My photography work, and adventurous lifestyle lead outsiders to believe that I live an amazing life. I kind of do and I'm greatly appreciative for a lot of the things I've been able to do, and places I've been able to see. But there is another side of me that I've been keeping away from the public's eye. Really only family and close friends have been made aware that I've been struggling with a chronic digestive disease for the past four years.
The following is an excerpt from a book I've been in the process of writing for a little over a year now. I feel that now is a good time to share as I believe it will really help to enlighten everyone with what I've been going through.
It all started in 2011 when I began to experience the onset of noticeable symptoms. I was training full time for athletics, six days a week and up to eight hours a day. My body began acting peculiar. As an athlete, I was accustomed to the hurts and happenings of physicality. As usual I was confident that my body would heal and fix itself. After months of my condition worsening I finally arranged to see a doctor. Initially, the diagnosis was not clear. More frequent visits to the doctor’s office only made things more frustrating since all the tests came back inconclusive.
During this process I lost a measure of faith in the effectiveness of our health care system. Seven months passed from when I first saw a general practitioner, to when I was finally able to see a specialist. After my visit with a gastroenterologist and my very first colonoscopy, I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (UC).
UC is an inflammatory bowel disease similar to Crohn’s disease. UC is less known, and less severe than Crohn’s (it only affects the large intestine verses the entire digestive tract). There is no known cause, and the only current accepted cure is the removal of part or all of the large intestine. Invasive surgery is something that I want to avoid at all costs. Medication is typically the initial option that a doctor may suggest. Diet modifications are hit or miss in effectiveness for most individuals.
However, there is at least one option that the medical community continues to overlook: the power of exercise! Exercise can be especially useful for an inflammatory disease because it pumps blood away from the inflammation site and relocates it to your muscles, and lungs. This can effectively reduce inflammation and ultimately the symptoms of UC. The only problem is the effects are temporary since one cannot exercise forever.
With the prescribed medications and motivation to continue an intense exercise regime, I began to notice symptoms mellow out. After a couple of years figuring out how my body is acting and responding, the symptoms became more predictable, and the drive to explore and challenge myself physically began to take over. This was the moment I realized that it was no longer a crippling disease; it was something I could live with, something I could overcome.
After months of having minimal symptoms, I gained back most of the weight that I had lost. I was no longer anemic. My energy levels began to skyrocket. Still, I needed an outlet for physical activity, in order to stay on the upswing…something to challenge me physically on my road to remission. I needed to do it my way.
I have always had a strong connection with nature. During this time, I frequently found myself going on solo walks in the forest; photographing landscapes, birds, and plants. This was a great way to occupy my mind as to not dwell on symptoms and sickness. In the woods, I was able to just breathe some fresh air without any of the stresses of the urban chaos.
Eventually I became bored with the local woods and wanted more natural space to explore. I began rock climbing as often as possible, an activity I had been practicing for many years. I would throw myself in the seclusion of nature, interacting with it, and getting my exercise all at the same time. This was truly the activity for me. It is the first sport that forced me to train mentally equally as hard as physically.
With the increased drive and focus in this particular sport I found the serenity I was looking for. The balance between the Zen-like concentration necessary to keep my composure, but having the animalistic intensity to move over difficult terrain, climbing was the outlet I wanted— it was what I needed!
This preoccupation turned into a need, which turned into an idea: the idea to improve my health with adventure. Not letting the disease takeover my life. I began traveling around North America, climbing, backpacking, and paddling. I was gladly doing whatever I could to be in nature as much as possible, to interact with it, and “keep the dream alive!”
My current situation is still a mix of diet medication and exercise in nature. We (my doctors and myself) are currently exploring alternative medication options since my symptoms have reached plateau. The unpredictable nature of the disease leaves a lot of the treatment done with trial and error. However the future does look bright, and remission is beginning to shine in from the shadows. I'm excited for the next step, and can't wait to feel normal again.