Many years ago now, I was at an IBD conference with several other patients. It was the last day of the conference, and we were sitting in a room, chatting at white-clothed tables with our suitcases at our feet. At 16, I was the youngest in the group by a couple of years – the others were a mix of guys and girls: college-students, with boyfriends and jobs and so on. The moment that is so clear in my mind all of these years later was sitting next to one girl I admired so much and bursting into tears. Alarmed (she had only known me for 48 hours, it was alarming to start sobbing!), she asked me what was wrong. Through my tears and melodrama I blubbered, “I don’t want to go home! No one else understands me like you guys do!”
Even though it sounds silly and very over the top, to my younger self, it seemed like nothing had ever been more true. I suddenly had a family of older brothers and sisters who got it, who could coach me from the sidelines and pick me up as I tripped trying to figure out adolescence with a chronic illness. And interestingly, if you asked the group why they were involved, the answer was always the same – so the younger versions of themselves would have the support and encouragement.
And it’s true – knowing someone else like you could do it means so much, it’s the I-think-I-can to the I-KNOW-I-can attitude switch, which is priceless. For me, that was the moment when I was suddenly in charge of my life again, and since then I have been fortunate enough to be that support for other people. Having mentors and people to look up to, gave me hope when things felt small and constrained, and in a lot of ways it gave me the fuel to keep going.
I am still in touch with my IBD friends from that first conference. Many of them are engaged or married, working and successful, one girl and her husband even have an adorable little boy. Yes, they are still sick, they still struggle to find the balance between patient and person, but they are living and doing an incredible job at it. Their mentorship to me is something that I will never be able to adequately thank them for, so instead I hope that by aspiring to be like them I will make them proud.