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I have Crohn's disease, a terrible, invisible disease cloaked in that wretched, soul-sucking, toothy-smile type of invisibility. I've written a little about Crohn's before, but I want to tell a hospital story that is more about love and family and the intimacy that comes with those ideas — self-control, self-agency, and self-love — and how the Kardashians helped highlight those values for me during a time I needed them the most.
I was a notorious Kardashian skeptic. I was a notorious reality TV skeptic and still am, really. I just never got it. If I'm being honest, I know my pseudo-intellectualism has always prevented me from indulging in things that seemed frivolous, and reality TV was no exception.
Major stuff happened last year. My life went through a huge period of upheaval at the same time life was changing within the Kardashian family. Caitlyn Jenner opened up about her transition in her Diane Sawyer interview, things were about to blow up with Kourtney and Scott, Kim was newly pregnant, and children were working through a parent's transition. Since whenever I'm admitted to the hospital, I spend about 18 hours of my day on Instagram, I thought, What the hell, and started following each and every family member to stay up to date with the daily drama. I don't know what made me do it. I think it certainly started out as the voyeurism they subtly (?) encourage, but I also know that when I'm hospitalized for my Crohn's disease — especially last year, when I was about to make the most life-altering decision of my life — my brain seeks escape. Vapid, free-floating, pure escape. I was drawn in by this family's tumult at the same time as mine, so I kept up, and didn't think much else of it.
The day they told me I was going to need to have surgery was a day I'll never forget, because my dad brought me the most perfect, delicious fish sandwich from the Northstar Café in the Short North area of Columbus, Ohio. We were just about to split it when the doctor came in and told me there was nothing else that could be done to treat me medically, and it was time to move forward with ostomy surgery, a procedure that removes part of the bowels and reroutes waste out of the body, through the abdomen. My dad and I cried together, just the two of us, for the first time in my whole life, and when we tried to eat, the sodium from the tears and the sandwich overpowered every wonderful flavor we should have been tasting. That swelling feeling in your throat when you're trying to eat and cry at the same time is so familiar to me now.
Over the past year, I've gone in and out of the five stages of grief. I had the hardest time working my way through the anger and bargaining stages, and I spent a significant portion of last summer in painful recovery on the couch, waking up at early, muted hours trying to master the care of my own, new body that I hated. People would ask me how I was doing, and I would cultivate some vague answer and smile like, "I'll get there!" or "I know this will be for the best." On most of those mornings, I would wake up, drink some coffee and some leftover smoothie my sister or mom had graciously made me the day before, and play an outdated episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians from 2009 that I had furiously DVRd. A funny thing happened as I watched that show. No matter what you think of these personalities in our media zeitgeist, you cannot help but sense the bond, the commitment, the ride-or-die relationships between these women. Women who were going through a multitude of personal dramas (whether self-inflicted or manipulated, sure) but who were always able to lean on each other at the end of the day.
During one of my last nights in the hospital, when maintaining any sense of self, let alone positively, often becomes unattainable, my sister spent the night with me curled up into an uncomfortable hospital recliner, and I made her dutifully watch six hours of the show on my tiny 11-inch MacBook Air. I don't know why, but the juxtaposition of that memory, her devotion to me, my devotion to her, the sisters' devotion to each other on the show (which, admittedly, is not without its hiccups, both ours and theirs), and also the sheer ridiculousness of it started to heal my sadness better than anything else I was being told to try by the outside world.
Even after I felt that the fog had gradually lifted and my "new normal" was in front of and before me, I was left with an uncomfortable body that still left me so angry. For as long as I can remember, dressing myself has always been a creative outlet for me, one of my chief pleasures, and suddenly that became an impossibility for me due to the discomfort of my ostomy. Trying to make my beloved high-waisted jeans and cinched-waist dresses work for me became an exercise in futility, and I felt outside myself. A stoma (the literal inside of your body brought to the skin surface to provide an output for waste) can be a horrible, scary, terrifying thing to look at on your own body, even if it's saving your life. Managing it and maintaining it made me feel ugly and totally devoid of the body-image-control groove I was starting to master in my mid-20s. I told you I started following the Kardashians on Instagram at the onset of my sickness, along with a lot of other general beauty/fashion bloggers who spend time cultivating a look they're proud of and putting it out for the world to see. Khloé rolled out that Complex cover while she was caring for an estranged spouse in recovery. Kim was growing her financial empire while she was seven months pregnant, and Kourtney was rebuilding a family balance for herself and her three young children.
I began to admire the brazen fearlessness I saw in these women (and men! Hi, Tynan! Longtime fan, first-time shout-out) who were proudly in control of their image despite some pretty rocky, concurrent personal experiences. I started to admire them, and then I started to emulate them. If there's one thing I always say about living with a chronic illness, it's that things like fears and insecurities become clearer and easier to navigate when you have a firm grasp on your own mortality. And that makes me feel less afraid. With each lip color I was proud of, each selfie in which I recognized myself, each loving comment from a fellow Instagram friend/Crohn's survivor, I got to a place of self-love. I felt powerful again. I arrived at what I once thought was unattainable: joy.
So say what you want about the Kardashians. I get it. I know my feminist theory backward and forward. I don't fault you if you still don't like the show, but I can't count myself among the haters anymore. It could have been anything, but ever so illogically, Keeping Up kept me up. It's funny what heals us sometimes.