I held up a forkful of lettuce and stared at it, terrified.

This was my first salad in 16 years.

I have Crohn’s Disease, an intestinal bowel disease that has ravaged my digestive tract, leaving, at its worst, 2mm of space for food to pass through. “I have no idea how you’re standing!” My doctor once said, eyeing me like a circus performer with fins for hands.

Over the years, I learned to chew every bite of food until it was a mushy, flavorless paste. I also learned how to live with extreme pain, fighting off dizzying cramps in a quixotic battle. By university, I could sit without shaking and walk upright in public, doubling over like the Hunchback of McGill when alone.

Throughout, I followed a low-residue diet, which limited hard-to-digest roughage. Eventually, I also avoided dairy, white flour, refined sugar, red meat and anything else that tastes fantastic. At times, this was almost worse than the pain, forcing gluttonous fantasies about Caesar salads, baguettes, key lime pies and sirloin.

Those fantasies were about to come true. I put the lettuce in my mouth, chewed quickly and swallowed.

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Most people with Crohn’s end up having an Ileocolic Resection, surgery that removes damaged bits of the ileum and colon. In the past, this required cutting crohnies open like gutted fish. Scars and recovery times were long and ugly. I did everything I could to avoid this.

Now, with a few small cuts and the use of a camera, laporascopic surgery can have you back on your feet within 60 days. It was time.

I was sent a surgery date and given a pre-op appointment, which involved filling out a 6-page form. Part medical history and part personality test, the form asked: “How has your illness affected the way you think of your body? Yourself?” I stared at that for a long time, wondering how to condense 16 years of borderline anorexic behavior into 5 lines.

My experience with Crohn’s began with an abscess on my ass (it has never been a particularly noble disease). The discovery of this abscess was ill timed: I was enrolled in an all-male catholic high school, a place where being different in a weird way, and having a pus-filled mass on your butt would qualify as weird, was not good. I tried to hide it, but it’s hard to pretend you’re not sitting funny. “Football injury,” I usually said.

Ultimately, lying was self-defeating. Like model Karen Duffy once said, “Concealing an illness is like keeping a beach ball under water.” You waste a lot of energy. I ended up losing 50 pounds that year, spending 4 months in the hospital before I could be properly diagnosed.

Chronic diseases like this don’t have an end point. It won’t kill you and there’s no cure. It can, however, take over the expected linear quality of life, breaking it up into bite-sized periods marked by hospitalizations, tests and medication. It creates a whole new way to mark time, a calendar of pain and sickness. “Success is 80% showing up,” Woody Allen once said, and that fits the chronic disease MO. I was no match for it.

The decade following that abscess (the “ass-cension”) is completely lost to me. I can’t even have regrets: I wasn’t really there. The disease was everything, guiding and denying relationships, dreams and decisions. Asked to describe myself at a McGill orientation, I said, “I have Crohn’s Disease.” My partner, a bubbly girl from rural Ontario, was horrified. “I like the Dave Matthews Band,” she said, looking uncomfortable.

Eventually, I saw my body as a vessel harboring an enemy. We were in a duel, our own version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. We were Good and Bad, and our struggle was Ugly. In the film, neither Good nor Bad have back-stories. They simply are what they are. This isn’t the case for the Ugly. “Where we came from, if one did not want to die of poverty, one became a priest or a bandit,” he said. We understand him, at least partially. I needed to understand our ugliness.

I kept a food diary and memorized every meal and bite that caused me pain. Finding no real rhyme or reason, I started believing in karma, convinced I was paying for past lives. This line of thinking led me to tarot card readers and a chain smoking, cackling psychic in Châteauguay, who told me, “In a past life, you were a womanizing, alcoholic musician in France. You drowned to death while drunk.” She said this matter-of-factly, as if reading an obituary. Her certainty, however, only made me feel worse. I now envied a past life I knew nothing about.

I left the pre-op form question blank.

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I woke up in a dark room at the Montreal General Hospital, alone with the wheezing, reassuring beep of the morphine machine. BEEP!

I had nausea, acid reflux and a high fever.

“I’m dying,” I said to the machine.

When you have a fever on morphine, it’s impossible to differentiate between dreams and reality. I had intense visions about drug smuggling (I don’t smuggle), golfing (I’m not boring) and selling bikinis in Brazil (I’m not sexy). I even dreamt my surgeon was standing beside my bed.

“It was a real mess in there: scar tissue, fistulas…” he said, describing a three-hour operation like a war vet with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It all felt so real.

BEEP!

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Shopping for groceries post-surgery was like seeing a rainbow after a lifetime of blindness.

Suddenly, I could eat anything, and like a super hero discovering new powers, I ate steaks, sausages, salads, cakes, cookies, and ice cream in a frenzy that would shame most hot dog-eating champions. It didn’t take long to compile a list of firsts: the first celery in 2 decades, the first corn on the cob in 12 years, the first popcorn in 10…

I ran into only one small problem, something Crohn’s had always prevented: I was getting fat. In three months, I put on nearly 30 pounds, stretching my wardrobe to its limit. Instead of being discouraging, however, my new love handles and man boobs felt like a second chance at adulthood, representing, in their own flabby way, freedom and opportunity.

I could now become the person I wanted to be and not the person I was forced to be.

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When you’re used to bad news, you don’t expect your doctor to shout “Crohn’s free!” during a colonoscopy. Heavily sedated, I was convinced he’d spotted “crow’s feet” in my rectum.

There may be no cure for the disease, but the surgery, he explained, had for now removed all traces of it. Surprisingly, this was hard to accept, as if a part of my identity had also been removed.

I told my wife over lunch, and we ate in stunned silence. Crohn’s had marked our entire relationship, our life a series of small “miracles”: meals that didn’t make me sick, a good week of sleep, a pain-free month…We now had to find a whole new way to mark time, to differentiate between good, bad and ugly.

“This salad’s so bland,” she said finally.

“Yeah,” I said, holding up a forkful and making sure I never forgot it.

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