This article appeared on Women's Health and is reprinted with permission.
I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease when I was 18. It's a chronic illness that causes inflammation in the digestive tract which can lead to abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition. My body was damaged on the inside, so I felt more pressure to look attractive on the outside. I dabbled in modeling, and the attention that I got from my appearance gave me the validation I thought I needed.
Then, in 2013 the medication stopped working and my digestive system did too. My doctor suggested a temporary ileostomy because she believed it would give my intestines time to settle down and hopefully heal. Ostomy surgery was the ultimate fear for me. It was the proverbial scarlet letter, but instead of an A for adultery, it would be an S for sh*t. I put it off but my health got worse. I had the surgery in August 2015.
I didn't look at my stomach for two days after surgery. When I saw myself naked for the first time, I thought: How can I keep this from people? How can I be me with this bag hanging off of me? In the weeks after surgery, I hid from people. The stoma produced smells and made sounds that I couldn't control. Getting dressed was a challenge too. I remember going into my closet and looking at all my clothes. Crop tops, tight dresses, sheer fabrics — I couldn't wear any of it. Instead, I wore the baggiest and darkest clothing I could find.
One bright light was my husband, Jeremy. We met in 2007 and he has been there through my best times and my worst, never ceasing to tell me how beautiful I am to him — ostomy and all. To be totally honest, our sex life took a hit because it's hard to have sex when you feel the absolute opposite of sexy. I had dark thoughts that he would find someone else. Someone who wasn't sick all the time, who didn't have this thing attached to them, someone like the person I used to be. But in the end, all that insecurity forced us to communicate better and I have gotten more comfortable in the bedroom.
Through all this I've realized that my desirability does not define me, my strength does. A healthy body is a sexy body and my ostomy helps keep me healthy. If it turns out to be permanent, I'm at peace with that. I even lovingly refer to my stoma as Steve. I even put on a bikini with nothing to hide and no f**ks given. I figure the more people who are exposed to ostomy bags, the less stigma it will have. By exposing my true self I can show the world, and other women like me, that this disease is not who we are.