When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2001, one of my worst nightmares was the possibility of having surgery. I couldn’t fathom life with a stoma or wearing an ostomy bag on my stomach. Back then, there was a lot of negativity surrounding ostomies and sadly that stigma still exists today. Well, my nightmare ended up coming true in 2005.
As I suffered with Crohn’s, I saw my life fading away. I was going to the bathroom over eighteen times a day. Exhaustion and malnutrition were huge issues and my weight was dropping fast. There were days when I couldn’t even leave my house. Going to school was really tough and holding onto a job was a challenge. I remember sitting in a room at my parent's house and having a moment. Thinking of my younger sister happily living her life, my brother chasing his dreams, my eldest brother starting a family, and my friends getting married… and then there was me. I realized I was in straight denial about what surgery could do for me. Thankfully, my amazing surgeon helped me to see that I needed an ileostomy to truly save my life! There were many days spent crying, depressed, doubting life with an ostomy. My friends, family, and co-workers just wanted the good ole “Cate the Great” back, and I began to understand what they were all seeing — I was letting this horrible illness own me.
Then I met a beautiful nine-year-old girl who had ulcerative colitis, she also had an ostomy. She spoke to me frankly and honestly and said, “Cate, I am 9 and if I can do this, you can do this!” She told me that she played soccer, swam, and she was out living life to the fullest. I left that room forever changed with the hope that surgery would help me have an active and healthy life again. This beautiful young girl made me realize that my nightmare could actually be the miracle I so desperately wanted. I left work that day and told my family it was time to take a leap of faith. I had goals and dreams, and doggone it I wanted to achieve them! I was no longer going to let fear consume me. The stigmas didn't matter anymore.
The morning of surgery I grieved and cried. I stood in front of the mirror, touched my belly and tried to imagine what my life was about to be like. I had only known this body that looked so "normal" from the outside. In reality, my insides were filled with disease and taking me down with it. For me, having a stoma meant that I would be able to actually see this so-called “invisible illness". Would I be judged? Talked about badly? Would I lose friends? On the other hand, what can I gain? Would it turn out to be a better life?
At the hospital, I woke up the next day to face my new normal. I looked down and saw scars. To some, they might look ugly but to me they were beautiful and told a story of courage and strength. Without those scars (and my new designer “Poui-Vuitton” bag) I would've never discovered the true Cate. Yes, I looked different but that's okay. Since then, I’ve survived over a dozen more surgeries, including three ileostomies and one colostomy. Looking back at everything I went through, I feel blessed because I am alive.
One day you are going to meet someone who will change everything. They are going to change the way you think about your ostomy, the way you view yourself, and the way you look at everyone else. You could meet this person on social media, at a support group, or sitting at your desk at work as I did. But one thing’s for sure, you will be forever changed.