Guest post by Justin!
Most of you know by now that I came off of Denali, what was supposed to be a 25-day expedition. I’ve spent months prepping my gear, my mind and my body. I thought I was ready. But it turns out I was not.
I want to be super human, I want to be extreme, I want to do the impossible. All my life, I’ve always said nothing can hold me back.
But guess what? I am only human. Something does hold me back. Something I don’t like to talk about. Something I like to hide. Something I am ashamed of.
Today is World Inflammatory Bowel Disease Day. More than 10 million people worldwide struggle with IBD. I am one of those people. I’ve had Crohn’s disease for more than 25 years. I spent my childhood slumped over in bed, on the toilet, at doctors, and in and out of the hospital. I guess when I was a teenager I was relieved to finally be diagnosed with something, but I never knew the ups and down that would be bestowed upon me. Crohn’s is truly a hidden disease. Unless you monitor someone’s bathroom habits, you probably wouldn’t know someone has it. As for the pain, we just learn to live with it.
Since my teenage years, I made it a vow not to let this disease to define me. I did all the things I wanted to do. I moved to Florida to work at Disney World, moved to Arizona to attend grad school, lived in 15 states (so far), have driven across the country 30+ times, thru hiked 4000+ miles on the Appalachian and Te Araroa Trails, climbed some tough peaks and spent so much time Alaska that I still can’t get enough of it.
My disease took a turn for the worse in 2016. I started my first Denali climb 3 days before my doctor told me I needed my first surgery for Crohn’s. He said the climb wasn’t a good idea and in fact, he told me I probably would not come back. (Don’t worry, I don’t have that doctor anymore.)
I spent 23 days struggling my way up Denali, the highest peak in north America. The climb brought 80-mph gusts, -50 degree weather and more days in my tent than climbing. And I fell short by 300 feet.
Right after that climb, I did have surgery. In fact, I’ve had 3 surgeries in the last 2 years. I’ve spent weeks in the hospital. I lost some of my insides, including half of my colon, over a foot of small intestines and some things I don’t even want to mention. I’ve probably spent more time in bed and chairs than outside. Following some of the surgeries, I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom, more or less on a trail.
But, through all this, I still had that damn mountain in the back of my head. I used this unfinished business as a goal. I thought that after all this surgery was over and I was put back together, I would be back to normal. Surgery may have helped remove my diseased intestines, but the truth is, I feel no better. I may even feel worse. I have new bathroom problems. I have maintenance medicines. I go to the hospital for infusions. I have regular doctor visits.
I don’t even know what normal is. I have never been a normal person and now I think I realize I will never be. I need to learn to live with my new normal. I still have goals and dreams to conquer everything on my bucket list. I think I am realizing some of these goals—like climbing that damn mountain—may be out of reach.
My decision to come off the mountain last week was the hardest one of my life. I knew deep down that things did not feel right. Let me tell you, using the “bathroom” while climbing is hard enough even for normal people! Again, I am not normal. My health and wellbeing has to come first and it was only in the moment I landed on the mountain that I came to terms with learning to live with a broken body.
It sucks getting older, and it sucks even more to have a chronic condition. But such is life. Don’t worry, I have other adventures up my sleeve and I know that mountain will always be there, if I am ever fully ready for it.
Thank you for everyone’s support, not only for my crazy adventurous life, but also the struggles of Crohn’s disease.
“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Sir Edmund Hillary (Thanks Jamie for the reminder and the inspiration!)