I was too weak to walk (I hadn't had solid food in over three weeks). I distinctly remember my teenage daughter, Emma, look at us with fear in her eyes as she asked, "Is this going to be fatal?" I was petrified.
When I got to the hospital, I was left alone in a gurney pre-surgery as my husband had returned home to take care of the kids. I was all alone. A nurse brought me a heated blanket. It was the best thing in the world. All of a sudden, I thought, "Enough!" It was time to "think positive"—something one of the visiting fellows, a doctor originally from Ghana, had said to me. You must think positive.
That day my life changed. My decision was simple: If I survived, I would give back to others and lean in to my own life.
A week later, I came home and I immediately began to embrace life—there was no time to complain. I couldn't find the book I wanted that combined Eastern and Western healing modalities, so, with the help of a naturopathic doctor, I decided to write my own. I called my publishing clients and told them all I would be on a leave of absence for five to six weeks as I recovered from surgery, and I told them the truth about living with an incurable disease. They were all incredibly sympathetic and understanding, and all those years of trying so hard to be stoic just evaporated. They became much more understanding and patient when I wouldn't email them right back, and I made it clear that I was scaling back. When I was still at home recovering, I was able to secure a book deal on the phone; I had an outline, a synopsis, and a sample chapter. I said to the publisher, "I have a book that will help a lot of people." They signed it up then and there.
Telling my story, Chapter One of my book, was my first step towards healing.
After leaning in (and leaning back), I smiled more, and made an effort to laugh every day. More importantly, I woke up every day feeling grateful. The year after my surgery, I was at my ailing father's side, and he turned to me and told me he realized that we had both "gotten it"—that life was too short and too precious to take for granted. That inspired me to take up writing poetry again, and I began referring to the Dalai Lama's "18 Rules for Living" whenever I got stressed. I consulted an energy medicine healer (something I never thought I would do) and began to let my guard down. I finally let myself begin to heal. My doctors were amazed by the results; my colonoscopies revealed years of clinical remission. When things would stress me out at work, I would put the printer or publisher on hold, and I would sit crossed-legged on the wooden floor of my office and do a breath of meditation.
On May 22, 2006, I accepted my disease, and I decided to give back. I wrote the book, followed by a cookbook for those suffering from IBS. I sometimes get emails from readers who share that my book "was a light in the darkness!" I blog on my Crohn's Colitis page, and I write daily to readers who ask me for help. My own writing is getting published— my poetry, as well as a tragicomic memoir entitled "Spin Cycle". I also became a commentator for public radio. Not only does writing bring me great happiness, but it is incredibly rewarding to give back and help people who are as sick and scared as I was just six years ago.
I am in my 50s now, but I feel healthier and happier than I ever have. I learned to lean in to the things in life that matter.