Early attempts were awkward and embarrassing. Then I learned what true intimacy looked like.
In middle school, when all of my friends were experiencing their first crushes, I was experiencing severe, sharp stomach pain. While they were learning how to flirt with girls and boys, I was learning how to inject myself with medications. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 12, just around puberty, as crushes and interest in sexuality were just starting to develop.
As my peers navigated their way through high school, I found myself navigating my chronic illness, and trying to understand that I would be navigating this path for life.
By college, I was finally in remission (huzzah!) but I felt inept with dating. I felt awkward in my body. I judged it. I was 18 and understood insurance policies and hospital systems, but had no idea how to flirtatiously respond to a text message.
A big part of me was embarrassed by having Crohn’s. It’s not like it’s the most glamorous of diseases. Gastro issues? Mmm, sexy. An inflamed digestive tract? Oooh, la la. Abnormal and sometimes gross bowel movements?!? I’m not sure it can get hotter than that.
But there was also another part of me that wanted to feel normal. I didn’t want to tell people about my Crohn’s. I didn’t want them to ask me questions and I didn’t want pity. I closed myself off from talking about it because I wanted normalcy. I didn’t seem to fully understand that having a chronic illness was my new normal.
Gastro issues? Mmm, sexy. An inflamed digestive tract? Oooh, la la. Abnormal and sometimes gross bowel movements?!? I’m not sure it can get hotter than that.
I turned away from intimacy. The last thing I wanted to do was fart on a first date, or have to run to a bathroom. “Hey, sorry, I’m having horrible diarrhea, but yeah, tell me more about your family!” did not seem like an enticing way to carry on a conversation.
I acted as though my disease didn’t exist. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I wasn’t alone in this. In fact, studies have found that young people hide their IBD from friends to or encountering . Further, researchers have noted that “being ‘normal’ and keeping pace with peers” is fundamentally important for many young people with IBD.
In college, I joined an IBD support group with the encouragement of my doctor. In attending those meetings, I found a safe space where I could talk about surgeries and stomach pains and diarrhea and ostomy bags with people who got it. I recall a specific moment so vividly: A member asking a freshman frat bro with UC how he has sex while wearing his ostomy bag. “I have this sweatband thing that I put around my body,” he said. “And then I get right to it.” He seemingly didn’t carry any embarrassment with his condition. Yeah, his bodily waste was literally in bed with him and his partner, but he seemed cool with it.
“I get right to it,” he had said, as if he were talking about putting on a condom rather than a band around his poop pouch.
It was in these meetings that I suddenly had a life-altering, groundbreaking epiphany: Everyone poops. Everyone farts. Suddenly, being embarrassed by my bodily functions seemed silly. We all do it. We’ve all had terrible bathroom experiences at some point in our lives, IBD or not. We’ve all passed gas at an inconvenient time.
I’ve learned to laugh at it and be honest about it. My closest friends are the ones I can talk with about poop. My most successful dating relationships have been the ones where I have explained my symptoms or confessed at inopportune moments that I feel too bloated to have sex, or those where I’ve interrupted a hot makeout session to inform them, why yes, I did just fart, and it does not smell good.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t still get embarrassed sometimes, but learning to be emotionally open about my Crohn’s has created a safer environment for me, my friends, and my romantic partners.
To hide my Crohn’s is to hide a foundational part of me; I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed of my Crohn’s because I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed of myself.
In a , researchers found — unsurprisingly — that people “described certain friendships as being closer and more meaningful since disclosure [of IBD].”
I can attest to that. I feel more true to myself when I can explain to my partner that I feel gassy, or have stomach pains and unhealthy bowel movements. I feel more confident owning up to my Crohn’s and showing them all parts of me — even the gross ones. I am curating an environment of laughter and vulnerability and encouraging them to do the same with me. To hide my Crohn’s is to hide a foundational part of me; I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed of my Crohn’s because I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed of myself.
There’s no right or wrong time to open up about your IBD or chronic illness. It’s a personal decision, and will most likely vary by relationship. If, like me, you simply can’t be bothered to answer questions, point your loved one to an online resource, like the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. Communicate in whatever manner you feel most comfortable, and remember that it’s not your responsibility to educate others.
Having a chronic illness is like fighting an infinite war. Your body is constantly struggling, silently and invisibly. It can feel frightening to be emotionally open about your chronic illness and embarrassing to navigate your sex life and its limits with a new partner.
Inviting others to see your invisible illness is an intimate experience — for both parties. But I’ve found that the most intimate of emotional experiences is with yourself — to find acceptance of your chronic illness. That means owning it — the gas, the pain, the medications, the appointments, the fatigue — and accepting that your chronic illness is part of what makes you, you. Your body might be at war with itself, but you don’t have to be at war with it, too.
Medically reviewed on January 04, 2023
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